Sacred Scripture Deep Dive: The Letter of James

Daniel Witham

Sacred Scripture Deep Dive: The Letter of James

Today we will do a deep-dive into one of my favorite books of the Bible, the Letter of St. James. I plan to explore the authorship of this letter, the timing and context it was written in, and offer some observations on the key points it offers us for reflection. 


The Letter is signed in chapter one by “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” There are at least three Jameses mentioned in the early Christian community, however: the two apostles, James the Great (the son of Zebedee) and James the Less (the son of Alphaeus), along with James “the brother of Jesus”-- who may have been the same person as James the Less. The word translated often as "brother" in the Greek may mean several different things - brother, cousin, relation. The translation of the word to "brother" does not necessarily imply shared parents. This last James became a leader in the early church community of Jerusalem. Traditionally, he is considered to be the author of this epistle. It is interesting to note however, that the author does not name himself as an apostle. 


James the brother of the Lord was martyred around the year AD 62, which would make the letter one of the earliest writings of the New Testament. 


James writes “To the twelve tribes in the dispersion.” He is likely addressing his words to Jewish Christians outside Jerusalem. We can note his references to observing the Mosaic law as evidence that he was likely writing to Jewish Chrsitians in an early period. He writes to encourage and comfort them in a time of persecution and difficulty, as well as to correct some of their errors. He is concerned that his listeners’ outward conduct be in unison with the faith they inwardly possess. 

Key points 

Some of the main points as we read and reflect on James’ message can be summarized as the following: 

1. Disciples of Christ are to be hearers and doers of the Word, not hearers only. It is insufficient to hear the Word of God (Christ) and not do good in conformity with that Word. James writes: “Be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look

at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like… If any think they are religious and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless” (James 1:22-26). It is clear that James wishes his audience to have a truly christian anthropology which recognizes that we are both body and soul, therefore needing faith and works. He continues later on, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone… For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead” (James 2:24-26). 

2. The second key point follows from the first. It is that to be a doer of the Word means that we love our neighbor. We know the great commandment given by Christ, to love God with all our heart, and our neighbor as ourselves. James elaborates on this theme, because he sees faith and works as going hand in hand. It is as if faith means for him the love of God, while works mean the love of neighbor. He writes, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27). And again, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2: 15-17). 

3. Another interesting moment in this letter is the great importance the author places on the need to restrain one’s speech. He ties this in with his first theme mentioned above. James’ advice is that the tongue is a powerful thing; it can render blessing or cursing, and in turn bring down good things or evil things on a man or woman. “Look at ships,” he writes, “though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of life, and is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3:4-6). Speech is powerful, perhaps more so than any other human ability. He writes also of the hypocrisy of those who do not restrain their tongues and who speak evil of their neighbors. “With [the tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse people, made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth comes a blessing and a curse. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so” (James 3:9-10). Just as a Christian must love God and neighbor with his tongue, he must have faith and live out his faith with good works. 

4. Patience in suffering is the fourth main take-away from the Letter of St. James. As I mentioned before, James was writing to encourage persecuted Christians. He begins his letter, in fact, by saying that we should consider all our trials to be joys, because trials are the source of endurance. When we persevere through sufferings, we become perfected inour faith. But that is not all. James also encourages his listeners to have a patient attitude during our sufferings. We must not only endure difficulties and persecutions, but do so with patient and joyful hearts. He says, “Brothers and sisters, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged” (James 5:9). As a conclusion to these exhortations, the reader is reminded of the example of Job in the Old Testament, how he was rewarded for his patience in suffering many things. As we reflect on this Letter, we should try to apply an attitude of patience and joy in all our daily difficulties. 

5. Finally, at the very end of this short book, St. James makes perhaps the clearest reference to the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick in all of Scripture. He instructs the early Church, “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up, and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed” (James 5:14-16). As we know, this sacrament is meant to provide those who are seriously ill with the grace and strength they need. Sometimes, the sacrament may heal the person. Other times, it gives them necessary strength to face death confidently, as a Christian. James also mentions another effect of this sacrament: those who receive it are forgiven their sins if they are unable to make a confession. 

I hope that this deep-dive into the Letter of St. James has been a helpful introduction to one of the many beautiful books of the New Testament. I find in my own life that praying with Scripture is a very fruitful practice, but I tend to focus on the Gospels and neglect some of the other writings. The Letter of James can be a great place to begin prayerfully meditating on some of the New Testament epistles and to hear the advice of the earliest bishops of the Church.