Although it takes the form of a letter, the epistle of James feels much more like a sermon. It is the closest that any New Testament book comes to being a part of the Old Testament Wisdom tradition, since it repeatedly urges its recipients to live their lives according to the wisdom that comes from God rather than earthly wisdom. At the heart of the letter lies the invitation not just to listen to good advice but to put it into action.
If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. (James 1.5)
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. (James 1.17)
15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,' and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (James 2.15–17)
Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. (James 3.13)
Martin Luther famously disliked the book of James and called it ‘a book of straw’. Some see the message of James, which encourages action as well as faith, as fundamentally opposed to what Paul says about being justified by faith alone. This is a misunderstanding. Paul did believe in justification by faith but he expected that faith to transform how people behaved; this is exactly the same as James. But read it and see what you think.
The letter claims to be written by ‘James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ’. Christian tradition associates this James with the brother of Jesus, who was the leader of the Jerusalem church. The Jewish historian Josephus in his history of the Jews (Antiquities of the Jews, 20.9) states that James was martyred in AD 62.
There are of course other Jameses in the New Testament but the weight of tradition suggests that this James was the leader of the Jerusalem church.
James appears a few times in the New Testament. Paul declared that the risen Jesus appeared to him (1 Corinthians 15.7) and in Galatians 2.9 referred to him, alongside Cephas (Peter) and John the Apostle as being a pillar of the church. Acts 12.17 implies that he might have been the leader of the Jerusalem community, and in Acts 15.6–19 he played an important part in the gathering in Jerusalem which is often called the Jerusalem Council. In Acts (in 21.18ff) James insisted that Paul cleansed himself ritually at the temple to counter the claim that he had rebelled against Torah.
If the letter was written by this James then it is quite early, written in the AD 50s, since James was killed in AD 62.
There are some, however, who do not believe that it was written by James himself but by people faithful to James’ memory, arguing that the style suggests a much later date of the early second century AD.
Assuming an early date for the epistle, two decades after the death of Jesus, the people were trying to work out what it meant to follow Jesus when he was no longer with them. James provides many practical solutions to questions like this.
The letter is, slightly oddly, addressed to ‘the twelve tribes of the dispersion’. The dispersion or diaspora is the word used by Jews to refer to the spreading of Jews to other countries following the exile. It probably therefore means Jews around the world, though the topics he then covers suggests he is talking to Jewish followers of Christ. If this is James, the leader of the Jerusalem church, then this would make sense as most members of the Jerusalem church were Jewish.
James appears to be a letter but there are very few personal details in it, and it reads much more like a sermon (Hebrews is the same). It contains down-to-earth pragmatic advice about how to live as a Christian. This, coupled with its emphasis on God’s wisdom, suggest that it draws a little on the Old Testament Wisdom tradition.
1.2–18 Opening encouragements, many about joy
1.19–27 Don’t just listen, do it!
2.1–13 On favouritism (to the rich)
2.14–26 There is no faith without works
3.1–12 On controlling the tongue
3.13–5.6 On living wisely
5.7–20 Farewell and final encouragements
Elijah, James brother of John, Timothy
Dispersion, Torah, Altar, Hell
As we noted above, many think that this book is connected to the Wisdom tradition, so look out for general teaching about wisdom as well as any wisdom-type sayings that there are as you read.
James uses particularly vivid imagery in his writing; see which of them is your favourite.
James is well known for its emphasis on works (and for the fact that some people think that this contradicts what Paul says). Think about this as you read and see what you think.
James offers practical advice about how to live wisely in the world. Reflect on how his advice is still relevant today.