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Bible Commentaries

Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New TestamentSchaff's NT Commentary

- James

by Philip Schaff


THIS Epistle is the first in that division of the books of the New Testament known by the name of the Catholic Epistles. To this division belong seven Epistles: the Epistle of James, the two Epistles of Peter, the three Epistles of John, and the Epistle of Jude.

The term Catholic was applied by Origen in the third century to First Peter and First John; but it was not until the fourth century that it was used to distinguish this group of Epistles. In this application we first meet with it in the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius, who speaks of ‘the seven Catholic Epistles’ ( H. E. ii. 23). Various meanings have been attached to the term. Some regard it as synonymous with canonical, and as used to denote those Epistles which were universally recognised. Others understand the term as opposed to heretical, and as employed to denote those writings which agree with the doctrines of the universal church. And others think that, after the Gospels and the Acts were collected into one group, and the Pauline Epistles into another, the remaining Epistles were called catholic to denote the common or general collection of all the apostles. But all those meanings are defective; they do not distinguish this group of Epistles; they are as applicable to the other writings of the New Testament. The most appropriate and approved meaning of the term is general, in the sense of circular; used to denote those Epistles which are addressed, not to any particular church or individual, as the Pauline Epistles, but to a number of churches. It is true that the Second and Third Epistles of John form an exception, as they are addressed to individuals; but they are attached to the larger Epistle of the same author, and may be considered as an appendix to it Although the term Catholic is given to these seven Epistles primarily to distinguish them from the Epistles of Paul, yet, taken in the above sense, it appropriately distinguishes them. Thus the Epistle of James is a catholic or circular Epistle: it is not addressed to any particular church or individual, but generally to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad. Corresponding to this general address, the references in it are general, not personal; there are no salutations appended to it, as is the case with many of the Epistles of Paul.


The author designates himself ‘James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.’ Now there are three distinguished disciples bearing the name James 1:0. James the son of Zebedee and brother of John, one of the three favoured apostles of our Lord. 2. James the son of Alphaeus, called also James the Less (Mark 15:40), another of the apostles. 3. James the Lord’s brother, the so-called bishop of Jerusalem; unless, indeed, these two last are the same person. The question which meets us is: To which of these three does the authorship of this Epistle belong?

Some have attributed the Epistle to James the son of Zebedee. This is stated in a manuscript of the old Italic version, the Codex Corbeiensis, and in the early printed editions of the old Syriac or Peshito, although it is doubtful whether it was originally in that version itself. But this opinion is now generally abandoned as opposed to all probability. [1] James the son of Zebedee was beheaded by Herod Agrippa I., A.D. 44 (Acts 12:2); but this is too early a date for the composition of this Epistle. The gospel was then scarcely propagated beyond the boundaries of Judea: there could hardly, at that early period, be any Jewish churches of the dispersion to which to write; nor could the Christian Church be in that state of development which this Epistle presupposes. This, of course, proceeds on the supposition, which we shall afterwards prove to be correct, that this Epistle was written to Jewish Christians, and not to Jews generally.

[1] This opinion has of late been ingeniously defended by the Rev. F. T. Basset in his Commentary on the Epistle of James.

Christian tradition has pointed to James ‘the Lord’s brother’ as the author of this Epistle (Eus. H. E. ii. 23); and with this the state of the case fully accords. This James was permanently resident in the church of Jerusalem; he appears to have been its recognised head; if not an apostle, he was at least a person of acknowledged importance among the apostles; he presided at the Council of Jerusalem, and is mentioned by Paul as one of the pillars of the church (Galatians 2:9). Hence, as the head of the Jewish church at Jerusalem, he would have a great interest in the believing Jews outside of that city ‘the twelve tribes who were scattered abroad,’ could write to them with authority, and would be listened to by them with deference and respect.

