As with the other general epistles, the authenticity of James revolves around both authorship and date. If it is established that the Apostle could not have been the author, then it is clearly not authentic. If it is established that the epistle shows characteristics of an era long after his death, he obviously could not have written it either. We will begin with the question of date.
It has long been recognized that the James referred to in 1.1 is the leader of the Jerusalem church who died in 62 at the hands of the high priest Ananus. There is no one else whose name by itself could lend it such authority as James 1:1 presupposes. Therefore, it should be examined whether there is any internal evidence that should force us to date this epistle long after James’ death. But the fact is, there is nothing in the epistle which needs to locate it after 70. As Robinson has noted:
The epistle of James is one of those apparently timeless documents that could be dated almost anywhere…It contains reference to no public events, movements or catastrophes. The 'conflicts and quarrels' it speaks of are the perennial ones of personal aggressiveness (4.1f.), not the datable wars and rumours of wars between nations or groups…There are no place names, and no indication of destination or dispatch, whether in address or greetings. In fact there are no proper names of any kind except that of James himself in the opening verse and stock Old Testament characters like Abraham and Isaac, Rahab, Job and Elijah. As a form of literature too it stands in that almost undatable tradition of Judaeo-Christian practical wisdom which includes Proverbs, Ecclesiasticus, the Wisdom of Solomon, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, the Qumran Manual of Discipline, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Didache. Yet though the links, backwards and forwards, are evident, there is no decisive evidence for literary dependence in either direction that could fix the epistle of James in time or space.
Simply put, there is no reason to put the epistle after James’ death based on public or political events. There is no hint of a state persecution taking or ever having taken place against Christians, and 5:11-12 can only be understood in such a context (where the sufferers are certainly expected to survive, if not as individuals, at least certainly as a community of Christians). The faults addressed in the Epistle are nothing that requires placing it in the era of the second or third Christian generations such as sophisticated schisms and Gnostic heresies, especially seeing the moral misconduct of such dissenters addressed so strongly in the Pastorals, Jude and II Peter. There is no theological sophistication or orthodox controversy; “'Our Lord Jesus Christ of glory' (2.1) is the epistle's most theologically advanced statement.”
No mention of Christ’s death or resurrection, no complex eschatological development, or any explanation for a delay of the Parousia. There is no defense of “the faith once delivered to all the saints,” but an explanation of what constitutes a living faith, which is definitely a contrast to the late 1st century and the 2nd century Church Fathers. Similarly, there is no development of the ecclesiastical offices or liturgy to use as a pointer for a date after 70:
There is no reference to orders of Christian ministry like bishops and deacons (contrast Phil.1.1, the Pastorals and again the Didache), merely to elders (5.14), which were evidently taken over direct from Judaism (cf. Acts 4.5, 8, 23; 6.12; etc. of Judaism; 11.30; 14.23; 15.2; etc. of the church), and to teachers (3.1; cf. Acts 13.1; Heb.5.12). But the last do not seem to be part of a hierarchy of ministries (as e.g. in I Cor.i2.28; Eph.4.n; Did. 13.2; 15.1f.; Hermas, Vis.3.5.1 et passim). Rather James' injunction against wanting to become teachers seems to be more in line with Jesus' quashing of the desire to be called 'rabbi' and 'teacher' and thus win honour from men (Matt. 23.6-11). 'The greatest among you', Jesus goes on, 'must be your servant' (23.12); and it is simply as 'a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ' (James 1.1) that James, even though he does stand in the relationship to them of teacher (3.1), chooses to address his readers.
This, as well as literary features present in the sub-apostolic such as the allegory, which is entirely missing in James, point to a period closer to the life of the Apostle.
Dependence on other New Testament (or otherwise) documents is also out of the question. Particularly, the parallels between James and the Sermon on the Mount (in Matthew) are not such that would require dependence, but James’ source is apparently the traditions behind the Gospels [RD]. Further, there are none of the theological motives found in later writings, which would put him in any time period, so it cannot be argued out of that for a late date.
