Many thanks to T&T Clark for this free review copy
Dale Allison, Richard J. Dearborn Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, has written the new standard on James. This is not surprising given his past publications such as the ICC commentary on Matthew, Studies in Matthew: Interpretation Past and Present, and numerous books on the historical Jesus. This commentary is going to set the new standard in scholarship on the letter of James.
The commentary itself is massive covering 848 pages (the introduction alone is 108 pages). Despite its length Allison has a way of writing academically but also engaging. He never seems to stray from his argument and his sentences short and pithy. His attention to detail and the breadth of information that he covers is staggering. One of the unique aspects of his commentary is his focus the history of interpretation and reception of James.
This is refreshing for a commentary that prides itself as “unapologetically continues the ICC tradition of pursuing historical-critical issues (1).” Allison argues that examining the reception history of a passage is not only valuable to the task of exegesis but can also just be interesting for the commentator and reader.
The rest of the introduction covers common topics found in all commentaries such as authorship, sitz im leben, genre, structure, and more. In short, Allison argues for a pseudepigraphon (see this PDF for a more detailed summary of the arguments for and against Jacobean authorship) from 100–120 AD, which was written “for a group that still attended synagogue and wished to maintain irenic relations with those who did not share their belief that Jesus was the Messiah (43).”
The genre of James, Allison argues, is a “didactic letter” that is also “parasitically oriented (74).” The letter of James is meant to “remind rather than inform” the hearers (75). The goal of paranesis is to remind the hearers how to live out the philosophy or religion that is being taught. The letter of James is meant to exhort its hearers “that disallow discussion and instead call for obedience(76).”
The commentary proper is set up in three parts: history of interpretation, overall analysis of passage, and finally a verse-by-verse commentary. Similar to his commentary on Matthew, Allison provides more than enough background and analysis for the average scholar. For those wishing to pursue more analysis than what is provided, his extensive use of sources will provide an aid.
Example passage: Faith and Works (James 2:14–26)
This is one of the more hotly debated passages within the New Testament. Does James contradict Paul? Does Paul contradict James? Allison explains six ways the reception of this passage has been analyzed (426–428):
- James and Paul wrote independently of each other
- Paul responded to James (and his followers)
- Paul agreed with James but with clarification
- James responded to Paul polemically
- James seeks to clarify Paul’s argument
- James is reacting to a negative “antinomian” reading of Paul.
As one reads through this analysis the reader will be greeted by interpretations of Augustine, Gregory the Great, Venerable Bede, Origen, and many others (along with copious footnotes of sources for further study).
In the exegesis section Allison outlines six different methods that scholars have more recently used to analyze James 2:14–16. He then continues to examine the similarities that this passage has with Paul such as δικαιόω in the passive + ἐκ, ἐξ ἔρων, and other parallels. Allison concludes that we (in line with his proposed sitz im leben) should read this directed at two groups: Christian Jews and non-Christian Jews. Christian Jews would have seen James’ polemic as correcting a “misrepresentation of Christianity” that some outside the community held. Secondly, non-Christian Jews would have seen a Christians do not put “belief above works (456).” Allison then continues with his verse-by-verse analysis of the passage in light of this argument.
In usual Allison fashion he leaves no nook and cranny untouched and covers the wide range of scholarly arguments concerning Jacobean authorship. One of the imitable aspects of his discussion on authorship is the way he shows the weakness of arguments in favor of his own position. Too often in the academy scholars will pile on arguments that agree with their conclusion even if they are weak. Allison on the other hand provides helpful critiques for positions that argue both for and against his conclusions. I still hold, along with most of the early Church Fathers, an early date for James and the brother of Jesus as the author.
Both sides, as Allison states, have plausible arguments. In my opinion, the weight of Church history, use of Jesus logia, and underdeveloped Christology weigh in favor of an earlier dating. This does not go without questions that I have regarding this position, mainly, if James was a pillar of the church why do we not find use of his writings until Origen? For the other side I would ask how do you explain acceptance into the canon. If apostolic authority is assumed for the texts were the Church Fathers then tricked into believing that the brother of Jesus wrote the letter? Both sides leave these questions unanswered.
To conclude, I highly recommend this commentary for any scholar interested in James. The attention to detail and the wealth of sources leaves one with ample information for study of James. For those interested in the history of interpretation and reception this provides a both/and that is often missing from critical scholarship. Along with historical critical exegesis Allison provides a wealth of reception history both separate from and integrated in the exegesis of the text. This is a rare combination.
Finally, if you are at all familiar with the rest of Allison’s works you will know that this commentary is written in a humble manner. Allison admits when the evidence is scant and recognizes that he does not hold all the answers but will point future scholars in the right direction.