In James 1:1 we read:
James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the
twelve tribes which are scattered abroad: Greetings. (Jam 1:1 NKJ)
This introductory greeting informs the readers that the writer is called 'James' and he considers himself to be a slave of both God and the Lord Jesus Christ. In itself, this greeting provides little information to help us identify the writer of this letter.
Assuming for a moment that the name is authentic the matter of who wrote this epistle is still not clear as James was very common in New Testament times and this description could fit any disciple of Jesus Christ. However whilst it is safe to assume that the writer wished to be identified with a James (and a well known James) is it safe to assume that the name is authentic?
To answer that question we need to begin by examining other possibilities.
Is this a pseudonymous work?
It should be noted that this ambiguity mitigates against the idea that this is a pseudonymous work. In this commentators opinion a pseudepigraphical writer would make an effort to identifying with the James he was attempting to emulate1.
It should also be noted that in the opinion of Guthrie there is no motive for a pseudonymous production such as James2. In the footnotes to Guthrie's introduction to the New Testament page 742 he cites the following two Scholars in support of his assertions:
G. H. Rendall (op. cit., p. 106) argued against the pseudonymous
theory on the grounds that no-one would have issued an epistle under
James’ name unless he was already known as a letter-writer.
A. T. Cadoux rightly mentioned that James’ name would not have
retained interest among Gentiles for long and this must constitute a
difficulty for any pseudonymity theory (op. cit., p. 38).
Is this an anonymous Epistle later attributes to James?
This possibility certainly avoids the difficulties of an intentional pseudonymity outlined above however it creates more difficulties of its own as it now becomes necessary to account for the ascription.
The best that can be done is to imagine that certain Christians
thought the anonymous tract was of such value that the church ought to
class it among its apostolic books and the only way possible was to
attach to it an apostolic name.1 But this whole theory is highly
artificial, for it is difficult to believe that the churches generally
would have been prepared to receive a work merely because it bore a
name which could be apostolic. In the period when spurious apostolic
works began to be prolific, particularly in support of Gnostic ideas,
the vigilance of the church was much too intense to allow such a work
as James to slip through its net. The mere fact that doubts were
expressed over James in the third century is evidence enough that many
were very guarded about the books to be authorized3.
Was the letter originally a Jewish document?
Some writers have noted that there is a strong Jewish tone to this work, Scholars like Spitta therefore have asserted that this work is pre-christian and a later author 'Christianised' the material by the inclusion of the name of Christ in 1:1 and 2:1. However in repudiation of this view it should be noted:
1) There is no textual evidence to support it. No extant documents of this epistle exist that have variants at this point
2) If someone had attempted to 'Christianise' a preexisting document why are the modifications so slight
3) The letter is not marked by uniquely Jewish teaching a Jewish Christain could easily have written this letter.
4) The letter breathes a Christian spirit throughout.
This leaves us with only one option to consider which is the traditional view that one of the men by the name of James mentioned in the Bible is the author4.
The traditional view?
There are five possibilities of Author if we consider each NT character that is named James
(a) “James the son of Zebedee.”
Apart from the lists of apostles in the Gospels and Acts, James' name appears in Acts 12:2, where Luke informs the reader that King Herod Agrippa I “had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword.” This happened no later the spring A.D. 44 during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. There is a good possibility that Herod’s persecution of Christians, which began with James’ execution, is in the background of, and provides part of the occasion for, this epistle; given such a presupposition, James the brother of John cannot have been the author.
If James the son of Zebedee had written the Epistle of James, we would have expected more internal and external evidence. Instead of calling himself “a servant of” he would. most likely, have used the title apostle.
The early church would have received and treasured the epistle as an apostolic writing. However this James does not seem to have had sufficient recognition in the early church to have written this letter with an unqualified self-designation. The simple self-designation of Jas. 1:1 is not at all in keeping with the NT description of James the son of Zebedee, but conforms very much to the NT pattern in describing James the brother of Jesus (cf., e.g., Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:18; 1 Cor. 15:7; Gal. 2:9, 12; and probably Jude 1). In other words, the brother of the Lord was known, from early on, merely as James in both Pauline and non-Pauline circles. This was never true of James the son of Zebedee.
(b) “James the son of Alphaeus.”
We know this apostle only from the lists of the apostles in the Gospels and Acts however the New Testament is silent on his life and labours. If this apostle had composed the epistle it seems likely that he would have given further identification.
Also, as Kristemaker notes "...the church would have kept the memory alive, had this epistle been written by an apostle." 5
(c) “James the younger.”
According to the Gospel of Mark (15:40), James, his brother Joses, and his sister Salome are children of Mary. James is identified as “the younger.” We know nothing about the life of James the younger.
(d) “James the father of Judas.”
Nothing is known about this particular person, except that he was the father of the apostle Judas (not Iscariot) - Luke 6:16; Acts 1:13.
