Bible Commentaries

Barnes' Notes on the Whole BibleBarnes' Notes

- James

by Albert Barnes

The General Epistle Of James

The leading points in the character of James seem to have been these:

(1) Incorruptible integrity; integrity such as to secure the confidence of all men, and to deserve the appellation of “the Just.”

(2) An exalted regard for the rites and ceremonies of the ancient religion, and a desire that they should be respected everywhere and honored. He was more slow in coming to the conclusion that they were to be superseded by Christianity than Paul or Peter was (compare Acts 21:18; Galatians 2:12), though he admitted that they were not to be imposed on the Gentile converts as absolutely binding. Acts 15:19-21, Acts 15:24-29. Repeated intimations of his great respect for the laws of Moses are found in the Epistle before us, thus furnishing an internal proof of its genuineness. If he was educated as a Nazarene, and if he always resided with the Jews, in the very vicinity of the Temple, this is not difficult to be accounted for, and this might be expected to tinge his writings.

(3) The point from which he contemplated religion particularly was, conformity to the law. He looked at it as it was intended, to regulate the life, and to produce holiness of deportment, in opposition to all lax views of morals and low conceptions of holiness. He lived in a corrupt age, and among corrupt people; among those who sought to be justified before God by the mere fact that they were Jews, that they had the true religion, and that they were the chosen people of God, and who, in consequence, were lax in their morals, and comparatively regardless of the obligations to personal holiness. He therefore contemplated religion, not so much in respect to the question how man may be justified, as to the question to what kind of life it will lead us; and his great object was to show that personal holiness is necessary to salvation. Paul, on the other hand, was led to contemplate it mainly with reference to another question - how man may be justified; and it became necessary for him to show that men cannot be justified by their own works, but that it must be by faith in the Redeemer. The error which Paul particularly combats, is an error on the subject of justification; the error which James particularly opposes, is a practical error on the influence of religion on the life. It was because religion was contemplated by these two writers from these different points of view, and not from any real contradiction, that the apparent discrepancy arose between the Epistle of James and the writings of Paul. The peculiarity in the character and circumstances of James will account for the views which he took of religion; and, keeping this in mind, it will be easy to show that there is no real contradiction between these writers. It was of great importance to guard against each of the errors referred to; and the views expressed by both of the apostles are necessary to understand the nature and to see the full developement of religion.

How long James lived, and when and how he died, is not certainly known. It is agreed by all that he spent his last days in Jerusalem, and that he probably died there. On the subject of his death there is a remarkable passage in Josephus, which, though its genuineness has been disputed, is worth transcribing, as, if genuine, it shows the respect in which James was held, and contains an interesting account of his death. It is as follows: “The emperor (Roman) being informed of the death of Festus, sent Albinus to be prefect of Judea. But the younger Aranus, who, as we said before, was made high priest, was haughty in his behavior, and was very ambitious. And, moreover, he was of the sect of the Sadducees, who, as we have also observed before, are, above all other Jews, severe in their judicial sentences. This, then, being the temper of Ananus, he, thinking he had a fit opportunity, because Festus was dead, and Albinus was yet on the road, calls a council.

And, bringing before them James, the brother of him who is called Christ, and some others, he accused them as transgressors of the laws, and had them stoned to death. But the most moderate men of the city, who were also reckoned most skillful in the laws, were offended at this proceeding. They therefore sent privately to the king (Agrippa the younger), entreating him to send orders to Ananus no more to attempt any such things.” - Ant., B. xx. A long account of the manner of his death, by Hegesippus, is preserved in Eusebius, going much more into detail, and evidently introducing much that is fabulous. The amount of all that can now be known in regard to his decease would seem to be, that he was put to death by violence in Jerusalem, a short time before the destruction of the Temple. From the well-known character of the Jews, this account is by no means improbable. On the subject of his life and death, the reader may find all that is known in Lardner’s Works, vol. vi. pp. 162-195; Bacon’s Lives of the Apostles, pp. 411-433; and Neander, History of the Planting of the Christian Church, ii., pp. 1-23, Edin. Ed.

The belief that it was this James, the son of Alphaeus, who resided so long at Jerusalem, who was the author of this Epistle, has been the common, though not the unanimous opinion of the Christian church, and seems to be supported by satisfactory arguments. It must evidently have been written either by him or by James the elder, the son of Zebedee, or by some other James, the supposed literal brother of our Lord.

In regard to these opinions, we may observe:

I. That the supposition that it was written by some third one of that name, “wholly unknown to fame,” is mere hypothesis. It has no evidence whatever in its support.

II. There are strong reasons for supposing that it was not written by James the elder, the son of Zebedee, and brother of John. It has been indeed ascribed to him. In the old Syriac version, in the earlier editions, it is expressly attributed to him. But against this opinion the following objections may be urged, which seem to be conclusive.

