Confraternity Bible: New Testament and Supplemental Commentary

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JAMES - Introduction

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James - Introduction

Supplemental Commentary:



St. James.  The author of this Epistle calls himself James (1, 1).  This name occurs several times throughout the New Testament.  First, there is James the Apostle, or James the Greater, son of Zebedee and brother of St. John the Apostle (cf. Matt. 4, 21; 27, 56; Mark 1, 19; Luke 5, 10; etc.).  But St. James the Greater is not the author of this Epistle, for he was martyred by Herod Agrippa I, probably in the year 42 (Acts 12, 1 f); whereas, it is evident from the contents of the Epistle that it was written at a later date and only after Christianity had been widely propagated.

Thy Synoptics often mention another Apostle, James, the son of Alphaeus (cf. Matt. 10, 3; Mark 3, 18; Luke 6, 15; Acts 1, 13).  This Apostle is usually identified with James the Less (Mark 15, 40), and James, "the brother of the Lord" (Matt. 13, 55; Mark 6, 3).  This identification is confirmed by tradition found in the writings of Clement of Alexandria, Origen, St. Jerome, St. Augustine and others.  Consequently, James "the son of Alpheus," or "the Less," or "the brother of the Lord," must be the James mentioned in the inscription of our Epistle: "James the servant of God and of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1, 1).

But in what sense was St. James the Apostle, "the brother of the Lord"?  Certainly the expression is not to be understood in the strict sense of the term: for this would contradict Sacred Scripture (Luke 1, 34) and tradition.  Neither does the term imply that James (or others) was the son of St. Joseph by a former marriage.  Nothing in Sacred Scripture indicates this and tradition is strongly against it.  A careful analysis of certain texts confirms the tradition that St. James and our Savior were first cousins.  St. Matthew (13, 55) and St. Mark (6, 3) call James, Joseph, Simon, and Jude "the brethren of the Lord."  Evidently, these are not real brothers of our Lord; for elsewhere both St. Matthew (27, 56) and St. Mark (15, 40) refer to a certain Mary, standing at the foot of the cross, "the mother of James and Joseph."  This Mary is probably identified with Mary of Cleophas, the sister of the Blessed Virgin (John 19, 25).  If this is true, then, James and Joseph were first cousins of our Lord.

At Jerusalem St. James was greatly respected by all classes, so that even his fellow-countrymen gave him the surname "The Just."  After our Lord's resurrection he was favored with a special apparition (1 Cor. 15, 7).  His authority and prudence were greatly respected by the early Christian Church in Jerusalem: St. Luke clearly shows this in the Acts of the Apostles.  First, on the occasion of St. Peter's arrest by Herod, and his liberation: "Tell this to James and to the brethren" (12, 17).  Secondly, at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) all those present accepted the disciplinary points suggested by St. James for the conduct of the Gentile converts.  And finally, when St. Paul visited Jerusalem, at the end of his third missionary journey, St. James, acting as the head of the church there gladly received him and suggested a plan to him whereby the opposition of his enemies might be overcome (Acts 21, 18-25).  St. Paul calls him a "Pillar" of the Church (Gal. 2, 9).

Aside from these facts little more is known about the person and life of St. James.  According to the historian Hegesippus (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. II. 23) he led an austere and holy life, and suffered martyrdom at the hands of the Jews by being thrown from the pinnacle of the temple.  Josephus Flavius (Antiq. XX, 9, 1) relates that he was martyred about the year 62.

Authenticity.  Although Eusebius (Hist. Eccl. II, 23; III. 25) enumerates the Epistle of St. James among the disputed writings, he himself recognized it.  In the sixteenth century Erasmus and Cajetan raised some doubts about its authenticity.  Luther called it "an Epistle of straw, and unworthy of an Apostle."  The reason for his antipathy is evident; for the teaching of the Epistle undoubtedly condemns Luther's favorite doctrine, that faith alone without good works suffices for salvation.  But Catholic tradition, from the latter part of the first century and the beginning of the second, has maintained unbrokenly that St. James is the author of this Epistle.  Here we can but briefly consider the evidence upon which this tradition rests.

First, a casual examination of early ecclesiastical literature reveals that this Epistle exercised a great influence on the writings of such men as St. Clement of Rome, St. Ignatius Martyr and St. Polycarp; traces of it are also found in the Didache and the Letter to Diognetus.  It is shown that there are at least fifteen places in the Shepherd of Hermas which evidently allude to the Epistle of St. James.

Secondly, this Epistle was not only known throughout the early Christian Church, but it is often explicitly attributed to St. James.  For example, Clement of Alexandria and Origen cite it as Scripture and as the work of St. James.  Other ecclesiastical writers, such as St. Athanasius, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, and St. Epiphanius, ascribe the work to St. James.  St. Jerome says explicitly that St. James was the author of this Epistle.  Finally, this Epistle is mentioned in all the Councils in which a list of sacred and inspired books was drawn up, for example, the Third Council of Carthage, and those of Florence and Trent.

