An Exegesis of the Book of James

The striking “Jewishness” of the book of James in the New Testament demands debate. Such debate is required to properly grasp the origins of an emerging church which was seeking at every turn to distinguish itself from established faiths and political order within the First and Second Centuries of the Common Era. An era where polytheism, minority monotheism, Christianity, and disjointed Jewish sects were all competing among an imperially-unified populace is the context needed to begin such a debate.

If now included in what is the most important Testament to the Christian canon, why does James stand out as a document wherein “almost none of the ideas in the book [James] is uniquely Christian” (Bart D. Ehrman, The new testament, page 447)? While the origin of the epistle has been taken up by two schools of secular thought—those who purport that it was from its execution a Christian text, written for a Christian community, and those that argue it was merely a Jewish ethical text “Christianized” for a certain occasion of turmoil in a Christian community—the present author is inclined to support the latter claim (Ehrman, 446-447). The thesis for the present, brief dissertation will be to argue that James was “Christianized” for some reason, with an explanation for such sought herein.

The methodological problems complicating this analysis are the fluidity of Christian self-identification at the time of the writing of James and the scarcity of reference to the identities of Christ himself or Paul—the spiritual and practical “founders” of the Christians—in the book. For a book which has for thousands of years been alongside others considered essential to Christian teaching, these two things make James rather difficult for any scholar to dissect utilizing any one of the established methods of academic Biblical criticism—redactional, literary-historical, and otherwise.

Since Ehrman is a contemporarily-recognized authority on such an issue, and since it will be crucial to examine at some depth the primary text of James itself, an amalgam of these methods will be required, though through such course of study, it must always be kept in mind that the two aforementioned issues are very real in context. By the termination of this discussion, the reader should be aware that whoever created the text of James was creating it in the most pseudepigraphical manner and that he or she did so to syncretize beliefs. The only question which perhaps can never be answered is why this syncretization was required, or if it even was necessary.

The form of the book of James commences undoubtedly as that of a letter, but quickly into its course deviates from such structure, never returning to it, and because of this, cannot with surety be said to be a letter, or, more accurately, a single letter. However, the language throughout does not deviate severely enough to indicate the cutting and pasting of multiple epistles to form the final product. Could it be that the author of James never had clear sight of his or her intentions when writing? Surely this can not be the case, but it does beg the scholar to consider what the focus of the author was visibly: the exhortation of various proverbs of sorts, especially if the document is not a true letter—nearly all of which, as mentioned, have been confirmed not to be Christian in origin.

Then, it must be that the author of James was preoccupied either copying the proverbs from some now-unknown source, or that he or she was primarily concerned with delivering them to a community or elite possessed of some existing familiarity with the same, but not entirely obedient to them. This community had to not be Christian, if a familiarity is assumed, and Ehrman has confirmed that the proverbs are not uniquely Christian. Starting at this point, the present analysis will proceed.

Was James writing to a broad community or to limited elite? According to the various notes to the book of James in its New Revised Standard Version translation, the original manuscripts of the peculiar document actually nearly always address its statements to “[m]y brothers” and “brothers” (Jas 2:1; 3:1, The new revised standard version). Since its writing, these introductions have often been rendered in most every of their instances to the now-more acceptable “[m]y brothers and sisters” (Jas 2:1; 3:1). The crux of this example is no just that only men were originally referred to by James, but that of all masculine salutations, that of “brother” and its variations was specifically chosen.

Perhaps used only emphatically, it can also be read to hint at a close-knit inner-community within the emerging Christian group. Perhaps these brothers are those not initiated into some special rite or mystery, but rather, more practically, those steering the emerging community—precisely, the existing bishops and presbyters and other officials, so many of which were cropping up around the Mediterranean, attaining power with the questioned authority of many instead of one central deciding body (Ehrman, 447).

[James] turns to address communal activities within the church . . . giving his readers about [sacraments and rituals aimed at] restoring those who have strayed from the faith (Ehrman, 447).

This perhaps superficially-minor detail is actually important in staying true to the context established above—that of the indeterminate self-identity of Christians at the time of the writing of James. The present author will interpret this issue of the usage of “brother” and that of the administering of sacraments and rituals to confirm that already there was some struggle not just in selecting who to lead the community, but to correct the wrongs made by those numerous persons claiming to have the authority to lead. What is most striking is that the author of James resorts to using external beliefs and proverbs to rectify the situation, instead of emphasizing tenets of Christianity which would have apparently already existed. What this lends to the debate is that the author of James was Jewish, perhaps a convert to Christianity, or merely a Jewish author whose work was adapted for the latter’s cause (it really does not matter at the moment), and that the existing sectarianism of Judaism was having a negative influence on Christianity.

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters,” begins James the third chapter of the book; further ensuring the elitism of the community which is meant to read his or her document (Jas 3:1). Could this exclusivity of readership also attest to the exclusion of the personalities of Jesus Christ and Paul in the text of James? The very name of “Jesus himself is scarcely ever mentioned[,]” and, “[a]part from 1:1, the epistolary opening [which addresses the book specifically with a Jewish reference], and 2:1 . . . Jesus makes no appearance at all” (Ehrman, 447).

Paul is not mentioned by name at all, but rather, the bulk of James, in its spelling out of the various proverbs it contains, actually seeks to respond to what must have been a major problem to James’ audience: “[w]hat good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you hav faith but do not have works?” (Jas 2:14). Ehrman points out that this is directly addressing Paul’s policy, because “it is possible that some Christians had taken Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith . . . to mean something that Paul himself did not” (Ehrman, 446).

Whoever the author of James might have been, he or she was familiar with this doctrine and knew that its precise interpretation and subsequent application was crucial to whatever definition of Christianity was to be correct. James, therefore, is actually a Christianized Jewish text not of laws, but of advice and recommendations, tweaked to define Christianity. The author of the book recognized that there was only one way to solve the problem of emerging church hierarchy and that was to use an already-established set of guiding principles, not so much for the community of believers at large, but an elite “brotherhood” leading the community; finding a community which out of a similar instance of sectarian dilemma—the Jews—was the solution to the Christian one.

The text of James is the syncretization of practical guidelines that the Jews had proven worked effectively, with the still-fluid ideals of Christianity. The role of James, and ultimately, the reason for its inclusion in the New Testament, is that it was a Jewish solution to a non-Christian problem; a problem that was Jewish in everything but belief and name—Jewish in dissent and fluidity—and could best be solved by whatever methods worked for “them,” the “others.” This is also why the names of Jesus and Paul are either scarcely or not at all “dropped” in James’ text; the issue at hand is one of deciding who controls the emerging Christian church without further dividing the community. James uses proverbial language to impart inherently-Jewish suggestions and at some point, this syncretization of church political policies must have worked, for we still read James today in a Christian context.


Ehrman, Bart D. The new testament: A historical introduction to the early Christian writings. Third edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

The new revised standard version bible. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.