Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, June 22nd, 2024
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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Bible Commentaries

The Biblical IllustratorThe Biblical Illustrator

- James

by Editor - Joseph Exell




Three persons bearing this name (Jacobus) occupied prominent positions in the early Church. One, the son of Zebedee, was martyred by Herod (Acts 12:2). The second is described in the four lists of the apostles as the son of Alpheus. He was one of the original twelve, and never during the time covered by the New Testament narrative is said to have been an unbeliever. The third is the James, the Lord’s brother, of Galatians 1:19, who was certainly the Bishop or President of the Church of Jerusalem, to whom St. Paul, on his return from his third journey, “went in; and all the elders,” it is said, “were present.” That he was the Superintendent or Bishop of the Church at Jerusalem is also evident from this, that he presided at the meeting or council in which it was ruled that the Gentiles should not be called upon to submit to the Jewish law. Now the question arises, Did these two names--James the son of Alpheus, and James the brother of the Lord--belong to the same person? This view is attended with the difficulty that the James who, with three others--Joses, Simon, and Judas--is called by the Nazarenes “the brethren of Jesus,” was certainly not a believer when Jesus taught in the synagogue at Nazareth some time after the calling of the apostles, and when the people scornfully asked (Matthew 13:55), and later on when it is said (John 7:5). But if he was not the son of Alpheus, of whom was he the son? We cannot tell with certainty the name of his father, but we can tell with the utmost certainty the name of his mother--that she was a certain Mary who stood by the Cross, and is four times said to be the mother of James. We will begin our examination with the first notice Matthew 13:55). The second notice is in the same Gospel Matthew 27:55-56). Taking these passages together, as being in the same book and from the same hand, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the James and Jones were the same as those mentioned in Matthew 13:55, and that this Mary was their mother. The notices in St. Mark are the same, and lead to the same conclusion, only that in Mark 15:40 we read, “Mary, the mother of James the Less and of Jones,” and (Mark 16:1) Mary, the mother of James. In St. Luke (Luke 24:10) we read, “Mary, the mother of James,” “mother’’ being supplied. Now this Mary is called in John 19:25, the (wife) of Clopas. If the Clopas is the same as Alpheus, then the Apostle St. James was one of the original twelve, and the inferences we have drawn from the fact that the Nazarenes claimed him as on their side, rather than on the side of Jesus, falls to the ground, and must be otherwise accounted for. St. James must have been either the Apostle James, the son of Alpheus, or the son of a Mary, in all probability the sister of the Virgin, who stood by the Cross, but the name of whose husband has not been preserved. (M. F. Sadler, M. A.)

The questions, whether St. James the Less was an apostle, and what is the precise relationship which is expressed by his appellation, “the Lord’s brother,” exercised the ingenuity of many learned writers in the earlier ages of the Church, who possessed ancient documentary aids for the solution of them which are not now extant. It would therefore he presumptuous to dogmatise on these two points. Rather we may reasonably believe that a providential purpose may be subserved even by the uncertainty which surrounds them. The Holy Spirit, if He had been so pleased, might have made them perfectly clear by a few additional words in Holy Scripture; but He has not done so. He foreknew the doubts which would arise in the Church in regard to these questions. There is therefore a moral in His reserve, a meaning in His silence. And what is that? Perhaps by such difficulties as these He designed to make us more thankful for those essential verities of saving doctrine which are fully revealed to us in Holy Writ. There seems also to be a special lesson to be learnt from the particular questions which have now passed under review. The Holy Spirit has thrown a veil over the personal history of the Blessed Virgin. He has not clearly disclosed to us the precise nature of the relationship which is indicated in Holy Scripture by His own words, “the Lord’s brethren,” “the Lord’s sisters.” And why was this? Might it not be in order to wean our hearts from laying too much stress on carnal relationships, even to Christ Himself? Might it not be for the purpose of reminding us of the high and holy nature of our own privileges as brethren and sisters of Christ, by virtue of our own incorporation in His mystical body, and our relation to our Heavenly Father by filial adoption in His ever-blessed Son? Might it not be for the sake of inculcating more forcibly that holy and joyful truth which Christ Himself vouchsafed to declare to us when He said Matthew 12:48-50; Luke 11:27-28)? This divine truth--that brotherhood to Christ consists in obedience to His heavenly Father--is the sum and substance of this Epistle written by St. James, the Lord’s brother. (Bp. Chris. Wordsworth.)


