An American Commentary on the New Testament

Edited by Hovey, Alvah

Introduction to the General Epistle of James


The title assumed by our author, "Servant of God and of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1:1), would of itself naturally suggest the conclusion that he was not an apostle, and hence that he must be identified neither with James the son of Zebedee, nor James the Little, the son of Alphgeus — both of whom were upon the apostolic lists — but rather with the James whom the gospels and epistles designate as " the Lord's brother" (Matt. 13:55; Mark 6:3; Gal. 1:19), and who, as appears from the history (Acts 12:17; 15:13 ff.; 21:18 seq.), and also from Paul's testimony (Gal. 2:9), had great influence in the mother-church at Jerusalem. James the Elder, the son of Zebedee, and the brother of John the Evangelist, fell a victim at an early period (about A. D. 42) to his impetuous zeal in propagating the gospel. (Acts 12:2.) Even sooner than he does James, the son of Alphaeus, disappear from the evangelic history, having probably encountered a similar fete in regions remote from Palestine. James, the brother of the Lord, and the brother of Jude (Jude 1), lived, says Hegesippus, until the destruction of Jerusalem was near at hand; and during that period (extending according to Josephus to the year A. D. 63), exercised pastoral authority in the metropolitan church of the Jewish Christians. The Jews recognized him as a righteous man, and tradition gives him the title of "the Just." To this eminent disciple every probability assigns the authorship of the Epistle — a conclusion in which the majority of interpreters are agreed.

Yet there is a pretty general unwillingness to accept the literal statement that this James was the brother of our Lord; the deep-rooted prejudice in favor of the celibacy of the Virgin Mother being the main difficulty in the way.

Hence, some have insisted that James, the Lord's brother, was the same person as James the Little, the son of Alphaeus. They argue that Alphaeus is the Greek form of the Hebrew Cleophas; that Mary, the wife of Cleophas, and the mother of James and Joses (Mark 15:40), was sister to Mary, the mother of Jesus; that James was therefore the cousin of Jesus, and that merely that remoter relationship may be indicated by the title, "Brother of the Lord."

But these positions are not tenable. For, 1. The evidence is not entirely satisfactory that Alphaeus and Cleophas are the same name. 2. It is highly improbable that two sisters should have each had the same name. 3. It i? quite certain that Mary, the wife of Cleophas, was not the sister of Mary, the wife of Joseph. There were four women at the cross of Jesus, one of whom was "his mother's sister." (John 19:25.) She was not named by John, who here displays his characteristic modesty, for she was his own mother, Salome; but this omission is supplied by the other evangelists. (Matt. 27:56; Mark 15:40.) 4. The employment of the title " brother" to indicate a cousin is contrary to usage. The more tender title for such a kinsman could only be used under special circumstances, but by no means as a common designation. 5. And finally, neither James, nor any other of the brothers of Jesus, was ranked among the twelve. " The brothers of Jesus " were distinguished from the apostles, both during the early ministry of our Lord (Matt. 12:46), and after the resurrection, when for the first time they believed on him. (John 7:5; Acts 1:14.) The phraseology of Gal. 1:19 and 1 Cor. 15:7 does not contradict this conclusion — the former of these texts signifying " other of the apostles saw I not, but I saw James," and the latter that Christ appeared not only to James, but to all the apostles.

Other interpreters, however, who recognize James with his brothers and sisters as the members of Mary's immediate family (Matt. 12:46; Luke 8:19), maintain (after Origen) that these were not the children of Mary and Joseph, but the children of the latter by a previous marriage. But this conclusion is also without just grounds, and is plainly dictated by a low idea of the sacredness of the marriage relation, an idea wholly foreign to the inspired writers, and to the Hebrew people. As to the evangelists, they have no hesitation in representing Mary as the wife of Joseph, after the birth of our Lord. For, 1. Jesus is designated as Mary's "first born son," an expression which naturally, if not necessarily, implies that other children followed. 2. It is stated that Joseph "knew not his wife " until after the birth of Jesus (Matt. 1:25), which proves that he did then assume the full conjugal relation. 3. There is nothing whatever to warrant the supposition that Joseph was a widower at the time when he married Mary, or that the brothers and sisters of Jesus were not Mary's children by Joseph. And in this connection it may be added, as Angus shrewdly observes, that if they were Joseph's elder children, Jesus would not have been the heir to David's throne. (Note on Matt. 13:55.) 4. We read of only one wife to Joseph; and it is she who appears as the head of the family, in the circle of their children, the type of the household of the redeemed. (Matt. 12:50.) This common association suggests that Mary was their mother, a conclusion which Lightfoot would negative by the suggestion that our Lord's brethren, being always in the company, and under the direction of Mary, may be explained by the fact that Joseph was already dead. This is not, indeed, impossible; and yet in John 6:42, Joseph seems referred to as then living: "Whose father and mother we know.'' 5. And finally, the main argument upon which Lightfoot relies, that had James been the son of Mary, Jesus would not have committed her to the care of John, does not avail if, as is quite conceivable, John was in a condition to take care of Mary, as James and the other brothers could not. But see Lightfoot on Galatians, Diss. II.


