James: An Introduction for Deeper Study

28 Jun

“An Epistle of Straw”

The great reformer Martin Luther used this description for the book of James. In saying this, Luther was not saying the letter of James was worthless, simply that there were other New Testament books which were more solid in their teachings about Christ (such as John’s gospel, Romans, and Galatians). These books were considered more significant by Luther because they dealt more directly with salvation and justification by faith alone in particular. James on the other hand is more concerned with how we live after we have come to believe in Jesus rather than how we come to believe in Him in the first place.

Luther’s assessment has negatively influenced the popularity of the book of James for a long time, but in recent years this book has been rediscovered in some circles.

Still, as one begins to study James, it becomes clear that the structure of the book and its overall themes are not as clear as most of Paul’s letters, for example. So this introduction is presented in order to provide those who want to study this letter in more depth the background information which will help the careful Bible reader to a fuller understanding.

It is hoped that an exploration of authorship, date, outline, themes, structure and the situation in which the letter was written will give readers a framework for study which will enhance understanding both as sermons on the book are preached and the letter is discussed in home groups.

Who Wrote James?

The first verse of the letter tells us that the book was written by “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” So obviously, the book was written by James. The problem is there are several men named James in the New Testament and we have no idea just from reading the letter which of these might be the author of the book or even if this James might be one who is not even named in the New Testament (as James was a very common name).

One thing we do notice in the description of the author in verse 1 is that the description is very general, as if all those reading the book knew who this author was without a great deal of detail. Thus this James seems to be someone who was well-known by the audience to whom the letter was originally written. While it may be possible that this could be someone not named in the New Testament, the likelihood that this well-known James would have had some connection to the apostles of the early church and the Lord Jesus without being mentioned in the New Testament is small.

So since it is likely that the author of the book is one of the four men named James mentioned in the New Testament, which of the four is the most likely author? Among those named James in the Bible, two were among the twelve disciples of Jesus: James the son of Alphaeus and James the son of Zebedee and brother of John. Of these two James the son of Alphaeus seems an unlikely candidate because he is hardly mentioned apart from the Twelve and no further record of his ministry is given in the New Testament. James the son of Zebedee is a stronger candidate, because he was a prominent disciple of Jesus, among Jesus’ inner circle. The problem is he was killed by Herod Agrippa (see Acts 12:2) in 44 AD. It is likely that James was written after 44 AD therefore the likelihood that James the son of Zebedee is the author is extremely remote.

The third James in the New Testament is also linked to the twelve disciples. James the father of Judas, one of the disciples. This was not Judas Iscariot, but another of the Twelve named Judas. The only mention of this James is in association with his disciple son so it is most unlikely that he is the author.

This brings us to the fourth James mentioned in the New Testament, James the half-brother of Jesus and leader of the church in Jerusalem. James was a son of Joseph and was likely part of the family of Jesus mentioned in the gospels, who at first did not believe Jesus was the Son of God. After the resurrection, though, we find that the brothers of Jesus do believe (see Acts 1:14). James becomes a prominent leader in the church and serves as a kind of senior pastor for the church in Jerusalem. Early tradition from outside Scripture speaks of James’ faithfulness to God and his life of prayer. Of the four men named James in the New Testament, this James seems to be the most likely author of our letter. Interestingly, the Greek of the letter of James bears some similarity to the speeches of this James in the book of Acts (see Acts 15:13-21 and 15:23-29). In addition, the book is written to Jewish Christians and James’ ministry was concerned with Christians of a Jewish background. James position as leader of the flagship Jerusalem church would also have given him an assumed authority to speak to the “twelve tribes of the dispersion” (Jewish Christians scattered from Jerusalem). Further, after the death of Stephen, we have a record of a persecution which scattered many Jewish Christians from Jerusalem into the surrounding regions.

Traditionally, this James, the half-brother of our Lord, has been regarded as the author of the letter of James and we have seen that his background and story best fits the facts.

When Was James Written?