(1) James the elder was beheaded about the year 43 or 44 a.d., and if this Epistle was written by him, it is the oldest of the writings of the New Testament. It is possible, indeed, that the Epistle may have been written at as early a period as that, but the considerations which remain to be stated, will show that this Epistle has sufficient internal marks to prove that it was of later origin.

(2) Before the death of James the elder, the preaching of the gospel was chiefly confined within the limits of Palestine; but this Epistle was written to Christians “of the dispersion,” that is, to those who resided out of Palestine. It is hardly credible that in so short a time after the ascension of our Lord, there were so many Christians scattered abroad as to make it probable that a letter would be sent to them.

(3) This Epistle is occupied very much with a consideration of a false and perverted view of the doctrine of justification by faith. It is evident that false views on that subject prevailed, and that a considerable corruption of morals was the consequence. But this supposes that the doctrine of justification by faith had been extensively preached; consequently that considerable time had elapsed from the time when the doctrine had been first promulgated. The perversion of a doctrine, so as to produce injurious effects, seldom occurs until some time after the doctrine was first preached, and it can hardly be supposed that this would have occurred before the death of James, the son of Zebedee. See these reasons stated more at length in Benson.

III. There are strong probabilities, from the Epistle itself, to show that it was written by James the Less.

(1) His position at Jerusalem, and his eminence among the apostles, as well as his established character, made it proper that he should address such an epistle to those who were scattered abroad. There was no one among the apostles who would command greater respect from those abroad who were of Jewish origin than James. If he had his residence at Jerusalem; if he was in any manner regarded as the head of the church there; if he sustained a near relation to the Lord Jesus; and if his character was such as has been commonly represented, there was no one among the apostles whose opinions would be treated with greater respect, or who would be considered as having a clearer right to address those who were scattered abroad.

(2) The character of the Epistle accords with the well-known character of James the Less. His strong regard for the law; his zeal for incorruptible integrity; his opposition to lax notions of morals; his opposition to all reliance on faith that was not productive of good works, all appear in this Epistle. The necessity of conformity to the law of God, and of a holy life, is everywhere apparent, and the views expressed in the Epistle agree with all that is stated of the early education and the established character of James. While there is no real contradiction between this Epistle and the writings of Paul, yet it is much easier to show that this is a production of James than it would be to prove that it was written by Paul. Compare Hug, Introduction, Section 159.

Section 2. To Whom Was the Epistle Written?

The Epistle purports to have been written to the “twelve tribes scattered abroad” - or the “twelve tribes of the dispersion” - ἐν τῇ διασπορᾷ en tē diaspora, James 1:1. See the 1 Peter 1:1 note, and the James 1:1 note. No mention of the place where they resided is made; nor can it be determined to what portion of the world it was first sent, or whether more than one copy was sent. All that can be conclusively determined in regard to the persons to whom it was addressed, is:

(1)That they were of Jewish descent - as is implied in the phrase “to the twelve tribes” James 1:1, and as is manifest in all the reasonings of the Epistle; and,

(2)That they were Christian converts, James 2:1.

But by whose labors they were converted, is wholly unknown. The Jewish people who were “scattered abroad” had two central points of union, the dispersion in the East, of which Babylon was the head, and the dispersion in the West, of which Alexandria was the head, Hug. Section 156. Peter wrote his Epistles to the latter 1 Peter 1:1, though he was at Babylon when he wrote them 1 Peter 5:13, and it would seem probable that this Epistle was addressed to the former. Beza supposed that this Epistle was sent to the believing Jews, dispersed all over the world; Grotius, that it was written to all the Jews living out of Judea; Lardner, that it was written to all Jews, descendants of Jacob, of every denomination, in Judea, and out of it. It seems plain, however, from the Epistle itself, that it was not addressed to the Jews as such, or without respect to their being already Christians, for:

(a)If it had been, it is hardly conceivable that there should have been no arguments to prove that Jesus was the Messiah, and no extended statements of the nature of the Christian system; and,

(b)It bears on the face of it evidence of having been addressed to those who were regarded as Christians; James 2:1; James 5:7, James 5:11, James 5:14.

It may be difficult to account for the fact, on any principles, that there are no more definite allusions to the nature of the Christian doctrines in the Epistle, but it is morally certain that if it had been written to Jews as such, by a Christian apostle, there would have been a more formal defense and statement of the Christian religion. Compare the arguments of the apostles with the Jews in the Acts , passim. I regard the Epistle, therefore, as having been sent to those who were of Jewish origin, but who had embraced the Christian faith by one who had been himself a Jew, and who, though now a Christian apostle, retained much of his early habits of thinking and reasoning in addressing his own countrymen.

