This epistle stands first in order of seven which have been called "General," from a very early period, because of the fact that they were not addressed, like those of Paul, to particular churches or individuals, in most cases, but to the churches generally. This is directed to "the Twelve Tribes of the Dispersion," a dedication which shows that it was designed for the instruction of Jewish Christians scattered abroad among the Gentile countries. It was particularly appropriate that the man who is shown by the Acts of the Apostles and by the Galatian letter to have attained the highest influence in the churches of Judea should show his profound interest in the Christians of the Hebrew race by addressing this letter to the multitudes of kindred who had their homes in foreign lands.
Yet there has been some dispute about the personality of the James who wrote this letter. There are three distinguished disciples which bear that name: James, the brother of John, one of the sons of Zebedee, one of the Twelve; James, the son of Alphæus, also an apostle, called James the Less ( Mark 15:40 ); and James, called by Paul in Galatians "the brother of our Lord," the man who appears in Acts, chapter 15 , as wielding a pre-eminent influence in the church at Jerusalem. The epistle could not have been written by James, the brother of John, as he was slain by Herod ( Acts 12:2 ) before its date. The authorship must be ascribed either to James, the son of Alphæus, or to James, "the Lord's brother."
From the earliest ages the latter has been agreed upon as the writer. To this conclusion all the known facts point. He was a permanent resident of Jerusalem, and pre-eminent in the church; he seems to be the chief figure in "the Council of Jerusalem" described in Acts, chapter 15 ; he was one of the pillars of the church ( Gal. 2:9 ); hence he could speak authoritatively to the Jewish Christians scattered abroad. It has, however, been held by many that he is the same as James, the son of Alphæus, and a cousin of Christ, instead of a brother. The argument in favor of this hypothesis is ingenious. (1.) It is held that Mary never bore any children but Jesus, and hence that "the brethren of the Lord" were her nephews. (2.) That Mary, the wife of Clopas ( John 19:25 ) was sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus. (3.) That Alphæus and Clopas are different forms of the same name. (4.) That the brethren of Jesus, "James and Joses and Simon and Judas," were the cousins of Jesus, and that at least two, James and Judas, were apostles (5.) This is supported by the fact that Jesus on the cross commits the care of his mother to John, which is held to prove that she could have no other sons.
In answer to this theory it may be said that (1.) it is improbable that the wife of Clopas was sister to Mary, a fact which would require two sisters to be of the same name. John names two pairs, Mary and her sister, and Mary, the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalene. The sister was no doubt Salome, the mother of John, named as one of the four women in the other gospels, and whom John omits to name from the same motives which prevented him from ever naming himself. Hence John was the nephew of Mary, and this in connection with the fact that the brethren of Jesus were not then believers is sufficient explanation of John being assigned the duty of caring for the mother of Jesus. (2.) We are told positively that the brethren of Jesus were not believers, and this, too, in the closing portion of the last year of our Lord's ministry, a fact that clearly shows that none of these could have been of the number of the apostles. (3.) They are never called cousins of Jesus nor is there any proof that the Greek word which designates them as "brethren" is ever used in the sense of cousins in the New Testament. (4.) When these brethren had become believers, after the resurrection, they are distinguished from the Twelve ( Acts 1:14 Acts 1:1 1 Cor. 9:5 ), a fact which cannot be explained if at least two of the four were of the Twelve. It is true that in Gal. 1:19 James is spoken of as an apostle, yet neither he nor Paul, the greatest of the apostles, was of the Twelve. These facts seem to me to clearly indicate that "James, the brother of the Lord," the author of this epistle, was not of the Twelve, and was a brother to the Lord Jesus in the sense that he was a child of Mary.
His prominence, however, in the early church may be gathered from the following references: Acts 12:17 Acts 15:19 Acts 21:18 Galatians 1:19 Galatians 2:9 Galatians 1:12 . The New Testament is silent concerning his later history, but Josephus, the Jewish historian, says that shortly before the war that ended in the destruction of Jerusalem, about A. D. 63, "Ananias, the high priest, assembled the Sanhedrim, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who is called the Christ, whose name was James, and some of his companions * * and delivered them to be stoned" (Antiq. xx. 9:1). He was allowed to remain until not long before the overthrow of the Jewish state, and was then removed. Though not requiring the Gentile Christians to obey the law, he continued to teach its observance to the Jewish Christians, and to regard Christianity not so much the overthrow of the old covenant as its fulfillment and perfection. In this respect he did not have a clear vision like Paul but was on this account perhaps the better fitted to lead his own nation to Christ.
The epistle was almost certainly written at Jerusalem, and probably during the last decade of the life of the writer, was addressed to Jewish Christians, is not doctrinal but full of practical instruction in the duties of life. There was some discussion among the Fathers whether it was entitled to a place in the Canon, but those doubts have mainly passed away.