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The Epistle of James: A Jewish Christian Document

The haphazard canonization process of the New Testament led to the inclusion of a book written by a community which was eventually branded as heretical by the later Christian church. This book, the epistle of James, is the earliest direct evidence we have of Jewish Christianity after the Jewish War of 70 CE.

To summarize, we find in the epistle of James all the major characteristics we would expect to find in the descendants of the Jerusalem Church, namely adherence to the Mosaic Laws, the exaltation of James and the denigration of Paul.

The Authorship and Date of Composition

The epistle starts by introducing its author:

James 1:1
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greeting.

The author obviously thought that this James needed no further introduction. As we have seen earlier, there are seven James's referred to in the New Testament. From these seven names, the only one prominent enough to be presented in this, rather laconic, way was James, the brother of Jesus.[1]

Thus there is no doubt that the author intended to pass off the work as that of the brother of Jesus. The question is this: was the author of the epistle really James or was he someone else?

The majority of critical-historical scholars [always excepting evangelical "scholars"] think that the epistle is pseudonymous: it was written by someone pretending to be, or taking the persona of, James. Some of the reasons for this skepticism are as follows: [2]

  • The Greek used in the epistle is fluent, eloquent and polished and is unlikely to have come from that of a son of Galilean carpenter whose mother tongue was Aramaic. Although some scholars have argued that most Jews during that era were bilingual, able to communicate in Aramaic and Greek, it is unlikely that such educated Greek would have come from someone of such a humble background. [a]

  • James was accepted into the canon of the New Testament very slowly. It was not mentioned in the Muratorian canon, a list dating to about 200CE, which gave a list of inspired books. Indeed down to the fourth century, the church historian Eusebius (c260-c340) noted that James was among the "disputed books" (History of the Church 2:23:24-25). As we have seen elsewhere, one of the criteria for acceptance into the canon was apostolic authorship. Thus it is likely that many of the early church fathers did not think the epistle was written by James.

Now a pseudepigraphal work may be a forgery, the intention being to deceive the readers into accepting views which the person credited the work would never have held. Thus in the New Testament, II Thessalonians, the Pastoral Epistles and I & II Peter are rightly called forgeries for they advocated views which were never held by the persons the writings were attributed to. However a pseudepigraphal document may also have been written by a disciple of the person attributed as the writer. The use of the teacher's name is then a way to tell the readers that the writings originate from his school. Indeed some scholars have suggested that the epistle of James could be a collection of traditional teachings attributed to James and the Jerusalem Church. [3] Indeed the disjointed nature of the writings in the epistle may point to this. [b]

From now on we shall refer to the anonymous author as James for ease of reference but it must be remembered that this is just a shorthand for "the unknown author of the epistle James".

The exact date of the composition of James cannot be determined with certainty. Scholars date the epistle to the last thirty years of the first century (between 70 - 100 CE). Some of the evidence that leads to this conclusion include: [4]

  • James 3:1, 5:14-15 suggests a church structure where teachers and presbyters have a specific functions. This suggests a time around the end of the first century.

  • The epistle has many parallels to The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew (e.g. James 1:2 / Matthew 5:11-12; James 1:4 / Matthew 5:48; James 1:5 / Matthew 7:7 etc). Yet these parallels are not verbal, implying that James shared common stream of tradition with Matthew but that the author had no direct acquaintance with the first gospel. This also suggests the end of the first century as the time of composition.

Thus 85 CE, as the average between 100 and 70 CE, is a reasonable, single-year, estimate for the date of composition.

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The Jewish-Christian Character of the Epistle

We find in James an exaltation of the law that could only come from someone who still holds to the continuing validity of the Torah:

James 2:10
For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.

This is very similar to the teaching on the Law attributed to Jesus in the gospel of Matthew:

Matthew 5:17-19
Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

The epistle had laudatory words for the law, calling it the "perfect law", the "law of liberty" and the "royal law":

James 1:25
But he who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer that forgets but a doer that acts, he shall be blessed in his doing.

James 2:8
If you really fulfil the royal law, according to the scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," you do well.

