Outline.

The letter of James is a literary composition (i.e., a letter designed to be published rather than dispatched like a true letter) and follows the conventions of the literary letter in its structure:

Authorship and Date.

The letter claims in 1.1 to come from James, the brother of Jesus, but this claim has been disputed frequently because of the theology of the letter (not that of an observant Jew) and the excellent quality of the Greek. Thus, the suggestion is frequently made that it is a pseudonymous letter from the late first century CE attributed to James because he had been a great leader of the church.

While this position is widely held, it is not the only possible one. First, the theology of the letter is not as difficult as it appears, especially if one accepts the portrait of James given in Acts over that of later legends. These legends portray James as being observant of the Law of Moses, but they contain so many improbable details that they cannot be trusted. On the other hand, Acts portrays him as a Jewish leader who was also a diplomat, concerned that both Jew and gentile live together in the church. There is no evidence that his teaching in Jerusalem (where the observance of the law was not an issue) had a particularly legalistic tone.

Second, while the Greek is good, among the best in the New Testament, it does from time to time employ obvious Semitisms. Furthermore, while there is a unity to the letter, the vocabulary is inconsistent (e.g., 1.12–15 and 4.1–10 use different words for the same concept). The best explanation of these data is that the letter is a collection of sermons and sayings from James (and possibly from Jesus as well, from whom 5.12 unquestionably comes) edited into letter form. This view also explains the simple attribution (as opposed to more flowery titles used for James by the end of the first century) and the fact that the letter was first circulated in the eastern church and so is missing in some of the early canon lists in North Africa and the West (although it was known in Rome by the end of the first century, being used by the author of the Shepherd of Hermas). Finally, it accounts for the absence in the letter of a knowledge of Paul's writings on the one hand and the presence of depictions of Palestinian culture on the other.

If the material comes from James and reflects his setting, then the most likely place of editing is Jerusalem or at least Judea. Some of the material probably dates from before Paul's activity became well known in Jerusalem (49 CE or earlier), for it shows no awareness of Pauline formulations or at best knows only distorted oral reports of his teaching. But the final editing was probably triggered by the martyrdom of James and the desire to preserve and spread his teaching, that is, after 61 CE but probably before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

Unity.

The letter of James has often been regarded as a collection of miscellaneous sayings without any internal unity other than an interest in some recurring themes. To a degree this is true, for the letter does contain sayings (1.26–27; 2.13; 3.18) and homilies (2.1–12; 2.14–26) that were originally not unified. But the discovery of the literary letter form with the doubled opening (i.e., A B C, A′ B′ C′) and the realization that the three main sections of the letter take up in reverse the topics mentioned in the opening (C B A) together show that these homilies and sayings have been edited into a unified whole. Even the ending fits this form. Thus, while the editor has been conservative and preserved the integrity of the various units (and even some Semitic expressions like “doers of the word” [1.23]), James is unlike Proverbs or similar wisdom literature, a mere collection of sayings; it has a unified structure.

Theology.

James is writing in the context of a church under pressure, not facing impending martyrdom but discrimination and economic persecution. He is concerned about two tendencies, adopting the mores of the oppressors (e.g., valuing money over community) and attacking other members of the community (e.g., gossip, criticism). Thus his chief concern is the unity of the community and turning the community back from practices that threaten to disrupt it (5.19–20). Within this overriding concern there are several major themes.

The first is testing. Only true commitment to God will resist the overtures of the devil (4.7) made through the impulses of internal cravings. But it is this patient endurance, even when suffering, that God will reward when he comes to judge the world (5.7–8, 10). In this context James introduces the “double‐minded” person (1.8; 4.8) and doubter. This is not the person who trusts in God but still struggles with doubt; it is the person who does the correct religious acts (because God might answer prayer) yet whose real trust (as seen in daily actions) is in human solutions. God does not tolerate such dual trust, for it is spiritual adultery (4.4).

The second major theme is wisdom. God offers people the gift of wisdom to help them stand firm in the test. One mark of this wisdom is the gentle attitude that it produces in speech and action (3.13–18). Conversely, conflict in the community is a mark of the love of the world rather than of God.

The third theme is wealth. In the culture in which James lives, the wealthy are by and large the oppressors of the Christians, many of whom are poor. Christians, however, must not accept the world's values or view their material poverty with concern; if they are truly committed to God, they will show it in generous charity (2.14–26) and in seeking God's will in all their business plans (4.13–17).

Throughout the letter are found the themes of prayer and maintaining the proper perspective. When one is experiencing deprivation, it is easy to focus on the suffering, but James calls for joy (1.2) because the Christian has gained the perspective of God and realizes that the suffering is temporary, the return of Christ as judge imminent, and the rewards of God eternal. With this perspective the Christian should pray in confidence. This prayer is the key to endurance (chap. 1), to the supply of real needs (chap. 4), and to physical and spiritual healing (chap. 5). When he speaks of healing (5.14–18), James assumes this to be the normal practice of the church; unlike Paul (1 Cor. 12.9, 30), he does not look to the gifted healer for help, but to the elders.

James and Paul.

Because of the famous section in 2.14–26, James has often been seen as opposing Paul's stress on justification by faith without the deeds of the Law. This appears true until one realizes that James uses his critical terms in ways that differ from Paul; in fact, James is using terminology in its older, original sense. Works for Paul are works of the Law, that is, ritual acts such as circumcision; works for James are deeds of charity such as, according to Jewish tradition, those that Abraham performed. Faith for Paul is a commitment to God, which produces good works; for James faith (i.e., in 2.14–26, for he uses the term in two or three different ways elsewhere in the letter) is mere intellectual belief (2.19), lacking commitment. Finally, “justified” for Paul means the pronouncing of a sinner righteous; “justified” for James means the declaration that a person did in fact act justly. Paul, of course, would have agreed with James that “faith” that does not produce appropriate deeds is a false faith (see Gal. 5.6, 16–21).

Given such differences in usage of common terminology, how are these two authors related? Two possibilities may be mentioned: either James is reacting to a misunderstood and badly distorted Paulinism, perhaps not even knowing who had originated it; or James is speaking to the fault of making intellectual religious commitments without the corresponding amendment of life. In neither case is James opposing Paul; he is simply arguing in his own context what Paul taught in his.

Peter H. Davids