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What is James?

James is a letter which this apostle wrote to Jewish-Christians.


Who is James?

James was a brother of Jesus and is mentioned in Mark 6:3.


Was James one of Jesus’ twelve disciples?

He was not.  Two of Jesus’ disciples were named James.  The first is James, the son of Zebedee (Matthew 10:2) and the second is James, the son of Alphaeus. (Matthew 10:3)  James, the son of Zebedee was killed by Herod Agrippa I. (Acts 12:2)


In Galatians 2:9, Paul mentions James, Peter, and John as the pillars of the church.  Is this the same James who wrote this letter?

Yes, it is.


How is it that James rose to such a level of prominence in the Christian church if he was not one of the twelve?

This is not explicitly told us in Scripture.  It seems likely that James being a brother of Jesus was one obvious reason. (Galatians 1:19)  There is also the fact that after Peter left Jerusalem (Acts 8:14), the leadership of the Jerusalem church fell on James. (Galatians 2:12)


When did James come to believe in Jesus?

James was not a believer in Jesus prior to the resurrection. (John 7:5)  Jesus’ brothers, James likely included, even mocked Jesus (John 7:3) and told him to go work miracles in Judea where they knew He would be arrested; see Robertson.  Finally, Jesus made a personal appearance to James and brought Him to faith. (1 Corinthians 15:7)  The Gospel According to the Hebrews contains an account of this appearance.  In this story, James was present at Jesus’ crucifixion and had made a vow that from that hour, he would eat nothing until he saw Jesus rise from the dead.  Jesus did eventually appear to James and told him to eat again for He had risen from the dead.  The story is not likely to be true; see Lardner.


What was James position with regards to the issue of Gentile inclusion in the church?

Some have said that James was a Judaizer since he clearly represented the Jewish-Christians especially in the city of Jerusalem.  Farrar writes:

We shall not understand early Christian history, and much of the New Testament will be dim to us, if we do not bear in mind that Christ had not formally abrogated the Mosaic dispensation; that Judaism was the cradle of Christianity; that the first Christians had been trained in adoring acceptance of the old Levitic law; that the Temple was still standing, the feasts still observed, the sacrifices still offered; that the Apostles lived in rigid obedience to these rites and ceremonies; that the vast majority of the early converts in Palestine, and large numbers even in the Churches of Europe and Asia, were Jews first and Christians afterwards. The wine was new, but the wine-skins were old. The Jewish Christians, who had thus barely stepped into the Church out of the portals of the synagogue, did not understand—it was not natural that at first they should be able to understand—the mystery of evangelical freedom which had been revealed to the daring genius of St. Paul. James the Lord’s brother to a great extent shared in their views. He saw indeed more clearly than most of them that it was right, nay inevitable, that to a great extent the Gentiles should be left free; but in all other respects he was a Hebrew of the Hebrews, a rigid observer of the Mosaic ritual, a regular worshipper in the Temple, a man who intensely valued the privileges of the chosen people. Men knew that the blood of David, perhaps also the blood of Aaron, flowed in his veins. He was all the more a pillar of the Christian community because even the Jews looked up to him with reverence. So strict were his legal observances that they called him “the righteous one,” and Obliam, “the bulwark of the people.” They told how he was often found prostrate in the sanctuary in earnest supplication for the people of God, and that his knees were hard with kneeling in prayer. More than all this, he was a Nazarite and an ascetic. He was clad only in white linen, and the long unshorn locks of the vow of his youth streamed over his shoulders. As he rose to speak the grandeur of his appearance, the mysterious awe which clung about him as the heir of the line of David and the earthly brother of his Lord, the stern sanctity of his life, the ascendency of his powerful character, the spell of his life-long vow gave to his words a force which exceeded that of all the other dwellers in Jerusalem. If there was any man who could have won back his countrymen to the Messiah whom they had rejected, this was he whose mission was most likely to be favorably accepted.  source


What is a Judaizer?

A Judaizer is a Christian believer who teaches that in order to be saved, a person must adopt some or all of the rituals and practice of the Jewish religion.  At the very least, one must be circumcised. (Acts 15:1)  Paul wrote Galatians to refute this idea.


How can you show that James was not a Judaizer?

