This letter is from James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. I am writing to the “twelve tribes”—Jewish believers scattered abroad. Greetings! [James 1:1 (NLT)]
Four men were in heated disagreement at a falafel stand in Jerusalem when they asked a passerby to settle their dispute about the authorship of an epistle. “I’m James, the son of Alphaeus. I was one of the twelve disciples and I wrote the book of James.” The next man interrupted, “No, I’m James, the father of the disciple named Judas (also known as Thaddaeus) and I wrote those words!” Disagreeing, the third man said, “I’m the disciple James, the son of Zebedee, a fisherman, and brother to John. I was the one who wrote that epistle! Contradicting him, the fourth man said, “I’m James, the brother of Jesus, and I’m the one who wrote that letter to the Jews.” The man they’d asked to settle their dispute calmly said, “You’re all wrong; I wrote it.” In unison, they asked, “Who are you?” He answered, “God—and all Scripture is God-breathed.”
Although all Scripture is God-breathed, someone named James put God’s words on paper. The writer of James simply identifies himself as a “slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” There is an assumption in his words that he was well enough known by the church that no other identification was necessary. One disciple named James was the son of Alphaeus. Either younger or smaller in stature than the other disciple named James, he also is identified as James the mikros which meant little or small. Sometimes called James the less, he seems too obscure since his only mention is as one of the twelve and that his mother was with some of the women during the crucifixion. James, the father of Judas/Thaddeus is even more obscure since his only mention is that he was the father of a disciple! The other disciple named James was the brother of John. Usually referred to as the son of Zebedee or James “the greater,” he certainly is less obscure than the other two James but, like them, little more is known about him. Moreover, since he was dead by 44 AD, he wouldn’t have been well-known by the early church.
The most likely author is James, the half-brother of Jesus and the eldest of Mary and Joseph’s four boys. Although he wasn’t a believer before the crucifixion, he was after and, in his letter to the Corinthians, Paul makes specific mention of James seeing the resurrected Lord. The seven references to this James in Acts and both Paul’s and Jude’s letters tell us he played a prominent role in the early church. Scholars are in near unanimous agreement that, of all the James in the New Testament, this James is the one who penned the words found in the epistle.
Believed to have been written before the Jerusalem Council in 48 or 49 (mentioned in Acts 15), this may have been the first of the New Testament books written! Unlike Paul, James wasn’t a theologian and his letter wasn’t about doctrine. When he said that faith without works is meaningless, he wasn’t arguing with Paul’s concerns about legalism—he may not even have known of them at the time. He simply was opposing the attitude that dismissed works as unnecessary for Christians. We can’t just talk the talk; we must walk the walk.
James’ epistle was about applying Jesus’ teachings—a statement about the kind of life a Christ follower should live. As Jesus’ half-brother, he was uniquely qualified to do so. Having known Jesus all of His life, rather than just the three years of His ministry, James knew what he was talking about. He may not have known Jesus was the Messiah until the resurrection, but he knew Jesus as only a brother can. He may not have heard Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount or heard Him preach about forgiveness, sacrifice, and loving one’s enemy, but he’d seen Jesus live those words every day of His life. Whenever we wonder, “What would Jesus do?” there’s an excellent chance we’ll find the answer in James’ epistle, in words penned by a man who actually saw what Jesus did!