The Epistle of James and the First Epistle of John

The Epistle of James

Introduction. Scholars have proposed dozens of disparate solutions to the most basic questions regarding the epistle of James (Edgar, 2001). It is indeed difficult to assess genre, audience, message, purpose, and social, historical and cultural setting of this epistle. This is specially so when faced with the challenge of dating this book; though out of scope for this essay, we must at least acknowledge that opinions ranging from mid 30s (Hodges, 2015) to mid second century (Allison, 2015) must be taken into consideration.

Popular views that see James as mere wisdom literature (Bauckham, 1999, as cited in Baker, 2002), as paraenesis (Dibelius, 1976 as cited in Moo, 2015), or as diatribe (Ropes, 1916 as cited in Edgar, 2001), and generally lacking logical structure, have been challenged in the past few decades (Jackson-McCabe, 2003; Reiher, 2013; Moo, 2015). James cannot be taken as a discourse in a vacuum without neglecting the socio-historical background and impacting our understanding of message and purpose. However, Moo’s (2015) suggestion that James is a homily then transcribed in epistolary form allows to retain both exhortation and wisdom characteristics, now underpinned by a historical setting providing us with occasion, motive, audience, and social situation, and thus shedding new light on the message.

Audience. James begins by addressing “the twelve tribes which are of the Dispersion” (James 1:1 ASV).  Marcus (2014) represents the current holding that such address is not to be taken at face value, but rather as including Gentile believers. We hold that a more straightforward reading reveals a Jewish audience. Classical commentaries (Henry, 2005; Gill, 1980) as well as recent works (Stulac, 2010) share this view, yet Moo (2015) believes the designation “twelve tribes” is too ambiguous, and he only concedes a Jewish audience based on other reasons. Even the term diaspora (dispersion) is not enough evidence for Moo, as he thinks it is elsewhere (e.g. 1 Peter 1:1) used figuratively to mean Christians alienated from their heavenly home.

We would agree with Fruchtenbaum (2005): to this day, the word diaspora (whether used in biblical or extra-biblical writings) always refers to Jews away from the Land.

The distinctive Jewishness (Moo, 2015) of the book provides conclusive proof that the book has a Jewish audience in mind. Marcus (1982) adds more weight to this view, making a compelling case that the Jewish concept of yester is embedded in James’ message.

Nevertheless, does this Jewish audience consist of believers alone? Scholars who take the letter’s opening at face value generally think so. Fruchtenbaum (2005) justifies this conclusion by observing how James addresses his audience as brethren; but in context, the author may be using brethren to mean his fellow Israelites (cf. Matthew 5:23; Romans 9:3). Allison (2015) believes James does not identify his audience as consisting of Christian Jews only, and that a mixed Jewish audience explains the few references to specifically Christian doctrines better than the early dating. Moo (2015) grants this could be a possible reading, but eventually concludes (on different grounds) these Jews are Christians.

Socio-historical context. Holding to an early dating of the epistle, we gain insight into the socio-historical situation. Fruchtenbaum (2005) identifies the poor as Christian Jews, and the rich as unbelievers. Alison (2013) agrees to an extent, but sees two groups of unbelievers, the rich ones being they who persecute the Christians. Fruchtenbaum also concedes that the scattered Jews could be the ones mentioned in Acts 8:1,4; 11:19; a view shared by Gill (1982), Reiher (2009), and many others. Finally, Moo (2015) and Reiher (2009; 2013) both agree the social situation was a violent turmoiled environment, where religious-political movements like the Zealots were on the rise, and where Christian Jews lived both in Israel and in the immediate neighbour nations.

Message and purpose. Some think this letter is a Jewish document later Christianised, though it is a position easily proven untenable (Moo, 2015). Another commonly held view is that the epistle contains an anti-Pauline message (Stulac, 2010). However, there are good reasons to place James’ letter prior to Paul’s (Wessel, 1962; Blomberg & Stewart, 2016; Hodges, 2015); furthermore, James’ usage of “faith” and “works” is not soteriological like Paul’s (Stulac, 2010).