(e) “James the [half] brother of the Lord.”
The Gospels mention this James as one of the sons of Mary, the mother of Jesus (Matt. 13:55; Mark 6:3). During Jesus’ earthly ministry, he and his brothers did not believe in Jesus (John 7:5). James became a believer when Jesus appeared to him after the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:7). After Jesus’ ascension, he was present with his brothers and the apostles (Acts 1:14).
He rises to prominence after Pentecost. He assumed leadership of the Jerusalem church after Peter’s release from prison (Acts 12:17 records Peter as singling out James from the rest of the church, as though he were its leader.) James spoke with authority during the assembly at Jerusalem (Acts 15:13), was recognized as the head of the church (Gal. 1:19; 2:9, 12), and met Paul to hear his report on missions in the Gentile world (Acts 21:18).
Tradition teaches that this is the James (also known in later church traditions, starting with Hegesippus, as “James the Just”) that wrote the epistle. Now to consider the evidence that supports James the [half] brother of Jesus as the author.
1) The author’s self-identification points to this James, “for it is evident that a well-known James must have been intended, and as far as the biblical record is concerned, the Lord’s brother is the only James who appears to have played a sufficiently prominent part in early Christian history." 6
2) The author’s obvious Jewish background, both in terms of his use of the OT (including a few quotations, numerous allusions, and several illustrations), and in other, more subtle ways including the traces of Hebrew idioms behind his otherwise polished Greek and Hebrew prophetic style the author demonstrates himself to be a Jew.
3) Similarities between James and Acts: If this is the same James as spoke up in Acts 15 we might expect to see some similarities between his speech there and this letter7.
James’ speech in Acts 15 contains certain parallels in language with the epistle of James. For example;
(a) χαίρω is found in Jas. 1:1 and Acts 15:23 (and elsewhere in Acts only in 23:26)
(b) Acts 15:17 and Jas. 2:7 invoke God’s name in a similar way
(c) the exhortation for the brothers (ἀδελφοι) to hear is found both in Jas. 2:5 and Acts 15:13.
(d) uncommon individual words are found in both: ἐπισκέπτεσθε (Jas. 1:27; Acts 15:14); ἐπιστρέφειν (Jas. 5:19 and Acts 5:19); τηρεῖν (or διατηρεῖν) ἑαυτόν (Jas. 1:27;Acts 15:29); ἀγαπητός (Jas. 1:16, 19; 2:5; Acts 15:25).
Please note that whilst we find similarities when we compare the choice of words and the structure of sentences (as reported by Luke in Acts) with the Epistle of James this is not conclusive proof but it might be considered persuasive evidence.
4) Similarities with the teaching of Jesus: Guthrie comments that there are more parallels with Jesus' teaching in this letter then with any other new testament book.8. Of particular interest is the parallels to the Sermon on the Mount. Whilst James does not quote the words of Jesus verbatim, he does seem to summarizes many of the teachings of Jesus in that sermon (This fact suggests that James is writing during the oral period, before the Gospels were penned and therefore suggests an early date for the composition)
Here are the parallels
There is not much external evidence to be considered in regards to the authorship of James. M. Mayor claims to find quotations or allusions to James in Didache, Barnabas, The Testaments of the Xii Patriarchs, Ignatius, Polycarp, Hermes and some later second-century Fathers9. Some question Origen's opinion of James but Guthrie notes how often he quotes it. Eusebius also seems to cite it as genuine. However the book of James is not quoted over much in the early church writers (it is not mentioned in the Muratorian Canon though, but but then Hebrews and the Petrine Epistles are also missing). What is important to know is that the external evidence does not provide a good reason to consider the work pseudonymous.
Scholarly support for the traditional view
The traditional view of authorship is accepted by such people as:
- D Guthrie, NTI (1996)
- C. L. Mitton, The Epistle of James (1966);
- A. F. J. Klijn, INT, pp. 149–151
- S. J. Kistemaker, Exposition of the Epistle of James and the
Epistles of John (1986)
- D. J. Moo, James (TNT, 1985).
- D. Prime, James (FOTB1995)
- K. A.Richardson, James (NAC Vol. 36 1997).
Arguments against the traditional view considered
The author does not claim to be the Lord’s brother.
The brother of Jesus should be the first to recognize that a physical relationship to Jesus was, in itself, worthless (cf. Mark 3:31-35; cf. also John 8:31-47) and therefore why would he refer to it? The reality is that it would be far more questionable if James 1:1 read "James the brother of Jesus...."
The concept of the law in this epistle is said to differ from what might be expected from James.
The writer of this epistle seems to view the Law in regard to its ethical obligations rather than in its ritual. “There is a curious silence regarding the burning question of circumcision with which James was so deeply involved.”10 however by viewing the Law in this light, James is emulating Jesus' teaching (as already shown).
Also, conservatives date this letter as prior to the Jerusalem council where the issue of circumcision surfaced therefore one would not expect to find mention in this letter.
