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  • Writer's pictureJohn Lenschow

Background to the book of James

We now turn our attention to the book of James.


This letter recognizes the author as James, but it does not give his exact identity. Only two possibilities have ever been seriously suggested. Both were eyewitnesses to the ministry of Jesus. First, James, the apostle, has been proposed. However, we know from the book of Acts (12:1-2), he was martyred approximately A.D. 44. So, he is an unlikely candidate because it does not give the early Christian movement enough time to gain momentum to require such a letter.

Second, James, the brother of Jesus, has been suggested. Because of his prominent role in the early church, he is the most likely candidate. We may ask, what do we know about this James? We know that even as the brother of Jesus (Mt 13:55; Mk 6:3), he shared the same family skepticism (John 7:2-5; Mk 3:20-21). We also know Jesus appeared to him after the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:7), and he was present in Acts 1. He became the leader of the Jerusalem Church (Gal. 2:9, Acts 15:12-21), so clearly his understanding of who Jesus was changed after the resurrection.


In verse 1, the recipients were identified as “the twelve tribes.” This phrase was used to recognize their Jewish heritage. However, we know they were Jewish Christian because James identified them as “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.” He also said they were “scattered among the nations” The word “scattered” (diaspora) was a term used for the Jews after the exile to Babylon. Some Jews never returned to Jerusalem and remained a part of the diaspora throughout the Mediterranean world. Here, it could refer to those Jewish Christians scattered from Jerusalem after Stephen’s martyrdom (Acts 8:1-2).

Literary type

James has several unique literary features, and they will be considered as we work through the biblical text. It begins like a 1st century letter by identifying the author, recipients, and providing a greeting. However, this book does not contain other important letter characteristics such as the prayer wish and thanksgiving, typical letter structure, and a closing.

Because James is not addressed to a specific city and congregation, it was probably cyclical and was passed on to different church gatherings scattered outside of Jerusalem. It has numerous Old Testament allusion, especially from the Wisdom literature. James also is influenced by the saying of Jesus, although never quoting Jesus directly. Finally, James reflects elements of Greek rhetorical structure from the 1st century. All of these characteristics will be identified as we encounter them throughout the book.

I hope you enjoy your journey through James with me! We begin chapter 1 on Monday September 14th.

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