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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary

- James

by Daniel Whedon




JAMES, the brother of Jesus, and probably the eldest son of Joseph and Mary,* was doubtless born at Nazareth, and lived there for years with his parents and his younger brothers, Joses, Simon, and Judas, and his sisters, mentioned but unnamed in history. He seems to have been specially consecrated from his birth as a Nazarite, and to have retained through life the strongest traits of that order. As a descendant of David he was an intensely national Jew, and expected a heroic Messiah who should overthrow Rome, and give a more than ancient glory and supremacy to Judea and Jerusalem. Hence he, with his younger brothers, looked upon the eldest, Jesus, notwithstanding the purity of his youthful character and the supernaturalisms that hovered round him, as mistaken if he assumed to be that patriot liberator. Hence, too, when his neighbors were amazed at his “wisdom,” Jesus, with peculiar pathos, acknowledged himself “a prophet without honour in his own house.” During the residence of the family in Galilee, when the earnest labours of our Lord in his divine mission drew upon him, from his enemies, the imputation of a demoniac, the family mother and brothers in a panic of unbelief went to bring him home, under assumption that his mental faculties had become overstrained by excitement. That the brothers were, at this time, not of the twelve, is certain from the fact that while they were without, the disciples were within, the house, listening to the Lord’s discourse. As the eldest of these brothers, our James of this epistle must be considered as engaged in this family mission to Jesus.

[* The question of his and his brothers’ sonship of Mary is discussed in note on Matthew 13:55. In regard to the three Jameses consult note Matthew 10:2.] Later in our Lord’s ministry we have a still more unequivocal instance of the unbelief of James and his brothers. As the feast of tabernacles was approaching, his brothers proffered their advice to him to go and display himself to the world, pointing out the inconsistency of aspiring to be a national leader and yet, lurking “in secret.” Jesus recognises their wish for his putting himself at the head of the worldly expectants of a political Messiah. The hatred of “the world,” he tells them, cannot rest on them, for they belong to its party; as for himself, he is a rebuker of its sin, and must bide the Father’s time and method of his self-manifestation. It is remarkable that our James, who was one, and probably leader and spokesman, of these counsellors, uses the word “world” in this epistle in the very sense of the term as it occurs in our Lord’s reply.

It was not until after the crucifixion and resurrection that James, with his brothers, emerges from this cloud. Luke (Acts 1:13-14) informs us that they were present at the meeting which chose Matthias as apostle. Before mentioning them the apostolic list is given, clearly separating the apostles from the brothers. In that list two Jameses are named, one with his brother John, and the other “James the son of Alpheus.” Alphean James was, therefore, an apostle, but not a brother of Jesus; our James, then, must have been a brother, but not an apostle. The key to his conversion seems to be, in some degree, supplied by Paul’s statement that the risen Lord “was seen of James.” 1 Corinthians 15:7.

Henceforth James resides in Jerusalem with an ever-increasing eminence. When Peter is released by the angel from prison he bids his friends “Go show these things unto James, and to the brethren.” Acts 12:17. When Paul returns from Arabia to Jerusalem, after his conversion, he sees Peter, and of the other apostles none “save James the Lord’s brother;” where he is evidently called an “apostle,” and also “the Lord’s brother,” which he would not have been if he were only cousin. Galatians 1:19. Fourteen years afterwards Paul comes to the Jerusalem Council, (comp, Acts 15:2, with Galatians 2:1,) and finds James (with Peter and John) one of “the pillars.” Galatians 2:9. At the council he sees James preside, and hears him pronounce from the Judaic side that liberalized sentence by which Gentile Christianity is excused from circumcision and the ritual, and Paul’s own apostleship is acknowledged. Yet it had been “from James,” professedly, that the ultraists had come to Paul’s Gentile field at Antioch, proclaiming the unconditional necessity of circumcision to his converts, frightening Peter from his balance, rendering Barnabas doubtful, and rousing Paul to demand the calling of the Council. Amid these elements of disturbance very conspicuous are the liberal conservatism and statesman-like dignity of James. Lastly, when Paul, at the close of his third missionary tour, visits Jerusalem, James, with the elders, received him in state and with an honour that fully shows the cordial relation in which each in his own position stood to the other. At this point it is difficult to say, with Pressense, that James’s dignity was nothing more than pre-eminence of character. And the official nature of his position is somewhat confirmed by the fact that earliest accounts seem to agree that his immediate successor was Symeon, another relative of Jesus, and that a successional line of fifteen Hebrew bishops, whose names are given by Eusebius, extended to the final desolation of Jerusalem under Hadrian. As son of David he was lineal heir to the throne at Jerusalem, where he was a Christian bishop, and, doubtless, this fact gained immunities for him and for Christianity that otherwise could not have existed.

