The Authorship of the Letter of James

The traditional view is that the author is James, the brother of Jesus. There is nothing in the Letter of James that does not resonate with what we know about James from the book of Acts and Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Of course there are scholars who doubt whether the book of Acts is useful for constructing the first thirty years of the church, but in the case of James’s role in the early church, Galatians and Acts confirm the picture of James as the leader of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem as early as A.D. 50 and as late as A.D. 57. But the name James (Ἰάκωβος, Jacob) is very common in jamesthe first century and the author does not explicitly call himself the brother of Jesus in the letter. He is a “servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ” in verse one rather than “James the Just, Brother of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

There are a number of traditions that describe James as the first “bishop” of Jerusalem, although the use of that title in Eusebius (Hist. Eccl. 4.5.1-4) is anachronistic. An additional complication is that there are a bewildering number of apocryphal stories about James the Just and his leadership of the Jerusalem church. Some of these may contain historical memories of James, but they are buried in layers of polemic legend. Unfortunately they are not much help in either identifying the author of James or developing a profile for the “historical James.”

The letter of James is sometimes seen as a response to the growing dominance of Pauline theology in the early church. Robert Wall recently suggested James is a second century pseudepigrapha added to the canon to balance Paul’s theology. He points out the collection of James, Peter, John and Jude contains letters from the “Pillars of the Church” and framed with two letters from brothers of Jesus. He therefore suggests James is a kind of introduction to a “pillars” collection developed in the second century to balance the Paul collection.

This traditional view that Jesus’ brother wrote the letter has been challenged for a number of reasons in modern scholarship. Most recently Dale Allison’s magisterial commentary on James in the ICC series weighs the evidence and concludes James is likely not the author. He points out there is there is no clear knowledge of James before the time of Origen (13). In order to evaluate this claim, Allison surveys many of the alleged allusions to James in early Christian literature, especially in Shepherd of Hermas. He concludes that “informed opinion is dramatically divided over the meaning of these parallels” (22). For some it is obvious James used Shepherd of Hermas (therefore not historical James and a later date for the book), for others James was the inspiration for Hermas (implying an earlier date and maybe the historical James).

Allison also points out that the letter of James seems to misunderstand the theology of Paul (20), something which would be remarkable given the contact between Paul and James according to both Acts and Galatians. This is a good point, but it seems to me to argue against a later date since a writer living in A.D. 150 is less likely to misunderstand Paul than one living a hundred years earlier. The later writer would have all of Paul’s letters available to him as well as knowledge of the controversial nature of Paul’s theology in the first decades of the church. If James was written before Paul wrote Galatians or Romans, then a misunderstanding is more understandable. On the other hand, one could argue a later writer deliberately misrepresented Paul in order to argue against him, creating a straw man argument.

Karen Jobes, on the other hand, points to the use of Q (rather than the canonical gospels) as evidence of an early date (Letters to the Church, 159). Q refers to the sources used by both Matthew and Luke. If James can be shown to use Q then perhaps this is evidence for an earlier date, before the canonical Gospels were written and circulated.

In my view, the letter is the best representative of Jewish Christianity in the New Testament. While I fully understand there were Jewish Christians in Jerusalem will into the third and fourth centuries, the Christian community was almost entirely Jewish until Paul’s missionary activity in the late 40s. The letter of James “fits” the historical context of Acts 1-12 better than the second century.

How would reading James as coming from the leader of the Jerusalem church writing before Acts 15 affect our understanding of the letter?

Bibliography: Dale C. Allison Jr., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Epistle of James (ICC; London: Bloomsbury, 2013).

17 thoughts on “The Authorship of the Letter of James

  1. Interesting issues raised. A number of related ones come to mind. I’ll try to limit them….

    The literacy of Jesus’ family (himself, siblings). It’s widely debated whether Jesus himself could or did write (at least beyond some unknown, perhaps simple inscription in the sand, per the Gospels). As a “teknon” (construction worker or artisan) in a rural (or non-metropolitan) part of Galilee, would he or James (assuming sibling relationship) have been taught to write? And in Greek (Aramaic being almost certainly their spoken language)? Maybe, but it would have been much against the norm and implied a “richer” family than that portrayed in the Gospels. James seems to be legendary more for his piety and administrative acumen than as a literary person. (Writing a well-constructed though brief book is a significant step beyond mere literacy.)

