Here we undergo the methodology of the commentary, the authorship of the book, and why it is in the Canon.
Note: This article was written before the author’s conversion to Orthodoxy.
This book has been exegeted so many times, so why do it again?
It is my hope that the work I put forward is useful to all readers of the Scripture. As all good interpreters ought to do, and I strive to even approach them, it is my intention to explain not the doctrines of any denomination, or my own ideas, but rather to explain what the original author himself was trying to convey. Therefore, I will be paying careful attention to the internal logic of the letter and the passages the said letter quotes in support of its own ideas.
My method of exegesis is not profound, but it is worth noting that I undertake what I would like to call a historical approach. I read the passage and based upon grammar and logic arrive at a conclusion as to its meaning. Then, I take the interpretation and bring it to my jury of great Christian men throughout history to see if it holds water.
I am confident that God stays true to His promise in John 16:13–”But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth.” God does not tarry with His promises. Hence, the obvious intentions of the Biblical offer, as I see it, should have been understood throughout the ages.
Therefore, I don’t just look at a few 20th century interpreters. I start by looking all the way back to the Church Fathers, my main source being Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament Volume XI. When appropriate, I will add additional page numbers to help readers find references. Sadly, the earliest sources start in the fourth century. For example, Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, and Hilary of Arles all made extensive comments of the Epistle. In the middle ages, Bede wrote a commentary on the Catholic Epistles and also proves to be an invaluable source. Past this point in history I have not been able to find any commentaries by the scholastic theologians in the late middle ages. Aquinas, for example, did not write a commentary, though he quoted several passages in the Summa Theologica. For my Reformation-Era interpreters I will be relying on John Calvin and Matthew Henry’s Commentary (the Book of James was interpreted by a contemporary preacher after his death and added to the commentary). It is my hope that spanning about 1700 years of what men of God have had brought to bear on the topic, that we will have a sufficient understanding of what the Book of James intended to say.
The authorship of the book is still something we are not entirely sure about. The book begins: “James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” He otherwise gives no indication of family relation or anything else which might help us know which James he is.
The Bible speaks of three different men named James:
- James the son of Zebedee, brother of John (Matt 4:21). He died in Acts 12:2. Most people have said this is too early for him to have written the Epistle. However, if the historical occasion of its writing was the stoning of Stephen and the subsequent fleeing of most Christians from Jerusalem, it is a possible contention.
- James the son of Alphaeus (Matt 10:3), one of the twelve disciples. Perhaps also identified with James the Less in Mark 15:40. Not much more is known about him.
- James the “brother” (Adelphos) of Jesus Christ Himself (Matt 13:55), otherwise known as “James the Just,” due to his traditional reputation for upholding the Jewish Law. The brothers of Jesus are mentioned several times in the Scripture (Matt 12:48, Acts 1:14, 1 Cor 9:5). In the Greek, the term usually means full-blooded brothers and there exists no other way in which to communicate this meaning in the Greek. For example, in Matt 22:24 the Sadducees question Jesus on levirate marriage and the term they use for the man marrying his deceased brother’s wife is “adelphos.” So, we certainly have reason to believe that adelphos means full-blooded brother in Biblical usage. However, in the early Church the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity led to different understandings. Eusebius wrote that he was the “son of Joseph,” presumably from an earlier marriage (History, Book 2, Chap 1, Par. 2).
History shows us that James became Bishop of Jerusalem and he was martyred at the hands of aggressive Sadducees. Eusebius writes, quoting the Jewish historian Josephus:
Josephus, at least, has not hesitated to testify this in his writings, where he says, These things happened to the Jews to avenge James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus, that is called the Christ. For the Jews slew him, although he was a most just man…Ananus, therefore, being of this character, and supposing that he had a favorable opportunity on account of the fact that Festus was dead, and Albinus was still on the way, called together the Sanhedrin, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ, James by name, together with some others, and accused them of violating the law, and condemned them to be stoned (History, Book 2, Chap 23, Par. 21 and 23).
The manuscripts that we have of Josephus’ Antiquities appears to closely follow Eusebius’ paraphrase:
Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king [Agrippa], desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified (Book 20, Chapter 9).
It is worth noting that Eusebius actually seems to be preserving a more accurate rendering of Josephus, as he retains the term “so-called” which makes more sense coming from the hand of a Jewish writer. Further, both accounts preserve the accusation against James: that he broke the Law. Being that they waited to bring this accusation against him, we may assume that they did so falsely.
