The Epistle of James

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Who is the Author?


Well we can establish from the first verse of the book that James is the author

“James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad: Greetings”.

James 1:1

But which James?

James the father of Judas (Luke 6:16; Acts 1:13), 

Possibly otherwise identified with Thaddaeus or Lebbaeus, to distinguish him from Judas Iscariot (Mark 3:18; Matt. 10:3).” Apart from the fact that he is the father of an obscure apostle, nothing else is known about this James, rendering him a rather unlikely candidate as the author of a work to “the twelve tribes” in which his simple self-description is assumed to be understood by all.

James the son of Alphaeus (Matt. 10:3; Mark 3:18; 15:40 [here called James the Younger]; Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13)

It is an unlikely candidate for similar reasons: he is an obscure apostle, mentioned only in lists of apostles and disciples.

James the son of Zebedee and brother of John (Matt. 4:21; 10:2; 17:1; Mark 1:19, 29; 3:17; 10:35; 13:3; Luke 9:28; Acts 1:13; 12:2)

James is an important figure in the Gospels, less so in Acts due to his early death as a martyr under Herod Agrippa I no later than the spring of 44 AD (Acts 12:2). It is precisely this early martyrdom which argues against identification of this James with the author of our letter. Although it must be admitted that he could possibly be the author of the letter. Further, there is a good possibility that Herod’s persecution of Christians, which began with James’ execution, is in the background of, and provides part of the occasion for, this epistle; given such a presupposition, James the brother of John cannot have been the author. Finally, there is nothing compelling on behalf of this James: prominent though he was in the Gospels, he is mentioned only twice in Acts (the second mention records his death; Acts 12:2). Thus, in contrast to the fourth James, this James does not seem to have had sufficient recognition in the early church to have written an encyclical letter with an unqualified self-designation.

James the Lord’s brother (Matt. 13:55; Mark 6:3; Gal. 1:19; called simply James in Acts: 12:17; 15:13; 21:18; and in 1 Cor. 15:7), 

He is mentioned only twice by name in the Gospels (Matt. 13:55; Mark 6:3), he rises to prominence after Pentecost. Arguably, James became the de facto leader of the Jerusalem church sometime before A.D. 44-47 and was one of two leaders Paul met with in Jerusalem three years after Paul’s conversion (Gal. 1:19). The assignment of this James (also known in later church traditions, starting with Hegesippus, as “James the Just”) as the author of the letter has been the traditional view. Here are six reasons as to why this James is the most likely candidate:

  1. The only James who played a prominent role in the early church is James, the brother of Jesus (the Lord)
  2. The Jewish background of the author (Old Testament quotation, numerous allusions and several illustrations) with all it’s subtleties (e.g., traces of Hebrew idioms behind his otherwise polished Greek; Hebrew prophetic style, etc.).
  3. James’ speech in Acts 15 contains many striking parallels in language with the epistle of James. There is use of not-so-common words found in both this Epistle of James and the speech of Acts 15 connecting the two in style
  4. There are more parallels in this Epistle than in any other New Testament book to the teachings Of Jesus Christ in the Gospels. The parallels to the Sermon on the Mount are especially acute, James was likely written during the oral period before the Gospels were penned. Same teachings, different verbatim. 
1:2Joy in the midst of trialsMatt. 5:10-12
1:4Exhortation to perfectionMatt. 5:48
1:5Asking for good giftsMatt. 7:7ff.
1:20Against angerMatt. 5:22
1:22Hearers and doers of the WordMatt. 7:24ff.
2:10The whole law to be keptMatt. 5:19
2:13Blessings of mercifulnessMatt. 5:7
3:18Blessings of peacemakersMatt. 5:9
4:4Friendship of the world as enmity against GodMatt. 6:24
4:11-12Against judging othersMatt. 7:1-5
5:2ff.Moth and rust spoiling richesMatt. 6:19
5:10The prophets as examplesMatt. 5:12
5:12Against oathsMatt. 5:33-37

So the author likely new Jesus, this is one conclusion that could be made in our cumulative case. 

