JAMES, LETTER OF
An inspired letter of the Christian Greek Scriptures. It is one of the so-called “general” letters because, like First and Second Peter, First John and Jude (but unlike most of the apostle Paul’s letters), it was not addressed to any specific congregation or person. This letter is addressed to “the twelve tribes that are scattered about.”—Jas. 1:1.
The writer calls himself simply “James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Jas. 1:1) Jesus had two apostles named James (Matt. 10:2, 3), but it is unlikely that either of these wrote the letter. One apostle, James the son of Zebedee, was martyred about 44 C.E. As the section on “Date and Place of Composition” shows, this would be very early for him to have been the writer. (Acts 12:1, 2) The other apostle James, the son of Alphaeus, is not prominent in the Scriptural record, and very little is known about him. The outspoken nature of the letter of James would seem to weigh against the writer’s being James the son of Alphaeus, for he would likely have identified himself as one of the twelve apostles, in order to back up his strong words with apostolic authority.
Rather, evidence points to James the half brother of Jesus Christ, to whom the resurrected Christ evidently had made a special appearance, and who was prominent among the disciples. (Matt. 13:55; Acts 21:15-25; 1 Cor. 15:7; Gal. 2:9) The writer of the letter of James identifies himself as “a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,” in much the same way as did Jude, who introduced the letter of Jude by calling himself “a slave of Jesus Christ, but a brother of James.” (Jas. 1:1; Jude 1) Furthermore, the salutation of James’ letter includes the term “Greetings!” (1:1) in the same way as did the letter concerning circumcision that was sent to the congregations. In this latter instance it was apparently Jesus’ half-brother James who spoke prominently in the assembly of “the apostles and the older brothers” at Jerusalem.—Acts 15:13, 22, 23.
The letter of James is contained in the Vatican Manuscript No. 1209, the Sinaitic and the Alexandrine Manuscripts of the fourth and fifth centuries C.E. The Syriac Peshitta Version includes it, and it is found in at least ten ancient catalogues before the Council of Carthage in 397 C.E. Early religious writers quoted from it, Origen, Cyril of Jerusalem, Jerome and others recognizing the letter as authentic Scripture.
DATE AND PLACE OF COMPOSITION
The letter gives no indication that Jerusalem’s fall to the Romans (in 70 C.E.) had yet taken place. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, a high priest named Ananus, a Sadducee, was responsible for bringing James and others before the Sanhedrin and having them stoned to death. This event, Josephus writes, occurred after the death of the Roman procurator Festus, but before his successor Albinus arrived. (Antiquities of the Jews, Book XX, chap. IX, par. 1) If so, and if the sources placing the death of Festus at about 62 C.E. are correct, then James must have written his letter sometime prior to that date.
Jerusalem was the probable place of composition, for that is where James resided.—Gal. 1:18, 19.
TO WHOM WRITTEN
James wrote to “the twelve tribes that are scattered about,” or “that are in the dispersion.” (Jas. 1:1, NW, 1961 ed.; 1950 ed., ftn. a) He here addresses his spiritual “brothers,” those who hold to “the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ,” primarily those living beyond Palestine. (Jas. 1:2; 2:1, 7; 5:7) James bases much of his argument on the Hebrew Scriptures, but this does not prove that his letter was only for Jewish Christians, even as one’s acquaintance with the Hebrew Scriptures in modern times does not prove that one is of Jewish descent. His reference to Abraham as “our father” (Jas. 2:21) is in harmony with Paul’s words at Galatians 3:28, 29, where he shows that one’s being of the true seed of Abraham is not determined by whether one is a Jew or a Greek. Therefore, the “twelve tribes” addressed must be the spiritual “Israel of God.”—Gal. 6:15, 16.
James’ purpose in writing seems to have been twofold: (1) to exhort his fellow believers to display faith and endurance amid their trials, and (2) to warn them against sins resulting in divine disapproval.
Some had fallen into the snare of looking to those more prominent and rich and showing favoritism. (2:1-9) They failed to discern what they really were in God’s eyes, and were hearers of the word but not doers. (1:22-27) They had begun to use their tongues wrongly, and their cravings for sensual pleasure were causing fights among them. (3:2-12; 4:1-3) Their desire for material things had brought some into the position of being friends of the world and therefore, not chaste virgins, but spiritual “adulteresses,” at enmity with God.—4:4-6.
James corrected them on the matter of being doers as well as hearers by showing from Scriptural examples that a man having real faith would manifest it by works in harmony with his faith. For example, one having true faith would not say to a brother naked and lacking food, “Go in peace, keep warm and well fed,” and not give him the necessities. (2:14-26) Here James was not contradicting Paul by saying that one could earn salvation by works. Rather, he accepts faith as the basis for salvation, but points out that there cannot be genuine faith that does not produce good works. This is in harmony with Paul’s description of the fruitage of the spirit, at Galatians 5:22-24, and his counsel to put on the new personality, at Ephesians 4:22-24 and Colossians 3:5-10, as well as his admonition to do good and share with others, at Hebrews 13:16.
