Aida Besançon Spencer, A Commentary on James (Kregel Exegetical Library)

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, Commentary on JamesSpencer 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:

 

Thanks to Kregel Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work

 

 

 

 

 

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.

What To Do with the One Who Wanders – James 5:19-20

The final lines of this letter address a Christian who has “wandered from the truth.” Does this mean this brother has completely rejected the Gospel? In English, wandering has the sense of random meandering away from where you are supposed to be, perhaps aimlessness. But the Greek word translated “wander” (πλανάω) can have the connotation of deception. This brother could be misled by another, perhaps even a teacher or elder.

But the verb appears in Matthew 18:12-13, a sheep who wanders away from the sheepfold. It is also used consistently in the Old Testament for the apostasy of the nation of Israel. If the nation are the sheep of God’s pasture, then their persistent sin and rebellion is like a sheep wandering out of the safety of the pasture, putting them in danger from predators.

The truth can refer to doctrine and practice, but it is not specific (i.e., the truth of the Gospel, the truth of Jesus as God, etc.) In a contemporary context, this is more than someone leaving our church and attending another, or shifting from a Calvinist to Arminian view of salvation, or any other doctrine within the larger world of Christianity.

Whatever the truth refers to, it is possible for another to restore the wandering brother to fellowship. James is addressing the responsibility of the one who has not wandered to restore those who have wandered,

If the tensions between Jewish Christians and the wealthy aristocracy are in the background of the letter, then perhaps the “wandering” James has in mind is a return to the synagogue, perhaps even a rejection of Jesus as the messiah. Remember the congregations to which James is writing are small Jewish Christian messianic communities which have not gone very far from the synagogue. It is possible pressure from non-Christians Jews have convinced some to worship in the synagogues and keep their belief in Jesus as Messiah secret.

James is speaking hypothetically, but this kind of defection from the faith was always a possibility for Jewish Christians. The grammar of the passage is a third-class condition. Whatever the case, James does not think any have actually wandered away from the truth, but if that should happen, they can be brought back. James says the one who brings back the wandering sinner “saves his soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.” Does this refer to the wanderer, or the one who restores the wanderer?

The problem for the modern reader is how we treat those who have serious questions about their faith or how they live out their faith in the world. It is very easy to write-off a person who has wandered from their faith, those who appear to have rejected the core doctrines or now participate in behaviors we “insiders” consider sinful.

Perhaps it is best to return to the first of the commands in this paragraph, “If someone has wandered away, pray for them to be restored to fellowship.” But we ought to pray four our own sensitivity and grace toward those who have wandered in order to win them back.

Praying for the Sick – James 5:13-15

James 5:13-18 briefly mentions several kinds of prayers for those who are suffering or rejoicing (5:13). Those who are suffering ought to pray. The verb James used for suffering (κακοπαθέω) is rare in the New Testament. Paul used the word in 1 Tim 2:9 to describe his own suffering, bound in chains like a criminal. In 2 Tim 4:5 it is one of the final commands to Timothy (endure hardship). This is not necessarily that people being oppressed by outsiders (such as the wealthy of the previous section). This word can refer to any sort of affliction (even the sickness in verse 14).

Image result for anoint the sick with oilAlthough the verb is the common word for prayer, James makes a clear parallel with “cheerful singing” in the next line. It is at least possible James wants the one who is suffering to pray a lament Psalms. There are many examples of prayers in the Psalms where the writer is lamenting because of suffering and oppression.

In contrast, the cheerful ought to “sing praise.” The verb “be cheerful” (εὐθυμέω) and the related nouns have the sense of “in good spirits” (BDAG), as in Acts 27:22, 25, 36 where Paul encourages those about to be shipwrecked to “take heart.” This word does not refer to someone who is bubbly and happy, but rather someone who may be suffering but rejoices anyway. In James, the readers all seem to be suffer in some way.

Although there is no organized persecution, there is some harassment at the hands of the wealthy and powerful. Since the verb for singing (ψάλλω) is related to noun for a psalm, perhaps James wants the cheerful to respond to the Lord with thanksgiving or praise drawn from the Psalter. The believer is to respond in worship whether they are enduring some suffering or enjoying a time of relative peace.

A second kind of prayer in this paragraph is prayer for the sick (5:14-15). The elders are to pray over the sick and anoint them with oil. It is important to understand “elders of the church” in the context of James as a very early letter. This is not the office of elder in the fairly structured church of the Pastoral Epistles. Some scholars see this as a distinctively Christian phrase. Sophie Laws, for example, “This is one phrase which gives a specifically Christian colouring to the epistle” (Laws, James, 225).

An elder (πρεσβύτερος) referred to the older, wise men of a community. For Jews, these were the men who were respected in a town and synagogue. As the church developed certain men were appointed to function as official guardians of faith and practice, but in the earliest Jewish communities, the elders were analogous to the older men of the synagogues. By church (ἐκκλησία), James refers to the Jewish Christian communities in the Diaspora, more or less equivalent to a synagogue. This is not the universal church, the body of Christ.

