This letter was written by James (in Hebrew, ‘Jacob’), the brother of Jesus (see Matthew 13:55), who initially misunderstood the nature of Jesus’s mission (see John 7:2-5), but became the leader of the Jerusalem church shortly after Jesus’s death and resurrection in 30AD (see Acts 1:14 & 12:17). He was one of the few people to whom Jesus appeared on his own after the resurrection (see 1 Corinthians 15:7).
Paul, on his first visit to Jerusalem after his conversion, visited James and his wife in 38AD (see Galatians 1:19 & 1 Corinthians 9:5), and did the same on his last visit to Jerusalem in 57AD (see Acts 21:18). James was known to the early Christians as ‘James the Righteous’, and Paul refers to him as one of the ‘pillars’ of the church (see Galatians 2:9).
It was James who chaired the Council of Jerusalem in 49/50AD, and sent the letter to the believers in Antioch in Syria explaining the leaders’ decision that Gentile believers need not be circumcised (see Acts 15:12-21).
James chaired the Council of Jerusalem in 49/50AD
James was unlawfully stoned to death by followers of the High Priest Ananus – a Sadducee – in c.62AD, during the interregnum between the death of the Roman governor Festus and the arrival of his successor Albinus.
The Letter of James was written shortly after the persecution of the Jewish believers in Jerusalem, and following their dispersal throughout Judaea and Samaria, to Phoenicia, Cyprus and to Antioch in Syria following Stephen’s death in 35AD (see Acts 8:1, 11:19, James 1:1 and Map 17). This makes it the earliest of all the New Testament writings, including the gospels.
The many references to Jewish scriptures and traditions suggest that it was written when the early Christian church was still predominantly Jewish. It makes no reference to the later controversy over circumcision, discussed at the Council of Jerusalem in 49/50AD (see Acts 15:1-34 & Galatians 2:1-10), and uses the word ‘synagogue’ (Greek ‘synagoge’) to describe the meeting or meeting-place of the early Christian believers (see James 2:2).
As the letter was written by someone skilled in Greek, it’s quite possible that James (like Peter – see 1 Peter 5:12) asked one of his Greek-speaking fellow believers to express his thoughts for him in a formal letter.
The letter is written to all Jewish Christians who, under persecution, have been scattered ‘among the nations’ (see James 1:1). It provides guidance for everyday living in accordance with Christian attitudes and beliefs, and stresses the need for practical actions to accompany faith in Jesus Christ.
Standing firm under persecution
James 1:1 James sends greetings to all the Jewish Christians (literally, ‘members of the twelve tribes of Israel’) who have been “scattered everywhere in the world” (James 1:1).
James 1:2-8 He urges them to stand firm under persecution and to endure all kinds of troubles. He tells them to pray for wisdom, and encourages them not to doubt that the Lord will answer their prayers.
James 1:9-12 James warns against relying on riches for security – because riches can easily fall away, like flowers wilt and fall off a beautiful plant. But anyone who remains faithful under persecution will receive a ‘crown of life’ from God.
James 1:13-18 Those who are tempted should not blame God, because no evil comes from him; only good gifts come from heaven.