It is one of the earliest books of the New Testament, yet one of its most controversial books. The great reformer Martin Luther found it “a right strawy gospel” and thought it was not legitimate canon due to passages like, “faith without works is useless” (James 2:20), which seemingly contradicts Romans 3:28 (“a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law”). Although James enjoyed special standing among the early Christians as Jesus’ younger brother, he was not one of the believing followers of Jesus (Jn. 7:5). After the resurrection everything changed, his brothers believed in him (Acts 1:14), and Jesus even appeared to James and spent time with him (1 Cor. 15:7). But James was at a clear disadvantage compared to the disciples, who spent three years and another 40 days post-resurrection receiving biblical instruction from Jesus. Like the other Galileans following Jesus, James was a backwoods hick who lacked the kind of scholarly, biblical education available in Jerusalem, which Paul enjoyed at the feet of the famous rabbi Gamaliel (see Acts 22:3). So what gave James so much authority to write some of the vital principles of the New Covenant? How did he know so much about the New Covenant with so little time spent learning from Jesus? Even more salient is the issue of whether the author of James is, in fact, the brother of Jesus, or perhaps maybe one of the two disciples of Jesus named James.
Who Is James?
Since the letter begins with “James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,” anyone supposing this author was the brother of Jesus must explain why he doesn’t simply call himself the brother of Jesus. The name James was popular, and “a form of the great Old Testament name Jacob.” [[Bible Exposition Commentary (BE Series) – New Testament – The Bible Exposition Commentary – New Testament, Volume 2.]] So there are at least three prominent figures with Jesus of that name—Jesus’ disciple who was the brother of John (both nicknamed “sons of thunder” by Jesus because of their impulsive penchant for judgment in Luke 9:51-54), and another disciple who was probably Matthew’s brother (both were the “son of Alpheus” in Mark 2:14 and Matt. 10:3), and of course James, the brother of Jesus (Mark 6:3 and Matt. 13:55-56).
James, the brother of John, was the first disciple martyred for his faith by Herod in A.D. 44 (Acts 12:1-2), which is generally regarded as far too early to have written this letter. James Alpheus is considered too obscure to be wielding the kind of authority this author wields, especially over Jews “spread far and wide,” as the author claims in James 1:1.
James, the brother of Jesus, is the most obvious candidate, since he became the prominent leader of the Jerusalem church (Acts 12:17), apparently surpassing even Peter’s authority at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:13ff), since James was the one who decreed the final verdict of that council after Peter’s testimony—Peter alone could not carry the day there. Both Peter and Jesus’ brother were “reputed pillars of the church”, Paul said (Gal. 2:9), and James sent envoys into Paul’s home church at Antioch to create a much stronger separation between Jew and Gentile within the church, Paul said in Gal.2:12. James carried considerable weight in the early Christian movement, we also know from our earliest historical sources, and the early church attributed this letter to James, the brother of Jesus.
The Problem With James
Although this James gained great, early prominence in the Jerusalem church, he really was not well-prepared for that role. He did not fully understand the implications of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which clearly broke down the barriers between Jew and Gentile, since Gentiles were now fully part of God’s work here on earth. Jesus made that clear in the “Great Commission” (Mt. 18:18ff), for which James was not present. Although Jesus told his disciples about the advent of the New Covenant and the “Assembly”, like in Matthew 13, James missed these teachings on the church and its global growth.
Frankly, the radical implications of the New Covenant eluded even the disciples and the rest of the Jerusalem church. Peter was horrified by the thought of violating his Jewish heritage and mingling with “filthy” Gentiles (Acts 10:10ff), which was nearly a decade after the church was born. Peter was compelled by God to accept filthy Gentiles as equal members of God’s household (Acts 10:47), but when the Jerusalem church heard of it, Peter was in big trouble there (Acts 11:2ff). The controversy was settled in Peter’s favor, but clearly it arose again soon after, since the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 raised the Gentile question all over again, from scratch, as though Acts 10 & 11 never even happened!