The opinion of Roman Catholics and early Protestant commentators is that this James the Lord’s brother is identical with the Apostle James the son of Alphaeus. [2] This opinion was not entertained by the early Church, and appears to have been first introduced by Jerome. According to this view, the word brother is used in an extended sense for cousin. The brothers of Christ are mentioned by name in the Gospels; they are James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas (Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3). Now two of these names, James and Joses, are elsewhere mentioned as the names of the sons of Mary, the wife of Clopas, who is assumed to be the same as the sister of the Virgin. ‘Now there stood at the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene’ (John 19:25); and elsewhere we are informed that this Mary was the mother of James the Less and Joses (Matthew 27:56; Mark 15:40); and consequently these two were the cousins of our Lord. It is further maintained that Clopas is the same name as Alphaeus these being different forms of expressing the Hebrew name in Greek characters; and hence the Apostle James the son of Alphaeus is the same as James the son of Clopas and Mary, the cousin of our Lord. We also know that this James had a brother named Judas; for among the apostles mention is made of ‘Judas, the brother of James’ (Acts 1:13). And further, another apostle named Simon is mentioned in the apostolic lists, always in company with James and Judas, so that there is no improbability in supposing him to be another brother. Hence, then, the sons of Alphaeus, or Clopas, and Mary, the sister of the Virgin, namely James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas, are regarded as identical with those bearing the same names, who are mentioned as the brothers of our Lord. The names are the same, and to identify them we have only to suppose that the word brother is used in an extended sense so as to include cousins.

[2] See the discussion on the brothers of our Lord in a note appended to Matthew 13:58 in this Commentary. The remarks here were written independently of that note.

It would occupy too much space to discuss this view. The reasoning is plausible, but will not bear examination; and the objections against it are so numerous and great, that it may almost be considered as demonstrated that James the brother of our Lord, and James the son of Alphaeus, are not identical.

1. In no passage of the New Testament is it indicated that the brothers of our Lord were only His cousins; they are always called brothers, never relations; and it is arbitrary to assume that the word brothers here denotes cousins, a sense which it never has in the New Testament. The same objection is equally strong with reference to those who are called the sisters of our Lord (Matthew 13:56).

2. When the brothers of our Lord are mentioned, they are always distinguished from the twelve apostles. We are expressly informed that, during the lifetime of Christ, His brothers did not believe on Him (John 7:5). [1] And after His ascension, when they became believers, and associated with the disciples, they are still distinguished from the twelve (Acts 1:14; 1 Corinthians 9:5). This could not have been the case, if two, if not three, of them had been apostles.

[1] The argument is independent of the meaning attached to the unbelief of our Lord’s brothers, whether it was absolute or partial.

3. It is extremely doubtful if Mary the wife of Clopas was the sister of the Virgin. The words in John’s Gospel are: ‘Now there stood at the cross of Jesus His mother and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalene’ (John 19:25). It is more probable that four women are here mentioned in pairs, instead of three; and as we learn from the other Gospels that Salome, the mother of John, also stood at the cross (Matthew 26:56; Mark 15:40), the probability is that she, and not Mary the wife of Clopas, was the sister of our Lord’s mother: John having abstained to mention her name, in accordance with his usual reserve in personal matters. This avoids the awkwardness of two sisters being called by the same name. On this supposition, James the son of Alphaeus was no relation to our Lord.

4. It is by no means a certainty that Clopas and Alphaeus are the same names.

5. It is equally uncertain that Judas the apostle was the brother of James, and not rather, as the words might have been translated more in accordance with the Greek idiom, the son of (an unknown) James.

6. The uncertainty is still greater with regard to the relationship of Simon Zelotes to James and Judas. For these reasons, then, we consider that the identity of James the son of Alphaeus, and James ‘the Lord’s brother,’ must be relinquished. [2]

[2] This identity is asserted by Bishop Wordsworth in his Greek Testament, and has more recently been defended by Dean Scott in his excellent Commentary on the Epistle of James, forming part of the Speaker’s Commentary.

But if James the Lord’s brother is not identical with James the son of Alphaeus, who is he? On this point there are two opinions: the one, that he and the other brothers of our Lord were the sons of Mary and Joseph; and the other, that they were the children of Joseph by a previous marriage.

Many eminent divines suppose that James was a real brother of our Lord, being the son of Mary and Joseph. According to this opinion, the words brothers and sisters, when spoken of in connection with our Lord, are to be taken in their literal sense; they being likewise the children of Mary. Such an opinion was first started toward the close of the fourth century by Helvidius. [3] It was opposed to the then universal tradition of the Christian Church concerning the perpetual virginity of Mary; and on this account is still repugnant to the feelings of many Protestants, at well as of all Romanists. On the other hand, it is argued that the idea, that Mary should have had no other children of her own, is a mere sentiment arising from a false notion of the superior sanctity of celibacy, and that it has no foundation in the word of God (Luke 2:7; Matthew 1:25). There are, however, two positive objections against this opinion.

