JamesWritten by Dale C. Allison Jr. Reviewed By Daniel M. Gurtner
Dale C. Allison Jr., Richard J. Dearborn Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, is well known for his breadth of landmark scholarship. His work spans the three-volume International Critical Commentary on Matthew with W. D. Davies (An Exegetical and Critical Commentary on the Gospel according to St. Matthew [London: T&T Clark, 1988–1997]), a critical commentary on The Testament of Abraham (CEJL; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2003), and Constructing Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010), to name but a few. These and numerous other works uniquely equip Allison to tackle the complicated issues that surround the epistle of James. Its affinities with traditions of Second Temple Judaism, obvious interface with Jesus traditions, and notoriously muted distinctive Christian features are well-served by the patient, meticulous, and cautious thinking of this veteran scholar. Readers will find this commentary encyclopedic in what it covers and judicious in what it does not. Though one may find much with which to disagree, the reader will find a wealth of carefully sifted material to consider in one’s own judgments. Perhaps it may be in points of disagreement where one finds works such as this so valuable.
After leafing through a thirty-eight page bibliography, one encounters an extensive introduction (109 pages) that considers conventional subjects with some unconventional conclusions. Allison seems to take nothing for granted and is open to consider any viable option. He opts against James of Jerusalem as the author of this letter, in part because of its alleged familiarity with Romans and 1 Peter. This, he posits, would require a date not before 100 CE. Many will find difficulty in proving James’s familiarity with those letters as well as using the uncertainties surrounding the date of a work such as 1 Peter as points of reference. For Allison, then, James is a pseudepigraphon—a work not written by James himself, but written in his name. Allison rehearses traditional explanations for why one would write in the name of James, such as gaining authority, perceived affinities with James, borrowing James’s reputed rapport with diaspora Jews, and James’s pious reputation as “James the Just.”
Perhaps the most innovative contribution of this commentary is the author’s assessment of the setting of James (pp. 32–50), where Allison arrives at a number of noteworthy conclusions. Among these is his advocacy for a non-Christian readership. That is, James’s notoriously thin explicitly Christian teachings may be deliberately muted so as to lend to its dissemination among non-Christian Jewish readers (pp. 36, 39–41, 47). Contrary to other theories (e.g., Moulton and McNeile), Allison sees the author’s motivation rooted in persuasion rather than proselytizing.
For Allison, James “represents Christian Jews who did not define themselves over against Judaism” (p. 43). This is 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” (p. 43). They did so in this letter by consciously omitting “potentially divisive Christian affirmations” (p. 43). This is difficult to maintain. Similarly, attributing to James a desire “to promote tolerance for and understanding of his own group” (p. 45) finds a James more amiable than has traditionally been seen. Despite these and other queries, the value in such discussions is that it seeks to address the difficult distinction between Judaism and Christianity. Allison underscores the difficulty, even impossibility and sometimes impropriety, of making such a distinction.
The introduction to the commentary addresses other matters beyond setting. The LXX, extracanonical Jewish traditions, popular Hellenistic philosophy, Jesus traditions, and other early Christian traditions and texts all figure into James’s sources. As a genre, Allison carefully describes James as a “paranetically oriented early-Jewish diaspora-letter” (p. 74). As such it employs literary features (p. 81), such as catchwords, wordplays, assonance, consonance, alliteration, parallelisms, aphoristic style, and antithetical formulations. Though the structure lacks a clear linear coherence, Allison nonetheless observes generalizations about its organization around certain repeated topics. These include coping with trials and temptations (1:2–8, 12–18; 5:7–10), the fate of the rich and poor and the problem of partiality (1:9–11; 2:1–13; 4:13–5:6), the necessity of doing works (1:22–27; 2:14–26; 3:13–18), caution regarding speech (1:19, 26; 3:1–12; 4:11–12; 5:12), and reflection upon and encouragement regarding prayer (1:5–8; 4:2–3; 5:13–18; p. 78).
Allison avoids constructing a “theology” of James and instead presents a set of “leading ideas” he finds in the letter (pp. 88–94). Topics here include theology (proper) alongside Christology. The former contains nothing distinctively Christian, he observes, while the latter is eclipsed by the theocentric nature of James. Also discussed are the Law, “Practical Teaching,” and Eschatology. Allison observes that though eschatology is present in each section of the letter, it is largely undeveloped and almost incidental, presuming such things about the Lord’s return (5:7–9), final reckoning (2:12–13; 3:1; 4:12; 5:9), and salvation for the righteous (1:12, 21; 2:5; 4:10; 5:20) are shared beliefs between the author and readers. Overall, however, James’s “eschatology is wholly in the service of ethics” (p. 94).
A feature of this commentary, unique among the ICC volumes, is Allison’s attention to reception history. At the outset (pp. 99–109) the author provides some generalizations regarding the reception history of James, spanning from Origen through Luther and even to Alcoholics Anonymous (p. 109). In the commentary proper each text unit begins with a discussion of the history of interpretation and influence prior to formal exposition. The approach is similar to that of Ulrich Luz’s ground-breaking work on the reception history of Matthew in that, for example, it notes how Jas 1:1 was appealed to in debates over British Imperialism (p. 118). The majority of the commentary, however, is steeped in historical critical scholarship at its finest. Space prohibits any extensive treatment of respective texts, save to say what is characteristic throughout: Allison provides a carefully reconstructed text, presents extensive footnotes for the key secondary and primary literature, offers a balanced presentation of the major views on a particular verse, followed by an extensive and detailed explanation of his own conclusions.
This commentary is simply a treasure-trove of critical thinking, careful reasoning, and judicious appropriation of complicated issues. It leaves few stones unturned, and offers reasonable explanations for the conclusions it draws. For readers of this journal, some of his conclusions seem striking: he dates the letter to the late first century; he claims that it is not written by James, but written in his name. The value for pastors and theological students lies not in the need to adopt these or other conclusions, but in careful consideration of how such conclusions are deduced. Allison is transparent about his method throughout, and by careful reading of the means by which he reaches even the most difficult conclusions the student of God’s Word is forced to think carefully about their own methods of interpretation. In this respect the commentary is a valuable dialogue partner; a tool not to be pillaged for its conclusions but read for its reasoning. In his painstaking work in James, Allison has left yet another landmark of scholarly acumen for the benefit of the reader willing to engage with the most complicated of critical matters and reach their own conclusions.
Daniel M. Gurtner
Daniel M. Gurtner completed his PhD at the University of St. Andrews and has written extensively on the Gospel of Matthew and Second Temple Judaism. He is the author of The Torn Veil: Matthew’s Exposition of the Death of Jesus and co-editor of the award-winning T&T Clark Encyclopedia of Second Temple Judaism.
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