The writer of the letter of James did not provide any identifying details about himself. This suggests that the mere mention of his name was sufficient for its recipients to know who had written it. Only James, the brother of the Lord Jesus Christ, appears to have had this kind of name recognition. (Galatians 1:19) James the father of the apostle Judas (not Judas Iscariot) likely was not alive at the time the letter was written, and nothing in the Scriptural record indicates that he even was a disciple of Jesus Christ. (Luke 6:16; Acts 1:13) The fact that James did not refer to himself as an apostle would seem to rule out James the son of Alphaeus, and James the brother of the apostle John. (Matthew 10:2, 3) Of the two apostles, the brother of John figures more prominently in the biblical accounts, but he was the first apostle to be executed at the order of Herod Agrippa I who died in 44 CE. (Acts 12:1, 2) The contents of the letter of James would not support such an early date for its composition.
James “the brother of the Lord” was indeed widely known. (Galatians 1:19) The Jewish historian Josephus mentions his death as taking place at the order of Ananus, one of the five sons of Ananus (Annas) who held the office of high priest. This younger Ananus was a very arrogant man who, like the other members of the sect of the Sadducees, was very harsh in judging offenders. After the Roman governor Festus had died and his replacement Albinus was on the way to Judea, Ananus seized the opportunity to exercise his authority. He assembled the Sanhedrin and “brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others.” After Ananus had formulated an accusation against them as violators of the law, he handed them over to be stoned to death. (Antiquities, XX, ix, 1)
Ananus did not have the authority to act in this manner, and certain Jews undertook to meet Albinus before his arrival in Judea to inform him about what had taken place. Albinus then wrote to Ananus, threatening to have him punished. Subsequently, Herod Agrippa II, who then had the authority to appoint the Jewish high priests, deposed Ananus after he had served as high priest for just three months. (Antiquities, XX, ix, 1)
It appears that James came to believe in Jesus as the promised Messiah or Christ when he appeared to him after his resurrection. (1 Corinthians 15:7; compare John 7:3-5.) Although he became a devoted disciple, James continued to live according to the requirements of the Mosaic law among the Jews in Jerusalem and so appears to have been held in high regard, as the complaint made against the actions of Ananus may imply. (Compare Acts 21:18-26.) An account from Hegesippus (second century CE) quoted by Eusebius indicates that James lived like a Nazarite. The account of Hegesippus implies that, as a Nazarite, James had priestly privileges. To what extent Hegesippus preserved a reliable tradition about him cannot be determined, and his account has little in common with that of Josephus.
According to Eusebius, Hegesippus wrote about James in his fifth book: “He was holy from his mother’s womb; and he drank no wine nor strong drink, nor did he eat flesh. No razor came upon his head; he did not anoint himself with oil, and he did not use the bath. He alone was permitted to enter into the holy place; for he wore not woolen but linen garments. And he was in the habit of entering alone into the temple, and was frequently found upon his knees begging forgiveness for the people, so that his knees became hard like those of a camel, in consequence of his constantly bending them in his worship of God, and asking forgiveness for the people.” (Ecclesiastical History, Book II, xxiii, 5, 6)
On account of the testimony of James, numerous Jews came to believe in Jesus. The unbelieving Jews were disturbed and feared that the danger existed that all the people would come to regard Jesus as the promised Messiah or Christ. So, according to Hegesippus, they approached James, saying to him: “Restrain the people; for they have gone astray in regard to Jesus, as if he were the Christ. We entreat you to persuade all who have come to the Passover festival concerning Jesus; for all of us have confidence in you. For we bear you witness, as do all the people, that you are just, and do not respect persons. Therefore, persuade the multitude not to be led astray concerning Jesus. For the whole people, and all of us also, have confidence in you. Stand therefore upon the pinnacle of the temple, that from that high position you may be clearly seen, and that your words may be readily heard by all the people. For all the tribes, with the Gentiles also, have come together on account of the Passover.” (Ecclesiastical History, Book II, xxiii, 10, 11)
Certain scribes and Pharisees then had James stand on the pinnacle of the temple, and cried out to him, “You just one, in whom we ought all to have confidence, forasmuch as the people are led astray after Jesus, the crucified one, declare to us, What is the gate of Jesus?” (Ecclesiastical History, Book II, xxiii, 12 [The reference to the “gate of Jesus” may relate to Jesus’ words, “I am the gate of the sheep.” (John 10:7)])
James reportedly answered with a loud voice, “Why do you ask me concerning Jesus, the Son of Man? He himself sits in heaven at the right hand of the great Power, and is about to come upon the clouds of heaven.” (Ecclesiastical History, Book II, xxiii, 13)
The same scribes and Pharisees then regretted that they had arranged for James to give his testimony and decided to throw him down. The fall did not kill him, and so they determined to stone him to death, saying, “Let us stone James the Just.” (Ecclesiastical History, Book II, xxiii, 14-16)
Josephus and Hegesippus are in agreement that a decision was made to stone James to death, but they do not corroborate any of the specifics in either of their accounts. Eusebius, although quoting from Josephus’s Antiquities, Book XX, provided no explanation regarding the differences. He, however, did add regarding this James, “These things are recorded in regard to James, who is said to be the author of the first of the so-called catholic epistles [likely meaning the first of the seven (James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, and Jude) to be written]. But it is to be observed that it is disputed; at least, not many of the ancients have mentioned it, as is the case likewise with the epistle that bears the name of Jude, which is also one of the seven so-called catholic epistles. Nevertheless we know that these also, with the rest, have been read publicly in very many churches.” (Ecclesiatical History, Book II, xxiii, 25)
Many have thought that the expressions about the importance of works in the letter of James do not agree with Paul’s words that being justified (or being granted an approved standing with God) is not possible on the basis of works. There is, however, no real contradiction. Paul repeatedly emphasized the need for believers to live upright lives, always letting love guide their actions. Like James, Paul urged them to speak and act in a manner that harmonized with their faith in God and Christ. (Romans 12:1, 2; 13:8-14; 14:15; 1 Corinthians 5:9-13; 6:9-11; 10:31-33; 13:1-7; 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1; Galatians 5:16-21; 6:7-10; Ephesians 4:20-5:20; Colossians 3:5-14; 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8)
Whereas James highlighted works as an essential evidence of a living faith that made one acceptable to God, Paul made it clear that the existence of the faith on the basis of which one gains an approved standing with God is productive of upright conduct or good works. (James 2:14-26; Galatians 5:13-25; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; 2 Corinthians 5:9, 10) God’s declaring individuals guiltless on the basis of their faith in his Son and his Son’s sacrificial death for them, however, is an expression of his gracious favor and is not something that can be earned by works. This aspect is not the focus of the letter James wrote. His objective was to admonish believers who had been justified or had come to have a divinely approved standing as members of the true Israel, the people of God. They needed to be concerned about having a living faith, a faith that revealed itself by works of love and compassion for others. (James 2:19-26)
Such an active faith was also essential for them to remain loyal to God and Christ when subjected to trials. As persons with genuine faith, believers would persevere in prayer, petitioning their heavenly Father to sustain them in their trials and to grant them the needed wisdom to deal with the distressing circumstances they faced. (James 1:2-8)