The characteristic qualities of James may to some extent be inferred from the Epistle. That he was a man of culture may be concluded from his easy and generally perspicuous Greek, which, however, is not without a tinge of Hebrew symbolism and sententiousness: and also from the form of the Epistle, which is arranged after the order of a Greek oration, and already affords a type of the modern sermon, having an exordium, a division into three heads which are separately considered, and finally a peroration by recapitulation. Especially do the allusions of James show a familiarity with the ethical books of his people, both the canonical and the apocryphal.

That James had a poetic sympathy with nature is apparent in the number of figures and local allusions which he employs, and which are racy of Palestine. Thus he speaks of the sea in phrases full of expression (1:6; 3:4); of the flowers (1:10); of the fig, the olive, and the vine (3:12); of the fresh and salt springs of his native country (3:11, 12); of the drought (5:17, 18); of the Simoom from the Arabian Desert (1:11); and of the early and the hitter rains. In the changeful objects around him he discerned the types of spiritual and eternal realities.

Further, that our writer was pre-eminently, as he denominates himself, " a servant of God and of our Lord Jesus Christ," appears from the entire tone of his Epistle. He commended faith, heavenly wisdom, and prayer; he urged docility, reticence, and self- control; he insisted upon fraternity, charity, and forgiveness; he proclaimed that a religion which had no restraining influence over the passions and no formative influence over the character and the conduct was utterly worthless in the sight of God. In the spirit, and in not a few of the expressions, of his Epistle, he displays a striking family likeness to that greater preacher who gave the world the sermon on the Mount. James also employs the didactic style, sentences sharply proverbial, and a variety of illustrations and examples, as the best appliances for interesting and instructing the popular mind. He dispensed "wisdom's dole at wisdom's gate." (Prov. 8:34.)


The difficulty of deciding satisfactorily to what class of readers the Epistle was addressed, shows that it belongs to the archaic age of Christianity, when nice distinctions had not yet been established; when the Jews of the Dispersion (1:1) had not yet set themselves against the Lord and his anointed; when the Jewish Christians still recognized their place of worship, as a synagogue (rendered " assembly " in our Version, 2:2) and retained much of the old ritual service (1:27); and when believing Gentiles were regarded as having entered into fellowship with Israel, just as the proselytes had been recognized as Jews. The age was chaotic. The light shone in the darkness and the darkness comprehended it not. These peculiar circumstances explain the indeterminateness of the address. Those whom James had mainly in view were, beyond all question, Jewish Christians, who had been begotten through the word of truth (1:18); who had exercised faith in Christ (2:1, 14); and had been baptized into his name (2:7); and whose hope in persecution was fixed upon the coming of the Lord (5:7). But, in the address, James comprehended others also. With a love that followed his people in their estrangements, and with a prescient hope that many of them would be convicted of sin through their own violated law, and be brought to repentance and salvation, he addressed his Epistle to the Jews of the Dispersion, the twelve tribes whose nationality was now broken up. He appealed to the rich among them, who largely belonged to the sect of the Sadducees, and had control of the civil power which they employed against the poor Christians, and he urged them to the exercise of justice and humanity. He attacked the barren orthodoxy of the Pharisees, who supposed that their knowledge of God sufficed for salvation, and whose teachings were not without a pernicious influence upon the Christians themselves. And he corrected the false estimates of the worth of that mere ceremonial worship, which prevailed extensively among all classes. In short, the Epistle, as it had the character, had also the scope of a sermon.

