The book used to be attributed to James the son of Alphaeus (Mark 3:18, Acts 1:13) but modern scholars think it means James the brother of Jesus (perhaps half-brother or step-brother) mentioned in Galatians 1:19, Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3. He became elder of the church at Jerusalem (Acts 12:17 and 15:13, Galatians 2:9 and 12). McKnight says his theology resembles that of the Magnificat because Mary taught him as well as his half-brother Jesus. Eusebius mentioned "James the Just", the first bishop of Jerusalem, who lived as a Nazirite and spent so long praying in the temple that his knees became calloused. James was stoned to death by the Jews in 61 CE.[2 p.1256]
Some argue that James was written after James's death, because there is no early reference to it as a canonical book, though Origen cited it often. On the other hand, the author knew the teaching of Jesus but did not quote any known gospel, suggesting a date before the Gospels were written. Some commentators argue for a date as early as 48 CE when the rich were persecuting the church as 2:6 says.
The references to "trials" and the Diaspora in the first few verses suggest that the intended audience was Jewish Christians outside Palestine, a much wider scope than other canonical epistles.
The Greek is good, but the sentences are short and blunt, like a Jewish "string of pearls" sermon composed of loosely connected "sound bytes", or like a Christian version of "Proverbs". The language makes many doubt that James wrote it personally. He might have dictated his thoughts to a scribe, or others might have edited and published material from James.
The teaching is practical and uncompromising yet traditional, like that of Matthew. James, being conservative, was able to remain in Jerusalem after most other Christians had left. Brown sees similarities between James and the Sermon on the Mount, as indicated in the commentary below.
Martin Luther criticized James for saying that works are essential to salvation. (James actually says that faith leading to salvation can always be seen in the works that arise from it.) This caused Luther and the Protestant movement that followed him to reject James as "a right strawy epistle"  (though Calvinists accept it). Luther found Paul's teaching about "freedom in Christ" a wonderful antidote to the medieval church, which he thought bound by stifling rules, and assumed that Paul must have been reacting similarly to a Judaism that he had found similarly stifling and rule-bound. Christianity was the antidote to the legalism of the Mosaic Law, and from this he argued that James is not a fully Christian book. However, we now know that Judaism at the time of Christ did not see the Law as a burden, nor as the route to salvation, but that salvation was the free gift of God, and obedience to the Law was the proper joyful response to it. That is precisely what James says about Christianity, which makes Judaism a much closer precursor to Christianity than has traditionally been taught.
Luther's understanding of Paul comes from passages such as Galatians 2:16 and Romans 3:28. James 2:24 seems to flatly contradict them, yet they both justify their arguments by referring to Genesis 15:6. James is reacting not to Paul's teaching, but a misunderstanding of it: Paul taught that Christians are not saved by keeping the Mosaic Law (such as circumcision); James adds that the works required by the New Covenant (as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:2) are those of love  .
|Ch:verse||after Reiner||after Brown|
|1:2–18||Joy in Temptations||The role of trials and temptations|
|1:19–27||Hearing, speaking, doing||Words and deeds|
|2:1–9||The love command & dead faith||Partiality toward the rich|
|2:10–13||Keeping the whole law|
|2:14–26||Faith and works|
|3:1–12||Ethics of speech for teachers||The power of the tongue|
|3:13–18||Wisdom and humility||Wisdom from above|
|4:1–10||Desires as the cause of division|
|4:11–12||Judging one another as judging the law|
|4:13–17||Warning to the rich||More about arrogant behaviour|
|5:1–6||Warning to the rich|
|5:7–11||Patience until the 2nd coming||Patience until the coming of the Lord|
|5:12–20||Behaviour within the community|
© David Billin 2002–2021