Epistle of James

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In Christianity, the Epistle of James (Ancient Greek: Ἰάκωβος Iakōbos), usually referred to simply as James, is a letter (epistle) in the New Testament. The earliest extant manuscripts of James usually date to the mid-to-late third century.[1]

The author identifies himself as "James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ" and the epistle is traditionally attributed to James the Just.[2][3]

There are four views concerning the Epistle of James:

  1. that the letter was written by James before the Pauline Epistles,
  2. that the letter was written by James after the Pauline Epistles,
  3. that the letter is pseudonymous,
  4. that the letter comprises material originally from James but reworked by a later editor.[1]

Framed within an overall theme of patient perseverance during trials and temptations, the text condemns various sins. The epistle was addressed to "the twelve tribes scattered abroad" (James 1:1), which is generally taken to mean a Jewish Christian audience outside of Palestine.[4]


The epistle may not be a true piece of correspondence between specific parties, but rather an example of wisdom literature formulated as a letter for circulation. The work is considered New Testament wisdom literature because, "like Proverbs and Sirach, it consists largely of moral exhortations and precepts of a traditional and eclectic nature."[5] Similarly, the Catholic Encyclopedia says, "the subjects treated of in the Epistle are many and various; moreover, St. James not infrequently, whilst elucidating a certain point, passes abruptly to another, and presently resumes once more his former argument."[4]


The writer calls himself simply "James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ."[Jas 1:1] Jesus had two apostles named James, but it is unlikely that either of these wrote the letter. One apostle, James, the son of Zebedee, was martyred about 44 AD.[6] This would be very early for him to have been the writer. The other apostle James, the son of Alphaeus, is not prominent in the Scriptural record, and very little is known about him.

Rather, evidence points to James the brother of Jesus, to whom Jesus evidently had made a special appearance after his resurrection described in the New Testament. This James was prominent among the disciples.[7][8] The writer of the letter of James identifies himself as "a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ", in much the same way as did Jude, who introduced the Epistle of Jude by calling himself "a slave of Jesus Christ, but a brother of James". (Jas 1:1; Jude 1) Furthermore, the salutation of James’ letter includes the term “Greetings!” in the same way as did the letter concerning circumcision that was sent to the congregations. In this latter instance it was apparently Jesus’ brother James who spoke prominently in the assembly of "the apostles and the older men" at Jerusalem.[9]

From the middle of the 3rd century, patristic authors cited the Epistle as written by James the Just, a relation of Jesus and first Bishop of Jerusalem.[4] Not numbered among the Twelve Apostles, unless he is identified as James the Less,[10] James was nonetheless a very important figure: Paul described him as "the brother of the Lord" in Galatians 1:19 and as one of the three "pillars of the Church" in 2:9. He is traditionally considered the first of the Seventy Disciples. John Calvin and others suggested that the author was the Apostle James, son of Alphaeus, who was often identified with James the Just. If written by James the Just, the place and time of the writing of the epistle would be Jerusalem, where James resided before his martyrdom in 62.

The Protestant reformer Martin Luther denied it was the work of an apostle and termed it an "epistle of straw"[11] as compared to some other books in the New Testament, not least because of the conflict he thought it raised with Paul on the doctrine of justification (see below).

Many scholars consider the epistle to be written in the late 1st or early 2nd centuries. Among the reasons for this are:[12]

  • the author introduces himself merely as "a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ", without invoking any special family relationship to Jesus.
  • the cultured Greek language of the Epistle, it is contended, could not have been written by a Jerusalemite Jew. Some scholars argue for a primitive version of the letter composed by James and then later polished by another writer.[13]
  • the epistle was only gradually accepted into the canon of the New Testament.
  • Some see parallels between James and 1 Peter, 1 Clement, and the Shepherd of Hermas and take this to reflect the socio-economic situation Christians were dealing with in the late 1st or early 2nd century. It thus could have been written anywhere in the Empire where Christians spoke Greek. There are some scholars who argued for Syria.[13]


The United Bible Societies' Greek New Testament divides the letter into the following sections:

