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
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
- 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.
- We have to ask ourselves what it is that sets Christianity apart from
Judaism. The answer is found in Romans 6:14, "...you 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:
||Believe / Faith
|The Other 20 Epistles
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- Martin Luther was opposed to allowing the book of
James into the Canon.
He also opposed the books of Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation.
- 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
- 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).
- 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
- 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
increasing the susceptibility of a reputation of being heretics, especially under Roman rule.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 3rd Corinthians (part of the Acts of Paul)
- 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:
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.
- The four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
- The other Epistles
- and, The Revelation
Owen Weber 2009