Understanding The Bible
Clarence E. Mason's "Earlier New Testament Epistles"
The Epistle of James



Return to Syllabus

Dr. Clarence E. Mason, Jr.
Philadelphia College of Bible


1. Its position in N.T.
James is one of the Catholic ("universal") or General Epistles, so called to distinguish them from Paul's epistles and at the same time to indicate the letters are addressed to no particular church, but Christians generally. Some old MSS (e.g., Vaticanus) put the General Epistles after the book of Acts (and preceding the Pauline Epistles). This is more suggestive of James's real position as first of the N. T. epistles, not only as to date, but as related to progress of doctrine. (Compare #4)

2. Date and occasion of writing
As already suggested, most scholars are agreed that it is the first of the N. T. epistles (many think it is the first of the N. T. books). It was written certainly before AD 50 (i.e., before the Council at Jerusalem, Acts 15), perhaps 35-45 and presumably shortly after Acts 8 (i.e., the persecution arising with Stephen's stoning) as per the phrase "The Twelve Tribes Scattered Abroad" (i.e., the Diaspora). It is true that this word was customarily used of the dispersion of Jews throughout the whole Roman Empire, but the term is all the more applicable to that group among them who were dispersed by the persecution arising from the events associated with Stephen's stoning (Acts 8:4; 11:19). Thus these Christian Jews of Acts 8:4 were addressed primarily, but James desires that through these Christian Jews his message might reach those Jews who had long been "dispersed." He wished to show them that mere intellectual adherence to the orthodox Jewish position of the 0. T. was not enough. A living faith leading to a life of good works is essential. And, though not emphasized, it is implied that only a living faith in Christ can produce this result.

3. James himself
He was known as, James "the Just, " "the brother of our Lord." He should not be confused with James, the brother of John, who had been beheaded by Herod (Acts 12).

He was a half-brother of the Lord Jesus, by Joseph and Mary, and said to be Christ's youngest brother (Matthew 12:46; Mark 6:3). He, with his brothers, scorned Jesus' claims to be the Messiah and taunted Him (John 7:3, 5,10). However, after Christ's resurrection, he (at least of his brethren) believed (1 Corinthians 15:7). Because of his personal holiness of life, and perhaps also due to his closeness to Jesus according to the flesh, he was, by common consent and comparatively soon, given the place of first overseer of the mother church at Jerusalem. We see this in increasing measure from Galatians 1:18-19; cp. Acts 9:26; 12:17; 15:1-2,13,19; Galatians 2:1, 9,11-12; Acts 21:23-26.

James was held in great respect, even by non-Christian Jews, for his rigid self-discipline and sincerity. It was said that he alone (of non-priests) was admitted with the priests into the holy place of the Temple, because of his recognized holiness, where he was often to be found pleading forgiveness for his people. Certainly only the availing prayers (5:16b) of such men as James could have caused God to delay till AD 70 (40 years after the murder of Christ -- the number of testing) the inevitable punishment of these so drastically described by Paul in 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16, twenty years earlier (AD 52).

He was a Hebrew of the: Hebrews, a man of most rigid and ascetic morality, faithful in his observance of all the ritual regulations of the Jewish faith. He drank no wine and ate no flesh. So much was he upon his knees on the stone floor of the Temple that they are said to have been calloused like a camel's knees. Many Jews were led to believe through his life and influence. And when he was stoned and beaten to death with a fuller's club, after failing to be killed from being cast off a pinnacle of the Temple, an enraged citizenry revolted and deposed the High Priest, Ananus (who had ordered his stoning), although he had been High Priest only three months. There was quite a widespread conviction among the Jews that the afflictions which soon came with the siege and capture of Jerusalem (AD 70) were in part a visitation from God for the brutal murder of this just man.

That James persisted in his rigid legalistic views is to be seen in his advice to Paul, when Paul came to Jerusalem after his third missionary journey and when, as some think, James admonished Paul (Acts 21:18-25) for exceeding the orders he had received at the first council (Acts 15). He implied that Paul had endeavored to persuade converted Jews to neglect circumcision (Acts 21:21).

These facts about James's life give invaluable insight to his book, explaining many things which otherwise would not be clear.

4. Characteristics of the epistle

a. It is Jewish (Compare #1)

(1) Someone has aptly described James as "a letter to the Church before 'Church Truth' was revealed." It is the most difficult epistle to place doctrinally. It is evidently a bridge between the Old and New Testaments. The ISBE article has an excellent statement on this point, from which I quote:

"The Gospel of Matthew was written for Jews. The Epistle to the Hebrews is addressed explicitly to them. The Apocalypse is full of the spirit of the 0. T., and Jude is Jewish too. Yet, all these books have more of the distinctively Christian element in them than we can find in James. If we eliminate two or three passages containing reference to Christ (1:1; 2:1), the whole epistle might find its place just as properly in the Canon of the O. T. as in that of the N. T., as far as its substance of doctrine and contents is concerned. That could not be said of any other book in the N. T. There is no mention of the incarnation or of the resurrection, the two fundamental facts of the Christian faith. The word 'gospel' does not occur.. .and there is no suggestion that Messiah has appeared and no presentation of the possibility of redemption through Him."