Some scholars have suggested that the "law" here refers only to ethical precepts and not to the cultic laws such as circumcision, Sabbath observance and kashrut (food laws). However such an interpretation is unlikely. Firstly the use of the word "law" (nomos) instead of "commandment" (entole) shows that it is the Mosaic Laws or the Torah that is meant here. The latter would have been a more appropriate term if only ethical precepts are meant. Secondly the use of the adjective "whole" to describe the law implies a collection of these laws. The only such collection known to the author had to be the Pentateuch or the whole of the Jewish scriptures. In this we find a mixture of both cultic and ethical laws; in Exodus 20:7-18, for instance, we find cultic laws, such as honoring God and keeping the Sabbath, side by side with moral commandments, such as honoring one's parents and the prohibition of lying, killing and stealing. [7]

Another attempt at reinterpreting "law" in James is to point to the absence of discussion regarding cultic laws in the epistle. However this reinterpretation reads too much into the silence on this issue. For it assumes that these issues were still contentious among the intended audience of the epistle. However the whole tone of the letter, one that provides encouragement and moral exhortation, suggests that he is writing to people with the same mind set. This means that the basic validity of the cultic laws were accepted by all-hence there would be no reason to bring up these issues. [8]

Apart from this upholding of the law, there are many features in the epistle that are specifically Jewish:

  • The reference in James 1:1 to the twelve tribes of the dispersion is, according to Craig Evans, "unmistakably Jewish and scriptural". The "twelve tribes" is a designation for ancient Israel (e.g. Genesis 49:28, Exodus 24:4, Ezekiel 47:13) while the "dispersion" (or diaspora) refers to Israel that is scattered throughout the world is quite commonly used in writings of the Second Temple [c] era (Tobit 3:4, Judith 5:19, II Maccabees 1:27). [9]

  • Many of the details in James have parallels in Rabbinnic Judaism. For instance the Tractate Avot, (The Fathers) a collection of Rabbinic sayings from the second century, shares these similarities with the epistle: [10]

    • Calling Abraham "our father" (James 2:21, 'Avot 4:4)
    • The Torah as a "royal law" (James 2:8), the Torah giving "kingship and dominion" ('Avot 6:1)
    • The Torah as a "law of liberty" (James 1:25), "There is no freeman except him that occupies himself in the study of the law" ('Avot 6:2)
    • A collection of similar ethical exhortations, some examples: practicing what one preaches (James 2:14-26, 'Avot 1:2, 15, 2:12, 3:10 etc), avoiding perjury (James 5:12, 'Avot 1:9, 4:7-8), almsgiving (James 2:16, 'Avot 5:13), avoiding jealousy and greed (James 3:16, 'Avot 4:21) and avoiding envy (James 4:1-5, 'Avot 2:9,11, 5:19)

  • The use of the word synagogue (instead of ekklesia) in James 2:2 to designate the place of assembly. [11]

Indeed the work is so thoroughly Jewish that some scholars have suggested that if you remove the two references to Jesus in the epistle (James 1:1, 2:1) and change a couple of words here and there you would get a completely Jewish work! However the close parallels between the teachings in James and those attributed to Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew (e.g. James 1:2 / Matthew 5:11-12; James 1:4 / Matthew 5:48; James 1:5 / Matthew 7:7 -Raymond Brown, in his Introduction to the New Testament, gave sixteen such parallel sayings.) and some portions relating closely to the teachings of Jesus elsewhere in the gospels (James 4:13-15 / Luke 12:16-21) clearly point to a Jewish-Christian origin of the whole work. [12]

Now that we have established that the epistle is a Jewish-Christian document, can we connect this to the Jewish Christianity of James and the Jerusalem Church? Yes we can. Three things point towards this:

  • The epistle portrays a deep sympathy for the poor and persecuted (James 2:1-9, 5:1-6), while at the same time criticizing the rich (James 4:13-17, 5:1-6). This is again strongly reminiscent of what we know about the original Jewish-Christian community in Jerusalem, where the term the poor was commonly used to describe the community there-either the whole group (if it was a honorific title) or a large part of the it (if it was is a socioeconomic term). [13]

  • The fact that the pseudepigraphal epistle was written in the name of James, shows an exaltation of the position of James the brother of Jesus. This is, again, something we see as a characteristic of the original Jerusalem community.