  • Salutation (1:1)
  • Faith and Wisdom (1:2–8)
  • Poverty and Riches (1:9-11)
  • Trial and Temptation (1:12–18)
  • Hearing and Doing the Word (1:19–27)
  • Warning against Partiality (2:1–13)
  • Faith and Works (2:14–26)
  • The Tongue (3:1–12)
  • The Wisdom from Above (3:13–18)
  • Friendship with the World (4:1–10)
  • Judging a Brother (4:11–12)
  • Warning against Boasting (4:13–17)
  • Warning to the Rich (5:1–6)
  • Patience and Prayer (5:7–20)[14]

Alternative view[edit]

There are other approaches to understanding, and reading, the epistle of James. A historical approach begins on different assumptions, and is not content leaving the book as just "New Testament wisdom literature, like a small book of Proverbs", or like a loose collection of random pearls dropped in no particular order onto a piece of string.[15] A 2013 journal article[16] explores a violent historical background behind the epistle and offers the suggestion that it was indeed written by James the brother of Jesus, and therefore written before AD 62, the year of James' murder.[17] The decade of the 50's saw the growth of turmoil and violence in Palestine as Jews became more and more frustrated with corruption, injustice and poverty. It continued into the 60's and four years after the murder of James, war broke out with Rome - a war that would lead to the destruction of Jerusalem and the scattering of the people. The epistle of James is renowned for exhortations on fighting poverty and caring for the poor in practical ways (1:26–27; 2:1-4; 2:14-19; 5:1-6), standing up for the oppressed (2:1-4; 5:1-6) and not being "like the world" in the way one responds to evil in the world (1:26-27; 2:11; 3:13-18; 4:1-10). Worldly wisdom is rejected and people are exhorted to embrace heavenly wisdom, which includes peacemaking and pursuing righteousness and justice (3:13-18).

This approach sees the epistle as a real letter [18] with a real immediate purpose: to encourage Christian Jews not to revert to violence in their response to injustice and poverty, but rather to stay focused on doing good, staying holy, and embracing the wisdom of heaven not the wisdom of the world.



The letter contains the following famous passage concerning salvation and justification:

14What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?15If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

18But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?26For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.[19]

This passage has been cited in Christian theological debates, especially regarding the doctrine of justification. Gaius Marius Victorinus (4th century) associated James's teaching on works with the heretical Symmachian sect, followers of Symmachus the Ebionite, and openly questioned whether James's teachings were heretical. This passage has also been contrasted with the teachings of Paul the Apostle on justification; indeed, some scholars believe that this passage is a response to Paul.[20] One issue in the debate is the meaning of the Greek word δικαιόω (dikaiόο) ‘render righteous or such as he ought to be’,[21] with some among the participants taking the view that James is responding to a misunderstanding of Paul.[22]

Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy argue that this passage disproves the doctrine of justification by faith alone (or sola fide),[23][24] whereas the early and many modern Protestants continue to believe that Catholic and Orthodox interpretations do not fully understand the meaning of the term "justification"[25] and resolve James' and Paul's apparent conflict regarding faith and works in alternate ways from the Catholics and Orthodox:

Paul was dealing with one kind of error while James was dealing with a different error. The errorists Paul was dealing with were people who said that works of the law were needed to be added to faith in order to help earn God's favor. Paul countered this error by pointing out that salvation was by faith alone apart from deeds of the law (Galatians 2:16; Romans 3:21-22). Paul also taught that saving faith is not dead but alive, showing thanks to God in deeds of love (Galatians 5:6 ['...since in Christ Jesus it is not being circumcised or being uncircumcised that can effect anything - only faith working through love.']). James was dealing with errorists who said that if they had faith they didn't need to show love by a life of faith (James 2:14-17). James countered this error by teaching that faith is alive, showing itself to be so by deeds of love (James 2:18,26). James and Paul both teach that salvation is by faith alone and also that faith is never alone but shows itself to be alive by deeds of love that express a believer's thanks to God for the free gift of salvation by faith in Jesus. [26]

Anointing of the Sick[edit]

Main article: Anointing of the Sick

James's epistle is also the chief Biblical text for the Anointing of the Sick. James wrote:

14Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.[27]

G. A. Wells suggested this passage was evidence of late authorship of the epistle, on the grounds that the healing of the sick being done through an official body of presbyters (elders) indicated a considerable development of ecclesiastical organisation, "whereas in Paul's day to heal and work miracles pertained to believers indiscriminately (I Corinthians, XII:9)."[28]


The Epistle was first explicitly referred to and quoted by Origen of Alexandria, and possibly a bit earlier by Irenaeus of Lyons[29] as well as Clement of Alexandria in a lost work according to Eusebius, although it was not mentioned by Tertullian, who was writing at the end of the second century.[28] It is also absent from the Muratorian fragment, the earliest known list of New Testament books.

The Epistle of James was included among the 27 New Testament books first listed by Athanasius of Alexandria in his 39th Festal Epistle (AD 367)[30] and was confirmed as a canonical epistle of the New Testament by a series of councils in the 4th century. Today, virtually all denominations of Christianity consider this book to be a canonical epistle of the New Testament.

In the first centuries of the Church the authenticity of the Epistle was doubted by some, including Theodore, Bishop of Mopsuestia in Cilicia. Because of the silence of several of the western churches regarding it, Eusebius classes it among the Antilegomena or contested writings (Historia ecclesiae, 3.25; 2.23). St. Jerome gives a similar appraisal but adds that with time it had been universally admitted.[citation needed] Gaius Marius Victorinus, in his commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, openly questioned whether the teachings of James were heretical.

Its late recognition in the Church, especially in the West, may be explained by the fact that it was written for or by Jewish Christians, and therefore not widely circulated among the Gentile Churches. There is some indication that a few groups distrusted the book because of its doctrine. In Reformation times a few theologians, most notably Martin Luther in his early career,[31] argued that this epistle should not be part of the canonical New Testament.[32][33]