    According to Acts, he would seem, soon after Jesus’ death, to have been heavily taken up with church growth, Jewish worship practices, and admin affairs rather than scholarly ones (even if some time before he may have taken over from Peter). If he wasn’t already some kind of writer, would he have spent time/energy learning to become one? Jesus had apparently prioritized written records nor polemics, nor suggested, as far as we know, that his followers use the written word. And we have NO works identified with certainty as written by ANY of the Jerusalem Apostles or leaders (realizing the traditional attribution, besides James, of Epistles of Peter, John and Jude to those respective Apostles/brother (?) of Jesus – Jude, which I do not find to be substantial enough to presume… with stronger arguments for later authorship)…. Anyway, at the least there is no conclusive evidence of any writing by any Jerusalem author, pre or post 70, Jerusalem’s practical end as religious center of both Judaism and Christianity. So, if not Peter or John (or Barnabas, Stephen, etc.), what’s the likelihood of, singly, a book by James, who may not have even been literate… and that of a general teaching/wisdom literature type?

    As to a potential polemic against Paul in “James”, here’s just one interesting observation from Acts that is often overlooked and under-analyzed, and which is connected to a series of events and issues of great significance which I won’t go into here (expressed in “Apostle Paul: A Polite Bribe”, among other places):

    Acts 21 (esp. vs. 20 ff.) have James telling Paul this, upon his arrival at Jerusalem on his final pre-imprisonment-on-way-to-Rome visit: “…[Jerusalem believers] have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses… not to circumcise… or observe the [Jewish] customs. What then is to be done…?” (Should be read in context for the full story.) Point for here is that author Luke has James notably NOT, apparently, correcting the potential misconception but advising Paul on how to counter it demonstrably.

    The implication here and elsewhere is that James apparently was not well-informed, directly by Paul or otherwise, as to what Paul actually did teach and advise. (For those not aware, the contact between the two was minimal, and the Acts description of the “Jerusalem Council” somewhat suspect or confusing at the least, in relation to Paul’s writings.) Conversely, IF James was indeed well informed, Acts does NOT make a point that he agreed and/or defended Paul when Paul most needed it after his rescue/arrest in the city…. Nor did James apparently dispatch any practical or “moral” support to Paul while in prison for about a year (or 2?) at Caesarea, a mere 50 or so miles away. And this despite Paul’s having gone to long and dangerous effort to collect and bring to Jerusalem a sizeable collection for “the saints” there.

    There clearly are some major missing elements in the history we get from Acts that neither the letters of Paul nor “James” clarifies… the true nature and outcome of the tension and competition, for example. However, Paul gives us enough to clearly see the obfuscation of Acts and to leave us wondering about the specifics of the theology of James, Jerusalem Church leader. At the least, “his” epistle can best be read as lacking support for much of the theology of Paul and potentially supporting James’ continuation of orthodox Jewish observance at the Temple, as pictured in Acts (vs. the “supercessionist” implications of the book of Hebrews).

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  2. Clarification of typo above: I missed “not” in saying Jesus “prioritized written records…” Also, I perhaps should have qualified Jesus almost certain “spoken language” as “main spoken language” of Aramaic… He and James may have used koine Greek, as the common “trade language” some as well… which would not imply the ability to write good literary Greek.

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  3. It is important to understand James as it was written in its original context, the Book of James is a set of principles written for what seems to be a Jewish Christian audience but it is also important to understand that the book was intended for all who inquire it. James inquires that its readers follow this as a guideline as a standard for basic Christian living before the world could be redeemed while Acts displays what it took for the redemption to be completed when sin had entered the world. It is important to read both of these sections in their correct context as before all of this is happening before the return of Christ and is leading up to His crucifixion to redeem all of humanity. Jobes makes the argument that James is written as Jewish Wisdom Literature but has been transposed by Jesus’ teachings (Letters of the Church, 206). Meaning James and Acts coincide with one another in letting us understand the content of the religion in a further context. James seems to be a brief summary of basic principles we are to follow according to His Word while also offering us warnings to steer clear of (James 1, 2, and 3). In order to fully understand how Acts and James coincide with one another I believe it is important that we not only read the context but also read the information presented to us in order as intended for everyone.