Now, which of these three men wrote the letter? It might have been none of them. Generally, the writers of the New Testament Scripture were one of the twelve disciples of Christ. However, Paul is a notable exception to this. We may refine our contention and say all the writers of the New Testament have seen the risen Christ. However, Luke, Jude, and possibly Mark and the author of Hebrews are exceptions to this as well. So, we must conclude that ultimately the authority of a Scripture does not rest upon the man who penned it, but rather the God who inspired and spoke through the author.
This being said, it seems easiest to presume that James the Brother of Christ wrote the Epistle. For one, from Acts 12:17 to Gal 2:12 he is undisputably the only James mentioned in the Bible. He apparently had a position of prominence in the Jerusalem Church. Further, we may infer from Jude 1 that he is referred to again, as Jude identifies himself simply as the brother of James. He does not say either Alphaeus or Zebedee is his father, and another James would not carry such authority to use as an identifier. Second, the content of the letter appears to revolve around correct religious practice (orthopraxy), something that we know the real James brother of Jesus was concerned about. Hence, we may safely assume that he is the author of the Epistle.
Canonicity of James
The Epistle of James for whatever reason did not have the unanimous acceptance of the early Church.
These things are recorded in regard to James, who is said to be the author of the first of the so-called catholic epistles. But it is to be observed that it is disputed; at least, not many of the ancients have mentioned it, as is the case likewise with the epistle that bears the name of Jude, which is also one of the seven so-called catholic epistles. Nevertheless we know that these also, with the rest, have been read publicly in very many churches (History, Book 2, Chap 23, Par. 25).
In fact, all the Catholic Epistles (the letters written by all the Apostles other than Paul) all seemed to lack the unanimous acceptance of the Church. That is not to say that for some of these letters we do not have exceedingly early attestations. We have reason to believe that Papias (early second century Father of questionable orthodoxy, though Irenaeus accepted him) was acquainted with Revelation and Clement quoted 2 Peter. However, for whatever reason, these works otherwise did not circulate as widely as Paul’s and the Gospels did. We are not sure why. My speculation is that Paul had more ardent followers and the words of Christ were obviously important, so they were more widely copied and disseminated. The ancient churches that received the Catholic Epistles were largely in Asia Minor and Israel itself, and likely felt no need to disseminate the letters between other churches as there were no instructions to do so. Paul in Colossians mentions how they should read the letter that was sent to Laodicea, so we have reason to believe he wanted his letters copied and circulated.
Nonetheless, while certain letters of Paul’s (Laodicea, other letters to Corinth) and sayings ascribed to Jesus (as recorded by Papias) have been lost to history, God has made sure that what He has spoken to man in the Scripture has been preserved.
As for the Book of James, it has amongst the earliest attestations of all the books of the New Testament. A phrase from James 2:23 pertaining to Abraham being called a “friend of God” is quoted in 1 Clem 10 and Ignatius’ Epistle to the Magnesians, Chapter 10. The earliest explicit citation of another part of the book is in Irenaeus (Against Heresies, Book 4, Chapter 16, Par. 2). He wrote towards the end of the second century and also considered the Shepherd of Hermas as Canon (which was written only a couple of decades earlier). Clement might have been familiar with the Book as evidenced by 1 Clem 10, though I think it is more likely he has Heb 11 in mind. Origen quoted the letter extensively, but voiced some doubt of its authenticity in his commentary on Genesis. The book is missing from the Muratorian Fragment, which is the earliest recorded Canon.
Many Church Fathers felt the tug of its authority, but had problems with its lesser circulation or its supposed contradiction with Paul’s doctrine of justification. For example, Codex Vaticanus (which might have been a Bible commissioned by Constantine) and the Council of Laodicea (360 AD) lack the book as part of their Canons. Even as late as the mid fourth century, notable figures such as Victorinus said James “may also be in heresy” writing that, “Paul could not have learned anything from James (obviously, because he has a different conception of the gospel)” (comments on Gal 1:19).
By the late fourth century James finally gained mass acceptance, but there was not a single moment in time where the book had attained the universal acceptance of the Church.
