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Bible Dictionaries
James, the Letter

Holman Bible Dictionary

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The Letter of James belongs to the section of the New Testament usually described as the “General Epistles.” The letter is one of exhortation for practical Christianity. The author stated principles of conduct and then frequently provided poignant illustrations. The author's concerns were clearly more practical and less abstract than those of any other New Testament writer. No other New Testament book has received criticism to the extent encountered by this epistle. Author

Verse one of the letter identifies James as the “servant of God” and the author of the letter. Several possibilities for proper identification of this “James” include (1) James the brother of John and the son of Zebedee, (2) James the son of Alphaeus, one of the twelve apostles, or (3) James the half brother of Jesus, a younger son of Mary and of Joseph. Of the three, James the brother of the Lord is the most likely choice. See James 3. Tradition of the early church fathers universally ascribes the letter to James, the pastor of the church in Jerusalem.

The general content of the letter is a call to holiness of life. This accords well with what is known of the life of James. Church tradition noted his exceptional piety, reporting that the knees of the saintly James were like those of a camel due to the unusual amounts of time spent on his knees before God. The author of the epistle was also steeped in the Old Testament outlook in general and in Judaism in particular.

On the other hand, James the brother of John, the son of Zebedee cannot be the author since he became an early martyr (Acts 12:1-2 ), his death almost certainly predating the writing of the Letter of James. Little is known of James the son of Alphaeus—too little to conjecture that he was involved in the writing of the epistle. Scholarly theories that later disciples of James gathered his teachings and published them in a Greek style too exalted for James are not necessary to explain the evidence.

Recipients Although some passages appear to address unbelievers (James 5:1-6 ), the letter is addressed to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (James 1:1 NRSV). Reference to the “twelve tribes” suggests that the recipients were Jews. Specifically, reference is made to the “Jews of the dispersion.” This phrase recalled the scattering of the Jewish nation first in 722 B.C. when the Northern Kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrian Empire and finally in 586 B.C. when the Southern Kingdom of Judah fell to the marauding Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar.

However, James clearly had a still more narrow focus. Apparently, James had in mind the “Christian” Jews of dispersion. This may be conjectured from James' identification of himself (James 1:1 ) as a servant of Jesus Christ as well as from references like having “the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ” (James 2:1 ).

Date Supposing an early date of writing may account for the peculiarity of the address. James' martyrdom by A.D. 66 provides us with the latest possible date of writing. Evidences of a very early date, such as the mention of those coming into the “assembly” (Greek, sunagoge ), point to a time very early in Christian history, perhaps prior to the Jerusalem Conference in A.D. 49-50.

Though some Bible students date James after A.D. 60, many scholars are convinced that James is the first book of the New Testament to be written, some dating it as early as A.D. 48. As such, it provides the reader with a rather remarkable insight into the developing concerns of the church in its earliest era.

Occasion The letter was evidently the product of concerns on the part of early pastoral leadership about the ethical standards of early Christians. Therefore, the subject matter includes an analysis in James 1:1 of how to respond to temptation and trial ( James 1:1-18 ). The necessity of “doing” the word as well as “hearing” the word is the focus of James 1:19-27 . Treatment of the poor and the appropriate management of wealth are topics of concern in James 2:1-13 and James 5:1-6 . The waywardness of the tongue and the necessity of its taming are discussed in James 3:1 . Conflicts and attitudes to other Christians is the subject of James 4:1 . Appropriate responses to life's demands and pressures are suggested in James 5:1 .

James' Contributions Some scholars have compared James to the Old Testament Book of Proverbs. In many respects the two are quite different. However, the comparison is valid from the perspective of ethical instruction. The theme of the book is that practical religion must manifest itself in works which are superior to those of the world. The essence of such works covers the areas of personal holiness and service to others, such as visiting “the fatherless and widows,” and keeping onself “unspotted from the world” (James 1:27 ). These “works” further demand active resistance to the devil (James 4:7 ), submission to God (James 4:7 ), and even brokenhearted repentance for sins (James 4:9 ).

Patience in the wake of trials and temptations is the subject both of the introduction and of the conclusion of the epistle. Readers are to “count it all joy” when trials come (James 1:2 ) and expect reward for endurance of those trials (James 1:12 ). In James 5:7-11James returns to the subject, citing both Job and the prophets as appropriate examples of patience in the midst of tribulation.

