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The Letter of James

Timothy B. Cargal
Assistant Stated Clerk for Preparation for Ministry, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

Course : Introduction to the New Testament; New Testament Epistolary Literature
Audience: Undergraduate students or beginning seminary students


The lesson plan presents an introduction to the letter of James in the context of a course on either the full New Testament or more narrowly the letters within the New Testament. Within this context, the lesson presumes students have already been introduced in the course to the nature of Greek epistolary literature and its uses in both personal and communal settings. It may be presented as either a single session, or divided into two presentations with the first dealing with historical setting and canonical issues and the second dealing with central religious teachings and literary structure. At the conclusion of this lesson, students should be able to:

  1. 1. Discuss the issues that complicate establishing a precise historical setting for the letter, including identification of its author.

  2. 2. Discuss how issues of authorship and historical setting both influenced and are informed by the history of the letter's inclusion in the New Testament canon.

  3. 3. Outline contrasting sequences developed by the author whereby a proper understanding of God's interaction with people leads to spiritual life while an improper understanding can lead to spiritual death. Be able to locate the place of "faith" and "works" within these sequences as developed by the author.

  4. 4. Discuss how these religious themes are related to the letter's literary structure.

Preparatory Readings from Oxford Biblical Studies Online:

James, The Letter of The Oxford Companion to the Bible (Peter H. Davids)

James The Oxford Encyclopedias of the Bible (John Painter)

The Letter of James and commentary notes New Oxford Annotated Bible

Lesson Outline:

I. Introducing James:The Author and the Letter:

The authorship and historical setting of the letter of James have been widely debated since the time of the early church fathers up to the present day. Uncertainty about the identity of the letter's author contributed to a gradual spread in its use among the churches, making it among the last writings to be accepted into the New Testament canon. Although by the fourth century it is mentioned both by the church historian Eusebius (Hist. eccl. 2.23; 3.25) and in Bishop Athanasius's canon list, it does not appear in the late second-century Muratorian Canon.
  1. A. Author. The opening greeting (1:1) identifies the author as "James"–Greek "Iakōbos," a transliteration of Hebrew "Yaaqob" ("Jacob"), a very common Jewish name in the first century C.E. There may be as many as nine different men named "James" mentioned in the New Testament itself. Unfortunately, the author does not give us any further clues regarding his personal biography other than including himself among the "teachers" (3:1) of the church.

  2. 1. The traditional identification of the author since the period of the church fathers is that this James was the brother of Jesus (Mark 6:3; Gal 1:19) and an early leader of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:13; 21:18; Gal 2:9), who became known as "James the Just."

  3. a. . Three primary arguments have been offered to support this identification.

  4. 1. The author does not identify himself by the use of a patronymic (a name indicating one's father or ancestor, for example, "son of Zebedee" or "son of Alphaeus" (Matthew 10:2–3) or specific titles such as "apostle." This suggests that the author was well known to the letter's initial recipients.

  5. 2. Only someone with the prominence and influence of James the Just could write in the authoritative tone found in this letter, which has more than 50 imperative verbs/commands within its 108 verses.

  6. 3. The letter's characteristically Jewish-Christian theology and language are consistent with the portrayal of James the Just in Acts (15:13–21) and Galatians (1:182:10).

  7. b. Each of these arguments, however, can be easily countered.

  8. 1. . Firm conclusions cannot be drawn from what someone fails to say that others might have expected (the so-called "argument from silence").

  9. 2. Whether the earliest Christian readers of this letter viewed it as authoritative teaching by one of the "pillars" of the church (Gal 2:9) is questionable given that it was among the last books to be accepted into the canon, in part because of doubts that it was written by an apostle.

  10. 3. Similarities of language or thought between this letter and statements in Acts attributed to James the Just are too limited to establish clear identification.

  11. 2. Others have held that the letter is pseudonymous, written by someone who uses James the Just's name to give added authority to his work. Although this position has predominated among critical scholars in the modern period, arguments for it have recently been widely challenged.

  12. a. It was argued that James the Just would have lacked both the fluency in Greek and the literary ability to write this letter, which though simple and direct is considered among the best Greek within the New Testament. But recent findings regarding the ability of the Jewish population of Palestine to speak Greek and the possibility that the author might have been assisted by a secretary have rendered this argument inconclusive at best.

  13. b. A major weakness with this view is most ancient pseudonymous writings explicitly link the work to the person whose name is used. Yet references to the traditions about James the Just are entirely lacking in this letter./li>
  14. 3. Weak arguments in favor of pseudonymity, however, do not directly support the traditional identification of the author with James the Just. The chief problem with this identification is the letter's date. James the Just was executed by the high priest Ananus II in 62 C.E. (see Josephus, Antiquities 20.200). The letter has some features which seem to indicate a period later than the early 60s (see below). Therefore, some have argued the letter may contain materials that originated in the preaching of James the Just, but the letter as it appears in the New Testament was written by one of his disciples sometime after he died.