Even the evidence for common catechetical patterns, which should above all be relevant to his subject-matter, is far weaker than in the other New Testament epistles. In the essay of over a hundred pages which Selwyn devotes to this in his commentary on I Peter, the material he can garner from James is extraordinarily meagre. In his central section on the General Catechumen Virtues he admits that 'James is difficult to bring into the picture' and the common citation in I Peter 5.51. and in James 4.6, 10 of Prov. 3.34 ('God opposes the arrogant and gives grace to the humble') and the conclusions drawn from it 'can be accounted for without reference to any underlying code'. The remaining scattered verses containing topics in some way common to other New Testament epistles (James 1.3, i2, 18, 21, 27; 3.13-18; 4.71.; 5.7-11) provide no evidence for the teaching patterns to be found, for example in I Thess. 5, Col. 3, Eph. 5-6, and I Peter 5.
Just about the only thing that can solidly place the epistle is its debate about faith and works in 2:14-26. But this case doesn’t need us to put it decades after the Apostle’s death. There are many opinions as to what 2:14-26 is a response to. Most consider it a response either to Paul, or some misinterpretation of his teachings. Some consider Paul responding to it, and some see it as a later misinterpretation of Paul when the argument was no longer clearly understood. While not agreeing prematurely with any of these, we can start by saying that the last argument cannot be supported simply because Paul’s ideas are quite clearly understood. The type of adherence to God James talks about is the same as Paul's. His views are no different, it is simply the confused view of faith that others have taken up and which James is explaining that differs.
The second hypothesis, that it is not James, but Paul who is responding, does not give us a date later than around 50 AD, since Paul wrote Galatians around 54, and Romans about 57. So really, the first option remains, and there is no reason to suggest that there couldn’t have come about a misunderstanding (or perhaps perceived misunderstanding by James?) of Paul’s ideas about salvation by faith without works which James would have sought to address some time around 60-62. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be a central need to address this problem, it seems as if it is an error someone might individually commit, which James wants to prevent. So this again, doesn’t need to force us to date the epistle after the death of the Apostle. The absence of an argument against the need of circumcision, dietary laws and the overall Mosaic Law for salvation does not force us to place the epistle in the late 1st century/early 2nd, as other writings of that time surely mentioned this dispute, even though it was mostly ended (Epistle of Barnabas, etc).
The above establishes simply that there is nothing in the epistle that suggests a late date, and can’t be used, by itself, to establish an early date, though the argument from silence on so many points suggests that the letter is indeed from an era much earlier than the developed Christianity of which we know about in the first two decades of the second century. James does exhibit features which seem to suggest a date before 70 AD. For example, "Still less is there any indication of a permanent breach with a Judaism desolated by national defeat, such as marks the Epistle of Barnabas. Not only does the fall of Jerusalem receive no mention (for which arguably there would be no occasion), but the reference to rich landowners withholding the wage of their reapers (5.1-6) is noted by many commentators as reflecting a situation in Palestine which disappeared for good with the war of 66-70." But this isn’t enough to establish authenticity. Ultimately it has to be determined whether James the Apostle could have written the letter, and see if there is anything that makes this impossible.
Before we go into the objections, we should note some things that support authenticity. For one, the lack of emphasis on James’ authority: "The very simplicity of the address speaks forcibly against pseudonymity. For if this device was felt to be necessary to give the epistle 'apostolic aegis it is incredible that he was not described as 'the brother of the Lord' or 'bishop of Jerusalem' [he has a footnote on this: As in a spurious letter of James, translated from the Armenian by P. Vetter, Literarische Rundschau, 1896, 259; cf. Ep. Petr.1.1: 'Peter to James, the lord and bishop of the holy church' (Hennecke, NTApoc. II, 111).] or even, as later in the address of the pseudo-Clementine Letter to James, 'bishop of bishops'." We should also note that, although the parallels between James’ speeches in Acts and the epistle may not be conclusive at all (for various reasons, see Robinson), they certainly don’t speak against the Apostle being author. Furthermore, the above-mentioned connections with the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, which do not point to James' knowledge of the canonical Gospel, speak more for the Apostle having heard Jesus himself, or at the very least someone who is as close to the same oral tradition of the sayings as the Evangelist.
