The Book of James


The Book of James was probably the first book written in the New Testament. While there are four men called James in the New Testament, with two of them being apostles, Christian tradition says that Jesus' half-brother named James wrote this book because he was a prominent figure in the church at Jerusalem around A.D. 44 until he was martyred around A.D. 62. Some date this writing as early as A.D. 44 – 47, while others date it as late as A.D. 60. Some consider his letter the most Jewish letter in the New Testament.


The Book of James was written to the Jewish Christians that were scattered abroad as the first verse says:


James 1:1   To the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad:


Many call this Book "The Proverbs of the New Testament." The reason it is viewed this way is because James moves from one point to the next and it expresses a lot of wisdom just as the Book of Proverbs does.  It also promotes living a Christian life by being a doer of God's Word, instead of just a hearer (Jam. 1:22). James teaches that we show our faith by our works (Jam. 2). Some think that James and the writings of Paul contradict one another because Paul said:


Galatians 2:16   a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ


In fact, Martin Luther called James' letter "a right strawy epistle." However, he did include James in his translation into the German language, but he stuck the letter in the appendix because he didn't like that it emphasized good works and considered it contradictory to Paul's teachings. He also had Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation in that appendix as books that were considered disputable.


What people fail to understand is that Paul is saying that we are not justified by the works of the Law of Moses, and we cannot work our way into heaven. Paul never taught that we are justified by faith alone. Instead, he teaches that we must have an obedient faith and work out our own salvation (Phi. 2:12). Paul mentions the need for an obedient working faith in many other passages as well:


Acts 26:20 "but declared first to those in Damascus and in Jerusalem, and throughout all the region of Judea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent, turn to God, and do works befitting repentance.


Ephesians 2:10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.


Romans 1:5 Through Him we have received grace and apostleship for obedience to the faith among all nations for His name,


Romans 6:17 But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered.


Romans 16:26  but now made manifest, and by the prophetic Scriptures made known to all nations, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, for obedience to the faith—


So, James' message is in perfect harmony with Paul's message. Paul speaks of the faith that works, and James talks about the works of faith. As James states:


James 2:20 But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?


The name Jesus is only mentioned twice, and the Holy Spirit is not mentioned at all. The word church is only mentioned once. He cites the Old Testament directly three times:

1.      James 2:8   "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," (Lev. 19:18).

2.      James 2:23  "Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness." (Gen. 15:16).

3.      James 4:6  "God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble." (Prov. 3:34).


Of course, he alludes to the Old Testament many times throughout his letter and uses several Old Testament characters such as Abraham, Isaac, Rahab, Job, and Elijah. Though his letter refers to and quotes the Old Testament, it also presents ideas from a Christian point of view. Some of the points sound similar to those found in the Sermon on the Mount, and there are also several parallels between James and 1 Peter.


Let's take a quick look at what you will find is this letter:


  1. Talks about pure religion and how we should find joy in trials and pray for wisdom without doubting. Explains how sin develops, and we are taught that God's Word saves, so we should be doers of it.
  2. Teaches that we should treat the rich and the poor alike, and that faith without works is dead.
  3. Teaches us about the destructive nature of the unbridled tongue.
  4. Warns against worldliness and about boasting about tomorrow because tomorrow may never come.
  5. Warns the rich about being selfish, teaches us to be patient until the coming of the Lord and explains what fervent prayer can do.


James will show that one cannot merely claim to be a Christian and be pleasing to God because we must be active Christians who are doers of God's Word.


There are three keywords: Faith (12 times); Works (13 times); Doer (5 times).

The key phrase is to be doers of the word (Jam. 1:22), and the key chapter is chapter 1.


The overall theme is about how a person's faith will be proven through good works that he maintains throughout his life as opposed to one who just claims to be a faithful Christian. I can see three main themes that are dealt with, which are the uncertainty of wealth, the sins of the tongue, and the necessity of works.  


The key verses in each chapter are as follows:


James 1:2 My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials,  3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience.  4 But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.


James 2:14 What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?  15 If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food,  16 and one of you says to them, "Depart in peace, be warmed and filled," but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?  17 Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.  18 But someone will say, "You have faith, and I have works." Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.


 James 3:1 My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.  2 For we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body.  3 Indeed, we put bits in horses' mouths that they may obey us, and we turn their whole body.  4 Look also at ships: although they are so large and are driven by fierce winds, they are turned by a very small rudder wherever the pilot desires.  5 Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles!


