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






Was James an Unbeliever Before the Resurrection?

Traditionally James is thought to have been an “unbeliever” before the resurrection. Like Paul, he encountered Jesus after the resurrection and “converted” to Christianity. This description is troublesome for several reasons. First, the unbelief of James concerned his understanding of who Jesus was during his ministry. He was an “unbeliever,” but the disciples were not clear on who Jesus was nor did they fully understand his messianic mission. They too left Jesus in the end, betraying him in the Garden.

Jesus and his brother JamesSecond, James seems to have had a traditional Jewish worldview and theology. He does not suddenly become a Jewish thinker after his encounter with the risen Jesus. Like Paul, James would have understood his brother’s activity through the lens of Second Temple Judaism and like the Pharisees questioned some of Jesus’ activities and teachings.

However, it is possible to read the data in the gospels differently and argue that James was in fact a follower of Jesus prior to the resurrection. There are only a few texts which refer to the family of Jesus in the Gospels. In Mark 3:21 indicates that the family thought Jesus was “out of his mind,” but 3:31-35 says that they came “seeking him,” presumably to take him home.

In John 7:1-5, however, there is a clear statement that his brothers did not believe in him. But when one looks at this text, it is in the context of Jesus’ signs. The brothers are urging him to do his publicly rather than in secret. They do not deny that he is a miracle worker, but they complain about the way in which Jesus is doing those miracles. This may hint at a belief that Jesus was a special teacher, man of God, or miracle worker, but not a full understanding of Jesus as the messiah.

Perhaps a way to get at this problem is to as if Mary was an “unbeliever.” To my knowledge no one would suggest that Mary “did not believe in Jesus,” yet in Mark 3:31-35 Mary is also seeking Jesus. In John 2, Mary seems interested in Jesus doing a miracle in a more public way. There are no scholars who would argue that Mary was a non-believer in Jesus, even though the evidence is the same as that of James. No one would think of Mary having a “conversion experience” after the resurrection. She was in the upper room after the ascension, waiting with the disciples and the brothers of Jesus (Acts 1:14). In general, one could describe Mary and James similarly prior to the resurrection.

James, like Paul, had a traditional Jewish worldview prior to the resurrection. How far did James move away from Judaism when he encountered Jesus?  What evidence is there in the letter of James to support any changes within Second Temple Judaism?

Is the Letter of James Pseudonymous?

James 1_5The Letter of James is often described as pseudonymous, meaning that the letter is attributed to James but not actually written by him.  In fact, this is an issue for several of the books of the New Testament: The Pastoral Epistles, Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Peter, and Jude have all been described as pseudonymous.  It is important therefore to think a bit about the practice of pseudonymity in the ancient world, especially as it relates to the authority of the text.

James Dunn wrote the article on Pseudepigraphy in the Dictionary of Later New Testament (IVP, 1997, 977-984).  Beginning with the alleged Pauline pseudonymous letters, Dunn creates a methodology for identifying a letter as post-Pauline.  Simply put, compare the letter to the others which are undeniably from Paul.  In his view, Ephesians and Colossians may or may not be pseudonymous, the pastorals likely represent a “post Pauline tradition.”  But as Dunn admits, this method is hard to use on James, Jude, and the letters of Peter.  There is no other undisputed work of James, so it is difficult to judge.  In fact, he says that the distinction between genuine and pseudonymous with respect to James and 1 Peter is a meaningless argument since in the end we cannot really tell.

On the other hand, a fair argument could be made that James the Just was the author of the letter of James. Conservative scholars (Karen Jobes, Letters to the Church, Terry Wilder, Faithful to the End) consider James’s allusions to the teach of Jesus as well as similarities with the character of James in the book of Acts a evidence the traditional authorship is at least possible (if not likely). These observations track with Dunn’s method (compare the letter to a known source), but at least the comparison to Acts is potentially week since we read the speech of James as reported by Luke, who was not yet a companion of Paul. I do think that Faithful to the End is correct in connecting the James of Acts 15 to the James of the Letter. The character of James in Acts is so consistent with the writer of the Letter of James I have no trouble equating the two.

But the issue of pseudonymity remains.  If a letter can be proven to be pseudonymous, does that reduce the authority of that letter in the New Testament canon?  Perhaps not.