Questions and Challenges of James Two difficult and widely debated passages in James challenge Bible students. In James 2:14-26 , James argued that “faith if it hath not works is dead” (James 2:17 ). This apparent contradiction to the teaching of the apostle Paul has caused much consternation among some theologians. For example, Martin Luther referred to the book as “an epistle of straw” when compared with Paul's writings.

More careful exegesis has shown that the contradiction is apparent rather than real. James argued that a faith that is only a “confessing faith,” such as that of the demons (James 2:19 ), is not a saving faith at all. The demons believed in God in the sense of “intellectual assent,” but they were void of belief in the sense of “commitment.” Orthodoxy of doctrine which does not produce a sanctified life-style is, in the final analysis, worthless.

In James 5:13-18 James spoke of healing and its means. Actually, this passage only treats the subject of healing incidentally. The actual purpose of the discussion is to stress the effectiveness of the earnest prayer of a righteous man ( James 5:15-16 ). This is illustrated by a reference to Elijah, whose prayers were sufficient alternately to shut up the heavens and then to open them (James 5:17-18 ).

Whatever else may be intended, clearly the prayer of faith “saves the sick.” The anointing oil, whether medicinal, as some have argued, or symbolic, as others have held, is not the healing agent. God heals, when He chooses to heal (James 4:14 ), as a response to the fervent prayers of righteous men.

The Letter of James remains of lasting value and consequence to the Christian confronted by an increasingly secular world. Christ ought to make a difference in one's life. That is the theme and mandate of James.


I. Salutation (James 1:1 )

II. True Religion Is Developed by Trials and Testing (James 1:2-15 ).

A. Joy is the correct response to times of testing (James 1:2 ).

B. The testing of faith can result in steadfastness which, when mature, enables us to be perfect, complete, and lacking in nothing (James 1:3-4 ).

C. True wisdom comes from God and is available to those who ask in faith, not doubting (James 1:5-8 ).

D. Wealth may be a test of faith, not a proof of faith (James 1:9-11 ).

E. Perseverance under trial leads to blessing (James 1:12 ).

F. Temptation comes from within, not from God, and is to be resisted (James 1:13-15 ).

III. True Religion Is Initiated by Faith (James 1:16-2:26 ).

A. Salvation by faith is a gift from God, as are all good gifts (James 1:16-17 ).

B. Salvation as an expression of God's will is related to God's Word (James 1:18-27 ).

1. We are to receive God's Word (James 1:18-21 ).

2. We are to do God's Word, not just hear it (James 1:22-25 ).

C. Saving faith does not show favoritism but shows love to all (James 2:1-13 ).

D. Saving faith issues in godly attitudes and actions (James 2:14-26 ).

IV. True Religion Is Guided by Wisdom (James 3:1-18 ).

A. The wise person controls the tongue (James 3:1-12 ).

B. Earthly wisdom is characterized by evil attitudes and actions (James 3:13-16 ).

C. The wise person's life is characterized by moral behavior (James 3:17-18 ).

V. True Religion Is Demonstrated by Works (James 4:1-5:12 ).

A. Avoid acting selfishly instead of asking God (James 4:1-3 ).

B. Avoid being friendly with the world (James 4:4-5 ).

C. Possess the proper attitude toward self—being humble, not proud or presumptuous (James 4:6-10 ).

D. Avoid speaking against or judging other Christians (James 4:11-12 ).

E. Avoid presuming on God's time (James 4:13-16 ).

F. Do not fail to do what you know is right (James 4:17 ).

G. Avoid depending on wealth (James 5:1-3 ).

H. Avoid treating persons unjustly (James 5:4-6 ).

I. Do not be impatient, for the Lord is coming (James 5:7-11 ).

J. Do not take oaths (James 5:12 ).

VI. True Religion Is Expressed in Prayer (James 5:13-20 ).

A. Prayer, including intercession, is a significant part of true religion (James 5:13-16 ).

1. Prayer is a proper response to suffering and illness (James 5:13-14 ).

2. Prayers are to be offered in faith, with right motives (James 5:15 ).

3. Prayer includes confession of sins (James 5:16 ).

B. The righteousness of the person praying is related to the effectiveness of the prayer (James 5:16 ).

C. All humans can pray and be heard (James 5:17-18 ).

D. Intercession for sinners is an important Christian responsibility (James 5:19-20 ).

Paige Patterson

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'James, the Letter'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hbd/​j/james-the-letter.html. 1991.
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