The Epistle (letter) of James does not receive the same
enthusiasm and passion as other parts of the New Testament from
Christian preachers. It seems like those preachers are ignoring St.
James, the brother of Jesus, because of his leadership of the Jewish
Christians in Jerusalem and the Ebionites in Pella in the middle of
the first century (40-62 CE.) The belief in Jesus as an inspired
prophet was what ultimately cut off the Ebionites from the main body
of Judaism and Christianity. As long as Jesus was alive his claim to
prophetic and Messianic status was not in any way heretical.
James is the one presiding at the great council of
Jerusalem which met to decide the important question of the
relationship of Christianity to the Mosaic Law; his leadership role
is evident. In Gal. 2:9 Paul refers to him as a "pillar" of the
church - equal to Peter and John. He was evidently in firm agreement
with the decision of the Jerusalem council (Acts 15:13-19), but he
was also careful to keep peace between the gentile believers and the
Jewish Christians (Acts 15:20). James was called "James the Just"
because of his recognized piety, and was said to have "knees like
those of camels" because of his much time spent in prayer. Josephus
records that James was martyred during an uprising against
Christians while Ananus was high priest in 62 CE.
Epistle of James was probably written about 47 CE. The reference to
the persecutions (2: 6) is in the present tense, and indicates a
stage of suffering which has not yet receded into the past of
history. The style of this Epistle is in many ways very different
from the other New Testament Epistles. It often sounds more like a
preached sermon and a prescription for the ultimate success in life
and in the hereafter. It emphasizes belief in God, faith and wisdom,
good deeds, good rewards for the poor, warning to rich oppressors,
and declares that faith without works is dead. James shows knowledge
of Christian material that uses sayings ascribed to Jesus in the
Gospels: 5:12 (compare Matt 5:36-37); 1:5, 17 (compare Matt 7:7-12);
1:22 (compare Matt 7:24-27); 4:12 (compare Matt 7:1); 1:6 (compare
Mark 11:23-24). There is, further, Christian material also used in 1
Peter: 1:2-3 (compare 1 Peter 1:6-7); 4:1-2 (compare 1 Pet 2:11).
There was Christian tradition into which sayings ascribed to Jesus
in the Gospels have been taken up, although not in the form of
sayings of Jesus, and of which James, 1 Peter, Matthew and Mark make
However, there are a number of distinct characteristics that set the Epistle of James apart from the other New Testament Epistles:
♦Jesus is mentioned only twice in James 1:1 and James 2:1. There is not a single verse of his death, his resurrection, and Paul salvation theology. This indicates that James and his group, the Ebionites, did not believe in these items. James gives us the pure teachings of Jesus rather than teachings about Jesus.
♦In James 5.10-11 it was Job and not Jesus who serves as an example of endurance and willingness to suffer for the purpose of God. This is totally against Pauline Christianity which is based upon the ultimate suffering and crucifixion of Jesus for the human sins.
♦The Epistle emphasizes that faith has to be accompanied with wisdom (1:2-8), and declares that faith without works is dead (2:14-26). This is totally against Paul in his epistles to the Roman and Galatians that stress on belief in Jesus, born again, Jesus loves you, Jesus dies for you and all the other nice slogans that do not require even believing in the Ten Commandments. James was not merely talking about the importance of works; he was making his case by asserting it against Paul′s view that faith alone, without works, is sufficient.
♦The Epistle portrays a deep sympathy for the poor and persecuted (2:1-9, 5:1-6), while at the same time criticizing the rich (4:13-17, 5:1-6). This is again strongly reminiscent of what we know about the original Jewish-Christian community in Jerusalem, where the term the poor was commonly used as an honorable title to describe the community there - either the whole group or a large part of it.
♦There is no mention of Gentiles within the church. In fact, James does not mention Gentiles at all, and the Letter was addressed to the twelve Jewish tribes in the Dispersion. It is likely that this Epistle was written before the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 and that Gentiles had not yet been accepted into the church.
♦Christianity is not
presented in contrast with Judaism. There is no "us versus them"
mentality. Instead Christianity is presented as a fulfillment of the
Jewish faith. The only distinction is that Jesus is recognized as
the Messiah, and the emphasis on the spirit of the Jewish Law.
♦Although James was the first of the Catholic Epistles of the New
Testament of the Bible, it has been placed after Paul Epistles. This
is because the early Church and the fathers of the Church debated
whether it should be canonized, due to the rift between the Pauline
Christianity and the true monotheism of Ebionites and their leader.
Some scholars wonder if James' radical critique of wealth, support
for the oppressed and his emphasis on faith with work kept him from
becoming central to our Christian faith.
Pushed in the
back of the New Testament is the Letter of James. James is the first
of seven "Catholic" or universal letters. James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2
and 3 John, and Jude were written to the Catholic Church rather than
to specific communities. All seven had a long and winding journey
toward the designation as "Christian scripture". Other disputed
books were: Hebrews, Revelation, The Shepherd of Hermas, The
Didache, The Epistle of Barnabas and The Epistles of Clement. Most
writings from before 200 do not mention the Epistle of James. The
"Muratorian Canon," a list dating to about 200CE, gave a list of
inspired books, but fails to mention James, Hebrews, and 1 and 2
Peter. One significant text does quote James: The Shepherd of
Hermas, written before 140. The theologian and biblical scholar,
Origen, quotes James extensively between 230 and 250. He mentions
that James was Jesus' brother, but does not make it clear if the
letter is scripture. Hippolytus and Tertullian, from early in the
third century, do not mention or quote James. Cyprian of Carthage,
in the middle of the third century, also makes no mention.
However, by 340 Eusebius of Caesarea acknowledges that James is both canonical and orthodox, and widely read. However, he categorizes it, along with the other Catholic Epistles, as "disputed texts" Two Greek New Testaments from that time each include James, along with the other Catholic Epistles. In 367 Athanasius lists the 27 New Testament books we presently use as the definitive canon. But the battle for James was not won. Bishops in 428 and 466 rejected all the Catholic Epistles and the controversy continued. Jerome delivered a Latin translation of the New Testament, including James in 384. He comments that James "wrote only one Epistle, - which is reckoned among the seven Catholic Epistles, and even this is claimed by some to have been published by some one else under his name, and gradually, as time went on, James gained in authority." In 426 Augustine's On Christian Learning moves James to the end of the Catholic Epistles.