Section 3. Where and When Was the Epistle Written?

There are no certain indications by which it can be determined where this Epistle was written, but if the considerations above suggested are well founded, there can be little doubt that it was at Jerusalem. There are indeed certain internal marks, as Hug has observed (Introduction, Section 155), pertaining to the country with which the writer was familiar, and to certain features of natural scenery incidentally alluded to in the Epistle. Thus, his native land was situated not far from the sea James 1:6; James 3:4; it was blessed with valuable productions, as figs, oil, and wine James 3:12; there were springs of saline and fresh water with which he was familiar James 3:11; the land was much exposed to drought, and there were frequently reasons to apprehend famine from the want of rain James 5:17, James 5:18 there were sad devastations produced, and to be dreaded, from a consuming, burning wind James 1:11; and it was a land in which the phenomena known as “early and latter rains” were familiarly understood; James 5:7. All these allusions apply well to Palestine, and were such as would be employed by one who resided in that country, and they may be regarded as an incidental proof that the Epistle was written in that land,

There is no way of determining with certainty when the Epistle was written. Hug supposes that it was after the Epistle to the Hebrews, and not before the beginning of the 10th year of Nero, nor after the accession of Albinus; i. e., the close of the same year. Mill and Fabricius suppose it was before the destruction of Jerusalem, and about a year and a half before the death of James. Lardner supposes that James was put to death about the year 62 a.d., and that this Epistle was written about a year before. He supposes also that his death was hastened by the strong language of reprehension employed in the Epistle. It is probable that the year in which it was written was not far from 58 or 60 a.d., some 10 or 12 years before the destruction of Jerusalem.

Section 4. The Canonical Authority of the Epistle

On the question generally respecting the canonical authority of the disputed Epistles, see the Introduction to the Catholic Epistles, Section 2. The particular proof of the canonical authority of this Epistle is contained in the evidence that it was written by one of the apostles. If it was written, as suggested above (Section 1), by James the Less, or if it be supposed that it was written by James the elder, both of whom were apostles, its canonical authority will be admitted. As there is no evidence that it was written by any other James, the point seems to be clear.

But there are additional considerations, derived from its reception in the church, which may furnish some degree of confirmation of its authority. These are:

  1. It was included in the old Syriac version, the Peshita, made either in the first century or in the early part of the second, thus showing that it was recognized in the country to which it was probably sent;
  2. Ephrem the Syrian, in his Greek works, made use of it in many places, and attributed it to James, the brother of our Lord (Hug);
  3. It is quoted as of authority by several of the Fathers; by Clement of Rome, who does not indeed mention the name of the writer, but quotes the words of the Epistle James 3:13; James 4:6, James 4:11; James 2:21, James 2:23; by Hermas; and by Jerome. See Lardner, vol. vi. pp. 195-199, and Hug, Section 161.

These passages will show that James had an acquaintance with the writings of Paul, and that he was familiar with his usual method of expressing his thoughts. These allusions are not such as two men would be likely to make who were total strangers to each other’s mode of speaking and of writing.

It may be added here, also, that some critics have supposed that there is another kind of evidence that James was acquainted with the writings of Paul, than that which arises from mere similarity of expression, and that he meant to refer to him, with a view to correct the influence of some of his views. Thus, Hug, in the passage already referred to (Section 157), says, “In this Epistle, the apostle Paul is (if I may be allowed to use so harsh an expression for a while) contradicted so flatly, that it would seem to have been written in opposition to some of his doctrines and opinions. All that Paul has taught respecting faith, its efficacy in justification, and the inutility of works, is here directly contravened.” After citing examples from the Epistle to the Romans, and the Epistle of James, in support of this, Hug adds, “The Epistle was therefore written of set purpose against Paul, against the doctrine that faith procures man justification and the divine favor.” The contradiction between James and Paul appeared so palpable to Luther, and the difficulty of reconciling them seemed to him to be so great, that for a long time he rejected the Epistle of James altogether. He subsequently, however, became satisfied that it was a part of the inspired canon of Scripture.

(2) It has been, therefore, an object of much solicitude to know how the views of Paul and James, apparently so contradictory, can be reconciled; and many attempts have been made to do it. Those who wish to pursue this inquiry to greater length than is consistent with the design of these notes, may consult Neander’s History of the Planting of the Christian Church, vol. ii., pp. 1-23, 228-239, and Dr. Dwight’s Theology, serm. lxviii. The particular consideration of this pertains more appropriately to the exposition of the Epistle (see the remarks at the close of James 3:0); but a few general principles may be laid down here, which may aid those who are disposed to make the comparison between the two, and which may show that there is no designed, and no real contradiction.