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  4. From reading this article, as well as other extra-biblical resources, one can see that there is a difference in opinion amongst many scholars in regards to the authorship and date of the book of James. With the discrepancy of dating of James, comes a blurry context for the purpose of the letter of James being written. The book of James predominately speaks of Jewish wisdom, giving an appropriate guidelines for those of Jewish living standards. Evidence that it was written from this time period is presented when James writes “to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations” (1:1), citing when the Christian were persecuted and scattered from Jerusalem. Understanding this context allows one to see that James is writing to the persecuted church scattered by the persecution. Also, it would make further sense when James writes about social justice and providing food and clothing to the poor because of the famine within the first century right after the scattering of the Christians. Jobes disagrees with this, however, because she believes that James is essentially a Q-Document or “served as a pre-synoptic source of Jesus’ teaching for James” (Jobes 159). If this is true, then James is essentially a culmination of previous material and Jesus’ teachings. I don’t believe this to be true because of the previous evidence and context provided. The dating of this makes a difference in our understanding of the letter because of the urgency in which James is writing to the Jews within the persecuted church. This letter also applies to modern day living as well because it speaks truth in regards to wisdom and morality.

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  5. I think that having an understanding of the time that James was written is crucial to understanding the the cultural context of the book. The key points that I would like to address would be the social issues that James discusses in great detail. James seems have several points of focus: perseverance in the face of trials and social justice among the Church. Both of these things would fit in the timetable of when James the Just was the head of the Jerusalem church due to the famine and persecution the Jews brought against Christians in the early years of the Church (Jobes pg 154). If we are to consider that it is during these times that James writes his letter than we can clearly understand some of the concerns that James might have, especially with favoritism (James 2:1-13). It would seem to me that if people are poor and prosecuted than making friends with the rich and powerful in the church would be a good way to ease some of the suffering. However this would give the rich an inordinate amount of power within the Church even if they were new believers who still didn’t quite understand the more intricate aspects of the Christian beliefs. While the rich should have been giving money to the poor, they might have been leveraging the gifts for favors or positions. By not looking at the book of James from the historical or cultural perspective of an early written period than we lose out on our understanding of some critical aspects of James. The theology of James is intertwined with the culture and history that James grew up in and readers have a chance of misinterpreting what James wanted us to understand.

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  6. I think James’ emphasis on the Law in a few places throughout the letter (mainly in 2:8-13) would mean a lot more to the recipients if it happened before the meeting of the Jerusalem Council and their decisions in Acts 15. James might have felt that as Jews, they would have to keep doing everything according to the Law except that which Jesus abolished in his coming, death, and resurrection. He implored the diaspora to love others, keep charge over their tongue, love and provide for the orphans and the widows, submit themselves to God, and all this in the name of the “royal Law found in the Scriptures” (v. 8). There is also a focus on the social justice for poor and needy people, much like the OT prophets (Jobes 162). So James, whether his teaching recorded here was before Peter’s visions about food or even Paul’s conversion, had a strong attachment to the royal law and saw it as completely necessary.

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  7. The question seems to be if James was written before Acts 15 how would that affect how we perceive the letter which there is one obvious answer which is that James is then not writing a response according to what Paul says. I feel like their is a scale between James and Paul, as if they balance each other.James was talking to people who are coming from a background of working to cleans their sins through sacrifices and other rituals. James could be telling them that becoming a Christian is going to be work and that it is not something were one is free from working. I see it as almost in monopoly you get the get out of jail free card through the death and resurrection of Christ, but you still have to work your way around the board till the end. This can cause an issue because people then will start to think that works are what save you when really it is Christ. People were probably getting this mindset, so that is where then Paul comes in. Maybe it is not an argument, so much as it an addition in a different form. Paul puts the mindset back in the right direction for why there is salvation.I feel like if James came after Acts 15 then it is an argument while if it was James first I feel like it balances each other.

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  8. In the ESV study bible it speaks about how James is the brother of Jesus and his writings fits better with someone who has the experiences he has had. Also the writing style is Hellenistic which fits him well. The experience that he speaks about through the book fits his shared experiences around the other disciples. The book of James itself fits the writings of someone who would be speaking to the Jews at that time and if it was not James as the writer then he would have to be someone else close to the disciples and Jesus at that time. Which the only ones that would have know each other that well are the disciples since they spent there time together or going out in pairs.