Because of what James said at the Jerusalem council.  After speeches from Paul and Peter, we have this from James:

Therefore, it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood.  For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath. (Acts 15:19-21)

Clearly, James was ready to embrace the ministries of Peter and Paul (Galatians 2:9) and to welcome Gentiles into the church without any need for them to become proselytes to the Jewish religion.  Schaff points to the greeting of the letter from this council as evidence that James wrote it.  Schaff also writes:

The mission of James was evidently to stand in the breach between the synagogue and the church, and to lead the disciples of Moses gently to Christ. He was the only man that could do it in that critical time of the approaching judgment of the holy city. As long as there was any hope of a conversion of the Jews as a nation, he prayed for it and made the transition as easy as possible. When that hope vanished his mission was fulfilled. source


Does not the incident in Galatians 2 imply that James was a Judaizer?

In Galatians 2, we read of a situation where some Christians came to Antioch from Jerusalem.  When Peter received these visitors, he stopped fellowshipping with Gentiles for fear of what these Jewish-Christians might think of him. (cf Acts 10:28; 11:3)  Paul confronted him on this and told him that his behavior was inconsistent with the gospel which he preached. (Galatians 2:14)  The issue is that the people who came from Jerusalem are called “friends of James.”  Is it possible that at this time, James was not in favor of Gentile inclusion in the church?

  1. Do note that we aren’t told what the views of these visitors were.  It seems likely that they were opposed to fellowshipping with Gentiles; otherwise, why would Peter have acted the way he did?  For all this, it is not explicitly stated.
  2. Neither are we told what James’ position was on this question.  No doubt, there were plenty of people who counted themselves as disciples of James who were vigorously opposed to Gentile inclusion.  This doesn’t tell us what James himself thought.
  3. It is possible that at this time, James’ thinking had not yet arrived to the truth of full inclusion of Gentiles in the church.  We saw how difficult it was for Peter to come to accept this truth; we shouldn’t be surprised to see James in a similar struggle.
  4. Finally, we do know what James’ thinking on this became after the Jerusalem council.  His speech here clearly distances himself from the Judaizers.


To whom did James write this letter?

To the Jewish-Christians who were fleeing the first persecutions of the church as found in Acts 8:1; 9:1; and 12:1.  In the very first verse, James writes, “James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad: Greetings. (James 1:1)  This indicates that the readers of this letter are both Jews and are dispersed.


Why are these people “dispersed abroad?”

The day of Pentecost took place in Jerusalem, and the church first took hold in this city.  When Saul started his persecutions, however, these Christians began to flee out of Jerusalem in all directions. (Acts 8:1; 11:19)  Obviously, this flight would have left them both homeless and penniless. (James 2:15-16)  This helps us understand the many exhortations to those who are poor (James 2:1-7, 14-26)  James further comforts his readers by telling them that God has chosen “the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him.” (James 2:6)  There is repeated mention of oppression by the rich (James 5:1-6) who blaspheme the Name of Jesus. (James 2:7)  Likely, it was rich landowners who stole the land of these Christian people after they fled.


What other evidence is there that this letter was written by a Jew to Jews?

Because in one place, the gathering place of the believers is still called a “synagogue.”  For if a man comes into your assembly [or synagogue] with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes… (James 2:2)  Later, he uses the word ecclesia or church. (James 5:14)


From where was this letter written?

It is not stated; but if it was written by James, then it would have been written from Jerusalem.


Why did James write this letter?

James wrote this letter as a practical corrective to many deficiencies in the lifestyle of the early Christians.  These first Christians faced many hardships and would face strong temptations to act in a non-Christlike manner.


Why does James attack the idea of salvation by faith alone?

James writes:

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? (15) If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, (16) and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for [their] body, what use is that? (17) Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, [being] by itself. (18) But someone may [well] say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” (19) You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. (20) But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? (21) Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? (22) You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; (23) and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “AND ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS,” and he was called the friend of God. (24) You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. (25) In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? (26) For just as the body without [the] spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. (James 2:2, 14-26)

This seems to conflict directly with what Paul taught that a sinner is justified by faith in Christ alone. (Romans 3:28)


How are we to resolve this apparent contradiction?

First, let’s note the timing here.  James wrote his letter early in the history of the church when the controversy over Gentile inclusion in the church was just beginning to present itself.  Paul certainly would have been active; but as yet, would not have written any of his letters.  The church was just beginning to wrestle with this issue of a justification before God by faith in Christ alone.  James could not have been responding directly to what Paul wrote in Romans or Galatians because neither of these letters had yet been written.

