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The Epistle of James


“Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother… when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised…. for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. (Galatians 1:18-19; 2:9, 12)

“… he assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done…” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 20.9.1)

“James, the brother of the Lord, succeeded to the government of the Church in conjunction with the apostles. He has been called the Just by all from the time of our Saviour to the present day; for there were many that bore the name of James. He was holy from his mother’s womb; and he drank no wine nor strong drink, nor did he eat flesh. No razor came upon his head; he did not anoint himself with oil, and he did not use the bath. He alone was permitted to enter into the holy place; for he wore not woolen but linen garments. And he was in the habit of entering alone into the temple, and was frequently found upon his knees begging forgiveness for the people, so that his knees became hard like those of a camel… [after throwing James off the temple and stoning him] And one of them, who was a fuller, took the club with which he beat out clothes and struck the just man on the head. And thus he suffered martyrdom. And they buried him on the spot, by the temple, and his monument still remains by the temple. He became a true witness, both to Jews and Greeks, that Jesus is the Christ. And immediately Vespasian besieged them.” (Hegesippus, in Ecclesiastical History 2.23.4-6, 18)

“Listen also to James, the brother of the Lord, testifying in similar fashion when he says, ‘Whoever wants to be a friend of this world makes himself an enemy of God.'” (Origen, Commentary on the Epistle of Romans 4.2)

“To sum up briefly, he [Clement] has given in the Hypotyposes abridged accounts of all canonical Scripture, not omitting the disputed books, — I refer to Jude and the other Catholic epistles, and Barnabas and the so-called Apocalypse of Peter” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.14.1; cf. Photius, Bibliotheca 109).

“Among the disputed writings, which are nevertheless recognized by many, are extant the so-called epistle of James and that of Jude (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.25.3)

“James, who is called the brother of the Lord, surnamed the Just, the son of Joseph by another wife, as some think, but, as appears to me, the son of Mary sister of the mother of our Lord of whom John makes mention in his book, after our Lord’s passion at once ordained by the apostles bishop of Jerusalem, wrote a single epistle, which is reckoned among the seven Catholic Epistles and even this is claimed by some to have been published by some one else under his name, and gradually, as time went on, to have gained authority… The Gospel also which is called the Gospel according to the Hebrews, and which I have recently translated into Greek and Latin and which also Origen often makes use of, after the account of the resurrection of the Saviour says, but the Lord, after he had given his grave clothes to the servant of the priest, appeared to James (for James had sworn that he would not eat bread from that hour in which he drank the cup of the Lord until he should see him rising again from among those that sleep)” (Jerome, On Illustrious Men 2)


  • James, the son of Zebedee, was martyred too early (ca. 41-44 CE) to be the author (Acts 12:2) and we have little information about other candidates (e.g. James the son of Alphaeus, James the father of Judas) besides Jesus’s brother. James does not elaborate on his familial relationship with Jesus either because of authorial modesty or because his reputation was so well-established that he needed no introduction.
  • The address to diaspora Jews (1:1) who meet in a synagogue (2:2), the influence of Jewish wisdom and Jesus traditions, the praise of the “perfect” or “royal” law (1:25; 2:8), the attack on antinomianism (2:8-26), and the rebuke of the rich who oppress their land tenants or labourers (5:1-5) fits a pre-70 Jewish writer from Judaea like James. The text does not address circumcision and kosher food since it presumes the authority of Torah and does not address would-be Gentile proselytes.
  • There are parallels with the letter containing the apostolic decree sent out under the authority of James (Acts 15:23-29; cf. 15:13-21).
  • The text exhibits a range of Greek vocabulary and Hellenistic tropes (e.g. rudder of a ship) and consults the Septuagint, but there are questions about the Greek literacy of the Galilean family members of Jesus. Some neutralize this point by arguing that James used an amanuensis or his preaching was recorded with editorial additions by a literate disciple.
  • There are issues surrounding the dating of the epistle based on its parallels with other literary texts (see below).
  • The external attestation of the text before Origen of Alexandria is not strong, so the text may have been slowly accepted as authoritative and there was some debate in the early church about its authorship.


  • Conjectured dates for the writing of the epistle have ranged from the mid-first to the mid-second century CE.
  • If written by James, the text has to date before his martyrdom around 62 CE. Some scholars (e.g. Daniel B. Wallace) date it even before the question of whether non-Jewish Jesus followers were required to Judaize was debated at the Jerusalem Council (ca. 49 CE).
  • In James 2:8-26, did the writer intend to combat the theology of the Apostle Paul (based on a second-hand report of his preaching or an epistle such as Romans?), of Paulinist’s who misinterpreted Paul’s teaching on justification by faith(fullness), or of Marcion of Sinope who divorced the Christian revelation from its Jewish roots based on an (edited?) version of Paul’s Epistles (cf. David R. Nienhuis)?
  • Is James in touch with oral traditions in a pre-Matthean form (see Mark Allan Powell’s “Parallels between James and the Sermon on the Mount“)?
  • Is there a literary relationship between James and 1 Peter, 1 Clement, and the Shepherd of Hermas and, if so, what is the direction of influence? Or are the parallels based on shared traditions or a common cultural milieu? See the parallels between James and 1 Peter listed by Dale Allison and the analysis in The New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers and The Reception of the New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers.
  • There is debate about the external attestation of the text before Origen (ca. 184-254 CE) and the earliest manuscript evidence from the third century CE is P20, P23, and P100.


“To the twelve tribes in the dispersion” (James 1:1)

  • A general Christian audience: note how 1 Peter addresses a predominantly non-Jewish, Christ-following audience with Israelite and exile imagery (1 Pet 1:1, 17; 2:9-11; 5:13).
  • A Jewish Christian audience: the authority of James, a straightforward reading of the epistolary address, the influence of Jesus’s ethical teachings, and the intra-Christian debate with Paulinism.
  • A non-Christian Jewish audience: some scholars even went as far to argue that the text was a synagogue homily that has been lightly Christianized in 1:1 and 2:1; the parousia (“coming”) of the kyrios (“Lord”) could be taken in reference to either God or Jesus (5:7; cf. 5:4, 7-9).


  • Primarily ethical exhortation rather than a systematic theological or Christological treatise.
  • A mere expression of belief (e.g. confession of the Shema or the oneness of God) is insufficient if it is not accompanied by action (2:14-26). The examples given are biblical (e.g. Abraham offering his son and Rahab protecting the spies) and practical (e.g. well-wishes to the poor without providing for their material needs).
  • Traditional wisdom and (eschatological) retribution theology: asking for wisdom (1:5; 3:13, 15, 17-18), obedience to the law (1:22-25; 2:10-13; 4:11), self-control over emotions (1:19-21), caring for the poor and showing non-partiality (1:17-18, 27; 2:1-6, 8-9, 15-16), taming the tongue (1:26; 3:1-12), avoiding envy and dissension (3:14-16; 4:1-2, 11-12; 5:9), having resolve without double-mindedness (1:5-8; 4:8; 5:12), and requesting prayer and healing (5:13-18). Innocent suffering in trials and temptations are acknowledged, including the biblical example of Job, but they have a character strengthening function (1:2-4, 12-16; 5:7-11).
  • Countercultural wisdom: prophetic denunciations of rich oppressors and the accumulation of wealth (1:9-11; 2:6-7; 4:3-4, 9-10, 13-16; 5:1-6).
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