Lesson 3 of5
In Progress

Background of James

The setting of the Letter of James is fairly obscure. Most of what can be gleaned about that background must come from the letter itself, and there is little particular detail in its generalized moral exhortation. Much depends on what one thinks about the identification of the author as James and whether this James is indeed the same as the one identified as “the Lord’s brother” in Galatians 1:19 and elsewhere. It further depends on the precise meaning of the letter’s address “to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion.” Is this to be assumed, with many, as symbolic language referring to the Christian community in its relation to Israel and thus consistent with other Jewish themes in the letter, such as wisdom traditions? Although the text speaks of testing (persecution?), partiality of rich and poor in the assembly, doing business and making money, and laborers and harvest, these are all very general references and do not give much indication of date or setting.

From the earliest times, opinions on the origin and character of James have varied. It is missing from many lists of scriptural books from the first centuries of the church, and there are no definite traces of the book’s use in the church until after 200 C.E. Origen of Alexandria, who lived approximately 185-254, quotes the book as Scripture, but when he discusses the canon, he includes it among those books that are “disputed.”

Many Christians will be familiar with selected verses from James, such as 1:17 and 1:27. Nevertheless, evaluation of James as Scripture was not helped by Martin Luther’s well-known characterization of it as an “epistle of straw.” Still, as to its character, Luther’s specific remarks are telling. His evaluation is based on his judgment that James does not have enough of what is centrally Christian, with only brief references to Jesus Christ, and that it seems to lack continuity or clear development of an argument, a judgment that is consistent with the book’s many seemingly weakly linked exhortations.

Examination and appreciation of James in the last century has been encouraged by new information and interest in Jewish and Christian communities of the first century. Comparative studies have also opened up a vast literature of moral exhortation from the wider Greek-speaking world. Still, the fact that James seems to betray aspects both of Jewish literature and tradition (particularly wisdom literature) and of Hellenistic moral exhortation has led to diverse opinions about its precise background.

Those who argue for the book’s associations with James the brother of Jesus and Jewish traditions tend to place the letter as early as 52 C.E., while those who argue for its Hellenistic setting and associations with Hellenistic paraenetic literature and to pseudonymous authorship tend to place it later, even well into the second century C.E.