  15. 4. However, a third possibility remains: the author was indeed named "James" but was not James the Just. A letter written by such a person to close associates rather than as an encyclical to widely scattered recipients previously unknown to the author (see below) would explain why there are no explicit attempts to connect the author with James the Just and would permit a time of writing after his martyrdom. If the letter's author was only later (mis)identified with James the Just, it would help explain why doubts about its apostolic origin delayed its acceptance into the canon.

  16. B. Recipients. The letter is addressed to "the twelve tribes in the Dispersion" (1:1), a symbolic reference to Israel that had ceased having any actual twelve-fold aspect from at least the time of the Assyrian conquest of the Northern Kingdom in 722 B.C.E. The challenge then is to determine the intent of the author's symbolic designation for his readers.

  17. 1. A literal interpretation of the salutation is that the letter was an encyclical sent to Jews ("the twelve tribes") who were living outside Palestine ("in the Dispersion"; cf. John 7:35). However, there are no indications that the letter was intended to convert Jews to Christianity, and indeed the recipients are described as already having faith in Jesus Christ (2:1). Consequently, the language about "the twelve tribes" is usually understood as symbolic of a belief by the author and the recipients that Christians are people of God, a new or spiritual Israel.

  18. 2. Is the description of the recipients as "in the Dispersion" likewise symbolic? Some early Christians did think of themselves as the chosen people of God who had been "dispersed" or "scattered" throughout an evil world and longed to return to their spiritual home with God (cf. Philippians 3:20; Heb 11:13–14; 13:14; 1 Pet 1:1–2). Other interpreters, however, take "Dispersion" more literally and conclude the letter was sent from Jerusalem to Christians who had been scattered from there by persecution (cf. Acts 8:1b; 11:19). Although the author is concerned about the distinctions between what is "earthly" and what "comes down from heaven" (3:15), he does not specifically develop the image of Christians as spiritual aliens in an evil world. Additionally, the history of the letter's delayed acceptance into the canon does not support the conclusion that it was widely disseminated from the beginning.

  19. 3. The author does, however, develop the metaphor of Christians "wandering" and being "brought back" in a particular way in the conclusion to this letter. He believed that his readers had "wander[ed] from the truth" and needed to be brought back from their error (5:19–20). The variety of issues discussed in this short letter–including matters related to rich, poor, and merchant classes (2:1–9, 15–16; 4:13–15; 5:1–6)– suggests the church spanned a broad range of society at least in its contacts, if perhaps not also in its membership. There may also have been tensions within the congregation over matters of social status and authority (3:1–2; 4:1, 11–12). While these references might be considered broadly typical of issues confronted by Christian communities, some have a specificity indicative of more direct experience. If the author is forming a clear parallel between the opening and closing of a letter he sees as restoring them from an exile or "Dispersion" from God by what is happening in the community, it is likely that the letter was directed to a single congregation with which he had a personal relationship.

  20. C. Date. The letter of James has been variously dated all along the range from the earliest to the latest of the New Testament writings.

  21. 1. Obviously those who identify the author as James the Just must date the letter before his death in 62 C.E. Many of these scholars place the book prior to the "Jerusalem Council" (Acts 15) and so date it to the mid-40s.

  22. 2. Others are persuaded that the discussion of faith and deeds in 2:14–26 presupposes Paul's teaching about justification by faith (see below) and so date the letter to the late 50s. If there is even indirect influence between Paul and James at this point, then the letter's date is related to whether Paul is responding to James (this letter is early), James is responding to Paul (a date sometime after the mid-first century), or the debate is between later followers of Paul and James (suggesting a late first-century date).

  23. 3. The current consensus of scholars is that the letter of James is responding to a misunderstood or misapplied conception of Paul's teaching. If this reconstruction of the historical context of the discussion in 2:14–26 is correct, time must be allowed not only for the circulation of Paul's ideas and letters, but also for the development and circulation of the misapplication that the author of the letter of James then sought to counter. The letter was most likely, then, written in the last quarter of the first century. Probable references to 2:14–26 in 1 Clement 30:3; 31:2, and to James 4:1–10 in 1 Clement 29:1; 30:1–5, would set the mid-90s as a latest possible date for the letter of James.

  24. D. Provenance. The letter of James provides no obvious indications of its place of origin. Some commentators suggest there may be some hints of a Palestinian provenance in such imagery as "scorching heat" (1:11), fire of Gehenna (English, "hell," 3:6), saline springs (3:11), and "the early and the late rains" (5:7); however, these images are more likely drawn from earlier literary sources. Hints of a possible Palestinian origin may be found in the relationship of the letter to other early Christian traditions. There are similarities between the ethical teachings in this letter and the so-called "Q" sayings of Jesus preserved in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, and most scholars hold that "Q" originated in Palestine. Additionally, the earliest quotations from and most consistent support and use of the letter of James are found in the writings of Origen and other Alexandrian and Palestinian fathers of the late-second through fourth centuries, which may indicate that the letter first circulated in that region.

