This is called by Eusebius ([Ecclesiastical History, 2.23], about the year 330 A.D.) the first of the Catholic Epistles, that is, the Epistles intended for general circulation, as distinguished from Paul's Epistles, which were addressed to particular churches or individuals. In the oldest manuscripts of the New Testament extant, they stand before the Epistles of Paul. Of them, two only are mentioned by Eusebius as universally acknowledged (Homologoumena), namely, the First Epistle of Peter, and the First Epistle of John. All, however, are found in every existing manuscript of the whole New Testament.
It is not to be wondered at that Epistles not addressed to particular churches (and particularly one like that of James, addressed to the Israelite believers scattered abroad) should be for a time less known. The first mention of James' Epistle by name occurs early in the third century, in Origen [Commentary on John 1:19, 4.306], who was born about 185, and died A.D.254. Clement of Rome ([First Epistle to the Corinthians, 10]; compare Jas 2:21, 23; [First Epistle to the Corinthians, 11]; compare Jas 2:25; Heb 11:31) quotes it. So also Hermas [Shepherd] quotes Jas 4:7. Irenæus [Against Heresies, 4.16.2] is thought to refer to Jas 2:23. Clement of Alexandria commented on it, according to Cassiodorus. Ephrem the Syrian [Against the Greeks, 3.51] quotes Jas 5:1. An especially strong proof of its authenticity is afforded by its forming part of the old Syriac version, which contains no other of the disputed books (Antilegomena, [Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.25]), except the Epistle to the Hebrews. None of the Latin fathers before the fourth century quote it; but soon after the Council of Nicea it was admitted as canonical both by the East and West churches, and specified as such in the Councils of Hippo and Carthage (397 A.D.). This is just what we might expect; a writing known only partially at first, when subsequently it obtained a wider circulation, and the proofs were better known of its having been recognized in apostolic churches, having in them men endowed with the discernment of spirits, which qualified them for discriminating between inspired and uninspired writings, was universally accepted. Though doubted for a time, at last the disputed books (James, Second Peter, Second and Third John, Jude, and Revelation) were universally and undoubtingly accepted, so that no argument for the Old Testament Apocrypha can be drawn from their case: as to it the Jewish Church had no doubt; it was known not to be inspired.
Luther's objection to it (|an Epistle of straw, and destitute of an evangelic character|) was due to his mistaken idea that it (Jas 2:14-26) opposes the doctrine of justification by faith, and not by works, taught by Paul. But the two apostles, while looking at justification from distinct standpoints, perfectly harmonize and mutually complement the definitions of one another. Faith precedes love and the works of love; but without them it is dead. Paul regards faith in the justification of the sinner before God; James, in the justification of the believer evidently before men. The error which James meets was the Jewish notion that their possession and knowledge of the law of God would justify them, even though they disobeyed it (compare Jas 1:22 with Ro 2:17-25). Jas 1:3; 4:1, 12 seem plainly to allude to Ro 5:3; 6:13; 7:23; 14:4. Also the tenor of Jas 2:14-26 on |justification,| seems to allude to Paul's teaching, so as to correct false Jewish notions of a different kind from those which he combatted, though not unnoticed by him also (Ro 2:17, &c.).
Paul (Ga 2:9) arranges the names |James, Cephas, John,| in the order in which their Epistles stand. James who wrote this Epistle (according to most ancient writers) is called (Ga 1:19), |the Lord's brother.| He was son of Alpheus or Cleopas (Lu 24:13-18) and Mary, sister of the Virgin Mary. Compare Mr 15:40 with Joh 19:25, which seems to identify the mother of James the Less with the wife of Cleopas, not with the Virgin Mary, Cleopas' wife's sister. Cleopas is the Hebrew, Alpheus the Greek mode of writing the same name. Many, however, as Hegesippus [Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 23.1], distinguish the Lord's brother from the son of Alpheus. But the Gospel according to the Hebrews, quoted by Jerome, represents James, the Lord's brother, as present at the institution of the Eucharist, and therefore identical with the apostle James. So the Apocryphal Gospel of James. In Acts, James who is put foremost in Jerusalem after the death of James, the son of Zebedee, is not distinguished from James, the son of Alpheus. He is not mentioned as one of the Lord's brethren in Ac 1:14; but as one of the |apostles| (Ga 1:19). He is called |the Less| (literally, |the little,| Mr 15:40), to distinguish him from James, the son of Zebedee. Alford considers James, the brother of the Lord, the author of the Epistle, to have been the eldest of the sons of Joseph and Mary, after Jesus (compare Mt 13:55), and that James the son of Alpheus is distinguished from him by the latter being called |the Less,| (that is, junior). His arguments against the Lord's brother, the bishop of Jerusalem, being the apostle, are: (1) The Lord's brethren did not believe on Jesus at a time when the apostles had been already called (Joh 7:3, 5), therefore none of the Lord's brethren could be among the apostles (but it does not follow from Joh 7:3 that no one of them believed). (2) The apostles' commission was to preach the Gospel everywhere, not to be bishops in a particular locality (but it is unlikely that one not an apostle should be bishop of Jerusalem, to whom even apostles yield deference, Ac 15:13, 19; Ga 1:19; 2:9, 12. The Saviour's last command to the apostles collectively to preach the Gospel everywhere, is not inconsistent with each having a particular sphere of labor in which he should be a missionary bishop, as Peter is said to have been at Antioch).