Though there is no absolute test to determine the ‘James’ involved and also no signs James depended on Matthew (being that James’ notes likely are straight from Jesus himself I would imagine after the Resurrection period)  

  1. He seen as leader of the Jerusalem church in Acts 15, as well as being seen as a champion of the continued validity of the law, in some sense at least. This Jame sliced in an age of transition from Jewish to Christian life. This portrait of James by Luke corresponds well with James’ statements about the law in the epistle (cf., e.g., 1:22-25; 2:8-13), as well as with the obvious authority with which he writes his letter.
  2. The community mentioned in the Epistle appear to be of pre-fall of Jerusalem. The oppressors are wealthy landowners, who, after the siege of Jerusalem, virtually ceased to exist in Judaea

The internal evidence is relatively strong—especially when considered cumulatively for James, the Lord’s brother, as the author of this epistle. In contrast, the claims of the other James’ are rather weak which moves James in my, and many scholars such as Dan Wallace’s mind as to beyond a reasonable doubt.

External evidence

The epistle of James is first mentioned by name by Origen, who appears to regard it as scripture. Eusebius and Jerome also cite it as scripture, and apparently accept it as from the hand of James, the Lord’s brother. Eusebius, however, classes it among the antilegomena and Jerome seems to imply that another wrote in James’ name or later edited the work. Before Origen, however, there does seem to be a definite strain of allusions to James in early Christian writers, especially Clement and Hermas, much earlier sources. 

Its limited circulation would be due no doubt to the fact that it was sent to Jewish Christians of the East Dispersion. The limited interest in the document would be due to several factors: 

  1. It does not claim to be apostolic (Like when Paul says he is an apostle sent by God) 
  2. It is not controversial—i.e., it is not the kind of document which could be used in the second century battle against the gnostics, it doesn’t get into that unlike a Gospel of John or a book of Romans, 1 Corinthians etc. 
  3. It lacks the dynamics, passion, and persuasiveness of the Pauline letters 
  4. It’s primary goal seems to be ethical, not getting too christological or theological, unlike a letter from Paul
  5. In the only theological orientation, 2:14-26, for some it appeared to clash with some of the things Paul was saying at a face value reading

On observation, there is no good reason to consider this epistle pseudonymous, its limited recognition must be due to reasons other than inauthenticity. The traditional view, that James the Just, the brother of our Lord, is the author, stands as most probable over against any other James and over against any claim of pseudonymity.

Manuscript evidence for the Epistle of James

James 1:10-12, 200-225 AD, University of Illinois, Papyrus 23

The above is an early Epistle of James fragment with a few others this early in existence (papyrus 20 &100). Considering the deterioration rate of papyrus within a few hundred years, to have something of this quality surviving is phenomenal in terms of papyrus witness. To have a manuscript this early, during a time when Tertullian states the authentic writings were still around, is great for a chain of command. 

Audience & purpose

In the opening of his letter, James called himself a bond-servant of God, an appropriate name given the practical, servant-oriented emphasis of the book. Throughout the book, James contended that faith produces authentic deeds. In other words, if those who call themselves God’s people truly belong to Him, their lives will produce deeds or fruit. In language and themes that sound similar to Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, James rails against the hypocritical believer who says one thing but does another.

For James, faith was no abstract proposition but had effects in the real world. James offered numerous practical examples to illustrate his point: faith endures in the midst of trials, calls on God for wisdom, bridles the tongue, sets aside wickedness, visits orphans and widows, and does not play favorites. He stressed that the life of faith is comprehensive, impacting every area of our lives and driving us to truly engage in the lives of other people in the world. While James recognized that even believers stumble (James 3:2), he also knew that faith should not coexist with people who roll their eyes at the less fortunate, ignore the plight of others, or curse those in their paths.


The date of this short epistle is bound up with its authorship. If, as we have argued, this letter is by James, the brother of the Lord, then it must have been written before 62 AD (the date of James’ death). Among those who embrace the traditional authorship, two dates are normally advocated: either early (pre-50s) or late (toward the end of James’ life). It is our opinion that an early date best fits the evidence.

