What James Teaches Us About Early Christianity

What could we learn about early Christianity just by reading the other documents of the New Testament?

A third-century copy of James 1:15-18 (Papyrus Oxyrhynchys 1229, designated by P23 on Gregory-Aland).
A third-century copy of James 1:15-18 (Papyrus Oxyrhynchys 1229, designated by P23 on Gregory-Aland). (photo: Register Files)

The Gospels and Acts are our best sources about Jesus and the early history of Christianity.

But suppose we didn’t have them?

What could we learn about early Christianity just by reading the other documents of the New Testament?

More than you might think!

The letter of James is one of the earliest books of the New Testament—perhaps the earliest.

So let’s look at what we could learn from the letter of James and how this material parallels (and thus confirms) what we find in the Gospels and Acts . . .


1. A Jewish Leader

The opening verse of the letter reads:

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greeting (Jas. 1:1).

This reveals that the early Christian movement contained a very prominent Jewish figure named James.

The name “James” (Greek, Iakōbos) itself is Jewish, and the fact that he addresses an international audience indicates that he had an international reputation and could expect Christians in distant lands to know who he was.

This is underscored by the fact he introduces himself without any discussion of his biography, showing he is someone who needs no further introduction.

In the Gospels and Acts, we read of several early Christian leaders named “James” (Matt. 10:2-3, 13:55) and it is widely thought that this author of the letter was James the “brother” of Jesus, who later assumed a prominent leadership role in the church in Jerusalem (Acts 12:17, 15:13, 21:18, cf. 1 Cor. 15:7, Gal. 1:19, 2:9, 2:12).


2. A Jewish Movement

Numerous elements in the letter indicate a Jewish origin for the Christian movement. These include:

  • The Jewish names of prominent figures (James and Jesus; Jas. 1:1)
  • Belief there is a single God (Jas. 1:1, 2:19)
  • Belief in the Messiah, or Christ (Jas. 1:1, 2:1)
  • The address to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (Jas. 1:1)
  • The description of Abraham as “our father” (Jas. 2:21)
  • Citations of the Jewish Scriptures (Jas. 2:8, 2:11, 2:21-25, 4:6)
  • Use of the word “synagogue” (sunagōgē) instead of  “church” (ekklesia) to refer to Christian meetings (Jas. 2:2)

From what one could gather from this letter, Christianity might be seen as an exclusively Jewish movement. There are no clear indications in the letter that Gentile Christians even exist (which may point to it having a very early date).

This corresponds to the picture we have from the Gospels of Christianity beginning as a movement within Judaism.


3. A Distinctive Movement

Christianity differed from other Jewish movements and had a distinct message, which they regarded as “the word of truth” (Jas. 1:18). They held that this “implanted word . . . is able to save your souls” (Jas. 1:21).

This corresponds to the distinctively Christian message—known as the “gospel” or “good news”—that we read of in the Gospels (Matt. 4:23, Mark 1:1, 15, Luke 9:6, etc.).


4. A Movement Focused on Jesus

The Christian movement is focused on Jesus in a special way. He is described as “the Lord Jesus Christ” (Jas. 1:1, 2:1), indicating that he is believed to be the Messiah (Christ).

He is placed in parallel with God, for James describes himself as “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Jas. 1:1, emphasis added).

He is a supernatural figure, for he is described as “the Lord . . . of glory” (Jas. 2:1).

Christians have had the “honorable name” of Jesus “invoked over” them (Jas. 2:7), possibly at the time of their initiation into the movement.

In the Gospels, Jesus is frequently referred to as “Lord” (Matt. 7:21-22, 8:2, 6, 8, etc.) and “Christ” (Matt. 1:1, 16-18, 11:2, etc.).

The Christian message was focused on Jesus as an object of faith (John 3:16, 36, Acts 4:12, 16:31). Jesus is a supernatural figure parallel to God (Matt. 16:15-16, 28:19, John 1:1-2, 14).

And salvation is linked to the name of Jesus (Acts 4:12), including in Christian initiation (Acts 2:38, 8:12, 16, 10:48, 19:5).


5. The Structure of the Movement

The address to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (Jas. 1:1) indicates that there were many Jewish Christians living outside of Palestine.

Christians have regular meetings, possibly in Jewish synagogues (Jas. 2:2).

Some Christians are tasked with being teachers (Jas. 3:1)—people who offer instruction in the distinctly Christian message.