(a) The view which is taken of any object depends much on the point of vision from which it is beheld - the stand-point, as the Germans say; and in order to estimate the truthfulness or value of a description or a picture, it is necessary for us to place ourselves in the same position with him who has given the description, or who has made the picture. Two men, painting or describing a mountain, a valley, a waterfall, or an edifice, might take such different positions in regard to it, that the descriptions which they give would seem to be quite contradictory and irreconcilable, unless this were taken into the account. A landscape, sketched from the top of a high tower or on a level plain; a view of Niagara Falls, taken above or below the falls - on the American or Canada side; a view of St. Paul’s Cathedral, taken from one side or another, from the dome or when on the ground, might be very different; and two such views might present features which it would be scarcely possible to reconcile with each other. So it is of moral subjects. Much depends on the point from which they are viewed, and from the bearings and tendencies of the doctrine which is the particular subject of contemplation. The subject of temperance, for example, may be contemplated with reference, on the one hand, to the dangers arising from too lax a view of the matter, or, on the other, to the danger of pressing the principle too far; and in order to know a man’s views, and not to do injustice to him, it is proper to understand the particular aspect in which he looked at it, and the particular object which he had in view.

(b) The object of Paul - the “stand-point” from which he viewed the subject of justification - on which point alone it has been supposed that he and James differ - was to show that there is no justification before God, except by faith; that the meritorious cause of justification is the atonement; that good works do not enter into the question of justification as a matter of merit, or as the ground of acceptance; that if it were not for faith in Christ, it would not be possible for man to be justified. The point which he opposes is, that men can be justified by good works, by conformity to the law, by dependence on rites and ceremonies, by birth or blood. The aim of Paul is not to demonstrate that good works are not necessary or desirable in religion, but that they are not the ground of justification. The point of view in which he contemplates man, is before he is converted, and with reference to the question on what ground he can be justified: and he affirms that it is only by faith, and that good works come in for no share in justification, as a ground of merit.

(c) The object of James - the “stand-point” from which he viewed the subject - was, to show that a man cannot have evidence that he is justified, or that his faith is genuine, unless he is characterized by good works, or by holy living. His aim is to show, not that faith is not essential to justification, and not that the real ground of dependence is not the merit of the Saviour, but that conformity to the law of God is indispensable to true religion. The point of view in which he contemplates the subject, is after a man professes to be justified, and with reference to the question whether his faith is genuine; and he affirms that no faith is of value in justification but that which is productive of good works. By his own character, by education, by the habits of his whole life, he was accustomed to look on religion as obedience to the will of God; and everything in his character led him to oppose all that was lax in principle, and loose in tendency, in religion.

The point which he opposed, therefore, was, that mere faith in religion, as a revelation from God; a mere assent to certain doctrines, without a corresponding life, could be a ground of justification before God. This was the prevalent error of his countrymen; and while the Jews held to the belief of divine revelation as a matter of speculative faith, the most lax views of morals prevailed, and they freely indulged in practices entirely inconsistent with true piety, and subversive of all proper views of religion. It was not improper, therefore, as Paul had given prominence to one aspect of the doctrine of justification, showing that a man could not be saved by dependence on the works of the law, but that it must be by the work of Christ, that James should give due prominence to the other form of the doctrine, by showing that the essential and necessary tendency of the true doctrine of justification was to lead to a holy life; and that a man whose life was not conformed to the law of God, could not depend on any mere assent to the truth of religion, or any speculative faith whatever. Both these statements are necessary to a full exposition of the doctrine of justification; both are opposed to dangerous errors; and both, therefore, are essential in order to a full understanding of that important subject.

(d) Both these statements are true:

  1. That of Paul is true, that there can be no justification before God on the ground of our own works, but that the real ground of justification is faith in the great sacrifice made for sin.

(2)That of James is no less true, that there can be no genuine faith which is not productive of good works, and that good works furnish the evidence that we have true religion, and are just before God. A mere faith; a naked assent to dogmas, accompanied with lax views of morals, can furnish no evidence of true piety. It is as true, that where there is not a holy life there is no religion, as it is in cases where there is no faith.

It may be added, therefore, that the Epistle of James occupies an important place in the New Testament, and that it could not be withdrawn without materially marring the proportions of the scheme of religion which is there revealed. Instead, therefore, of being regarded as contradictory to any part of the New Testament, it should rather be deemed indispensable to the concinnity and beauty of the whole.

Keeping in view, therefore, the general design of the Epistle, and the point of view from which James contemplated the subject of religion; the general corruptions of the age in which he lived, in regard to morals; the tendency of the Jews to suppose that mere assent to the truths of religion was enough to save them; the liability which there was to abuse the doctrine of Paul on the subject of justification - it will not be difficult to understand the general drift of this Epistle, or to appreciate its value. A summary of its contents, and a more particular view of its design, will be found in the “Analyses” prefixed to the several chapters.