According to Robert J. Foster, "there is little consensus as to the genre, structure, dating, and authorship of the book of James." There are four "commonly espoused" views concerning authorship and dating of the Epistle of James:
- that the letter was written by James before the Pauline Epistles,
- that the letter was written by James after the Pauline Epistles,
- that the letter is pseudonymous,
- that the letter comprises material originally from James but reworked by a later editor.
The writer refers to himself only as "James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ."[Jas 1:1] As many as six different men may be referred to in the Bible as James, and if none of them wrote this letter, some other man not mentioned in the Bible by the name of James could be the author.
Jesus had two apostles named James: James, the son of Zebedee and James, the son of Alphaeus, but it is unlikely that either of these wrote the letter. According to the Book of Acts, James, the son of Zebedee, was martyred about 44 AD. That would be very early for him to have been the writer. The other apostle James, the son of Alphaeus, is not prominent in the Scriptural record, and very little is known about him.
Rather, evidence points to James, the brother of Jesus, to whom Jesus evidently had made a special appearance after his resurrection described in the New Testament. This James was prominent among the disciples. The writer of the letter of James identifies himself as "a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ" in much the same way as did Jude, who introduced the Epistle of Jude by calling himself "a slave of Jesus Christ, but a brother of James" (Jas 1:1; Jude 1). Furthermore, the salutation of his letter includes the term “Greetings!" That was same way as the letter on circumcision that was sent to the congregations. In the latter instance it was apparently Jesus's brother, James, who spoke prominently in the assembly of "the apostles and the older men" at Jerusalem.
From the middle of the 3rd century, patristic authors cited the Epistle as written by James, the brother of Jesus and a leader of the Jerusalem church. Not numbered among the Twelve Apostles unless he is identified as James the Less, James was nonetheless a very important figure: Paul described him as "the brother of the Lord" in Galatians 1:19 and as one of the three "pillars of the Church" in 2:9. He is traditionally considered the first of the Seventy Disciples.
Pseudonymous authorship (3 above) implies that the person named "James" is respected and doubtless well known. Moreover, this James, brother of Jesus, is honored by the epistle written and distributed after the lifetime of James, the brother of Jesus.
John Calvin and others suggested that the author was the Apostle James, son of Alphaeus, who is referred to as James the Less. The Protestant reformer Martin Luther denied it was the work of an apostle and termed it an "epistle of straw" as compared to some other books in the New Testament, partly because of the conflict he thought it raised with Paul on the doctrine of justification (see below).
Many scholars consider the epistle to be written in the late 1st or early 2nd centuries:The author introduces himself merely as "a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ" without invoking any special family relationship to Jesus.
The cultured Greek language of the Epistle, it is contended, could not have been written by a Jerusalem Jew. Some scholars argue for a primitive version of the letter composed by James and then later polished by another writer.
The epistle was only gradually accepted into the canon of the New Testament.
Some see parallels between James and 1 Peter, 1 Clement, and the Shepherd of Hermas and take this to reflect the socio-economic situation Christians were dealing with in the late 1st or early 2nd century. It thus could have been written anywhere in the Empire that Christians spoke Greek. There are some scholars who argued for Syria.
Other scholars, such as Luke Timothy Johnson, suggest an early dating for the Epistle of James:
"The Letter of James also, according to the majority of scholars who have carefully worked through its text in the past two centuries, is among the earliest of New Testament compositions. It contains no reference to the events in Jesus' life, but it bears striking testimony to Jesus' words. Jesus' sayings are embedded in James' exhortations in a form that is clearly not dependent on the written Gospels."
If written by James the brother of Jesus, it would have been written sometime before AD 70. Jerusalem would also be the place of writing.
The earliest extant manuscripts of James usually date to the mid-to-late 3rd century.
James is considered New Testament wisdom literature: "like Proverbs and Sirach, it consists largely of moral exhortations and precepts of a traditional and eclectic nature."
The content of James is directly parallel, in many instances, to sayings of Jesus found in the gospels of Luke and Matthew, i.e., those attributed to the Q Source. Compare, e.g., "Do not swear at all, either by heaven...or by the earth....Let your word be 'Yes, Yes' or 'No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one" (Matthew 5:34, 37) and "...do not swear either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your 'Yes' be yes and your 'No' be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation" (James 5:12). According to James Tabor, the epistle of James contains "no fewer than thirty direct references, echoes, and allusions to the teachings of Jesus found in the Q source."
Some view the epistle as having no overarching outline: "James may have simply grouped together small 'thematic essays' without having more linear, Greco-Roman structures in mind." That view is generally supported by those who believe that the epistle may not be a true piece of correspondence between specific parties but an example of wisdom literature, formulated as a letter for circulation. The Catholic Encyclopedia says, "the subjects treated of in the Epistle are many and various; moreover, St. James not infrequently, whilst elucidating a certain point, passes abruptly to another, and presently resumes once more his former argument."
Others view the letter as having only broad topical or thematic structure. They generally organize James under three (Ralph Martin) to seven (Luke Johnson) general key themes or segments.
A third group believes that James was more purposeful in structuring his letter, linking each paragraph theologically and thematically:
James, like the gospel writers, can be seen as a purposeful theologian, carefully weaving his smaller units together into larger fabrics of thought and using his overall structure to prioritize his key themes.
The third view of the structuring of James is a historical approach that is supported by scholars who are not content with leaving the book as "New Testament wisdom literature, like a small book of proverbs" or "like a loose collection of random pearls dropped in no particular order onto a piece of string."
