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Should the Book of James Be in the Bible?

The book of James in the New Testament is a controversial book, and there are those who believe that it should not have been included in the Canon of Scripture.  One of the main controversies is justification by works, and the argument that James presents irreconcilable contradictions with Paul's writings on the subject of justification. We'll look at both sides of this debate, and attempt to form an objective conclusion.

Arguments That Reject Including James in the Canon

  1. James 2:14-24 seems to contradict Paul by supporting a doctrine of justification by works rather than by faith alone, saying that "faith without works is dead." In Galatians 2:15-21, Paul says, “We ... know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ ... that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified. For through the law I died to the law... if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!" Just as Paul is consistent with his message of justification by faith throughout all of his books in the New Testament, so is James consistent with his message of justification by works throughout his whole book. Since James' support of justification by works is not just seen in occasional isolated phrases, these statements cannot be assumed to be any type of transcription errors.

  2. We have to ask ourselves what it is that sets Christianity apart from Judaism. The answer is found in Romans 6:14, " are not under law, but under grace." For centuries, the Jews had followed the law as a way of life, but Paul consistently reinforced the idea following grace as a way of life. Time and time again, Paul tells believers that Christ freed them from the law; that grace is their new way of life; and, that they are justified by faith, not by works. To understand how persistent Paul (and the authors of other epistles) stood on these arguments, consider the following comparisons of word counts in the epistles.  From this perspective, James is clearly not in step with the message of grace that is found in the other epistles:  

    Grace Believe / Faith Jesus
    James    2  19    2
    The Other 20 Epistles 105 202 271
    Total 107 221 273
    Average    5   11   13

  3. To further build on the evidence of the word counts above, note that 17 of the 19 references to faith in the book of James present faith in a negative light. The references to faith in all other epistles is always positive.

  4. There are also 142 usages of the word “law” in the epistles. Almost all of these refer to law in a negative light. They refer to the law in a New Testament context, essentially presenting it Christianity as the opposite of Judaism, in its comparison of the liberating grace of Christianity to the binding law of Judaism. Only 18 of the references to law in the epistles refer to it in a positive light, and in an Old Testament context. Of these 18 references to the law, six are in the book of James, and twelve are in Hebrews. James is the only book that seems to belittle faith, the most important issue of all (the gospel message itself).

  5. James seems to dwell upon the idea of the Old Testament Levitical law, such as in James 2:8-11, even though it was given only to the nation of Israel. Christ is mentioned, but only rarely, and not as the key to salvation, as in the other epistles.  Like Paul, James explains the law, but Paul then presents the gospel of grace. One must either accept all of the law (Romans 6:14), or none of it.

  6. Martin Luther was opposed to allowing the book of James into the Canon. He also opposed the books of Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation.

  7. In James 1:1, this book is addressed to the nation of Israel, not to the church:  “To the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad.” Likewise, James 2:2 uses the term "assembly,” an Old Testament term. Why wouldn't he use “church?”

  8. James 1:22-24 implies that there is no value in hearing only, which seems to deny the power of hearing the Word. However, we are told that faith comes from hearing God’s Word (John 7:51, Romans 10:17), and Isaiah 55:11 says that God’s Word will not return to empty (void).

  9. None of the other canonical books use quotes from the book of James, which seems especially odd if James was among the first New Testament books to be written. This argument has often been used as evidence of canonicity for other books.

Arguments That Support Including James in the Canon 

  1. James might well have been the first New Testament book written, in about 46 A.D. This could explain why it was address to a Jewish audience in James 1:1, as well as why it seems to support justification by works in James 2:14-24. In 1 Corinthians 9:20 – 21, Paul says, “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews.” If James was the first Christian document after the Resurrection, perhaps the reason that the Holy Spirit inspired James as He did was because the full load of truth would have been rejected as heresy by devout Jews living under the law.  Perhaps, with his primary audience being Jews who had converted from Judaism to Christianity, James had to start with the law, which the Jews understood, and work backwards to faith. In this light, James revealed the Holy Spirit, demonstrating faith by the law, similar to Paul in his book to the Romans. Also, in 46 A.D., church members were likely forced underground, as a nearly invisible church, increasing the susceptibility of a reputation of being heretics, especially under Roman rule.