The elders also anoint the sick with oil. Although anointing with oil is used for a variety of things, it is associated with treating wounds. In the parable of the Good Samaritan the Samaritan puts oil on the man’s wounds, for example. But in the ancient world there was nor a clear distinction between a miraculous healing and medical science. “A distinction between remedies based on superstition and remedies based on science would have been foreign even to the practitioners of Greek medicine” (Laws, James, 227).

The elders anoint the sick person “in the name of the Lord.” This could refer to Jesus, or could refer to the father. For the most part Jews would have referred to God as “the name,” so this implies the Lord is Jesus. Although this seems academic, there are so few references to Jesus in James scholars hope to find them wherever they can! Dibelius thought the command to pray “in the name of the Lord” is an allusion to exorcising a demon who was responsible for the sickness. This would reflect the Second Temple view that demons caused illness, but there is little in this text to support an exorcism.

The sick person also confesses their sin. This may reflect the Jewish view that sickness and sin are related. It was common in the Second Temple Period for Jews to connect physical illness and sin. For example, Sirach 18:19-21 and 38:15 makes confession of sin a requirement for healing and good health (Laws, James, 229).

Sirach 18:19–21 (NRSV) Before you speak, learn; and before you fall ill, take care of your health. 20 Before judgment comes, examine yourself; and at the time of scrutiny you will find forgiveness. 21 Before falling ill, humble yourself; and when you have sinned, repent.

Sirach 38:15 (NRSV) He who sins against his Maker, will be defiant toward the physician.

In John 9, Jesus’s disciples ask of a man who was born blind had sinned, or of his parents had sinned; in Mark 2 the Pharisees considered Jesus’s pronouncement that a lame man’s sins were forgiven to the blasphemous since the man was still lame.

It is surprising James makes no reference to laying on of hands, a common practice in healing. This may imply this is not a “traditional healing.” The impression from the two verses is that a person with an unusual illness can call one or two of the community leaders to their bedside and confess their sins. These elders will pray for them and tend to their illness in some real tangible way.

Like the first two commands of this paragraph, the sick person confessing sin is often found in the Psalms.

Psalm 35:13–14 (ESV) But I, when they were sick— I wore sackcloth; I afflicted myself with fasting; I prayed with head bowed on my chest. 14 I went about as though I grieved for my friend or my brother; as one who laments his mother, I bowed down in mourning.

Psalm 41:1–3 (ESV)  Blessed is the one who considers the poor! In the day of trouble the Lord delivers him; 2 the Lord protects him and keeps him alive; he is called blessed in the land; you do not give him up to the will of his enemies. 3 The Lord sustains him on his sickbed; in his illness you restore him to full health.

The prayer of these elders can “save them” and the Lord will raise them up. This appears to refer to healing, although this is not necessarily the sort of miracle Jesus did, nor the apostles in Acts. But regardless of the activity of these elders, it is the Lord who raises the sick person from their sick bed.

By way of application, these two verses are not related to modern healing at all, they reflect Jewish practice in the first century. James is describing a practice which should be as obvious as praying at times of suffering or cheerfulness.

The Rich Have Fattened Themselves – James 5:1-6

The book of James is quote clear: those who are wealthy now face judgment in the eschatological judgment. They may be living a good life now, but the rich can only expect suffering and judgment in the future. James’s condemnation of the rich certainly resonates with the Sermon on the Mount, especially in the Lukan beatitudes (Luke 6:24-26).

Who are these rich people and what have they done to be attacked as the prophets once attacked Israel? Scot McKnight argues these are the wealthy who oppressed the poor members for the congregation in 1:19-27 and 2:14-17 (McKnight, James, 382, note 74). But these are not necessarily Christians: the prophets often addressed the nations. McKnight points out (rightly) we need to recognize James is not like a Pauline letter (addressed to a Christian community), but a prophetic letter sent to a broad range of Jewish readers, some of whom are not yet Christians.

It is possible the wealthy condemned in this paragraph would never hear James’s prophetic speech. If this is the case, then the function of the condemnation is to encourage the oppressed readers of the letter. But this too is similar to the prophetic literature. Did the nations condemned by Amos actually hear the words addressed to them?

James reflects both the prophetic tradition of Israel and the teaching of Jesus in his relentless attack on the rich who oppress the poor.  Condemning the wealthy is one of the most prominent features of the early prophets (Micah 3:1-4; Hos 2:4-7; Isaiah 3:11-5:1) as well as the apocalyptic judgment in 1 Enoch 95.

