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Epistle of Saint James

Letter attributed to saint commonly identified with the Lord's brother

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James, EPISTLE OF Saint.—The questions concerning this Epistle are treated in the following order:—I. Author and Genuineness; II. Tradition as to the Canonicity; III. Analysis and Contents of the Epistle; IV. Occasion and Object; V. To whom addressed; VI. Style; VII. Time and Place of composition.


The author is commonly identified with the Lord’s brother, the Bishop of Jerusalem (see James the Less, Saint; the view that the Lord’s brother must be identified with James, the son of Alpheus, is by far the most probable). Internal evidence (contents of the Epistle, its style, address, date, and place of composition) points unmistakably to James, the Lord’s brother, the Bishop of Jerusalem, as the author; he exactly, and he alone, fulfills the conditions required in the writer of the Epistle. External evidence begins at a comparatively late date. Some coincidences, or analogies, exist between the Epistle and the Apostolic Fathers (Clement of Rome, the Pastor Hernias, St. Justin, St. Irenaeus; see Mienertz, “Der Jacobusbrief”, Freiburg im Br., 1905, p. 55 sqq.). The literary relation between the Epistle of James and the Epistle to the Romans is doubtful. Its later recognition in the Church, especially in the West, must be explained by the fact that it was written for Jewish Christians, and therefore not widely circulated among the Gentile Churches. From the middle of the third century, ecclesiastical authors cite the Epistle as written by St. James, the brother of the Lord. See the testimonies in the section following. The greater number of the Fathers in the Western Church identify the author with James the Apostle. In the Eastern Church, however, the authority of Eusebius and St. Epiphanius may explain some ecclesiastical doubts about the Apostolic origin of the Epistle, and consequently about its canonicity.


In the first centuries of the Church the authenticity of the Epistle was doubted by some, and amongst others by Theodore of Mopsuestia; it is therefore deuterocanonical. It is wanting in the Muratorian Canon, and because of the silence of several of the Western Churches regarding it, Eusebius classes it amongst the Antilegomena or contested writings (Hist. eccl., III, xxv; II, xxiii); St. Jerome gives the like information (De vir. ill., ii), but adds that with time its authenticity became universally admitted. In the sixteenth century its inspired character was contested by Erasmus and Cajetan; Luther strongly repudiated the Epistle as “a letter of straw”, and “unworthy of the apostolic Spirit“, and this solely for dogmatic reasons, and owing to his preconceived notions, for the Epistle refutes his heretical doctrine that Faith alone is necessary for salvation. The Council of Trent dogmatically defined the Epistle of St. James to be canonical. As the solution of this question of the history of the canonicity of the Epistle depends chiefly on the testimony of the ancient Fathers, it remains to be seen whether it is quoted by them as Scripture. (a) In the Latin Church it was known by St. Clement of Rome (before A.D. 100), the Pastor Hernias (about A.D. 150), St. Irenaeus (125?-202?, 208), Tertullian (d. about 240), St. Hilary (d. 366), St. Philaster (d. 385), St. Ambrose (d. 397), Pope Damasus (in the canon of about A.D. 382), St. Jerome (346-420), Rufinus (d. 410), St. Augustine (430), and its canonicity is unquestioned by them. (b) In the Greek Church, Clement of Alexandria (d. 217), Origen (d. 254), St. Athanasius (d. 373), St. Dionysius the Areopagite (about A.D. 500), etc., considered it undoubtedly as a sacred writing. (c) In the Syrian Church, the Peshito, although omitting the minor Catholic Epistles, gives that of St. James; St. Ephraem uses it frequently in his writings. Moreover, the most notorious heretics of Syria recognized it as genuine. Thus we find that Nestorius ranked it in the Canon of Sacred Books, and James of Edessa adduces the testimony of James, v, 14. The Epistle is found in the Coptic, Sahidic, Ethiopic, Arabic, and Armenian versions. Although, therefore, the canonicity of the Epistle of St. James was questioned by a few during the first centuries, there are to be found from the very earliest ages, in different parts of the Church, numerous testimonies in favor of its canonicity. From the end of the third century its acceptance as inspired, and as the work of St. James, has been universal, as clearly appears from the various lists of the Sacred Books drawn up since the fourth century.


The subjects treated of in the Epistle are many and various; moreover, St. James not un-frequently, whilst elucidating a certain point, passes abruptly to another, and presently resumes once more his former argument; hence it is difficult to give a precise division of the Epistle. It is doubtful whether the sacred writer intended any systematic arrangement of subject; indeed, it is more probable that he did not, for in the Hebrew Sapiential Books of the Old Testament, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Ecclesiasticus, to which the present Epistle may in many ways be likened, the order in which the moral sentences stand does not seem to suggest any connection between them. It will therefore be more expedient to give a simple enumeration of the subjects treated of in the Epistle:—Inscription (i., 1); persecutions are to be borne with patience and joy (2-4); wisdom must be asked of God with confidence (5-8); humility is recommended (9-11); God is not the author of evil but of good (12-18); we must be slow to anger (19-21); not faith only, but also good works are necessary (22-27). Against respect of persons (ii, 1-13); another exhortation to good works (14-26). Against the evils of the tongue (iii, 1-12); against envy and discord, 13-18. Against wars and contentions (iv, 1-3); against the spirit of this world and pride (4-10); against detraction (11-13a); against vain confidence in worldly things (13b-16). Against the rich that oppress the poor (v, 1-6); exhortation to patience in the time of oppression (7-11), and to avoid swearing (12); of the anointing of the sick (13-15); of prayer (16); we must have at heart the conversion of sinners (19-20). This enumeration shows that St. James inculcates especially: patience and perseverance in adversity, temptations, and persecutions; the necessity of good works, mercy, and charity. For the question of apparent opposition between St. James and St. Paul with regard to “faith and works” see Epistle to the Romans.