The author’s appearance of interacting with material in scripture that was written too late for Jesus' brother to respond to.
This argument is often presented in two ways:
(1) there are a few literary parallels between James and other NT books, which the many scholars believe show that James depended on the other works. As such, it must have been written later (after the lifetime of the Lord’s brother or any other biblical James).
(2) Some argue that James 2:14-26 not only interacts with Paul’s doctrine of justification but actually contradicts it therefore James must have been written after Galatians and Romans.
In response to point (1) there actually very few parallels and there is no unanimity regarding who copied from who or whether the authors were drawing from a common source (ever verbal or written).
In response to point (2) James and Paul are not in conflict in regards to justification 11 however even if this was the case James does not actually cite any Pauline material from either of those letters, and we do know from Acts 15 that they were contemporaneous one with another, hence even if James is at odds with Paul it is entirely possible that his material was written prior to any of Paul extant writings.
The Greek is too good
We have left this objection till last because this is the one most critics of the traditional view home in on. The argument usually goes along the lines of "James' Greek is amongst the most refined in the NT yet James was a Galilean Jew so how could he have written this book?"
Now that argument is based upon certain assumptions that need to be challenged.
False assumption 1: Galilee was either not a bilingual region or, in the least, Aramaic was the language one learned first.
Many scholars would disagree with this assessment, Dalman, Silva, Sevenster, Gundry, Howard, Argyle, Colwell, Hughes, Porter, Meyers and Strange all suggest that Galileans were bilingual.
False assumption 2: James could not have learned (or polished his) Greek as an adult.
Even if James didn't learn Greek as a child there is no reason to believe that he couldn't have picked it up later as an adult. Maybe his role in the church demanded that he become more acquainted with the Greek language - there was a Greek contingent in the Jerusalem church after all.
False assumption 3: James did not use an amanuensis
The use of an amanuensis for all the New Testament epistles, except for Philemon, 2 Peter, 2 John and 3 John, is quite likely, indeed it is certain that one was used for the book of Romans (16:22). Longenecker points out that
The Greek papyri . . . indicate quite clearly that an amanuensis was
frequently, if not commonly, employed in the writing of personal
letters during the time approximating the composition of the NT
epistles. They also suggest that at times a letter was composed
without secretarial help, particularly when sent from one member of a
family to another and/or where the contents were of a more intimate or
informal nature.[Longenecker, “Amanuenses,” 287.]
The point to major on here is that those who say that the Greek is too good to have been written by James have to be able to address the above points - any of these options are possible explanations and one cannot simply assume they are not.
By way of conclusion this writer proposes that whilst one cannot be absolutely dogmatic about the authorship of the book of James for we are not given enough information, there appears to be no real reason to doubt the traditional view.
The modern discussion seems to divide between those scholars who are skeptical of scriptures origins and those who are more conservative in their views and we find the skeptics latching onto the lack of concrete evidence as a reason for doubt in regards to the authorship whilst those of a more conservative persuasion are (generally speaking) willing to let the tradition stand without being overly dogmatic.
1 Guthrie notes "...it was not the usual practice of pseudonymous writers to play down their heroes—rather the reverse.[Guthrie, Donald: New Testament Introduction. 4th rev. ed. Downers Grove, Ill. : Inter-Varsity Press, 1996, c1990 (The Master Reference Collection), S. 742]
2 “The absence of motive for a pseudonymous production such as James is a strong argument against it. If the letter is merely a moralizing tract, why did it need James’ authority and why should he be chosen?” [Guthrie, 742].
3 Guthrie, 742
4 It stands to reason that tradition has a right to stand until proved wrong and none of the views examined have a better claim to credebility to make then tradition. In these circumstances the authorship of James (probably the Lord’s brother) must still be considered more probable than any rival view.
5 Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of James and the Epistles of John (Vol. 14, p. 8). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
6 Guthrie 726-27
7“From this we gather that the actual words of the speaker are recorded either in their original form or in a translation; and it becomes thus a matter of interest to learn whether there is any resemblance between the language of our Epistle and that of the speech said to have been uttered by James, and of the circular [letter] containing the decree, which was probably drawn up by him.” [Joseph B. Mayor, The Epistle of St. James (reprint ed., Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1946), p. iii.] in this vein Kristemaker also notes that Mayor calls attention to the resemblance between the two hundred and thirty words James spoke and wrote during the Jerusalem Council and the Epistle of James. he quotes Meyer as saying “It [is] a remarkable coincidence that … so many should reappear in our Epistle, written on a totally different subject.”[
Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of James and the Epistles of John (Vol. 14, p. 9). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.]
8 Guthrie 729
9 Guthrie 738.
10 Guthrie 738
11 In Romans and Galatians Paul is addressing justification from the point of convresion, whereas James is addressing it post conversion, when Paul does that in places like Phil 2:12-13 we see agreement between them