Commentary on James (BECNT) by Dan G. McCartney

James (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament)
Author: Dan G. McCartney
Publisher: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009.
ISBN: 9780901026768

I wish to thank the good folks at Baker Academic (Div. of Baker Publishing Group) for sending me this copy to review.

Professor Dr. Dan G. McCartney has authored this great new commentary on James (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series).  He is the professor of New Testament interpretation at Redeemer Theological Seminary; and had been at Westminster Theological Seminary for over 25 years.

James is a curious character for me because this letter was questioned by Martin Luther as to whether or not it should be in the canon of the bible.  Some biblical scholars have questioned the canonicity of the book of James even though Luther never questioned James’ authorship, but just his content, or lack of important content.  It is only later that some scholars had come to critique the letter’s authenticity.    It is peculiar that the words “Christ” and “Jesus” are never mentioned. For a biblical author to never mention this is indeed a cause for curiosity, and this fact alone can give place to a legitimate argument for this letter’s questionable canonicity.  Dan McCartney notes that James:

  • evinces no concern for ecclesial authority or structure;
  • the importance of the substitutionary death of Christ receives no mention;
  • there is no cultic identification with Christ;
  • no discussion of how the inclusion of Gentiles affects theology; and
  • no reflection on how Christ fulfilled O.T. expectations.

I think is possible that during the early church, which faced extreme persecution, tried to keep their fellowship hidden underground.  I’m not sure if many biblical scholars considered this fact when they question the canonicity of some biblical books, especially that of the book of James.

The argument of about who the audience may not be as important as who the figure of James was. Perhaps this is why McCartney expends more ink on the topic of James’ authorship.  James is supposed by many scholars to be a highly educated Hellenistic Jew, or perhaps, a Gentile convert. Only given such a background could one write such a letter.  Here are some curious facts about James:

  • It contains some Semitic idioms grounded in the Jewish scriptures (e.g., “double-minded”).  Furthermore, his use of idioms, says McCartney, are very different from Greek but very much like Semitic style (e.g., 1:17 “shadow of turning”, 2:4 “judges of evil opinion”, or 3:6 “world of unrighteousness”)
  • Use of words by those of Jewish background (e.g., 3:6 “gehenna”, 2:2 “synagogue”)

Regarding use of phrases that at first seem to evoke Greek rather than Jewish literature, McCartney states: “such use has more the appearance of an “outsider” to a culture borrowing the terms but ignoring their “insider” connotations.  This is exactly what we would expect of a Palestinian Jewish Christian who was competent in Greek and who was familiar with the Hellenistic cultic milieu while also being critical of it.”  In a similar line of thought, and for comparison’s sake, I’ll offer the example of my own experience.  I am a Canadian with a Chinese ethnic background but who has been mostly educated in the English language, rather than, the Chinese language context.  Likewise, James was a citizen of Palestine and born in Palestine with a probable Jewish ethnic background but who was also highly educated in the Greek language within a Hellenistic context rather than a Jewish context.  This milieu of multicultural diversity broadens a person’s understanding.   This is evident in the letter of James.

The authorship of the book of James could have been either:

  • James the son of Zebedee, brother of John, who was killed by Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12:2);
  • James the son of Alphaeus, one of the Twelve;
  • James the Younger; or
  • James, Jesus’ brother (Acts 12:17, Gal. 1:19) (which also poses a problem for the Catholic doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity)

Regarding James, the Lord’s brother, one external biblical source is from Josephus.  However, the validity of his commentary has been doubted due to possible additions written by Christian scribes.  McCartney notes that another outside source, Hegesippus’ account of James has tried to harmonize the story of James’s death found in Josephus with that from Clement of Alexandria.