There are also figures known as elders (presbyters) who in ministering to the sick with respect to prayer, anointing, healing, and forgiveness (Jas. 5:14-15).

In the Gospels and Acts, we learn that Christians met for a time in synagogues (John 16:2), that Jesus commissioned teachers (Matt. 10:1-4, Luke 10:1-9), and that there were officers known as elders (Acts 11:30, 14:23, 15:2, etc.).


6. A Movement Under Siege

The letter indicates that Christians experienced significant opposition. This can be seen by the negative references to “the world,” which is perceived as hostile and a source of unrighteousness (Jas. 1:27, 3:6, 4:4).

It is also indicated by the letter’s counsel regarding how to deal with trials. This is the very first subject that the author takes up in the letter (Jas. 1:2).

Furthermore, there are indications that rich non-Christians spoke against the movement and its Christ and dragged Christians into court (Jas. 2:6-7).

In the Gospels we find Jesus regarding “the world” as a source of defilement (Matt. 13:22) and as being in opposition to the Christian movement (John 1:10, 7:7, 14:17, etc.).

We also find Jesus giving a large number of teachings preparing his followers to face persecution and trials (Matt. 5:10-12, 44, 10:16-23, 28-39, 24:9-13), and the book of Acts records numerous instances of opposition that the early Christians faced as they spread their message.


7. The Teachings of Jesus

One would expect the fundamentals of the Christian message to have been given to the movement by its central figure, “the Lord Jesus Christ.”

We thus might expect teachings found in the letter of James to correspond to—and thus confirm—the teachings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels.

This is, in fact, what we do find. James includes many statements that echo those made by Jesus. Working our way through the letter, we find the following:

  • One should rejoice in trials (Jas. 1:2; cf. Matt. 5:12)
  • One must strive for perfection (Jas. 1:4; cf. Matt. 5:48)
  • Warning against anger (Jas. 1:20; cf. Matt. 5:22)
  • One must be a doer rather than a hearer (Jas. 1:22, 2:14-26; cf. Matt. 7:24-27 )
  • People will be judged by their speech (Jas. 1:26, 3:1-12; cf. Matt. 12:36-37)
  • One must care for those in need (Jas. 1:27, 2:15; cf. Matt. 25:35)
  • The poor will inherit the kingdom (Jas. 2:5; cf. Matt. 5:3, Luke 6:20)
  • The major commandment is to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Jas. 2:8; cf. Matt. 7:12, 22:39-40)
  • One must keep the whole law (Jas. 2:10; cf. Matt. 5:17-20, 48)
  • The Ten Commandments are to be observed (Jas. 2:11; cf. Matt. 19:16-19)
  • Mercy will be shown to the merciful but not the unmerciful (Jas. 2:13; cf. Matt. 5:7, 6:14-15, 7:1-2)
  • Lip service is not enough (Jas. 2:14-16; cf. Matt. 7:21-23)
  • One must not curse others (Jas. 3:10, 4:11; cf. Matt. 5:22, 7:1-2)
  • One is to adopt a humble attitude (Jas. 3:13-16; cf. Matt. 5:3)
  • Spiritual lesson: One kind of tree does not bear another kind of fruit (Jas. 3:11: cf. Matt. 7:16-20)
  • One must not judge others (Jas. 3:17, 4:11, 5:9; cf. Matt. 7:1)
  • One must make peace (Jas. 3:17; cf. Matt. 5:5, 9)
  • Hypocrisy condemned (Jas. 3:17; cf. Matt. 6:2, 5, 16, 15:7, 22:18, 23-13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29)
  • One must choose either God or worldly things (Jas. 4:4; cf. Matt. 6:24)
  • The materially prosperous should not presume they will continue to live (Jas. 4:13; cf. Luke 12:13-21)
  • The rich are in spiritual danger (Jas. 5:1-5; cf. Matt. 19:23-24)
  • What kind of treasure do you have with God? (Jas. 5:2-3; cf. Matt. 6:19)
  • Waiting for the kingdom is like a farmer waiting on his crops (Jas. 5:7; cf. Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43, Mark 4:26-29)
  • The imminence of the day of the Lord (Jas. 5:8-9; cf. Matt. 24:32-34, 42-44)
  • Christians are like the prophets in experiencing suffering (Jas. 5:10; cf. Matt. 5:12)
  • Blessed are those who endure (Jas. 5:11; cf. Matt. 24:13)
  • One must not swear oaths (Jas. 5:12; cf. Matt. 5:33-37)
  • Forgiveness is possible for those who “wander from the truth” if they repent (Jas. 5:19; cf. Luke 15:11-32)

Although many of these statements have additional parallels (not listed here) in Mark, Luke, and John, it is striking the number of them that are paralleled in Matthew, and specifically in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7).

