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Summary of James


The Letter of James, although ostensibly in the form of a general letter, has more the character of a sermon or treatise. In its brief span of 108 verses it repeatedly urges Christians to conduct their lives according to that wisdom that is from above, from the God who is the giver of “every perfect gift,” rather than according to earthly wisdom, which leads to death. Empowered by God’s “implanted word,” Christians are called to be not merely “hearers” but “doers” who show forth their faith in specific and practical acts of love and mercy that shape and sustain community. The author is traditionally associated with James the brother of the Lord, who was a leader in the early church.


The Letter of James breathes a powerful encouragement for the practice of responsible Christian action amid the complex realities of daily life. The “implanted word” of God forms a people as “first fruits,” who through the gift of wisdom are enabled to bring their “hearing and doing” together in specific practical actions of justice and care on behalf of the poor and needy in the world. Such faithfulness shapes a community that is constituted and sustained by the gift of God’s wisdom and by the confident and effective exercise of prayer.


The Letter of James is the twentieth book in the New Testament. It is the first in the section of books typically referred to as the “Catholic Letters” (James through Jude).


The author of the letter, “James, a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ,” has been traditionally identified with James the brother of Jesus, leader of the Jerusalem church and martyred just before the outbreak of the Jewish War of 66-70 C.E. Some readers, however, assume the letter to be pseudonymous, written by an unknown Christian who deliberately associated the exhortation of this wisdom “sermon” with a revered church leader from the past.


Opinions differ as to the dating of James and are obviously connected to those regarding authorship. Those who note the apparent lack of ecclesiastical structure, the prevalence of wisdom traditions, and the frequent allusions to what seem to be traditions related to Jesus tend to support the tradition of James the brother of Jesus as the author and place the letter as early as the mid 50s C.E. Those, on other hand, who note the letter’s style, its resonance with features of Hellenistic moral literature of exhortation, and the nature and presence of much pseudonymous literature in the early church tend to reject James as the author and place the letter later, even well into the second century C.E.


Empowered by wisdom as God’s “implanted word,” Christians are called to be not merely “hearers” but “doers” who show forth their faith in specific and practical acts of love and mercy that shape and sustain community.


Whether its origins are from James or from a later Christian author, the content of the letter is fairly clear. It needs to be read in the manner and tradition of wisdom literature, which breathes with the conviction that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). What might seem to be a somewhat random stringing together of moral exhortation and precepts is focused in the conviction that God’s gift of wisdom has the ability to empower a community to single-minded unity of hearing and doing that plays out in practical acts of justice and mercy. As such, James needs to be read with an appreciation of its confidence in the gifts of God and in the ability of the gift of wisdom to enable a faithful community to make a real difference in the world.