A. Occasion

St. James seems to have been moved to write his Epistle on witnessing that the first fervor of the Jewish Christians had grown cold, and that, owing to various causes, both external and internal, a certain spirit of discouragement had declared itself amongst them.

(1) External Causes

The new Christian converts found themselves at first the object of the indifference only of their fellow townsfolk, the greater number of whom still remained in unbelief; but this attitude very soon changed to one of hostility and even of persecution. These early converts, belonging as they mostly did to the poorer classes, found themselves oppressed by the wealthy unbelievers; some were refused employment, others were denied their wages (v, 4); at other times they were mercilessly dragged before the tribunals (ii, 6); they were persecuted in the synagogues, and were, besides, reduced to extreme want and even starvation (ii, 15-17).

(2) Internal Causes

In the midst of these trials the faith of many began to languish (ii, 14, 20, 26), and the evil ways they had abandoned at their conversion were gradually indulged in once more. Thus it came to pass that the poor were despised in the sacred assemblies (ii, 1-9); there were breaches of brotherly charity (ii, 7); some arrogated to themselves the office of teacher who were unfitted (iii, 1, 13); many were guilty of detraction and other sins of the tongue (iii, 1-12; iv, 11-13); there were contentions and lawsuits (iv, 1-2); some indulged in swearing (v, 12); others neglected assiduous prayer (v, 13, 17-18); pride and vainglory were yielded to (iv, 6-10); even some of the sacred rites seem to have been overlooked (v, 14-16). Such were the evils that the Epistle sought to remedy.

B. Object

St. James wrote his Epistle for a moral purpose, and addressed his co-religionists as their pastor, in his quality of Bishop of Jerusalem, in order: (1) to exhort them to constancy in the faith in spite of the persecutions and trials they were undergoing, and to give them comfort in their tribulations; (2) to correct the abuses and extirpate the evils amongst them, by urging them to make their conduct conformable to their faith, and by earnestly reminding them that faith alone would not save them unless they added good works.


St. James wrote his Epistle to the Jewish Christians outside Palestine, who, for the greater part, were poor and oppressed. This we gather with certitude from the inscription (i,1), and from various indications in the text.

A. The words, i, 1, “to the twelve tribes” can mean the whole Jewish nation; but the words following, “which are scattered abroad”, designate clearly the Jews of the Dispersion. The Jews in Palestine, surrounded by Gentiles, were not considered as “scattered abroad”. That he addressed the Jewish Christians only becomes evident by the fact that the author styles himself “the servant of God, and of our Lord Jesus Christ“, and by this title he indicates clearly that he writes to the disciples of Christ only.

B. That the readers were Jewish appears still more evidently from the Epistle itself. St. James takes for granted that those whom he addressed were well versed in the writings of the Old Testament. Moreover, he calls them not only his “brethren”, which name taken by itself does not remove all doubt, but he so clearly shows them to be Christians that it is incomprehensible how any critics understand unconverted Jews to be the “brethren” to whom the Epistle was written. Thus in i, 18, he writes to those whom God “of his own will hath begotten by the word of truth, that they might be some beginning of his creature”; in ii, 1, he admonishes them as follows: “My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ of glory with respect of persons”; in ii, 7, he refers to them when he writes of “the good name [of Christ] that is invoked upon you”; in v, 7, they are to be patient “until the coming of the Lord”; etc. Further proof is afforded by the date of composition.

C. The context does not reveal who were the particular Jewish converts, to whom the Epistle was addressed. We gather, however, that St. James appeals to certain Christians, laboring under the stress of peculiar circumstances, in order to warn them against special perils; no one will easily admit that the vices against which he inveighs and the errors he condemns were to be met with in each and every community of Jewish converts. Therefore the conclusion that he addressed some particular Churches forces itself upon our minds. As, according to the most probable opinion, the Epistle was not written later than about A.D. 50, we may conclude that it was written to some of the Churches of Syria or of another country not far distant from Jerusalem.


The style is sententious, figurative, often poetical, and may be compared to that of the Prophetical and Sapiential Books of the Old Testament. It is rapid, betrays emotion, and is not wanting in those vehement outbursts of feeling customary with the writers of that period, and which so power-fully set the force of the argument before the reader. It has already been noticed that the different sentences of the Epistle may be divided into hemistichs of parallel meaning; this is quite in keeping with the distinctly Hebraic style of the whole Epistle; it is a well known fact that the classical period is not found in Hebrew, but that the short members of a proposition are continually in juxtaposition.


A. Time

The Epistle was probably written about A.D. 47. The reference to the persecutions (ii, 6) is in the present tense, and indicates a stage of suffering which has not yet receded into the past of history. Now, in A.D. 44 the Churches of Judea were exposed to the persecution inflicted by Herod Agrippa, in which James, the son of Zebedee, was murdered (Acts, xii, 1 sqq.). Moreover, the author could not have written after the Council of Jerusalem (A.D. 51), where James acted as president, without some allusion to his decision unanimously accepted (Acts, xv, 4 sqq.). Another indication, also derived from indirect internal evidence, is an allusion to the hungry and naked poor (of Jerusalem, ii, 15 sqq.); they suffered probably from the famine foretold by Agabus (Acts, xi, 28-30), and usually identified with one mentioned in Josephus (Antiq., XX, ii, 5), A.D. 45.

B. Place of Composition

The Epistle was probably written by St. James in Jerusalem; this we may conclude from the study of the life of the author (see James the Less, Saint), and this opinion finds favor with nearly all its critics.


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