[3] It is a matter of dispute whether Tertullian held that James was the son of Mary and Joseph: his words are ambiguous. Lightfoot thinks it highly probable that he held the Helvidian view.

1. It would appear that James is expressly called an apostle by Paul, when he writes: ‘Other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord’s brother’ (Galatians 1:19). To this it has been replied, either that the word apostle is here used in an extended sense: as in the New Testament it is not confined to the twelve, but is applied to other distinguished disciples, as, for example, Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14:16); or that the restriction does not apply to the word apostles, but to the whole clause in the sense: Except Peter, I saw no other apostle, but I saw James the Lord’s brother (comp. Luke 4:25-27).

2. If Mary had children of her own, Jesus would not, when dying, have recommended her to the care of John (John 19:26-27): an objection to which we have found no satisfactory solution. [1] We are ignorant of the circumstances of the case; but this objection cannot outweigh the greater and more numerous objections to the theory of identity.

[1] An ingenious solution is given by Dr. Bushnell in his sermon on Mary the mother of Jesus: ‘Why Jesus committed her thus to John and not to the four brothers it is not difficult to guess; for John has a home as they certainly have not, and are not likely soon to have.’

There is still a third opinion namely, that James and the other brothers and sisters of our Lord were the children of Joseph by a previous marriage, and were, on account of this relationship, regarded as his brothers and sisters. By reason of our Lord’s miraculous conception, they were actually no relations; but they would be considered by the world as His brothers. This view was the general opinion of the early Greek Fathers, as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebius, Epiphanius, Gregory of Nyssa, and so is the one best attested by ecclesiastical tradition. It lessens, though it does not entirely remove, the objection arising from Jesus recommending His mother to the care of John, that is, to her nephew, instead of to her step-children; and it does no violence to the general sentiment of the Church concerning the perpetual virginity of Mary. Still, however, though ably maintained by Bishop Lightfoot, and apparently adopted by Dean Plumptre, it has not been much favoured by modern divines. It has too much the appearance of a hypothesis invented to avoid a difficulty; nor is there the slightest intimation in Scripture that Joseph had been married previous to his espousals with the Virgin.

This James, the Lord’s brother, is scarcely alluded to in the Gospels,` but is frequently mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. He was a prominent person in the early church. During our Lord’s lifetime it is probable that with his brothers he remained unbelieving (John 7:5), but was converted by a special appearance of Christ to him after His resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:7). From the first, owing probably to his high moral character and relationship to Christ, he occupied a distinguished position in the early church. To him Peter sent a message, on his release from imprisonment: ‘Go show these things unto James and the brethren’ (Acts 12:7). He presided at the Council of Jerusalem, and pronounced the decree of the assembled church (Acts 15:19). To him, as the head of the church of Jerusalem, Paul repaired on his last visit to that city (Acts 21:18). In the Epistle to the Galatians, Paul gives him the honourable designation of ‘James the Lord’s brother’ (Galatians 1:19); and along with Peter and John, he mentions him as one of the three pillars of the church (Galatians 2:9). In the same Epistle we are also informed, that it was the presence of ‘certain who came from James’ which was the cause of Peter’s withdrawing himself from converse with the Gentiles (Galatians 2:21). And in the short Epistle of Jude, the author calls himself ‘Jude the brother of James’ (Jude 1:1).

If not actually bishop of Jerusalem, it would appear from these scriptural notices that James at least exercised a very important influence in the mother church. He was the recognised head of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. When Christianity was chiefly confined to Jewish converts, his influence must have been almost paramount And after its extension to the Gentiles, the Jewish Christians would esteem him to be peculiarly their apostle, as Paul was the apostle of the Gentiles; his influence would not be confined to Jerusalem, but would extend to all believers among the twelve tribes, wherever scattered.