This suggests, at a minimum, that the same Jesus traditions that were eventually preserved in Matthew were also in circulation in the community of which James was a part.

Also, it may be noted that James twice accuses members of his audience of “murder” (Jas. 4:2, 5:6). This is a very uncommon crime, suggesting that he may mean the term to be taken in a non-literal sense, such as the one suggested by Jesus in the Gospels, which extends the “Do not commit murder” commandment to situations in which literal killing was not involved (Matt. 5:21-22).


8. Very Close Parallels

The above parallels are often express the same or similar thoughts as those in the Gospels, though they use different words to do so. However, some of the parallels are strikingly close. One of the most striking is:

But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath, but let your yes be yes and your no be no, that you may not fall under condemnation (Jas. 5:12).

Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool . . . Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil (Matt. 5:34-37).


9. Paradoxical Truths

The influence of Jesus can also be seen in the way that the letter of James often expresses truths in paradoxical form:

  • People should rejoice concerning their trials (Jas. 1:2)
  • The humble have a high position (Jas. 1:9)
  • The rich have a low position (Jas. 1:10)
  • The poor are actually rich (Jas. 2:5)

This echoes similar, paradoxical statements made by Jesus in the Gospels, such as:

  • He who saves his life will lose it (Matt. 10:39, 16:25)
  • The first will be last and the last will be first (Matt. 19:30, 20:16)
  • The leader must be the servant of all (Matt. 20:26-27, 23:11)


10. The Family of God

In addition to the parallels mentioned above, there are also parallels on a number of specific matters, such as the “family of God” metaphor used in James.

In the letter, God is regarded as Father (Jas. 1:27, 3:9), and Christians are regarded as brothers (Jas. 1:2, 15, 19, 2:1, 5, 14, 3:1, 10, 12, 4:11, 5:7-10, 12, 19).

How did Christians come to see God as their Father and other Christians as their brothers? A clue is given in James, who describes Christians as having been given birth by God “through the message of truth” (Jas. 1:18).

This parallels Jesus’ statements regarding God as Father (e.g., Matt. 5:45, 48, 6:1, 4, 6, 8-9, 14-16, etc.; esp. Matt. 23:9), and his teaching that Christians “are all brothers” (Matt. 23:8, cf. Mark 10:29-30).

Similarly, in the Gospels, Christians are also regarded as having been given a new birth by God (John 1:12-13, 3:3-8).


11. Healing and Forgiveness

There are also parallels involving ministries of healing and forgiveness.

James reveals that the elders of the Christian community exercised a ministry in which they prayed for and anointed the sick, bringing them healing and, if they had committed sins, forgiveness (Jas. 5:14-16).

In the Gospels, Jesus both heals people, including in conjunction with forgiveness (Matt. 9:1-8). His ministers also anointed the sick with oil (Mark 6:13), and he commissioned them to forgive sins (John 20:21-23).


12. The Last Days

Finally, both James and the Gospels contain parallels regarding what Christians believed about the future.

James indicates that Christians believed in a future judgment (Jas. 2:12-13, 3:1, 4:12, 5:1-5, 9, 12).

This judgment could occur at the end of one’s life, but there is a special belief in a judgment that will occur in “the last days” (Jas. 5:3)—at “the coming of the Lord,” which Christians must patiently await (Jas. 5:7), though it is “at hand” (Jas. 5:8).

In the Gospels and Acts, we also see a lively expectation regarding what God will do in the future.

There is a clear belief in a future judgment (Matt. 10:15, 11:22, 24, 12:36), including a belief in a future “coming” of the Lord (Matt. 24:3, 27, 37, etc.) and a dramatic change in the world on the “last day” (John 6:39-40, 44, 54, 11:24, 12:48; cf. Matt. 28:20). These events are unpredictable but in some sense imminent (Matt. 24:32-34, 42-44).


13. Conclusion

The letter of James gives us a great deal of information about the early Christian movement and its teachings. Even if we did not have the Gospels and Acts, we could learn a large amount about early Christianity simply from this letter.

The picture painted in the letter of James also corresponds to what we find in the Gospels and Acts on numerous points—including material found in John but not in the Synoptic Gospels—thus corroborating the picture they give us of the early Christian movement.