Introducing the New Testament, 2nd Edition

A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey


25. James

Video Introduction


This chapter offers a brief overview of the contents of James, followed by discussion of historical background and major themes.

In terms of historical background, the book has traditionally been regarded as a letter from James the brother of Jesus to Jewish Christians who live outside of Palestine. Some scholars think the letter is actually pseudepigraphical, but in any case, it does reflect a Jewish Christian perspective influenced by Israelite wisdom tradition, Greco-Roman diatribe, and the teachings of Jesus.

The letter of James encourages its readers to develop a positive outlook on trials and temptations, including temptations to sin, which, when resisted, strengthen their faith. The letter also contrasts “wisdom from above” with worldly wisdom and urges its readers not to be double-minded in trying to hold to both. Most notably, James addresses the issue of “faith and works” and appears to contradict what Paul says about people being made righteous by faith alone. Most scholars, however, assume that James means something different by “faith” (and possibly by “works”) than Paul did, such that the apparent disagreement is largely one of semantics. Finally, the letter of James exhibits pronounced concern for the poor and an attendant hostility toward the rich.

Study Questions

  1. Summarize what is known about James, the brother of Jesus. How is he presented in the New Testament, and what do we know of him from other sources?

  2. Give two ways in which James exhibits common features of Wisdom literature, providing an example of each.

  3. What is the “wisdom from above” about which James speaks, and how does one acquire it? Give half a dozen illustrations of what would characterize people who possess such wisdom.

  4. Compare and contrast what the letter of James says about “faith and works” with what is said about “faith and works” in Paul’s letters. How might the two perspectives be reconciled?

  5. What marks a person as “poor” according to the letter of James, and what marks a person as “rich”? What advice does James give the church concerning the poor? What does James suggest rich people ought to do?

Video: The Poor in James

Interactive: Parallels between James and Proverbs

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Click to see parallels between James and Proverbs.