Called by Eusebius (H. E. 2:23; A.D. 330) the first of the catholic (universal) epistles, i.e. addressed to the church in general; not, as Paul's letters, to particular churches or individuals. In the oldest manuscripts except the Sinaiticus manuscript they stand before Paul's epistles. Two were "universally acknowledged" (homologoumena, Eusebius): 1 Peter and 1 John. All are found in every existing manuscript of the whole New Testament. The epistle of James, being addressed to the scattered Israelites, naturally was for a time less known. Origen, who lived between A.D. 185 and 254, first expressly mentions it (Commentary on John, Joh 1:19). Clement of Rome quotes from it a century earlier (1 Ep. to Cor. 10: Jam 2:21-23). The Shepherd of Hermas soon after quotes Jam 4:7. Irenaeus (Haer. 4:16, section 2). refers to Jam 2:23.
The old Syriac version has it and the Epistle to Hebrew alone of the books which were "disputed" (antilegomena, Euseb. 3:2) yet "acknowledged by the majority" (Euseb.). No Latin father of the first three centuries quotes it. It is specified as canonical both in the East and West in the councils of Hippo and Carthage, A.D. 397. Known only partially at first, it subsequently obtained a wider circulation; and the proofs becoming established of its having been recognized in apostolic churches, which had men endowed with the discernment of spirits to discriminate inspired utterances from uninspired (1Co 14:37), it was universally accepted. The Old Testament Apocrypha is a different case; the Jewish church had no doubt about it, they knew it to be not inspired. Luther's objection ("an epistle of straw, destitute of evangelical character") was due to his thinking that James 2 was opposed to Paul's doctrine of justification by faith not works.
The two viewing justification from distinct standpoints harmonize and mutually complement each other's definitions. By "works" James means love, which is the spirit of true "works" such as God accepts; for he compares "works" to "the spirit," "faith" to "the body." In Jam 2:26, "as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also," if mere outward deeds were meant, "works" would answer to "the body," "faith" to "the spirit." His reversing this proves he means by "faith" the form of faith without the working reality. Such "faith" apart from (Greekchooris) the spirit of faith, which is LOVE (and love evidences itself in works) is dead; precisely the doctrine of Paul also: 1Co 13:2; Gal 5:6, "faith which worketh by love" (its spirit). So also Jam 2:17; "faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone"; presumed faith, if it have not works, is dead, being by itself (Greek for "alone"), i.e. severed from its spirit, love; just as the body would be "dead" if severed from the spirit.
Paul speaks of faith in its justifying the sinner before God; James in its justifying the believer evidentially before men. Ver. 18, show me (evidence to me) thy faith without thy works, but thou canst not, whereas "I will show thee my faith by my works." Abraham was justified by faith before God the moment he believed God's promise (Gen 15:6). He showed his faith, and so was justified evidentially before men, by his offering Isaac 40 years afterward. The tree shows its life by fruits, but is alive before either leaves or fruits appear.(See FAITH) In Jam 2:23 James recognizes, like Paul, that Abraham's "faith was imputed unto him for righteousness." James meets the Jews' false notion that their possession of the law, though they disobeyed it, and their descent from Abraham and notional belief apart from obedience, would justify (an error which Paul also combats, Rom 2:17-25; compare Jam 1:22).
James in Jam 1:3; Jam 4:1; Jam 4:12, accords with Rom 5:3; Rom 6:13; Rom 7:23; Rom 14:4. Coincidence with the Sermon on the Mount. James's specialty was so to preach the gospel as not to disparage the law which the Jews so reverenced. As Paul's epistles unfold the doctrines flowing from the death and resurrection of Christ, so James's epistle unfolds His teaching during His life, and is a commentary on the Sermon on the Mount. Both represent the law as fulfilled in love; the language corresponds: Jam 1:2 with Mat 5:12; Jam 1:4 with Mat 5:48; Jam 1:5; Jam 5:15 with Mat 7:7-11; Jam 2:13 with Mat 5:7; Mat 6:14-15; Jam 2:10 with Mat 5:19; Jam 4:4 with Mat 6:24; Jam 4:11 with Mat 7:1-2; Jam 5:2 with Mat 6:19.
He teaches the same gospel righteousness which the sermon on the mount inculcates as the highest realization of the law. His character as "the just," or legally righteous, disposed him to this coincidence (Jam 1:20; Jam 2:10; Jam 3:18 with Mat 5:20), and fitted him for both presiding over a church zealous of the law, and winning Jewish converts, combining as he did in himself Old Testament righteousness with evangelical faith, Jam 2:8 with Mat 5:44; Mat 5:48.
