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?

28 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.

  12. As I continue to learn and read about early Jewish Christianity, the more it seemingly becomes important to me in understanding the early Church and James is especially important in that Realm. Both P. Long and Jobes affirm that James was a highly influential leader within the early Church in Jerusalem before being martyred around AD 62 (Jobes, 151). P. Long stresses the early importance of James as a Church leader, mentioning how Paul in Galatians 1:19 only seeks to speak with Peter and James and 1 Corinthians 15:7 in which Paul states that he shared the revelation on resurrection with Peter and James.

    P. Long concludes his blog by stating the context of Christianity when the book of James was written may have been comfortable with a Christianity that was not yet separated from Judaism and by asking the question how this changes the way we read the book of James. I would tend to answer in agreement with P. Long that James provides a unique window into early Christianty and thus also is less understood as counter to Pauline theology but rather helpful in understanding how Jews understood their obedience to the Law and faith in Jesus.

  13. I agree with the statement that “The book of James in therefore a window into an early form of Christianity.” This is exactly how I always viewed the book. It is designed to incorporate what Christians behavior should look like in correlation with the devotion to God’s word. Although this book can be confusing to me at times, there is no question that the main theme is to live out what we have learned through Christ. James encourages his readers to live a live in which we are active with our relationship with God. Since James was wrote prior to the split between Judaism and Christianity, there is the need to understand that this book was written to Jews during this time period. I think that a reader should analyze James as guide to living a life in which God would approve. As all aspects of the Bible, it is important to understand who the book was intended for, what was going on during the time period, and how the book is presented. Like Jobes states, “To listen to James… is to listen to Jesus”. Therefore, the book reiterates what the message Jesus was teaching. Jesus was brought up in Jewish customs and traditions just as everyone else during this time. If the reader can take into consideration the background and previous context, they will be able to better interpret the message this is being presented in the book of James.

  14. I always thought that the book of James was written after acts as a type of response to acts. It is so bewildering to think that James could have been one of the very first books written of the new testament. Jobes suggests that James could have been written as early as the mid40s “when James the just assumed leadership of the Jerusalem church” (159). James is a Jewish leader of the church of Jerusalem and also Jesus’s brother. James writes to the twelve tribes scattered around the nation, not only the ones living in the promise land (James 1:1). James is concerned with Christians and wants to encourage them in their faith and spiritual walk. Since James was likely the first book of the New Testament written, James addresses all Christians (early Christianity). While he was writing the book of James, he was understanding the new plan God had for both Jews and Gentiles. James is a great book for any Christian today to read. It is very applicable to our lives and struggles today. However, the book of James comes from a very Jewish background to primarily Jewish believers. It is important to remember who the author was and the context in which it was written.

  15. It is interesting to learn about the multiple James in the New Testament. In understanding that the book of James was written by James, the brother of Jesus it can be understood the honor James wanted to show to Jesus. This means that once James understood and believed that Jesus was the Messiah, he wanted to preach about the Messiah, his brother, to everyone. An individual can be empowered when they are fighting for their family, especially their siblings if they trust and respect for what they are saying and supporting. Understanding that James did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah until after Jesus’ resurrection, James had some time of belief to make up, so to speak, and therefore was a “blazing fire of faith” in his ministry. That is why I believe that James was so quickly considered and placed into a leadership position. He was so vocal about his beliefs and was passionate, therefore intended to share the truth boldly. Because James was known, by most of the leaders of the church, before Jesus’ resurrection, that is why he needed to make himself known in James 1:1; or at least that is what Karen Jobes writes in “Letters to the Church” (Jobes, p. 185).

  16. Whenever I preach on James I give the fact that James was the brother of Jesus and that he was a main leader in the Jewish-Christian community so it is nice to see someone else also feel so strongly about that fact. Also, now that I know about the story of your professor and how he reacted to you it makes reading the first paragraph of this post hilarious. James has always been one of my favorite books of the Bible for reasons that most other people like James as well because it is very practical. Practicality and application from a text are very important to me. When James is extremely blunt as he is, it creates a very easy to understand the text. While he was not a believer during Jesus’ earthly ministry he rose to leadership soon after the resurrection and his conversion. James had a particular righteous Jewishness about it. He addresses the letter to Jews (James 1:1).
    If Judaism is still a good thing then what changes with Jesus Christ? If Jews are “saved” because they are the people of God then was God’s plan of redemption necessary for the world. Was Jesus’ death necessary for Jews? Jesus clearly states that He is the only way to salvation (John 14:6). If this is the case then Jews must at least look to Jesus as savior. Being a part of God’s people is not enough. It is for this reason that Jesus came and why salvation is a gift for all people. If James is okay with Judaism staying the same then the belief that Jesus is the Messiah is the only other thing they need to do. Clearly it is the only thing they need to do because that is what grants salvation. The difficult thing about this new covenant is that the old covenant was ingrained into the Jews. This is why James’ writing is influenced heavily on works because of faith. The keeping of the Law was another way to glorify God. If you were saved your faith was shown in your devotion.