It was to the Jews of the Dispersion, to the Hellenists, that St. James addressed this Epistle; to those who were nonresident in the land of Judaea, as distinct from those who were resident there; to Grecising Jews as distinct from Hebrews. They were at this time a mixed assembly in a religious point of view, as a large infusion of Christianity had spread among them through the information brought to the various centres of their sojournings by the visitors who came up to Jerusalem at that memorable Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the apostles, and from other sources. St. James makes reference to these believers as the poor, humble, tempted, beloved brethren. The sharp line of distinction between the synagogue and the Church had not yet been drawn; the Christian Jews at Jerusalem attended the services at the temple, and those of the Dispersion worshipped in the synagogues, holding, it is most probable, a gathering or after-meeting of their own body at a different hour. To this custom, it is likely, Hebrews 10:25 refers. Thus our Epistle, when read, would be read in the synagoguewhere all met together, and thus be heard of all, both Jewish non-Christians and Jewish Christians: the former were to appropriate the rebukes, the latter the consolations of the Epistle. With this view all the parts of the Epistle are consistent with each other, and the extremes of praise and invective, in themselves so irreconcilable, each receive their own allotment and proper direction. The general tone of the letter is decidedly one of severe reproof, at times rising to prophetic denunciation, relieved by tender utterances of love and whispers of consolation: the former adapted to the majority of the attendants at the synagogue, who were non-Christians, and the latter to the minority, who had in different degrees of light received the doctrine that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah. (F. T. Bassett, M.A.)


As to the place of composition there is not the shadow of a doubt. Even if there were not an unbroken consent of all historical, traditional, and legendary notices as to the continued residence of the Bishop of Jerusalem in the city which was, in modern language, his see, the local colouring of the Epistle would indicate with sufficient clearness where the writer lived. He speaks, as the prophets of Israel had done, of the early and the latter rain (James 5:7); the hot blast of the Simeon (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 partof 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). (Dean Plumptre.)

With regard to the date of the Epistle, opinions are more divided. That it was written before the destruction of Jerusalem will follow as matter of course from what has already been said. But there are two other termini, with reference to which it is important that its place should be assigned. These are--

(1) the publication of the doctrine of St. Paul respecting justification by faith only; and

(2) the apostolic council in Jerusalem of Acts 15:1-41.

With regard to the former, it seems most improbable that, supposing James 2:14 ff. to have been written after St. Paul’s teaching on the point was known, St. James should have made no illusion either to St. Paul rightly understood or to St. Paul wrongly understood. Surely such a method of proceeding, considering what strong words he uses, would be, to say the least, very ill-judged, or very careless: the former, if he only wished to prevent an erroneous conception of the great apostle’s doctrine--the latter if he wished to put himself in direct antagonism with it. It ismuch more probable that all which St. James says respecting works and faith has respect to a former and different state and period of the controversy; when the Jewish Pharisaic notions were being carried into the adopted belief in Christianity, and the danger was not, as afterwards, of a Jewish law-righteousness being set up, antagonistic to the righteousness which is by the faith of Christ, but of a Jewish reliance on exclusive purity of faith superseding the necessity of a holy life, which is inseparably bound up with any worthy holding of the Christian faith. With regard to the other question, as to whether the Epistle must be dated before or after the council in Acts 15:1-41., one consideration is, to my mind, decisive. We have no mention in it of any controversy respecting the ceremonial observance of the Jewish law, nor any allusion to the duties of the Judaeo-Christian believers in this respect. Now this certainly could not have been, after the dispute of Acts 15:1 ff. The date of the Epistle is therefore probably about 45 A.D. (Dean Alford.)


The main purpose of St. James in this Epistle was to preach to the Jews of the Dispersion the same doctrine of conviction of sin that the Baptist, and our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount, had preached to the Jews in the land of Judaea, with the same object in view, to lead them through humiliation and godly sorrow and sore compunction to see their last estate before God, and so he prepared them for the reception of that gospel which in all its fulness of mercy and free grace proclaims through Christ pardon, peace, and life, without money and without price, by His blood-shedding and all-righteous merits. (F. T. Bassett, M.A.)