The strong sympathy of James for his countrymen, his lofty integrity of character, his deep tinge of asceticism, derived from his lifelong Nazaritism, won for him the profound reverence of the people of Jerusalem with all but the dominating class. “He was,” says Eusebius, “by all named the Just;” the very adjective applied by Matthew to his father Joseph. The traditional description of him is given by Hegesippus in a passage found in Eusebius to this effect: “He was consecrated from his birth. Wine and strong drink he drank not, never anointed himself with oil, or used the bath. To him alone it was permitted to enter the holy place, for he wore no woollen, but linen. He was accustomed to go alone into the temple, and would be found kneeling upon his knees and praying for the forgiveness of the people, so that his knees became indurated like those of a camel; and on account of his ever bowing his knees in worship to God, and pleading for pardon for the people, and, indeed, for his wonderful piety, he was called Just, and People’s Fortress.” This description strongly suggests that James, in memory of our Lord’s great prediction of the doom of Jerusalem, lived in consecrated supplication for the remission of that terrible sentence, and for the salvation of his people. In spite of his teaching that the Messiah had come in Jesus, they revered him as a man of unparalleled holiness, and felt his prayers to be the stronghold of public safety. But there was one proud ruler who looked with murderous hatred upon this brother of the Crucified the high priest Ananus. He was restrained by the Roman power alone, and waited his opportunity for the destruction of the “Just.” The chance at length presented itself.

A brief history of the successive Roman procurators over Judea we have given in our vol. iii, p. 233, down to Felix, in A.D. 51, who was succeeded by Festus, in A.D. 60, (note, Acts 25:1,) who was succeeded on his death by Albinus, in A.D. 62. The martyrdom of James we give in the words of Josephus:

“Ananus, thinking he had a fitting opportunity at the death of Festus, and while Albinus was yet on his way, [from Rome,] calls a session of the Sanhedrin, and arraigning before it the brother of Jesus called the Christ, whose name was James, and certain others, bringing accusation against them as transgressors, delivered them over to be stoned to death.”

As Josephus narrates the governmental action, so Hegesippus (Eusebius, James 2:22) describes the popular side of the movement by which James was martyred. The profound piety of James so impressed the city that an apprehension arose among the hierarchy that he would carry the people with him. On the one hand parties of inquirers resorted to him, asking, “What is the (way or) ‘door’ of Jesus?” In other words, What is the true view in regard to your crucified brother? To these James firmly replied, “He is the Saviour;” in consequence of which testimony large numbers became believers. Alarmed at this, the Jewish leaders conceived a vain hope that James himself might be induced to modify his claims before the people, and they made him stand upon an eminence of the temple to address an explanation to the people. “O Just one,” said they, “in whom we all ought to confide, What is the door of Jesus!” He answered with a loud voice, “Why ask ye me concerning Jesus, the Son of man? He sits in heaven at the right hand of the great Power, and is about to come in the clouds of heaven.” The enraged authorities, with Ananus probably as chief mover, then incited the mob to stone him, whilst he, kneeling, exclaimed, “I pray thee, O Father, the Lord God, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” At this moment one of the priests, of the sons of Rechab, interposed, saying, “Cease; what do ye? the Just one prays for you.” But a certain fuller, taking a club belonging to his trade, struck him a fatal blow upon the head, and so “the Just” was martyred. They buried him upon the spot, and (says the narrator whom Hegesippus quotes) his pillar still remains by the temple. Hegesippus adds, that “straightway Vespasian besieged them;” but he doubtless conceptually shortens the real interval of time in order to trace a connexion between the crime of James’s murder and the punishment of the city. Between the priesthood of Ananus and the siege of Jerusalem was a period of several years.