We know, if in fact James was written by the half-brother of Jesus, that the book must have been written before AD 62, because we know that James was martyred in this year. But there are indications that James was written much earlier than this and may in fact be one of the earliest written New Testament books.

First, there is an indication in the way James discusses issues in his letter that this book was written before the Jerusalem Council of AD 49. The Jerusalem Council (see Acts 15) discussed whether Gentiles were required to keep the Jewish law in addition to trusting Jesus in order to be saved. James sided with Paul to say “no,” faith in Christ alone is sufficient, while also encouraging Gentiles to steer clear of certain behaviors which had been a part of their pagan past.

We see little indication in James that there was a conflict over the place of the law in the believer’s life. This conflict really began to become a big issue in the early church around AD 49. That James, in speaking to Christians of a Jewish background, would not linger over this issue may mean that the issue had not yet arisen when the book was written. Finally, the theme of the rich and poor in the church James discusses in the book fits well the historic situation in and around Jerusalem in the late 40’s AD. There was a famine in Judea in AD 46 and this would have caused severe socio-economic difficulties in the region where James wrote his letter.

These issues when taken together give us a date for the letter of AD 45-47. This puts James among the earliest New Testament writings.

Why Was James Written?

James, like most of the New Testament letters, was written to provide instruction and encouragement to churches. The instructions of the book of James are relevant to the situation facing the original intended audience of the book.

James discusses issues like facing trials, dealing with issues of favoritism, the rich and poor, prayer, wisdom, and speech. The most pressing theological issue dealt with in James is the relationship of faith and works. In looking at all these issues, it is clear that James’ goal is to deal with matters of everyday importance to his readers. He is instructing his readers about how to live as followers of Jesus in a challenging world.

What is the Structure of James?

Almost everyone who studies James says that it breaks down into 12-15 sections of instruction. From there the diversity of opinions about how those sections fit together, if at all, is staggering. James is often compared to the wisdom literature of the Old Testament (in particular it is somewhat like the book of Proverbs). Yet I am not convinced that James is really wisdom literature. Instead, James seems to be sermonic in form, perhaps even the collection and organization of James’ sermons into a written form. There is a combination of exhortation and illustration in the book which seems to fit the sermonic form best and has an affinity with the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels.

The best understanding of the structure of James seems to me to be found in the work of Craig Blomberg and Mariam Kamell. Their outline revolves around three central themes: Trials, Wisdom and Riches and Poverty. They outline the book like this . . .

I.    Greetings (1:1)

  1. Statement of Three Key Themes (1:2-11)
  2. Trials in the Christian Life (1:2-4)
  3. Wisdom (1:5-8)
  4. Riches and Poverty (1:9-11)
  • Restatement of the Three Themes (1:12-27)
  1. Trials/Temptations in Relation to God (1:12-18)
  2. Wisdom in the Areas of Speech and Obedience (1:19-26)
  3. The “Have-Nots” and the Responsibility of the “Have’s”: The Thesis of the Letter (1:27)
  4. The Three Themes Expanded (2:1-5:18)
  5. Riches and Poverty (2:1-26)
  6. Favoritism Condemned (2:1-13)
  7. The Problem of Faith without Works (2:14-26)
  8. Wisdom and Speech (3:1-4:12)
  9. The Power of the Tongue (3:1-12)
  10. Wisdom from Above and Below (3:13-18)
  11. The Misuse of Speech in Quarrels and Slander (4:1-12)
  12. Trials and Temptations (4:13-5:18)
  13. Planning apart from God’s Will (4:13-17)
  14. Responding to Oppression (5:1-12)
  15. Anointing Prayer for Serious Illness (5:13-18)
  16. Closing (5:19-20)                                                                                                                                                            This outline, while not perfect, is the best I have found in

summarizing the key themes of the book. My only uncertainty with this outline is that the passage on faith and works seems to me to hold a more prominent place in James’ argument than Blomberg and Kamell afford it in their outline. Nevertheless, this outline gives readers a good general framework for approaching the book.