The Epistle was evidently called forth by the state of the Churches as reported to James by those coming up from time to time to Jerusalem, who spoke of the worldliness, pride, and inconsistency, the partiality, bigotry, and formality, the discontent, censoriousness, and contentiousness which characterised many who professed to be believers, and which hindered the progress of the gospel in Palestine as well as beyond it. These faults his Epistle is well fitted to correct. But he writes to them, not merely as a prophet to rebuke, or a moralist to instruct; he is anxious above all that they should not hold the faith of the gospel as a mere barren dogma, or in unrighteousness, but rise through it into a purer and nobler life, and bring forth the fruits of the Spirit, exemplifying the good way of life by works in meekness of wisdom, by patient endurance, and by loving beneficence He seeks also to prepare them for days of coming trial by directing their thoughts to the coming of the Lord, when their deliverance and reward would be complete; and urges them, though scattered abroad, to live as citizens of the one kingdom foreshadowed by their ancient nation and established by the Son of God--a kingdom of righteousness and peace. (W. Ormiston, D. D.)

The character of the Epistle is a mixed one; consolatory and hortatory for the believing brethren; earnest, minatory, and polemical against those who disgraced their Christian profession by practical error. Even in James 2:14-26, where alone the writer seems to be combating doctrinal error, all his contention is rather in the realm of practice: he is more anxious to show that justification cannot be brought about by a kind of faith which is destitute of the practical fruits of a Christian life, than to trace the ultimate ground, theologically speaking, of justification in the sight of God. (Dean Alford)

THE STYLE OF THE EPISTLE.--The language is not only fresh and vivid, the immediate outflow of a deep and earnest spirit, but at the same time sententious and rich in graphic figure. Gnome follows after gnome, and the discourse hastens from one similitude to another: so that the diction often passes into the poetical, and in some parts is like that of the Old Testament prophets. We do not find logical connection, like that in St. Paul; but the thoughts arrange themselves in single groups, which are strongly marked off from one another. We everywhere see that the author has his object clearly in view, and puts it forth with graphic concreteness. (J. E. Huther, Ph.D.)

As mild language is suited to tender feeling, so strong feelings produce strong language. Especially, the style acquires emphasis and majesty by the climax of thoughts and words ever regularly and rhetorically arrived at, and by the constantly occurring antithesis. (Kern.)

The writer ever goes at once in medias res; and with the first sentence which begins a section (usually an interrogative or imperative one), says out at once, fully and entirely, that which he has in his heart; so that in almost every case the first words of each section might serve as a title for it. The further development of the thought, then, is regressive, explaining and grounding the preceding sentence, and concludes with a comprehensive sentence, recapitulating that with which he began. (Wiesinger.)


It is not quoted in any of the Apostolic Fathers, though there appears a reminiscence of James 1:5-7 in the “Pastor of Hermas” (bk. w. com. 9.). There seems no clear quotation from it in Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, or Tertullian. The only references in these Fathers are to passages which are common to it and other parts of the New Testament, as to 2:8. The first undoubted reference to it is in Origen’s “De Principiis,” bk. 1. chap. 3. (James 4:17). He also quotes St. James’s Epistle by name, citing 2:20. Eusebius classes it amongst the books respecting the canonicity of which doubts were entertained (“Eccl. Hist.” 3:25). The Epistle is found in the Syrian Version (Peschito), though that version does not contain 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Apocalypse. It was recognised as canonical by the Council of Carthage, A.D. 297, and was quoted by some of the most illustrious of the Greek Fathers--Athanasius, both the Cyrils, Gregory, Nazianzen, Epiphanius, &c. At the time of the Reformation the doubts respecting it were revived, particularly by Erasmus, Cajetan, Luther, and others and since by Grotius, Wetstein, Schleiermacher, De Wette, and others. It is to be remembered that, though most holy and practical in its teaching, no doctrine, or in fact, no moral aspect of Christianity depends upon it. Its assertion of the necessity of works only follows up the still more emphatic teaching of St. Paul on the same matter. It contains no allusion to the Atonement, to the Resurrection, to the Christian Sacraments, to the laying on of hands either in confirmation or ordination, and no theory of Church government, and no historical allusion; so that it presents less opportunity for citation than any other book of the New Testament. (M. F. Sadler, M.A.)

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