Introduction to the Bible - 59 - James

The General Epistle of James

by Louis Berkhof


 There are no clearly defined parts in this Epistle; hence no  classification of its contents is attempted. After the opening  salutation the writer points out the significance of temptation in the  life of his readers, exhorts them to ask in faith for the wisdom needed  in bearing them and warns them not to refer their inward temptations to  God, 1:1-18. Then he admonishes them to receive the Word in all  humility and to carry it out in action, 19-27. He warns importance, 3:1-12. Wisdom from above is commended to the  readers, since the wisdom of this world is full of bitter envy and  works confusion and evil, while heavenly wisdom is plenteous in mercy  and yields good fruits, 13-18. The author then reprimands the readers  for their quarrelsomeness, which results from a selfishness and lust  that infects even one's prayers and renders them futile; and exhorts  them to humble themselves before God, 4:1-12. He condemns those who, in  the pride of possession, forget their dependence on God, and denounces  the rich that oppress and rob the poor, 4:13--5: 6; after which he  urges the brethren to be patient, knowing the Lord is at hand, 7-11.  Finally he warns his readers against false swearing, gives special  advice to the sick, exhorts them all to pray for one another, reminding  them of the efficacy of prayer, and of the blessedness of turning a  sinner from his sinful way, 12-20.


 1. From a literary point of view the Epistle of James is quite  different from those of Paul. The latter are real letters, which cannot  be said of this Epistle. There is no benediction at the beginning, nor  any salutation or greeting at the end. Moreover it contains very little  that points to definite historical circumstances such as are known to  us from other sources. Zahn calls this Epistle, "eine . . . in  schriftliche Form gefasste Ansprache." Einl. I p. 73. Barth speaks of  it as, "eine Sammlung von Ansprachen des Jakobus an die Gemeinde zu  Jerusalem," which, he thinks were taken down by a hearer and sent to  the Jewish Christians of the diaspora. Einl. p. 140. And Deissmann  says: "The Epistle of James is from the beginning a little work of  literature, a pamphlet addressed to the whole of Christendom, a  veritable Epistle (as distinguished from a letter). The whole of the  contents agrees therewith. There is none of the unique detail peculiar  to the situation, such as we have in the letters of Paul, but simply  general questions, most of them still conceivable under the present  conditions of church life." Light from the Ancient East p. 235.

 2. The contents of the Epistle are not doctrinal but ethical. The  writer does not discuss any of the great truths of redemption, but  gives moral precepts for the life of his readers. There is no  Christological teaching whatever, the name of Christ being mentioned  but twice, viz. 1: 1; 2: 1. Beischlag correctly remarks that it is "so  wesentlich noch Lehre Christi und so wenig noch Lehre von Christo." The  letter may be called, the Epistle of the Royal Law, 2:8. The emphasis  does not rest on faith, but on the works of the law, which the writer  views, not in its ceremonial aspect, but in its deep moral significance  and as an organic whole, so that transgressing a single precept is  equivalent to a violation of the whole law. The essential element of  life according to the law is a love that reveals itself in grateful  obedience to God and in self-denying devotion to one's neighbor.

 3. Some scholars, as f. i. Spitta, claim that this Epistle is really  not a Christian but a Jewish writing; but the contents clearly prove  the contrary. Yet it must be admitted that the Epistle has a somewhat  Jewish complexion. While the writer never once points to the examplary  life of Christ, he does refer to the examples of Abraham, Rahab, Job  and Elijah. In several passages he reveals his dependence on the Jewish  Chokmah literature, on the Sermon on the Mount, and on the words of  Jesus generally; compare 1: 2 with Matt. 5:12 ;--1 : 4 with Matt. 5 :  48 ;--1 : 5 with Matt. 7:7;--1:6 with Mark 11:23;--1:22 with Matt.  7:24;--2:8 with Mark 12:31;--2:13 with Matt. 5:7; 18:33;--4:10 with  Matt. 23:12; etc. Moreover the author does not borrow his figurative  language from the social and civil institutions of the Greek and Roman  world, as Paul often does, but derives it, like the Lord himself had  done, from the native soil of Palestine, when he speaks of the sea, 1:  6; 3:4; of the former and the latter rain, 5: 7; of the vine and the  fig-tree, 3:12; of the scorching wind, 1:11; and of salt and bitter  springs, 3:11, 12.

