The Letter of James: Resources

james commentaries2This fall, we are walking through the Letter of James. In addition to sharing the sermons themselves, I am hoping to be able to share some additional material in blog posts regarding various issues of interpretation with this epistle, which don’t seem to work in the context of preaching.

First, I want to share some of the resources I am using in my research, and some early impressions, based solely on the respective introductions. Pastors rely on commentaries. They are our tools, like a carpenter’s hammer or saw. For James I have 5 commentaries (pictured right) which I am working with, from somewhat varying perspectives so as to take into account varying perspectives/interpretations.

1. George M. Stulac. IVP New Testament Commentary (IVP, 1993). This is an introductory level commentary, designed for pastors and lay leaders to get the essentials of exegesis and theological issues. Stulac is actually a pastor himself (Presbyterian… as of the time of publication) and this commentary is designed with preaching in mind. It doesn’t cover linguistic details, and doesn’t delve into the historical issues in any significant detail. The introduction features only a very brief overview, followed by “homiletical issues”- stuff that may challenge the preacher and how to handle them. The advantage of this volume is in its simplicity. For the depth of research I like to put into these things, it’s not ideal. But in a pinch, it’s handy to have around, as well as helping me take the more in depth research and see how it can be condensed and used wisely in the context of preaching.

2. Luke Timothy Johnson. Anchor Yale Bible (Doubleday, 1995). Johnson is a renowned Catholic scholar (a former Benedictine monk), but is just so incredibly accomplished and brilliant, even conservative evangelicals can (and generally do) appreciate his contributions to New Testament studies. Among his many commentaries and books is this fantastic volume in the Anchor Bible series. The series is sometimes frowned at by evangelicals because it has, in the past, taken a higher criticism approach. Some newer volumes have proven more widely appreciated. This volume on James features the most comprehensive introductions of the 5 discussed here. At over 160 pages, the introduction is extensive by any standard. Johnson’s unique contribution to the study of James is the intense study of the reception of James in the early church- noting similarities generally overlooked between James and Clement, Hermas, the Didache and others, as well as a full treatment of the third, fourth and fifth century theologians and their use of James. Johnson argues, quite convincingly (in my humble opinion) for the authenticity of the Letter of James, as written by James, the brother of the Lord, and suggests an early date for its composition (pre-Jerusalem council, thus most likely late 40s AD).

3. Douglas J. Moo. Pillar New Testament Commentary (Eerdmans, 2000). Moo is among the most well-known and respected reformed-evangelical New Testament scholars. His Romans commentary (NICNT) is widely revered as the best evangelical commentary on that letter. Moo has written two commentaries on James (Pillar, and the shorter Tyndale volume). Moo’s introduction to James here was somewhat disappointing for me. I expected more detail. He quickly dismisses the arguments against James’ authenticity, without really engaging (or even citing in some cases) the arguments he’s disagreeing with. Moo upholds a conservative view (as I assumed he would) arguing for an early date (mid to late 40s) and arguing for the unity of the letter (arguing against Davids- see below). Also, I am a little uncertain of his intertextual comparisons with Pauline soteriological passages. He notes the synergistic soteriology of James, but, as one would expect from a reformed minded evangelical, see Paul as monergistic and thus has to do something to reconcile the two; separating initial justification (monergistic justification found in Paul) from final justification (synergistic justification from James). I would read Paul and James somewhat differently, finding little or no contradiction between the two (this will discussed at greater length in the future, I’m sure; stay tuned). Moo’s strength and reputation as a commentary writer is in his exegesis, so my hope is that that as I work through the commentary exegesis, this will prove to be the case. I’m not reformed by any  stretch, so I don’t assume I’ll agree on all fronts, but that of doesn’t mean he won’t be helpful in the process.

4. Peter Davids. The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Eerdmans, 1982). This commentary was written when solid evangelical commentaries on James were essentially non-existent (essentially only Adamson’s NICNT, which has since been replace in that series by McKnight). This was written at a point when evangelical commentary writing was just beginning a boom period, so Davids is something of a trailblazer in the study of James. The NIGTC series is a highly technical series, based on the Greek texts, and designed for scholars and nerdy pastors like me who like a more detailed analysis. I am by no means a Greek expert, but I have just enough to make commentaries like this one useful. Davids, while certainly an evangelical, differs from Moo, Johnson and McKnight is his final evaluation of the text- arguing for a two-stage work. The original material, according to Davids, comes from homiletic material composed by James, brother of the Lord (aka James the Just) during his time as bishop in Jerusalem. This material was compiled at a later date either by James himself, or one of his disciples, and distributed with an epistolary salutation in its current form. Thus, the Letter is not an originally unified text, which, argues Davids, accounts for some of its appearances of untidy structure. While intriguing, I think Johnson has convincingly refuted this theory by noting linguistic tools (as opposed to thematic development) in transitioning from one topic to another. But this commentary certainly served as an influential volume in the field.

5. Scot McKnight. The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Eerdmans, 2011). The most recent publication in the field, McKnight brings a fresh approach to James commentaries. Benefiting from years of development since Davids, McKnight comes as a fairly moderate voice in evangelical scholarship, both respected by and getting under the skin of folks in various camps. McKnight is someone who has proved influential in my own reading of the New Testament. I was excited to pick this one up and dig in. The introduction is a refreshing take, less focused on technical issues of Greek linguisitcs, historical criticism, etc. (though not ignorant of them, McKnight simply moves much of this work to those who have written before home, and points out such work in the footnotes) McKnight attempts to recreate the sitz im leben of James (which he admits is somewhat elusive)- the context from which James writes. McKnight suggests reading James first in light of James, but also within its place in the story of Scripture- the sweep from creation, fall, covenant, to fulfillment. He then asks how does James fit in that picture. He characterizes James (using Bauckham) as a “paraenetic encyclical” with “harsh rhetoric” which would be subversive and challenging. Thus it is far in genre from Paul’s more theoretical theology, but within the “story” it is drawn much closer to Paul. I appreciate McKnight’s approach of allowing James’ uniqueness speak through to avoid immediate comparisons to Paul, to note its style, purpose, and situation which results in it being very different to Paul, although the two are embedded in the same story. McKnight thus avoids some of the issues of other commentators who are seeking to defend James by doing some gymnastics, and in the process nullifying the true value of James.

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