Many scholars today would agree that the book is not a discourse in a vacuum, but has logical structure, a particular socio-historical setting, and a specific message, which draws on both Jewish wisdom and Jesus’ teachings. Broadly speaking, the epistle is practical theology, concerned with conduct rather than doctrinal issues (Fruchtenbaum, 2005; Moo, 2015).

Fruchtenbaum (2005) sees the primary message aimed at strengthening Christian Jews being persecuted by a rich elite of unbelieving Jews. He also sees, like Moo (2015), warnings about impending judgement; unlike Moo, however, who sees the latter as eschatological, Fruchtenbaum believes the warnings were about the judgement that befell Jerusalem in AD 70.

Allison (2015) sees the message directed to both believing and unbelieving Jews, the former being early Christian Jews still trying to coexist with other Jews in the synagogue.[1] The message is thus both an edification for the believing Jews and a clarification for unbelievers. This interpretation reflects James’ desire to maintain good relationships between Jews and Christians, as well as his advocacy of “the legitimacy of Jewish tradition and customs for Jewish Christians” (Moo, 2015, p. 39).

The believer-unbeliever dichotomy is retained by Fuchtenbaum (2005), too: for example, he sees judgement warnings as divided in the two groups.

Reiher (2013) expounds on the belligerent historical situation, seeing it as the occasion for James’ message. He argues that James is exhorting his fellow Christian Jews not to resort to the false wisdom of the world during trial and persecution, but to the wisdom “from above”, the same wisdom that overcomes one’s evil inclination for Marcus (1982); the two viewpoints are certainly complementary.

Reiher’s thesis does require his audience to be located in early first century Israel, yet the letter addresses Jews away from their homeland; but Reiher (2009) sees no problem, as the epistle would have originated in Israel, to then be sent to Jews abroad. Moo’s (2015) argument that James in an epistolary encapsulation of a sermon supports this.

Conclusion. We feel that recent academic efforts have contributed much to our understanding of the message and the historical, cultural, and social background of the epistle. Unlike past works, often holding irreconcilable positions, we believe the different contributions reviewed here are, for the most part, not mutually exclusive. The careful attention modern scholars pay to context and background made this possible.

The First Epistle of John

Introduction. The first letter of John lacks salutation, personal introduction, closing, thus its style seems more that of a treatise or a sermon (Thompson, 2011). Nonetheless, it still exhibits epistolary characteristics, being directed to a congregation, and addressing issues therein.

We shall see how the scholarly consensus sees the occasion to be an early form of Gnosticism (Stott, 1988; Harris, 2003), and how recent research challenged such understanding (Griffith 1997; 1998).

The purpose will be assessed by comparing the Test of Life view with the Test of Fellowship view as well as debating the polemical nature of the letter.

Audience. Identity and location of the audience cannot be obtained from the text, but we can determine the primary audience is a Christian community acquainted with the author (1 John 2:1) which is undergoing a schism (2:19) due to false ideas arisen from within (2:22). Harris (2003) confirms this and gives us Ephesus as the location where the letter originated from.

Whilst John addresses a congregation with pastoral intent, a secondary audience may be also in view: the schismatics holding to some grave error, to which a polemic would be directed (Stott, 1988).

Stott holds to the consensus and views the schismatics as early Gnostics, but he mentions how scholars Brooke and Barclay believe John’s opponents were Jews rejecting the Messiahship of Jesus, whilst scholar Smalley believes they were both Jews rejecting Jesus as Messiah and Gentiles denying Jesus’ humanity.

Griffith (1997; 1998) argues that the evidence in favour of Gnosticism is predominantly external and has been superimposed to passages he thinks have a more straightforward reading (e.g. 1 John 2:2; 4:2). Working his way back from the last verse of the epistle, Griffith (1997) concludes that the schismatics are alleged Christian Jews who are now reverting to Judaism.

Socio-historical context. Stott (1988) paints a society where Docetism and early forms of Gnosticism like Cerinthianism are taking shape, but also where Jewish rejection of the messiahship of Jesus is becoming more vigorous.