Nor is ecclesiastical history silent concerning this pillar of Christianity; he occupies a large space in the traditions of the church. Certainly the accounts that have reached us are mixed with fable, but still in them we can trace the character of the man. They all describe him as a man of the greatest moral strictness, to whom the epithet ‘the Just’ was universally applied, and affirm that he continued to the last an observer of the Mosaic law. He suffered martyrdom by the Jews, a few years before the commencement of the Jewish war. The accounts of his death vary. It is thus recorded by Josephus, in a very remarkable passage, the genuineness of which has without good reasons been disputed: ‘Ananias assembled the sanhedrim, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who is called Christ, whose name was James, and some of his companions; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned’ ( Ant. xx. 9. 1). According to the account of Hegesippus, preserved in the history of Eusebius, James was cast down from the pinnacle of the temple, and stoned while he was yet alive, and at length put to death by a blow from a fuller’s club ( H. E. ii. 23).

From all these scriptural and traditionary notices, it would appear that James was a man of the strictest integrity, and that he continued to the last an observer of the law of Moses ‘a just man according to the law.’ By becoming a Christian he did not renounce Judaism; he resided in Jerusalem, and continued to worship in the temple. He was even more than Peter the apostle of the circumcision (Galatians 2:8); the sphere of his labours was restricted to the Jewish converts to Christianity. Hence, then, his practical relation to the Jewish law was different from that of Paul. Paul felt himself to be dead to the law, freed from its requirements; he probably observed it, but not strictly; when it served to promote the diffusion of the gospel, he could become without the law to those who were without the law; though, on other occasions, he became a Jew to the Jews that he might gain the Jews. James, on the other hand, did not dissever Christianity from Judaism; he regarded Christianity as the perfection of Judaism; he was far from wishing to impose the Jewish yoke on the Gentile Christians, but he saw no necessity to separate himself from the ancient people, or to renounce their religion. ‘Had not,’ observes Dr. Schaff, ‘the influence of James been modified and completed by that of a Peter, and especially a Paul, Christianity, perhaps, would never have cast off entirely the envelope of Judaism and risen to independence. Yet the influence of James was necessary. He, if any, could gain the ancient chosen nation as a body. God placed such a representative of the purest form of Old Testament piety in the midst of the Jews to make their transition to the faith of the Messiah as easy as possible, even at the eleventh hour. But when they refused this last messenger of peace, the divine forbearance was exhausted, and the fearful, long-threatened judgment broke upon them. And with this the mission of James was fulfilled. He was not to outlive the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.’ [1]

[1] History of the Apostolic Church, vol. 2 p. 38.


As the personality of the author has been the subject of much dispute, so likewise have been the persons to whom this Epistle was primarily addressed. They are designated ‘the twelve tribes who are scattered abroad;’ but very different meanings have been attached to these words.

Some suppose that the Epistle was addressed to Christians in general. They take the expression ‘twelve tribes’ in a figurative sense to denote ‘the Israel of God’ (Galatians 6:16), in contrast to ‘Israel after the flesh’ (1 Corinthians 10:18). But such an interpretation is wholly inadmissible. There is not the slightest intimation in the Epistle that a figurative sense is to be given to these words; and we must beware of assigning a metaphorical sense to the words of Scripture when no such sense is indicated by the context or required by the passage. Moreover, James speaks of Abraham as ‘our father’ (James 2:21), thus indicating that as a Jew he wrote to the Jews.

Others suppose that the Epistle was addressed to Jews generally to non-Christian as well as to Christian Jews. This is an opinion which possesses considerable plausibility, and has found many able supporters. [1] The Epistle, it is affirmed, is addressed ‘to the twelve tribes,’ without any recognition of the Christian faith of the readers; they are described merely according to their nationality. Besides, it contains various statements which can hardly apply to Christians, and can only be true of unconverted Jews (James 2:6-7, James 5:6). But the general contents of the Epistle are opposed to this opinion. The readers, whoever they were, were at least professing Christians; their Christianity is taken for granted. James rests his authority upon being ‘a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ’ (James 1:1). His readers, without distinction, are such as God hath begotten by the word of truth, that is, the gospel of Christ (James 1:18). He speaks of their possessing the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory (James 2:1). He mentions those who blasphemed that worthy name, namely, the name of Christ, by which they were called (James 2:7). And he exhorts them to patience because of the advent of Christ: ‘Be patient, therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord’ (James 5:7).

[1] The opinion advocated by Basset, and necessary for his theory of the authorship of James the son of Zebedee.

