Introduction to the Epistle of James

Introduction to the Epistle of St. James

Introduction to the Epistle of St. James

The Epistle (Letter) of James


July 29, 2018


The letter was written sometime between 35 and 50 A.D.

It is written during the first persecution of the church, encouraging Jewish-Christians to remain faithful.

Jesus rose in 33 A.D.  Stephen was martyred in 35 A.D.  The Apostolic Conference in Jerusalem, which settled the Jewish-Gentile problem, took place in 52 A.D.

The letter was written by James to Jewish Christians in the diaspora before the Jewish-Gentile problem.  There is no doctrine that is addressed in-depth. There is no doctrine that contradicts any doctrine in the rest of the Bible, even the doctrine of justification by faith.

Who is James?  Here is a sketch but as R.C. Lenski wrote: We might precipitate the reader into the thorny brush from which very few have emerged without having had their exegetical robes badly torn.

He is not the apostle James the son of Zebedee who is also the brother to the apostle John.

In Galatians 1:19, Paul calls James “the brother of the Lord.”

In 1 Corinthians 9:5, Paul speaks of the fact that “the brothers of the Lord” had wives.

In Matthew 13:55, 12:46, and Mark 6:3, four brothers and several sisters are mentioned.  The word “brothers” is thought to solve the problem and any argument against is due to Roman reverence of Mary and the teaching of semper virgo.  Protestants don’t have undue reverence for Mary but might come to a similar conclusion…

Nowhere is it written: the sons or children of Mary or of Joseph and Mary.

In Matthew 13:55-56 and Mark 6:3, the people of Nazareth ask “Is this not the carpenter, the Son of Mary, and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? And are not His sisters here with us?” So they were offended at Him.  The New King James Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982), Mk 6:3.

In Acts 1:14, These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers.  The New King James Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982), Ac 1:14.

In John 19:25, Jesus commits His mother to the apostle John.  Why does He not commit them to James (the author of the letter) or Jude (the author of Jude) or to the other brothers or sisters.  It is written in John 7:5 that even His brothers did not believe in Him. The New King James Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982), Jn 7:5.  But James believed when Jesus appeared to James after the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:7).

To say that “His brother’s” equals “Mary gave birth to” is to beg the question.

Certainty is not possible.  But here are a few suggestions:

Mary’s sister could be the mother of these other children.  Two widows could share one house and raise the children. John 19:25.

Joseph could be the father by an earlier marriage.  But little evidence for this.

So, you may hold to semper virgo or not.  You may argue from the facts but not definitively.


Is James an apostle?

In Galatians 1:19, James is not considered as an apostle.  But I saw none of the other apostles except James, the Lord’s brother.  The addition except James the Lord’s brother does not mean that he did see another apostle but that he saw one other man, a leading person who was so important that he should be named along with Peter.  The other man is James. So, Paul distinguishes James from the other apostles, however, in Galatians 2:9, he mentions him before Peter and John as one of the pillars of the church.  (By this time James the son of Zebedee is dead).

James is the chief elder of the congregation at Jerusalem from its beginning until his death in the mid-60’s.  He presided at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). He summed up the council and informed the congregations.  In Acts 13:17, Peter sends word to James of his escape from Herod. In Gal. 1:19, 2:9-12, and Acts 21:18, James is in the same position in Jerusalem.  In 1 Corinthians 15:7, Jesus appeared after His resurrection to James. This is when James first believed.

Jerusalem’s population (estimate) during the time of Jesus was about 25,000 (the size of our Muscatine today). The number of Jewish Christians at the time of the persecution (estimate) was about 5,000.  This is about 20% of the cities population. These Jewish-Christians were gathering in synagogues (house churches) that confessed Jesus as Messiah to receive the Lord’s Supper (Acts 2:46) but also took part in the temple worship with the Jews.  These synagogues/house churches usually gathered in up to 50 congregants. This means (estimate) that there were about 100 pastors for about 100 congregations of 50ish people each. These congregations did not view themselves as separated congregations but as the church in Jerusalem.  At first, the apostles (Peter and James the son of Zebedee) served as the pastors of this church but elders were eventually established to care for each congregation such as Stephen and James (the author). After Peter was exiled and James, son of Zebedee, died, James received oversight of the church (Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:17-18) but was never considered an apostle.

The Epistle of James is part of the New Testament canon.  It was circulated among the Gentiles later than other epistles even though it was the earliest epistle written.  Luther called it a “strawy epistle” but always accepted it as canonical. The Romans tried to use James chapter 2 to argue against Romans chapter 3 concerning justification by faith.  Upon a closer look, they agree on Christ’s teaching. We will examine that later.