He was surnamed |the Just.| It needed peculiar wisdom so to preach the Gospel as not to disparage the law. As bishop of Jerusalem writing to the twelve tribes, he sets forth the Gospel in its aspect of relation to the law, which the Jews so reverenced. As Paul's Epistles are a commentary on the doctrines flowing from the death and resurrection of Christ, so James's Epistle has a close connection with His teaching during His life on earth, especially His Sermon on the Mount. In both, the law is represented as fulfilled in love: the very language is palpably similar (compare Jas 1:2 with Mt 5:12; Jas 1:4 with Mt 5:48; Jas 1:5; 5:15 with Mt 7:7-11; Jas 2:13 with Mt 5:7; 6:14, 15; Jas 2:10 with Mt 5:19; Jas 4:4 with Mt 6:24; Jas 4:11 with Mt 7:1, 2; Jas 5:2 with Mt 6:19). The whole spirit of this Epistle breathes the same Gospel-righteousness which the Sermon on the Mount inculcates as the highest realization of the law. James's own character as |the Just,| or legally righteous, disposed him to this coincidence (compare Jas 1:20; 2:10; 3:18 with Mt 5:20). It also fitted him for presiding over a Church still zealous for the law (Ac 21:18-24; Ga 2:12). If any could win the Jews to the Gospel, he was most likely who presented a pattern of Old Testament righteousness, combined with evangelical faith (compare also Jas 2:8 with Mt 5:44, 48). Practice, not profession, is the test of obedience (compare Jas 2:17; 4:17 with Mt 7:2-23). Sins of the tongue, however lightly regarded by the world, are an offense against the law of love (compare Jas 1:26; 3:2-18 with Mt 5:22; also any swearing, Jas 5:12; compare Mt 5:33-37).
The absence of the apostolic benediction in this Epistle is probably due to its being addressed, not merely to the believing, but also indirectly to unbelieving, Israelites. To the former he commends humility, patience, and prayer; to the latter he addresses awful warnings (Jas 5:7-11; 4:9; 5:1-6).
James was martyred at the Passover. This Epistle was probably written just before it. The destruction of Jerusalem foretold in it (Jas 5:1, &c.), ensued a year after his martyrdom, A.D.69. Hegesippus (quoted in Eusebius [Ecclesiastical History, 2.23]) narrates that he was set on a pinnacle of the temple by the scribes and Pharisees, who begged him to restrain the people who were in large numbers embracing Christianity. |Tell us,| said they in the presence of the people gathered at the feast, |which is the door of Jesus?| James replied with a loud voice, |Why ask ye me concerning Jesus the Son of man? He sitteth at the right hand of power, and will come again on the clouds of heaven.| Many thereupon cried, Hosanna to the Son of David. But James was cast down headlong by the Pharisees; and praying, |Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,| he was stoned and beaten to death with a fuller's club. The Jews, we know from Acts, were exasperated at Paul's rescue from their hands, and therefore determined to wreak their vengeance on James. The publication of his Epistle to the dispersed Israelites, to whom it was probably carried by those who came up to the periodical feasts, made him obnoxious to them, especially to the higher classes, because it foretold the woes soon about to fall on them and their country. Their taunting question, |Which is the door of Jesus?| (that is, by what door will He come when He returns?), alludes to his prophecy, |the coming of the Lord draweth nigh ... behold the Judge standeth before the door| (Jas 5:8, 9). Heb 13:7 probably refers to the martyrdom of James, who had been so long bishop over the Jewish Christians at Jerusalem, |Remember them which have (rather, 'had') the rule (spiritually) over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God; whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation.|
His inspiration as an apostle is expressly referred to in Ac 15:19, 28, |My sentence is,| &c.: |It seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us,| &c. His episcopal authority is implied in the deference paid to him by Peter and Paul (Ac 12:17; 21:18; Ga 1:19; 2:9). The Lord had appeared specially to him after the resurrection (1Co 15:7). Peter in his First Epistle (universally from the first received as canonical) tacitly confirms the inspiration of James's Epistle, by incorporating with his own inspired writings no less than ten passages from James. The |apostle of the circumcision,| Peter, and the first bishop of Jerusalem, would naturally have much in common. Compare Jas 1:1 with 1Pe 1:1; Jas 1:2 with 1Pe 1:6; 4:12, 13; Jas 1:11 with 1Pe 1:24; Jas 1:18 with 1Pe 1:3; Jas 2:7 with 1Pe 4:14; Jas 3:13 with 1Pe 2:12; Jas 4:1 with 1Pe 2:11; Jas 4:6 with 1Pe 5:5, 6; Jas 4:7 with 1Pe 5:6, 9; Jas 4:10 with 1Pe 5:6; Jas 5:20 with 1Pe 4:6. Its being written in the purest Greek shows it was intended not only for the Jews at Jerusalem, but also for the Hellenistic, that is, Greek-speaking, Jews.
The style is close, curt, and sententious, gnome following after gnome. A Hebraic character pervades the Epistle, as appears in the occasional poetic parallelisms (Jas 3:1-12). Compare |assembly|: Greek, |synagogue,| Jas 2:2, Margin. The images are analogical arguments, combining at once logic and poetry. Eloquence and persuasiveness are prominent characteristics.
The similarity to Matthew, the most Hebrew of the Gospels, is just what we might expect from the bishop of Jerusalem writing to Israelites. In it the higher spirit of Christianity is seen putting the Jewish law in its proper place. The law is enforced in its everlasting spirit, not in the letter for which the Jews were so zealous. The doctrines of grace, the distinguishing features of Paul's teaching to the Hellenists and Gentiles, are less prominent as being already taught by that apostle. James complements Paul's teaching, and shows to the Jewish Christians who still kept the legal ordinances down to the fall of Jerusalem, the spiritual principle of the law, namely, love manifested in obedience. To sketch |the perfect man| continuing in the Gospel law of liberty, is his theme.