  17. I agree with Professor Long that James has a significant effect on the church and Jewish Christians. James played an important role with the Jerusalem conference. At the Jerusalem conference, Peter and Paul were arguing whether or not Gentile believers should follow Jewish law that included circumcision. It was James who found a solution. His solution was to “abstain from things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood” (Acts 15:20). It is at the Jerusalem conference that it is revealed that James was held in the same esteem as Peter and Paul. James continues to have influence through his book, James. In this book, it is revealed that Christianity is similar to Judaism except its focus on Jesus and not on the Law.

  18. I like that you mentioned that perhaps James does not see Christianity and Judaism as so different when compared to other writers such as Paul. Maybe this is due to the fact that James was the leader of the Jerusalem church, as both you and Jobes have mentioned, and therefore he had closer ties with the Jews compared to someone like Paul who was born a Roman. Another idea that I have pondered is that maybe James was somewhat of an original Messianic Jew which in many ways bridges the gap between Judaism and Christianity, in my opinion. This thought, however, was challenged as I read further in Jobes being reminded that James speaks nothing of the second coming of Christ making my connection to Messianic Judaism a little fuzzy. This is much more consistent with traditional Judaism.
    James does, however, seem to use Jesus (although only used twice in James 1:1 and 2:1), Lord, and God interchangeably so as to show their relationship alluding perhaps to the idea of the Trinity (I may be getting a little ahead of myself a little). Both times Jesus is brought up, He is described as “Lord” (Ch. 6). James also mentions that there is only one God, something that all Jews held to be true and strongly believed in. Finally, James says there is only one judge, pointing to the statement made earlier that there is only one God (4:12), BUT later James says the Lord (at this point synonymous with Jesus because of 1:1 and 2:1) is the judge. All of this considered, it seems as though James definitely has strong Jewish roots and beliefs not common of writers like Paul, especially when it comes to the distinction between Christianity and Judaism, but he does seem to be edging toward a slight amalgamation of the two.

  19. It is amazing how quickly the Spirit of God can work in believers’ lives. James was a brother of Jesus, someone who did not believe in the truth that Jesus was giving to people (John 7:5). If he truly is that author of James, he would have had a turnaround, much like Saul or the centurion at the cross (Matt. 27:54). James differs from many followers of Jesus after the resurrection because he actually saw Jesus after he was resurrected, which likely could have been what helped him to believe. And then, he would have become a prominent leader within the church in four years (Long, 70).
    James does not just rise up to be a leader, but one of the main pillars for first century Christians (Gal. 2:9). His decisions held a lot of weight to them, bringing him to a similar level as Paul and Peter. This can be seen in the Antioch Incident. Both the Judaizers and Paul and Peter present what had happened and the debate about Gentile conversion. We see that James is the one that makes an ultimate decision on the issue, showing the extent of his authority within the lives of Christians.

  20. James is a pretty straightforward guy, and I being a pretty straightforward person enjoy that. I think that because he did not see much difference between Judaism and Christianity it made him be that way. He spoke to an audience that needed to be told how it was when it was. Due to that, we have the book of James. James was a servant of Christ and brought more people to be in a relationship with him. Whether there needed to be a difference with it being Jews or not, I do not know. If Jews were called to be the “saved” was there a point to Jesus dying on the cross? We are to believe in the Lord Jesus and you shall be saved (Acts 16:31). This is true, but if Jews thought that they were good people and obeyed the laws then they were saved, how do you change that mindset, without being direct and not see a difference between Judaism and Christianity? Taking what I know, I enjoy reading the book of James and I think that it is a very helpful book even if he was known for not seeing a difference in Christianity and Judaism.

  21. In Letters to the Church, it says: “James is not teaching about Jesus, but is applying the teaching of Jesus as a normative for the Christian life.” Thinking of this, it is important to know the teaching of Jesus, what Jesus taught and why he taught it, but I think the bigger question is, how do I apply this to my life? James allows Christians to apply Jesus’ teachings into every day, Christian lives. As Christians, it is important to do as Jesus did, to show others the way of Jesus’ teachings. James shows us what Christians should be like and act like according to God’s word.

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