(2) The word translated "assembly" in 2:2 is really the word "synagogue" Evidently these dispersed Jews were accustomed to going to the synagogue in the place of their dispersion, seeking some spiritual comfort from the reading of the Law and Prophets, even though they were generally despised by the (as yet) non-Christian Jews (2:7). The letter was evidently written to help Christian Jews to clear thinking in their new and perplexing surroundings, and to help to bring conviction to non-Christian Jews (to whom Christian Jews would no doubt read it), by showing the deadness of the "faith" and practice of Pharisaism.

(3) Abraham is called "OUR father" (2:21)

(4) The characters cited as illustrations are O. T. characters (2:21, 25; 5:11,17)

(5) An Old Testament name of God is used, "Lord of Sabaoth" (5:4)

(6) The sins spoken against were those for which Jews were conspicuously liable (2:2-4; 4:4-6; 5:7-11)

(7) The Law is extolled as "the royal Law, " to which every loyal Jew will be subject

(8) The lessons he teaches are mostly from the "Wisdom Literature" of the O. T. and Apocrypha. His direct quotations are from the Pentateuch and the book of Proverbs, but there are allusions as follows: 10 to Proverbs; 6 to Job; 5 to the "Book of Wisdom"; 15 to Ecclesiasticus (not Ecclesiastes).

b. It is authoritative in tone
Paul is often on the defense in his writings. Not so James! His official position must have been recognized and unquestioned. One writer goes so far as to say, "Malachi was not the last of the prophets, nor was John the Baptist, The writer of this epistle stands at the end of that prophetic line, and he is greater than John the Baptist or any who preceded him because he stands within the borders of the Kingdom of Christ." There are 54 absolute imperatives in the 108 verses of this epistle.

c. It is practical
The Epistle represents the idealization of Jewish legalism under the transforming influence of the Christian motive and life. It is not a theological discussion. It is an ethical appeal.

d. It is vivid and clear cut in its style
The Greek is as good as any other N. T. book, with the single exception of Hebrews.
His book is full of word pictures, very poetical in touch, e.g., 1:6, 11; 2:1-4, 15-16; 3:1-12, 17; 4:13-16; 5:1-6.
His style as a sharp cross-questioning lawyer is splendid, e.g., 2:4-7, 14-16; 3:11-12; 4:1,4-5,12,14.
His power of illustration is unique, being comparable only to Christ,
whom he follow s closely. He drew his illustrations mainly from nature and home(ly) life.

e. It is a reiteration of the Sermon on the Mount
Note these parallels with the Gospels, mainly the Synoptics:

James 1:4 Matthew 5:48
James 1:5 Matthew 7:7
James 1:6 Matthew 11:23
James 1:22 Matthew 7:24
James 1:25 John 13:17
James 2:5 Luke 6:20
James 2:13 Matthew 6:14-15
James 3:12 Matthew 7:16-20
James 4:10 Matthew 23:12
James 5:1; 4:8-9 Luke 6:24-25
James 5:9 Matthew 24:33
James 5:12 Matthew 5:34-37

f. Conclusion
What else could he and others make out of the Church until the truths of its unique origin, mission, membership, message, and destiny were later given by the Holy Spirit? There are no contradictions with Later writings in this book, but there are limitations!

(For much of the material contained in this Introduction, I am indebted to articles on "James" and "Epistle of James" in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE), which see for further detail. Especially interesting is the section entitled "V. History of the Epistle, " which answers conclusively the false notion that Paul and James are contradictory on Faith and Works. (See "The Working of Faith, " chapter 2.) Some parts of this outline in subheads are from W. Graham Scroggie.)

Postscript - "Works" have been the association most people have with the book of James. Sometime ago it occurred to me that, since James is just as concerned about the kind of faith that produces genuine works, as much as any other apostle, it might be a helpful approach to emphasize FAITH, rather than WORKS. Hence, I worked out the new outline used here for James.



Salutation 1:1

  1. The PROVING of faith 1:2-27

    1. Through testings 1:2-12

    2. Through temptations (solicitations to evil) 1:13-18

    3. Through true conduct 1:19-27

  2. The WORKING of faith 2

  3. The WISDOM of faith 3

  4. The WARFARE of faith 4

  5. The TRIUMPH of faith 5


Return to Syllabus


"Mason's Notes"

(formerly Philadelphia Biblical University, Philadelphia College of Bible.)
Copyright 2012 to present,
All rights reserved.

Cairn University

200 Manor Avenue
Langhorne, PA 19047
United States of America
"Mason's Notes" Study materials on this website are made available here free, through the generosity of Cairn University, and may be copied for use in Bible study groups, in limited numbers, providing that no charge is made for them.  No further distribution or use of these materials is allowable under U.S. or International Copyright Law without the express permission of Cairn University.