Unger's Bible Dictionary: James



JAMES, EPISTLE OF. The chief of the five epistles called "catholic" or "general" in their titles (James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1 John, and Jude). These epistles were addressed not to individual churches, as were most of the Pauline epistles, but to Christians in general.


Nature and Purpose. The book is a homily written to the twelve tribes "who are dispersed abroad," that is, to Jewish Christians of the Dispersion. The author's aim was to rally Christians from their worldliness to the practical privileges of their profession. The epistle has been called the most Jewish book in the NT. Some would even go so far as to ascribe it to a non-Christian Jew and maintain that it was later adapted to Christian use by two or three phrases containing the name of Christ (James 1:1; 2:1). However, the Christianity of the epistle is seen not so much in its subject matter as in its spirit. It is an interpretation of the OT law and the Sermon on the Mount in the light of the Christian gospel. The author shows acquaintanceship with the books of the Apocrypha and was evidently especially influenced by two, Ecclesiasticus and the Wisdom of Solomon.


Attestation. Not until toward the end of the fourth century (the Third Council of Carthage, A.D. 397) did the epistle of James become generally recognized as canonical. Eusebius classed it among the antilegomena, yet quotes James 4:11 as Scripture. It is omitted in the Muratorian canon, yet the epistle was more widely known in the first three centuries than has been supposed. The Old Syriac Version included it. Hermas evidently used it. James is frequently referred to in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. Ignatius evidently knew it, as well as Polycarp, but none of these shows certain dependence upon James. However, Origen, Cyril of Jerusalem, Athanasius, Jerome, and Augustine recognized the epistle as Scripture. The internal evidence is stronger than the external. The epistle thoroughly harmonizes with what we know of this James from Josephus (Ant. 20.9.1) and the book of Acts (Acts 15:13-21; 21:17-25) and from Galatians (Gal 1:19; 2:9-10), as well as with the well-known circumstances of Jewish Christians in the Dispersion. The supposed opposition to Paul is purely imaginary. Properly interpreted, the opposition disappears. In the absence of doctrinal content, if there had been a forger, he would most assuredly have chosen the name of some well-known apostle and not the more or less obscure name of James, the Lord's brother.


Authorship. JAMES the brother of the Lord. The natural interpretation of the passages Matt 13:55; Mark 6:3 indicates that James and his brothers and sisters were sons and daughters of Joseph and Mary, the mother of Jesus. He was not one of the twelve apostles (Matt 10:2-4), or at first a believer in Jesus (John 7:5). From Acts 1:13-14 we conclude that his former skepticism had passed away, as it is stated there that "His brothers" continued with the apostles and others in the "upper room" after the ascension. Although he was not one of the twelve, he was included among those who saw a vision of the risen Lord (1 Cor 15:5,7). Like Paul and Barnabas, he received the title of apostle (Gal 1:19) and was recognized by the zealots of the law as their leader (2:12). He occupied a prominent, if not the chief, place in the church at Jerusalem (v. 9), was president of the first council (Acts 15:13), and, with the elders, received Paul upon his return from his third missionary tour (21:18), A.D. 57. He was the author of the epistle that bears his name. Eusebius tells us that James was surnamed "the Just" by the ancients on account of his eminent virtue.


Destination. James evidently intended his epistle for the large number of Christian Jews scattered throughout the Roman Empire. He may have slanted it with particular reference to the eastern Dispersion, since Peter addresses the Diaspora in Asia Minor where the epistle of James, it is conjectured, would be less likely known. The book of Acts records that there were Jews in almost every city where Christianity was planted, as at Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:9-11). Many of these were converted to Christianity and carried the message back home with them. It was to these Jewish believers that James addressed his letter.


The Date. The epistle of James may be presumed to be very early, possibly the first epistle to Christians. This is indicated by the early martyrdom of James, according to tradition in the year A.D. 62 AD. Much more substantial reasons, however, are adduced from the internal evidence. The epistle shows no trace of the distinctive references concerning the new age, the outcalling of the church, the features of grace, or of the relationship of Gentile converts to the law of Moses, which resulted in the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15, over which James presided. The general absence of doctrine in the epistle, its Palestinian atmosphere, and its OT flavor combine to substantiate this view. The epistle shows no evidence of the fall of Jerusalem.


The Plan. The apostle undertakes to deal with the needs of his fellow Christian believers in the Dispersion. After a brief greeting (James 1:1) he (1) exhorts his readers to take the proper attitude toward testings and trials (1:2-18); and (2) warns them to react properly toward the Word of God (1:19-27); (3) he rebukes a demonstration of carnal partiality (2:1-13); (4) he expounds the uselessness of faith apart from works (2:14-26); (5) he speaks strongly against the sin of an uncontrolled tongue (3:1-12); (6) he expounds true and false wisdom (3:13-18); (7) he advises them against quarrelsomeness, worldiness, and pride (4:1-10); (8) he emphasizes brotherly consideration (4:11-12); (9) he criticizes the spirit of their business activity (4:13-5:6); (10) he calls them to patient endurance of life's misfortunes (5:7-12); (11) he shows them what to do when afflicted (5:13-18); and (12) he stresses the need for restoring a person who has gone astray (5:19-20).



BIBLIOGRAPHY: C. L. Mitton, The Epistle of James (1966); S. Zodhiates, The Behavior of Belief (1970); J. B. Adamson, The Epistle of James, New International Commentary on the New Testament (1976); J. B. Mayor, The Epistle of St. James (1977); R. Johnstone, Lectures Exegetical and Practical on the Epistle of James (1978); D. E. Hiebert, The Epistle of James (1979); P. H. Davids, The Epistle of James, New International Greek Testament Commentary (1982); E. R. Stier, Commentary on James (1982).

(from The New Unger's Bible Dictionary. Originally published by Moody Press of Chicago, Illinois. Copyright (c) 1988.)

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