Martin Luther's description of the Epistle of James changes. In some case, Luther argues that it was not written by an apostle, but in other cases, he describes James as the work of an apostle.[34] He even cites it as authoritative teaching from God[35] and describes James as "a good book, because it sets up no doctrines of men but vigorously promulgates the law of God."[36] Lutherans hold that the Epistle is rightly part of the New Testament, citing its authority in the Book of Concord,[31] however it remains part of the Lutheran antilegomena.[37]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b McCartney, Dan G (2009). Robert W Yarbrough and Robert H Stein, ed. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: James. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. ISBN 0801026768. 
  2. ^ Davids, Peter H (1982). I Howard Marshall and W Ward Gasque, ed. New International Greek Testament Commentary: The Epistle of James (Repr. ed.). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans. ISBN 0802823882. 
  3. ^ Evans, Craig A (2005). Craig A Evans, ed. Bible Knowledge Background Commentary: John, Hebrews-Revelation. Colorado Springs, Colo.: Victor. ISBN 0781442281. 
  4. ^ a b c Camerlynck, Achille. "Epistle of St James". The Catholic Encyclopedia. Retrieved 16 May 2012. 
  5. ^ Laws, Sophie (1993). The HarperCollins Study Bible. San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers. p. 2052. ISBN 0060655267. 
  6. ^ See Acts 12:1–2
  7. ^ See Matthew 13:55; Acts 21:15–25;1 Corinthians 15:7; and Galatians 1:19, 2:9
  8. ^ Moo, Douglas J (2000). D A Carson, ed. The Letter of James. Grand Rapids: Wm B Eerdmans Publishing co. ISBN 0802837301. 
  9. ^ Adam Clarke,1821, commentary on 5:13, 22, 23.
  10. ^ Bechtel, Florentine. "The Brethren of the Lord". Catholic Encyclopedia. Retrieved 16 May 2012. His identity with James the Less (Mark 15:40) and the Apostle James, the son of Alpheus (Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18), although contested by many Protestant critics, may also be considered as certain. 
  11. ^ "History of the Christian Church, book 7, chapter 4". 
  12. ^ "Epistle of James". Early Christian Writings. Retrieved 16 May 2012. 
  13. ^ a b John Barton and John Muddiman, ed. (2001). The Oxford Bible Commentary. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 1256. ISBN 0198755007. 
  14. ^ Eberhard Nestle, ed. (2011). Greek New Testament With Revised Concise Greek-English Dictionary. (4th Revised ed.). Hendrickson Publishers. ISBN 1598567209. 
  15. ^ as numerous writers and commentators assume, e.g. William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible, rev. ed., 17 vols. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976), Vol 14, The Letters of James and Peter, p. 28.
  16. ^ Jim Reiher, “Violent Language – a clue to the Historical Occasion of James.” Evangelical Quarterly. Vol. LXXXV No. 3. July 2013
  17. ^ On the death of James see Josephus Antiquities, 20.9.1 and Eusebius II.23.1-18.
  18. ^ Numerous studies argue convincingly for a letter- structure to James. See, for example, Euan Fry, "Commentaries on James, I and 2 Peter, and Jude," The Bible Translator, 41 (July 1990): 330, and F.O. Francis, "The Form and Function of the Opening and Closing Paragraphs of James and I John," ZNW 61 (1970):110-126.
  19. ^ James 2:14–26
  20. ^ McKnight, Scot (2011). The Letter of James. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Erdmans. pp. 259–263. ISBN 978-0-8028-2627-5. 
  21. ^ "Dikaioo". Greek Lexicon. Retrieved 16 May 2012. 
  22. ^ Martin, D. 2009. New Testament History & Literature: 18. Arguing with Paul. Yale University.
  23. ^ "The Theological Virtues: 1815". Catechism of the Catholic Church. The gift of faith remains in one who has not sinned against it. But 'faith apart from works is dead':[Jas 2:26] when it is deprived of hope and love, faith does not fully unite the believer to Christ and does not make him a living member of his Body. 
  24. ^ Schaff, Philip (1877). "The Synod of Jerusalem and the Confession of Dositheus, A.D. 1672: Article XIII". Creeds of Christendom. Harper & Brothers. Man is justified, not by faith alone, but also by works. 
  25. ^ Calvin, John. "James 2:20–26". Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles. When, therefore, the Sophists set up James against Paul, they go astray through the ambiguous meaning of a term. 
  26. ^ "Faith and Works". WELS Topical Q&A. Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Archived from the original on 28 Sep 2009. Retrieved 29 Jan 2015. 
  27. ^ James 5:14–15
  28. ^ a b Wells, George Albert (1971). The Jesus of Early Christians. London: Pemberton. p. 152. ISBN 0301710147. 
  29. ^ Davis, Glenn (2010). "Irenaeus of Lyons". The Development of the Canon of the New Testament. Retrieved 16 May 2012. 
  30. ^ Griggs, C Wilfred (1991). Early Egyptian Christianity (2nd ed.). Leiden: Brill Academic Publisher. p. 173. ISBN 9004094075. 
  31. ^ a b The Lutheran Study Bible, Concordia Publishing House, 2009, p2132
  32. ^ Schaff, Philip. History of the Reformation. The most important example of dogmatic influence in Luther’s version is the famous interpolation of the word alone in Rom. 3:28 (allein durch den Glauben), by which he intended to emphasize his solifidian doctrine of justification, on the plea that the German idiom required the insertion for the sake of clearness.464 But he thereby brought Paul into direct verbal conflict with James, who says (James 2:24), "by works a man is justified, and not only by faith" ("nicht durch den Glauben allein"). It is well known that Luther deemed it impossible to harmonize the two apostles in this article, and characterized the Epistle of James as an "epistle of straw," because it had no evangelical character ("keine evangelische Art"). 
  33. ^ Stonehouse, Ned B (1957). Paul Before the Areopagus. pp. 186–197. 
  34. ^ Die deutsche Bibel 41:578-90
  35. ^ Luther's Large Catechism, IV 122-24
  36. ^ Luther's Works (American Edition) 35:395
  37. ^ Lutheran Cyclopedia: Antilegomena
Epistle of James
Preceded by
New Testament
Books of the Bible
Succeeded by
First Peter