 4. The Epistle is written in exceptionally good, though Hellenistic  Greek. The vocabulary of the author is rich and varied, and perfectly  adequate to the expression of his lofty sentiments. His sentences are  not characterized by great variation; yet they have none of the utter  simplicity, bordering on monotony, that marks the writings of John. The  separate thoughts are very clearly expressed, but in certain instances  there is some difficulty in tracing their logical sequence. We find  some examples of Hebrew parallelism especially in the fourth chapter;  downright Hebraisms, however are very few, cf. the adjectival genitive  in 1: 25, and the instrumental en in 3:9.


 According to external testimony James, the brother of the Lord, is the  author of this Epistle. Origen is the first one to quote it by name,  and it is only in Rufinus Latin translation of his works that the  author is described as, "James, the brother of the Lord." Eusebius  mentions James, the brother of Christ, as the reputed author,  remarking, however, that the letter was considered spurious. Jerome,  acknowledging its authenticity, says: "James, called the Lord's  brother, surnamed the Just, wrote but one Epistle, which is among the  seven catholic ones.

 The author simply names himself, "James a servant of God and of the  Lord Jesus Christ," 1: 1, thus leaving the question of his identity  still a matter of conjecture, since there were other persons of that  name in the apostolic Church. It is generally admitted, however, that  there is but one James that meets the requirements, viz, the brother of  the Lord, for: (1) The writer was evidently a man of great authority  and recognized as such not only by the Jews in Palestine but also by  those of the diaspora. There is only one James of whom this can be  said. While James, the brother of John, and James the son of Alphaeus  soon disappear from view in the Acts of the Apostles, this James stands  out prominently as the head of the Jerusalem church. During the Lords  public ministry he did not yet believe in Christ, John 7: 5. Probably  his conversion was connected with the special appearance of the Lord to  him after the resurrection, I Cor. 15: 7. In the Acts we soon meet him  as a man of authority. When Peter had escaped out of prison, after  James the brother of John had been killed, he says to the brethren:  "Go, show these things to James," Acts 12:17. Paul says that he, on his  return from Arabia, went to Jerusalem and saw only Peter and James, the  Lords brother, Gal. 1: 18, 19. On the following visit James, Cephas and  John, who seemed to be pillars, gave Paul and Barnabas the right hand  of fellowship, Gal. 2: 9. Still later certain emissaries came from  James to Antioch and apparently had considerable influence, Gal. 2:12.  The leading part in the council of Jerusalem is taken by this James,  Acts 15:13 if. And when, at the end of his third missionary journey,  Paul comes to Jerusalem, he first greeted the brethren informally, and  on the following day "went unto James, and all the elders were  present," Acts 21:18. (2) The authorship of this James is also favored  by a comparison of the letter, Acts 15 : 23-29, yery likely written  under the inspiring influence of James, together with his speech at the  council of Jerusalem, and certain parts of our Epistle, which reveals  striking similarities. The salutation chairein Acts 15: 23, Jas. 1:1  occurs elsewhere in the New Testament only in Acts 23:26. The words to  kalon onoma to epiklethen eph humas, 2:7, can only be paralleled in the  New Testament in Acts 15:17. Both the speech of James and the Epistle  are characterized by pointed allusions to the Old Testament. The  affectionate term adelphos, of frequent occurrence in the Epistle (cf.  1:2,9, 16, 19; 2:5, 15; 3:1; 4:11; 5:7,9, 10, 12, 19), is also found in  Acts 15: 13, 23; compare especially Jas. 2: 5 and Acts 15:13. Besides  these there are other verbal coincidences, as episkeptesthai, Jas.  1:27; Acts 15:14; terein and diaterein, Jas. 1:27, Acts 15:29;  episkeptesthai, Jas. 5 :19, 20; Acts 15 :19; agapetos, Jas. 1:16, 19;  2:5; Acts 15:25. (3) The words of the address are perfectly applicable  to this particular James. He does not claim that he is an apostle, as  do Paul and Peter in their Epistles. It might be objected, however,  that if he was the brother of the Lord, he would have laid stress on  that relation to enhance his authority. But does it not seem far more  likely, in view of the fact that Christ definitely pointed out the  comparative insignificance of this earthly relationship, Matt. 12:  46-50, that James would be careful not to make it the basis of any  special claim, and therefore simply speaks of himself as a servant of  God and of the Lord Jesus Christ?