Hence, then, we conclude that this Epistle was primarily addressed to Jewish Christians. To this, indeed, it has been objected that there are portions in it which are inapplicable to Christians: the severe invectives of the writer (James 3:9, James 4:1; James 4:4), and especially his denunciation of judgment upon the rich (James 5:1-6), can only refer to unbelievers. But we do not know the state of moral corruption which prevailed among the Jewish Christians; and certainly, if we were to judge of them by the conduct of many professing Christians of the present day, we would not regard those invectives as too strong. And with regard to the attack upon the rich in the fifth chapter, it is so worded that it may be regarded as an apostrophe addressed to rich unbelievers the proud oppressors of the Jewish Christians; though it is not impossible that there existed in the Christian Church rich professors to whom these words of stern reproof were not inapplicable.

The phrase ‘ twelve tribes ’ was a usual appellation of Jews in general. Thus Paul, in his speech before Agrippa, says: ‘Unto which promise our twelve tribes hope to attain’ (Acts 26:7). The twelve tribes were now mixed together, and formed the nation of the Jews. Many of the Israelites were left in their own land by their Assyrian conquerors, and many of them returned at the restoration from Babylon. The locality of these twelve tribes is contained in the addition, ‘ who are scattered abroad. They were the Jews of the dispersion Jews resident beyond the boundaries of Palestine. In almost every country at that time Jews of the dispersion were found; but there were especially two great dispersions the Babylonian and the Greek. The Epistle being written in Greek, it would seem that the Greek dispersion (John 7:35) was primarily intended. Accordingly the persons to whom it was addressed would be such as had passed over to Christianity from among those who are called Hellenists or Grecians in the Acts of the Apostles, i.e Christian Jews who resided out of Palestine and who spoke the Greek language. The churches addressed were in all probability those in the countries in the closest proximity to Judea, namely, Phenicia, Syria, Cilicia, and Proconsular Asia. The members of these churches were, it is supposed, chiefly composed of Jewish Christians; not like those churches founded by Paul, which were chiefly composed of Gentile Christians.

The condition of those Christian Jews of the dispersion, as described in the Epistle, was such as to excite great anxiety and concern. They were exposed to manifold trials; their members were in general poor; and they were dragged by their rich oppressors before the judgment-seat (James 2:6). But it would appear that they did not bear their trials with Christian patience. Instead of trust in God, they gave way to doubt, and thus became double-minded, with their affections divided between God and the world. On account of their trials, they were strongly tempted to apostasy, to renounce their Christianity, and to relapse into their former Judaism. They carried the spirit of Jewish covetousness with them into the Christian Church, and were eagerly desirous of earthly riches; looked upon poverty as a crime; showed even in their religious assemblies an obsequious attention to the rich; and by their actions declared that they preferred the friendship of the world to the friendship of God. This worldly spirit was the occasion of bitter strife among themselves; and especially there was a wide breach among them between the rich and the poor. Their religion had degenerated into a mere formal observance of certain religious ceremonies; they trusted to their privileges, both as Jews and Christians, without giving due attention to holiness of life; and they rested on their Christian faith, although divorced from good works. Of course we are not to suppose that all were thus estranged from the Christian life; but even they who preserved their Christianity purest were living in the midst of temptation, and required to be admonished and encouraged to perseverance.


With regard to the place of composition, there is hardly any difference of opinion. This was undoubtedly Jerusalem, where James usually resided, and which was the proper centre for an epistle addressed to Jewish Christians to issue from. In this Epistle the mother church addresses her offspring. ‘The local colouring of the Epistle,’ as Dean Plumptre remarks, ‘indicates with sufficient clearness where the writer lived. He speaks, as the prophets of Israel had done, of the early and latter rain (James 5:7); the hot blast of the kauson or simoom of the desert (James 1:11); the brackish springs of the hills of Judah and Benjamin (James 3:11); the figs, the olives, and the vines with which those hills were clothed (James 3:12): all these form part of the surroundings of the writer. Storms and tempests, such as might have been seen on the Sea of Galilee, or in visits to Caesarea or Joppa, and the power of man to guide the great ships safely through them, have at some time or other been familiar to him’ (James 3:4). [1]

[1] The local colouring of the Epistle is also adverted to by Hug in his Introduction, vol. 2 sec cxlviii

The time of composition, on the other hand, is a matter of greater difficulty, and has given rise to a variety of opinions. Assuming the correctness of our view regarding the author of the Epistle, it was evidently written on or before the year 63, when James was martyred. But it may be disputed whether it was written before or after Paul’s publication of the doctrine of justification without the works of the law. Those who suppose that the object of this Epistle was to correct the perversions of Paul’s views must assign a later date, not long before the death of James; whereas those who think that James makes no reference to Paul’s views, but refers only to errors which he knew to be then prevalent among the Jewish Christians, may assign a much earlier date, though not necessitated to do so.

