The Letter of James: Introduction

This short, practical jewel of a Letter in the New Testament speaks to us with conviction and power. Take a look at this overview before you dive into each chapter.

St James the Apostle Icon
icon-home » Daily Living » Time to Reflect » Discover the Letter of James » The Letter of James: Introduction

Welcome to this series on the Letter of James.

James is a jewel of a letter in the New Testament that is nestled between the theological heavyweights of Hebrews and the letters of St. Peter and St. John. It’s short, practical, and full of wisdom for living out our faith today. It is an excellent New Testament example of the type of Wisdom writing that we found in some of the Old Testament books such as Proverbs, Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon. 

In this series of reflections, we will dive into the letter of James in a number of ways: using our minds and imagination to connect with this precious part of sacred Scripture.

We’ll be exploring this letter in a spirit of prayer and encounter with the Holy Spirit who, inspired this book of the Bible and who continues to speak to us through it today.

In this first session, we’ll look at an overview of the letter. 
Over the following sessions, we’ll dig a bit deeper into its individual parts.

Who was St. James and when was the Letter written?

St. James was the first leader of the church in Jerusalem after the first Pentecost. We see him in the Acts of the Apostles at various points. As the apostles moved out of Jerusalem and spread the Church to areas such as Antioch and Rome, James remained in Jerusalem to guide and shepherd the church there. He is often said to be the brother of Jesus; the term ‘brother’ in the ancient world could include a cousin rather than only a sibling. 

If he is indeed the author of this letter, as it’s difficult to know for sure (there are five James mentioned in the New Testament), it would be a very early letter since James is believed to have been martyred in AD 62. So this letter was probably written between AD 50 – 60.

Imaginative Exercise

Let’s begin with a prayer to the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit animates the sacred Scriptures and reveals to us the face of Christ. When we open the Bible and turn to the Lord in prayer, we can be sure that we will encounter him in the process:

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful
and kindle in them the fire of your love.

Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created,
and you shall renew the face of the earth.

Let us pray.

O God, who has taught the hearts of the faithful
by the light of the Holy Spirit,
grant that in the same Spirit we may be truly wise
and ever rejoice in his consolation.
Through Christ our Lord. 

The Ignatian tradition of praying with Scripture uses the imagination as a significant part of the process. This can be very helpful when approaching a biblical text, to get beyond the familiarity that can be built up over time. Before we begin, then, let’s take a moment to imagine ourselves in the context of the church that James was writing to:

James could well be the earliest writing in the New Testament, perhaps written to Jewish Christians who had fled Jerusalem following the persecution in which St. Stephen was martyred, only a short time after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Perhaps they had fled as far as the major city of Antioch, which was about 300 miles north of Jerusalem. Or perhaps they were living in small, scattered, demoralized communities along the Mediterranean coast. The people lived as refugees, hiding their identity as best they could and trying to earn a living as inconspicuously as possible.

Try to imagine yourself in the setting of a hastily organized church meeting in a little coastal town. The room is in somebody’s house; it’s small, just big enough to fit half a dozen or so people sitting on the floor around a threadbare rug.

There’s a palpable sense of trepidation in the air. Gathering as a community is dangerous; people like Saul of Tarsus are travelling beyond the borders of Judea, stamping out groups of believers wherever they find them. What’s more, this gathering is unexpected; it’s not Sunday, they aren’t gathering for the Eucharist or to hear the Scriptures (Old Testament) read. Rather, a runner has come from a nearby town with a letter that he’s taking from church to church; a letter written by James, the leader of the church in Jerusalem, where most of the people in this tiny church are from. It’s the first they’ve heard from the church in Jerusalem since they fled.

The runner takes a gulp of water from a skin that one of the community here has passed to him, and dries the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. He pulls back his cloak and reveals a concealed leather cylinder. He pops the top off and pulls out a parchment scroll. He opens the scroll, and begins to read.

Now read through the whole letter of James in one sitting; it should take around 15 minutes. You might like to keep your eyes closed and listen to the letter being read in an audio Bible, continuing to imagine yourself as one of the first hearers of the letter.

Have a piece of paper or a notes app on your device ready; write down what initially strikes you having read through the whole letter once.

HANDY TIP: Write down the first thing that comes into your mind rather than what you feel or think should strike you in the letter.

Ask yourself these questions:

a) Why did James write this letter?

b) What is it about? What do you think James wants his hearers to understand?

c) Is there anything in the letter that strikes you as unusual or unexpected?

d) Is there anything that you don’t like or find difficult?

e) Is there anything you find encouraging?

Keep these notes safe, you might like to refer back to them at the end of this series to see how your thoughts may have developed or changed.

Concluding Prayer

Spend a few moments in prayer to the Lord. 
Meditate on what you’ve learned and experienced from reading the Letter of James today. 
Ponder over the questions above. 
You might want to speak to God in your own words, or use a prayer like this:

Loving Father, 
Thank you for the gift of this Letter of James. 
I praise you that you are a God who Speaks 
and that you speak to me today through your Spirit. 
Guide me and open my heart to your inspirations as I spend time with the Bible. 
Through Christ our Lord.