  2. James 2:24 says, "You see that a man is justified by what he does and not by faith alone." If the key word here is "see," then this may well be referring to justification before men, not justification before God. In other words, James is not contradicting Paul by saying that God justifies man by his works. Instead, he's saying that, although God justifies man by faith, the only way that "you see" (or that "man can see") that someone is justified by God, is when his justification is apparent from his actions, or works.

  3. Following from the above argument, the purpose of the book of James seems to be a person's actions or works, not on the theological arguments of salvation. Perhaps the reason that there is little focus on salvation is that it was written to some of the first Jewish believers who might be able to better identify with the law than with grace.

  4. Throughout the centuries, one of the arguments for canonicity is that a book must agree with other scriptures, and James does meet this criteria. For example, James 4:14 says, "Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes." This sounds very similar to Ecclesiastes 6:12, "For who knows what is good for a man in life, during the few and meaningless days he passes through like a shadow? Who can tell him what will happen under the sun after he is gone?" Perhaps James should be interpreted in the same careful fashion as Ecclesiastes.

Some History of the Canon

  • The Muratorian, in 190 AD or later, provides us with the earliest accepted list of New Testament canonical books, and it disputes seven of the ones in our Bible today: Hebrews, James, 2nd Peter, 2nd John, 3rd John, Jude, & Revelation. It also included five books that are not in our Bible: Ignatius of Antioch, 1st Clement, Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Didache.

  • By the 3rd century, Irenaeus and Tertullian had confirmed that only 20 of our 27 books were accepted as scripture: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Paul's thirteen Letters, 1st Peter, and 1st John. Thus, 20 of the present 27 books were canonical within about 150 years of Jesus' death and resurrection. The main arguments against the seven that were eventually included were as follows: 

    • Hebrews - The author was unknown. Some believed that the author was Paul, but it differed from Paul in both style and vocabulary.

    • James - It was addressed to the Jewish people, rather than to the Church. Also, the author, James, was not an apostle. An apostle was considered to be either one of the twelve disciples who served with Jesus in His earthly ministry, or someone to whom the resurrect Christ has appeared, such as Paul. Instead, James simply introduces himself as “a servant of Christ".

    • 2 Peter - It differed from 1st Peter in both style and vocabulary.

    • 2 and 3 John - The author refers to himself as a "presbyter" or "elder", and not an apostle.

    • Jude - The author was unknown, specified only as a "servant of Christ," not as an apostle. Also, this book was suspect because it quoted from the book of Enoch, a book included in the Old Testament Apocrypha, but not in our 39-book Old Testament.

    • Revelation - This book was suspect primarily because John referred to himself simply as a "servant" or a "brother," not as an apostle

  • The first appearance of the exact list of our present 27-book New Testament was in the Festal Letter of St. Athanasius, in 367 A.D.

  • The only “undisputed” letters were 1 Thessalonians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon, and Romans.

  • The most-disputed letters of Paul were 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, and Ephesians.

  • Other various non-canonical New Testament books include:

    • The Gospel of Thomas
    • The Gospel of Peter
    • The Secret Gospel of Mark
    • The Gospel of Mary
    • The Questions of Bartholomew
    • The Acts of Andrew
    • The Acts of John
    • The Acts of Paul
    • The Acts of Peter
    • The Acts of Thomas
    • 3rd Corinthians (part of the Acts of Paul)
    • Laodiceans
    • The First Apocalypse of James
    • The Apocalypse of Peter
    • The Apocalypse of Thomas
    • The Apocalypse of Paul


The book of James is canonical, but unfortunately it is simply misplaced. Its early writing makes it more of a historical narrative, like the book of Acts, instead of a doctrinal book, like Romans. With this in mind, it would be more appropriate if the 27 books of our New Testament were included in our Bibles in the following order:  
  • The four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
  • Acts
  • James
  • Hebrews
  • The other Epistles
  • and, The Revelation
We should read the books of James and Hebrews as we do Genesis through John; i.e., we learn God’s truths and principles from them, but usually not applications that we can apply to our daily lives today.

Owen Weber 2009