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Bible Commentaries

Robertson's Word Pictures in the New Testament


- James

by A.T. Robertson

The Author He claims to be James, and so the book is not anonymous. It is either genuine or pseudonymous. He does not claim to be the brother of the Lord Jesus, as one might expect. James the brother of John was put to death by Herod Agrippa I about A.D. 44 (Acts 12:2). But James the brother of Jesus (Galatians 1:19) was still alive and became a leader of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 12:17), presiding over the Conference in Jerusalem (Acts 15:13-21) and apparently writing the message from the Conference to the Gentile churches (Acts 15:22-29), and was still the leading elder in Jerusalem on Paul's last visit (Acts 21:18-25). James does not claim here to be an apostle and he was not one of the twelve apostles, and the dispute about accepting it of which Eusebius spoke was about its apostolicity since James was only an apostle by implication (Galatians 1:19) in the general sense of that term like Barnabas (Acts 14:14), perhaps Silas and Timothy (1 Thessalonians 2:7), certainly not on a par with Paul, who claimed equality with the twelve. James, like the other brothers of Jesus, had once disbelieved his claims to be the Messiah (John 7:5 f.), but he was won by a special vision of the Risen Christ (1 Corinthians 15:7) and was in the upper room before the great pentecost (Acts 1:14). It is plain that he had much to overcome as a zealous Jew to become a Christian, though he was not a mere cousin of Jesus or a son of Joseph by a former marriage. He was strictly the half-brother of Jesus, since Joseph was not the actual father of Jesus. There is no reason to believe that he was a Nazirite. We know that he was married (1 Corinthians 9:5). He came to be called James the Just and was considered very devout. The Judaizers had counted on him to agree with them against Paul and Barnabas, but he boldly stood for Gentile freedom from the ceremonial law. The Judaizers still claimed him at Antioch and used his name wrongly to frighten Peter thereby (Galatians 2:12). But to the end he remained the loyal friend to Paul and his gospel rightly understood (Acts 21:18-25). Clement of Alexandria (Hypot. vii) says that, when he bore strong testimony to Jesus as the Son of man, they flung him down from the gable of the temple, stoned him, and beat him to death with a club. But Josephus (Ant. XX. ix. I) says that the Sadducees about A.D. 62 had James and some others brought before the Sanhedrin (Ananus presiding) and had them stoned as transgressors of the law. At any rate he won a martyr's crown like Stephen and James the brother of John.

The Date If the Epistle is genuine and James was put to death about A.D. 62, it was clearly written before that date. There are two theories about it, one placing it about A.D. 48, the other about A.D. 58. To my mind the arguments of Mayor for the early date are conclusive. There is no allusion to Gentile Christians, as would be natural after A.D. 50. If written after A.D. 70, the tone would likely be different, with some allusion to that dreadful calamity. The sins condemned are those characteristic of early Jewish Christians. The book itself is more like the Sermon on the Mount than the Epistles. The discussion of faith and works in chapter 2 reveals an absence of the issues faced by Paul in Romans 4:0; Galatians 3:0 after the Jerusalem Conference (A.D. 49). Hence the date before that Conference has decidedly the better of the argument. Ropes in his Commentary denies the genuineness of the Epistle and locates it between A.D. 75 and 125, but Hort holds that the evidence for a late date rests "on very slight and intangible grounds." So we place the book before A.D. 49. It may indeed be the earliest New Testament book.