Micah 3:1–4 (ESV) And I said: Hear, you heads of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel! Is it not for you to know justice?— 2 you who hate the good and love the evil, who tear the skin from off my people and their flesh from off their bones, 3 who eat the flesh of my people, and flay their skin from off them, and break their bones in pieces and chop them up like meat in a pot, like flesh in a cauldron. 4 Then they will cry to the Lord, but he will not answer them; he will hide his face from them at that time, because they have made their deeds evil.

1 Enoch 95:6-9 “Woe unto those who build oppression and injustice! Who lay foundations for deceit. They shall soon be demolished; and they shall have no peace. 7 Woe unto those who build their houses with sin! For they shall all be demolished from their foundations; and they shall fall by the sword. Those who amass gold and silver; they shall quickly be destroyed, 8 Woe unto you, O rich people! For you have put your trust in your wealth. You shall ooze out of your riches, for you do not remember the Most High. 9 In the days of your affluence, you committed oppression, you have become ready for death, and for the day of darkness and the day of great judgment.

James attacks the rich in a series of short phrases which sound like apocalyptic judgement.

First, the rich will weep and wail because misery has come upon them. Weeping is a common word in the New Testament and is associated with mourning. Wailing (ὀλολύζω) is only used here in the New Testament, but in the LXX it is associated with apocalyptic judgment (Isa 13:6; 14:31; Zech 11:2; Amos 8:3). The Greek word sounds like a howl, and the Hebrew word it translates in Isa 13:6 (ילל) refers to an undulating wail or howl (cf., the Arabic walwala). It is often used in parallel to lament and for the wailing of an animal in the desert.

Misery (ταλαιπωρία) sometimes refers to extreme suffering (Job 30:3), but it is also associated violent destruction when the Lord Almighty comes to restore Israel (Joel 1:15). In LXX Ezekiel 45:9 the word is used for oppression by the rich (cf. LXX Psalm 11:6; ET Psalm 12:5).  In fact, Ezekiel 45:9 is a possible intertext for James 5:1 “Enough, O princes of Israel! Put away violence and oppression, and execute justice and righteousness. Cease your evictions of my people”

Second, their hoarded riches will rot away and the rich will burn. James says money and clothes will corrode and become moth-eaten. This immediately calls to mind Matthew 6:19, Jesus draws a contrast between treasures in heaven were rust cannot destroy and moths cannot destroy (both James and Jesus use the same word, “treasure” (θησαυρίζω). But Job 13:28 has a similar metaphor for the temporary character of material possessions and Isaiah 51:8 is also very close (McKnight, James, 386). Once again, James (and Jesus) stand on the foundation of a prophetic-wisdom tradition.

This should not be a pastor’s house

This hoarded wealth is the result of oppression of the poor (5:4). This verse claims the wealthy have robbed the poor of the proper wages. The verb (ἀποστερέω) refers to frau or embezzlement (BDAG). Leviticus 19:13 specifically forbids defrauding one’s neighbors and the general principle of the Law was paying the laborer at the end of the day (Deut 24:15; Jer 22:13). This is another case where James may know the parable of Jesus in Matthew 20:8, but the wisdom tradition regularly condemns the man who withholds wages.

Third, because the wealthy have lived lives of luxury in this life, they are “fattened for the Day of the Slaughter” (v. 5). The “day of slaughter is a vivid image drawn from the prophetic tradition of a great slaughter of God’s enemies when God fights for his people (for example, Zech 11:4-7; Isaiah 30:25, 34:2, Rev 19:17-19; 2 Enoch 50:2-6). Like the animals they fattened to be slaughtered in the Temple, these wealthy elites are about to be slaughtered.

These elites have lived a life of extreme luxury. The first verb (τρυφάω, only here in the New Testament) has the sense of revelry, carousing and the second (σπαταλάω) is “to indulge oneself beyond the bounds of propriety” (cf. 1 Tim 5:6, BDAG). The word is very rare, appearing only in the LXX in Ezekiel 16:49 to describe the indulgences of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is as if these wealthy elites led lives like the Romans!

If James is writing prior to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, then this great fiery judgment likely refers to the slaughter of the rich and powerful in Jerusalem, people who have used the Temple to make themselves wealthy and have “fattened themselves” for the Roman slaughter of Judea and Jerusalem. In fact, this helps explain the next obscure line in verse 6. The rich condemned “the righteous person” (v. 6). If James is attacking the wealthy aristocratic priests who have oppressed the poor Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, then they are the very ones who condemned the righteous Jesus to death.

Both Jesus and James condemn those who have enjoyed wealth at the expense of the poor and use vivid language to describe their fate at the eschatological judgment. Does this mean James condemns all wealth as evil? Does Jesus expect the true disciples to live voluntary lives of poverty?

More chilling is the possible application of this teaching to the contemporary church. There are many examples of people who have enriched themselves through their churches, often harvesting money from the poor to support lavish lifestyles. Much of the American church is obviously under the sway of the “health and wealth” gospel, so are African and Asian churches. What would James have to say to us about our great wealth?