Studies in James: Who Was James?

While the Epistle of James is short and relatively easy to read there is a deep complexity to this letter. The main theme and structure of the letter are hotly debated, in part, because the letter can feel so disjointed (more like a collection of sayings than a true letter). The prose too can be difficult to translate and even more difficult to interpret at a number of points. All of this complexity has led many to deny a single author. While tradition says that James the Just is the author of this letter, most modern scholars today believe it is not directly from James but rather a redaction. In spite of much modern argumentation, however, there are still strong reasons for believing that James the brother of Jesus wrote this epistle.

The letter begins with the claim that it is written by “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1). The lack of elaboration means that this “James” must have been well known. There are only four well-known James’ mentioned in the New Testament and early Christian literature: (1) James the son of Zebedee, brother of the Apostle John, and one of the original twelve disciples (Mark 1:19; 5:37; 9:2; 10:35; and 14:33); (2) James the son of Alphaeus, who was also one of the original twelve disciples (Mark 3:18); (3) James the father of Judas (Luke 6:16; Acts 1:13); and (4) James, brother of Jesus and leader in the church at Jerusalem (Gal. 1:19; Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:18). Of these four the most likely answer is James the brother of Jesus. Options (2) and (3) are too obscure, and option (1) was martyred in A.D. 44, which is too early for him to have composed this epistle. Having said this, however, there is still a great deal of debate about authorship.

There are generally considered three views on authorship of the epistle:

  1. The letter is written pseudonymously, and very late (end of the first century or beginning of the second) by a proponent of Jewish (i.e. non-Pauline) Christianity.
  2. The letter is a compilation of sayings by the historical James, edited and pieced together by a redactor with Greek literary training.
  3. The letter is written by the historical James, brother of Jesus, and leader of the church in Jerusalem.

Let’s explore these views briefly.

The letter was written pseudonymously –> This view argues that a later Christian leader, sometime towards the beginning of the second century, wrote this letter in the name of James of Jerusalem. This is argued in part because of the prose and style of the letter, which reflects Hellenistic imagery and accomplished Greek literary style. It seems unlikely, the argument goes, that James could possess such skill as a Galilean Jewish peasant. In addition, the epistle is not included in the Muratorian Fragment, nor mentioned by name until Origen in the 3rd century. It also has similarities to many other late Christian works like 1 Clement and the Shepherd of Hermas. Finally, since it is believed that James is writing in direct response to Paul (a view that I do not think is accurate), then it must have been written late enough for Paul’s writings to circulate and gain influence.

The letter was edited from James’ early work –> This view acknowledges the complexity and precision of the Greeks style in the letter and yet also notes the strong Jewish and early Christian content of the letter, making it a strange amalgamation of worlds. Therefore, it is argued, the letter is likely an edited version of James earlier work put into a final form by someone writing after the time of Paul. This view too holds that James is writing in response to Paul and therefore it is dated for sometime closer to the second century.

The letter was written by the historical James of Jerusalem –> Despite issues of sophisticated composition, and a lack of early citation, I still think the best argument for authorship is James of Jerusalem. Several key factors lend themselves to this conclusion. For starters, a number of factors suggest that the book was composed very early on. For example, the church was still meeting in the synagogue (2:2). Also, James uses almost none of the standardized expressions about the teaching of Jesus which are found in the Gospels. That lack of verbal correspondence suggests that he is writing at a time prior to their formalization. Finally, and perhaps most persuasively, James’ theology is very primitive. There is no mention of later significant theological subjects such as justification, resurrection, Jew/Gentile relationships, the sacraments, nor even the church. The theological and ecclesiastical concerns common in Pauline and other New Testament epistles are not discussed here, suggesting an early composition for the letter.

While many of the other views have focused on James’ relationship to Paul and built an interpretation and dating of the text on this assumption this is flawed. While there are some obvious similarities in language, reading James on his own terms will reveal that he and Paul are not in contrast. In fact, I don’t think James has Paul in mind at all when he writes his letter (in latter posts I will demonstrate this more fully). The arguments, then, for holding to an anti-Pauline author writing after the spread of Paul’s epistles simply doesn’t hold up. It assumes more than it proves.

Finally, while the Greek of the letter is quite good, D.A. Carson, Doug Moo, and Leon Morris argue that we should not make more of this than is appropriate. They write:

James’ style is not that of a literary Atticist, but that found in other Hellenistic-Jewish works of his day, such as Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs and Sirach.

In addition, they add:

We must not underestimate the extent to which Palestinian Jews in the first century were conversant with Greek. Recent discoveries suggest that Greek was a language widely used in Palestine and that someone like James would have had ample opportunity to become fluent in the language…We conclude, then, that the language of the letter is no obstacle to identifying the brother of the Lord as its author. (An Introduction to the New Testament, 411-412)

The reasons to dismiss James the Just as the author, then, don’t hold up. The reasons to affirm him seem strong to me. And while tradition does not carry all the weight, nor is there complete agreement, nonetheless church history leans heavily on the view that the brother of our Lord wrote the letter.

Why does this matter? In one sense it probably doesn’t it. The letter stands regardless of our view of its authorship and its content is powerful and important for the life of a believer. We don’t know the author of Hebrews and we don’t struggle with its validity and value. Yet, considering that the author is the brother of Jesus does shed some interesting nuance on the letter. Jesus’ brother did not always view him as Messiah. In Mark 3:21 they thought he was crazy and came to take him home. Here, however, is James proclaiming Christ as Lord, calling himself a servant of this Lord, and encouraging faith in this “Lord of glory.” It is wild to imagine any sibling expressing such notions, but James genuinely believed. His letter is an appeal to distinguish genuine faith from false faith, and he expresses himself as one of genuine faith in Jesus as Lord!

This is a powerful testimony to the Gospel! Any view of the person of Jesus must take into account how this kind of faith manifested in Jesus of Nazareth, especially among His own family. James’ epistle is powerful and encouraging, convicting and edifying, but the fact that it was written by Jesus’ own siblings is inspiring. If Jesus own brothers, those who knew him best, could profess this kind of faith then it is an invitation to join them in believing! James wants us to have genuine faith because that is what he has!

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