The authorship, addressees, and setting of the New Testament Epistle of James remain disputed. In church tradition, the dominant position is held by the attribution of the Letter to James, Jesus’ brother (or cousin)—the person mentioned in Matt 13:55–57 and Mark 6:3–4 (absent from the Lukan parallel in 4:16–30). It deserves notice that in both Matthew and Mark these occurrences are preceded with an indication of tension within the family. In recent research, arguments both for and against the traditional attribution have been advanced, and the jury is still out on this point. The setting of the epistle constitutes a separate topic, distinct from that of any specific link to the historical person of James, or lack thereof. Yet here again the matter is far from settled. While some scholars believe that the letter originated in an early Jewish–Christian milieu in the Land of Israel, others speak in terms of a later Diaspora provenance.
The addressees are clearly people of the Diaspora, but the makeup of the intended audience remains a debated issue, with suggestions ranging from entirely Gentile Christian, to a mixed community, to one composed predominantly of Jewish Jesus-followers. It is intriguing that the same data have been interpreted as pointing in opposite directions. The opening line’s appeal “to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (Jas 1:1); the total lack of reference to the issue of Gentile membership or of the applicability to them of the ritual demands of the Torah (themes so prominent in Paul’s writings and in the foundational report in Acts15); the lack of any references to the temple or of any “distinctively Christian” concepts—all these features have been interpreted as either reflecting the earliest stage in the development of Christianity, characterized by a traditionally Jewish pattern of messianic belief (and perhaps politely including Gentile fellow travelers in the community), or, alternatively, as reflecting a much later stage, when the “hot” issues, including those pertaining to the Jewish–Gentile conundrum and that of Jesus’ status, have already been settled. This later stage is seen as characterized by a full-blown “supersessionist” tendency that had by then won the day, so that, for example, the “twelve tribes” appellation might now incontrovertibly signify the Gentile church.
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Serge Ruzer lectures in the Department of Comparative Religions at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem