Determining the Date of James

Was the Epistle of James among the first New Testament books to be written, or among the last?

James has this odd legacy: it is perhaps the easiest New Testament book to apply directly to our lives today, and it is perhaps the hardest New Testament book to locate historically. Scholars will date it as early as the 40s and as late as the 150s. All we know about the letter is that it was written by a “James” and written to “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations,” that is, to Jews living outside of Palestine. After its first verse, it reveals almost nothing of its origin, in sharp contrast to Paul’s letters.

Dating James by Its Author and Relation to Paul

Efforts to locate the book generally proceed by identifying the “James” who wrote it and its relation to Paul. Most scholars argue that “James” indicates Jesus’s brother (Mark 6:3), who was martyred in 62 and whose prominence in early Christianity is clear, even if he receives comparatively little mention (Acts 12:17; 15:13–21; 21:17–19; 1 Cor 15:7; Gal 1:19; 2:9, 12; Jude 1). Conservative scholars often place the book before the Jerusalem conference mentioned in Acts 15 (occurring ca. 49). The reason for this is that the terminology of Jas 2:14–26 is at apparent variance with Paul (compare to Rom 3:21–26), as is the importance of Abraham’s story (compare to Romans 4). If the letter were written after the conference, when Paul’s terminology and meaning would certainly be known to James, then Jas 2:14–26 would seem to be an intentional repudiation of Paul. If the letter comes before the conference, though, it is reasonable to suggest that Paul and James happened to use such language independently, without any attempt to contradict each other.

But neither the identity of James as the Lord’s brother nor the book’s composition before the Jerusalem conference is unchallenged. Other scholars contend that James 2:14–26 presumes knowledge of Pauline wording, whether it is trying to challenge Paul himself or simply a misunderstanding of Paul. Further, some find an otherwise unknown “James” to be the likeliest author, and yet others conclude that the book is “pseudepigraphal”—that is, that the letter is ascribed to Jesus’s brother but is not written by him. (There remains debate whether pseudepigraphy, which was frequent, was innocent or intentionally deceptive.) If we cannot use the conference (in 49) or James’s death (in 62) as endpoints, then the date range for the book can be extended well into the second century.

Dating James by Its Reception

Another route to determine when James was penned is through its reception: when is there evidence that other writers know and utilize the epistle? Unfortunately, the first explicit citation of the book does not come until the early third century, with Origen (ca. 184–254). Prior to that, there is strong indication that the Shepherd of Hermas (mid-second century?) knows James and possible indication that 1 Clement (ca. 95) does, too. Beyond these two early Christian writings, evidence for James is meager. In an article published in the December issue of Journal for the Study of the New Testament, I argue that there may be another work that has been thus far overlooked.[1] There is a Jewish pseudepigraphal writing known as “2 Enoch” or “Slavonic Enoch,” attributed to the Enoch of Gen 5:18–24 but written much later, during Roman times. Although in almost every regard the work differs greatly from James, its moral sensibilities closely align.

In my article I detail ten parallels in total, but three will suffice here:

Slander and the imago Dei. James 3:9 prohibits slander because humans are made in God’s image. In 2 En. 44:1–3, we read: “The Lord with his own two hands created mankind; in a facsimile of his own face, both small and great, the Lord created them. And whoever insults a person’s face, insults the face of a king, and treats the face of the Lord with repugnance. He who treats with contempt the face of any person treats the face of the Lord with contempt.”[2] The only other ancient writing to make a comparable point is a rabbinic work known as Genesis Rabbah. Of works surviving from antiquity until now, these three writings alone discourage insults precisely because all people reflect the God who made them.

Oppression of Day-Laborers. James 5:1–6 warns rich land-owners that keeping back the wages of day-laborers, who work their fields, is a potentially damning offense (barring repentance and forgiveness, of course) that God will judge on the last day. In 2 En. 10:5, a vision of hell includes those “who steal the souls of men secretly, seizing the poor by the throat, taking away their possessions, enriching themselves from the possessions of others, defrauding them; who, when they are able to provide sustenance, bring about the death of the hungry by starvation.” Here the powerful exploit the weak, and it is characterized as violent robbery, even stealing the soul. Since 2 Enoch speaks of “defrauding” them and not “provid[ing] sustenance,” the sin seems to be withholding what is due a day-laborer. Both the imagery and crime remind us of James 5.

Use of Oaths. James 5:12 forbids oaths in a way reminiscent of Matthew 5:33–37. In the longer version of 2 Enoch, there is a similar concern: “I am not swearing by any oath at all, neither by heaven nor by earth nor by any other creature which the Lord created. … So, if there is no truth in human beings, then let them make an oath by means of the words ‘Yes, Yes!’ or, if it should be the other way around, ‘No, No!’ ”[3] The dependence on Matthew and/or James is almost certain here. The “yes, yes” and “no, no” wording is closer to Matthew, but the threefold sequence of what (not) to swear by is closer to James. The longer version of 2 Enoch is very likely to rely (at least in part) on James, since the phrasing is so alike and a general ban on oaths is not common outside Christian circles.

Significance

Why does it matter if James was used by this obscure writing? Among several reasons, the most important is that 2 Enoch is typically dated to the years before the Second Temple fell to the Romans in 70. This potential result must be taken with caution: I maintain that it is likely that 2 Enoch is influenced by James, but it is not certain; also, 2 Enoch could be later than most scholars date it. Still, if both points hold, this would move up the earliest discernable reception of James by more than twenty-five years (from 95 to pre-70) and thus provide another piece of evidence in favor of an early date for James.

Timothy Gabrielson is assistant professor of biblical studies at Sterling College in Kansas and an academic tutor for the BibleMesh Institute.

[1] “An Early Reader of James? Ethical Parallels between the Epistle and 2 Enoch,” JSNT 43 (2020): 226–47. Available online (but with free access limited to research libraries): https://doi.org/10.1177/0142064X20961280.

[2] I quote F. I. Andersen, “2 (Slavonic Apocalypse of) Enoch,” pages 101–221 in James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 1: Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2983).

[3] The differing manuscripts of 2 Enoch are usually divided into a longer and shorter version or “recension.” It is debated which is earlier. My quotations have all been from the longer recension, but except for this point, the parallels exist in both recensions.