James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the diaspora, greetings (James 1:1).
Though the epistle of James is considered a “general” epistle, the letter originated from particular circumstances that can be discerned from the New Testament. In order to sketch its background, it will be helpful first to determine its author. Several possibilities present themselves: James the brother of John and son of Zebedee; the other James among the Twelve, called James the son of Alphaeus (Mat. 10:3) and usually identified with “James the Less” (Mk. 15:40); and James, the presiding elder of the church at Jerusalem, who is called the “Lord’s brother” (Gal. 1:19; Mat. 13:55; cf. Acts 12:17; 15:13-21; 21:18).
Few scholars argue that James the son of Alphaeus wrote the letter. Contemporary scholarship is also generally agreed that the best-known James in the Gospels, the son of Zebedee and brother of John, did not write the epistle of James. In a lengthy discussion defending authorship by James the brother of Jesus, Douglas Moo has only this to say about James the son of Zebedee: He “died a martyr’s death in ad 44 (Acts 12:2) and it is unlikely that the epistle was written as early as this” (James, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985], p. 20). Ralph Martin, in his commentary on James in the Word Biblical Commentary, offers the same argument.
These comments about James the son of Zebedee ought not to stand unexamined. This conclusion is based on a New Testament chronology that is hardly immune from criticism. In order to present an alternative, however, the question of authorship must be put aside for the moment, until the historical situation of the letter has been established.
James identies his original audience as the “twelve tribes in the diaspora.” The phrase alludes to the scattered Jews, and is made all the more signicant by the fact that the author who addresses the twelve tribes is “Jacob” (in Greek). Imaginative commentators have attempted to relate each of the sections of the epistle to a particular son of Jacob, comparing the epistle to the blessings of Jacob in Genesis 49.
For our purposes, the relevant question is, what is the referent of the phrase “twelve tribes,” the old Israel or the new? The phrase is seldom used in the New Testament, and in two passages it is almost certainly a description of the church (Mat 19:28; Lk 22:30; cf. Rev 7:1-8). It is thus possible that James is referring to the new Israel of God.
The New Testament’s use of the word “diaspora” supports this interpretation. Of course, the word was used in Jewish literature to describe the scattering of exiles from the promised land, but this is not the most frequent New Testament use. In fact, the New Testament contains only one reference to the Jewish diaspora, and it is a rather off-hand reference at that (Jn. 7:35).
Most often, the New Testament uses the word-group “diaspora” with reference to the church. Peter refers to his readers as being in the diaspora, and he is clearly speaking of Christians (1 Pet 1:1f.). In Acts, the verb form of “diaspora” is never used of Jews per se, but only of those Christians who were forced to flee Jerusalem because of the persecutions that erupted in the aftermath of Stephen’s martyrdom (Acts 8:1; 11:19). The New Testament’s ecclesiology incorporates and transforms “diaspora” language just as it incorporates other Old Testament descriptions of Israel.
The Christian “diaspora” is not merely a spiritual dispersion, but a specific event in the early history of the church. Because of the persecution that followed the martyrdom of Stephen, the Jerusalem church became a diaspora church. James’s audience would, in the nature of the case, be a predominantly Jewish audience. But James addresses them as the “twelve tribes of the diaspora” not because they are exiled Jews but because they are members of the new Israel who have been driven from their city. Like other names and descriptions of Israel (royal priesthood, sons of Abraham, Israel), “diaspora” as transferred from synagogue to church.
This fits well with James’s description of his readers as “firstfruits” (1:18). As James Jordan has argued, the Jews and Gentile God-fearers who came into the church prior to ad 70 had a unique role in redemptive history. They constituted the firstfruits of the coming harvest of nations and provided the foundation of the new temple. It is thus fitting that James, addressing the very first converts – the Christianized Jews and God-fearers of Jerusalem –, calls them “firstfruits.”