1. The foremost objection to the Apostle writing the document is its language. It is said that the cultured Greek of the epistle does not befit an author from Galilee. But it has to be wondered whether the language objection can really be used simply because of the Greek. Galileans were very close to Hellenistic culture at the time, so much that Galilee was called “Galilee of the nations”. Its population was bilingual in both Greek and Aramaic. This wouldn’t have given the epistle the Greek it has, but the fact is, if the Apostle was to be a leader of the Jerusalem church, which certainly had many Greeks in it from the earliest of times as Acts attests, how inexcusable is it not to learn Greek more fully! This doesn’t seem like an obscure notion, since James’ Greek isn’t even that of Luke’s or the Greek of Hebrews. If there were hundreds if not thousands of only Greek-speaking converts in the first decade of the Church’s inception in Jerusalem, we can’t expect its leader not to learn it by 60 or so AD, the approximate time-limit for authenticity. It is also not at all impossible for someone to have translated the letter. As Richard Heard notes,[RH] "There were in Jerusalem Christians fully capable of translating James’ words into fluent Greek, as can be seen from the procedure followed in composing a letter to the Gentile Christians of Syria and Cilicia after the Council of Jerusalem in A.D. 49 (Acts 15)." Kümmel objects to an amanuensis[KX1] on the grounds that nothing in the epistle seems to suggest such, but neither does the letter in Acts. It is true that the epistle uses the Greek literary device of diatribe in 2:18-26 and 5:13-15, but this is no more inherently implausible for the Apostle to have written, than Paul’s catalogue of vices in Galatians 5:19-21.
Supporting authorship by James is the fact that the author seems to be fairly Jewish. For one, the epistle’s lack of structure, which is almost a homily and is only a letter because of the address in 1:1, and does not even have an ending (which perhaps, it arguably could not, but nevertheless no structure and no arguments that we see clearly in the Hellenistic Church revolved around Paul). The content is in the Jewish tradition of wisdom sayings. Furthermore, "it is Palestine which such climatic and social conditions as are mentioned would suggest is the background of the writer, whatever the location of his readers. Though many of the allusions would be relevant throughout the Mediterranean, some have been seen to apply more peculiarly to Palestine (e.g., 1.11; 3.11f.; 5.7, 17f). Thus, the reference to 'the former and the latter rains' (5.7), so familiar from the Old Testament (Deut.11.4; Jer.5.24; Joel 2.23; Zech.10.1), would seem to point specifically to the climate of Palestine and southern Syria."
2. Some find it inconceivable that the brother of the Lord would include no personal references to Jesus’ earthly life or anything at all. The epistle even uses Job and not Jesus as an example of righteous suffering (5:11)! Yet this objection fails on the nature and purpose of the epistle since the epistle doesn’t mention the gospel, or the meaning of Jesus' death and resurrection as well, which a forger would be sure to insert. As Hauer and Young, who don't argue for authenticity, note,
Despite its attribution to James, the brother of Jesus and a leader of the Jerusalem church, the work makes almost no mention of Jesus or the gospel. It apparently presumes that its readers are already familiar with who Jesus is and the meaning of his coming, and focuses instead on the question of how Christians ought to live.[RA]
It is indeed possible that the reason there are no such references is due to the fact that the epistle is concerned with teaching on conduct. The fact is, despite referring to himself as the brother of Jesus, the epistle’s purpose is clearly that of moral instruction and Christian duty. This is not the only problem of this objection. As Robinson notes,
If it is reasonable to ask why, if he stood in this special relationship to Jesus, he mentions nothing of his life, death or resurrection, it is still more difficult to explain why such details were not inserted later, to add credence and verisimilitude. For the Gospel of the Hebrews [Hennecke, NT Apoc. I, 165.] elaborates the personal appearance to James, mentioned casually in I Cor.15.7, and the legendary description of James 'the Just' given by Hegesippus [Quoted by Eusebius, HE 2. 23. 4-18.] shows the lengths that hagiography had reached by the second century. Yet, as Zahn says, [INT I, 140.] the epistle 'does not bring out a single one of those characteristics by which James is distinguished in history and legend.' In fact the argument for pseudonymity is weaker here than with any other of the New Testament epistles. At least the Pastorals and the Petrines are claiming to be written by men calling themselves apostles, and a case can be made for their being put out in the name of authorities from the past to say things that require to be said in the conflicts or controversies of a later age. But why produce a non-polemical Jewish-Christian epistle that is not even taking the position of the Judaizers but simply giving a call, as the NEB heads it, to 'practical religion'? And if it was to oppose Paul and all his works, why is he not more specifically attacked and why is there no stress on the unique and unrepeatable status of the writer as the brother of the Lord himself? It would seem easier to believe that it was the work of another completely unknown James. [Moffatt, ILNT, 472-5, sees the objections to pseudonymity and indeed to every other alternative so forcibly that he is reduced to concluding: 'The phenomena of criticism upon the Jacobean homily are perplexing, but they are not to be taken as discrediting the science of New Testament literary research' (475)!]
