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
and James, called by Paul in Galatians "the brother of our Lord,"
the man who appears in Acts,
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
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,
he was one of the pillars of the church
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
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; 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
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
Acts 15:19; Acts 21:18; Gal. 1:19; Gal. 2:9; Gal. 2:12.
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.