Not only the salutation (1:1; comp. Matt. 15:24; 1 Peter 1:1), but also the similarity of the themes discussed, and even of the expressions used, show that the author of this Epistle had in view the same classes of persons to whom our Lord preached, and to whom the First Epistle of Peter was addressed. They also illustrate the character and condition of these persons, by presenting the themes most familiarly insisted, upon by the. earliest preachers of Christianity.

To the Sermon on the Mount, the allusions of James are distinct and frequent: Compare 1:2, on joy in trial, with Matt. 5:12; James 1:4, on Christian perfection, with Matt. 5:48; James 1:5; 5:15, on prayer, with Matt. 7:7-12; James 1:9; 4:11, on the exaltation of the lowly, with Matt. 5:3, 4; James 1:20, on the wrath of man, with Matt. 5:22; James 2:13, on judgment without mercy, with Matt. 6:14, 15; 5:7; James 2:14, on faith without works, with Matt. 7:21-23; James 3:17, 18, on peaceful and gentle wisdom, with Matt. 5:9; James 4:7, on friendship with the world, with Matt. 6:24; James 4:11, on censorious judgments, with Matt. 7:1-5; James 5:2, on perishing riches, with Matt. 6:19; James 5:10, on the endurance of the prophets, with Matt. 5:12; James 5:12, on swearing, with Matt. 5:33-37.1

On the other hand, Peter as freely repeats the language and thought of James, as the latter quotes from the Sermon on the Mount. Compare 1:2, on joy in temptations, with 1 Peter 4:12, 13; James 1:11, on the withering grass and fading flowers, with 1 Peter 1:24; James 1:18, on spiritual birth, with 1 Peter 1:3, which supplements it; James 1:21, on amendment of life and growth in knowledge, with 1 Peter 2:1; James 2:7, on blaspheming the name of Christ, with 1 Peter 4:14, where this is instanced in the reproach of Christ's people; James 3:13, on commending the gospel by good conduct, with 1 Peter 2:12; James 4:1, on the lusts warring within, with 1 Peter 2:11; James 4:6, on God's dealings with the proud and the humble, with 1 Peter 5:5, 6; James 4:7, on submitting to God and resisting the devil, with 1 Peter 5:6-9; James 4:10, on humility and exaltation, with 1 Peter 5:6; and, finally, James 5:20, on hiding a multitude of sins, with 1 Peter 4:8, which explains the statement. In some of these instances of parallelism the two writers doubtless drew from the common source indicated above. On the relation of the two Epistles, Van Oosterzee remarks: "The twofold tendency of the Epistles of Peter, consolation and exhortation, is, in the Epistle of James, blended into one." " N. T. Theol.," § 31, 6.


The primary design of the Epistle was to encourage holy living amid the peculiar temptations and trials to which the Jewish Christians were exposed. Hence, whatever considerations were calculated to produce patient steadfastness, unworldliness, and mutual serviceableness were earnestly insisted upon; those offences which disturbed the purity and peace of the churches were sternly reprobated; and, in particular, the abuse of the doctrines of Divine Sovereignty as related to sin, and of salvation by faith, was emphatically condemned. On the other hand, the oppressors of Christians were denounced for their injustice, and were threatened with speedy retribution. The homiletical character of the Epistle allowed easily of such changes of address. The letter was sent to the care of no special church or group of churches. It is a catholic, or general. Epistle; it was intended to be multiplied and circulated as widely as possible, so that it might correct improprieties in the growing and poorly-supplied churches, and instruct the minds and consciences of individual believers.


From the style and contents of the Epistle, we may infer that it was the first of this class of New Testament writings — a place which it holds in the oldest manuscripts. Compare Stanley's "Apostolic Age," p. 290. There are, however, but few indications to fix the date of composition. It was written, probably, but not certainly, when the disciples were already called Christians (2:7, A. D. 43?), and hence, after the establishment of the Christian Church at Antioch. (Acts 11:26.) The knowledge of the gospel was already widely extended. Various churches had now been established, with their elders and places of worship. (5:14; 2:2.) Troubles had begun to arise from the ambition of the teachers (3:1), as well as from the oppressions of wealthy and powerful persecutors. (2:6; 5:1-6.) From this last circumstance it may be concluded that the Christian communities of those days consisted mostly of the laboring poor. The Epistle certainly belongs to the early Apostolic Age, and nothing in its contents contradicts the judgment of Neander, that its date precedes the time when separate Gentile churches were formed, before the relation of Jews and Gentiles in the Christian Church had been brought under discussion. Most modern interpreters and historians assign it to the year 45. So Alford. Nor is there any ground to question the prevaling opinion that this letter to the Tribes of the Dispersion was written at Jerusalem.