And Richard Heard adds, "The lack of any appeal to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, whose name is mentioned only twice in the epistle (1:1, 2:1), is at first sight hard to reconcile with the authorship of James, the Lord’s brother, and has led to speculation as to the possibility of the first verse being a later addition based on an erroneous conjecture as to its authorship.[n1]... On the other hand the very absence of theological interpretation of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus tells against any theory that the epistle is the work of a later anonymous Christian, and it is better to take the silence of James, like that of Jude, as an indication of the way in which the brethren of Jesus proclaimed their faith."[rh2]
Furthermore, the reason for the reference to the suffering of Job, as opposed to Christ's, is the type of suffering analogous to the Christians'. Just like Job, the Christians are expected to survive and Christ's righteous suffering, which had an entirely different type of purpose and resulted in death, is totally incompatible in this example. (5:11 - '...You have heard of Job's perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.' is much better suited to non-lethal persecutions [in the overall scale, unlike Nero], but attacks such as the forty lashes minus one that Paul [1 cor.] and the Apostles [Acts 5] received. Also 5.7-9's tone).
3. Another objection to authorship is the seemingly peculiar stance the epistle has with respect to the Law which does not seem befitting the leader of the Jerusalem church. Kümmel basically argues that James wouldn’t speak of “the law of perfect liberty” (1:25), and could concretize the Law by means of ethical commands (2:11f.) and not mention any of the ritualistic commands.[RF] But observing the Law is not what we know about James at all. This thinking, left over from the Tübingen School, makes too much of the situation described in Galatians 2. Paul opposes men from James, who apprarently imposed the Law and traditions on their own accord, since James gave Paul the “right hand of fellowship” prior to this incident (Gal. 2:9) and to maintain James changed his mind later on is ridiculous [for a reference to Paul’s overall acceptance in theological matters, Gal. 2:1-10). Also, early tradition places James not as an opponent of Paul, but of the Judaizers (Acts 15:5-11, 13, 24; 21:6) and any such dispute would have been surely noted instead of that tradition. In addition to that, why the author would attribute the letter to James if he were known as a Judaizer is incredible. Certainly the reasoning that the forger of the epistle wanted to impose upon the (by the time of the forger, dead) Jerusalem leader an attitude agreeing with Paul fails because the argument is not central to the epistle at all, and one has to explain why the forger would have phrased 2:14-26 in such a way so as to make it seem as if it is attacking Paul, not supporting him!
4. Yet another objection against authorship is that James would not have misunderstood Paul’s position with respect to faith and works as 2:14ff. seems to do. Yet as it has been said above, the type of faith James has in mind is not the same that Paul is talking about, and this is purposeful.
5. Another argument against James’ authenticity is the epistle’s slow acceptance into the canon, and the lack of early attestation. But it is precisely because of its characteristics that would have produced such reluctance to accept it. The epistle’s Jewishness, lack of central Christian themes such as the cross (and the parousia is mentioned only in passing with no elaboration on what it constitutes whatsoever) and overall untheological nature, as well as the almost anti-Pauline outlook on faith certainly would have made it a suspicious document of accepting and quoting, and would have definitely limited its circulation and interest in it. Neither was James a very prominent figure after the development of the Gentile mission. As Richard Heard notes,
The original prestige of James, so potent in the earliest days of the church, soon waned when the church of Jerusalem lost its position of leadership, and James became a shadowy figure, known only from a few references in the Pauline epistles, from the Acts of the Apostles, a work which for a considerable time seems to have had limited currency, and from the legends of later Jewish Christians, notably in the Gospel according to the Hebrews, Hegesippus, and the Clementine Recognitions. The very simplicity of the epistle, and its lack of historical data, helped to diminish its importance. It was only with the passing of time and the rise of a general tendency to extend canonicity to such minor works as Jude and 2 and 3 John that James also came into its own.
Therefore, from the above it is clear that the epistle most likely does come from the Apostle, some time around either after Paul's argument in Romans, or prior to it. The date is therefore 45-50, or 57-62.
- Josephus, Antiquities, 20.9
- Sidebottom, James, Jude and 2 Peter, 141
- Hauer and Young, An Introduction to the Bible: A Journey into Three Worlds, 339.
- Kümmel, Introduction to the New Testament, 291
- Based on no textual evidence