 Now the question comes up, whether this James cannot be identified with  James, the son of Alphaeus, one of the Lord's apostles, Mt. 10:3; Mk.  3:18; Lk. 6:15; Acts 1:13. This identification would imply that the  so-called brethren of the Lord were in reality his cousin's, a theory  that was broached by Jerome about A. D. 383, and which, together with  the view of Epiphanius (that these brethren were sons of Joseph by a  former marriage) was urged especially in the interest of the perpetual  virginity. But this theory is not borne out by the data of Scripture,  for: (1) The brethren of the Lord are distinguished from his disciples  in John 2:12, and from the twelve after their calling in Mt. 12:46ff.  ;Mk 3:31 ff. ; Lk. 8:19 ff. ; and John 7:3. It is stated that they did  not belong to the circle of his disciples, indirectly in Mt. 13:55; Mk.  6:3, and directly in John 7:5. (2) Although it is true that cousins are  sometimes called brethren in Scripture, cf. Gen. 14 16; 29:12, 15, we  need not assume that this is the case also in the instance before us.  Moreover it is doubtful whether James the son of Alphaeus was a cousin  of Jesus. According to some this relationship is clearly implied in  John 19: 25; but it is by no means certain that in that passage, "Mary  the wife of Clopas" stands in apposition with, "his mother's sister."  If we do accept that interpretation, we must be ready to believe that  there were two sisters bearing the same name. It is more plausible to  think that John speaks of four rather than of three women, especially  in view of the fact that the gospels speak of at least five in  connection with Jesus death and resurrection, cf. Mt. 27: 56; Mk. 16:  1; Lk. 24:10. But even if we suppose that he speaks of but three, how  are we going to prove the identity of Alphaeus and Clopas? And in case  we could demonstrate this, how must we account for the fact that only  two sons are named of Mary, the wife of Clopas, viz. James and Joses,  Mt. 27: 56; Mk. 15: 40; Lk. 24:10, comp. John 19: 25, while there are  four brethren of the Lord, Mt. 13:55; Mk. 6: 3, viz. James, Joses,  Judas and Simon? It has been argued that Judas is indicated as a  brother of James the less in Lk. 6:16; Acts 1: 13, where we read of a  Ioudas Iakobou. But it is contrary to analogy to supply the word  brother in such cases. (3) We repeatedly find the brethren of the Lord  in the company of Mary, the mother of Jesus, just as we would expect to  find children with their mother. Moreover in passages like Mt. 12:46;  Mk. 3: 31, 32; and Lk. 8:19 it is an exegetical mistake to take the  word mother in its literal sense, and then to put a different  interpretation on the word brother. We conclude, therefore, that James,  the brother of the Lord and the author of this Epistle, was not an  apostle. There are two passages that seem to point in a different  direction, viz. Gal. 1: 19 and I Cor. 15:7; but in the former passage  ei me may be adversative rather than exceptive, as in Lk. 4: 26, 27,  cf. Thayer in loco; and the name apostle was not limited to the twelve.  The considerations of Lange in favor of identifying the author with  James, the son of Alphaeus, are rather subjective.

 James seems to have been a man of good common sense, with a well  balanced judgment, who piloted the little vessel of the Jerusalem  church through the Judaeistic breakers with a skillful hand, gradually  weaning her from ceremonial observances without giving offense and  recognizing the greater freedom of the Gentile churches. He was highly  respected by the whole Church for his great piety and whole-hearted  devotion to the saints. The account of Hegesippus with respect to his  paramount holiness and ascetic habits is in all probability greatly  overdrawn. Cf. Eusebius II 23.

 The authorship of James has been called in question by many scholars  during the last century, such as DeWette, Schleiermacher, Baur,  Hilgenfeld, Holtzmann, Harnack, Spitta, Baljon e. a. The main reasons  for regarding the Epistle as spurious, are the following: (1) The  condition of the church reflected in it reminds one of the church at  Rome in the time of Hermas, when the glowing love of the first time had  lost its fervency. (2) The Greek in which the Epistle is written is far  better than one could reasonably expect of James, who always resided in  Palestine.