The Readers The author addresses himself "to the twelve tribes which are of the Dispersion" (James 1:1). Clearly, then, he is not writing to Gentiles, unless he includes the spiritual children of Abraham in the term Diaspora as Paul does for believers (Galatians 3:29Romans 9:6 f.). The word diaspora occurs elsewhere in the N.T. only in John 7:35; 1 Peter 1:1. It apparently has the spiritual significance in 1 Peter 1:1, but in John 7:35 the usual meaning of Jews scattered over the world. The use here of "the twelve tribes" makes the literal sense probable here. Clearly also James knew nothing of any "lost" tribes, for the Jews of the Dispersion were a blend of all the twelve tribes. It is probable also that James is addressing chiefly the Eastern Dispersion in Syria, Mesopotamia, and Babylonia as Peter writes to five provinces in the Western Dispersion in Asia Minor. It is possible that James has in mind Christian and non-Christian Jews, not wholly non-Christian Jews as some hold. He may have in mind merely Christian Jews outside of Palestine, of whom there were already many scattered since the great pentecost. The use of synagogue as a place of worship (James 2:2) like church (James 5:14) argues somewhat for this view. He presents the Mosaic law as still binding (James 2:9-11James 4:11). As the leading elder of the great church in Jerusalem and as a devout Jew and half-brother of Jesus, the message of James had a special appeal to these widely scattered Jewish Christians.

The Purpose If James is writing solely to non-Christian Jews, the purpose is to win them to Christ, and so he puts the gospel message in a way to get a hearing from the Jews. That is true, whether he has them in mind or not, though he does not do it by the suppression of the deity of Jesus Christ. In the very first verse he places him on a par with God as "the Lord Jesus Christ." In James 2:1 he presents Jesus as the object of faith: "as you believe in our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Glory" (Moffatt's Translation), where Jesus is termed the Shekinah Glory of God. It is true that there is no discussion in the Epistle of the cross and the resurrection of Jesus, but there is an allusion to the murder of Jesus in James 5:6 and the second comingin James 5:8. The chief aim of the Epistle is to strengthen the faith and loyalty of the Jewish Christians in the face of persecution from rich and overbearing Jews who were defrauding and oppressing them. It is a picture of early Christian life in the midst of difficult social conditions between capital and labor which also exist today. So then it is a very modern message even if it is the earliest New Testament book. The glory of the New Testament lies precisely at this point in that the revelation of God in Christ meets our problems today because it did meet those of the first century A.D. Christian principles stand out clearly for our present-day living.

The Style James assumes the doctrinal features of Christianity, but he is concerned mainly with the ethical and social aspects of the gospel that Jewish followers of Christ may square their lives with the gospel which they believe and profess. But this fact does not justify Luther in calling the Epistle of James "a veritable Epistle of straw." Luther imagined that James contradicted Paul's teaching of justification by faith. That is not true and the criticism of Luther is unjust. We shall see that, though James and Paul use the same words (faith, works, justify), they mean different things by them. It is possible that both Paul and Peter had read the Epistle of James, though by no means certain. M. Jones (New Testament in the Twentieth Century, p. 316) thinks that the author was familiar with Stoic philosophy. This is also possible, though he may have learned it only indirectly through the Wisdom of Solomon and Philo. What is true is that the author writes in the easy and accurate Koin‚ Greek of a cultivated Jew (the literary Koin‚, not the vernacular), though not the artificial or stilted language of a professional stylist. Principal Patrick (James the Lord's Brother, p. 298) holds that he "had a wide knowledge of Classical Greek." This does not follow, though he does use the manner "of the Hellenistic diatribe" (Ropes, Int. and Crit. Comm., p. 19) so common at that time. Ropes (pp. 10-22) points out numerous parallels between James and the popular moral addresses of the period, familiar since the days of Socrates and at its height in Seneca and Epictetus. The use of an imaginary interlocutor is one instance (James 2:18 f.; James 5:13 f.) as is the presence of paradox (James 1:2James 1:10James 2:5; etc.). But the style of James is even more kin to that seen in the Jewish wisdom literature like Proverbs, the Wisdom of Solomon, etc. It is thus both tract and Epistle, a brief Christian sermon on a high plane for a noble purpose. But it is all natural and not artificial. The metaphors are many, but brief and remind one constantly of the Master's use of them in the Sermon on the Mount. Did not Mary the mother of Jesus and James make frequent use of such homely parables? The author shows acquaintance with the LXX, but there are few Hebraisms in the language, though the style is Hebraic, as is the whole tone of the book (Hebraic and Christian). "The style is especially remarkable for constant hidden allusions to our Lord's sayings, such as we find in the first three Gospels" (Hort).