The most important evidence of the authenticity of this Epistle is its reception into the Peshito, the venerable Syriac Version of the New Testament, which was made in the second century, and in a region lying beside Palestine. The Syrian, Ephrem, also quotes from it, ascribing it to James, the brother of the Lord. It is alluded to in that ancient Christian document, "The Shepherd," of Hermas, and is cited by Clement of Rome, Irenĉus, Origen, and others of the early Christian writers. When the claims of the Epistle were considered at the Council of Nice, in the fourth century, all doubt as to its canonical authority was set at rest, and it was received as an inspired writing both by the Eastern and the Western churches. At the Reformation, the question as to its claims was revived by Erasmus, Luther, and others, and has, from time to time, been recalled by subsequent Christian writers. The main argument against the authenticity of the Epistle is, however, theological — the apparent contradiction between the doctrine of James and that of the Apostle Paul. But this difficulty clearly belongs to the department of interpretation, rather than that of historical evidence, and should be left for adjustment to the interpreter. An able contribution to the discussion has been made by Neander, who argues that there can be no discrepancy between the two writers, Paul and James; since, without having any reference to each other, they addressed different classes of people from different standpoints, using, however, the same familiar examples: and the great Expositor precisely indicates the position of this Epistle among the other and later writings of the New Testament, when he says of James, that "he received the new spirit under the old forms." How the doctrinal objections to the Epistle are to be met, will be most satisfactorily shown in the exposition of the texts in which these difficulties are found. The great body of interpreters agree in recognizing the authorship of James, and the integrity of the Epistle in its component parts.

The doubt entertained by many (like Eusebius), at first, in regard to the canonical character of the Epistle is explained, not only by the seeming opposition in doctrine between Paul and James — a circumstance to which reference has already been made — but by the fact that the Epistle was specially committed to the charge of Jewish Christians, who were separated to some extent from the other believers; and also that James, although a brother of the Lord, and a man of apostolic weight, was not an apostle. Yet, as Pluther shrewdly remarks, "These circumstances, while they interferred with the general reception of the Epistle at the first, add to the historic value of the ancient testimonies when it was accepted finally. " The distinction between this Epistle and the spurious writings which claimed an apostolic origin is marked. The latter contain matters false and foolish — contrary either to the proprieties of providence, or to the truth of doctrine or history; the former is characterized by a self-evidencing truth, solemnity, and majesty beseeming a message from the King of kings. Among the writers of the New Testament, James held a place and displayed a character closely resembling those of John the Baptist among the heralds of the New Dispensation.


The Analysis of this Epistle is rendered difficult by two circumstances. 1. The style is sententious and proverbial, resembling that of the Sermon on the Mount, to which the author makes frequent allusion. 2. The themes discussed are so related to each other that they here and there overlap the author's divisions; so that subjects, which have their own appropriate place in the argument, are sometimes resumed and sometimes anticipated. Yet the plan is, in its main outlines, regular and even rhetorical; having an Introduction, or Theme, with its Divisions, which are considered in their order, and a Practical Conclusion, in which the argument is recapitulated.

Introduction. — The persons addressed and the occasion of the Epistle. (1:1-18.)

1. Greeting. To the Jews of the Dispersion, in especial those of them who had been converted to Christianity. (Ver. 1.)

2. Occasion. The trials and temptations of his readers, whom he exhorts to steadfast, patient, and prayerful endurance. (Ver. 2-18.)

1) Exhortation to cheerful steadfastness under trials. (Ver. 2-12.)

a. Amid conflicts and afflictions believers have reason to rejoice. (Ver. 2-4.)

b. Superiority to affliction may be secured by prayer. (Ver. 5-8. )

c. Another help to heroic steadfastness is a just estimate of the conditions of life, and also of the results of trials borne in a Christian spirit. (Ver. 9-12.)

2) Exhortation to cheerful steadfastness under temptations to sin. (Ver. 13-18.)

a. Argument from the nature of God. (Ver. 13.)

b. From the experiences of men under temptation. (Ver. 14, 15.)

c. From the divine dispensation. (Ver. 16-18.)

Theme and Division. — Characteristics of patient and godly sufferers. They must be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath. (Ver. 19, 20.)

