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James isn't just a biblical author; he's also a major player in all the first-century Christian drama.
Traditionally, the author of The Epistle of James is said to be Jesus' brother, James. (Way to keep it in the family, JC.) In Hebrew, his name would have been Ya'akov (or Jacob)—it was a pretty popular name for Jewish boys back in the day…and still, for that matter. All that's to say that there are a lot of Jameses mentioned in the New Testament, so it can be tough to keep 'em straight.
People distinguish this James from others by calling him "James the Just." The name comes from the early Christian writer, Clement of Alexandria, who said that "people of old called [him] the Just because of his outstanding virtue" (source). Later, Eusebius (a church historian) said that James was "recorded to have been the first to be made bishop of the church of Jerusalem" (source). That's why people sometimes call him the "bishop of bishops." He was a real trailblazer.
James is clearly one of the head honchos in the church in Jerusalem: in Acts of the Apostles, he's the one who settles the big question about circumcision at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:13-21). His verdict? No snipping necessary. He's also called out as the brother of Jesus in the gospels: "Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James?" (Mark 6:3). That's a resume builder right there.
The Apostle Paul also mentions him quite a bit. He says that James is one of the people who saw Jesus after his resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:7). In Galatians 1:19, Paul calls James "the Lord's brother" and tells a story about going down to Jerusalem to meet with him. It's sort of a contentious little meeting.
From what we read in these letters, it actually seems like Paul didn't much care for James. Translation: he didn't like him. He says that James was one of the "acknowledged pillars" (Galatians 2:9) in Jerusalem, but that he (Paul) wasn't impressed by it. He also had a bit of a tiff with James over the whole faith vs. works thing. Paul thought that faith was much more important than doing good deeds, and James—as you can tell from his letter—falls on the opposite side of the argument.
And…Christians have been fighting about it ever since.
So what does this letter tell us about the real James?
• He's a follower of Jesus (James 1:1).
• But he's from a Jewish background—he knows his Hebrew Bible frontwards and backwards.
• He's a "teacher" of the faith (James 3:1). Basically, he spreads the word around.
Yeah, that's not a lot to go on. Really, James is more interested in telling Christians what they should be doing instead of talking about himself or bragging about his connection to Jesus (brothers for life!). Presumably, the folks reading this would have also known his background. It would be kind of like opening up a new book by J.K. Rowling. You know who she is and what to expect from her writing—you just want to dig in and get to the good stuff.
So James is kind of a big deal. That means the epistle he wrote must be pretty major, too. After all, it was written by Jesus' own brother, one of the witnesses to Jesus' life, teaching, and resurrection. That's a reliable source…right?
Well, maybe not.
The letter starts by saying that it's written by "James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ" (James 1:1), but some scholars seriously doubt this fact. They think that the letter might have been written by an anonymous author pretending to be James. These scholars believe that the Greek language that James uses is way too polished for a poor kid from Judea. It's also a little strange that James doesn't call out any special relationship to Jesus at the start of the letter. You'd think if you were the boss's brother, you'd mention it. (Source, 1256)
Wait. Why would someone forge a letter from James? Well, it's a way of adding some heft and gravity to your argument. After all, does anyone really care about what Demetrius from Athens thinks about how Christians should act? But James the Just, the Lord's brother?
Now there's a source you can trust.
The idea that this is an authentic letter has been gaining some steam. Judea was heavily influenced by the Greek-speaking world at this time, so that could account for the language. There are also parallels with his speech from Acts 15. James starts by saying, "My brothers, listen to me" (Acts 15:13). He uses the same phrase in James 2:5: "Listen, my beloved brother and sisters."
If James wrote this letter, that means it was probably sent out around 48 CE. Which, BTW, would make it the oldest piece of writing in the New Testament (Source, 1256).
Whether or not James actually wrote this letter, he met a pretty gruesome end. Josephus (a Jewish historian) says that James was put to death around 62 CE.
[The high priest in Jerusalem] assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned. (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20, Chapter 9)
Today, St. James the Just is celebrated in loads of Christian churches. The Anglican Church commemorates his feast day every year on October 23.
Happy death day, James.