The General Epistle of James
[Sidenote: The Author]

In the 4th century this Epistle was reckoned among the authentic documents of the apostolic period. It does not seem to have been universally known in the Church at an earlier period. It is not in the Muratorian Fragment. But it is plainly quoted by Irenaeus, though he does not mention the author's name. The same is true with regard to the Shepherd of Hermas, which was written at Rome about A.D.140. Justin Martyr quotes the words "the devils shudder" (James ii.19, Trypho, 49). Polycarp seems to quote James i.27, and 1 Peter seems to show traces of its influence. The first writer who both quotes it and mentions the author is Origen.

It opens with the name of "James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ." There can be no reasonable doubt that this is James "the Lord's brother." James the son of Zebedee was killed as early as A.D.44, before which date it is unlikely that the Epistle was written. We have no reason to attribute the Epistle to the Apostle James "the Little." He does not seem to have been of sufficient prominence to write an authoritative letter "to the twelve tribes which are of the Dispersion." But such an action would have been exceedingly natural on the part of a saint who was bishop of "the mother of Churches," Jerusalem itself. It will be convenient to postpone the consideration of such evidence as we possess for the foregoing conclusion until we have discussed the exact relation of St. James to our Lord.


Three important theories must be mentioned as offering a solution of the difficult problem as to this relationship --

(a) That James, Joses, Simon, and Jude, mentioned in the Gospels as the "brethren" of our Lord, were His first cousins on His mother's side.

(b) That they were the children of Joseph and Mary.

(c) That they were the children of Joseph by a former wife.

The theory of St. Jerome (a) may be perhaps discarded without any further comment than that St. Jerome apparently invented it, that he claimed no traditional sanction for it, he did not hold it consistently himself in his later writings, and it is very difficult to reconcile it with Scripture. The theory of Helvidius (b), which called forth St. Jerome's attempted refutation, answers some verbal requirements of the Gospel narrative, and has found some skilful modern advocates. But with the possible exception of Tertullian, no Christian seems to have held it before Helvidius, and the theory that Mary had other children besides Jesus gave a profound shock to Christian sentiment. No argument can be brought against (c), the theory defended, though not originated, by St. Epiphanius, that the brethren of our Lord were children of St. Joseph by a former wife. It is in keeping with the strong tradition which maintained the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin; it helps to explain the attitude of unbelief recorded in the Gospels of Christ's brethren, and at the same time requires no distortion of the literalness of the passages in which they are mentioned. There is hardly sufficient evidence to show that first cousins were ever called "brethren." But it would have been quite natural for those who called St. Joseph "the father of Jesus" to call St. Joseph's sons "the brothers of Jesus." And again, the supposition that the Blessed Virgin had no other son, seems strongly supported by the fact that at the crucifixion our Lord commended her to His beloved disciple, and not to one of St. Joseph's family.


This theory of St. Epiphanius is much older than the 4th century. It is sometimes urged against it that Origen derived it from the Apocryphal Gospels of the 2nd century, and that its popularity in the Church was owing to Origen's influence. But though the Apocryphal Gospels often contained fictions, we cannot argue that everything in them is fictitious. The tradition agrees with the words of Scripture, and gains support from some fragments of Hegesippus, a cultured Palestinian Christian, born about A.D.100. He states directly that Symeon, the second bishop of Jerusalem, was the cousin of our Lord, because son of Clopas who was the brother of Joseph. He also calls James "the brother of the Lord," and in another passage speaks of Jude as "called brother" of the Lord. He therefore plainly distinguishes the cousins from the so-called "brethren." We then get the following genealogy: --

+ -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- + -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- +
" "
Joseph == Mary Clopas (or Alphaeus) " " "
" " + -- -- -- + -- -- -- +
+ -- James JESUS " " "
+ -- Joses James Joses Symeon + -- Jude (the Little)
+ -- Simon
+ -- Sisters

We conclude, therefore, that St. James was the son of St. Joseph.

The writer of the Epistle frequently colours his sentences with words from the Old Testament, and assumes a knowledge of it among his readers. He makes no allusion to the Gentiles. He writes in a tone of authority and without any self-advertisement. He briefly uses for illustration certain natural phenomena which would be familiar to the people of Palestine, such as allusions to "the early and latter rain" (v.7), the effect on vegetation of the burning wind (i.11), the existence of salt or bitter springs (iii.11), the cultivation {226} of figs and olives (iii.12), and the neighbourhood of the sea (i.6; iii.4). From such a cursory view of the character of this Epistle, it would seem reasonable to admit that it was written by a Palestinian Jewish Christian for the edification of Christians of the same race and locality.