II. Religious and Theological Teachings of the Letter:

The letter of James has long been associated with the Bible's wisdom tradition literature, rooted in religious beliefs and values. Such literature seeks not only to influence and direct the behavior of its readers, but further to ground their actions in a particular understanding of the world and their place within it. Since the period of the Protestant Reformation, however, much of the discussion of the letter's theology has focused on how its discussion of "faith" and "works" in 2:14–26 relates to Paul's theology of justification "by faith apart from works" ( Rom 3:28 ). Martin Luther concluded the letter was so at odds with Paul that he described it as an "epistle of straw" having "nothing of the gospel" within it, and so consigned it (along with Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation) to an appendix in his German translation of the New Testament. But understanding the letter of James requires that its discussion in 2:14–26 be situated within the broader context of the letter.
  1. A. The author of the letter of James juxtaposes two parallel tracks with one leading to spiritual life and the other to death.

  2. 1. The path that leads to life begins in the knowledge that God "tempts no one" (1:13) but rather "gives to all generously and ungrudgingly" (1:5) "every perfect gift" (1:17). People who know and believe this about God are willing to ask God for "wisdom" as "gift" (1:5). God then provides wisdom to them as "the implanted word that has the power to save [their] souls". Once implanted within them, people become "doers of the word" (1:21–22) by doing "works" aligned with God's work in and will for the world (2:5, 14–17). In living out this divine wisdom and will implanted in them, God gives them "birth by the word of truth" (1:18) and will "save [their] soul from death" (5:20).

  3. 2. Conversely, there are those who believe that rather than receiving good and perfect gifts they are instead "being tempted by God" (1:13), perhaps because they believe they must learn wisdom and faith through "trials" and "endurance" (1:2–4). Because they "doubt" God will only give them good things, they are "double-minded" about God (both trusting and mistrusting God) and so receive nothing from God (1:6–8) including the wisdom which comes only as God's gift. Rather than their will being transformed by God's gift implanted within them, they continue to be "lured and enticed" by their own evil "desire" which "gives birth to sin" (as opposed to acts in accord with God's will and acts), and ultimately that sin "gives birth to death" (1:14–16).

  4. B. By considering the role of "works" within the broader religious themes of the letter, we can see that while it is clearly different from Pauline theology, it does not seem to be an attempt at direct rebuttal. Rather, it emphasizes that "works" will necessarily arise in the lives of those who are "justified"/have been "given birth" by God's "implanted word" of "wisdom." Moreover, it is interesting to note that James does not say how a person comes to know God as only a source of good gifts in the first place. The letter, then, does not present a comprehensive theology of how a person comes to faith; notice that while it does mention the recipients "believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ" (2:1), Jesus does not appear in the progressions just outlined. Presumably that was not a "truth" from which they had "wandered" and needed to be restored (5:19–20).

III. Literary Structure of the Letter:

There has been a significant shift in recent decades about how scholars have assessed the literary structure of the letter of James.
  1. A. For much of the twentieth century, scholarship on the letter of James took the position that it had no overarching literary structure. Rather, the letter was a collection of isolated treatments of discrete themes that were at points connected to one another by "catchwords." For example, the phrase "lackingin nothing" at the end of 1:4 connects with "lacking in wisdom" in 1:5, even though the topics of "endurance" and "faith" versus "doubt" were unrelated. More recent studies of the letter, however, have challenged this analysis.

  2. B. Broader studies of Hellenistic letters have shown that they often utilize a two-fold introduction that lays out themes more fully treated later in the letter. Analyses along these lines have generally identified two sections in chapter 1 (1:2–11and 1:12–26) that each begin with discussions of endurance of trials or temptations (1:2–4 and 1:12–16), move on to discussions of God's generous gifts (1:5–8 and 1:17–18), and conclude with how one should act (1:9–11 and 1:19–25). Themes introduced in these parallel treatments are then explored in longer sections in the remainder of the letter, in roughly an inverse order. So 1:262:26 focuses on conduct toward others, 3:1–18 deals with the themes of speech and wisdom, and 4:15:11 takes up a variety of issues related to conflict and trials. The letter then concludes by touching on themes commonly found in epistolary closings such as oaths (5:12), health wishes (5:13–18), and personal expressions of blessing for the recipients (5:19–20).

Topics for Discussion:

  1. 1. Divide the class into four small groups, assigning one group each to the issues of authorship, recipients, date, and provenance. After discussing the evidence presented in the lesson outline along with additional information in the preparatory readings, have them briefly present to the class what they think is the most persuasive conclusion about that issue and why they reached that decision.

  2. 2. Divide the class into two groups, assigning one group each to James and Paul. Assuming the identity of the person to whom their group is assigned, discuss how they would respond to the other group to explain their own understanding of the theological relationship between "faith" and "works" in "justification." What concerns do they think the other should give more attention in light of their own position? Do they think the two views are compatible? Why or why not?

For Further Reading

Cargal, Timothy B. "The Letter of James." In The Fortress Commentary on the Bible: New Testament, edited by Margaret Aymer, et al. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.

Oxford University Press

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