Glossary of Terms

The Letter of James


Young People's Bible Dictionary

by Barbara Smith (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965)

James, The Letter of. N.T. book, a letter by an unknown author to Christians in general, not to any one church; written probably toward the end of the first century. The writer describes the practical things that a Christian must do.

Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

James, the Letter of, the first of the ‘catholic’ or ‘general’ Epistles in the nt. The Letter, addressed to ‘the twelve tribes in the dispersion’ (1:1), is intended as a response to the problems of the church at large. The primary recipients appear to be Jewish Christians.


The Letter of James

Form and Content: Although it has the common epistolary introduction (1:1), the book lacks the other characteristics of an epistle. It is composed primarily of self-contained sections that appear to be connected only loosely by catchwords (e.g., 1:4-5). Little sequence or development can be detected, as the author speaks authoritatively on a variety of subjects. The ‘epistle’ is similar in form to such Jewish documents as Proverbs, Ecclesiasticus, and The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. It is also similar to the Sermon on the Mount at significant points (cf. e.g., Matt. 5:33; James 5:12).

Several recurring themes within the epistle suggest that the author has provided more than a random collection of exhortations. The themes of testing, wisdom, wealth, and generosity, which are introduced in the first chapter, are developed in the remainder of the book. What holds the disparate chapters together is the author’s intention to encourage an emphasis on deeds or ‘works,’ whereby one becomes a ‘doer of the word’ (1:22) and ‘perfect and complete’ (1:4).

The works envisioned in James primarily involve social obligations within the community. Christian behavior is demonstrated in the keeping of the law (4:11), which is known also as the ‘perfect law of liberty’ (1:25) and the ‘royal law’ (2:8). The law that Christians keep is the fulfillment of the love command, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (2:8), not the ritual requirements of the ot. Observance of the love command precludes the show of partiality (2:1-13), lack of compassion on the poor (2:14-26), and slanderous speech against a brother (4:11-12; cf. 3:1-12). ‘Pure religion’ involves concern for the helpless (1:27). Christian behavior includes a pattern of life that is not controlled by desire (4:13-5:6) or worldliness (4:1-6) but that manifests submission to God (4:7-10; 5:7-11).

The apparent sharp contrast between James and Paul on the question of faith and works (James 2:24; cf. Rom. 3:28) suggests that James was written in direct opposition to Paul. The language in Paul and James is so similar that some relation between the two writers is probable. The ‘works of the law,’ against which Paul argues, however, include primarily the ritual requirements such as circumcision, while the ‘works’ insisted upon by James are deeds of compassion. Furthermore, James appears to have a more ‘static’ concept of ‘faith’ than does Paul; it is a content rather than an act of trust (e.g., 2:19). Thus, James is not to be taken as a direct polemic against Paul but against a misuse of Paul’s teaching on justification by faith. The insistence in James on deeds of compassion and on the love commandment bears a close resemblance to the teaching of Jesus, particularly in the Gospel of Matthew, and to the exhortations of Paul (e.g., Rom. 12:9-13).

Authorship: The author identifies himself only as ‘James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ’ (1:1). The traditional view is that the author is James, the brother of Jesus. Indeed, the book apparently purports to be written by the brother of Jesus, inasmuch as only one James in the latter part of the first century was of such stature as to speak with authority without further identification. Nevertheless, serious difficulties with the traditional view have been raised. The excellent Greek of the epistle has been mentioned as an argument against Jesus’ brother as the author who would not be likely to have had the kind of education presumed by such stylistic skill. Furthermore, the fact that 2:14-26 appears to be a reaction to an abuse of Paul’s Letters poses difficulties for the traditional view, inasmuch as James’s death prior to a.d. 66 would allow little time for the collection and use of Paul’s Letters. In addition, the debate within the ancient church regarding authorship is an argument against authorship by the brother of Jesus. While none of these objections against the traditional view is conclusive, collectively they make this view improbable. The epistle is probably a collection of exhortations preserved in Palestinian Christianity under the name of the brother of Jesus.

Little can be inferred about the situation of the original readers. The author’s focus on the themes of poverty, generosity, and worldly desires may suggest that the book was addressed to communities that were experiencing severe economic difficulties.


Topical index of terms
Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer
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