Thirdly, a careful study of the Epistle itself reveals that it does not in any way contradict the external evidence in its favor, but confirms it.  The author betrays his Jewish origin: he is quite familiar with the Old Testament and quotes it frequently (cf., e.g., 5, 10-18; cp. also 2, 8 with Lev. 19, 18).  Again, the Epistle is thoroughly Christian: cf., e.g., 1, 16.19; 2, 4 where St. James employs the strictly Christian terminology, "my beloved brethren."  Finally, his exhortations recall vividly the teaching and preaching of Christ (cp. 5, 12; 5, 2.3; 2, 13; 3, 12; 1, 12; 3, 1.2; 1, 9.10 with Matt. 5, 34-37; 6, 19; 7, 2.16; 10, 22; 12, 36; 18, 4).  St. James was not in this Epistle concerned so much about dogmatic questions, as he was about moral perfection and the necessity of performing good works.  He drew upon the words of Christ, observed them literally and exhorted others to follow him.

Purpose and Occasion.  In the opening chapter, St. James addresses his Epistle "to the twelve tribes that are in the Dispersion" (1, 1).  Those who understand these words in their more obvious sense think St. James intended his Epistle primarily for the Christian converts from Judaism who lived in the Jewish colonies outside of Palestine.  But the Epistle does not seem to have been restricted to this group of Christians.  Some exegetes understand the opening verse to mean "the true Israel of God," that is, "all Christians throughout the entire world, without reference to their Jewish or Gentile origin, thus taking the dedication in a metaphorical sense" (Eaton, The Catholic Epistles, p. 92).

While no mention is made of local churches, in all probability this Epistle was first sent to some particular church.  According to some critics, its immediate destination was the church at Antioch in Syria, at that time the nearest center of Christianity to Jerusalem.  If this is true, the actual writing of the Epistle was probably occasioned by the particular needs of the church at Antioch and the vicinity; at least parts of the Epistle especially applied there.  Moreover, in the opinion of some authors, St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans and his exposition of the doctrine of justification were also the occasion of this Epistle.  There are no real contradictions between the teachings of these two Apostles.  If St. James had in view St. Paul's teaching on justification, the most that can be said is that he rebuked those Christians who misinterpreted and distorted it.

The present Epistle is written in the form of a sermon or moral exhortation.  Its teaching is practical and to the point; for St. James knew the needs and deficiencies of the people concerned.  His purpose in writing, therefore, was threefold: (1) to encourage Christians in their trials; (2) to refute erroneous doctrines which were beginning to appear; and (3) to promote virtue and holiness in Christians.

Time and Place of Composition.  Nothing definite is known about the time St. James wrote this Epistle.  But its date of composition can be calculated approximately.  St. James suffered martyrdom in the spring of the year 62; if we suppose that St. James knew of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans we must place his Epistle after the year 58.  As regards the place of composition, it is commonly believed that St. James wrote the Epistle at Jerusalem, to which his ministry seems to be confined.



Introduction 1, 1

I. Exhortation to Patience in Trials 1, 2-18

II. Living and Active Faith 1, 19 -- 2, 26

III. The Hazard of Teaching 3, 1-18

IV. Special Admonitions 4, 1 -- 5, 6

Conclusion 5, 7-20

Confraternity Bible:



St. James the Less was the son of Alpheus or Cleophas.  His mother Mary was a sister, or a close relative, of the Blessed Virgin, and for that reason, according to Jewish custom, he was sometimes called the brother of the Lord.  According to tradition, he was the first Bishop of Jerusalem, and was at the Council of Jerusalem about the year 50.  The historians Eusebius and Hegesippus relate that St. James was martyred for the faith in the spring of the year 62.

Internal evidence based on the language, style and teaching of the Epistle reveals its author as a Jew familiar with the Old Testament, and a Christian thoroughly grounded in the teachings of the gospel.  External evidence from the early Fathers and councils of the Church confirms its authenticity and canonicity.

The date of its writing cannot be determined exactly.  According to some scholars it was written about the year 49.  Others, however, claim it was written after St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans (composed during the winter of 57-58).  It was probably written between the years 60 and 62.

St. James addresses himself to Christians outside Palestine; but nothing in the Epistle indicates that he is thinking only of Jewish Christians.  St. James realizes full will the temptations and difficulties they encounter in the midst of paganism, and as a spiritual father, he endeavers to guide and direct them in the faith.  Therefore the burden of his discourse is an exhortation to practical Christian living.