  1.  There is no mention of the fall of Jerusalem implying James was written before Jerusalem’s destruction (this fits either of the above views)
  2. There is no mention of the Gentile mission, nor of Gentiles being admitted into the church. This seems to suggest a date before the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 (49 AD).
  3. The simple church order (teachers and elders mentioned in an unadorned way) tends to suggest an early date, though not much can be made of it.
  4. The relation of James 2:14-26 to Paul seems to be pre literary. That is to say, James only gives a caricature of Paul’s theology in this section, suggesting that he was arguing with “Paulinism” rather than with Paul. If the author seems not to have had any exposure to Galatians or Romans, the most satisfactory reason for this is that neither Pauline epistle had yet been written. Hence, a date no later than 49 CE.

The cumulative weight of this argument argues for a date no later than 49 CE. But there is a good possibility that Herod’s persecution of Christians, which started with James’ (the son of Zebedee) execution, is in the background of, and provides part of the occasion for, this epistle. If this is true, then a date no earlier than 44 AD—and probably not much later would make the most sense. So our investigation leads us to the conclusion that James was written 44-45 AD, making it the earliest writing in the New Testament canon.

Canonical status

What was the acceptance rate of James as canonical by those early and later witnesses of the text? Considering the nature of it’s content, it’s apparent clashes with Paul, the focus on ethics over high Christology, the church fathers didn’t quote from it early on. The first hints are from Irenaeus with possible quotations. Origen and Eusebius had their quarrels with it but found it inspirational. But when we get to Codex Sinaiticus, our largest early manuscript (well more of a book!) and Athanasius, we get James included in the fullest Canonical list. 

See this table for a list on who recognised each book as canonical (key(s) below)

It does not mention every Church Father who used the New Testament books, this is just a survey of some of the most known
  • Ig = Ignatius
  • Po = Polycarp
  • M = Marcion
  • Va = Valentinus
  • JM = Justin Martyr
  • IR = Irenaeus 
  • C = Clement of Alexandria 
  • T = Tertullian
  • MC = Muratorian Canon
  • O = Origen
  • E = Eusebius
  • CS = Codex Sinaiticus
  • A = Athanasius
  • D = Didymus the Blind
  • P = Peshitta (Bible of the Syrian church)
  • V =  Latin vulgate 
taken from 

Jesus, nor the apostles, nor Polycarp, Clement or Irenaeus left much for us to work with in terms of a formal “ok so here’s the rules of determination”. But what they did do is inform us that they had an informative way of knowing what was truth and what was not. And the truth had to have a connection to eyewitnesses.

For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.

2 Peter 1:16 

2“So now we must choose a replacement for Judas from among the men who were with us the entire time we were traveling with the Lord Jesus— from the time he was baptized by John until the day he was taken from us. Whoever is chosen will join us as a witness of Jesus’ resurrection

Acts 1:21-22

One of the soldiers, however, pierced his side with a spear, and immediately blood and water flowed out. (This report is from an eyewitness giving an accurate account. He speaks the truth so that you also may continue to believe.)

John 19:34-35

“God raised Jesus from the dead, and we are all witnesses of this.

Acts 2:32

You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. And we are witnesses of this fact!

Acts 3:15

We are witnesses of these things and so is the Holy Spirit, who is given by God to those who obey him.”

Acts 5:32

“And we apostles are witnesses of all he did throughout Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a cross,but God raised him to life on the third day. Then God allowed him to appear, not to the general public, but to us whom God had chosen in advance to be his witnesses. We were those who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he ordered us to preach everywhere and to testify that Jesus is the one appointed by God to be the judge of all—the living and the dead. He is the one all the prophets testified about, saying that everyone who believes in him will have their sins forgiven through his name.”

Acts 10:39-43

[Paul] With Christ as my witness, I speak with utter truthfulness. My conscience and the Holy Spirit confirm it.

