This letter is from James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. I am writing to the “twelve tribes”—Jewish believers scattered abroad. Greetings! (James 1:1, NLT)
Welcome to my next series of online Bible studies. Today I will begin a series from a significant, albeit misunderstood New Testament letter, the Book of James.
Why is it misunderstood? It is misunderstood, primarily because of its late adoption into the canon of Scripture. It also endured a full on attack during the Protestant reformation by Martin Luther, who called it a “right strawy epistle,” and tore it from his Bible. Why the controversy? The Book of James is known for its practical wisdom and for being a guide to ethical behavior. I like to think of it as the New Testament counterpart to the Book of Proverbs. The one thing critics find lacking is the Gospel message and any overt reference to Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. However, we will discover that James presents his case for faith in a way unique from the apostles Paul or John.
While there are many options, most scholars are agreed that the author of this letter is James, the half brother of Jesus who became the “Bishop of Jerusalem.” James did not come to faith until after the resurrection, so suffice it to say he was not an early adopter. But once he came to faith, he was all in! If the scholars are right, I find it fascinating that James was not a name dropper. He doesn’t cite his familial relationship to Jesus, but rather terms himself as a slave (doulos) or servant of Jesus. Doulos is better translated “bond servant,” which connotes that he is a servant by choice, not coercion. He chose to number himself with the redeemed, foregoing any personal power that he could leverage or use for his own advantage. Perhaps this is why his letter is so practical and direct.
James is a “General Epistle,” meaning that it wasn’t directed to a particular congregation. Rather it was a circular letter, meaning that when a group received it, they would copy it and then send it to the next recipient. The book is written by a Jew for a Jewish audience that had been dispersed from Jerusalem when the persecution of Jewish Christians began to ramp up (cf. Acts 8:1-4). The audience had been driven from their homes and did not find warm welcomes in their new locations. This understanding again informs today’s readers as to why this epistle reads like a survival manual, addressing such topics as suffering, sin, injustice, favoritism, poverty, and the hope of Christ’s return.
Two early church historians, Eusebius and Josephus, each independently report that James was martyred in A.D. 62 by scribes and Pharisees who stoned him to death for his refusal to renounce his faith in Christ. This information, along with the absence of any mention of Paul’s writings on justification by faith and the problem of Gentile circumcision, favors an early date of A.D. 47-52.
With that background given, welcome to the Book of James.