James in particular was an activist for separating Jew and Gentile, “for prior to the coming of certain men from James, Peter used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision.” (Galatians 2:12) These envoys from James sound like the same guys who were “false brethren secretly brought in, who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage.” (Galatians 2:4) This “party of the circumcision” is must be closely connected to those working in the Galatian region against Paul’s missionary work, where “there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” (Galatians 1:7) These were people from Jerusalem, which Paul says, “preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!” (Galatians 1:8) Paul even wanted these guys to accidentally castrate themselves when they circumcised! (Gal. 5:12) So there was a very strong element of false teaching that went back to James and the Jerusalem church. James probably was not as dogmatic about circumcision as others in his church were, since at the Jerusalem Council James did not stand alongside the Christian Pharisees who claimed circumcision was absolutely necessary (Acts 15:5), but James obviously did support separating Jews from Gentiles as a general practice of fellowship.
The Contrite James
The Jerusalem Council was the big showdown between Paul and the Jerusalem church in Acts 15, which meant Paul was going up against the greatest of the great Christians—the Apostles of Christ and James himself. Christianity was headquartered in Jerusalem, as everyone knew. It not only started there, but flourished with thousands of converts and undoubtedly contained the greatest population of Christians up until the Council. So when Paul and his gang of teachers, along with Peter, came down from Antioch where Paul had already confronted Peter publically (Gal. 2:11), the showdown there was electrified with the possibility of a huge division among Christians between Jew and Gentile.
It was at this time Paul wrote Galatians, while he was on the way to the Jerusalem Council, or shortly before. The whole tone and message of the first two chapters in Galatians is to say, in effect, “It doesn’t matter what Jerusalem decides, or what the great ‘pillars of the church’ decide, circumcision is not required for Gentiles to come into the church.” In fact, just as a preemptive strike against the possibility that he somehow loses the argument in Jerusalem and even if he capitulates at Jerusalem, “even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!” (Galatians 1:8) This is because the message of Grace and Grace alone for salvation “which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 1:11-12) Salvation by Grace was not to be polluted by any religious ritual.
Having won Peter over in Antioch, Paul and Barnabus were about to make the case against circumcision to the Jerusalem church when the Pharisees jumped up and stated dogmatically that the Bible was clear circumcision was required to belong to the fellowship of God’s people (Acts 15:4-5). This of course kicked off “much debate” among “the apostles and elders” of the church (Acts 15:6-7). Peter suddenly remembered and reminded everyone else of God’s earlier revelation in Acts 10 about receiving Gentiles without requiring circumcision (15:9). He also had the clear-headed understanding that as pious Jews, they were not so holy: “Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10) So Peter led the charge against circumcision, then turned it over to Paul and Barnabus to finish the argument (15:12).
After all the arguments were finished, James stood up and told everyone, “It is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles” by requiring circumcision (Acts 15:19), which ended the debate. Together, they drafted a brief letter to the churches in the Galatian region and elsewhere which made a clear separation between “certain men from James” and the more extreme Judaizers from Jerusalem who mandated circumcision. The Judaizers were “some of our number to whom we gave no instruction have disturbed you with their words, unsettling your souls.” (Acts 15:24)
The Book of James
It is in this context that James writes his letter “to the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad.” (James 1:1) Actually, however, his letter is first and foremost written to an audience very nearby to James’ personal experience, which was in Jerusalem, because his familiarity with the audience is quite intimate (James 2:1-4). Throughout his letter James is rebuking those waffling and fence-sitting between faithfulness to their Jewish culture and the New Covenant of believers. In particular, the rich people dominating their meetings would have been, by necessity, the Sadducees and Pharisees who were joining the Jerusalem church in droves at this time (Acts 6:7; 15:5). The rich were the religious leaders, and being rich meant God’s blessings were evident. (See Mark 10:25-26 where Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” And the astonished disciples said, “Then who can be saved?”)
The most obvious problem with allowing the rich, religious rulers to dominate the fledgling Christian movement was their evil role in crucifying their own Savior! How could those who crucified Jesus be allowed to steer His movement? And, of course, along with these characters came all the despicable, hypocritical teachings which Jesus fought against throughout his ministry.
It must be kept in mind that James’ letter was certainly read aloud upon reception, which meant the very same rich people so strongly renounced were, in fact, sitting in the room.
James 2:2-4 For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives?
All heads would turn to look at the guys sitting in the comfortable chairs. What an embarrassment! But it gets even worse:
James 2:6-7 But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court? Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called?
At this point James is directly accusing them of playing a role in the crucifixion of Jesus. This left them with only two choices: either sit down from your place of honor and repent, or leave!
As such, James is a book driving a wedge between the fellowship of believers and the great, popular, beautiful icons of this World System and culture we are part of. This became the greatest struggle for the Jerusalem church, and the source of many of its troubles, which ultimately ended in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.