This is in the group of epistles which received but a late general recognition in the Church. The most decisive fact in its favour is its acceptance into the Peshito, which is the version of the very early Syriac Church, where the epistle was first published. It is, therefore, an ancient and a home testimony. There is a passage in the Shepherd of Hermas, the apostolic father, which appears to be an imitation of James 4:7. But Origen is the first Greek father who expressly quotes the epistle with the author’s name. Eusebius classes it as disputed, yet generally recognised. It is recognised by Hippolytus, bishop of Portus, near Rome, as Scripture, but without naming the author; and is recognised by Jerome as Scripture, with the author’s name. It was universally received in the fourth century.

As to the DATE, there are two opinions maintained, each by eminent scholars. The first, held generally by the earlier commentators, dated it a short time before the destruction of Jerusalem; the second, held by some later scholars, as Neander, Huther, and Alford, place its writing a short time before the Council of Jerusalem, (Acts xv,) about A.D. 45. This second we consider entirely too early.

A decisive objection to the early date is the late recognition of the epistle by the Church. If it were really written by James the brother of Jesus from Jerusalem to the general body of Hebrew Christians, in the Greek language, so early as A.D. 45, it would have obtained an early circulation, a general notoriety, and an established authority among the earliest documents of the New Testament canon. On the other hand, if published shortly before the overthrow of Jerusalem, we easily understand how, amid the tumults of the times, it should have failed of early general recognition.

A second objection to the early date is its assumption of a widespread and well-established Christian public already existing in the Jewish “dispersion.” Where was this ecumenical audience in A.D. 45? Alford’s reply that it appears in Acts 11:19, and following verses, is entirely insufficient. A few scattered clusters of converts in Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, are very far short of meeting the demand. The whole air of the epistle presupposes a large body of Christian Hebrews scattered through the then civilized world, with Jerusalem for its spiritual capital.

Apparently in this epistle, as in Hebrews and the Pastoral and Catholic epistles, the discussions and strifes about circumcision and ritual are long past. In the Pastorals, St. Paul inveighs against the Gnosticizing Jews; in the Catholic, John against the Docetists; in Hebrews, Paul against the Alexandrines; while James, from the Hebrew side, only takes issue with the antinomians who misquoted Paul’s doctrine of justification “to their own destruction.” This implication, that our epistle appeared later than Paul’s Romans, is pronounced by Alford “a superficial view;” and in the sense that it lies patent on the surface of the facts we acknowledge it to be superficial, but none the less fundamental and certain. There is nothing “improbable” in supposing that James delicately avoids personal collision with Paul himself, yet graphically states the counter truth in regard to faith and works, in order that the true doctrinal balance should be maintained in the Christian Church.

As to the state of things apparent in the epistle, we may readily concede that the mention of church and elders by no means proves a late period, for these appear at the very origin of Christianity. But in James the Churches are world-wide; they have their regular-built synagogues; they have generally fallen into fixed habits, such as obsequiousness to the rich, an antinomian perversion of the Pauline doctrine of faith, and a too great loquacity of would-be teachers and “masters.” The eloquent denunciatory apostrophe to “rich men” implies their established relations to the Church, while the woes pronounced upon them intimate the impending doom overhanging the city in which it was written.

As we see a probable allusion to the martyrdom of James in Hebrews 13:7, so Hebrews must have appeared after this epistle. The order of facts we think as follows: This epistle; the martyrdom of James; Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews; the visit of Paul to Jerusalem, probably with Timothy; and the Jewish war and overthrow. As the death of James took place immediately upon the appointment of Albinus, its date must have been A.D. 62. How long this epistle was written before that event, though certainly not long, can only be a guess. We put it conjecturally at A.D. 60.

The permanent residence of James at Jerusalem places it beyond reasonable doubt that his epistle was written from that city. At the same time it is noted that the natural scenes alluded to by the writer were those familiar to a Jerusalemite. The sea is not far distant, (James 1:6; James 3:4;) figs, oil, and wine are plenty, (James 3:12;) there are bitter fountains, (James 3:11-12;) droughts and consequent danger of crops, (James 3:17; James 3:15;) the burning wind, (James 1:11;) and the former and latter rain, (v, 7.)

