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Who Wrote the Letter of James?

The Letter of James is now recognized by many New Testament scholars to have been written by James, the brother of Jesus.

Text of James 1:15-18 from Papyrus Oxyrhynchys 1229, third century CE. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Three guys walk into a bar in Jerusalem. They all have the same name: James. One of them is the son of a fisherman named Zebedee, the other the son of someone we know nothing about named Alphaeus, and the third is known to everyone in town as “the brother of the Lord.” The Lord, Jesus. They are arguing about who should get credit for writing a five-page letter making its way from house church to house church that believers are calling “The Letter of James.” After a while the bartender is tired of listening to them and says, with the voice of authority, “You guys are nuts. I wrote that letter.” “You? Who are you?” they yell in unison. “Anonymous,” he replies.

Does it matter who wrote the Letter of James? For believers, it is a part of the New Testament canon and from this derives its importance. It is a document of an uncertain age, written sometime between 55 and 100 C.E., and provides few clues as to when, where, or for whom it was written. So why care who wrote the Letter of James? We care because conclusions about the who, when, where, and to whom questions impact how we make sense of the what question. For example, interpreters long held that the letter could not have been written by any of the three Jameses in the bar because the contents of the letter seemed to reflect issues important in a time period thirty or forty years after they would have all been dead. More recent interpreters of the letter have changed their minds and now realize there is nothing in the content of the letter that precludes it having been written before the Jewish War of 66-70 C.E. So we have to ask again: which James wrote the letter?

Christian tradition has always held that it was James, the brother of Jesus, who was “bishop” of the community in Jerusalem (Acts 15, Gal 1) and was, according to the historian Josephus, executed in 62 C.E. When the reader sets aside the idea that the letter is worried about organizational and theological issues from a later date, or that the author was writing to rebut the letters of Paul (“Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith,” Jas 2:18), what stands out is how dependent the letter is on two sources, the Hebrew Bible and the sayings of Jesus—not that the author writes, “as my brother, Jesus, used to say…” Instead, the letter is filled with offhand references, parallels, and echoes of the sayings of Jesus, perhaps as many as 34. This suggests composition early in the tradition, before the sayings of Jesus were fixed and before authors used formal citations.

That means the Letter of James could have been written by one of the three guys in Jerusalem. I will stick with the tradition: the Letter of James was written by “the brother of the Lord.” Not that I would recognize him if he walked into a bar.

  • William Brosend

    William Brosend is professor of Homiletics at the School of Theology, the University of the South, in Sewanee, Tennessee. An Episcopal priest, he is author of James and Jude (2004), Conversations with Scripture: The Parables (2006), The Preaching of Jesus (2010), and As Wings to the Soul: A Guide to Liturgical Preaching (forthcoming).