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Letter of James |
The Unique letter from James

Letter of James is drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 119, of Volume One, The Veil is Torn of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit Books.TheChristians.com.

Could this be the earliest book in the New Testament?

Letter of James - The Unique letter from James

Letter of James – The Unique letter from James

Most historians agree that the first-written book in the New Testament was Paul’s Epistle to the Thessalonians. But not all. Some believe that the letter written by James, the stepbrother or half brother of Jesus, could very well be the earliest book, and in fact may have been written within a dozen years of Jesus’ death.

Certainly James’s letter is unique in several respects. It is the least “doctrinal” of any of the letters in the New Testament. Moreover, it is exceedingly “Jewish,” in that it echoes the language of the prophets and the Old Testament’s book of Proverbs. Finally, it consists almost solely of advice on how Jesus’ Jewish followers ought, and ought not, to live, a seeming manual for Christian conduct.

James takes a hard line, for instance, on the matter of suffering and adversity. When temptations enter your life, says James, “don’t resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends. Realize that they come to test your faith and produce in you a quality of endurance.” Such troubles “will enable you to become men of mature character, men of integrity, with no weak spots” (James 1:2 ff. JBP).

The disciple of Christ should not desire wealth, so that God can raise him to “true riches,” while the man who is rich here “will wither away like the summer flowers,” James warns. Disciples should also learn to distinguish between trials and temptation. Trials are sent by God to strengthen us, whereas “a man’s temptation is due to the pull of his own inward desires which greatly attract him” (James 1:10—14).

“Don’t merely hear the message, but put it into practice,” says James. “If anyone appears to be religious, but cannot control his tongue, he deceives himself, and we may be sure that his religion is useless” (James 1:26). The tongue is like the rudder on a ship. Though it is a very small device, it can move the whole vessel. So the tongue, by what it does, “can poison our whole body, set the whole life ablaze and feed the fires of hell” (James 3:4—6).

“Religion that is pure and genuine in the sight of God the Father will show itself by such things as visiting orphans and widows in their distress and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world” (James 1:27).

Neither should Jesus’ disciples defer to mere wealth. The poor man in rags should be shown just as much consideration and respect as the rich man with fine jewelry and costly clothes. Had they not noticed, James asks, that God chooses poor men, not rich, to carry his message (James 2:1—5)?

It’s also important that Christians not be given to making great plans, because God at any moment could call them to their deaths. They should be patient and honest, sharing their joys and concerns with other believers and, above all, helping their brothers to keep the faith, for when they do so, this will “cover a multitude of sins.”

James is certain that jealousy and conflict will arise among Christians. The question is, what should they do about these rivalries? “What do you suppose [such feuds] come from? Can’t you see they arise from conflicting desires for pleasure within yourselves?” (James 4:1) The answer: “Come close to God and he will come close to you. . . . Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord [and] he will lift you up” (James 4:7—10).

Christians have periodically argued over whether James’s letter should be included in the New Testament at all. For one thing, it is much shorter than most of Paul’s letters, other than the purely pastoral ones to Philemon, Timothy and Titus. For another, James was not of the original Twelve. And again, did James the Just actually write it, or was it another James, or did someone write it on his behalf?

Most important, however, as Martin Luther would argue in the sixteenth century, James’s letter appears to be written in contradiction of Paul’s teaching on faith. It raises the question: Which matters most? The depth of our faith and how loyally we believe? Or what we do as the result of what we believe, our “works”? Halfway through his letter, James discredits the validity of “faith” if it is not accompanied by “works.” He asks, “So you believe there is one God? That’s fine. So do all the devils in hell, and shudder in terror. For my dear, shortsighted man, can’t you see far enough to realize that faith without right actions is dead and useless?”

Since this seems a clear contradiction of Paul’s emphasis on faith, many have proposed that James wrote his letter to contradict Paul. However, if it was written earlier, say in the forties, this would place it before Paul’s ministry, so it could hardly have been written to contradict Paul.

This became a major issue among some Christians when Luther, stoutly arguing that faith was ultimately what mattered, attacked James’s letter as “an epistle of straw” and regarded its inclusion in the New Testament as a mistake. The British Evangelical theologian Donald Guthrie (New Testament Introduction. London: Intervarsity Press, 1975) argues that the epistle represents the thinking of many of Jesus’ followers at a time the faith was being established. It is not at all clear that James wrote to correct Paul, he observes. Perhaps Paul wrote to correct James. We don’t really know who wrote first.

Some, however, like the twentieth-century scholar C. S. Lewis, concluded that the argument of faith-versus-works was flawed, since one would not go far without the other. “It’s like trying to decide which blade of a pair of scissors is most important,” said Lewis.

More recently, some theologians, such as New York Evangelical Spiros Zodhiates (The Epistle of James and the Life of Faith. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1966), have come to see Paul and James not as face-to-face in dispute with one another, but as back-to-back defending the same cause of Christ against different opponents–James against backsliders whose conduct belied their professed faith, Paul against legalists who saw conforming to the Jewish Law as that which would save their souls.

If any one demonstrated himself proof against both errors, it was James himself. In his heroically defiant death, he left an example that all Christians through all ages would admire (see sidebar, Chapter 8, p. 234).

This is the end of the Letter of James category article drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 119, of Volume One, The Veil is Torn. To continue reading more about Letter of James from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at Books.TheChristians.com