A fourth group uses modern discourse analysis or Greco-Roman rhetorical structures to describe the structure of James.
The United Bible Societies' Greek New Testament divides the letter into the following sections:
Understanding the circumstances of James' writing helps scholars better understand James' organization of the letter. They view the epistle as having a legitimate purpose for its composition, a response to the suffering of its recipients.
A 2013 journal article explores a violent historical background behind the epistle and offers the suggestion that it was indeed written by James, the brother of Jesus, and it was written before AD 62, the year he was killed. The 50s saw the growth of turmoil and violence in Roman Judea, as Jews became more and more frustrated with corruption, injustice and poverty. It continued into the 60s, four year before James was killed. War broke out with Rome and would lead to the destruction of Jerusalem and the scattering of the people. The epistle is renowned for exhortations on fighting poverty and caring for the poor in practical ways (1:26–27; 2:1-4; 2:14-19; 5:1-6), standing up for the oppressed (2:1-4; 5:1-6) and not being "like the world" in the way one responds to evil in the world (1:26-27; 2:11; 3:13-18; 4:1-10). Worldly wisdom is rejected and people are exhorted to embrace heavenly wisdom, which includes peacemaking and pursuing righteousness and justice (3:13-18).
This approach sees the epistle as a real letter with a real immediate purpose: to encourage Christian Jews not to revert to violence in their response to injustice and poverty but to stay focused on doing good, staying holy and to embrace the wisdom of heaven, not that of the world.
It contains the following famous passage concerning salvation and justification:
14What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?15If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
18But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?26For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
That passage has been cited in Christian theological debates, especially regarding the doctrine of justification. Gaius Marius Victorinus (4th century) associated James's teaching on works with the heretical Symmachian sect, followers of Symmachus the Ebionite, and openly questioned whether James' teachings were heretical. This passage has also been contrasted with the teachings of Paul the Apostle on justification. Some scholars even believe that the passage is a response to Paul. One issue in the debate is the meaning of the Greek word δικαιόω (dikaiόο) 'render righteous or such as he ought to be', with some among the participants taking the view that James is responding to a misunderstanding of Paul.
Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy argue that the passage disproves the doctrine of justification by faith alone (or sola fide), The early and many modern Protestants continue to believe that Catholic and Orthodox interpretations do not fully understand the meaning of the term "justification" and resolve the apparent conflict between James and Paul regarding faith and works in alternate ways from the Catholics and Orthodox:
Paul was dealing with one kind of error while James was dealing with a different error. The errorists Paul was dealing with were people who said that works of the law were needed to be added to faith in order to help earn God's favor. Paul countered this error by pointing out that salvation was by faith alone apart from deeds of the law (Galatians 2:16; Romans 3:21-22). Paul also taught that saving faith is not dead but alive, showing thanks to God in deeds of love (Galatians 5:6 ['...since in Christ Jesus it is not being circumcised or being uncircumcised that can effect anything - only faith working through love.']). James was dealing with errorists who said that if they had faith they didn't need to show love by a life of faith (James 2:14-17). James countered this error by teaching that faith is alive, showing itself to be so by deeds of love (James 2:18,26). James and Paul both teach that salvation is by faith alone and also that faith is never alone but shows itself to be alive by deeds of love that express a believer's thanks to God for the free gift of salvation by faith in Jesus.
The epistle is also the chief biblical text for the Anointing of the Sick. James wrote:
14Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.
G. A. Wells suggested that the passage was evidence of late authorship of the epistle, on the grounds that the healing of the sick being done through an official body of presbyters (elders) indicated a considerable development of ecclesiastical organisation "whereas in Paul's day to heal and work miracles pertained to believers indiscriminately (I Corinthians, XII:9)."
The Epistle was first explicitly referred to and quoted by Origen of Alexandria, and possibly a bit earlier by Irenaeus of Lyons as well as Clement of Alexandria in a lost work according to Eusebius, although it was not mentioned by Tertullian, who was writing at the end of the Second Century. It is also absent from the Muratorian fragment, the earliest known list of New Testament books.
The Epistle of James was included among the twenty-seven New Testament books first listed by Athanasius of Alexandria in his Thirty-Ninth Festal Epistle (AD 367) and was confirmed as a canonical epistle of the New Testament by a series of councils in the Fourth Century. Today, virtually all denominations of Christianity consider this book to be a canonical epistle of the New Testament.
In the first centuries of the Church the authenticity of the Epistle was doubted by some, including Theodore, Bishop of Mopsuestia in Cilicia. Because of the silence of several of the western churches regarding it, Eusebius classes it among the Antilegomena or contested writings (Historia ecclesiae, 3.25; 2.23). Jerome gives a similar appraisal but adds that with time it had been universally admitted. Gaius Marius Victorinus, in his commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, openly questioned whether the teachings of James were heretical.
Its late recognition in the Church, especially in the West, may be explained by the fact that it was written for or by Jewish Christians, and therefore not widely circulated among the Gentile Churches. There is some indication that a few groups distrusted the book because of its doctrine. In Reformation times a few theologians, most notably Martin Luther in his early career, argued that this epistle should not be part of the canonical New Testament.
Martin Luther's description of the Epistle of James changes. In some cases, Luther argues that it was not written by an apostle; but in other cases, he describes James as the work of an apostle. He even cites it as authoritative teaching from God and describes James as "a good book, because it sets up no doctrines of men but vigorously promulgates the law of God." Lutherans hold that the Epistle is rightly part of the New Testament, citing its authority in the Book of Concord, however it remains part of the Lutheran antilegomena.