Who Was James?

When I was in Seminary I took a class in Eccelsiology and at some point in the class I shared my thought that James was the “leader of the Jerusalem Church.”  The professor looked at me rather strangely and dismissed my comment with “well, you have James all figured out, don’t you.”  MA students are apparently not allowed to have those sorts radical of opinions, they are reserved only for PhD students.

Since that slap-down, I have had an interest in Jewish Christianity in Jerusalem in general, and James in particular.  Part of this interest is the belief that my comment in that particular class was on target, although it was probably came across arrogant (I was older back then, I am younger than that now).  I am always pleased when I read things that more or less state that James was the leader in Jerusalem, such as James Dunn in Beginning in Jerusalem, especially chapter 36, although he says things like this throughout the book.

I think a fair reading of the book of Acts will show that Twelve fade from the scene quickly.  James the Apostle is killed in Acts 12 and not replaced.  Peter sends a message to James the “goes elsewhere.”  Peter drops out of site at that point in the narrative, except for a brief report at the Jerusalem council.  Luke introduces James as a significant player in in Acts 12 and the major force behind the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15.  John, the only other apostle mentioned in Acts also disappears from the book after Acts 8 (and he was silent anytime he was in the story anyway!)

What is remarkable to me is that James appears as a leader at the level of Peter and Paul as early as 1 Corinthians.  In 1 Cor 15:7 Paul passes along the tradition that he received concerning the resurrection.  Only three names of individuals are included, Peter, James and Paul.  These are the three men to whom the Lord appeared, and at least in Peter and Paul’s case, they are commissioned to a particular ministry.

James appears as a leader in Jerusalem quite early, a point that is often missed.  Gal 1:19 describes Paul’s visit to Jerusalem after his conversion.  He met with no one except Peter and James, the Lord’s brother.  It is possible that James the apostle and James the Lord’s brother are confused in the later traditions, but there seems to be strong evidence that the family of Jesus did not believe he was the Messiah before the resurrection.  Gal 1:19 therefore can be understood as saying that within three to four years after the resurrection James not only became a believer in Jesus as Messiah, but he had already risen to some sort of leadership position in Jerusalem.

The book of James is therefore a window into an early form of Christianity, one that was comfortable with Judaism and perhaps did not see Christianity as separate from Judaism in quite the same way Paul does later in Ephesians 2 or Romans 9-11.  How would this observation change the way we read James?

14 thoughts on “Who Was James?

  1. I don’t see how we can escape at least some of Luther’s thoughts about the Book of James? Here is some form of early Jewish Christianity. James Epistle or Letter does not have the Pauline theological measure, how could it? But, it does present a good Jewish-Christian idea of Wisdom, and certainly the ministry mind of Christ. And indeed when James was written, James, the Lord’s relative (not a blood brother however to my mind), James had become the Leader of the Jerusalem “synagogue/church” (“meeting”, James 2:2) and “church” (James 5:14) were interchangeable terms. And here we see something of the 1st.century Jewish Hellenistic world. Indeed here is a real picture of the early Jewish infant Church and Community!

  2. It would seem with the historical setting of James (early post resurection) and Paul (with further direct revelation) later, that Paul is trying to correct misconceptions proffered by James as he writes in Galatians and the passages you mention.

    • Yes, we must also remember the “party” of James (Gal. 2:12), and perhaps from here, those that Paul simply called “false brethren” (Gal. 2:4), and too Titus 1:10, etc. Indeed the Apostle Paul does not give much room for the Judaic or the gospel of the “Judaizer’s”!

  3. About a year ago I read some difficult verses from 1 John that seemed to say that our deeds do matter. We also just read verses from Hebrews that push us to honor God with our lives and not start backsliding. But here again in James we see that it talks about deeds complimenting faith. James 2:17 says, “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action is dead.” So this makes me wonder, who is right, Paul or James? However, after reading Jobes’ chapter I realized that they might be able to work together. She explained how Peter, James, and Paul met and all had to agree on some important elements of salvation, so they most likely had to believe the same things even if they disagreed on some minor issues. Jobes goes on to say, “We should read James as explaining the nature of the faith that saves” (174-175). If someone is truly saved their actions should reflect their decision to follow Christ completely.

    The other side of me wonders, if this book was written early, does it just reflect a more Jewish Christianity. Since Jews were always obeying rules, did it just seem right that they needed to do things to earn salvation? Did Paul later say that, “For by grace you have been saved, through faith…” (Eph.2:8)? I think that understanding who exactly and when exactly this book is written can make a huge difference on how we read it. However, if it was written early or late, it has a call that Christians live obediently for God and that is what we must strive to do.

  4. I like what Greg said “understanding who exactly and when exactly this book is written can make a huge difference on how we read it”. I think that by understanding the book that we are reading can make a huge difference then by that we will understand more who the leader of the Church actually was. I think that it is clearly possible for James to be a leader because shown in the paragraphs he was mentioned as a leader early in the book. So i also agree cant understanding who wrote the book and when did it actually happen help with the theory?

  5. The observation that the book of James is a window into the early form of Christianity would change the orginal perception many believers had about the book. For years, people assumed the books written by Paul and James were strictly Christian. Peter dealt with the Jews while Paul and James would preach to the gentiles. No one had really given any thought to the idea that James was a book about the early form of Christianity. This means that the book of James acted like a transitional period for Christianity and was written for the Jewish Christians. After looking at the book and observations about James now, it makes more sense. Peter’s teachings were focused on the Jews after Jesus had accended. Paul’s teachings were focused on the Gentiles and the growth of their beliefs in Jesus Christ. What would happen to those who practiced Jewish law but believed in Christ? This is where James comes in. Like Peter and Paul, James’ teachings would be written for a certain group of people who needed a leader to guide them to Jesus Christ.

