Top Five James Commentaries

Introduction.  Commentaries on James necessarily must deal with the potential conflict between James and Paul. This is a well known problem, since James says that faith without works is dead (James ) while Paul says that one is justified by faith, not by good works. There are a number of later apocryphal stories which develop this conflict well beyond the biblical data. The reformation stream of Christianity struggled with James, Luther’s disdain for the book is an example of a preference for Pauline theology over and above James.

Another issue with James is the genre. The book is very loosely structured, almost as if it is a compilation of sayings and short teachings rather than a book with a clear argument. (Again, this is in contrast to Paul’s style of writing.) Many commentaries observe that James is not unlike the book of Proverbs, but few develop this idea that much because (in truth) it is not that much like Proverbs! One option is to read James as a late-compilation of James’s sayings, written after his death in the mid-60’s A.D. My preference is to read this book as very early, perhaps predating Paul (or at least written at the same time as Galatians or Thessalonians).

I should mention a couple of other books which I have found helpful for studying James.  Bruce Chilton and Jacob Neusner edited a volume of essays on James: The Brother of Jesus (Louisville: Westminster John Knox: 2001).  Richard Bauckham’s essay in this book James and Jesus is excellent, and I have found Craig Evans’s article on James and Qumran very helpful.  John Painter’s Just James (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999) is a highly detailed monograph on James in Christian tradition, beginning with Acts and Paul, then Eusebius, Nag Hammadi, and the Christian Apocrypha.  Painter concludes with a brief review of the idiosyncratic James, The Brother of the Lord by Robert Eisenman.  Eisenman’s book is massive and develops a view that Paul and James represent a major rift in the earliest church.  I am not convinced by Eisenman, but the book is an interesting read.

Luke Timothy Johnson, The Letter of James (AB; New York: Doubleday, 1995). Johnson’s commentary replaced the rather slender volume by Bo Reicke (remarkable for including the epistles of Peter and Jude in a mere 221 pages!) By contrast, Johnson’s commentary begins with 164 pages of introduction to the letter of James alone. In fact, the introduction is worth the price of the book. I find his description of the similarities and differences between Paul and James helpful, concluding that the contrast is distorted by focusing on a single topic (justification by faith). Johnson dates the book early, written by a Jewish Christian in Palestine who had access to an early form of Jesus tradition (perhaps Q). The introduction has a long section on history of interpretation, asking the question, “How was the voice of James heard” by the church?” The commentary itself is based on the Greek text, but all Greek is transliterated. All citations in the commentary portion are in-text. Johnson draws parallels to Second Temple Period Jewish literature as well as Greco-Roman moralists. As with most of the recent volumes in the Anchor series, John includes detailed bibliographies at the end of each section, including German and French scholarship.

Scot McKnight, James (NICNT; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2011). Scot McKnight is an unusual in that he is a respected biblical scholar yet is able to write with a pastor’s heart on topics which speak to important contemporary issues. McKnight’s commentary is another excellent contribution to the NICNT series, replacing James Adamson’s 1976 volume. While Adamson is still a useful commentary, McKnight’s contribution goes far beyond what the NICNT series expected thirty-five years ago. After a brief introduction (55 pages, defending a generally traditional view of the letter), the commentary proceeds phrase by phrase, Greek appears in transliteration, but in footnotes it is not. Most of these notes are lexical or textual. McKnight fully develops the wisdom-aspect of the letter of James, occasionally citing at length parallels to Jewish wisdom drawn from the Hebrew Bible, especially Proverbs but also Sirach. He has a short excursus on Paul and James, concluding that James is responding to Paul (or some of Paul’s early followers who distorted Paul’s teaching). As with most of McKnight’s work, this is a very readable commentary. While readers familiar only with The Jesus Creed will find McKnight’s scholarship taxing, this commentary will be the “first off the shelf” for many years to come.

Ralph P. Martin, James (WBC; Dallas: Word, 1988). The introduction to the book of James is about one-third of the book, and well worth reading despite being a bit dated. Martin sees a two-stage process for the production of the letter, first a collection of sayings going back to “James the Jerusalem Martyr” was made. These sayings were then edited (polished?) by a Hellenistic writer to produce the letter as we have it. This accounts for the Jewish / Wisdom aspects of the books as well as the Hellenistic / Moralists aspects. Martin’s commentary is one of the better on this list for treating the Greek text. Throughout the commentary the Greek is cited (without transliteration), Martin comments on both lexical and syntactical elements of the text. The Word series concludes each commentary section with an “Explanation,” here Martin draws on his exegesis to draw theological and pastoral conclusions.

