The Letter of James - Introduction
This letter takes its name from the authority associated with James, the brother of Jesus (Mt 13.55; Mk 6.3; Gal 1.19 ), who eventually became the leader of the church in Jerusalem (Gal 2.9,12; Acts 12.17; 15.13; 21.18 ). Throughout the document, a tone of moral authority (59 of 108 verses are in the imperative) determines its literary character as a series of moral instructions (parenesis or exhortation) and wisdom sayings, inspired by different parts of the Bible. The advice alludes both to the Hebrew Bible and to the Jesus tradition (particularly that of Matthew and Luke); there may also be reference to Paul's teaching ( 2.14–26 ). The letter thereby combines pastoral, prophetic, and teaching styles in order to address the problems faced by its audience. The letter issues an urgent appeal for followers of Jesus to adopt a courageous faith that will help them cope effectively with the trials of life, and will produce heightened moral integrity and loving actions.
Directed to Jewish Christian congregations (“your assembly” [literally “synagogue”] 2.2 ) toward the close of the first century, this letter was probably written in at least two stages. The original text may have been a sermon by James shortly before his martyrdom in the mid‐60s. Then, someone skilled in Hellenistic rhetoric edited, expanded, and distributed the sermon in the form of a circular letter, probably in the late 80s or 90s. It went to Diaspora churches that were in disarray and needed to hear again the authoritative voice of the Jerusalem church's leader. Its aim was to instruct Jewish Christians experiencing tensions between their allegiance to the Torah and their newfound faith in Jesus. In this sense, James and Jude are the last New Testament echoes of Jewish Christianity.
In dealing with issues of concern to Jewish Christians, the letter (particularly in 2.14–26 ) appears to oppose a Pauline perspective on the issue of the relation between faith and works, and the means by which the believer attains “justification” or the state of right relationship with God. Paul and James each interpret a verse from the Hebrew Bible—“And he [Abraham] believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15.6 )—to support his own view (Paul in Gal 3.6–14, James in Jas 2.21–24 ). For Paul, the believer's justification comes through faith, not works (Rom 4.16–5.2 ); for James, “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” ( 2.17 ). The conflict, however, may be more apparent than real. For Paul, faith is primarily trust in God (Rom 4.5 ), a sense of the word that James also shares ( 1.5 ); but, in his critique of faith, James means by it essentially the assent to ideas about God without any personal relationship or commitment to inform them: “Even the demons believe” ( 2.19 ). James sees works as the acts that spring from the love of the believer for God ( 2.14 ), whereas for Paul works are the external observations of ritual, like circumcision, regarded in isolation from any connection to one's relationship to God.
The letter of James may appear to skip from one topic to another without much connection. An inherent unity, however, can be detected if one views the letter as a response to the situation in which these early Christians found themselves. The Christian assemblies were tiny minorities existing within large populations that were indifferent or hostile to their beliefs. The writer is concerned that these early Christian groups should not adopt, or fall back into, the values or the behavior of the surrounding population ( 4.4 ). From this comes the strategic mixture in the letter of the prophetic tradition (for instance, 2.5–7 ) and the wisdom tradition (for instance, 1.5–8 ). This combination is meant to help those who are struggling to live morally: the prophetic denunciations of arrogant wealth and immorality ( 2.6–7; 5.1–6 ) are strengthened and completed through the development of wisdom ( 3.13 ). Wisdom can serve both as a guide to behavior (for instance, guarding against malicious speech, 3.8–10; 4.11 ) and as an aid to discernment (seeing the joy that lies beyond present suffering, 3.17–18 ). The testing to which the faithful are subjected will help them learn and be transformed ( 1.12 ): it will show them what really matters, and it can be, if seen in the right way, a strengthening rather than a weakening ordeal. Thus, these communities will be built up through their sufferings ( 4.7–10 ), and their faith will be, not a substitute for acts of love ( 2.15–16 ), but rather a means to help them undertake such acts ( 1.22–27 ).
Martin Luther's cavalier assessment of James as “an epistle of straw” because it seemingly denigrated the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith ( 2.14–26 ) influenced its interpretation for many years. Yet as a witness to Jewish Christianity the letter of James constitutes as it were the second voice of Jesus, reminding Christians that a faith that fails to bear fruit in the moral life cannot save.