The Letter of James
Scot McKnight, The Letter of James. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011. $55.00. 497 pp. ISBN 978-0-8028-2627-5.
Back in 1985, Dr. Elsa Tamez characterized James as an “intercepted letter.” Along with its late acceptance as canonical, Luther’s disdain and its championing of the poor, Tamez mentioned “the surprising dearth of literature on the letter” (E. Tamez, The Scandalous Message of James, English edition (New York: Crossroad, 1990), 4). It is good news that no such dearth still exists. In the last 25 years more than a dozen, solid commentaries have been written on James, three in renowned exegetical series (BECNT, ZECNT and NICNT) in the last four years. The most recent is McKnight’s outstanding contribution to Jacobean scholarship. McKnight set out to write a commentary for those who preach and teach, “shaped for those who want to explain James and his significance to congregations and classes” (p. xii). I think he has succeeded admirably.
I heartily applaud McKnight’s desire that people “first read James in light of James” (p. 1) and then in light of the larger Story of God and his people, through the lens of the missio Dei. He does not neglect the standard introductory issues of authorship, theme(s), structure and genre (covered in the commentary proper), or the fact that one must occasionally read James in terms of Paul, believing as he does that one reason James wrote was to respond himself to early news of Paul’s mission in Asia Minor (p. 2). What he does do is ground these discussions in the context of how James, the brother of Jesus, interacts with God’s Story. James had come to hear and pass on the Story as fulfilled in Messiah, likely teaching Torah in the words Jesus had used, with a similar emphasis on the Shema and on Leviticus 19:18’s requirement of love of neighbor. James was driven by ecclesial and ethical concerns that demanded wisdom (p. 7). He fit fairly comfortably in the middle ground between competing approaches to early Jewish Christianity and therefore need not be pitted against Paul. Even so, Pauline theology and the Gentile mission had carried the day before the 1st century was out. Thus McKnight agrees with Tamez that James needs to be rescued from obscurity and given his due as a principal player in the earliest church, and a player at the heart of whose “Story was Torah” and “the Land of Israel” (p. 11). James of Jerusalem, then, understood himself to be in “the epicenter of God’s work in the world” at the turning point of human history (p. 12).
McKnight reads James in light of its ethical imperative to “do the word,” or Torah observance. Theology proper and ethics are intertwined to form the book’s unifying theme. And McKnight is careful to remind us that Second Temple understandings of Torah observance were diverse; James’s particular approach was relational (vertical and horizontal) and centered on love (pp. 44-45). In keeping with the current scholarly trend, McKnight finds in chapter 1 the subthemes James will unpack in the rest of the letter, but declines to propose a discernable structure beyond noting obvious topoi reminiscent of Jewish wisdom literature. James’s audience is predominantly poor, probably “scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1; p. 66) and still “attached to the non-messianic Jewish community” (p.67). At the very least this implies that some of the persecution which James’s audience faces is at the hands of the non-messianists of the wider community. The rich (1:10 and 2:2 as well as 2:6 and 5:1), McKnight concludes, are not messianists, but Jews who abuse their economic power and perpetuate injustice. He is less certain of the well dressed man of chapter 2, in part because the scene is so exaggerated and in part because partiality rather than individual status is James’s focus in the pericope (p. 185). What is significant here is that McKnight sees James’s consistently siding with the poor and equating the rich with unbelievers as integral to the latter’s theology. Those who do not love their poor neighbors finally end up God’s enemies. Alas, this message is still often intercepted.
Another point at which McKnight takes the road a-bit-less traveled is in his decision to view all of 3:1-4:12 as addressed to teachers. At the same time, he does note that the discussion is non-linear; anyone expecting Pauline logic will be (and has been) disappointed. The first unit of thought (3:1-12) regards “teachers and the tongue”; the second, “wisdom (3:13-18)”; the third, “dissensions (4:1-10)”; and the last, “community and the tongue (4:11-12)” (p. 266). Because he thinks the reference to the “wise and understanding” in 3:13 “makes most sense if addressed to the teachers” (p. 298), he also opines that the entire chapter is directed towards them, even though the term teacher never appears after 3:1 (p. 266). The dissensions in view in chapter 4 are therefore caused primarily by teachers within the community who are too immature to control their tongues.
Perforce McKnight includes a short excursus on James and Paul (pp. 259-263). This he begins by asserting what should be, but isn’t always, obvious, “‘faith’ and ‘works’ are not exclusively Pauline words” (p. 260). He goes on to point out that neither faith nor works per se are issues for James, but rather that working faith versus worksless faith is his concern in a decidedly messianic Jewish context. More controversial is McKnight’s contention that Paul and James had probably had some personal contact before James wrote 2:14-26. Even if the letter antedates the Jerusalem council of ca. A.D. 49, as McKnight thinks (ca. 45+), there had been opportunities for the two to have met. In fact, “James and Paul are using language so close to each other and in such different ways that one must posit some kind of connection” (p. 262). That connection, though, must be evaluated without anachronism, at least with respect to McKnight’s dating scheme. That is, James could not yet have encountered the mature Paul of Romans 3, or his exact use of vocabulary and the Abraham tradition. James’s end of the connection is best traced to an early messianic misrepresentation (possibly, but not necessarily, his own) of Paul’s oral teaching as completely antinomian. McKnight’s conclusion is compatible with that of most scholars, i.e., Paul and James complement rather than contradict one another.
In the body of his commentary, McKnight is careful to include, not merely cite, numerous OT and inter-testamental texts. Although nearly anything can be found on the world-wide-web, it is still a boon to be able to sit and read a book without requiring internet access. Perhaps more to McKnight’s point, harried students and pastors are less likely than I am to find and read unfamiliar inter-testamental sources. He also incorporates extensive and careful analysis of the Greek text (Greek in the footnotes, transliterations in the body, as with other NICNT volumes) beyond what is found in all but a couple of other exegetical works on James. He has something to say about every significant case and tense/aspect use; moreover, he gives the most grammatically cogent, if idiosyncratic, explanation of the infinitive phrase ἀντὶ τοῦ λέγειν ὑμᾶς, "instead of your saying” (4:15), I have yet seen. Equally significant, he does not ignore those minor interpretive problems, to which there are no easy solutions, that most commentators fail even to mention. The book is remarkably thorough for one described by its author as “not a commentary on commentaries or the ins and outs of scholarly” debate (xi). What it lacks in interaction with other scholars, and this interaction is not insignificant, it more than makes up for in detailed analysis of James. It should be a “must-read” for serious students of the brother of our Lord.
Instructor of NT Greek