A writer may choose to attach another name to their work for a variety of reasons, some of which are entirely innocent. For example, it is entirely possible that a writer knew the teaching of James very well and created a letter which accurately reflected the teaching of James, and perhaps this writer even used snippets of James’ teaching. In this case, the Letter of James was not actually penned by James, but is an accurate record of his teaching.  There are still some ramifications for inerrancy since the first lines of the book claim to be a letter from James to churches in the Diaspora, but this sort of soft-pseudonymity is not a serious problem.  In fact, it is likely that prophets of the Hebrew Bible were assembled in just this way by anonymous editors who accurately recorded the words of their prophet.

On the other hand, a writer may have attached the name of James to the letter in order to give credence to his own ideas, whether they came form James or not.  Usually any theory of this sort places the writing of the book well beyond the time of James life, perhaps as late as the second century.  This strong-pseudonymity is a much bigger problem for the authority of the text, since the books of the New Testament are assumed to have Apostolic authority. If the letter comes from a much later date and a non-Apostolic author, does it have the same level of authority?

For someone like J. I. Packer, “Pseudonymity and canonicity are mutually exclusive” (Packer, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God, 184).  Conservative scholars appeal to Eusebius, who reported that the church fathers rejected anything that was not known to have come from an apostle or someone from within the apostolic (Eccl. Hist. 6.12.3).  I think most conservatives would agree with this assessment and dismiss any argument against the traditional answer that James, the brother of Jesus wrote the letter.

If James was a collection of sayings of the historical James rather than a letter written by him, would that change the authority of the Letter of James for you?

Why Rahab? (James 2:25-26)

At the conclusion of his discussion of the relationship between faith and works, James uses Abraham as an example of a person who obeyed God and was declared righteous. He alludes to Genesis 22 and quotes Genesis 15:16 and concludes that a person is considered righteous because of what they do, not on the basis of faith alone (James 2:24). Usually scholars focus on the glaring clash between this verse and Paul’s argument in Romans 4 that Abraham was justified by believing in God (Gen 15) before he was given the rite of circumcision (Gen 17). For Paul, one is justified “by grace through faith not of works.”

I have written on this aspect of James before, but in preparing for a lecture on the ethics of James I wondered why James uses Rahab as an example in 2:25. Scholars often pass over this verse as if it was an appendix to the argument and not of any real importance. But Rahab is mentioned twice in the Jewish-Christian literature, Hebrews 11:31 and James 2:25-26. 1 Clement 12 refers Rahab as well, observing that her “faith and hospitality” saved her. Clement is not interested in Rahab as a Gentile convert. Rather, Clement connects the “scarlet thread” to the blood of Jesus so that “not only faith but prophecy is found in this woman.”  In all three cases Rahab is a paradigm of faith because she acted on behalf of the spies.

In Joshua 2 Rahab is presented as an example of a “righteous Canaanite.”  This is remarkable since she is introduced as a זֹנָה, a prostitute and she betrays her own city to the enemy by lying to the authorities. After she has protected the spies, she says she has heard of God’s victory in Egypt and understood that Israel’s God is “the LORD your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath” (Josh 2:11). Since she has protected Joshua’s two spies and is therefore exempt from the destruction of all the people of Jericho (Josh 6:17).

Rahab Scarlet CordWhen scholars examine Paul’s argument in Galatians 3 or Romans 4, they often ask why Paul used Abraham as an example of justification by faith. Sometimes they suggest Abraham was used by Paul’s opponents to argue Gentiles (like Abraham) should submit to circumcision as did Abraham. After all, Abraham was also a Gentile who expressed his faith in some concrete action (offering Isaac as a sacrifice). The use of Abraham in James 2:20-24 supports this, since Paul seems to be in conflict with “men from James” in Galatians.

My question in James 2:25 is similar: why does James use Rahab as an example of someone who was “considered righteous”? He uses the same aorist passive of δικαιόω as James 2:21 and Romans 4:2, both referring to Abraham being declared righteous. Perhaps Rahab fits the pattern of a Gentile who has heard the word of God (the Exodus and Israel’s victories in the wilderness), has expressed faith in the God who did these things, and confirmed her faith by some concrete action.

For James, Rahab may be a better example for his point since she demonstrated her faith by hiding the spies before she expressed her faith in the God of Israel. Out of all of the residents of Jericho, only Rahab and her family were saved from destruction and only because she expressed her faith through an action.  As the climax of the faith vs. works discussion, James says faith without works is dead (v. 26), just like the people of Jericho! The warning to the reader is that even for the Gentiles, some real expression of faith is necessary in order to faith to be “saving faith.”

This discussion is always difficult because we have a tendency to read our theological presuppositions into the text (I know I do!). But if we only had James to construct Christian theology, how different from Pauline Theology would our view of salvation be? Or, are Paul and James really not that far apart after all?