The Significance of James

For many years I have had an interest in Jewish Christianity in Jerusalem in general, and James in particular. In general, I am think that James, the brother of Jesus, was the key leader of the Christian Community in Jerusalem throughout the period covered by the book of Acts. 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?

18 thoughts on “The Significance of James

  1. I have to wonder what it would be like to be the brother of the messiah… talk about the “perfect firstborn.” Wouldn’t that be rough when you would try to tattle tell on Jesus! All joking aside, we see James step us a leader in the church, regardless of his past thinking on who Jesus truly was (by the way, where do we find this evidence/source that Jesus’ family didn’t believe that he was the messiah? Just curious, as i had never heard that before…) and become a major player in the early church, particularly in Jerusalem. Obviously James is very Jewish, and i do not believe that he would have made the distinction between Judaism and Christianity as the major difference in the two at this point was Jesus. Jesus’ role was in fulfilling the prophecy and law of Israel (bringing a new chapter in Judaism) and so he would not have seen Christianity as a new religion, but a continuation of what God was doing for Israel. If you follow this train of thought, it only makes sense for them to continue to follow the law, because they were not told otherwise until Acts 10 when Peter is given a vision from God (and possibly in Acts 9 at Paul’s conversion, but this idea is not stated there). All of this contributes to why James is so Jewish when we find him in Acts 15, when there was a large amount of leaders declaring that Gentiles had to follow the law (we find that James eventually sides we Paul, but it appears as if this was not his initial opinion). As a leader of large amounts of Jewish Christians, and a former (or not so former) follower of the Law, it only makes logical sense that James’ writings would be very Jewish in thoughts and actions. For example, the whole thought process behind James 2:14-26 (faith without works is dead) is very Jewish in thought, and not unlike the law in some regards. This should definitely be taken into account as we read through James and read about him in the New Testament. James is very applicable to us today, but we also need to remember that it comes from a very Jewish mind to Jewish believers. We should continue to read this great book of the faith, all the while remembering the context and author in order to glean as much as we can from the text.


  2. The reader could go over the book of James with the idea of learning more about the difference between Judaism and early Christianity instead of just about Christianity itself. James may have been wanting to show everyone exactly why Judaism was not the answer and that Jesus was in fact the Messiah. He may have felt that since it took so long for him to be convinced that his own brother was the Messiah it seems understandable to assume that he assumed that it would be even harder for others to accept that Jesus was the Messiah as well.


  3. From reading Jobes’ book, it seems that an even more important observation of James’ letter is its purpose. James is, in a basic sense, an ancient example of the way pastors teach their congregations in modern Christianity. As Jobes says, ” James is not teaching about Jesus, but is applying the teaching of Jesus as normative for the Christian life” (pg. 198). So, While it is important to understand the context of James’ belief in Christ, it seems more important to understand how he thought about the teachings of Christ. So, while James seems to be writing directly to the Jewish people, hence his statement of his letter being “to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations” (James 1:1), it is also important to see that James taught an ethical way of life that used Jesus’ teachings as their base. So, we ought to be reading James as sermon that works to apply the teachings of Jesus to how one ought to live life.


  4. But there is a great possibility that Book of James wasn’t written by brother of Lord. Is it possible that someone from Jesus’s family would have so great greek? It definitely contains many rhetorical figures such as diatribe, hexameter etc. Then would be also outcomes different. But it’s just possibility 🙂


    • That is of course a possibility, but letters were not written in the same way they are today. No matter who wrote the letter, an amanuensis would have been used. An amanuensis could have a great deal of impact on how a letter was written. In addition, if James was an educated Jew (in Torah, in rabbinic methods, etc.), then he may have been aware of Greek rhetorical styles like diatribe, etc. Paul himself is an example of a highly educated Jew who knew Greco-Roman rhetorical styles and probably made use of several different amanuenses to write his letters to Hellenistic audiences. I think that the Letter is more like Jewish Wisdom in the tradition of Sirach, another book translated into a very good Greek style.

      Since the letter does not claim that James is Jesus’ brother, it is not necessary to defend that tradition tenaciously. It is interesting that the Brother of Jesus figures so significantly in the book of Acts as a strong Jewish Christian voice in Jerusalem, and this letter is a strong Jewish Christian voice. At the lease, the Brother of Jesus has to be the front-running candidate for the author of this letter.


  5. Going off of arenberg93’s reply, I also see the Messiah’s work as a continuation of God’s dealings with Israel. James, interpreting the events this way, would have focused on helping Gentiles accept this new revelation by bringing them into Judaism. In compliance to the Commission of Acts. 1:8, attempting to convert Gentiles to the “new Judaism” would only make sense.

    We could view James as a more spiritually mature letter. Since the name of Jesus is mentioned only twice in the letter, it is possible that His Lordship is already assumed by the readership. Surely, if the people you are writing to are already firmly grounded in their understanding of the identity of Christ, you wouldn’t spend much time addressing the issue. Instead, you would focus more on making the work of Jesus applicable to the lives of your readers, much like modern preachers. This is in agreement with taczhompson.


