“James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1.1, ESV).
The Pulpit Commentary lists eight different men named James in the New Testament:
- James, brother of John, son of Zebedee and Salome; put to death by Herod (AD 44) (Acts 12.2)
- James the brother of the Lord (Mt 13.55; Mk 6.3; Gal 1.19)
- James son of Mary (Mt 27.56; Lk 24.10; same as James the younger, Mk 15.40)
- James son of Alphaeus (Mt 10.3; Mk 3.18; Lk 6.15; Acts 1.13)
- James the father of Jude (Lk 6.16; Acts 1.13)
- James (Acts 12.17; 15.13; 21.18; 1 Cor 15.7; Gal 2.9, 12)
- James the brother of Jude (Jude 1)
- James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ (James 1.1)
Then dots are connected: 2 and 6 are the same; 3, 4 and maybe 5 are connected; so are 7 and 8; also 7 and 8 may be connected with 2 and 6.
Moo boils it down for us to four possible men:
- James the son of Zebedee, brother of John, an apostle
- James son of Alphaeus, also an apostle
- James, father of Judas (an apostle distinct from Judas Iscariot)
- James, the Lord’s brother who, although skeptical of Jesus during His ministry (Mk 3.21; Jn 7.5), became a believer after a post-resurrection appearance from the Christ (1 Cor 15.7) and attained a prominent place in the Jerusalem church (Acts 12.17; 15.13; 21.18; Gal 2.9).
Of the four, only the son of Zebedee and the Lord’s brother stand out as prominent – at least prominent enough to have been able to write an epistle of importance and weight. As we know from Acts 12, James son of Zebedee is martyred in AD 44. It is unlikely the letter was written this early, therefore the half-brother of Jesus is the likely author of this epistle. Early church history is in agreement with this conclusion.
An interesting note is that scholars note striking similarities between the Greek used by James in his speech in Acts 15 as well as the epistle which is composed for circulation among the churches which is also in Acts 15 (see Moo 22).
“To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (1.1, ESV). Jewish Christians who were probably first generation Christians. The fact that they were Jewish is argued from this first verse. “Twelve tribes” and “Dispersion” are Jewish in background. That they are Christians is seen from the multiple times James addresses them as “brothers” (1.2, 5, 9, 16, 19; 2.1, 5, 14; 3.1, 10; 4.11; 5.7, 9, 10, 12, 19). In addition, the epistle is rich with Old Testament allusions, quotes, and imagery.
These may have been people who walked with Jesus, heard His teaching, become disciples, later Christians, but, for several reasons, their love for Christ had grown cold and their discipleship had waned. In short, Christians were acting no different than the world around them.
“Like a modern church official or bishop addressing an ‘open letter’ to his parishioners, James has used the epistolary form to bring spiritual exhortations and comfort to Christians living in a broad area” (Moo 36). The church must live in the world. Even Jesus acknowledged this (Jn 17.15). James’ concern is for these Christians to live steadfast lives of faith though fiery trials come upon them. But James is also concerned that the world has infiltrated the church. So he writes to exhort these Christians to live lives of purity and blamelessness. Both steadfastness and purity will produce maturity in the faith. This is what James seeks from the readers.
James asks 20 questions and issues nearly 50 imperatives for Christians. His style is somewhat in-your-face, pulling no punches and offering no apologies for his bluntness (1.26; 2.6, 17-18; 3.1, 13; 4.1-4, 11, 14; 5.1-3).
The Greek of James is also worth noting. So good was quality of the Greek that Reformation theologian Erasmus actually question that James the Lord’s brother could have written it. There was simply no way a peasant such as the Lord’s brother could have been so eloquent in writing. However, recent scholarship has shown the Palestinian area to have been cosmopolitan in the first century (Holloway 14).
The definitive time limit for the final composition of James is AD 62 when he was martyred. Some believe this to be one of the earliest New Testament writings, dating back to before the Jerusalem conference of Acts 15 (approx. AD 50). They reason from the fact that there are no references to Gentiles Christians nor are there any questions answered about Jewish and Gentile Christian relations which eventually did arise over time. The Christian assembly is still called the “synagogue” (2.2, Gk. Sunagogen). “The whole scene, in short, is that which appears before us in the earliest chapters of the Acts of the Apostles” (Pulpit Commentary x). Hence, Moo argues for a date of 45-47 for two reasons: 1) the close connection between James 2 and Pauline preaching of “justification by faith,” and 2) no direct reference to Jew-Gentile relations or the decision from the Jerusalem conference (33-34).
The end of the 4th century is when the eastern and western churches acknowledged James as Scripture (Moo 15). Parallels are clear between James and Mathew and 1 Peter. Shepherd of Hermas (2nd century) has many parallels to James. Origen (3rd century) cites the letter as Scripture. “It is important to stress that James was not rejected, but neglected” (Moo 17). Because of its heavy Jewish theme and lack of material for “theological debate,” James simply was ignored by the early Christian writers.