Douglas Moo, James (PNTC; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2000) and James (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1985, 2009). Doug Moo wrote the replacement in the Tyndale New Testament commentary on James in 1985 (originally published by Eerdmans, now Intervarsity). This little commentary is very handy, treating Greek in transliteration and dealing with the more controversial issues only briefly. His more recent Pillar Commentary is much more substantial, developing his arguments for the traditional view that James was written by the Lord’s brother in the mid-40’s in more detail. I find his section on the theology of James quite helpful since it goes beyond the usual “works vs. faith” issue. The body of the commentary proceeds phrase by phrase, treating Greek in transliteration. Moo judiciously draws parallels to other Second Temple Period literature, showing that James stands in the Jewish tradition without cluttering the commentary with external sources. The text is quite readable, making this an ideal commentary for the busy pastor preparing to preach through James.

Peter H. Davids, James (NIBC; Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1989). I have not included any commentaries from this series (originally published by Hendrickson, now by Baker). They are handy paperback volumes, inexpensive yet usually good for preparing a sermon. This slender commentary includes Davids’s article on the Theology of James first published in JETS in 1980. The body of the commentary is based on the NIV, although there are “additional notes” dealing with aspects of the Greek text (in transliteration). Davids includes parallels to Jewish literature in these notes, which strike me as more lengthy than other commentaries in the series.

Conclusion. There are a few missing – Blomberg and Kamell in the new Zondervan Exegetical Series should be mentioned, but I do not have a copy to review.  What else is missing?  What is the classic commentary on James which ought to be on every scholar’s shelf? What have you found useful in your teaching of James?


Index for the Top Five Commentary Series


Introduction to Series on Commentaries

On Using Commentaries 

Matthew        Mark        Luke        John        Acts
Romans        1 Corinthians         2 Corinthians
Galatians         Ephesians        Philippians        Colossians
1-2 Thessalonians        Pastoral Epistles         Philemon
Hebrews        James         1 Peter         2 Peter & Jude 
Letters of John         Revelation

Conclusion:  Last Thoughts on New Testament Commentaries

Hebrews 6:4-12 – Other Views on the Warning Passages

Collin Hansen has an excellent interview with Peter O’Brien which specifically discusses the warning passages in Hebrews.  Essentially, O’Brien makes the point that there are two kinds of faith in Hebrews, a genuine faith, analogous to the Parable of the Sower.  Some people respond to the gospel, but not fully and therefore recant their faith when a time of persecution comes.  Indeed this is usually the case when the gospel is preached, whether in the ministry of Jesus, people may respond positively but not come to real Faith in Jesus.  That inadequate response is found in John’s Gospel as well.  Nicodemus was positive towards Jesus, even friendly towards his teaching, but in John 3 I think he falls short of “saving faith.”

Scot McKnight has a response to this interview.  He does not like this two-kind-of-faith approach, stating that it “strains the very language of the letter to the Hebrews.”In essence, McKnight says that it really does not make any sense to warn someone about apostasy (falling away from faith) if they have no faith to begin with! If someone has “spurious faith” then they really ought not be encouraged to continue in that faith.  McKnight does not understand what “spurious faith” means in this context, although late in the article he offers what might be a good definition real faith “perseveres and to salvation” and spurious  faith “doesn’t persevere and that leads to judgment.”

I wonder if O’Brien’s parallel to the Parable of the Sower is not a useful way to understand these warning passages.  Within a group of followers of Jesus, there is a range of responses to the Faith.  They all have heard the real gospel and have some sort of a response to it.  They have all responded positively, but only one type of response is “salvation which perseveres.”  In the Parable, it is the person who bears fruit. To appreciate the faith, or to admire Jesus and his teaching, or to enjoy the gifts of the Spirit is simply not enough.  To be “right with God” one clings tenaciously to the Faith as it has been handed down to them, they bear fruit, and they endure whatever persecution comes their way.  In fact, suffering for the faith seems to be a hallmark of “genuine faith” (Hebrews 12:3-11).

If this analogy is useful, then the exhortations in Hebrews are trying to draw those with weak or inadequate faith into a deeper, more full understanding of this “great salvation.”  The time is coming, says the writing of Hebrews, when you cannot play at being a Christian – you may have to pay with your life!

Thanks to Brian Small at Polumeros kai Polutropos for these links as well as including Reading Acts on his January Hebrews Carnival!