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There are various explanations of the term catholic (καθολικα επιστολα) as applied to this group of seven short letters by four writers (one by James, two by Peter, one by Jude, three by John). The Latin for καθολικος is generalis, though the Vulgate terms these letters Catholicae. The meaning is not orthodox as opposed to heretical or canonical, though they are sometimes termed Επιστολαε χανονιχαε. As a matter of fact five of the seven (all but First Peter and First John) Eusebius placed among the "disputed" (αντιλεγομενα) books of the New Testament. "A canonical book is primarily one which has been measured and tested, and secondarily that which is itself a measure or standard" (Alfred Plummer). Canon is from κανων (cane) and is like a yardstick cut to the right measure and then used as a measure. Some see in the term καθολικος the idea that these Epistles are meant for both Jews and Gentiles, but the Epistle of James seems addressed to Jewish Christians. There were two other chief groups of New Testament writings in the old Greek manuscripts (the Gospels and Acts, then the Epistles of Paul). This group of seven Epistles and the Apocalypse constitute the remainder of the New Testament. The usual interpretation of the term καθολικος here is that these seven Epistles were not addressed to any particular church, but are general in their distribution. This is clearly true of I Peter, as is shown by the language in 1 Peter 1:1, where seven Roman provinces are mentioned. The language of 2 Peter 3:1 bears the same idea. Apparently the Epistle of Jude is general also as is I John. But II John is addressed to "an elect lady" (verse 2 John 1:1) and III John to Gaius (verse 3 John 1:1), both of them individuals, and therefore in no sense are these two brief letters general or catholic. The earliest instance of the word καθολικος is in an inscription (B.C. 6) with the meaning "general" (τῃ καθολικμου προθεσει, my general purpose). It was common after that. The earliest example of it in Christian literature is in Ignatius' Epistle to the Church of Smyrna (VIII) where he has "the catholic church" (καθολικη ἐκκλησια), "the general church," not a local body. Clement of Alexandria (Strom. IV. xv) applies this adjective to the letter sent to the Gentile Christians "in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia" from the Jerusalem Conference (Acts 15:23).


The oldest Greek manuscripts give these General Epistles immediately after the Acts, and Westcott and Hort so print them in their Greek New Testament. But the English Versions follow the Textus Receptus and put them just before the Apocalypse. The order of the seven letters varies greatly in the different manuscripts, though usually James comes first and Jude last (as the last accepted and the least known of the four authors). It is possible that the order of James, Peter, and John (omitting Jude) represented a sort of chronological precedence in some minds. It is possible also that no importance is to be attached to this order. Certainly John wrote last and after the destruction of Jerusalem, while the others come before that great event if they are genuine, as I believe, though there are difficulties of a serious nature concerning II Peter. James may be very early. If so, these seven Epistles are scattered all the way from A.D. 45 to 90. They have no connection with one another save in the case of the Epistles of Peter and Jude.


Without them we should be deprived of much concerning three outstanding personalities in early Christianity. We should know much less of "James, and Cephas, and John, they who were reputed to be pillars" (Galatians 2:9). We should know less also of the Judaic (not Judaizing) form of Christianity seen in the Epistles of James and Jude in contrast with, though not opposed to, the Pauline type. In Peter's Epistles we see, indeed, a mediating position without compromise of principle, for Peter in the Jerusalem Conference loyally supported Paul and Barnabas even if he did flicker for a moment later in Antioch. In the Johannine Epistles we see the great Eagle soar as in his Gospel in calm serenity in spite of conflict with the Gnostics who struck at the very life of Christianity itself. "The only opposition which remains worthy of a Christian's consideration is that between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, love and hate, God and the world, Christ and Antichrist, life and death" (Plummer). So we can be grateful for the preservation of these little Epistles which reveal differences in the development of the great Christian leaders and the adaptation of the gospel message to changing world conditions then and now.