  6. “To listen to James… is to listen to Jesus” is one interpreter’s observation (Jobes, 197). Understanding that Jesus was brought up in all Semitic traditions and teachings, it should not surprise us to read statements in James that say, “faith without works is dead” (James 2:17). In fact, Jesus came “not to abolish the Law (works), but to fulfill the law” (Matt 5:17).

    The book of James should challenge today’s Christians to demonstrate their faith through their good deeds. In fact, James may be the earliest writing of practical daily application of Christian doctrine and ethics (Jobes, 198). One of the most notable applications being that of the “royal law” – the ability to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Jobes, 195).

    The book of James does not introduce many new ideas of ethics and morale living to Christianity. However, it should encourage and compel Christians to publicly live a holy and upright life. This shouldn’t be done to gain favoritism or personal edification, rather to honor God for the love He demonstrates to the World (James 2:26).


  7. I feel that now knowing that James was a window into the early form of Christianity where Judaism and Christianity were more a like then they will ever be, that we can learn from it and compare or think about what it would have been like to almost be stuck in the middle of Judaism and Christianity. I think that now that we know this, we should really try to look at it in a point of view from that time period (which we should be doing anyways) and maybe we could get a better idea of what it was like being a Jewish-Christian at the time.


  8. I didn’t know most of this information about James, it is pretty significant to learning more about the book of James, and understanding that he took charge after Jesus’ death. Through reading chapter 6 of “Letter to the Church” a quote that really stood out to me was “James is not teaching about Jesus, but is applying the teaching of Jesus as a normative for the Christian life” (pg. 198). As wonderful as it is to learn about Jesus, it is just as important to learn how to apply what Jesus did to Christianity. I think that when we read James we need to read it as a teaching or a sermon that aims to guide us in the right direction as to how to apply the teachings of Jesus in our lives.


    • I have never really looked at or read the book of James either, so I do not know a lot about him or the book itself. I am looking forward to learning more about the events going on during that time along with the things that lead up to it. The book of James is written by James to the twelve tribes, so I think that it is a letter to them, that later turns into a bit of a sermon or teaching. I think that he is reminding the Jewish-Christians to have faith and trust in God. I think that by reading James and understanding that it is an early form of Christianity helps us to see just how Christianity started out, it’s origins, and how ideas and theology have changed throughout history.


    • Kayla, I agree with you when you said that you didn’t know a lot of the information about James prior to reading this chapter and blog post. It is interesting to see how knowing more about James changes the way that we read the book of James due to the context, background, and audience it was written for. I wonder how knowing more about different people in the Bible could help me better understand the stories and information that God has given me. In chapter 6 I learned that James is possibly the earliest Christian writings to have survived (Jobes, 198). James 1:1 begins by telling us a little bit about who James was. Jobes explains that this opening verse clearly defines that James is the author and he describes himself as a servant of the Lord (Jobes, 150). I also learned that the name James is only mentioned 42 times in the New Testament, but it refers to multiple men in Mark 3:18, Luke 16:16, Acts 12:2, etc. (Jobes, 151).


  9. Have you read Rainbows, The Way of Salvation: The Role of Christian Obedience in Justification? Rainbow starts explaining that James was the leader of the church (ch 3). Eventually making the argument we shouldn’t so easily water down his statements about justification to Paul.


  10. Seeing the Book of James as a description of what exactly was going on in a Jewish church recently after the resurrection, some qualities regarding this writing can be understood. However, when doing this, one has to be careful to read it understanding that the Book of James is still considered inerrant and that the difficult phrases written have their place even within Pauline theology. Jobes agrees with the majority of people who believe the book was written by James the Just, a significant leader in the Jerusalem church. (Pg. 152) One can see that James is a true Jew by beginning his letter by addressing the scattered tribes of Israel: the diaspora. His Christian teaching then would most likely be steeped in Jewish ideology. This can be compared to how a Canadian may view an American election as idiotic because of the way they were raised and the actions and emotions they are accustomed to. James 2 contains controversial verses surrounding one’s faith. He explains that faith and works are not separate of one another. Faith is dependent upon works, but not in the way most people would likely think. Works do not save as much as they provide evidence for someone’s faith. James writes as if he does not want the Jewish Christians to forget the works that they were so diligent in doing before they knew Christ. Belief in Christ does not mean you become lazy. It means that you become active in doing good because of what you believe. When James speaks of “the royal law” in chapter 1 and 4, Jobes writes that this law of love is characteristic of the true saving faith. (Pg. 175) This considered, one may possibly even state that real faith inspires one to love. This love is evidence of true faith! (John 13:34-35) Realizing that James came from a culture where deeds determined your spiritual standing between others God (or so they thought), readers can then understand that James is relating his Jewish upbringing to the truth he is now trying to facilitate and clarify within the Jewish churches.


  11. When I think about James my first thought was never, “that guy is a leader.” It was more appreciation that Jesus’s half-brother got the chance to add to God’s word. James brought a lot of truths to the churches. There is a lot in James about loving others. That is an important part of Christianity–growing up to me it was always called the “golden rule,” but James refers to it as the “royal rule,” (Jobes 185). James truly was a leader in setting the stage for what churches should be doing. I do not think that James should be looked over as much as it has been.


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