Study 1 The Book of James – Introduction
Welcome to our first study in James. The big question we need to ask ourselves during this study is does this book contradict the Gospel as presented in our study of Galatians?
Martin Luther considered the book an “epistle of straw,” and felt that it should be considered a second- class book and not on the same level as books like Romans or Galatians. On the other hand, James is one of the most quoted books of the church and is loved by hundreds of millions of Christians because it is very practical and to the point.
As I’ve just noted James is very practical and Christians appreciate that direct approach towards life issues. The book of James contains more direct commands than any other book in the Bible. An example would be, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” 1: 22 James only touches upon theology (he is by no means ignorant of it) because his concentration is on the practical outworking of that theology.
People like James because he is very concise. He makes his point and moves on. You find the same kind of pithy one-liners in books like Proverbs, which is a perpetual favorite of Christians. James is dispensing wisdom for the practical Christian life. James has a lavish use of metaphors and illustrations so his teachings are easy to follow. People can identify with his illustrations and that makes the message easy to grasp and understand.
Letter to the church
James letter is not addressed to any church in particular. He claims instead that the letter is sent to, “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations.” 1: 1 Scholars thus address the letter as general and associate it with the other general letters like 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2, and 3, John along with Jude. Because James wasn’t addressed to any one church there was no Christian community to fight for its inclusion as authentic and as a result it wasn’t included in both the eastern and western church until the forth century, which is very late. L.T. Johnson feels that the book of 1 Clement a letter written in Rome around 95 AD and The Shepherd of Hermas, a collection of sermons from the early second century, both relied heavily upon James and thus showed it was an early book and well circulated in the Christian community. It is even said that Clement of Alexandria wrote a commentary on James, but unfortunately, over the years has long been lost to us. Origen, Clements successor in Alexandria, is the first early Christian to cite James by name in regards to the letter. He even goes so far as to call James, “the apostle,” and he also assigns the letter to Scripture. In the western church it was Jerome’s endorsement that settled the book into the Canon. He claimed that James was none other than James, the brother of Jesus, and when Augustine followed suit the matter was settled for the western Christian church.
During the time of the reformation the book came under scrutiny again from Luther and the humanist scholar Erasmus. For Erasmus it was the notion that a brother of Jesus could write such good Greek that made him doubt the authenticity of the book, while for Luther it was its theology. Luther believed the church, “stood or fell regarding righteousness by faith,” and in James he felt that vital doctrine of truth was not only absent, but also attacked. Luther wrote that James “mangles the Scripture and thereby opposes Paul and all Scripture.” He felt it held the same place as Revelation and Hebrews at the end of the Bible safely out of the way. It is important to remember Luther was not arguing against the book being scripture, instead he just saw it as a lesser book. He wrote, “I cannot include him among the chief books, though I would not prevent anyone from including or extolling him as he pleases, for there are otherwise many good sayings in him.”
Calvin on the other hand accepted James and noted that not all books have to cover the same material (justification) with the same intensity as other books included in the N.T.
Nature of the Book
It is identified as a letter. However, there is no customary greetings, references to fellow workers, or mention of travel plans that mark many of Paul’s letters. There is also no mention of specific people, places or situations that could anchor the book in one location or to one particular group or church. James is more a literary letter than a personal letter. Its closest parallel in the New Testament is 1 John. James depends more on the teachings of Jesus than any other N.T. author. It is not so much that he quotes Jesus, but instead he weaves the teachings of Jesus throughout the work.
The book is not well organized and James moves quickly from one topic to another.
Chapter one verse one states, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” The name James appears 42 times in the N.T. and four different men carry the name. In Acts 1: 13 three of the James are mentioned. Many people thought for a while that the James of the book of James was James the son of Zebedee a very prominent and important disciple. However, Herod Agrippa 1 put this James to death, (Acts 12: 2) probably around 44 AD. Since the book was written latter that leaves him out.
We are left with James the brother of Jesus. He became a follower of Jesus after the resurrection but quickly moved to a high position in the Jerusalem church and was held in high regard. There are a few reasons based on the text for believing James the brother of Jesus was the writer but there is nothing taken alone that is definite, but added up give a good reason for accepting James, the brother of Jesus as the writer.
The Occasion and Date
Readers and their situation
The book seems to be written to Jewish Christians. The number of references to Jewish belief and teachings make it quite evident that Gentiles were not the main audience. The believers met in a Synagogue (2: 2) and shared the author’s belief that monotheism is a foundational belief (2: 19). There are numerous other teachings that point to a Jewish community being the object of the letter. These Jewish Christians probably are living outside the confines of Israel and are dispersed throughout the Roman world. When we look at the text itself we will get a better idea of some of the problems facing this dispersed group and what James has to say to them about the situations they find themselves in.
The book of James was written before 62 AD when James was martyred. The book was probably written in the mid 40’s AD. In Chapter two James describes what he thinks Paul is teaching about righteousness by faith. In the Apostolic Council, 48 or 49 AD, James and Paul sat down and worked out what Paul was really teaching. If the book was written after 48 or 49 AD James would have not written what he wrote because he would have known better Paul’s teachings. The book is probably written therefore, before the date of the Apostolic Council (Acts 15).
A second reason for thinking the book is early is the absence of conflict in the book over the law. It was about the time of the Jerusalem Council (Apostolic Council) that this conflict came to a head because of the ministry of Paul to the gentiles. James is writing primarily to Christian Jews and the law is not a matter of conflict with them as it became with Paul and his ministry to the gentiles. Once again the letter would have a different tone if it had been written after meeting with Paul. James would have been more sensitive to the problems that Paul was facing with legalism and legalists. The fact this sensitivity is not found in James is a sign it was written early before this issue became a central point of contention in the church.
Though scholars have contended that James does not focus on theology but instead on the practical side of how theology works itself out in our lives, regardless there is quite a bit of theology in James that we should look at before we tackle the texts. So in our next study we will look at the Theology of James and that will give us a framework to place our study on. Thanks for taking this new journey with me and don’t forget to let me know your thoughts on this study.