James 4:1 Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members?  2 You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask.  3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.


James 5:19 Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back,  20 let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.


Brief outline:


James 1 Your faith will be tested, and the anatomy of sin is given.

James 2 We should be swift to hear and slow to speak. God shows no partiality, and neither should we. Faith without works is dead.

James 3 The dangers of the uncontrolled tongue. The difference between the wisdom of man and God.

James 4 Warnings against worldliness and making unjust judgments of brethren. We must draw near to God.

James 5 We are blessed through patience, prayer, and love. Warnings are given to the rich.


Practical Lessons:

  1. We must endure the trials of life and remember the benefits of suffering (James 1:2-4, 12; 5:7-11; cf. Isaiah 48:10; Zechariah 13:8-9; Psalms 66:10; Romans 5:3-52 Timothy 1:8; 2:3; 4:5; 2 Corinthians 11:23-28; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10; John 16:33; Matthew 5:10-12).
  2. We must learn to control our tongues (James 3:1-12; cf. Ephesians 4:29; Colossians 4:6).
  3. We cannot think like the world and act like them and expect to find favor with God (James 4:4; Matthew 6:19-21; Romans 12:2; 2 Timothy 4:10; 1 John 2:15-16).


Examining the men called James in the Bible


The word "James" comes from the Greek word Iakobos and is used 42 times in the New Testament.  Out of these 42 times, there are four different men named James. Let's begin with the most obscure James.


Our first man, called James, is referred to as Judas' father (not Iscariot).


Luke 6:16  Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot who also became a traitor. (Acts 1:13 KJV says James is Judas' brother, but all the other prominent version say father). This is all we really know about this man.


Our second man, called James, is referred to as the son of Alphaeus.


Matthew 10:3  Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Lebbaeus, whose surname was Thaddaeus; (Lk. 6:15; Acts 1:13).


He is also called the son of Mary.


Matthew 27:56  among whom were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee's sons. (15:40; Mk. 16:1; Lk. 24:10). This man was one of the apostles and was called James the less (Mk. 15:40).  The word "less" comes from the Greek word mikros, which can mean one who is small, or it can simply mean one who is younger.  Either one of these meanings could apply to this James. I must admit it is possible that we have two different men named James here.  However, I believe there is enough evidence to show that the above passages are referring to the same man. In order to do this, I must show that Mary and Alphaeus are husband and wife.  The only verse we have linking these two together is a vague one.


John 19:25 Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.


Some scholars believe that the word "Clopas" is another name for Alphaeus.  If this is the case, then this would mean they are indeed husband and wife, and James the less is their son. If these are two different men, it doesn't really matter in the overall scheme of things.  In either case, we know very little about this James.


Some sources say that this James preached in Palestine and Egypt. According to tradition, he was thrown down from the temple by the opposing Jews, stoned, and then beat with a club. Whether this is true, we will never know for sure.

Our third James, who is also an apostle, is referred to as the son of Zebedee and is usually mentioned with John his brother.


Matthew 4:21 Going on from there, He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets. (Mt. 10:2, 17:1; Mk. 1:19, 29, 3:17, 5:37, 9:2, 10:35, 41, 13:3, 14:33, Lk: 5:10, 6:14, 8:51, 9:28,54; Acts 1:13). We also learn from these passages that James, John, and Peter went along with Jesus by themselves and were privileged to witness many amazing things.  His mother was named Salome which you can surmise by comparing Mt. 27:56 to Mk. 15:40 and 16:1.


Matthew 27:56 among whom were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee's sons.


Mark 15:40 There were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the Less and of Joses, and Salome,


Mark 16:1 Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, that they might come and anoint Him.

What you will notice from these three verses is that they refer to the same time period, and they mention these three women being together. Mark's accounts name them as Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James the Less, and Salome. However, Matthew's account names the first two women and identifies the third woman as the mother of Zebedee's sons, which is Salome.


This James was the first apostle to be martyred under the direction of King Herod Agrippa (Acts 12:1-2). James was killed by the sword, most likely by decapitation around A.D. 44.


Our fourth man, named James was the half-brother of Jesus.


Matthew 13:55 "Is this not the carpenter's son? Is not His mother called Mary? And His brothers James, Joses, Simon, and Judas? (Mk. 6:3).


At first, none of Jesus' brothers believed in him.


John 7:5 For even His brothers did not believe in Him.


