There are seven New Testament letters which came to be called the catholic or universal letters. Three of these are attributed to John, two to Peter, one to Jude and one to James.


The letter of James is not at all like the personal letters which Paul wrote about various matters to specific readers. No reasons are given as to why it was written; although it has a brief opening greeting it has no personal conclusion. If we remove the opening verse it could be read as a series of short sermons on moral living. A connecting idea runs through the whole letter, that a person's belief in God is not genuine unless it produces effective results in everyday living. The writer gives exhortation after exhortation to his readers to demonstrate their faith in God in very practical ways. Although the word 'salvation' does not appear in the letter, we learn from the writer what he understands this word to mean.


There are few specific references in the letter to Jesus Christ, in contrast to what we find in the letters of Paul. The writer is not concerned with the content of the apostolic kerygma but with the apostolic teaching, particularly moral instruction, on how the convert should express his faith in daily life.


We have seen how Paul, in his letters, emphasizes that salvation is God's gift to man through Jesus Christ; a person is saved by faith, not by his own unaided efforts to be good. But Paul expected the convert to live under the control of the Holy Spirit, showing the beautiful results of a new life in Christ in daily living (Galatians 5:22-25). The person who has faith in what Jesus Christ has done is put right with God, through God's loving grace, but the transformation in the convert should be demonstrated in a new way of life under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Paul had hard things to say to the Corinthians and the Galatians because their lives lacked this obvious demonstration of the new life in Christ.


The teaching of the letter of James complements the teaching of Paul and does not contradict it. The writer has no use for what he calls 'faith without actions' (2:26). When he uses the word 'faith' like this, he is referring to mere intellectual assent to a truth without any resultant change of behaviour. James says that even demons know about God (2: 19); in Mark 5: 12 we are told that the demons in the demoniac of Gerasa begged Jesus to send them into the pigs, and demon-possessed people recognized the power of God in Jesus immediately (Mark 1 :23-2


The demoniac of Gerasa

What James means is that mere intellectual agreement with the statement that God exists has no value at all unless it results in some change in the person. The demons did not become any less demonic when they were confronted with the power of God. Paul would not have disagreed with James over this because when Paul uses the word 'faith', it is with the sense of total commitment of oneself and one's life to God through Jesus Christ.


The writer of the letter of James is familiar with the Jewish Scriptures in the Greek translation. He refers to Abraham, Isaac, Rahab, Job and Elijah, as well as giving Scripture quotations and showing familiarity with the thought of the prophetic books and the Old Testament teaching about true wisdom. The writer does not give any direct quotations from the teaching of Jesus as recorded in the gospels, but often seems to be referring generally to what Jesus said, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7. At a number of points in the letter, it is helpful to compare what James says with what Jesus taught and with what Paul says in his letters.


The letter of James is very interesting because it shows us another aspect of the teaching and understanding of the early Church. A common tradition of preaching, teaching and practice was shared by all the churches but inevitably, local differences and cultural situations made an impression. A Jewish background is apparent in the letter of James.