The letter from James is “a one-of-a-kind document”, according to scholar and commentator Scot McKnight, with “no real parallel among ancient letters, essays, and homilies.”
It is a letter that addresses numerous topics, many of which underlie the tensions behind the headlines today, including suffering, social justice, and poverty. It also contains some challenging passages related to the role of faith and works.
Here are 5 interesting facts as we start our study.
1) It was probably written by the brother of Jesus
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ (1:1)
Most scholars (at least those writing evangelical commentaries) agree that the author of this letter is James the brother of Jesus (Matt 13:55; Mark 6:3; Gal 1:19), also known as James the Just. Another candidate is James, the son of Zebedee, the older brother of John, and an apostle in Jesus’ inner circle (Matt 17:1; Mark 5:37, 14:32-33). Many rule out the latter James, due to his early death at the hands of Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12:2) around 44 CE. But that shouldn’t disqualify him. James the son of Zebedee would have been alive to write the letter if the earliest suggested dating of the letter is correct.
The primary reason for accepting James the Just as the author, over other possible candidates, is the tradition of the early church, which attributed the letter to him.
James, the brother of the Lord … has been called the Just by all from the time of our Savior to the present day; for there were many that bore the name of James. … James, who is said to be the author of the first of the so-called catholic [general] epistles (Eccl Hist Book II Chap 23)
For more details on authorship check out this article by Daniel Wallace (link).
2) James the Just was called Camel Knees
James the brother of the Lord, in addition to being known as the Just, was considered a pillar in the church (Gal 2:9, 12), a leader in Jerusalem (Acts 15:13-21; Acts 21:18), and more interestingly was called “camel knees”.
And he was in the habit of entering alone into the temple, and was frequently found upon his knees begging forgiveness for the people, so that his knees became hard like those of a camel, in consequence of his constantly bending them in his worship of God, and asking forgiveness for the people (Eccl Hist Book II Chap 23)
The death of James the Just is mentioned in the historian Josephus’ work The Antiquities of the Jewish People, a work written toward the end of the first century. The passage that mentions James is known as the Testimonium Flavianum.
… so he assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others (Antiquities Book XX Chap 9)
Although the authenticity of the part that refers to Jesus as the Christ is disputed (good article on this), it is still considered one of the earliest attestations of Jesus outside of the Scriptures.
3) This is likely the first written document in the New Testament
Although not universally held, the earliest dating of the letter is around 40 -45 CE, which would make it the first written document in the New Testament. Assuming this dating is correct the letter would have been written after Paul met James in Jerusalem (Gal 1:18-19; Acts 9:26-29) but before Paul’s first missionary journey (around 47-48 CE) and the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 (dated around 49-50 CE).
If we accept that the book is written early, that means that the mission to the Gentiles is still getting started and many of the challenges regarding the inclusion of Gentiles, circumcision, and the Mosaic Law were still in the future. Something worth keeping in mind when studying and interpreting passages.
4) Written to Jewish Christian immigrants
To the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad: Greetings. (1:1)
This letter is addressed to a group that are identified as the “twelve tribes” (1:1) as well as those who have faith in the Lord (2:1). Clearly, James is addressing disciples of Jesus. Most understand that the original recipients of the letter are also of Jewish descent. J.A. Motyer notes, in his commentary The Message of James, that Paul refers to the Jewish people as the “twelve tribes” during his defense before King Agrippa (Acts 26:7). In addition, we read in verse 2:2, that the group is meeting in a synagogue.
if a man comes into your assembly
This last point might be missed in the English translation. However, the Greek behind the word translated “assembly” is not ekklesia as one might expect, but the word for synagogue.
The recipients of the letter are addressed as being “dispersed abroad”. This likely refers to the group having to leave Jerusalem due to persecution as a result of Stephen being martyred (Acts 8:1, 11:19). Those who left are described as going to Judea, Samaria, Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch where they are primarily focused on witnessing to Jewish people. The dispersed group is still connected to the apostles in Jerusalem (11:22), which would explain why James the Just is writing to encourage them.
5) It was among the disputed books as the canon of the NT formed
Perhaps the most challenging thing to understand today is that the letter from James was not always accepted as part of the NT canon. James was most famously challenged during the Reformation by Martin Luther, who described it, in the Preface to the New Testament (1522 edition) as an “epistle of straw” (link).
Therefore St. James’ Epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to them; for it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it.
In the preface to the book itself, Luther explains (link)
Though this epistle of St. James was rejected by the ancients, I praise it and consider it a good book, … However, to state my own opinion about it, though without prejudice to anyone, I do not regard it as the writing of an apostle … it is flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture in ascribing justification to works.
One of Luther’s reasons for his dislike of James was because it was rejected by “the ancients”. Here Luther is referring to the fact that James was among seven of our current NT books that was contested in the early church.
We are used to having a NT canon of 27 books but James is missing from the Muratorian Fragment, considered the earliest list of NT books (link) and is commonly referred to as a disputed book as late as the early fourth century.
Among the disputed writings, which are nevertheless recognized by many, are extant the so-called epistle of James … (Eccl Hist Book III Chap 25 also Book II Chap 23)
Further, the letter from James was only first explicitly mentioned by Origen, a theologian writing in the 3rd century, in his commentaries on Matthew and John (link), calling it the “epistle in circulation under the name of James” (link). The manuscript evidence for the book (link) also dates to the third century (P20, 23, 100).
The label of disputed might sound bad, but it is important to understand that James was accepted by many of the early churches. Origen, himself, included James in his NT canon (link). It is also important to remember that the NT canon, comprising of 27 books, was not considered settled until the end of the 4th century based on Athanasius’ 39th festal letter (367 CE), and the synods of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397).