Who Wrote the Epistle of James?

‘James, a servant of God, and of the Lord Jesus Christ…’ (James 1.1). Who is this James? He describes himself as a ‘servant [doulos, slave] of God’ and a servant/slave ‘of the Lord Jesus Christ’.

(Dr Jeff Riddle is a well-known advocate of the Traditional Text of the New Testament. In this article he shows the superiority of the old view of the authorship of James by contrast with that adopted in modern study Bibles.)

The Gospels tell us that there were two of the twelve apostles who were named James (see the lists of the twelve in Matthew 10; Mark 3; and Luke 6; cf. Acts 1). The first was James, the brother of John and the son of Zebedee. He was one of the closest friends and companions to the Lord Jesus, along with Peter and John. This James is sometimes called James the Major or Greater. The second was a disciple named James the son of Alphaeus, who is mentioned much less frequently in the Gospels, and has sometimes been called James the Minor or Less.

In addition, there is mention made in the Gospels of one who was a brother of Jesus named James (see Matthew 13.53-58; Mark 6.3: ‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us?’) It is sometimes suggested that this was a third James, the brother of the Lord. It was said by some early writers that he was among the seventy sent out by Christ (Luke 10) and that he was sometimes called Oblias and ‘James the Just’. It was he, they suggest, who is the James who became the leader of the early church in Jerusalem, and who stood up to speak in the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15.13).

I might add that there is what we could call a fourth James, the brother (or father?) of the apostle Judas (literally ‘Judas of James’) (Luke 6.16; Acts 1.13; this is the Judas ‘not Iscariot’ of John 14.22).[1] The traditional Protestant orthodox view (reviewed below) would see this James as James the son of Alphaeus and the Judas (Jude) here as the author of Jude and the brother of James son of Alphaeus (Jude 1.1).

Which James wrote this epistle? Here are some observations that help us make a judgement: First, notice that the author does not identify himself as James the brother of John, or James the son of Alphaeus, or as James the brother of Jesus. He does not identify himself as an apostle but simply as a slave of God. Second, we know it is not likely that the author was James the brother of John, because that James died very early on as a martyr, the first among the apostles to die for his faith, at the hands of Herod (Acts 12.2). Third, it is possible that James the apostle, the son of Alphaeus, and James the brother of the Lord were the same person, so that there were not three prominent men among the early Christians but only two. So, how can we say that James the son of Alphaeus was also the brother of the Lord? The key here would be to understand the word ‘brother’, not with the nearest sense as ‘sibling’, but more broadly as a kinsman or ‘cousin’. Those who hold this view say that this James was the son of the sister of Jesus’ mother, also named Mary, the wife of Cleophas (another name for Alphaeus). Note the following texts:–

John 19.25: ‘Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene.’ Matthew 27.56: ‘Among which was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee’s children.’ Mark 15.40: ‘There were also women looking on afar off: among whom was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome.’ Mark 16.1: ‘And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.’ Luke 24.10: ‘It was Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women that were with them, which told these things unto the apostles.’

This view that the author of James was the apostle James, the son of Alphaeus, who was also the brother (kinsman) of Christ, was held by many ancient men in the church, including Jerome (see his Lives of ­Illustrious Men, chapter 2) and many of the early Protestant exegetes. The Protestant men, in particular, pointed to Galatians 1.19 where Paul wrote of his early trip to Jerusalem, ‘But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord’s brother.’ Then they look to Galatians 2.9 where Paul refers to James, Cephas, and John ‘who seemed to be pillars’ and conclude that this James must have been an apostle, otherwise, he would not have been accepted as a ‘pillar’ alongside Peter and John.

No proof of a third James

Here is the conclusion reached in Matthew Poole’s commentary (1685):

‘It is not certain that there were three Jameses, two of them apostles and the third (called Oblias and James the Just) one of the seventy disciples; the scripture mentioning but two, one the son of Zebedee, the other of Alphaeus, called the brother of the Lord (Galatians 1.19), as being of kin to his family; and said to be a pillar (Galatians 2.9), and joined with Peter and John. And though some have thought the James mentioned there to have been the third James, called Oblias, and one of the seventy; yet it is more probable that he was indeed no other than the son of Alphaeus, and one of the twelve; nor is it likely, that one of the disciples should be numbered as one of the three pillars, and therein preferred above so many apostles. This James, therefore, upon the whole, I take to be the penman of this epistle….’

