The Letter of James

Scot McKnight Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids February 21, 2011
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Scot McKnight’s fine commentary on James, a welcome addition to the NICNT series, replaces the older work by James Adamson (1976). McKnight’s work offers a reader-friendly exposition of the meaning of James for students, pastors, and scholars alike. It follows the standard format of the series: the NIV text followed by verse-by-verse exposition, with much of the technical data, including Greek, in footnotes. An 11-page bibliography and thorough 55-page introduction provide links to robust scholarship on James and explain the context and approach that McKnight uses in his interpretation that follows.

McKnight emphatically stresses his interpretive approach with these words: “Read James in light of James!” (p. 1). Reading James primarily in light of James, rather than reading James primarily in light of Jewish and Greco/Roman parallels, is McKnight’s overarching intention in his exegesis of this letter. He does not, however, dispense with historical research altogether (which would be to “pretend that James lived alone in his world”), but he uses contemporary texts to serve exegesis, rather than the other way around (pp. 1–2). As McKnight comes to his own conclusions from his own study of the text, he still clearly documents his dialogue partners in the footnotes throughout.

Three merits of McKnight’s work stand out. First, McKnight provides thorough and balanced treatment of authorship issues. He tackles head on the most commonly articulated argument against James, the brother of Jesus, as author: that a carpenter’s son from Galilee could not write such sophisticated Greek. He argues that the evidence supports quite the opposite conclusion, citing much evidence that Jews in Galilee and Jerusalem during the first century used Greek and also leaving open the possibility of an amanuensis. McKnight concludes, “Those who argue from language to non-traditional authorship are standing on weak foundations” (p. 34), and he finds other arguments against the traditional view unconvincing. He cautiously accepts the traditional authorship for two reasons: 1. traditional authorship “has very few substantial arguments against it” (p. 37) and 2. the letter’s Jewishness fits with a portrait of the “historical James” as a thoroughly Jewish, Torah-observant Christian.

Second, McKnight gives significant attention to the structure of the book, both in the introduction (where he provides ten outlines from other scholars as well as his own) and in his exegesis throughout the commentary. His own conclusion regarding the structure finds a middle road between the poles of seeing the paraenesis as strung together without order, and seeing an abundance of rhetorical and literary themes in a tightly-constructed composition. Throughout his exegesis he offers discussion about the structure, usually at the beginning of each new section. These discussions draw together the major themes of the letter, which McKnight does an excellent job of developing. In the end, McKnight provides a clear and balanced structural outline and message of the book that will serve pastors and teachers well as they work through James in the congregation and the classroom.

A third, and perhaps the strongest, merit of McKnight’s work is his fine historical-critical and theological exegesis of the letter. McKnight gives attention to lexical, grammatical, literary, and theological issues. He provides fair and balanced treatment of various interpretive options, and in doing so his work becomes a valuable resource for those working closely with the text of James. McKnight’s many quotations of Old Testament, Second Temple Judaism, and Greco-Roman sources help place James accurately in his world. McKnight converses with the relevant secondary literature, but his exegesis primarily engages the text of James itself, meeting his stated intention to write a commentary on James and not on the secondary literature.

As an example, in his treatment of James 2:14–26 (perhaps the most well-known passage in the letter) McKnight does not aim primarily to reconcile James’ teaching on faith and works with Paul’s, but to set out as accurately as possible James’ teaching. Yet he does so while still dialoguing with a “Pauline” view and with the Reformation tradition. In his excursus on the relationship between James and Paul he concludes with the insightful and provocative challenge: “James shows more connection in these issues to the rest of the New Testament, say Jesus (or Matthew), Hebrews, and 1 John. . . . Paul is the outlier here. If post-Reformation Christians struggle with James, the earliest Christians would have had the same struggle at times with Paul” (p. 263). This example illustrates how McKnight reads James for his own theological contribution, while still placing James within the emerging early Christian movement.

Two minor critiques of this work are worth mentioning. First, it seems that McKnight offers somewhat limited interpretations at some places in his exegesis. Two examples will illustrate. First, throughout chapters 1–2 McKnight finds a common theme in the socio-economic trials and oppression being experienced by the “messianic community.” This theme colors his exegesis, to the extent that he seems to deny an interpretation of “trials” in 1:2 and other places as anything beyond the trials of the socio-economic poor in the “messianic community.” Many would disagree with this and would expand the idea of “trials” to many other difficult circumstances. Second, McKnight argues that in 3:1–4:12 James addresses only the teachers in the “messianic community.” This more limited interpretation naturally leads to a more limited application. McKnight limits his interpretations on the basis of careful attention to the context of each passage in light of other passages in James, but he perhaps carries his conclusions too far. While one must appreciate McKnight’s solid historical-critical work to recover the original message of the author via reading James in light of James, it seems that such specific and limited interpretations ignore the practical implications that these verses naturally bring to bear on all Christians.

Second, McKnight expends almost no space explaining applications of the text for the modern reader. He intends to explain the message of the original author in his original context. The commentary meets that goal, yet falls short in its usefulness for pastors and teachers who may find applying his limited interpretations challenging. How does the pastor connect the trials of the poor messianic Jews in Jerusalem under the oppression of the rich to a church that may not be experiencing these circumstances? McKnight offers limited help in answering this type of question. For that reason a pastor or teacher should pair this excellent historical-critical commentary with another more devotional/pastoral one.

In sum, McKnight offers a valuable contribution to the study of the letter of James that scholars, pastors, and students should not neglect. Despite a few minor criticisms, this commentary provides a helpful treatment of the text of James that offers solid exegetical insight to those who will spend the time and effort required to mine its depth.

—Gregory M. Barnhill and Michael H. Burer

October 1, 2013
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Oct-Dec 2013 vol. 170 no. 4 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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