James :: Catholic News Agency

Author: St. James, the brother of the Lord

Date Written: c. 60 AD


James was one of the "brothers" of Jesus (Matt 13:55), who became the central apostle of the Jerusalem church.  He is not James, son of Zebedee who was martyred early on (Acts 12:2) but he could be James, son of Alphaeus as the Church's liturgy regards him.  His feast is celebrated with St. Philip's on May 3rd.  James probably wrote from Jerusalem where he resided and his letter was likely circulated to several Jewish Christian communities in the diaspora (Jas 1:1).


James has a short greeting (1:1), but no traditional letter-closing.  It is full of moral commands and injunctions.  Because of this feature, scholars often identify it as an example of paraenetic literature of the first century.  The primary purpose of a paraenetic writing is to exhort someone to good moral behavior.  The letter of James picks this theme as its central focus.  It presents the early Christian worldview from a different perspective than Paul, so it helps us sort out how different types of people respond to the same gospel.  The letter resembles the wisdom literature of the Old Testament and most of the passages can be described as pithy proverbial sayings.  In this way, it can be considered the "Proverbs of the New Testament."


James describes the Christian life in terms of friendship with God.  A person can either become a "friend of God" like Abraham (2:23) or a friend of the world (4:4).  Friendship with the world and with God are mutually exclusive.  Since friends share the same values, James must describe God's nature to illustrate how we do or do not measure up to his values.  God gives generously (1:5), keeps his promises (1:12), requires righteousness (1:20), chooses the poor (2:5), opposes the proud (4:6), exalts the humble (4:10) and is fundamentally compassionate and merciful (5:11).  James focuses on the nature of God and how we can reflect his nature in daily life.


James addresses the Jewish Christians to whom he is writing as "brothers," which can be used in a general sense to refer to both male and female Christians.  His use of the word "brothers" shows how he views the Church as a family.  He presents himself as a fellow servant of God (1:1), emphasizing the equality of believers before God.  James also stresses the importance of the Christian community.  He encourages the believers not to speak against each other (4:11, 5:9), but to pray for each other and confess their sins to each other (5:16).


Because James is giving a moral exhortation, he urges his readers to be "doers of the word and not hearers only," (1:22) which leads him into a difficult section on faith and works (2:14-26).  James' presentation contrasts strongly with Paul's (Rom 3:28, Gal 2:16) and the issue of faith and works has become a source of doctrinal controversy.  Yet a coherent synthesis of Paul's and James' thought emerges when we see that Christ, in whom we have faith, wins our salvation on the cross, yet we must "work out our salvation with fear and trembling." (cf. Phil 2:12)  The Catechism discusses the issue of how we are saved at length (CCC 1987-2029).


James includes an important text for the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.  5:14-15 describes how the sacrament would have been carried out in the early Church.  The presbyters of the Church would anoint a sick person with oil and pray over him for healing.


Overall, James' vision of the Christian life is very practical and realistic.  He describes the nature of God and God's invitation to friendship.  He calls us to embrace the friendship of God through obedience to his law and love for one another.  We should never oppose the truth (3:14), but live in submission to it and so become friends of God (4:7).


By Mark Giszczak


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