Romans 9:1

I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. Last of all, as though I had been born at the wrong time, I also saw him. For I am the least of all the apostles. In fact, I’m not even worthy to be called an apostle after the way I persecuted God’s church.

1 Corinthians 15:3-9

And now, a word to you who are elders in the churches. I, too, am an elder and a witness to the sufferings of Christ. And I, too, will share in his glory when he is revealed to the whole world. As a fellow elder, I appeal to you:

1 Peter 5:1

Caius the church father in 200AD writes how they knew of two fake letters circulating in Paul’s name. 

“There are also in circulation one to the Laodiceans, and another to the Alexandrians, forged under the name of Paul, and addressed against the heresy of Marcion; and there are also several others which cannot be received into the Catholic Church, for it is not suitable for gall to be mingled with honey”.

Caius, Church leader

How did they work this out? How did they know what was the divinely inspired word of God? We can thank Eusebius for beginning to help us clear up this territory. In his Ecclesiastical History, he mentions his four categories of books with descriptions as to why some were accepted, disputed, rejected and seen as heretical from his survey of the church fathers history going back and into the apostolic age. This is the structure we will take when we assess the books of the New Testament and this includes investigating the books the church rejected. 

So these summarised standards are these:

  1. Apostolicity. Was it written by an Apostle or one of their colleagues?
  2. Orthodoxy. Was the teaching orthodox? Consistent with Old Testament and the Christian worldview?
  3. Catholicity. Not the Catholic Church (that doesn’t exist for a few hundred years yet!)… This meaning widely agreed upon
  4. Relevance. Was it relevant to the church? Or does it seem completely detached from what we already have in the canon? (I.e. everything Gnostic)
  5. Inspiration. Did it have the ring of truth, the life changing power within?


In the case we have made, James, the brother of Jesus (The Lord) is the author. Not only does he become an associate of the apostles after seeing the risen Jesus, he plays an important part in the early church of Jerusalem, leading it! So James the Just, as he is sometimes referred to, is considered a colleague not only go the apostles, but Half brother on earth to Jesus.


So there is the challenge of James’ words about without works faith is dead. This isn’t a contradiction to Paul, since James is stating, much like when Paul speaks of the fruits of the spirit, that a Christian produces good deeds as an outflow of becoming a Christian. A living and active Holy Spirit in the person is a supernatural transformation and that is visible at some level either extensively, or depending on the person, perhaps less so. Generally James’ material is in general agreement with Jesus as much of what we find, we find references with similar content in Matthew. It is most certainly consistent with the Christian worldview and being a once Jew himself, he was textually inline with Jewish culture in the subtleties of his writings. 


In our first complete codex manuscript, James is there. The heroic Athanasius also mentions James in his Canonical list also. There is general agreement a few centuries on with some initial doubts lingering on because of the type of content. But the historical data tells us likely, this raw book was likely the earliest or one of in it’s form, which makes sense with when James the Just died. 

It’s hard to know if the content was widely agreed early on. What seems likely is it had use early on but as the time of the second century came, questions arose. Polycarp, Clement and Irenaeus didn’t use the book in the first century form the material of theirs that has survived, but if they did, I am sure there’d be less questions from us. 


James’s Epistle has always been seen as quite a blunt, get to the point text like the sermon on the mount. What James is illustrating is the genuineness of the believer and that deeds should flow out of the believer. He also illustrates through contrast that works don’t produce faith, the other way around, incase anyone try to think faith in Jesus is some kind of achieved status. James, and his crossover with the Jews was very relevant for new Christians and a good reminder for us today in our actions and what they produce.


2 Timothy 3:16-17 states that all scripture is inspired, useful for teaching, correcting and rebuking etc. James certainly fulfills this quota. James’ Epistle has the ring of Jesus in the sermon on the mount, it is early and is an eyewitness to the resurrection of Jesus. The man is in a position where certainly God could have inspired teaching through him, especially considering his relational position to Jesus and that of the Jews.

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