We get the same impression when we study what is said by the writer about the readers. He speaks as though they had been under a law of bondage, but are now under a law of liberty (i.25; ii.12). They are in touch with men who are unbelievers, who blaspheme Christ and persecute Christians (ii.6, 7). The believers are mostly poor (ii.5); the few rich who are Christians are in danger of falling away through covetousness and pride (iv.3-6, 13-16). The rich appear as oppressors, who luxuriously "nourish their hearts in a day of slaughter," and had even "killed the righteous" (v.5, 6). The Church is ruled by "elders" (v.14) like the Jewish synagogues, and the Christian "synagogue" is occasionally frequented by rich strangers (ii.2). All this is well suited to the conditions of Christian life in Palestine. And it is difficult to find any locality equally appropriate. Even as late as the first part of the 2nd century rich Gentiles were reluctant to persecute Christians, and to describe them as blaspheming the name of Christ at any time within or near the apostolic age would be almost impossible. They regarded Christianity with good-natured contempt, not with blasphemous hostility. We have only to read Acts to see that among the Gentiles it was the poor and ignorant rather than the rich who began the persecution of the Christians. On the other hand, if we turn to the Jews, we find that the rich were the leaders of persecution. It was the wealthy Sadducee party in union with the influential Pharisees which harried the Church. The Gospels and Acts give repeated evidence on this point, and the evidence of the Jewish historian Josephus supplies the keystone of that evidence.

Against the Palestinian origin of the Epistle it is urged that {227} the Greek is too correct and rhetorical. The style is vivacious and forcible. It contains many rather unusual Greek words, including six which are neither in the Septuagint version of the Old Testament nor in the rest of the New Testament, a long list of words which are found in the Septuagint and not in the New Testament, and seven rare classical or late Greek words. The whole question of the style of the Epistle requires the most delicate handling. But the style is distinctly unfavourable to the theory that the Epistle was written at a late date in a centre of Gentile Christianity. The Greek is neither the flowing Greek of a Greek, nor the rough provincial Greek which St. Paul spoke and wrote. It is slow and careful, with short sentences linked by repetitions. One epithet is piled effectively on another (e.g. iii.15, 17), and abstract statements are avoided. Galilee was studded with Greek towns, and in Jerusalem Greek was well known. The Epistle might well have been written by a Jew of Palestine who had made a good use of his opportunities. And the introduction of some rare words in the midst of a simple moral exhortation is by no means a proof of complete mastery over Greek. It points, not to a mastery over the language, but to a painstaking familiarity with it.

These facts seem compatible with the few details which we know about St. James. Their full significance can only be appreciated when we know the difficulties which have beset the commentators who assign to the Epistle a date outside his lifetime.

Before considering the question of the date more minutely, we may collect together some points of interest connected with St. James.

St. James, like the other "brethren" of our Lord, watched the development of our Lord's career, but was unconvinced of the truth of His mission. After the Resurrection, our Lord, St. Paul tells us, "was seen of James." Perhaps this was the turning-point of his life, he, like St. Thomas, "saw and {228} believed." The Gospel according to the Hebrews, one of the oldest of the Apocryphal Gospels, says that our Lord, after His Resurrection, "went to James and appeared to him -- for James had sworn that he would not eat bread from that hour in which he drank the cup of the Lord, until he saw Him rising from the dead; -- and again after a little while. 'Bring hither, saith the Lord, a table and bread.'" . . . "He brought bread, and blessed and brake it, and gave it to James the Just, and said unto him, 'My brother, eat thy bread, for the Son of man hath risen from the dead.'" There are other versions of the story which make the vow to be taken after the death of Christ. In spite of some absurdities in this Apocryphal Gospel, it is possible that the legend is true, and that the sublime death of the Redeemer began to effect the repentance of His brother. However this may be, before Pentecost, A.D.29, we find him joined to the Christian community at Jerusalem, where he afterwards attained a foremost position. In Gal. i. we find that St. Paul visited St. James and St. Peter at Jerusalem. In Acts xii.17 St. Peter, on escaping from prison in A.D.44, desires that news of his escape should be taken to St. James. In Gal. ii. St. Paul speaks of "James and Cephas and John" as pillars of the Church at Jerusalem. From Acts xv. we find that at this time, A.D.49, St. James acted as president of the Council which determined how far the Gentile Christians need conform to the customs of the Jews. It is remarkable that the speech of St. James in Acts xv. and the circular despatched from the Council show several coincidences of style with the Epistle. If these coincidences are due to forgery, the forger has certainly used consummate self-restraint and skill.

Again, when St. Paul paid his last visit to Jerusalem, in A.D.56, and the Jews accused him of advocating the abandonment of the Law of Moses and "the customs," it is St. James and his presbyters who advise him to go up to the Temple and purify himself with four Nazirites, and so reassure the "myriads" of Christian Jews who were zealous for the Law. {229} Once more we cannot help observing how well this anxiety of St. James agrees with the very cautious tone of the Epistle with regard to distinctively Christian doctrine.