James Cargal, in his Ph.D. dissertation, Restoring the Diaspora: Discursive Structure and Purpose in the Epistle of James (SBL Dissertation Series #144; [Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1993]), connects the opening of James with its final verses: “if any among you strays from the truth, and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death, and will cover a multitude of sins” (5:19-20).
Based on the opening and closing of the epistle, Cargal argues that “diaspora” takes on a moral-spiritual meaning in the course of the epistle. The original readers would have picked up the hint from the initial use of “diaspora”: the “twelve tribes” of the Old Covenant were dispersed, after all, because they had “wandered from the truth.” James was writing to the scattered members of his church to warn them that, in the midst of their geographic diaspora, they had to take care not to wander from the truth. James’s letter performs the kind of restorative act he commends at the close of his letter: He is attempting to turn wandering sinners from the errors of their ways.
James, I submit, wrote to Jewish Christians from Jerusalem, who, faced with persecution (cf. Jas. 1:2-4), scattered from their homes, and as a result of their sufferings were in danger of apostasy (cf. Mat. 13:21). Though his approach was very different, James was writing to the same sort of audience as that addressed by the epistle to the Hebrews.
With this understanding of the setting and overall purpose of the letter, we can return afresh to the question of authorship. When did the “diaspora” of Jerusalem Christians begin? James Jordan has argued persuasively that Paul’s conversion took place in ad 30, and the diaspora began before Paul went to Damascus (Acts 8:1-4; 9:1-22). Thus, the firstfruits church was dispersed from Jerusalem within a few months of Pentecost, in ad 30.
What does this date suggest about authorship? James the brother of Jesus became the presiding elder of the Jerusalem church following Peter’s arrest and departure in 44. Prior to that time, this James did not play a prominent role in the Jerusalem church. If James the brother of Jesus wrote the epistle prior to becoming the chief elder in Jerusalem, it is difficult to see how it would carry much weight. If he wrote the letter of exhortation and encouragement to scattered exiles after he became presiding elder, it was some 14 years late. Neither scenario is likely.
James the brother of John, however, was a prominent figure in the church from the beginning. Not only was he one of the central three of the Twelve, but he was a witness to the ascension (Acts 1:2, 4), was present during the days of waiting before Pentecost (1:13), and spoke in tongues at Pentecost, having received the Spirit (2:1-4). He evidently stayed in Jerusalem when the persecutions began, and remained important enough in the leadership of the church for Herod to kill and for the Jews to delight in his death (12:2-3).
One would expect a letter to exiles to be sent shortly after the exile begins. James the son of Zebedee was in precisely the right place at the right time to do that. If I am correct about the purpose of the letter, there is good reason to think James the son of Zebedee composed the letter of James in the early 30s.
The discussion of faith and works in 2:14ff. seems to provide evidence against this date. James, by many accounts, was consciously responding to Paul’s teaching on justification by faith alone. Many commentators believe this implies that Paul had been teaching for some time when James wrote his letter.
Two comments can be made. First, it is not certain that James is responding to Pauline teaching at all. Perhaps he is responding to distortions of the teaching of Peter, another of the Twelve, or even Jesus.
Even if James is addressing issues raised by Paul, this is not decisive evidence of a late date. Moo points out that James is responding to a distorted understanding of Paul’s teaching. Far from providing evidence of a late date for James, Moo asks, “Could it not be that the perverted form of Paul’s teaching contested in James 2 is very early and that James is not yet aware of Paul’s true intent because they have not yet met?” (p. 28).
Moo goes on to note that Paul began teaching soon after his conversion (Acts 9:19-22), and we find evidence in Paul’s letters that his teaching on justification was misunderstood (Rom. 6). Between the initial scattering of the church in ad 30 and the writing of James, we need only assume enough time for Paul’s teaching to have been circulated and distorted. Given the human propensity for error and the violence of early Jewish opposition to Paul (Acts 9:23-25), this need not have been very long. Thus, James 2 does not refute the hypothesis that James was written in the early 30s.
Peter Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.
(This essay was first published in Biblical Horizons #71.)
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