  6. I’ve never really put a lot of thought into the origin of James. I knew that there was some cool stuff there but never really before starting this class put a lot of thought into actually looking at the significance of the author of a book and who that author was writing to. Yeah I always thought about things as they had to be in a context of the old testament, and to look at things from the point of view that possibly the readers then would be seeing them. But still at the same time learning to take that originating information and put it towards things today. I have never been that great at picking things up from context, I do great with instructional reading, but not with observatory, so it really interested me that it was mentioned that James appears as a leader at the level of Paul. As mentioned already 1 Cor 15:7 is where Paul passes some things on to specific people, James included. So looking at this and based upon aforementioned thoughts I have to think on viewing the book of James (which I have not studied much) as possibly connected more closely with Judaism as a completely probable thought. If all these things mentioned, and if Paul was the primary to gentiles, then it is incredibly possible that James didn’t see Judaism and its relation to Christianity in the same way as Paul.

  7. As P. Long states, it can be concluded that James is quite often overlooked as a leader during the establishment of the early church. James can sometimes be overlooked altogether, but the same can’t be said about the content of James. It is full of great bits of wisdom said in such a way that is challenging, and straight to the point. The “Judiasm” factors come out clearly when the content of “faith without deeds” comes up in the scripture. I can imagine it would have been rather difficult for the Jews to begin to work on this new element of their relationship with God, and not struggle to “do” things. James makes a great counter-action to today’s culture (which is not based on Jewish traditions as it would have been for the audience of James).

  8. I have never really studied James before and not quite sure I could tell you the general idea of what James is about at the top of my head, I’m not saying I have never read it, but at the top of my head without just reading it, I couldn’t tell you the “gist” of it. But I also had no idea the level of leadership that James was considered or held at. Clearly, like P.Long and Adam states, James really is over looked a leader. The book of James is a great book in itself but I do not ever really remember anything being taught or understood as James being a leader, especially a leader in a relatable position to Paul. But like Zack mentioned, every leader has a job and that is to help others come to Christ. God had a purpose for him being a leader and a leader to a specific group just like Paul and Peter, but who was the audience for James, Jews or Christians?

  9. James: another book with a questionable author. The author is supposedly “James”. However, how do we know for sure which James this is, or if his name really is James? The author could be someone else writing under the name of James. Jobes says that “it seems more likely that this letter was written by James the leader of the church in Jerusalem”. This may be the :likely” answer to who the author of James is. However, we may never know for sure who the actual author is. We may guess at who he was or come up with theories, but we will never know for sure. I tend not to focus too much on who wrote the book. I agree that knowing the author sheds light on how to interpret the book and it gives more background on the book. It also helps us better understand the book. However, I believe that, if we were not told who the author of the book was, then it is not extremely important. I feel that this is another book that we were meant to focus more on the content and not get too caught up in finding out who the author was.

  10. If the book of James was comfortable with Judaism and did not see Christianity as separate from Judaism, unlike Paul, then we would have to read James with the assimilation of both Judaism and Christianity. Like Greg said, Jews followed the law and were very rule oriented. Perhaps for the book of James salvation was not complete without works. This goes against salvation through grace and faith not by works. I believe that good works and actions is a result of our Christian faith. When you are saved your life will bear fruit that is pleasing to God if you obey His will. We are tempted and we struggle but if we persevere and believe that God is faithful, we will be victorious through His power and strength.

  11. It is interesting that the book of James is so packed full of application which leads it to be a place that is commonly looked at for application. Because of this I commonly find myself reading this book. One thing that I can’t help but notice is the way the writer refers to Jesus. You would think that if James the Lord’s brother wrote the book there would be at least some kind of “shout out section” mentioning the writers relationship to Jesus. If the writer of James is truly James the Lord’s brother than the fact that he doesn’t mention their relationship shows that he had his own personal faith. This also might show that he holding out the fact that Jesus is God. Most people would go crazy if they found out that their brother was Eli Manning and would tell everyone they knew. Instead James says he is “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ (James 1:1).” It would seem that a perfect place to insert that he was Jesus’ brother would be in the beginning of James 2:1 where it says “my brothers, as believers on our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” by ending this line with: my brother.

  12. It seems to me that the James of the epistle would be the Lord’s brother. My question was, “how could Jesus’ brother (who did not believe in him until after the Resurrection) have risen so high up the leadership ladder in Jerusalem? But, he is recognized by Peter in addition to the role he played at the Jerusalem council. In reading Jobes, I also found it quite interesting as to the parallels between James and 1 Peter. 9 altogether. It makes me wonder who might have had influence on who in the writing of their respective gospels. For fear of sounding to dogmatic I think we can rest in knowing the author of the book of James was indeed the Lord’s brother.

  13. I agree when P.Long points out that James was never introduced as a leader until it was described in Galatians 1:19. To be honest, I have not studied James carefully to fully understand everything that is going on, but, James says in chapter 3, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1). I think that it is something that James was not only a leader, not only do we believe that he is Jesus’ younger brother, but understanding that James was a man of wisdom who went beyond the expectations of Peter and Paul.

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