James’ letter has a strong prophetic tone and contains many figures and similes, giving it a certain resemblance to Jesus Christ’s discourses, such as the Sermon on the Mount. Like Jesus, James drew on physical things—the sea, vegetation, animals, boats, a farmer, the earth—to give colorful backing to his arguments on faith, control of the tongue, patience, and so forth. (Jas. 1:6, 9-11; 3:3-12; 5:7) This, together with the use of pointed questions and more than fifty imperatives in this relatively short letter, made James’ letter dynamic.
RELATIONSHIP TO EARLIER INSPIRED SCRIPTURE
James quoted or referred to the Hebrew Scriptures with regard to man’s creation (Jas. 3:9; Gen. 1:26); Abraham and Rahab (Jas. 2:21-26; Gen. 15:6; 22:9-12; Josh. chap. 2; Isa. 41:8); Job (Jas. 5:11; Job 1:13-22; 2:7-10; 42:10-17); the Law (Jas. 2:8, 11; Ex. 20:13, 14; Lev. 19:18; Deut. 5:17, 18) and Elijah. (Jas. 5:17, 18; 1 Ki. 17:1; 18:1) There are many pointed examples of direct harmony with statements of Jesus Christ. To name a few: concerning persecution (Jas. 1:2; Matt. 5:10-12); asking for and receiving things from God (Jas. 1:5, 17; Luke 11:9-13); being both hearers and doers (Jas. 1:22; Matt. 7:21-27); separateness from the world (Jas. 4:4; John 17:14); not judging others (Jas. 4:12: Luke 6:37); reliability of one’s word.—Jas. 5:12; Matt. 5:33-37.
James 4:5 has presented a problem because there is uncertainty about the verse(s) James quoted (or perhaps only referred to). This text reads: “Or does it seem to you that the Scripture says to no purpose: ‘It is with a tendency to envy that the spirit which has taken up residence within us keeps longing’?” It has been suggested that these words were drawn by James under divine inspiration from the general thought of such texts as Genesis 6:5; 8:21; Proverbs 21:10 and Galations 5:17.
OUTLINE OF CONTENTS
I. Christian endurance under trials brings happiness (1:1-18)
A. Makes the Christian sound and complete (1:1-4)
B. God unvarying in giving good gifts that enable Christians to obtain the crown of life (1:5-18)
1. Wisdom for endurance a gift to those asking in faith (1:5-11)
2. No trials with evil things from God; these caused by one’s own desires; sin and death the result (1:12-15)
3. Will of God that Christians be brought forth by his word of truth to be “certain first fruits” of his creatures (1:16-18)
II. The true form of worship (1:19–2:13)
A. Put away swiftness to anger and all filthiness and immorality (1:19-21)
B. Be a doer of the word, not a hearer only (1:22-25)
C. Look after orphans and widows and keep self without spot from world (1:26, 27)
D. Do not try to hold the faith of Jesus Christ and law of a free people and yet show favoritism (2:1-14)
1. Evidences that favoritism is being shown (2:1-7)
2. Example: In Jewish law, one who broke part of the law offended its entirety (2:8-12)
3. One not practicing mercy will be judged without mercy (2:13)
III. Faith without works is dead (2:14-26)
A. Helping Christian brothers an essential work (2:14-17)
B. Even demons believe there is one God, and shudder (2:18-20)
C. Abraham and Rahab examples of perfecting faith by works; were declared righteous (2:21-26)
IV. Power of the tongue, need to work toward its control (3:1-18)
A. Examples of tongue’s power: horse’s bridle; ship’s rudder; small fire that sets forest aflame; tongue spots up entire body (3:1-6)
B. Tongue untamable by human means; full of poison (3:7, 8)
C. Inconsistently curses men, God’s handiwork, yet blesses God (3:9-12)
D. Only the wisdom from above will overcome jealousy, bragging, lying, contentiousness, disorder and every vile thing (3:13-16)
E. Description of wisdom from above, which brings righteous fruitage under peaceful conditions for peacemakers (3:17, 18)
V. Avoid friendship with world, which is enmity with God (4:1-12)
A. Spirit of envy, cravings for sensual pleasure the cause of fights, wars, murders (4:1-3)
B. Spiritual adultery described (4:4-6)
C. Subject selves to God; oppose Devil (4:7)
D. Serve with cleansed hands and hearts, humility (4:8-10)
E. Quit judging brothers, which is actually judging law (4:11, 12)
VI. Patient endurance with a firm heart brings happiness (4:13–5:12)
A. Avoid self-assuming bragging; rather, say: “If Jehovah wills,” for you are not sure what your life will be tomorrow (4:13-16)
B. Do not sin by failing to do what you know is right (4:17)
C. Trials come for rich ones living sensually and luxuriously, practicing oppression; these men are storing up fire for “last days” (5:1-6)
D. Wait upon Lord to judge (5:7-12)
1. Avoid complaining against one another (5:7-9)
2. Follow example and enjoy outcome of endurance of prophets (5:10, 11)
3. Let your Yes mean Yes, your No, No, thus avoiding judgment (5:12)
VII. Procedure in cases of spiritual sickness (5:13-20)
A. Call mature brothers; confess sins so that proper prayer and counsel may be given for spiritual healing (5:13-15)
B. Such an appeal to God can accomplish much; it can turn a sinner from error and save him from death (5:16-20)