Some suppose that the Epistle contains a designed refutation of certain perversions of Paul’s doctrine of justification, that doctrine having been apprehended as implying that faith was all that was necessary for salvation, and that works or acts of holy obedience were unnecessary. They think that the very terms employed by James justification, faith, and works point to a Pauline origin, and are a proof that Paul’s doctrine was already published and perverted among those Jewish Christians to whom James wrote. James, it is said, expresses himself with evident reference to the conclusion which Paul arrived at (James 2:24; Romans 3:28). The example of Abraham’s justification is adduced by both Paul and James, as an illustration of their respective views (James 2:21; Romans 4:1-3). And various expressions in this Epistle are considered to be allusions to similar expressions in Paul’s Epistles. The relation of James’ doctrine of justification to that of Paul’s will be considered when we come to the exposition of the Epistle. Meanwhile we would only remark that it is not necessary to suppose that James was acquainted with Paul’s doctrine, or that he had read his Epistles. The supposed allusions to the Pauline Epistles are vague and not numerous. There is no necessity to suppose that the ideas of justification, faith, and works, were only Pauline ideas; they might have been prevalent in the Christian church, as expressions of its belief; and, indeed, they were not unknown among the Jews. The reference to Abraham’s justification would be natural to any Jewish writer in discussing the relation of faith to justification, for it is one of the few instances in the Old Testament where faith is mentioned in such a relation. What James combats may have been, not any perversion of Pauline views, but the old opinion of the Pharisees introduced into the Christian church, that mere external privileges, an orthodox creed, and the performance of certain outward religious services, would ensure salvation, independently of a holy life.

We are therefore inclined to agree with those who would assign the date of this Epistle to a period prior to the promulgation of the Pauline doctrine of justification: indeed to suppose it possible that it may have been written even before the Council of Jerusalem. There is in it no allusion to Gentile Christians, as if Christianity was then chiefly restricted to the Jews; nor is there any mention of those divisions which arose, in consequence of the numerous conversions of the Gentiles, between Jewish and Gentile Christians concerning the validity of the Mosaic law. This can easily be accounted for on the supposition that such divisions had not then arisen, and that Jewish Christianity was then predominant. At an early period, when the gospel had only commenced to be preached to the Gentiles, when Paul and Barnabas had only set out on their first missionary journey, most of the Christian Churches must have been composed of Jewish Christians, who would be identical with those Jews of the dispersion beyond Judea, to whom James wrote. [1] We read that, in consequence of the persecution that arose about Stephen, those that were scattered abroad travelled as far as Phenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to none but to the Jews only (Acts 11:19). Afterwards, in consequence of the conversion of the Gentiles, the Jewish element would be swallowed up, and beyond Palestine there is no mention of Jewish Christian churches, although it is not improbable that some of them may have existed in Syria and Babylonia. Although we can attain to no certainty on this point, yet an early date is more probable than a late one, and on this supposition we would assign the composition of this Epistle to somewhere between the years 45 and 50. In that case, this Epistle is one of the earliest, if not the very earliest, of the books of the New Testament.

[1] Dr. Erdmann supposes that the Epistle was written even before the formation of the Gentile church at Antioch, when consequently almost all the Christians would be Jews and Jewish converts. These churches of the dispersion would necessarily be closely connected with the church of Jerusalem, over which James presided, so that he may be considered as having a pastoral oversight over them.


The design of the Epistle has already been indicated in considering the condition of the readers. It was to correct certain errors in practice into which the Jewish Christians had fallen, to warn them against apostasy, and to establish them in the faith amid the temptations to which they were exposed. It is observable that the faults which James censures are such as we know then prevailed among the Jews. The Jewish Christians, when they embraced Christianity, had not divested themselves of their Jewish character; their old nature was not thus so easily laid aside. Thus James reproves them for their covetousness their eager desire to buy and sell and get gain (James 4:13); for their formalism relying on their belief in the unity of God, the great article of the Jewish religion, without a corresponding practice (James 3:19); for their oppression the rich refusing to pay the labourers their hire (James 5:4); for their meanness, their sycophancy toward the rich (James 2:3); for their falsehood, their disregard of oaths (James 5:12); and for their fatalism, laying the blame of their faults upon God (James 1:13).

