Finally, we have a contemporary commentary on the Letter of James that quite successfully attempts to hear the letter on its own Messianic Jewish terms! McKnight rightly states that James tells a Story that involves Israel, the Messiah Yeshua, the Land, Jerusalem, and James at the center of the first century Messianic Movement.
For the past four decades, there has been a considerable proliferation of interest and scholarly literature on this Epistle – long overdue in Protestant circles who had labored far too long under Luther’s damning pronouncement that it was “a right strawy epistle.” The present commentary has been written by one who has played a significant role in bringing about this much-needed corrective.
– Gordon D. Fee, Series Editor, x.
Excerpts from the “Introduction” (Slightly Paraphrased by Me) In teaching the letter of James, one should walk to the front of the room and write these words in big letters on a chalkboard: Read James! Under that the person then needs to write: First, read James in light of James! …It’s fine to compare James with other texts as long as you read James in light of James first.” Which is just what we intend to do in this commentary because thus we will discover the particular Messianic profile James gives to anything he has acquired from his cultural environments. In this way the historical work gives way to exegesis, or perhaps it is better to say that exegesis sheds light on historical work (p. 1).
James is a one-of-a-kind document. At the literary level, there is no real parallel among ancient letters, essays, and homilies. At the historical level, there is nothing quite like it among the early Messianic documents, even if its connections and origins are deeply disputed. James is, at least in a traditional sense, the earliest Messianic document we have and in many ways anticipates or precedes theological developments. …In fact, many today see the shape of the Christian faith in this letter as a form of Judaism. …But it is the substance of James, combining as it does Torah observance in a new key with both wisdom and eschatology in a Messianic Jewish milieu, that forms its special character (pp. 2-3).
When we move into the church world today, James pushes back against Christians who are too Reformed. In fact, this commentary will hope to demonstrate that the more uncomfortable Christians are with James in a Luther-like way, the less they really understand Paul (p. 3)! James’s letter understands God’s Story as the Story of Israel. In fact, each book of the Bible tells this single Story, even if each author configures that Story in its own way. James knows the breach by God’s covenanted community and he finds the breach mended or fulfilled in the “twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (1:1). James reads the Bible (intertextually) as Story with a plot that comes to a new chapter in Yeshua Messiah. Yet, James’s reading of the Story is not one of replacement so much as of fulfillment: his letter summons the twelve tribes to live out the Mosaic Torah as God’s enduring will. But even here James has touched the Story with singular impact: James reads and renders the Torah in the way Yeshua taught it, namely through the combination of loving God (1:12) and loving others (1:25; 2:8-11). In other words, when it comes to ethics James reads and interprets and applies the Torah through the lens of the Shema (Deut. 6:4-9) and the command to love our neighbor as ourselves (Lev. 19:18bMT/cLXX) That James interprets ethics in the key of Shema is telling for how to comprehend his relationship to Judaism and for how we are to read his Story. From a different angle, but one that nonetheless complements our point about James and the Shema, Jacob Neusner has demonstrated that the typical Jewish/Rabbinic pattern of sin, repentance, atonement, judgment, and eternal life emerges in James naturally so that his theology emerges from within the world of Judaism (pp. 5-6).
James tells this one true Story of God’s redemption in moral, wisdom, and prophetic keys rather than in more didactic, soteriological keys one finds in Paul, Peter, and Hebrews. …Those who compare James to other writers in the New Covenant Scriptures end up somehow spending most of their energies on the relationship of faith and works in James in comparison with Paul, and frequently enough James comes up short to the evaluators. …The reason seems obvious to many: as Messianic Jewish communities faded so also did the theology connected to them, including what we now find in James. James has become the one significant leader of the earliest churches who is now mostly ignored. I make this observation knowing full well that there is a serious resurgence, if not a renaissance, of scholarship on James. But like James in the history of the church, this resurgent scholarship is mostly ignored when it comes to Christian theology and gospel preaching. …We might lift our heads in the hope of seeing another day by returning to the place James had in the beginning. …Those of us in the Reformed, Lutheran, or Evangelical traditions perhaps need to be warned that James may have a louder voice than Paul’s at times and that his letter is not a relic from that quaint era before theologians got everything figured out. …Still, within a generation or two James disappeared from influence for many…and it is all too well known how mightily the Reformation struggled with the theology of James. Only by digging back to the earliest days will we see clearly enough to rescue James from behind the scenes of later theological focal points and discover, as if all over again, the inner vibrations of the earliest tellings of the Christian Story. At the heart of that Story was Torah (pp. 6-11).
But there is another story at work behind James which seems implicit in nearly every line of the letter and breaks forth from the water in the opening lines of the letter when James writes to people who are not in the Land. This is the Story of the Land of Israel. At the center of the biblical promises to Abraham, David, and the Prophets, and a center that still has not moved from observant Jews, is God’s word that they will have a place, the sacred Land of Israel, as their inheritance. Though even many today think Jesus transferred this land promise into new creation, the fact remains that “many Jews and Christians”1 continued to rely on the Land promise. It lurks behind the promise that the ‘unassuming’ (my own translation) will inherit the Land (Matthew 5:5) and is possibly at work in the salt of the Land (‘earth’) in contrast to the light to the world (the Gentile mission, Matthew 5:13-16). Whether one agrees with these suggestions, the fact remains that the Jews like James believed God was faithful to his Land promise. Jerusalem was at the center of that promise; as Jerusalem went, so went the Land. Judgment on Jerusalem was judgment on the Land and on God’s people. Early Messianic Jews did not immediately say, “The promise has changed. Forget the Land. Let’s take over the Roman Empire and then the world!” No, they saw the Land as sacred (pp. 11-12).
The Messianic Community that formed in Jerusalem saw itself, then, as more than just one of the many Communities of Yeshua’s followers. They saw themselves at the epicenter of God’s work in the world, as the Messianic Community of Messianic Communities, the Mother Messianic Community. James was the heralded leader of leaders of the Jerusalem Messianic Community, to whom even Paul gave his reports. He is the first listed among the ‘pillars’ in Galatians 2:9, the one who speaks the final, discerning words in Acts 15 and the first one Paul meets when he arrives in Jerusalem for the last time (Acts 21:18). He was at the center of the Messianic Movement, the whole Messianic Movement, because the whole Messianic Movement had its start in Jerusalem. What was said in Jerusalem mattered everywhere…. Hence, this is a Story that involves Israel, the Messiah, the Land, Jerusalem, and James as the center at the center of the first century Messianic Movement (p. 12).
Please note that the bibliography of this commentary, which is buried in the footnotes, is itself a goldmine!
Henri Louis Goulet
1 This is McKnight’s own coupling, despite his call for the use of more accurate terms to describe the first century situation. Elsewhere in the commentary, he does an admirable job of using better terminology than most.