  • Finally we see that the epistle contains polemic against Paul and Pauline Christianity. This we will review in the section below.

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Evidence of Anti-Paulinism

Crucial to the evaluation of anti-Paulinism in James is the discussion of faith and works in James 2:14-26. When we compare this with statements made by Paul in his epistles to the Roman and Galatians, we find diametrically opposite views with respect to the importance of these two issues:

James 2: 14-20,24
What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? ...So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But some one will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith...Do you want to be shown, you shallow man, that faith apart from works is barren?...You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.
Galatians 2:16
[Y]et who know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified.

Romans 3:27-28
Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On the principle of works? No, but on the principle of faith. For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.

Note that the passage in James 2:14-24 says that faith without works is dead. It labels the person who believes otherwise as a shallow man. Finally, in a sentence completely opposite to Paul, the author says that man is justified by works and not by faith alone. Paul's epistles, on the other hand, clearly state that one is not justified by works but by faith!

That the views are prima facie opposed to one another cannot be denied. However we have to consider two possibilities here: is the epistle of James actually attacking the views coming from the Paul (through his epistles directly or through the Pauline tradition) or is it simply mentioning a view point without "pointing the finger" at Paul (or the Pauline tradition)? There are many considerations showing us that the epistle is making a direct attack on Paul (or the Pauline tradition): [14]

  • The contrast between "faith and works" is found nowhere prior to Paul. In other words, nobody else was making the two ideas antithetical to one another.

  • James was not merely talking about the importance of works, he was making his case by asserting it against the view that faith alone, without works, is sufficient.

  • To prove the opposite point, James quoted the same Biblical passage (Genesis 15:6) that Paul used.

    James 2: 21-23
    Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness."
    Romans 4:2-3
    For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness."

  • Also in the above quotation from Genesis, James deviated from the Septuagint exactly at the two, otherwise insignificant, points where Paul deviated from it: spelling Abraam instead of Abram and the addition of participle de (here meaning "and") after the word epiteusen ("believed").

The above forms compelling reasons for the presence of anti-Paulinism in the epistle of James. The author was attacking specific Pauline ideas (as he would understand them) in ways that tell us he was aware of Romans 4; either having read it directly or having heard of it through the Pauline tradition.

Some scholars, especially those of fundamentalist or conservative bent, have tried various ways to wriggle out of this.

Some have argued that the word "works" used by James and Paul means two different things. In James, we are told, "works" mean ethical works, or good deeds, such a helping the poor and fighting injustice. In this, we are told Paul would be in agreement with James, for the former had mentioned that there is no faith without works (Romans 13:8-10). For Paul "works" meant specifically the works of the law-things such as circumcision, kashrut and Sabbath observances. This, we are assured, was not what James meant by "works". Thus there was no disagreement between James and Paul.

Yet this explanation fails on two counts. Firstly, we have seen above, James meant by "law" both moral conduct and cultic observances. Secondly Paul never said that one can be justified by good works or moral conduct. In Romans 4:4 Paul wrote that all good works, all ethical conducts, are done as a repayment of debt to God and could not have any value for justification. [15]

Still others have argued that James' "faith and works" are contained within the Pauline "faith" and that James was attacking a caricature of Paul's teachings. Again the point is that James was not attacking Paul but those who had misapplied Pauline ideas-and the Jerusalem church and Paul were all one big happy family!

Again the difficulties with such apologetic explanations are obvious. Firstly we have noted that there was a clear intent of the author of James to relate to issues specifically raised in the epistles of Paul: James presented the ideas of faith and works and argued against the antithetical placement of these, something that would not have made sense without Paul's ideas; we see that the author used the same example of Abraham and ended the argument with the same quotation from Genesis 15:6 deviating from the Septuagint exactly at those points where Paul deviated from it. This means that the author was polemicizing against the specific passage found in Paul's epistle to the Romans (4:2-3). Secondly, especially in view of the fact that he was discussing a passage from Paul's own writings, had the author merely meant to correct a misunderstanding of Paul, one would have expected a caveat, like that found in the second epistle of Peter (II Peter 3:15-16) that warns against people "distorting" the teachings of Paul, to be included in the polemic in James. Thirdly, even if the epistle was attacking a mere "caricature" of Paul's ideas, it does not exclude the possibility that it was Paul and his followers who were being attacked. We know for instance that, during his lifetime, Paul's Jewish Christian opponents (purposely?) distorted his ideas in their attack on him (Romans 3:8, 6:1). [16]