Some people think the wide dissemination of the Vulgate, which included the book, did the trick. However, the Vulgate itself did not replace the Old Latin in mass usage until the sixth century. Rather, in the West, the book found its widest acceptance in the Council of Carthage in 419, where Augustine was the main force behind their findings. They found that the Deuterocanonical works were Scripture and affirmed the 27 book New Testament. Until the Council of Trent, no other Council addressed the issue of Canon. Certain New Testament books (specifically Hebrews) sometimes had their detractors over the centuries, but not to the extent of the Deuterocanon.
It appears that in the East, Athanasius’ endorsement of a 27 book Canon (though Revelation is not read liturgically in the Eastern Orthodox Church to this day)proved pivotal though full acceptance for the Book of James dragged on for another century. In fact, in the farthest reach of the Church in the East, James and other books still lacked full acceptance until the 6th century
In all, the issue of Canon has never fully been settled. There has always been a “fallible list of infallible books” in the words of R.C. Sproul. Generally, we recognize Scripture based upon the fact that the majority of Christians have always recognized that a certain set of books are Scripture. I believe this corresponds with Calvin’s contention that, in the words of Milton Fisher, “the Spirit of God bears witness to each individual in any age of Church history as to what is His Word and what is not” (p. 75, The Origin of the Bible).
When we try to make hard and fast criteria as to what constitutes Scripture and what does not, we find ourselves either adhering to the Council of Carthage in the fourth century (for the 73 book Canon) or one of many Protestant councils in the 16th century and on (for the 66 book Canon). Obviously, both pose us with problems as the Canons include or exclude books that many Christians over time would have not included or excluded. Some Protestants argue that the Jews safeguard what is Scripture and hypothesize that there was a Council of Jamnia that settled the issue in the first century.
The problem is, this Council was not really a council. In the Talmud that at Jamnia they were arguing over whether Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs should be included in the Canon. Other books were not part of the discussion. The fact that these books were in doubt after the time of Christ shows that within Judaism, the issue of Canon was unclear, just as it is unclear in Christian history. Further, we know of the ancient Jews (Philo, Josephus) endorsing books like Ecclesiasticus (or as they call it “Ben Sira”) and Wisdom of Solomon. The Jewish tradition that there are 22 books in the Hebrew Scriptures for each letter in the Hebrew alphabet obviously leads to some interesting math, and doubt over which books would be conflated under the number reserved for Solomon’s/the wisdom literature.
It is also worth noting that the New Testament does not entirely settle the issue either. Not every book of the Hebrew Scriptures are quoted in the New Testament. It is interesting to note that when the Deuterocanon is quoted in the New Testament, the introductory clause “it is written” is not used. For example, let’s compare 1 Cor 10:20 to Baruch 4:7–
…the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God…
…those things that are sacrificed to idols are sacrificed to devils…
Obviously, Paul made a profound statement that at least theologically, did not originate with him. However, he merely paraphrased Baruch instead of quoting it as Scripture. In the Book of Romans, several of his profound examples appear to be paraphrased from Wisdom of Solomon.
|Wisdom of Solomon||Romans|
|Surely vain are all men by nature, who are ignorant of God, and could not out of the good things that are seen know him that is: neither by considering the works did they acknowledge the workmaster (13:1).||…the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen (1:18-20).|
|But executing thy judgments upon them by little and little, thou gavest them place of repentance (12:10).||Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance (2:4)?|
|…He fashions out of the same clay both the vessels that serve clean uses and those for contrary uses (15:7).||…does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use (9:21)?|
|The imperfect branches shall be broken off, their fruit unprofitable, not ripe to eat, yea, meet for nothing (4:5).||You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in” (11:9).|
This is not the only part of the Scripture that relies heavily on extra-canonical sources. Jude quotes the Apocryphal Book of Enoch, ascribing it to him, and he also quotes the Assumption of Moses. Christians generally have not accepted these books, though the Ethiopian Orthodox view Enoch as Canonical.
So, even the Scripture’s quoting or lack of quoting of a book can be a measure for knowing whether or not a book makes it in the Canon. Ultimately, the Christian is thrust into Calvin’s position of “the sheep hear His voice.” We recognize the Scripture when we read and hear it. We are amazed by the miraculous theological consistency between authors spanning over the centuries in such a way we must conclude it comes from the hand of God. It is my contention, that when we read James, the profundity of his teaching and its consistency with the corpus of Scripture should lead us to no other conclusion.