The end of St. James is recorded by Hegesippus and by Josephus. Hegesippus represents him living as a strict Nazirite, always frequenting the Temple, with knees as hard as a camel's because of his perpetual prayers.[1] He tells us that St. James was thrown from a pinnacle of the Temple, stoned, and clubbed to death at the order of the scribes and Pharisees for asserting that Jesus was on the right hand of God. From Josephus we learn that his martyrdom took place when a vacancy in the procuratorship caused by the death of Festus (in A.D.62) gave the Sadducees the opportunity which they desired. He was dragged before the Sanhedrim, condemned and stoned. Josephus also gives us to understand that the more moderate Jews were not in sympathy with such a thoroughly unconstitutional proceeding, and that Agrippa deprived Ananus, the high priest, of his office for invading the rights of the civil power.

[Sidenote: To whom written.]

"The twelve tribes of the Dispersion." We might suppose that the writer had in his mind all the Jews who were dispersed throughout the world, but came to Jerusalem to offer sacrifice when they were able, and who were all bound by the religious obligation to pay the yearly tribute to the temple. There had been several dispersions in the history of the chosen people, to Assyria under Shalmaneser, to Babylon and Egypt in the time of Nebuchadnezzar, and to Rome under Pompeius. But ch. ii.1 shows that the Epistle was written to men who acknowledged Jesus as Lord. It is therefore natural to think that it was written only to men who were both Christians and of Jewish origin. But there is another interpretation of the phrase "the twelve tribes." Some think that it is merely a symbolical name for the Christian Church composed both of Jews and Gentiles, and {230} forming the new and spiritual Israel. Strong arguments have been brought forward in favour of each of these views, but the former seems to be the sounder. The argument that the Jews at this period could not have been called "twelve" tribes when only two had returned from the captivity, is disproved by the fact that the phrase is unquestionably used in this meaning in Acts xxvi.7. We must frankly admit that St. Paul speaks of the Gentile Christians as forming part of the new Israel of God, but he never alludes to them as part of twelve tribes. In Rev. vii. the twelve tribes still mean Christian Jews in contrast with the "great multitude" of redeemed Gentiles. Justin Martyr speaks of "your twelve tribes" in addressing Trypho[2] the Jew, and several instances are to be found in early Christian literature where the words are used in this literal sense.

We may therefore rest content with this literal meaning. But we must maintain it with reserve in view of the fact that St. Peter applies the word "dispersion" to the new and ideal Israel. And we must beware of arguing that the word "synagogue" (ii.2) proves that the readers were necessarily Jews. The word "synagogue" was for a long time occasionally applied to the Gentile Christian congregations, as we find in the Shepherd of Hermas[3] (A.D.140) and Theophilus[4] (A.D.180).

[Sidenote: When and where written.]

We have already seen that Palestine is the most likely place, and as St. James lived at Jerusalem, the Epistle was probably written there. The date has always been a hopeless problem to those who reject the authenticity of the Epistle. That it was written by a heretic in Palestine about A.D.70, or by a Catholic at Rome about A.D.90, or that it represents a "Catholicized Paulinism" of A.D.140, or that it is a patchwork of homilies written soon after A.D.120, are guesses which have been made but not substantiated. The fact that it was written before A.D.62 is {231} self-evident if we admit that it was written by St. James. But it is also corroborated by the fact that 1 Peter, written about A.D.64, seems to show a knowledge of this Epistle. Far more complicated is the question as to whether St. James shows any knowledge of St. Paul's Epistles. He insists so pointedly on the need of being justified by works that some writers have thought that he is attacking St. Paul's doctrine of justification by faith. The idea must be dismissed. Such a masterly writer would not have attacked what an apostle did not really hold. St. James, in attacking a theory of justification by faith, is condemning a faith which means only orthodox intellectual assent. St. Paul, in defending his doctrine of justification by faith, is upholding a faith which implies energetic and loving service. The two doctrines simply supplement one another. When Luther called the Epistle to the Galatians his "wife" and called the Epistle of St. James an "Epistle of straw," he simply showed that he understood neither. St. James is not only not criticizing St. Paul; he is perhaps not even criticizing a popular perversion of St. Paul's doctrine. The question of the justification of Abraham was a favourite subject of discussion among the Jews, and the teaching of our Lord had shown the superiority of a living faith over dead works. There is no difficulty in supposing that some Jewish believers were confused with regard to these great matters before they had read a word of St. Paul's letters. And to such men the Epistle of St. James might be of the highest value.

