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Determining the historical context for the writing of the biblical text is important because it reveals some of the "Presupposition Pool" (T. Venneman's phrase used in Cotterell and Turner 1989:90) shared between the writer and the original intended readers. A thorough presentation of the evidence and arguments is not possible in the framework of this study, but a summary of the major points will indicate the basis for my conclusions.
First, the scant references to James's epistle by early church fathers is best explained by an early dating of the letter, before the church became more predominantly Gentile and before the Pauline writings overshadowed James's letter in church usage. Second, the very minimal introduction of James's identity in the letter suggests James the Just, brother of Jesus, as the author. Only one James was well known enough after the death of James the brother of John to have written this letter to the scattered Christians without needing further identification. Third, although the letter puts particular emphasis on the law ("the royal law" and "the law that gives freedom"), there is no reference to controversies over Gentiles, circumcision or ceremonial law. None of this was yet an issue prior to the events of Acts 15, which indicates that this letter was likely written prior to that time.
Fourth, the approach to faith and deeds in James has been seen by some as a response to Pauline writings. This assumed context has made James's teaching confusing and troubling to many. However, it can be shown that James is using his terms deeds and righteous in 2:14-26 with a purpose different from Paul's. James is writing about how one is shown to be righteous; Paul writes about how one is declared righteous. James's teaching on this matter becomes far less confusing and more consistent even with the rest of his own letter when it is seen to be not anti-Pauline but pre-Pauline in origin. The conclusion we reach is that the epistle of James was written by James the Just, brother of Jesus, between A.D. 40 and 50, during the early diaspora described in Acts 8:1-4 rather than the later diaspora of A.D. 70.
This conclusion provides us with a narrative setting in Acts 8 by which to discern some of James's purposes in writing. His audience would be primarily people of Jewish upbringing with a fairly recently acquired Christian faith who were experiencing a severe persecution at the hands of their erstwhile leaders in Judaism. They were mourning deeply because of the death of a loved and respected leader, Stephen (Acts 7). Almost all the Christians (except for the apostles such as James) had been driven from their homes in Jerusalem and scattered to other places. Almost all of them had likely lost homes or possessions or normal means of income; they had been separated from relatives and friends. There were abundant circumstances to cause them confusion, fear, loneliness, anger, sorrow, poverty, hardship--in fact, "trials of many kinds" as James acknowledges in 1:2. James's probable purpose in this context is confirmed in the letter: to encourage suffering Christians in the face of hardship and to strengthen them for faithful Christian living.
It would fit this historical setting that James would be writing primarily to poor Christians and that one of his goals would be to instruct and encourage them in the face of hardship at the hands of rich unbelievers. In speaking of "the rich," James would likely have in mind the unbelievers who were using their wealth as power to oppress the very vulnerable Christians.