The design of this Epistle is ethical, not doctrinal. James does not, like Paul, insist upon or develop the peculiar doctrines of Christianity; he supposes them known, and he builds upon them practical Christianity. He dwells upon the government of the tongue, the sin of worldliness, the observance of the moral law; in short, the utter worthlessness of faith without works: he inculcates the principle of that pure and undefiled worship which consists in doing good to others, and in keeping ourselves pure in the world (James 1:27). Hence there is in the Epistle a comparative want of Christian doctrine. James does not insist on the atonement, the resurrection and ascension of Christ, and the work of the Spirit. Our Lord’s sufferings are hardly alluded to: even the name of our Saviour occurs only twice (James 1:1, James 2:1). On the other hand, there is nothing in the Epistle at variance with the exalted and divine nature of Christ, but rather the reverse. James calls himself’ the servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ’ (James 1:1), thus maintaining a unity between God and Christ; he speaks of Him as the Lord of glory (James 2:1), exalted above all human power and dignity; he adverts to the coming of the Lord (James 5:7-8), and evidently designates Him as the Judge of the world (James 5:8-9). At the same time, even when James touches on doctrine, it is not for the sake of the doctrine, but always with reference to practice. Thus he speaks of justification, in order to: how the inseparable connection between faith and holiness. The Epistle, in its purely ethical tendency, bears a very close resemblance to the Sermon on the Mount: many of the precepts and illustrations are the same as those found in that greatest of discourses. [1] Not that the writer of this Epistle saw the Gospel of Matthew; but the words of Jesus, orally repeated before any Gospel was written, were impressed upon his memory, and influenced his diction.

[1] The following is a list of parallelisms as given by Huther:

James 1:2 compared with Matthew 5:10-12

James 1:4 compared with Matthew 5:48

James 1:5; James 5:15 compared with Matthew 7:7-12

James 1:9 compared with Matthew 5:3

James 1:20 compared with Matthew 5:22

James 2:13 compared with Matthew 6:14-15; Matthew 5:7

James 2:14-16 compared with Matthew 8:21-23

James 3:17-18 compared with Matthew 5:9

James 4:10 compared with Matthew 5:3-4

James 4:11 compared with Matthew 7:1-2

James 5:2 compared with Matthew 6:19

James 5:10 compared with Matthew 5:12

James 5:12 compared with Matthew 5:33-37

The style of this Epistle is very marked and original; it bears no resemblance to any other writing in the New Testament; the nearest approach to it in sententious sentiments and detached maxims is the Book of Proverbs. There is a great freshness and vividness about it; the writer is rich in illustrations, which are always appropriate and impressive. There is a directness in his address; the persons whom he addresses are brought forward, and spoken to, as if they were present. In his animadversions he uses strong expressions; his stern sense of duty gives rise to a great severity in his rebukes; he is full of zeal and moral indignation at all iniquity; he does not spare the faults of those to whom he writes; and his denunciations often resemble the indignant reproaches of the Old Testament prophets. To him no faith, no profession, no assertion is of any value unless accompanied with holiness of life.

