Book Review: Grant Osborne, James: Verse by Verse

Osborne, Grant R.  James: Verse by Verse. Osborne New Testament Commentaries; Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press, 2019. 204 pp.; Pb.  $19.99  Link to Lexham Press    Link to Logos Version

The latest addition to the series of verse-by-verse commentaries by the late Grant Osborne is the Book of Acts. Lexham Press publishes this series simultaneously in both print and electronic Logos Library editions. Eleven commentaries are now published or announced: Luke, John, Romans, Acts, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians and Philemon, Philippians, 1-2 Thessalonians and  Revelation.

James is an unusual book in the New Testament. Although it is one of the most popular book for personal and group Bible Studies, it has not always enjoyed this status. For most Christians today the letter is very clear and practical. But as is well known, Luther called the letter an “epistle of straw” since it lacked a clear Christology and seemed to contradict Paul.

For Osborne, James is the earliest letter in the New Testament, dating to the mid-40s. In the twenty-page introduction to the commentary he argues in favor of the common tradition that James the brother of Jesus wrote the letter. Although James is an example of early Jewish Christianity, James is not a Judaizer nor is there any conflict with Paul’s gospel as presented in Galatians and Romans. By dating the letter so early, Osborne is able to argue James wrote before the Pauline mission to the Gentiles began. It is therefore impossible for him to be addressing a perversion of the Pauline Gospel.

Osborne takes the address of the letter literally, the twelve tribes in diaspora refers to Jewish Christian who are facing oppression from “ungodly land owners.” Some commentaries on James suggest the oppressors are (early) zealots in Galilee, but Osborne does not detect any hint of the rebellion against Rome in the book. He suggests James sent the letter to Jewish Christian synagogues in Syrian Antioch or Asia Minor.

With respect to genre, the book is similar to both wisdom literature and a homily (paraenesis, like a synagogue sermon). He does not spend much time on genre and ultimately does not settle on one form for the book. Writes such as Martin Dibelius argue the book was a loose collection of isolated ethical meditations, others have developed an outline which reflects several topics (suffering, poverty and wealth, speech). These themes are introduced in James 1:2-11 and cycle through the book. Osborne sees the book structured like Matthew, in a series of triads (10). In his short summary of the theology of the letter, Osborne comments on God as the central theme, but also trials, eschatology (future judgment), wealth and poverty, wisdom and practical Christianity, speech and Law and Grace.

This last point is one of the main issues commentators on James must address. Does James’s statement “faith without works is dead” assume Paul’s gospel of salvation apart from the works of the Law? In his comments on James 2:1-17 Osborne dismisses the possibility James is responding to Paul (or as he says, some perversion of Paul’s gospel) primarily on the basis of his argument the letter was written in the mid-40s, before Paul’s mission to the Gentiles began. This assumes Paul did not preach a law-free gospel before Acts 13-14 (the first time Luke describes his gentile mission). However, it is entirely possible Paul did preach to gentiles prior to the late 40s, and it is likely he gentiles the same thing he would later teach the gentiles in Galatia. In addition, James’s words are so close to the later Pauline formulation it is hard to imagine he does not have a Pauline theology in mind. Although I agree with Osborne, the letter of James written before the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, it is more likely he has some report of Paul’s law-free Gospel in mind in James 2:14-17. Like most evangelicals who offer a solution to this problem, Osborne suggests James and Paul are looking at two sides of justification: Paul addresses regeneration and James addresses “the Christian life and professing faith” (84).

Although the letter has little Christology, Osborne points out many examples of the use of a Jesus tradition. For example, commenting on James 1:12, Osborne alludes to the beatitudes in Matthew 5:3-12. Commenting on promised rewards in 1:12, he alludes to the Sermon on the Mount, especially the “meek shall inherit the earth” (39). The teaching of Jesus is assumed in the letter, even if it is not directly cited as the teaching of Jesus. He frequently draws parallels to the teaching of Jesus in the body of the commentary although there is no discussion of what James’s sources were.

Like other commentaries in this series, Osborne’s exposition is based on the English text with rare comments on specific Greek words when necessary. As the title suggests, he comments on each verse by offering light explanations of the text. He does not interact with other commentaries and scholarly literature, although he is clearly informed by them. This make for a distraction-free the commentary which is enjoyable to read.

Conclusion. As Osborne suggests, “if you can’t preach James, you can’t preach” (20). The same is true for writing a Bible-study oriented commentary on James. This Verse-by-Verse Commentary will serve pastors and teachers as they prepare sermons on the text of the Bible, but will also be a guide for laypeople as they read through James.

 

NB: Thanks to Lexham Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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