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 the 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).