Practice, not profession, is the test of acceptance (Jam 2:17; Jam 4:17 with Mat 7:21-23). Sins of tongue, lightly as the world regards them, seriously violate the law of love (Jam 1:26; Jam 3:2-18 with Mat 5:22). So swearing: Jam 5:12 with Mat 5:33-37. Object: Persons addressed. The absence of the apostolic benediction favors the view that the epistle, besides directly teaching the believing, indirectly aims at the unbelieving Israelites also. To those he commends humility, patience, prayer; to these he addresses awful warnings (Jam 5:7-11; Jam 4:9; Jam 5:1-6). The object is:
(1) To warn against prevalent Jewish sins: formalism as contrasted with true religious "service" (threskeia, cult); the very ritual "services" of the gospel consist in mercy and holiness (compare Jam 1:27 with Mat 23:23; Mic 6:7-8); in undesigned coincidence with James's own decision against mere ritualism at the council, as recorded in the independent history (Act 15:13-21); against fanaticism which, under the garb of religious zeal, was rending Jerusalem (Jam 1:20); fatalism (Jam 1:13); mean crouching to the rich (Jam 2:2); evil speaking (Jam 3:3-12; Jam 4:11); partisanship (Jam 3:14); boasting (Jam 2:5; Jam 4:16); oppression (Jam 5:4).
(2) To teach Christians patience in trial (Jam 1:2), in good works (Jam 1:22-25), under provocation (Jam 3:17), under oppression (Jam 5:7), under persecution (Jam 5:10). The motive for patience is the Lord's speedy coming to right all wrong (Jam 5:8, Meyrick in Smith's Dictionary). In Jam 5:14 James writes, "Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church"; not some one, as Rome interprets it, to justify her extreme unction. The elders praying for him represent the whole church, "anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord." This sign accompanied miraculous healings wrought by Christ's apostles. To use the sign now, when the reality of miraculous healing is gone, is unmeaning superstition.
Other apostolic usages are discontinued as no longer expedient (1Co 11:4-15; 1Co 16:20), so unction of the sick: Rome anoints to heal the soul where life is despaired of; James's unction was to heal the body where life is to be preserved. Oil as sign of divine grace was appropriate in healing. Inspiration. In Act 15:28 he joins with the other apostles, elders, and brethren, in writing," it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us," etc. Peter, the apostle of the circumcision, tacitly confirms the inspiration of the first president of the Jerusalem church, with whose Jewish sympathies he had much in common, by incorporating with his own inspired writings ten passages from James (compare Jam 1:1 with 1Pe 1:1; Jam 1:2 with 1Pe 1:6; 1Pe 4:12-13; Jam 1:11 with 1Pe 1:24; Jam 1:18 with 1Pe 1:3; Jam 2:7 with 1Pe 4:14; Jam 3:13 with 1Pe 2:12; Jam 4:1 with 1Pe 2:11; Jam 4:6 with 1Pe 5:5-6; Jam 4:7 with 1Pe 5:6; 1Pe 5:9; Jam 4:10 with 1Pe 5:6; Jam 5:20 with 1Pe 4:8).
The style. Its pure Greek shows it was meant not only for the Jerusalem Jews but for the Hellenists, i.e. Greek-speaking Jews. The style is curt and sententious, gnome succeeding gnome. A Hebraic character prevails, as the poetic parallelisms show (Jam 3:1-12). The Jewish term "synagogue" (Jam 2:2. margin) is applied to the Christian "assembly." The images are covert arguments from analogy, combining logic with poetical vividness. Eloquence, terse and persuasive, characterizes this epistle. Its palpable similarity to Matthew, the most Hebraic of the Gospels, is what we might expect from the president of the Jerusalem church when writing to Israelites.
In this epistle, the Old Testament law is put in its true relation to Christianity which brings out its inner spirit, love manifesting itself in obedience of heart and life. The Jews were zealous for the letter of the law, but what the gospel insists on is its everlasting spirit. Paul insists on this as much as James (2Co 3:6-18). The doctrines of grace and justification by faith, so prominent in Paul's teaching to the Hellenists and Gentiles, are in the background in James as having been already taught by that apostle. To the Jewish Christians, who kept the legal ordinances down to the fall of Jerusalem, James sketches the "perfect" man, "continuing" in the gospel "law of liberty" (because it is the law of love).
Taken from: Fausset's Bible Dictionary by Andrew Robert Fausset (1821-1910)