Who Was James?
This Sunday we begin a new teaching series in the letter of James in our 6:30 online services.
James is an intensely practical book, that urges us to live out our faith in Jesus in every area of our lives; our words, our business dealings, the way we manage our diaries, and more. Even the way our heavenly citizenship shapes the way we gather on Sundays as God’s people comes under the microscope!
And while those kinds of gatherings have been put on pause at the moment, spending time in Jams together means that when we can meet together again, if there are things we need to change or sharpen up, because of what God says to us through his Word, we’ll be well-placed to be able to do that.
But who was James? There are at least four men named James in the New Testament, and Acts 1:13 mentions three of the four! These four are the possible contenders for the author of the New Testament letter that carries their shared name.
The last man mentioned in Acts 1:13 is James the father of Judas. He is only ever mentioned in the New Testament to identify his son; calling his son “Judas son of James” meant people wouldn’t confuse him with the Judas who betrayed Jesus. This James doesn’t appear to have had the kind of prominent role in the New Testament church that would lead someone to write a letter like this without further explanation of who he is! So this James is probably not the author of our letter.
Then there’s James son of Alphaeus, one of Jesus’ 12 disciples. He’s sometimes referred to as “James the Younger” probably to distinguish him from the next two men in our list. Somewhat confusingly, his mother also appears to have been named Mary (Mark 15:40)! Although he’s one of the 12, he’s not mentioned in the gospel accounts beyond the lists of the names of the disciples. So again, he’s probably not someone who was recognised as having the kind of authority it would take to write a letter like this; a letter that the author expects his readers to take on board, to obey, and to put into action in their lives.
Then there’s another one of the 12 disciples, James the son of Zebedee, whose brother was John. They were among the very first of Jesus’ followers and were two of Jesus’ closest friends. James and John, along with Peter, were on the mountain with Jesus at the transfiguration, for example, in Matthew 17. So this James is exactly the sort of person who could write a letter like this to the church. Except, Acts 12 tells us that James the son of Zebedee was put to death by King Herod. This happened in 44 AD, a couple of years before this letter was written.
This leaves us with James, the son of Mary and Joseph – Jesus’ half-brother. However it’s not just by a process of elimination that we conclude this James is the author of the letter.
Based on the letter’s language about faith and deeds, it seems to have been written before the meeting in Acts 15 that’s known as the Jerusalem Council, which we know took place between 48 – 50 AD. Other issues that arose in the church in 47 – 48 AD as a result of Gentiles coming to faith in Jesus seem to be absent. There was a famine and significant economic hardship around Jerusalem in 46 (mentioned in Acts 11:28), a context which fits with the economic situation pictured by the author. All this suggests a date of writing in the mid 40s, perhaps 46 AD.
We know that James, Jesus’ brother, lived long enough to have written the letter at this time, since he was killed for his faith in Jesus in AD 61 or 62. And the brother of Jesus was certainly prominent enough and well-respected enough to be able to write like this. In addition, he was one of the leaders in the early church and described as one of the “pillars” of the church, the very kind of person who would write a leader to God’s scattered people. In fact, James was the leader of the whole church in Jerusalem. And the evidence and style of writing, with its very strong Jewish influence, all reflect the ministry of the brother of Jesus.
Of course, while all this can be very interesting, what’s more important is what James (and the Holy Spirit through him) actually says to us in his letter, and how we put that into practice in our lives. As James himself writes, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” James 1:22
I pray that our time in James’ letter together will be a rich and fruitful time for us!