Message and purpose. We can compare polemical (Stott, 1998) and non-polemical (Griffith, 1998) readings of the epistle. Likewise, we can contrast the Test of Life view with the Test of Fellowship view (Derickson, 1993).

Polemical versus non-polemical. Stott (1988) presents a twofold address aimed pastorally at the congregation and polemically at the schismatic false teachers, who he sees as proto-Gnostics. Edwards (1989) adds that John’s rebuttal may be connected to martyrdom, apostasy and idolatry. Griffith (1998) highlights that the consensus view about Gnosticism rests upon the phrase ‘has come in the flesh’, yet he notes how in contemporary literature such phrase merely means ‘has come into the world’, in which case 1 John 4:2 would echo Martha’s confession in John 11:27.

Griffith continues his Christological analysis allowing 1 John 2:22 to interpret the more obscure 4:2-3 and 5:6, and concluding that the question at hand is not “Who is Jesus?” but “Who is the Messiah?”, which would lend weight to Griffith’s view that the schismatics are Jews.

Rejection of Jesus as Messiah seems to provide a clue for understanding the sin leading unto death (1 John 5), since acceptance of Jesus results in the forgiveness of all sins.[2] Griffith arrives to the same conclusion after explaining how the general sin John speaks of in 1 John 1:6-2:2 is not the specific sin found in 1 John 3:4-10,[3] which Griffith sees as apostasy, in the sense of an ultimate rebellion possible only for those not born of God.

Bruce (1987) seems to agree with the idea that the sin leading to death is apostasy, though he may have a different understanding of apostasy, of the kind that born-again individuals are allegedly capable of.

Busenitz (1990) reviews several alternative understandings of ‘sin unto death’, but he too concludes there is no reason to think such sin is being committed by a believer; this, together with his conviction that the death in view is spiritual, provides additional support to the idea that the ‘sin unto death’ is messianic rejection.

Griffith’s (1997) exposition continues consistently throughout, including the final verse, which would otherwise remain problematic: John—he argues—is reversing a traditional Jewish polemic used against Gentile idolatry, so to label the schismatic Jews as idolaters for having rejected Messiah.

With regards to the moral debate in the epistle, the consensus view would see the ‘slogans’ in 1 John 1:6,8,10; 2:4,6,9; 4:20 as a polemical tool used to identify the schismatics as Gnostics, since we know from external evidence these were prone to immorality (Stott, 1988). Griffith (1998), however, espouses the view holding that the schismatics are not even required to make sense of those passages. Hodges (1999) agrees, observing that these ‘opponents’ are not directly introduced until 2:18. Therefore, the ‘slogans’ could simply be a common rhetorical device, as Griffith shows by surveying the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae.

Test of Life versus Test Of Fellowship. Derickson (1993) explains that former view sees the overall purpose of the letter in 1 John 5:13, and implies that John is laying down tests to discern true believers from false ones. The latter view, instead, has its overall purpose in 1 John 1:3, and holds the tests provide believers with a tool to maintain good communion with both the Father and one another.

From our analysis so far, it would seem unlikely that John is doing just one or the other thing. In fact, Smalley (1984, as in Derickson, 1993) recognises the places of both purposes. The Greek  word κοινωνία (fellowship) is thus allowed its straightforward non-soteriological sense, whilst assurance of salvation is acknowledged, achieving a life-fellowship dichotomy that resembles the union-communion polarity already discussed by Harrison (1954).

Conclusions. Whilst the consensus sees the epistle controlled by the polemic against the schismatics (Stott, 1988), Griffith (1998) states that John’s aim throughout is pastoral: he secures the community against further losses by recalling them to their foundational confessions and by reminding them of their common experience in Spirit, baptism, and forgiveness through the blood of Jesus.

Similarly, when comparing the Test of Life with the Test of Fellowship, Smalley (1984) rejects the idea that only one or the other is in John’s mind; he looks to the problems facing the church, and sees John as both recalling his divided fold to the basics of the gospel and answering the heretical views about Jesus.


Allison, D. (2015). The Jewish Setting of the Epistle of James. In die Skriflig/In Luce Verbi, 49(1), 9 pages. doi:

Baker, W. R. (2002). Christology in the Epistle of James. Evangelical Quarterly, 74(1), pp. 47-57.

