Introduction to the Book of James

26 November 2014

Over the next few months, we’ll be covering the book of James in our Sunday preaching and in our community groups (click here to follow along with Sunday sermons). This post, and the next, give a short introduction to James.

This book has sometimes been controversial – why?

James was one of the last books to be universally recognised as Scripture by the early church. However, we should realise that its recognition came about without a single authority imposing its Scriptural status upon the church. In other words, unlike the mistaken notion that the leaders of the early church got together and ‘decided’ which books were to be Scripture, the books we have in the Bible – including James – were recognised as Scripture, without any kind of ‘top down’ imposition of this status. So James was not rejected by the early church – but it may have been neglected due to practical factors hindering its circulation. We should remember that for many centuries the church did not have access to books and printed materials in anywhere near the way we have – the printing press had not yet been invented. Martin Luther was also questioning in his attitude to James, calling it an ‘epistle of straw’ and suggesting that it ‘mangles the Scriptures and thereby opposes Paul and all Scripture’. However, he still included it in his German New Testament. Bible scholar Douglas Moo writes, ‘…at a distance of several centuries from the battles Luther was fighting, we can appreciate the ways James and Paul complement one another. Their opponents are different, and their arguments accordingly different, but each makes an important contribution to our understanding of our faith.’

Who was James?

All the evidence seems to point towards James the younger brother of Jesus and leader of the Jewish Christian church in Jerusalem. His Jewish background is highlighted by his familiarity with, and frequent quotation from, the Old Testament. James was martyred in AD62.

Why did he write this, and to whom – and when?

James is almost certainly writing to Christians who are familiar with their Old Testament, and who are themselves quite likely Jews. The letter implies that there are social tensions arising from wealth, injustice and poverty among people. He addresses the letter to ‘the twelve tribes in the dispersion’ to describe Christians – the fulfilment of the Old Testament expectation of a re-gathered, renewed people of God comprising Jew and Gentile – scattered across the Roman empire. We are told that after Stephen’s martyrdom the Christians were ‘dispersed’. It is likely that James wrote this letter sometime in AD45-48, a period which included economic trouble arising from a Judean famine (AD46) and early socio-political unrest which would culminate in the later Jewish wars of AD66-70.

What is James about?

Although a short book, James is incredibly hard-hitting. We’ve summarised its message in this series as, ‘What real theology looks like’. Our next post will give a summary of some of the book’s main themes.

This blog post was written by Dan Martin.