It is not easy to give a connected statement of the train of thought in this Epistle. There is no logical connection, as in the Epistles of Paul; the sentences are often detached, and do not follow one another in a regular order. James commences his Epistle by alluding to the trials to which his readers were exposed; these, if patiently endured, were to be to them a source of joy, and were an occasion of blessedness; but they must beware of attributing their yielding to temptation to God, for He is the source of all good and not of evil; more especially it was of His goodness that they were born again by the gospel. It becomes them to be diligent hearers of the gospel, in order that they might reduce to practice its precepts. Religion does not consist in the performance of ceremonies, but in active benevolence and personal purity (James 1:0). They must not envy the rich, nor despise the poor, but practise their religion without respect of persons. The royal law of love teaches them to love their neighbour as themselves. Faith without love, showing itself in acts of benevolence, is dead. Such a faith, if it hath not works, cannot justify. To no purpose do they believe in God, unless their faith is accompanied with holiness of life (James 2:0). Especially must they cultivate that branch of holiness which consists in the government of the tongue; this will require their utmost care; they must avoid all strife and bitter envy, and cultivate that heavenly wisdom which is pure and peaceable; the result of holiness is not contention, but peace (James 3:0). On the other hand, all their fightings and strifes arise from those sinful lusts which exist within them; these they must overcome; they must resist the devil; they must cleanse their hands and purify their hearts; they must humble themselves before God, and not judge one another. Religion is also trust in God; in everything it behoves them to exercise dependence on God, and to acknowledge Him even in their worldly undertakings (James 4:0). The rich are especially warned, in a stern apostrophe, of their oppressions and wantonness; whilst those suffering from their oppressions are exhorted to patient waiting for the coming of the Lord; they are to take the prophets for examples of patient endurance of sufferings. In all things, and in every condition, they must abound in prayer, and seek to reclaim their erring brethren, for in so doing they would hide a multitude of sins (James 5:0).


The Epistle of James did not receive the same speedy and general acceptance as the Epistles of Paul. The testimonies in its favour among the ancient fathers are comparatively few. Eusebius classes it among the disputed epistles ( H. E. iii. 25); and it did not receive universal acceptance until the close of the fourth century. It is well known that at the Reformation its authority was disputed, and that Luther, from subjective reasons, viewed it in an unfavourable light.

The reasons of this dubiety with regard to the authenticity of this Epistle are easily accounted for. There was a certain doubtfulness as to its author. James the Lord’s brother, to whom it was generally ascribed, although a person of great importance in the early church, was not an apostle, and hence he was regarded as inferior to most of the other writers of the New Testament. The Epistle was primarily addressed to the Jewish Christians, and thus would for some time be confined to a narrow circle of readers; and, besides, there was in the early ages a prejudice among the Gentile Christians against their Jewish brethren. Most of the peculiar doctrines of Christianity were omitted in the Epistle, and hence it was regarded as of inferior importance to those epistles which contained a development of Christian doctrine; it was considered to belong rather to the law than to the gospel. And especially the statements in it appeared to be opposed to the teaching of Paul. These circumstances hindered the general recognition of this Epistle; but, as has been remarked, ‘so much the more valuable are those recognitions of its genuineness and canonicity which we do meet with.’

Still, however, this Epistle is not without external testimonies in its favour. [1] There are probable allusions to it in the writings of the fathers Clemens Romanus, Hermas, Irenaeus, and Tertullian, in the second century. Origen, in the third century, is the first who ascribes it to James; he speaks of it as the Epistle attributed to James. But the chief external testimony in its favour is that it is inserted in the Peshito or early Syriac translation, made in the middle of the second century, although that translation omits some other books of Scripture (2 Peter , 2 and 3 John, and Jude). The Syriac church was in the best position to judge of its authenticity. It was especially to the Jewish churches in Syria that this Epistle was addressed; and, therefore, its being recognised by the Syriac church is a strong proof in its favour.

[1] It has been plausibly asserted that the earliest testimony in favour of the Epistle of James is the references to it in 1 Peter. Comp. 1 Peter 1:6-7 with James 1:2-3; 1 Peter 1:24 with James 1:10; 1 Peter 2:1-2 with James 1:21; 1 Peter 4:8 with James 5:20; 1 Peter 5:5-6 with James 4:6; James 4:10; 1 Peter 5:8-9 with James 4:7.

The internal evidence is even stronger than the external. If it were a forgery, the author would not be described merely as ‘James, the servant of God.’ Other titles would be attached to his name, as ‘James the Lord’s brother,’ in order to pave the way for the reception of the writing by the authority of the name of its author. The difference between it and the non-apostolic writings is immense, and its undisputed superiority is an argument in its favour. But, further, it is precisely such a letter as one would expect, considering the-legal strictness of James, and the national feelings and temptations of the Jewish Christians. It is at once severe and indignant at sin, and earnest in the inculcation of practical religion, as we would expect in any utterance of James, the Just; and it reproves covetousness, worldliness, and Pharisaical formality, the prevalent faults in a community of Jewish Christians; for these were, even in the apostolic age, the prominent sins of the Jewish race.

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