James is the Gospel of Do Something.
James, whoever he was, writes a little like a man frustrated at getting appointed pastor of the First Church of No Volunteers.
He writes an open letter to “The 12 tribes scattered everywhere…to all of you out there” (James 1:1). Maybe he’s writing to the Jews, or to Jewish followers of Jesus, or to all Christians, with “12 tribes” as a symbolic way of saying they’re now part of God’s people.
Whoever he is and whoever they are, he’s giving them what sometimes reads like an updated version of Proverbs. Both feature wisdom one-liners and short-burst lectures we might expect from a worried parent.
- Christians prove their faith by doing good things for others.
- Watch your mouth because your tongue can start a fire.
- Don’t treat rich people better than others.
- Stop humiliating the poor.
- Don’t let your natural desires drag you into danger zones.
“From: James, who serves God and our leader, Jesus the Messiah” (1:1).
It’s not clear which James wrote this letter, though many scholars lobby for the brother of Jesus.
There are about half a dozen men named James in the Bible story of Jesus. Two of his dozen disciples are named James (Luke 6:14-15). James the brother of John was executed by Herod Agrippa in about AD 44 (Acts 12:2).
James is also one of Jesus’s four brothers, perhaps the oldest, since he is listed first (Matthew 13:55). Many say it was this James who became leader of the Jerusalem church, and who apparently convened the first church leadership meeting (Acts 15).
Jewish historian Josephus (about AD 37-100) reported that the Jerusalem-based Jewish high priest ordered the execution of James “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ” (Antiquities of the Jews, book 20, chapter 9, section 1). Josephus says Jews stoned him to death, in about AD 62. That’s a few years before Nero is said to have ordered Paul beheaded and Peter crucified upside-down.
If James the brother of Jesus wrote the letter and was the same James who led the Jerusalem church, James wrote the letter before his execution in about AD 62. Peter and Paul were both executed within a few years after that.
James probably wrote his letter from Jerusalem, if this James was the brother of Jesus and the leader of the Jerusalem church described in Acts 15.
Destination of the letter
“To: The 12 tribes scattered everywhere” (1:1). Bible experts debate who James addressed. The 12 tribes of Israel were actually extended families descended from the dozen sons of Jacob, grandson of Abraham. Taken literally, the “12 tribes” would have meant the Jews.
It’s possible James meant just the Jews who believed Jesus was the Messiah. Paul led the mission work among non-Jews. James in Jerusalem, along with apostles such as Peter, seemed to focus more on convincing Jews that Jesus was the Messiah.
Some Bible experts speculate that James may have been thinking of all believers, since they now represent the new Israel. Paul put it this way: “You are the true Israel—the authentic people of God” (Galatians 6:16). Peter called them “God’s chosen” (1 Peter 2:9 Contemporary English Version).