The Book of James has the reputation as a practical work of wisdom. Some might even call it “the Proverbs of the New Testament” for its scattered layout of ideas and it’s emphasis on taking theological and doctrinal ideas and putting them into practice. It’s a favorite for many Christians I know, probably it’s “straight talk” way of communicating. On its surface, James feels easily digestible. Its themes resonate with the side of our brains that want practical action. When James says to watch our tongue, it resonates with us, and it’s something we can put into action. When he says our works are aligned with our faith that, too, resonates. And on and on.
In the next couple of posts, I’d like to share a little work I did on the relationship between the writing in the Letter of James and the teachings of Jesus. We will spend most of our time looking at the Letter of James in concert with the Sermon on the Mount. We’ll take a look at some of their similarities and differences in hopes of understanding the intent and purpose of the writing.
Who Wrote the Book of James?
The first major clue about the author of a book in the New Testament is in its title. Of the twenty-seven New Testament books, twenty-five of them are named after a person or group of people, which usually tells us to whom the writing was meant, or from whom the writing comes. The latter is true in the case of the Letter of James. The opening verse affirms the conclusion by attributing the writing to “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,”(NIV) and addresses the letter to “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations” (NIV).
But which James?
The natural thing to do is search the New Testament for all prominent characters named James. Should we do this, we’d find several mentions of four different characters with the name. There is James, the son of Zebedee (Mark 1:19), James the son of Alphaeus (Mark 3:18), James the father of Judas (Luke 6:16) and James, the Lord’s brother (Gal. 1:19).
History allows us to narrow down the prospects quite nicely. James, the son of Zebedee would certainly have traveled with Jesus as one of the twelve and so would have experienced the teaching of Jesus firsthand. However, scholars are skeptical about whether the son of Zebedee lived long enough to have authored the letter since Herod Agrippa had him killed between A.D. 41 and 44 (Acts 12:2). It is possible if we date the writing in the early part of the century. Too, history does not reveal the son of Zebedee as key to the early church movement. It’s not likely he is the author.
James, the son of Alphaeus, would also have known the teachings of Jesus well as he too was one of the twelve who followed Jesus most closely. But, again, this James is unfamiliar and relatively quiet in scripture. One with such an unfamiliar role might want to introduce himself more fully. Where credence is concerned, we might also expect a mention of his firsthand discipleship to Jesus. Instead, the letter’s introduction suggests the audience would already recognize him, which also suggests a well-known James rather than an obscure one. History equally whispers about the son of Alphaeus, which makes him equally unlikely as the son of Zebedee.
James, the Father of Judas presents the same problem of obscurity.
There is, of course, the notion that a different James entirely wrote the letter. That is, one that is not mentioned in the Bible. This idea was presented by Martin Luther (Davids 1989). Martin’s case was that James was a fairly common name in the first century, and thus the letter’s introduction may not narrow down the list of prospects so easily. But again, the text seems to suggest the readers knew the writer. And the authority with which the writing is presented suggests he would have held a high position to its first century readers as well. As a catholic (universal) epistle which is intended for several audiences, writer would need to be widely known across several first century communities. An unknown, anonymous would not hold such authority.
We are left, then, with James the brother of Jesus, also known as James the Just. Most people believe the brother of Jesus would be familiar with his teachings despite not being fully on board with them. Various passages of scripture suggest Jesus’ mother and brothers were not always on board with his teachings (John 7:3-5, Mark 3:20-21, 31-34). In fact, it’s highly likely that James was one of those family members trying to rescue Jesus from acting so “foolish.” It’s not until Acts 1:14 that we catch the first glimpse of a turnaround for James. It is also widely believed that this James (the brother of Jesus) is referenced by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:7 as having been appeared to by Jesus in what may have been a conversion experience similar to Paul’s Damascus road experience (Acts 9:3-6).
James began his ascent as a powerful figure in the church as shown in Acts 15:13-21, where he presides over the Jerusalem council, and in Acts 21:17-19 where James receives Paul from his journey. Perhaps the best evidences for James, the brother of Jesus, as a prominent figure is found in the small book of Jude. There, Jude describes himself as the brother of James, rather than the brother of Jesus (Jude 1). Jude, a relatively silent figure, used the name of his brother James to establish his authority.
There are cases against the brother of Jesus as well. Scholars recognize the Greek in the Letter of James as one of the better Greek styles among all the New Testament writings (Davids 1989). Could James, a jew, write or speak Greek with such quality, especially since he spends most of his time in Jerusalem? Peter Davids makes this comment in his commentary on James: “… there are some philosophical phrases (e.g., ‘the whole course of life’ in 3:6) and other indications (e.g., all the quotations agree with the Greek Old Testament; none are distinctly Hebrew) that the author is very familiar with the Greek world.” (Davids 1989)
Davids is questioning how James, who largely spent his time in Jerusalem (where Aramaic is prominent), seems to not only write with great Greek style, but also express strong familiarity with Greek philosophical ideas. On top of this, it is curious that the author quotes from the Greek version of the Old Testament, rather than the Hebrew version. If James, the brother of Jesus, wrote this letter, wouldn’t we expect he would quote Hebrew scripture translations? Such a case against James introduces the idea that the book was written later by a writer more familiar with Greek culture and ideals. Or, that a later writer penned the letter in James’ (the brother of Jesus) name.
Others suggest the letter is addressing a problem that seems more prevalent for the church toward the end of the century rather than the beginning. It is a weaker argument, but the reasoning follows that the problems of the early church lay mostly in the areas of expanding the evangelical community. The Letter of James does not seem to address evangelism as much, opting instead to focus on assimilating into the culture; a problem more likely found in an established church later in the first century. This is most evident in his teachings against favoritism toward the rich. Should we date the letter later in the century based on this assertion, James the brother of Jesus could not be the originator of the letter.
Lastly, there is the theological conflict between Paul and James with regard to grace and works. We find James and Paul together on a couple occasions in the book of Acts, which suggests an opportunity for them to iron out theological differences. It’s a flimsy projection at best. But, should we conclude there was ample time for Paul and James to get their theological framework in line, then we are left with a quandary. On the surface (at least), it seems James is partly written as a response to Pauline “faith only” salvation. As such, James clearly either misunderstands Paul or flat out disagrees with him.
If that is the case, we are left with a couple options. Either James did not confer with Paul prior to writing this letter, or they did confer, and the writer of the letter is not James, but rather a separate someone who disagrees with Pauline theology concerning faith, grace and salvation. To this end, this someone would need a strong letter, in tone and credence, to dispute the power of Paul’s teachings. They’d need to lean heavily on one of the few sources more respected than the widely influential apostle. There weren’t many more highly respected than Paul, but Jesus himself would certainly fit the bill. Thus, the strong nod to the teachings of Jesus found in James may be indicative of more than simple influence.
If we follow this trail, we’d have to consider the writer as subversively usurping Paul’s teachings with Jesus’ teachings, which seems inconsistent with the biblical narrative we find concerning Paul and James the brother of Jesus. Despite these contentions, we will proceed forward with the understanding that James, the brother of Jesus, is the writer of this epistle, as the case for his authorship of the strongest.
— Continue on for Part 2–
Do you believe James, the brother of Jesus, is the author of the book of James? What do you have to say to the arguments against him?
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