 (3) The writer does not mention the law of Moses, nor refer to any of  its precepts, but simply urges the readers to keep the perfect law that  requires love, charity, peacefulness, etc., just as a second century  writer would do; while James believed in the permanent validity of the  Mosaic law, at least for the Jews. (4) The Epistle bears traces of  dependence on some of the Epistles of Paul, especially Romans and  Galatians, on the Epistle to the Hebrews and on I Peter; and clearly  contradicts the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith.

 But these arguments need not shake our conviction as to the authorship  of James. The condition implied in this letter may very well and, at  least in part, is known to have existed about the middle of the first  century. Jos. Ant. XX 8.8; 9.2 Cf. especially Salmon, Introd, p. 501 f.  With respect to the second argument Mayor remarks that, accepting the  view that Jesus and his brethren usually spoke Aramaeic, "we are not  bound to suppose that, with towns like Sepphoris and Tiberius in their  immediate vicinity, with Ptolomais, Scythopolis and Gadara at no great  distance, they remained ignorant of Greek." Hastings D. B. Art. James,  the General Epistle of. The idea that James was a fanatic Judaeist and  therefore could not but insist on keeping the Mosaic law, is not borne  out by Scripture. He was a Jewish Christian and reveals himself as such  f. i. in Acts 15:14-29; 21:20-25 and in his Epistle, cf.2:5 if.;  3:2;4:7, 14. His insistence on the spirit of the law, not at all  Judaeistic, is in perfect harmony with the teaching of the Lord. The  literary dependence to which reference has been made may, in so far as  any really exists, just as well be reversed, and the contradiction  between James and Paul is only apparent. Cf. the larger Introductions  and the Commentaries.


 The Epistle is addressed to "the twelve tribes which are in the  dispersion," 1: 1. Who are indicated by these words? The adverbial  phrase, "in the dispersion" excludes the idea that the writer refers to  all the Jewish Christians, including even those in Palestine (Hofmann,  Thiersch) ; and the contents of the letter forbid us to think that he  addresses Jews and Jewish Christians jointly (Thiele, Guericke, Weiss).  There are, however, two interpretations that are admissible. The  expression may designate the Jewish Christians that lived outside of  Palestine (the great majority of scholars); but it may also be a  description of all the believers in Jesus Christ that were scattered  among the Gentiles, after the analogy of I Pet. 1: 1 and Gal. 6:16  (Koster, Hilgenfeld, Hengstenberg, Von Soden). Zahn is rather uncertain  in his interpretation. He finds that the twelve tribes mentioned here  form an antithesis to the twelve tribes that were in Palestine, and  refer either to Christianity as a whole, or to the totality of Jewish  Christians; and reminds us of the fact that there was a time, when the  two were identical. Einl. I p. 55. We prefer to think of the Jewish  Christians of the diaspora in Syria and neighboring lands, which were  probably called "the twelve tribes" as representing the true Israel,  because (1) the Epistle does not contain a single reference to Gentile  Christians; (2) James was pre-eminently the leader of the Jewish  Church; (3) the entire complexion of the Epistle points to Jewish  readers.

 The Epistle being of an encyclical character, naturally does not have  reference to the situation of any particular local church, but to  generally prevailing conditions at that time. The Jewish Christians to  whom the Epistle is addressed were subject to persecutions and  temptations, and the poor were oppressed by the rich that, possibly,  did not belong to their circle. They did not bear these temptations  with the necessary patience, but were swayed by doubt. They even looked  with envy at the glitter of the world and favored the rich at the  expense of the poor. In daily life they did not follow the guidance of  their Christian principles, so that their faith was barren. There may  have been dead works, but the fruits of righteousness were not  apparent.


 1. Occasion and Purpose. The occasion for writing this Epistle is found  in the condition of the readers which we just described. James, the  head of the Jerusalem church, would naturally be informed of this,  probably in part by his own emissaries to the various churches of the  diaspora, Acts 15:22; II Cor. 3:1; Gal. 2:12, and in part by those  Jewish Christians that came from different lands to join in the great  festivals at Jerusalem.

 The object of the Epistle was ethical rather than didactic; it was to  comfort, to reprove and to exhort. Since the readers were persecuted to  the trial of their faith, and were tempted in various ways, the writer  comes to them with words of consolation. Feeling that they did not bear  their trials with patience, but were inclined to ascribe to God the  temptations that endangered them as a result of their own lust and  worldliness, he reproves them for the error of their way. And with a  view to the blots on their Christian life, to their worldliness, their  respect of persons, their vainglory and their envy and strife, he  exhorts them to obey the royal law, that they may be perfect men.