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    • Wellywellys, I don’t have an ESV Study Bible to read what you refer to. But I don’t see how a “Hellenistic” style “fits him well”. If it’s the brother of Jesus writing, we would more expect a Hebrew/Aramaic style, wouldn’t we, even if composed in Greek? I don’t think any scholar suggests a likely composition in Hebrew, lost after translation to Greek. Where would it seem James would have gained a Hellenistic style over against his almost-certain native tongue of Aramaic? (Maybe you meant Hebrew, in that the genre fits a Hebrew one…) My Greek is way too minimal to judge the actual grammar and syntax as particularly non-Greek or not…. I’ve been led to think the Greek here is typical and don’t recall otherwise when I WAS using Greek in seminary many years ago.

      But your comment reflects back to my comments well above (1st and 2nd ones) – the idea that, to kick things off for a brother-of-Jesus author, one has to either go somewhat against the Gospels’ setting for the family and the typical Galilean norm of the day, along with biblical and extra-biblical evidence of a VERY “dyed in the wool” and Jewishly loyal “James the Righteous” OR imagine a scenario explaining why and how James would have become a solid writer in Greek… a good literary one, not just able to use “trade” Greek as many Galileans and Judeans apparently did. (Of Paul we expect something different. He was not an original disciple of course. He was clearly both highly intelligent and highly educated, plus raised in the primarily Gentile and hellenized city of Tarsus, if Luke is accurate on this (Acts). Here he probably grew up fully bilingual and reading in Greek as well as Hebrew/Aramaic…. A whole different situation than Galileans like James or Peter, who is credited with 2 NT epistles, traditionally, though seldom so by current scholars.)

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      • I went back and reread the information because I had trouble with reading it before. You are right one of the reasons they believe it is not him is because of the Hellenistic rhetoric is too well done for someone who has supposed to have never left the Palestine area. But being in the time period for him growing up as a youth in an increasingly Hellenistic roman would have influenced his writings. Also, being a Jewish leader he would have been well educated in not only Jewish literature but having been exposed to roman literature as well because of the ruling powers. He is also shown to know Paul well, Paul uses a lot of Hellenistic rhetoric in all of his writings which would have caused an influence in the writings of James. James himself also wrote to many churches and as such would have been able to speak in versatile ways, because of the expanse of not only the area in which the churches resides but also the variety of the population there it would seem almost impossible for him to want or even just be all inclusive with his learning and styles or writing and rhetoric. As such many scholars may argue against him being able to writing in a Hellenistic manner but there is more and more implications that the world, and even the Jewish communities, and other communities were adopting the languages and writing styles of each other. On top of which if you believe James is the one who actually did write the book then you are saying you believe he is well versed in Hellenistic writing make your point mute.

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  9. I think knowing who the real author is, as well as when it was written, would affect how we think about the doctrine of Paul. If James was written later, and not by James the brother of Jesus, it could be seen as a letter directly defying Paul, although the date and author are not conclusive enough to prove this either. Jobes points out that they were likely written around the same time, and that neither of them were written to balance or contradict the other. After reading Jobes I tend to agree with this position. First, both letters were written to different people under different circumstances so comparing the content as defying one another really doesn’t work. If they were written to the same group, at the same time, then there is the possibility but the two different groups had different circumstances. I think both statements are true in and of themselves. You can say both things and they can both be correct. Faith is the means to your justification is accurate but faith needs to be defined. Faith is not real if there is no fruit of your labor. Faith needs to be defined, something which James does.
    Also, a pseudigraphic work would likely have stated his name, who he was, and many more details because they would have overdone it to prove who it was. James needed no introduction because people knew who he was.

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    • I don’t think we can know the author or date of James for sure. What is quite clear and we CAN be sure of is that there were major tensions and disagreement on the very definition of “the Gospel” between Paul the Jerusalem leaders, as personified particularly in James (more than Peter). The way it’s worded is cautious (even in Galatians, where Paul is adamant, forceful) and one has to spend some time reading carefully and comparing between Paul and Acts. But even Acts, particularly the latter chapters re. Paul’s final visit there and the “collection for the saints” [in Jerusalem], makes it clear that James remained loyal to the Temple and the Torah and Paul did not. Paul didn’t even rely at all on the earthly life and teachings of Jesus, as James certainly did, along with his brother’s basic approach to the Law.

      It also appears (espec. Acts 21:21 ff.) that James didn’t even know for sure just WHAT Paul was teaching. To see things like this and other critical factors, one has to read Luke’s accounts in Acts discerningly, as he clearly is being very selective and leaving important points OUT of the picture as much as he feels he can get away with. (And history, unfortunately, has confirmed that for most people, he could get away with it.)

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