Blomberg, C. L., & Stewart, R. B. (2016). The Historical Reliability of the New Testament: Countering the Challenges to Evangelical Christian Beliefs. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

Busenitz, I. A. (1990), The Sin Unto Death. The Master’s Seminary Journal, 1(1), 17-32.

Bruce, F. F. (1987). Problem Texts (11): The Sin Unto Death. Harvester 46(11), 9.

Derickson, G. W. (1993). What Is the Message of 1 John? Bibliotheca Sacra, 150(597), 89-105.

Edgar, D. H. (2001). Has God Not Chosen the Poor? The Social Setting of the Epistle of James. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press

Edwards, M. (1989). Martyrdom and the “First Epistle” of John. Novum Testamentum, 31(2), 164-171. doi:10.2307/1560700

Fruchtenbaum, A. G. (2003). The Footsteps of the Messiah: A Study of the Sequence of Prophetic Events. Tustin, CA: Ariel Ministries.

Fruchtenbaum, A. G. (2005). The Messianic Jewish Epistles: Hebrews, James, First Peter, Second Peter, Jude (1st ed.). Tustin, CA: Ariel Ministries.

Gill, J. (1980). Gill’s Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

Griffith, T. (1997). ‘Little Children, Keep Yourselves From Idols’ (1 John 5:21). Tyndale Bullettin, 48(1), 187-190.

Griffith, T. (1998). A Non-Polemical Reading Of 1 John:
Sin, Christology And The Limits Of Johannine Christianity. Tyndale Bullettin, 49(2), 253-276.

Harris, W. H. (2003). 1, 2, 3 John: Comfort and Counsel for a Church in Crisis. Dallas, TX: Biblical Studies Press.

Harrison, E. F. (1954). A Key to the Understanding of First John. Bibliotheca Sacra, 111(441), 39-46.

Henry, M. (2005). Matthew Henry’s commentary on the whole Bible. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.

Hodges, Z. C. (1999). The Epistles of John: Walking in the Light of God’s Love. Irving, TX: Grace Evangelical Society.

Hodges, Z. C. (2015). The Epistle of James: Proven Character Through Testing (Vol. 2, The Grace New Testament Commentary Series) (A. L. Farstad & R. N. Wilkin, Eds.). Corinth, TX: Grace Evangelical Society.

Jackson-McCabe, M. (2003). Has God Not Chosen the Poor? The Social Setting of the Epistle of James. [Review of the book Has God not chosen the poor? The social setting of the epistle of James, by David Hutchinson]. Review of Biblical Literature []

Marcus, J. (1982). The Evil Inclination in the Epistle of James. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 44(4), 606-621.

Marcus, J. (2014). ‘The Twelve Tribes in the Diaspora’ (James 1.1). New Testament Studies, 60(4), 433-447. doi:10.1017/S0028688514000095

Moo, D. (2015). James. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Revised, Volume 16. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Reiher, J. (2009). James: Peace Activist and Advocate for the Poor. Dandenong, Vic.: Urban Neighbours Of Hope.

Reiher, J. (2013). Violent Language – a clue to the Historical Occasion of James. Evangelical Quarterly, 85(3), pp. 228-245

Stulac, G. M. (2010). James. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series, Volume 16. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.

Stott, J. R. W. (1988). The Letters of John (Rev. Ed.). Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Leicester: InterVarsity Press.

Thompson, M. M. (2011). 1-3 John. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series, Volume 19. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.

Wessel, W. W. (1962). The Epistle of James. In C. F. Pfeiffer, & E. F. Harrison (Eds.), The Wycliffe Bible Commentary (pp. 1429-40). Chicago: Moody Press.

[1] Jewish believers such as these can be seen in John 9:22; 12:42 and even in Nicodemus (John 3:1-21).

[2] This makes sense also when naturally paralleled with the Unpardonable Sin (Matthew 12:22-45), which is Israel’s national rejection of the messiahship of Jesus (Fruchtenbaum, 2003).

[3] As also hinted by the two categories of sin in 1 John 5:16-17.