Bags of Bran

The Combat Shelf: James
September 2, 2015, 3:47 pm
Filed under: Bible, Bibliophilia, Biography

I am going to be finished preaching through the book of James as of this coming Sunday, Lord willing. I found it to be a somewhat difficult book in places, and in other places, highly intuitive. It was helpful to keep in mind the early date and the occasion as I went through the book. It is easy, in a book that strikes some commentators as having no coherence, to lose the thread that stitches the book together, but remembering that James was pre-Pauline and written to a Jewish-minded diaspora helped significantly.

If you’re planning a trip through James, I hope I can help you by pointing out a few things that surprised me: First, I sometimes underestimated how tough James’ Greek can be. Some spots are really difficult. Second, it would be very easy to atomize the text. Some like to call James “the Proverbs of the New Testament,” and that is a dangerous tendency. I had to work out the connections among the passages: they are available. Third, I ended up preaching some very long and some very short passages. Normally, I’m a 3-6 verse guy, but some texts needed more biblical support. Others could not bear dissection.

What books were helpful to me?

Very Good Commentaries:

Luke Timothy Johnson, The Letter of James, Anchor Bible. This study was very sensible, conservative (!), and not overly concerned to provide the definitive answer to either Luther or the Tübingen School. His translation notes will aid the student of Greek without bogging him down.

Sophie Laws, The Letter of James, Black’s Harper’s New Testament Commentary. Another sensible study. More terse than Johnson, but a persuasive interpretation throughout, with adequate discussion of alternatives. Frequent, helpful reminders of the thread of James’ letter.

R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistle to the Hebrews and the Epistle of James. I did not often defer to Lenski’s idiosyncratic interpretations, but I often read them to catch some of the spirit of the writer. Lenski had a knack for shining a light into the penumbra of a text that helps me to be a more careful reader.

Decent Commentaries:

Craig Blomberg, James, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Blomberg was usually helpful on technical matters. His interpretation often whifs slightly of NPR sensibilities. It is one thing to comment on the needs of the poor when James comments on the needs of the poor; it is another thing to salt your discussion with loaded words such as “oppression” and “justice,” as though such words have not changed their meaning over nearly two millennia.

Joseph Mayor, The Epistle of Saint James. Why would I have the audacity to call the venerable Mayor only a “decent” commentary? Simply because, unless one is engaged in academic study of the epistle, Mayor is probably going to be cumbersome. He is brilliant, foundational, and indispensible for deep study: seminarian, nobody is going to question you for having Mayor in your bibliography. But for the needs of a pastor, he can be more than a tad dense. His introductory article on the authorship of James is worth owning the volume, however.

Spiros Zodhiates, The Behavior of Belief: An Exposition of James Based on the Original Greek Text. I started out reading this volume faithfully every week, but then it simply grew tiresome. It is not as though it does not occasionally have a good insight. Zodhiates atomizes the text down to individual phrases and then writes essays about them, and thus, takes your eyes off of the goal. There might be a reason that this book is so rare.

R. V. G. Tasker, James, Tyndale new Testament Commentaries. This little volume was sometimes surprisingly helpful and clear where the other commentaries were perhaps a little foggy and verbose.

Kurt A. Richardson, James, New American Commentary. It came with SLOGOS. It did not harm me.

John Calvin, Catholic Epistles, Calvin’s Commentaries. Calvin was typically helpful from a pastoral perspective, though I differed from him more often in James than I have in other books. Still worth owning the set.

Save Your Money

David Platt, Exalting Jesus in James, Christ-Centered Exposition. Good heavens. Pick a difficult passage in James and watch Platt follow his heart through it, in affected, billowy prose, without substantive argument.

In that light I would like to describe something God has done in my life and family that I would not necessarily prescribe ( or suggest that God prescribes) for others. But I share this part of my own spiritual journey to shed light on how James 1: 19-25 has affected my life personally.

One could spend an afternoon whacking the moles in Platt’s writing, but this lumbering construction is fairly typical of the book. One wonders if he had to add things like this to make a word count.

My only mild regret is that I did not buy Moo’s volume in the Pillar set, which comes highly recommended. I have used Davids (NIGTC) before, but he is in such essential agreement with Dibelius (and I am in such essential disagreement with Dibelius) as to the nature of the epistle that it was not really all that helpful. Plus, Blomberg had plenty of technical material.

Happy studies!


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