Spencer, Aida Besançon. A Commentary on James. Kregel Exegetical Library; Grand Rapids, Mich. Kregel, 2020. 320 pp. Hb; $26.99. Link to Kregel Academic
In the twenty-seven page introduction, Spencer describes James as a messianic Jew. He is a prophet, calling his readers to repent (5:1-6), a teacher who educates his readers (3:1-4), a pastor who exhorts and an artist who works creatively with language. He has a rich knowledge of the Old Testament and uses creative metaphors and similes. He even coins new words. She presents the traditional view that James, the Lord’s brother is the author of the letter along with several objections to this view. In the end she supports the traditional view and sets the letter in the context of James, the leader of Messianic Jews in Jerusalem. When James addresses the letter to twelve tribes in the dispersion (1:1) he refers to the dispersion following Saul’s persecution (Acts 8:1). Spencer argues the letter was written before the Jerusalem Conference (Acts 15) but does not narrow the date any more than between AD 34-48.
Spencer consistently refers to the community addressed by the letter as “messianic Jews” and she is clear the readers are Jewish Christians before the inclusion of Gentiles (p. 32) and states Acts 8-9 fit the context of James’s letter best (p. 33). This thesis has exegetical ramifications for reading the text of James. For example, the diaspora (1:1) refers to the scattering of Messianic Jews after Acts 8:1 (not gentiles and not “the universal Church”). This stands in contrast to Kurt Richardson, who says the phrase “twelve tribes “is unequivocally being applied to the church of Jesus Christ (James; NAC, 1997, p. 55). Douglas Moo comments that the word diaspora “probably has a figurative meaning, characterizing Christians as people who live in this world apart from their heavenly ‘homeland’” (James, PNTC; Eerdmans, 2000, p. 50). Commenting on James 2:2, Spencer states “the setting is a synagogue where these Messianic Jews attend for teaching and worship” (p. 123). Richardson, in contrast, calls this a “Christian meeting” and draws a parallel to “church” (ekklēsia) in 5:14 (p. 111). Moo suggests synagogue is a Christian synagogue meeting, or a generic use of the word (p. 103). Spencer consistently stresses the Jewish character of James and the communities to which he writes.
With respect to structure, Spencer focuses on three themes introduced in the first section of the letter: trials (1:2-4), wisdom (1:5-8) and wealth (1:9-11). James is notoriously difficult to outline, but these three themes resonate throughout the letter, as a helpful chart on pages 45-46 demonstrates. She argues the book is a letter with both prophetic and wisdom elements (p. 44). Remarkably, there is no “theology of James” in the introduction, although each chapter ends with “theology and homiletical topics.”
The body of the commentary is divided into five chapters, following the canonical form of James. Spencer provides a translation of the chapter broken into phrases or clauses, each identified syntactically. After a brief comment on the literary structure of the chapter, her exposition moves through the Greek text word-for-word. Greek appears in the body of the commentary without transliteration. Since each chapter is about sixty pages, she is able to provide a detailed exegesis of the text. Secondary literature appears mostly in footnotes using APA style. References to standard Greek grammars and lexica appear in the notes as well as occasional textual critical issues. Although the commentary is based on the Greek New Testament, Spencer’s comments do not engage with obscure details of syntax, making this a very readable commentary.
Each chapter ends with a section entitled “Theological and Homiletical Topics.” These are brief notes to help a pastor or teacher drawn application arising from the chapter. For chapter 1, Spencer comments on grammatical and natural gender in translation; chapter 2 deals with impartiality as applied to wealth and poverty in an American context; chapter 3 is a series of suggests for being a wise teacher; chapter 4 deals with James and Christ; chapter 5 presents James as a transformational letter (and the foundation for the AA twelve-step program).
Of these five topics, I will only comment on James and Christ. When reading a new commentary on James, one of the first things I check is how the writer deals with the lack of Christology in the letter. Spencer argues the entire letter of James echoes the teaching of Jesus. She provides a detailed list of parallels (with references primarily to Matthew in the notes). “James shows Christ by alluding to and developing Jesus’s teachings” (p. 242). Spencer’s detailed list of parallels between James and Jesus is extremely helpful and clear, although we are still left with questions about what James thought about Jesus.
In addition to the commentary, Spencer provides several appendices. Before the introduction is a three-page Definition of Terms in Grammatical Analysis. Following the commentary is a helpful Glossary of Stylistic Terms used in the commentary, an annotated List of Unusual Words and Phrases in James, a list of Imperatives in James, and a bibliography.
Conclusion. Spencer’s commentary on James is a fine example of an exegetical commentary for pastors and teachers working their way through this important letter.
Review of other commentaries in the Kregel Exegetical Commentary series:
- Duane Garrett, A Commentary on Exodus
- Robert B. Chisholm, A Commentary on Judges and Ruth
- Eugene H. Merrill, A Commentary on 1 & 2 Chronicles
- Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms. Volume 2 (Psalms 42-89)
- Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms, Volume 3 (Psalms 90-150)
- John D. Harvey, A Commentary on Romans
Thanks to Kregel Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work