The book of James is a wonderful companion piece to the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the four Gospels. James has a strong ethical emphasis that is consistent with the moral teachings Jesus gave to his disciples. James also mirrors the sometimes harsh denunciations that Jesus spoke against religious hypocrisy. Like Jesus’s teachings, the book of James is both a source of exhortation and comfort, reproof and encouragement. Finally, James is known for being extremely practical, yet it contains some of the most profound theological truths of the New Testament.
CIRCUMSTANCES OF WRITING
AUTHOR: James is named as the author in 1:1. A number of New Testament personalities were named James, but only three are candidates for the authorship of this book. James the son of Zebedee died in AD 44, too early to have been the author. No tradition names James the son of Alphaeus (Mk 3:18) as the author. This leaves James the brother of Jesus, also called James the Just (Mk 6:3; Ac 1:14; 12:17; 15:13; 21:18; 1Co 15:7; Gl 2:9, 12), as the most likely candidate.
This James is identified as the brother of Jesus in Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3; and Galatians 1:19. Though he was not a follower of Christ during his earthly ministry (Jn 7:3–5), a post-resurrection appearance convinced James that Jesus is indeed the Christ (Ac 1:14; 1Co 15:7). James later led the Jerusalem church (Gl 2:9, 12), exercising great influence there (Ac 1:14; 12:17; 15:13; 21:18; 1Co 15:7; Gl 2:9, 12).
BACKGROUND: James was probably written between AD 48 and 52, though nothing in the epistle suggests a more precise date. James’s death in AD 62 or 66 means the epistle was written before this time. Similarities to Gospel traditions and Pauline themes are suggestive. If Mark was written around AD 65 and time is allowed for the events of Acts 15 and 21 to have occurred between Paul’s first and second missionary journeys, a date between AD 48 and 52 seems most likely.
James led the Jerusalem church. The reference to “the twelve tribes dispersed abroad” (1:1) suggests the letter was written to Jewish Christians living outside of Israel. The reference to a synagogue in 2:2 also suggests that his audience were Jewish Christians. References to their circumstances (e.g., oppression by wealthy landowners; 5:1–6) could refer to congregations anywhere in the Roman Empire. However, Semitic word order, quotations from the Septuagint, and the overall dependence of the epistle on the Jewish wisdom tradition suggest a specifically Jewish Christian audience.
CONTRIBUTION TO THE BIBLE
James continually called for obedience to the law of God. He never referred to the ceremonial law, but to the moral law. While some people think James is at odds with Paul about the Christian’s relationship to the law, both authors actually combine to give us a solid understanding of the Old Testament law. Paul showed believers that Christ met the demands of the law and, thus, brings us to salvation. James showed believers that their obedience to God’s moral standards is an indication of a living faith, which is a life lived in step with the one who met the demands of the law. Some choose to oversimplify the distinctions between the Old Testament and the New Testament and say the Old Testament is grounded in works and the New Testament is grounded in faith, but James brings both testaments together to show that faith and works are integrally related in both the old and new covenants.
Holman Bible Publishers, CSB Disciple’s Study Bible: Notes (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2017), 1941.