But after Jesus was raised from the dead and had ascended to heaven, his brothers became believers.  We learn that they were gathered together with their mother, the apostles, and the other disciples in prayer and supplication.


Acts 1:13 And when they had entered, they went up into the upper room where they were staying: Peter, James, John, and Andrew; Philip and Thomas; Bartholomew and Matthew; James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot; and Judas the son of James.

 14 These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers.


Paul states that James saw Jesus after He was resurrected from the dead.


1 Corinthians 15:7 After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles.


Paul also says he saw James in Jerusalem when he went to see Peter.


Galatians 1:18 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and remained with him fifteen days.  19 But I saw none of the other apostles except James, the Lord's brother.


Paul informs us that James was married.


1 Corinthians 9:5 Do we have no right to take along a believing wife, as do also the other apostles, the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas?


Now that we have examined these four men that are called James, we need to turn our attention to some passages in Acts and Galatians that refer to James.  I believe logic will show us that the James being referred to in these passages are all talking about Jesus' half-brother.  In Acts 15, certain Jews began to say that the gentiles had to be circumcised in order to be saved, and Paul disagreed. So, they were sent to Jerusalem to bring the matter before the apostles and elders of the church.  When they arrive, Peter speaks out first, then a second man named James speaks in verses 13 – 20. 


Since James is making decisions and judgments, we can conclude he is either an apostle or one of the elders of that church. I believe that James was an elder and was speaking for the eldership just as Peter was speaking for the apostles.  Those who have examined James' speech and vocabulary see many similarities in the book of James, and they conclude this implies that the author of James and the James in Acts 15 are one in the same. We also have this event recorded in Galatians 2:1-10.  In verse 9, we see James, John, and Cephas (Peter) were considered as pillars of the church.  Also, in Acts 12:17, after Peter had escaped prison and made his way into Mary's house, he asked them to let James and the brethren know that he had escaped from prison. Logically, this would be the same James in all these passages because they were in Jerusalem, and James is singled out, which implies that he played a prominent role in the church (See also Acts 21:18).


We can logically narrow down which of the four men named James are most likely being referred to in these verses. First, we can eliminate Judas' father. Second, we can eliminate James, the son of Zebedee, considering he was killed (Acts 12:2) before any of these events happened.  We can also eliminate James the son of Alphaeus and Mary because every time he is mentioned in the gospels, he is always referred to as the son of Alphaeus or the son of Mary. There was always a distinction made so that no one was confused about which apostle named James was being talked about. Not to mention the fact that we only see this James mentioned in the gospels. The half-brother of Jesus fits the time frame perfectly, and the early writers such as Josephus and the words of Hegesippus, as recorded by Eusebius, confirms that Jesus half-brother was a man who stood out in the community and was martyred for proclaiming Jesus as the son of God. 


Josephus writes: Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned (Book 20, Chapter 9).


Eusebius writes: Hegesippus, who belongs to the generation after the apostles, gives the most accurate account of him…. [James] was called the 'Just' by all men from the Lord's time to ours, since … he was holy from his mother's womb… He used to enter alone into the temple and [would] be found kneeling and praying for forgiveness for the people, so that his knees grew hard like a camel's because of his constant worship of God, kneeling and asking forgiveness for the people… So the Scribes and Pharisees… made James stand on the Battlement of the temple… And [James] answered…, 'Why do you ask me concerning the Son of Man?'…. So they went up and threw down the Just, and they said to one another, 'Let us stone James the Just,' and the began to stone him since the fall had not killed him, but he turned and knelt saying, 'I beseech thee, O Lord, God and Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.' (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.23).


All these things strongly imply that James, the half-brother of Jesus, is the man being spoken of in these passages.  He also fits perfectly as being the author of James.  Finally, the book of Jude, ascribed to Jesus' other half-brother Jude, says, "Jude, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, and brother of James ..." (Jude 1:1). It's almost like Jude is using his brother's name for validation.  Once again, the best man that would fit this description is Jesus half-brother.


In conclusion, James is one of the most practical and needed letters for every generation of Christians. He denounces social injustice and worldliness. His goal for Christians is to remain faithful to God and never lose sight of heaven. There is so much wisdom for us to gain throughout this letter. There is so much more I could say about this beautiful letter by James in this introduction, but let's begin to dig into the text itself in our next lesson.



  1. Know Your Bible By Frank J. Dunn
  2. Bible Basics Bullets, compiled by Caleb and Rebekah Colley (2016)
  3. James, Truth For Today Commentary (2020)