What Does the Book of James Teach Us?


James focuses on God’s generosity toward the believer, His judgment of the unbelieving and the rebellious and His perfections, both in the giving of blessings and in His inability to be tempted by evil. James also emphasizes the oneness of God as he discusses other issues. James reminds us that there is one true and living God who is generous and good to all who seek Him and who will judge rebellion against His holy will.

Eschatology (last things)

James often dwells on end times themes like the impending judgment of God (see 5:8-9) and the promise of eternal reward to those who are faithful (see 1:12).

The Christian Life

It is here that James probably makes his greatest contribution to our faith. James is filled with godly wisdom about how believers are to live in this world. We are to live with an undivided heart, with a heart of faith in God. We are to live mindful of the needs of others and be careful not to practice favoritism. We are to beware of the dangerous temptation of riches. We are to be people of prayer, asking for wisdom and power as we draw near to God. We are to be doers of God’s Word, not merely hearers. The letter is filled with ready application to our lives as believers.

Faith and Works

In his discussion of the connection between faith and works, James makes an important but often misunderstood contribution to our understanding. Because Paul says we are justified apart from works while James says we are justified by works, many readers see an irreconcilable conflict between the two. As believers in a God-inspired Bible, we know this to not be the case, but we must explore each man’s teaching to see how their approaches actually complement one another.

We must first understand that each man was battling different tendencies in his readers. Paul was battling a tendency among his readers to try to rely on obedience to the law in addition to faith in Christ for salvation. This “Jesus-Plus” formulation is flatly rejected by Paul. James, on the other hand, is likely battling an under-emphasis on works, the kind of idea that if I only believe the right things it doesn’t matter what I do. So the different audiences explain how one can say “you are justified by faith apart from works” and the other can say “you are justified by works.” Paul is looking at the issue from the point of entry into the Christian life and saying “there is nothing in you and nothing that you can do which can earn God’s favor. You must be born again. You are made right with God by faith alone apart from works. Faith is the root of your salvation.” James on the other hand is looking at the issue from the standpoint of one who has already trusted Jesus and saying, “having trusted Jesus, now your life will display the fruit of good works for the glory of God. Your works demonstrate your faith and in this way your rightness with God is shown by your works. Words are the fruit of your salvation.” So Paul is addressing legalism while James is addressing complacency. And interestingly, if we read them carelessly, we can accuse Paul of giving place to complacency and James of giving place to legalism. But neither man had this intention in his teachings. Paul says, and James would agree, “by no means, may it never be, that we would teach either legalism or complacency.”

One final support to the view of the contrast between Paul and James that I have presented here is their use of Abraham to illustrate their positions on faith and works. Paul uses Abraham to illustrate that we are justified by faith apart from works and James uses Abraham to illustrate that we are justified by works. Interestingly, Paul pulls his example (the promise to Abraham in Genesis 15) from near the beginning of Abraham’s story, while James pulls his example (the sacrifice of Isaac) from the end of Abraham’s story. In this way, Abraham is used to show that faith is the root of salvation and the fruit of salvation. The teachings of James and Paul do not conflict but complement each other. And both men affirm what the other teaches. James 1:18 is a key text which shows that we are born of God by the hand of God. Our salvation is from Him, not our works. And Paul, in Galatians 5:6 and elsewhere, affirms that it is “faith expressing itself through love” which counts before God (very similar to the way James speaks of faith and works).


I hope this short introduction has whet your appetite for this great book. James is filled with memorable passages, comforting words and great challenges to live as a faithful follower of Jesus. The message of the book is sorely needed in our world today. May we as a church grab hold of the truth of this book as we study it together.


Blomberg, Craig L. and Mariam J. Kamell (2008) James: Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan).

Bratcher, Robert G. (1984) A Translator’s Guide to the Letters from James, Peter and Jude (New York: United Bible Societies).

Burdick, Donald W. (1981) James: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan).

Davids, Peter H. (1982) James: The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).

Moo, Douglas J. (2015) James: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press).





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