In spite of this, there often seems to be a verbal connection between this Epistle and those of St. Paul. The connection is admitted by critics of the most different schools. Moreover, some are of opinion that there is a connection between James and the Epistle to the Hebrews, ch. xi. These connections have been exaggerated, but they are hard to deny. Now, if St. James had borrowed from any of these Epistles, it would be very difficult for us to account for the extreme simplicity of his {232} doctrine. On the other hand, there is no difficulty in the fact that they put his words in a more elaborate setting. And as St. Paul's opponents declared that they were backed by St. James, we may be sure that St. Paul would eagerly read anything written by St. James. We may therefore place this Epistle earlier than St. Paul's Epistles to Corinth and Rome, and perhaps earlier than any of his extant Epistles.

It is sometimes objected to this that it is "grotesque" to suppose that St. James would have originated the practice of writing religious Epistles. It is said that the practice must have been begun by an apostle of supreme originality, and one who travelled widely, therefore by St. Paul. But we have no means of deciding the question. And as St. Paul may have written Epistles before he wrote those now extant, we may still hold that St. Paul began the practice, and that this Epistle is nevertheless older than the works of St. Paul which we now possess. We can, therefore, see no good reason for denying that this Epistle is as early as A.D.50.

[Sidenote: Character and Contents.]

The Epistle is intensely practical, and though it is in no sense anti-doctrinal, it does not discuss doctrine. The evils against which it contends all concern conduct. The good which it recommends is persistent well-doing in accordance with the new moral law of Christianity. The sole validity of the law of love (ii.8), the gift of a new birth by the word of truth, making us heirs of God (i.18; ii.5), the mention of the author's servitude to Christ (i.1), and the ascription of divine power to His name (v.14), show conclusively that the writing is not, as some say, of Jewish origin. The tone is austere, and the Epistle contains no word of praise for the readers.

A strong argument in favour of the genuineness of the Epistle is furnished by the numerous parallels which it presents to the Synoptic Gospels. These parallels are not quotations from the Gospels, but they show that the writer was saturated with the kind of teaching which the Gospels record. The {233} connection with the Sermon on the Mount as recorded by St. Matthew is particularly plain. Among the numerous proofs of this connection we must content ourselves with noticing the agreement as to the spiritual view of the Law (Jas. i.25; ii.8, 12, 13; Matt. v.17-44), the blessings of adversity (Jas. i.2, 13; ii.5; v.7, 8; Matt. v.3-12), the dangers of wealth (Jas. i.10, 11; ii.6, 7; iv.13-16; v.1-6; Matt. vi.19-21, 24-34), the true nature of prayer (Jas. i.5-8; iv.3; v.13-18; Matt. vi.6-13), the necessity of forgiving others (Jas. ii.13; Matt. vi.14, 15), the tree known by its fruits (Jas. iii.11, 12; Matt. vii.16-20), the prohibition of oaths (Jas. v.12; Matt. v.34-37), the Judge before the door (Jas. v.9; Matt. xxiv.33). Many other coincidences can be found. The "perfect law" upheld by St. James, a law both "free" and "royal," irresistibly reminds us of the legislation of the Messianic King in our first Gospel.

In v.14-16 we have a direction given with regard to the anointing of the sick by the presbyters of the Church. This rite, perverted by the Gnostics in the 2nd century, survived that perversion. The first full directions for it in a Catholic document are in the prayers of Bishop Sarapion of Thmuis in Egypt, about A.D.350. In the Eastern Church the oil used for this purpose may be consecrated by presbyters, contrary to the usual practice of the West, which requires it to be consecrated by a bishop.



Salutation (i.1).

Human trial and the wisdom which enables us to profit by it, a warning against double-mindedness, Christianity exalts the lowly, riches are transitory, trial brings blessing, trial due to lust is not a trial from God but from self, God is the Source of all our good (i.2-18).

We must receive the divine word with humility and act upon it, kindness and purity are the best ceremonial (i.19-27).

Christian behaviour towards rich and poor to be based on the royal law of love; violation of that law is a breach of God's command, which embraces motive as well as action (ii.1-13).

Intellectual faith is no substitute for godly works, Abraham and Rahab were justified by works (ii.13-26).

The responsibility of teaching, the difficulty and importance of controlling the tongue (iii.1-12).

Christian wisdom contrasted with the animal wisdom of faction (iii.13-18).

The cause of quarrelling is selfish desire, which infects even your prayers, the adultery of a soul which indulges in worldliness and pride, cease from finding fault, worldliness is shown in business plans made without reference to God (iv.).

Luxurious wealth denounced, it is the rich who have persecuted the righteous, patience is commended (v.1-11).

Swear not, prayer and praise, the anointing of the sick with prayer, mutual confession of sins and prayer, the blessing on those who convert a sinner (v.12-20).

[1] Quoted by Eusebius, H. E. ii.23.

[2] Trypho. 126.

[3] Mand. xi.9.

[4] Ad Autol. i.14.


chapter xix the catholic epistles
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