 2. Time and Place. The place of composition was undoubtedly Jerusalem,  where James evidently had his continual abode. It is not so easy to  determine when the letter was written. We have a terminus ad quem in  the death of James about the year 62, and a terminus a quo in the  persecution that followed the death of Stephen about A. D. 35, and that  was instrumental in scattering the Jewish church. Internal evidence  favors the idea that it was written during this period, for (1) There  is no reference in the Epistle to the destruction of Jerusalem either  as past or imminent; but the expectation of the speedy second coming of  Christ, that was characteristic of the first generation of Christians,  was still prevalent, 5: 7-9. (2) The picture of the unbelieving rich  oppressing the poor Christians and drawing them before tribunals, is in  perfect harmony with the description Josephus gives of the time  immediately after Christ, when the rich Sadducees tyrannized over the  poor to such a degree that some starved. Ant. XX 8.8; 9.2. This  condition terminated with the destruction of Jerusalem. (3) The  indistinctness of the line of separation between the converted and the  unconverted Jews also favors the supposition that the letter was  composed during this period, for until nearly the end of that time  these two classes freely intermingled both at the temple worship and in  the synagogues. In course of time, however, and even before the  destruction of Jerusalem, this condition was gradually changed.

 But the question remains, whether we can give a nearer definition of  the time of composition. In view of the fact that the Christian Jews  addressed in this letter must have had time to spread and to settle in  the dispersion so that they already had their own places of worship, we  cannot date the Epistle in the very beginning of the period named.  Neither does it seem likely that it was written after the year 50, when  the council of Jerusalem was held, for (1) the Epistle does not contain  a single allusion to the existence in the church of Gentile Christians;  and (2) it makes no reference whatever to the great controversy  respecting the observance of the Mosaic law, on which the council  passed a decision. Hence we are inclined to date the Epistle between A.  D. 45 and 50.

 Some have objected to this early date that the Epistle is evidently  dependent on Romans, Galatians, Hebrews and I Peter; but this objection  is an unproved assumption. It is also said that the presbuteroi  mentioned in 5:14 imply a later date. We should remember, however, that  the Church, especially among the Jews, first developed out of the  synagogue, in which presbyters were a matter of course. Moreover some  urge that the Christian knowledge assumed in the readers, as in 1: 3;  3:1, does not comport with such an early date. It appears to us that  this objection is puerile.

 Of those who deny the authorship of James some would date the Epistle  after the destruction of Jerusalem, Reuss, Von Soden, and Hilgenfeld in  the time of Domitian (81-96); Blom in A. D. 80; Bruckner and Baljon in  the time of Hadrian (117-138).


 There was considerable doubt as to the canonicity of this Epistle in  the early church. Some allusions to it have been pointed out in Clement  of Rome, Hermas and Irenaeus, but they are very uncertain indeed. We  cannot point to a single quotation in Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria  and Tertullian, though some are inclined to believe on the strength of  a statement made by Eusebius, Ch. Hist. VI 14 that Clement commented on  this Epistle, just as he did on the other general Epistles. There are  reasons, however, to doubt the correctness of this statement, cf.  Westcott, on the Canon p. 357. The letter is omitted from the  Muratorian Fragment, but is contained in the Peshito. Eusebius classes  it with the Antilegomena, though he seems uncertain as to its  canonicity. Origen was apparently the first to quote it as Scripture.  Cyril of Jerusalem, Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianze recognized it,  and it was finally ratified by the third council of Carthage in A. D.  397. During the Middle Ages the canonicity of the Epistle was not  doubted, but Luther for dogmatical reasons called it "a right strawy  Epistle." Notwithstanding the doubts expressed in the course of time,  the Church continued to honor it as a canonical writing ever since the  end of the fourth century.

 The great permanent value of this Epistle is found in the stress it  lays on the necessity of having a vital faith, that issues in fruits of  righteousness. The profession of Christ without a corresponding  Christian life is worthless and does not save man. Christians should  look into the perfect law, and should regulate their lives in harmony  with its deep spiritual meaning. They should withstand temptations, be  patient under trials, dwell together in peace without envying or  strife, do justice, exercise charity, remember each other in prayer,  and in all their difficulties be mindful of the fact that the coming of  the Lord is at hand.