5

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion:
Greetings.

Paul identifies one James as the brother of Jesus (Galatians 1.19; cf. Mark 6.3). He also implies (1 Corinthians 15.7) or says outright (Galatians 2.18-19; 2.9) that this James was significant leader in the Jerusalem church. This seems to be corroborated by the book of Acts, which identifies a leading figure in the Jerusalem church as James (Acts 12.17, 15.13, 21.18; though, unlike Paul, Acts doesn't explicitly identify James with the brother of Jesus).

This James is further identified with a James mentioned by Josephus, in Jewish Antiquities 20.9.1. The passage calls this James 'the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ', but this is sometimes accused of being an interpolation.

This is the traditional identification of the author of James, and in this context one can see a didactic letter from such a respected leader being preserved in Christian circles, no different than Paul's letters to the Roman or Thessalonian churches.

However, I have seen from time to time the claim that the author's Greek is too 'sophisticated' to come from a Galilean peasant. This has some immediate merit, since the author of the letter only calls himself 'James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ'; he doesn't identify himself as a brother to Jesus. Additionally, the name 'James' appears to have been common in Jewish culture at the time; we see several different men with this name in the Gospels and Acts.

Put simply, who is the author of the letter titled 'James'? Could it have come from a Galilean peasant who became a major religious figure in Jerusalem? Or are there factors that decidedly point away from Jesus' brother James? If so, is the identification with James brother of Jesus a deliberate conceit of the author (i.e. pseudepigraphical), or is it an accidental conflation of two men with the same name?

  • 2
    (A.) The validity of arguments based on the "Textual Style" of the authors is reduced significantly in view of the very common practice of employing Scribes. (B.) The idea that a brother of James was uneducated is undermined by the fact that Jesus' family spent considerable time--in Egypt. (C.) IF James was an uneducated peasant--then it is more probable that a Scribe was utilized so that he could ensure his message was properly communicated. (D.) In the end, there are no "certainties" to be found here, only probabilities--which doesn't help that much. – elika kohen Jun 4 '15 at 21:31
  • "However, I have seen from time to time the claim that the author's Greek is too 'sophisticated' to come from a Galilean peasant." which could simply mean its a translation from a Aramaic or Hebrew original. Sophistication doesn't disprove authorship. – developerwjk Jun 12 '15 at 21:56
8

James 1:1

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.

And

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.

Guthrie comments:

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?

Which James

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.

Internal evidence

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

  • 1:2 Joy in the midst of trials Matt. 5:10-12
  • 1:4 Exhortation to perfection Matt. 5:48
  • 1:5 Asking for good gifts Matt. 7:7ff.
  • 1:20 Against anger Matt. 5:22
  • 1:22 Hearers and doers of the Word Matt. 7:24ff.
  • 2:10 The whole law to be kept Matt. 5:19
  • 2:13 Blessings of mercifulness Matt. 5:7
  • 3:18 Blessings of peacemakers Matt. 5:9
  • 4:4 Friendship of the world as enmity against God Matt. 6:24
  • 4:11-12 Against judging others Matt. 7:1-5
  • 5:2ff. Moth and rust spoiling riches Matt. 6:19
  • 5:10 The prophets as examples Matt. 5:12
  • 5:12 Against oaths Matt. 5:33-37

    Cumulatively speaking the internal evidence gives some weight to the tradition view that this epistle was written by the half brother of Jesus.

External evidence

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:

  1. D Guthrie, NTI (1996)
  2. C. L. Mitton, The Epistle of James (1966);
  3. A. F. J. Klijn, INT, pp. 149–151
  4. S. J. Kistemaker, Exposition of the Epistle of James and the Epistles of John (1986)
  5. D. J. Moo, James (TNT, 1985).
  6. D. Prime, James (FOTB1995)
  7. 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.

Concluding thoughts

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.


Notes

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

7From 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

-1

There is little reason to believe because the epistle is attributed to James that it really was written by James the brother of Jesus, or by another person called James. The author introduces himself merely as "a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ", without invoking any special family relationship to Jesus nor claiming to have known Jesus personally, although such a claim would have assisted in presenting his arguments to the early Christian community.

Bart D. Ehrman says in Forged, page 198, says the one thing we know best about Paul's James of Jerusalem is that he was concerned that Jewish followers of Jesus continue to keep the requirements of Jewish law. This concern is completely and noticeably missing in this letter. This author, claiming to be James, is concerned with people doing good deeds, not with keeping kosher, observing the Sabbath and Jewish festivals or circumcision. His concerns are not those of James of Jerusalem. In other words, the letter is totally out of keeping with James, the brother of Jesus and the 'pillar' of the church in Jerusalem.

The New American Bible (NAB) discusses the scholarly view further , although without agreeing with it:

In addition to its Greek style, they [scholars] observe further that (a) the prestige that the writer is assumed to enjoy points to the later legendary reputation of James; (b) the discussion of the importance of good works seems to presuppose a debate subsequent to that in Paul's own day; (c) the author does not rely upon prescriptions of the Mosaic law, as we would expect from the historical James; (d) the letter contains no allusions to James's own history and to his relationship with Jesus or to the early Christian community of Jerusalem.

This leaves us to consider whether James the son of Zebedee or James the son of Alphaeus could have been the author. It always seems surprising when a disciple and intimate associate of Jesus writes an epistle without ever talking about his knowledge of Jesus and presenting arguments for a position without ever referring to the teachings of Jesus in support of those arguments. James only even mentions Jesus twice, at James 1:1 and James 2:1, and both verses are suspected of being later interpolations. The epistle is not about Jesus and relies on authorities other than Jesus, so could not have been written by a disciple of Jesus.

Add to those concerns that the author was not only skilled in Greek rhetoric, but used the Septuagint Old Testament. James the brother of Jesus in Paul's epistles and the two other James in the gospels would have used the Hebrew scriptures, if they were even able to read at all.

We do not know who wrote the Epistle of James, but it was neither James, brother of Jesus nor any of the disciples.

  • 1
    "There is little reason to believe because the epistle is attributed to James that it really was written by James the brother of Jesus, or by another person called James." and there is less reason to be skeptical about the authorship without genuine reasons to doubt it. Take for example Erham's point, which suggests that James (brother of Jesus) would only have one single concern to express in his ministry. Different time, different circumstances therefore different focus maybe? – Jonathan Chell Jun 5 '15 at 16:19
  • I agree with Jonathan on that point: it seems an unrealistic assumption to think that James of Jerusalem could only ever write about following Torah, and never address any other issues. Does Ehrman elaborate? Similarly, what are the reasons the two references to Jesus are suspected to be interpolations? – user2910 Jun 5 '15 at 21:58
  • @MarkEdward (A) Yes. He says: The historical James: would never have learned how to write, even in his native language [literacy was very low, even in Palestine]; would never have studied the Greek Old Testament; would never have taken Greek composition classes; would never have become skilled in Greek rhetoric. He also says that James appears to have been responding to the Epistle to the Ephesians, written in Paul's name c. 80s. .../ cont – Dick Harfield Jun 5 '15 at 22:16
  • @MarkEdward (B) The 2 verses could be removed without affecting the flow of the narrative. In fact v 2:2 works better immediately after 1:27 than with 2:1 interposing. However, there is no manuscript evidence of interpolation, so I merely said "suspected." – Dick Harfield Jun 5 '15 at 22:21

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