Here also is Thomas Manton in his commentary on James (1693):

‘For indeed there were but two Jameses, this latter James being the same with him of Alphaeus; for plainly the brother of the Lord is reckoned among the apostles (Galatians 1.19); and called a pillar (Galatians 2.9); and he is called the brother of the Lord, because he was in that family to which Christ was numbered… Well then, there being two, to which of these is the epistle ascribed?…Well, then, James the Less is the person whom we have found to be the instrument which the Spirit of God made use of to convey this treasure to the church’ (12-13).

And here is Matthew Henry’s commentary (expanded upon and published after his death in 1714):

‘The writer of this epistle was not James the son of Zebedee; for he was put to death by Herod (Acts 12) before Christianity had gained so much ground among the Jews of the dispersion, as is here implied. But it was the other James, the son of ­Alphaeus, who was cousin-german to Christ, and one of the twelve apostles (Matthew 10.3). He is called a pillar (Galatians 2.9), and this epistle of his cannot be disputed, without loosening a foundation stone.’

I must note, however, that in John Calvin’s commentary on James of 1551 he concluded that whether James was written by James the son of Alphaeus or another James who was ‘the ruler of the church at Jerusalem’, ‘it is not for me to say’. He prefaced this conclusion by saying, ‘It is enough for men to receive this epistle, that it contains nothing unworthy of an apostle of Christ.’

Though Manton is much firmer in his convictions that James the son of Alphaeus and ‘brother of the Lord’ is the author, he nevertheless refers to the human author as ‘the subordinate author or instrument’. His point being that whoever wrote it, whether an apostle or not, the true author was the Lord himself by his Holy Spirit.

Contemporary view out of step

This consensus of the Protestant orthodox appears out of step with the view of most contemporary Protestant evangelicals who see the author of James as the ‘third’ James, not James the son of Alphaeus, but James of Jerusalem. Here, for example, is the discussion of authorship from the introduction to James in the MacArthur Study Bible: ‘Of the 4 men named James in the NT, only two are candidates for authorship of this epistle. No one has seriously considered James, the Less, the son of Alphaeus (Matthew 10.3; Acts 1.13), or James the father of Judas, not Iscariot (Luke 6.16; Acts 1.13). Some have suggested James the son of Zebedee and brother of John (Matthew 4.21), but he was martyred too early to have written it (Acts 12.2). That leaves only James, the oldest half-brother of Christ (Mark 6.3) and brother of Jude (Matthew 13.55), who also wrote the epistle that bears his name (Jude 1)’ (page 1924).

The Introduction to the ESV Study Bible also makes this assumption and makes no mention of the possibility that the author was the apostle James, son of Alphaeus: ‘The title of this book derives from the name of its author, James the Just (as he was called), the brother of Jesus (Matthew 13.55) and leader of the Jerusalem church (Acts 15)’ (page 2387).

The older Protestant men seemed more intent to settle James as an apostolic work (written by an apostle: James of Alphaeus). They were not apparently troubled by suggesting that James was not a sibling of Christ but a kinsman, nor did they attempt to defend the proposition that Mary had other children after the birth of Jesus.

Modern Protestants and evangelicals seem to rush past the idea of James as directly apostolic, in favour of the suggestion that the letter was written by one who was not an apostle (James the Just). Though ultimately in agreement with Manton that the most important thing is the fact that God himself is the primary author and that the human author is only ‘subordinate’, at this point I am persuaded by Poole, Manton, and Henry that James the son of Alphaeus is the likely author.

[1] For the view of this person as a ‘fourth’ James see D E Hiebert, James, page 27.

Dr Jeff Riddle is Pastor of Christ Reformed Baptist Church, Louisa, Virginia, USA