The writer’s relationship to Jesus seems to appear from his many similar allusions to nature. The resemblances to the style of Jesus, especially in the Sermon on the Mount, are remarkable. Alford gives the following list, (iv, p. 105:) James 1:2, with Matthew 5:10-12; Matthew 1:4, with Matthew 5:48; Matthew 1:5; Matthew 5:15, with Matthew 7:7, etc.; James 1:9, with Matthew 5:3; Matthew 1:20, with Matthew 5:22; Matthew 2:13, with Matthew 6:14-15; Matthew 5:7; Matthew 2:14, etc., with Matthew 7:21, etc.; James 3:17-18, with Matthew 5:9; Matthew 4:4, with Matthew 6:24; Matthew 4:10, with Matthew 5:3-4; Matthew 4:11, with Matthew vii, i, etc.; James 5:2, with Matthew 6:19; Matthew 5:10, with Matthew 5:12; Matthew 5:12, with Matthew 5:33, etc.; and from other discourses of our Lord: James 1:14, with Matthew 15:19; Matthew 4:12, with Matthew 10:28. Compare also the places where the rich are denounced with Luke 6:24, etc.


The opening superscription, “to the twelve tribes scattered abroad,” certainly means the entire Jewish nation. They are the Messianic race, the writer’s own kinsmen: nay, as a descendant of David, they are his own hereditary people. Yet it is to an inner circle of the tribes that his doctrines are immediately addressed. He is a servant of Christ, (verse 1,) and consoles his “brethren” in trial; his “synagogue” (English version, assembly, James 2:2) is a Christian Church; and his whole aim is to portray the formation of a “perfect” man, or model Christian, according to the gospel “law of liberty,” by which the soul is most perfectly free in the most perfect obedience to righteousness. Yet he does not lose sight of the wider circle of the Messianic race. It is to that broader audience that he addresses his rebuke of the belligerent spirit in James 4:1-10; and we cannot avoid the conclusion, that in his prophetic apostrophe to “rich men,” in James 5:1-6, he denounces, not the Jewish aristocracy, but the Roman oppressors under whom Jew and Christian were alike crushed. We think the current view of most commentators, that these “rich men” were “brethren,” is entirely inadmissible.

The style is lucid, pointed, rich with figures drawn from nature, and, while flowing much in a clear, didactic current, rises, when the topic demands, into the loftiest and most impetuous torrent of denunciatory eloquence. The purity of its Greek is not so inexplicable a problem as Alford implies. Men endowed with a natural facility for acquiring and using with purity and power a foreign tongue are by no means a rare phenomenon.



1. Trials, as conducive to firmness and perfecting Christian character, are a joy James 1:1-4

2. Wisdom for this Christian perfection, obtainable from God, by faithful prayer, for poor or rich James 1:5-11

3. Blessedness of enduring temptation; which (temptation) is not from God; from whom the good gift alone James 1:12-18


1. No loquacity or irritation but candid hearing James 1:19-21

2. Being not hearers only, but doers of the word James 1:22-27

3. Without obsequiousness to the rich incomers to Synagogue James 2:1-4

4. For the rich are generally persecutors and blasphemers James 2:5-7

5. And violating the law on this or any one point breaks the entire law James 2:8-13

6. Christian Synagogue rejects workless faith as unjustifying James 2:14-26

7. Rejects, too, many teachers with untamable and self-contradictory tongues James 3:1-12

8. True test of teachers and hearers, a heaven-descended wisdom, evinced by rectitude and peacefulness of temper and life James 3:13-18


1. Wars and public commotions, whence come they? And what the remedy? James 4:1-10; James 4:1-10

2. Christian avoidance of even bitter and hostile speech James 4:11-12

3. And of arrogant ignoring of God James 4:13-17

4. Denunciatory address to the rich for oppression, self-indulgence, and persecution James 5:1-6

5. The Christian sufferer under these wrongs pointed to the judgment day James 5:7-11

6. Cautions against violent use of language


1. Consolations for the sad, the merry, the sick; the prayer of faith James 5:13-18

2. The reclaim of the wanderer, its reward James 5:19-20

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