Thus we can conclude with some certainty that the epistle of James contains anti-Pauline polemic. [d]

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a.This can be seen today. One of the legacy of western colonialism is that most of the people in third world countries are able to speak two languages: the "national" language and the language of the previous colonial masters-such as French or English. Yet anyone who has traveled to these countries will know that the majority of these bilingual peoples have only a very elementary grasp of the grammar of the "colonial tongue". There is no reason to expect that the situation was any different in first century Palestine.
b.Strong support for this comes from the argument of Martin Dibelius in his commentary on James. [5] Dibelius argued that the epistle is a collection of moral exhortations (paraenesis). The epistle, as a whole, lacks continuity in thought and are strung together by "catchwords". Let us look at a couple of examples of the this:

  • James 1:4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
  • James 1:5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives to all men generously and without reproaching, and it will be given him.

  • James 1:26 If any one thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man's religion is vain.
  • James 1:27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

Note that in both examples the verses following the other do not really connect with preceding ones in any organic way. The only thing that connects them are key words: "lack/lacking" (in James 1:4 & 5) and "religion" (in James 1:26 & 27). Other examples of these are James 2:12 & 13; 3:17 & 18; 5:9 & 12.

A loose collection of moral exhortations fits well with the hypothesis that the epistle is a "compilation" of traditional teaching material by a disciple. [6]

c.The term Second Temple refers to the period starting from the year 535 BCE when the temple was rebuilt after the return from the Babylonian exile until 70 CE when the temple was destroyed by the Romans. Second Temple is a more appropriate term for the writings and Judaisms of that period than the old phrase "Inter-testamental" meaning the time between the "Old" and the "New" Testaments - which obviously has a built-in Christian bias.
d.There is another passage that may be a Jamesian attack on Paul. [17] Paul had equated being under the law to slavery in his writings:

Galatians 5:1
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

James, on the other hand, called the law, "the law of liberty":

James 1:25
But he who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer that forgets but a doer that acts, he shall be blessed in his doing.


1.Kümmel, Introduction to the New Testament: p411-412
2.Bernheim, James the Brother of Jesus: p226-228
Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament: p741-744
Kümmel, p412-413
Painter, Just James: p234-239
Schnelle, The History and Theology of The New Testament Writings: p385-388
3.Bernheim, op. cit.: p244-245
Schnelle, op. cit.: p387
4.Brown, op. cit.: p734-736, 743
Kümmel, op. cit.: p414
Schnelle, op. cit.: p388
5.Dibelius, James-A Commentary on the Epistle of James
6.Painter, op. cit.p246-247
7.Bernheim, op. cit.: p236-237
Chilton & Neusner (ed), The Brother of Jesus: p68, 81
Goulder, St. Paul vs. St. Peter: p33
8.Brown, op. cit.: p739
9.Chilton & Neusner (ed), The Brother of Jesus: p162
10.Barr, An Introduction to the New Testament Story: p426
Bernheim, op. cit.: p234
Chilton & Neusner (ed),op. cit.: p166
11.Barr, op. cit.: p426
12.Barr, op. cit.: p426
Brown, op. cit.: p734-735
Ehrmann, The New Testament: p411-412
13.Chilton & Neusner (ed),op. cit.: p82
Painter, op. cit.p249-250
14.Bernheim, op. cit.: p238-242
Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: p251
Lüdemann, Opposition to Paul in Jewish Christianity: p143-146
Painter, op. cit.p265-266
Schnelle, op. cit.: p395
15.Painter, op. cit.p267
Schnelle, op. cit.: p395
16.Bernheim, op. cit.: p243
Lüdemann, op. cit.: p145-146
Painter, op. cit.p267-269
Sanders, Schismatics, Sectarians, Dissidents, Deviants: p223
Wilson, Related Strangers: p154

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