The Scandal of partiality in the Epistle of James

Part 5: Authorship

In the prescript of the letter the author merely identifies himself as James, “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” This self-designation raises the question of James’ identity.[1]

Several schools of thought abound with regards to the identity of this James, because several people bearing the name abound in Scripture[2]. Traditionally authorship of this epistle has commonly been attributed by Church Fathers such Jerome, to James the brother of Jesus.[3]

This is the one whom the Apostle Paul designated as “the brother of the Lord” (Gal. 1:19), who also appears other places in the New Testament as the leader of the early church in Jerusalem. Internal evidence seems to support this view. The author’s knowledge of synoptic tradition is not surprising in one who was a close relative of Jesus and became his disciple.[4] Verse 1 of the epistle shows James stating his office as  “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” here James puts forward to whose authority he is speaking from but also implying that it is not of his own accord that he is writing to his audience, but of his Lord Jesus Christ,  while at the same time implicitly shows his Jewish roots by speaking of the “twelve tribes in the Dispersion” to which he is writing to and later on in the passage he would refer to as his brothers (Jas. 1:16).

However, this self-designation and the Church’s tradition of naming this James as the brother of Jesus raises more questions with James’ identity since  the author of this epistle never acknowledges any fraternal relationship to Jesus, his apostolic commission or role, or his authority with respect to the churches of whom he writes. Since referring to any of these relationships or roles would likely have strengthened the authority of the epistle, the absence of any such reference does raise questions about his identity. [5]

Also the epistle exhibits cultured Greek language, to which scholars contend, could not have been written by a Jerusalemite Jew[6]. As authors like Harrington argue that: it is not easy to accept that a man of James’ background, with his necessarily superficial contacts with Hellenism, could write such good Greek; in this respect the author of the epistle is not surpassed by any other New Testament writer[7]. Although, such an argument has lost much force as recent insight into Greek influence on Judea at the time has come to light[8].

It is also plausible that the letter in Greek could have been composed with a secretary, as Jerome argued as it is also quite possible that a primitive version of a letter composed by James himself which was later polished by another writer[9].

Given the weight of the ostensibly differing viewpoints with regards to the identity of the author of the Epistle I tend to lean towards the standpoint that the identity of this “James” is uncertain; and that it proves abortive to equate him with any James known in the New Testament as it seems quite possible that the author is merely Jewish Christian teacher who bore this name[10]. I tend to uphold this stance as the author’s reticence may actually give us a clue to his identity. There terseness of his self-identification as “James” suggests that he could simply call himself “James” and expect immediate recognition of his identity[11].

For what is important about the identity of this James is already given in the prescription: a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. Moreover, the appropriation of the text and its meaning compels me to take the authorship as it was stated in the immediate context of the text over the ascription of church tradition –that is the author is simply James a follower of Jesus Christ.

 


[1] Achtemeier, Paul et al. Introducing the New Testament: Its Literature and Theology p.492
[2] Among the many people who bore the name is James the Son of Alpheus, also called “the less”, “the minor”, “the little”, “the lesser”, or “the younger”, according to translation who appears in Mark 15:40 as “James the younger and of Joses”. There is also James, son of Zebedee, one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus and the brother of John the Apostle. Lastly there is James the Just James, the Brother of the Lord, and the first Bishop of Jerusalem, he is the one commonly attributed by church tradition to have written the epistle.
[3] Jerome wrote: “He it is of whom the apostle Paul writes to the Galatians that “No one else of the apostles did I see except James the brother of the Lord,” and shortly after the event the Acts of the Apostles bear witness to the matter. The Gospel also which is called the Gospel according to the Hebrews,  and which I have recently translated into Greek and Latin and which also Origen  often makes use of, after the account of the resurrection of the Saviour says, “but the Lord, after he had given his grave clothes to the servant of the priest, appeared to James (for James had sworn that he would not eat bread from that hour in which he drank the cup of the Lord until he should see him rising again from among those that sleep)” and again, a little later, it says “‘Bring a table and bread,’ said the Lord.” (De Viris Illustribus 2)

De viris illustribus (English: On Illustrious Men) is a collection of short biographies of 135 authors, written in Latin, by Jerome in the 4th century CE. An English translation of it can be accessed via The New Advent Online Catholic Encyclopaedia [http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2708.htm]

[4] Harrington, Wilfrid. Keys to the Bible Vol. 3  p 140
[5] Achtemeier, Paul et al. Introducing the New Testament: Its Literature and Theology p.492
[6] Reisner, Rainer.  Oxford Bible Commentary ed. Barton, John and Muddiman, John, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001) p.1256
[7] Harrington, Wilfrid. Keys to the Bible Vol. 3 p 140
[8]Reisner, Rainer.  Oxford Bible Commentary p.1256
[9] Ibid
[10] Fujita, Neil. Introducing the Bible p.188
[11] Achtemeier, Paul et al. Introducing the New Testament: Its Literature and Theology p.492
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