If James was the brother, or even half-brother, of Jesus, the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity will be put on the spotlight.  However, Jerome claimed that the Greek word adelphos (or brother) could have also meant “cousin” or a member of the broader family network, at least up until the time of the Protestant Reformation.  Augustine and Roman Catholic scholars support this view. I could also support this view because I have been called a “brother” by friends, and by spiritual brothers in Christ.  The question of who James is still asked by many New Testament biblical scholars of James.  This question may never be answered until some future manuscripts are uncovered at some timely hour. I think it would be very interesting if it was discovered that James was the brother of Jesus.  That would definitely paint an interesting picture of the theology of Jesus himself—a law-oriented and moralistic Jesus?  God forbid.

Slightly related to this topic is another important issue concerning James.  Was James written as a response to Paulinism? If James was written before the time of the Apostle Paul, one should address the question of whether or not Pauline theology was a reaction to the moralisms of James.  On the other hand, if this letter was already in existence during the time of St. Paul and was known to him during the time of the Apostle Paul, it does cause me to wonder if Paul may have reacted to this letter of James.  This would also depend upon how widely known the teachings of James were within the early church.  Due to our popular Reformational-thinking, scholars most often seem to assume that the letter of James was a reaction to Pauline theology, rather than the other way around.  McCartney states: “Most scholars who view James as a reaction see it more as a reaction to a later development of Paul’s thinking than to Paul himself” (p.53).  I like his suggestion of Dunn’s strong position: ‘that what is reflected here is a controversy within Judaism—between that stream of Jewish Christianity which was represented by James at Jerusalem on the one hand, and the Gentile churches or Hellenistic  Jewish Christians who had been decisively influenced by Paul on the other’ (p. 54). If James is only read on its own terms rather than as a reaction to Paul or Paulinism, what fun would that be?

Such questions are widely entertained by N.T. scholars and we may never find an answer to this unless new manuscripts or extra-biblical documents surface.  If so, has Paul’s teachings on justification been misunderstood? If so, James may have wanted to provide a corrective in this letter.  We may find ourselves obsessed with defending against the issue that so defines evangelicals and the churches of the Reformation—that faith must never be dependent upon works.  Author, Dan McCartney, does not believe that James is addressing the issue of Paulinism.  He states:

“…the Gospels give plenty of indication that Jesus constantly encountered Jews who, though they paid lip service to the law, failed to perceive and practice its priorities.  The kinds of works of faith that both James and Jesus propound are things such as showing no favouritism, caring for the destitute, showing mercy, avoiding judgmentalism, and the like…. James’s true target is neither the Pauline notion of justification by faith nor even a perversion of it; rather, it is the endemic and widespread problem of hypocrisy” (p.36).

Given McCartney’s position, I do not know if he is would agree with the New Perspective on Paul (NPP), but it certainly would support this similar issue in NPP.  The author states that “even if James is addressing a purely Jewish audience, there is no reason why James’s diatribe against ‘faith without works’ has to be a reaction to Paul or a misunderstanding of Paul.  It could very well be simply another echo of the teachings of Jesus” (p.55).  This is very likely because James, who likely had a Jewish outlook, was also acculturated into the Hellenic world.  McCartney reasons this saying: “Thus, as a good preacher who ‘stands between two worlds,’ applying Scripture (the OT and Jesus’ teaching) to a world different from that in which Scripture (both the OT and Jesus’ teaching) was originally given, James speaks the wisdom of God using the forms, imagery, and rhetorical devices of Hellenism” (p.56).  His rationale makes total sense.  He positions himself in support of James being someone who “seeks to evoke from those who claim to have faith the kind of behaviour that manifests faith.” Maybe it is simply the admonition of practical behaviour, rather than an overly-complicated theological argument that we’ve made it to be.

There are so many issues that could be discussed in this post but I’m limited to space. I’ve enjoyed reviewing this commentary because McCartney has touched on many important issues. I would recommend this commentary on James to anyone who wishes to take a closer look at the various questions raised by biblical scholars.  The author certainly covers many here in this great addition to the BECNT commentary series.

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