The Letter of James

Writer: 
Pasi Hujanen
Translator: 
Taisto Sokka

Introduction

Exhortations and warnings

The collection of the New Testament Letters includes 13 Letters from St. Paul, the Letter to Hebrews and a collections of seven Catholic (= general) Letters. These seven letters are 1–3 John., 1–2 Peter, James, and Jude. These Catholic Letters contain many exhortations and warnings, but the Letter of James is especially full of them. This Letter is timeless – it is relevant to Christians of all times.

Who wrote the letter?

The beginning of the Letter introduces its author as James, ”a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

The New Testament presents three different people who are all called James: 1. James, the disciple of Jesus, brother of John, son of Zebedee. 2. James, the son of Alphaeus, another disciples of Jesus. 3. James, the brother of Jesus (Mark 6:3).

James, the son of Zebedee, suffered death as a martyr ca. 44 A.D. (Acts 12:1–2), so it is unlikely that he was the author.
We know very little about James, the son of Alphaeus.
From early times the Christian tradition has regarded the Letter written by James, the brother of Jesus.

During the time of Jesus’ public ministry James and the other brothers of Jesus did not believe in Him (John 7:2–5). But during the first Pentecost James was already a member of the Church (Acts 1:14). He had met the resurrected Christ (1 Cor. 15:7). James was the leader of the Early Church in Jerusalem after St. Peter (Acts 12:17, 15:13; Gal. 2:9). He suffered a Martyr’s death in 62 A.D. He was pushed off the roof of the temple and was stoned to death. If the Letter was written by this brother of Jesus, it was most likely written between 50–60 A.D.

It has been argued that this Letter would have been originally a Jewish text where the name of Jesus was added into two places (1:1, 2:1) and then put under the name of James. Then the Letter might have been written as early as 30 A.D. But there is a lot of evidence to deny this theory. Though the Letter refers many times to the Old Testament (65 times), it refers often to the Gospels as well (26 times). In addition, the ending of Chapter 2 is difficult to understand without assuming the teaching of St. Paul as the background to the problem of faith without works (2:14–26).

Currently, most scholars consider the Letter written much later. It is often dated between 70–130 A.D. and the author is assumed to be some Christian we have no knowledge of.

The claims about the authenticity of this Letter can be concluded as follows.

It is written by James because: 1. The early Christian tradition says so. 2. The author does not introduce himself so he must have been already known by the recipients. 3. The Letter refers often to the sayings of Jesus. 4. The Letter has a “Palestinian seal”. This means, that the actions of God are expressed through the passive form of the verb (1:5, 1:17).

It is not written by James but only put under his name because:

  1. The language and style are high Greek and there are no traces of Aramaic influence, which was the mother tongue of James.
  2. The ending of Chapter 2 suggests that a long time had passed from St. Paul’s time, because his teachings of faith and works were misunderstood. Therefore, the Letter could have be written around 70 A.D. or later.

The arguments of the latter claim can be challenged as follows:

  1. James could have used a scribe to have the Letter written. On the other hand, it is well known that Greek was widely used in the Eastern Mediterranean during that time. James might have known Greek himself, for literal talent does not depend on the person’s origin or even his level of education.
  2. The relation between faith and works in St. Paul’s teachings was misunderstood already during his lifetime (ref. Romans 6:1–2 and 2 Peter 3:14–16).

A disputed letter

When the collection of the New Testament Books was confirmed, there were some who did not want to include the Letter of James into the collection. The reason for this was that the letter was not written by an apostle, it was viewed not to consider Gentile Christians, and some thought it to have contradictions with the teachings of St. Paul. In addition, reformer Martin Luther had a critical view on the letter of James.