Second, it is not surprising that a community very committed to staying true to the teaching of Jesus (Acts 11:23) would have been thinking a great deal about faith and especially its relationship to the works done in obedience to the law of Moses.  Jesus had emphasized in so much of His teaching the priority of faith.  Think especially of His miracles where Jesus’ power was called forth by the faith of the recipient. (Matthew 8:10, 26; 9:2, 22, 29; 14:31; 15:28; 17:20; 21:21)  The woman with the blood disorder hadn’t even spoken to Jesus; but because she had faith, power flowed out of Jesus and healed her. (Mark 5:30)  Now in light of this, we’re not surprised to find that people responded to this teaching by flying to extremes.  On the one hand, we know that there were some Christians who certainly believed in the power of faith to save but who also taught that obedience to at least some of the rituals (e.g. circumcision) of the Jewish religion were still binding on Christians. (Acts 15:1)  On the other hand, we’re not surprised to find that there were others who flew to the opposite extreme and began to teach that no obedience of any kind was necessary.  As long as one believed in Jesus, practical holiness of heart and life was irrelevant and unnecessary.

Now it’s to this latter extreme that James addresses himself.  Those people who were content simply to have faith in Jesus and to neglect entirely the repeated teaching of Jesus that His followers were to be people of good works (Matthew 5:16) and that Jesus would condemn to hell those who practiced lawlessness. (Matthew 7:23)  These even neglected what Paul himself taught later when he said that Jesus gave Himself for His people for the very purpose of purifying to Himself a people zealous of good works. (Titus 2:14)  It’s very likely that the apostle John wrote his first letter in the same cause.


How does this information help us resolve the apparent contradiction between Paul and James?

Because it shows us that James was correcting a perversion of the teaching of Jesus and not the actual teaching itself.


But James uses the term “justified.”  How can Paul say we are justified by faith alone and James directly contradicts this idea and says that we are not justified by faith alone? (James 2:24) 

Because James uses the term “justified” here with a different meaning than Paul.

  • James is using the word “justify” in a non-technical, non-theological sense.  He uses the word in its popular usage.  When he says that a man is justified by works, he simply means that this is how a man is proven to be a genuine Christian and to have genuine faith.  Such a person is not deluding himself as Jesus warned against in the parable of the five foolish virgins. (Matthew 25)  When such a person stands before God, his or her faith will be found to be genuine, and they will be admitted to the kingdom of glory.
  • Paul, however, is speaking about being justified in the heavenly courtroom by God Himself.  This is the technical, theological usage of the term “to justify” which is almost uniquely Paul’s.  It refers to what God Himself declares as to a person’s right (or wrong) standing with Himself.  It is not something that takes place on judgment day, but something that takes place the moment we first believe in Jesus.  It is the opposite of “to condemn.” (Proverbs 17:15)

Farrar writes:

Both Apostles would have freely conceded that faith without works is barren orthodoxy, and works without faith are mere legal righteousness. And both would have agreed that all apparent and superficial discrepancies vanish in such broad truths as those expressed by St. John, when he says that “if we say we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not the truth.” source


But it seems strange that both Paul and James use the example of Abraham to prove points that are precisely the opposite of each other.  

True they use the same man but not at all the same story.  Paul refers to Abram’s faith in God’s promise by which he was justified or set right with God. (Romans 4:3)  Genesis teaches us that by faith, Abraham was here counted righteous by God. (Genesis 15:6)  James, however, refers to the testing נָסָה (Genesis 22:1)of Abraham’s faith when he was told to sacrifice Isaac.  Now the question was about the genuineness and the sincerity of his faith. (cf John 6:64)  In the Pauline sense of the word “justify”, Abraham had been justified long before God told him to sacrifice Isaac.  In the sense in which James uses the word, Abraham was justified repeatedly throughout his life, especially in the sacrificing of Isaac.


and how about Rahab?

Here too we are told in the book of Hebrews that Rahab welcomed the spies “by faith.”  In other words, in the Pauline sense, she already had faith in God and was right with God or justified.  Her treatment of the spies, however, was what made clear to Israel and others where her real allegiance lay.  This was what “justified” her in their eyes, and this is how James understands the word “to justify.”   This case is especially interesting since James includes the detail that she was a prostitute.  She hardly had a life of righteous living to which she could point as reason why God should justify her.  Clearly, the salvation of Rahab is a testimony to the fact that by faith in Christ, all our sins are forgiven us.  This is the Pauline side of the truth.  James goes on to show the additional point that Rahab’s faith, by which she had her lifetime of sin forgiven, was shown to be the genuine article by her treatment of the spies.









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