This review appeared in the Oct-Dec 2012 vol. 169 no. 4 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.Subscribe Today
The Book of James: A New Perspective, A Linguistic Commentary Applying Discourse AnalysisKress Biblical Resources, The Woodlands, TX March 1, 2011
This slim commentary approaches the text of James as a unified discourse. This is a particularly tall order in light of the scholarship on James that stems from Martin Luther to Martin Dibelius. Both Germans led the way for later commentators to regard the book of James as loosely arranged sayings without a cohesive message. Varner argues that the peak of the book is James 3:13–18, which contrasts heavenly wisdom with earthly wisdom. The section contains anaphoric elements looking back to James 1–2 as well as cataphoric elements that look forward to James 4–5. The section has several elements of a frontground prominence (pp. 28–31). James organizes the rest of the epistle with the cohesive tie of a nominative of address (usually ajdelfoi, “brothers”) along with an imperative.
Unlike most commentaries that contain an introduction followed by ongoing commentary on each section of the text, Varner begins with an essay on discourse features. The commentary gives some of the prominent details of the text, but largely explains how the epistle’s sections cohere to one another. This is particularly helpful to track the verbal links and grammatical shifts in the book. Varner concludes the volume with two essays. First is his argument that James the Just held the most prominent position in the church, a historical fact that is often forgotten, and as a result the significance of the letter, as the first epistle addressed to the believers, is often understated. Second, Varner gives a homiletical outline that pastors can use in preaching the book. According to Varner exegesis should lead to exposition, and exposition to preaching or teaching.
The basis of this methodology is the assumption that the author communicated to his readers with a single strategy in mind, not a series of competing ideas. The methodological goal is to keep the larger picture of James in mind as one exegetes the individual passages. Varner seeks to fit the passages within the context of the entire book by applying discourse analysis to the book. He describes his method as paying “rigorous attention to context” (p. 13), or analyzing James in light of his discourse (which here means the entire book). Because of this, Varner states, “When we encounter the various issues of interpretation that arise, with all of their attending perplexities, we firmly believe that our author has an overall strategy in mind; that he is competent to convey effectively his message to us; and that the linguistic resources available to him in Hellenistic Greek were adequate to convey his message” (p. 39).
A few factors detract from the value of the volume. The first that stands out is cosmetic. In the first part of the book the text is presented without verse numbers. The editor began inserting verse numbers in the middle of the volume, which was helpful. Without the verse numbers, it is difficult to follow Varner’s argument without a separate Greek text.
Second, because of his treatment of James as a discourse, readers may not be able to use the text as a reference. In this case an up-to-date reference commentary would be more helpful. Often Varner recommends another source to help resolve a problem or discuss a point further. A reader who would want to consult the commentary on a particular verse or problem will have difficulty because Varner focuses solely on the flow of the argument of James. More discussion might be expected; yet Varner’s goal is to show the argument of James.
In short Varner’s approach is welcomed. His work shows the direction of James’s argument. His method, which emphasizes the unity of the text, should be used more widely in commentaries. However, because of the space constraints of the commentary this is not the best single volume on James. Readers could use this volume in tandem with commentaries such as those by Douglas Moo or Ralph Martin.
—Benjamin J. Simpson