I. Division. — Amid their trials and temptations, the godly should be swift to hear. This theme James develops by showing what is involved in the reception of the divine word, and by replying to the Antinomian objection to his proposition so far as the preceptive part of the word is concerned. (1:21-2:26.)

1. The word must be received as the inner law. (Ver. 21.)

2. And as the ride of life. (Ver. 22-25.)

3. The speech must be regulated by it. (Ver. 26.)

4. And the social intercourse. (1:27-2:1 3. )

a. In society the gospel enjoins a ritual service of charity. (Ver. 27.)

b. In the church it is the principle of fellowship. (2:1-9.)

c. It sanctions all the precepts of the Second Table of the Law. (Ver. 10, 11.)

d. And enforces them by the decisions of the final judgment. (Ver. 12, 13.)

5. Refutation of the objection that faith by itself suffices. (Ver. 14-26.)

a. Saving faith is practical. (Ver. 14.)

b. Worthlessness of an'inoperative faith (ver. 15-17):to the needy (ver. 15, 16) to the professor of it. (Ver. 17.)

c. True faith must have works (ver. 18-26):else there is no evidence of its existence (ver. 18); nor any strength and blessedness in the experience of professors. (Ver. 19). Confirmation from Abraham's example (ver. 20-24); and Rahab's. (Ver. 25, 26.)

II. Division. — Amid trials and temptations, the godly should be slow to speak. Warning against sins of the tongue, and the collisions and offences to Christian charity and fellowship thence arising. (3:1-12.)

1. Those transgressing in this particular will be severely judged. (3:1, 2.)

2. Grounds of the judgment. (Ver. 3-12.)

a. The wonderful power of the tongue. (Ver. 3-6.)

b. The power of man, Nature's lord, to rule it. (Ver. 7-12.)

III. Division. — Amid trials and temptations, the godly should be slow to wrath, and also its kindred impulsive passions. (3:13; 4:17.)

1. Gentleness and moderation of Christian wisdom depicted. (3:13-18.)

2. Warning against the sway of the passions. (4:1-17.)

a. Their evil consequences (ver. 1-3):they engender strife (ver. 4:1), they are illusory (ver. 2), and they deprive prayer of its efficacy (ver. 3).

b. Ungodliness of the passions (ver. 4-6):they involve enmity to God (ver. 4), and oppose his word (ver. 5, 6).

c. Means to overcome these desires. (Ver. 7-10.)

d. Warning against the presumption they inspire (ver. 11-17): in men's estimates (ver. 11, 12), in their secular projects (ver. 13-17).

Conclusion. — Duties of the tempted and tried recapitulated and reinforced. (5:1-20.)

1. Swiftness to hear. (Ver. 1-11.) Let them heed the assurances of the word in regard to the speedy end of all their present complications: the future it forecasts for prosperous wickedness (ver. 1-6), and for afflicted piety (ver. 7-11).

2. Slowness to speak. (Ver. 12-18.) Let them use the gift of the tongue piously, hence, not in swearing (ver. 10), but in prayer (ver. 13-18), which must be seasonable (ver. 13), intercessory (ver. 14-16), and trustful (ver. 16-18).

3. Slowness to wrath. (Ver. 19, 20.) Let Christ's people, instead of contending with injurious men, seek to save them.

Note. — It would perhaps be esteemed a display of pedantry should the writer of this brief Commentary give a list of the numerous works consulted in its preparation. He needs only say that he has availed himself of the aid afforded by the best authorities, and has used all the diligence in coming to correct conclusions which a career of manifold occupation would allow. Yet he must be permitted to express his special obligations to the learned labors of Winer in the department of New Testament grammar, of Huther in interpretation, and of Lisco in analysis. He is also indebted to Bengel's fruitful hints, and Johnstone's and Pluniptre's popular expositions, and, among historical works, to Neander's " Planting and Training of the Church," and to Stanley's "Sermons and Essays on the Apostolic Age." Only the necessarily contracted limits of the present work have prevented its author's drawing more largely from these rich stores. And he must add, in conclusion, that he has derived no little encouragement and aid from the scholarly criticisms and acute suggestions of Prof Thomas J. Dill, of Howard College, who must, however, be held, in no respect, as responsible for the conclusions to which the author has arrived.



1) Athanasius states that the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew was translated into Greek by James, the Bishop of Jerusalem. Tom. II., p. 102, Stanley's "Sermons and Essays," p. 291 n.