The Hermeneutics of Divine Testing: Cosmic Trials and Biblical Interpretation in the Epistle of James and Other Jewish Literature

Written by Nicholas Ellis Reviewed By Mariam Kamell

Nicholas Ellis’s study on the problem of probation in the epistle of James is a welcome addition to the suddenly growing literature on James. His book, a “lightly revised version” of his Oxford doctoral dissertation (vii), is an articulate, well-argued, well-researched, detailed study into the difficulty that James poses for his reader with the declaration that God is apeirastos, which raises the seeming contradiction with Hebrew Scriptures where God does indeed test his people, from Abraham onward. Surveying a wide variety of Second Temple and later Jewish literature, Ellis draws forth a variety of paradigms within which James might have operated, and uses them to unpack the argument within the text. From this he is able to develop a clearer picture of the hermeneutics that the author of the epistle of James used in his own handling of key narratives.

The book begins by raising the particular issue of how to translate peirasmos in chapter one, revealing that most scholars use an ad hoc transition between verses 2–12 (“trials”) and 13 onward (“temptation”) without a secure justification for this decision. Add to this the difficulty of determining how James intends us to understand God as apeirastos (he “tests/tempts no one” or “ought not be tested/tempted”), one quickly comes to understand the reason for this study. Ellis then briefly acknowledges the various difficulties in this kind of study, both in locating the epistle of James and in discerning the appropriate parallel literature from which to draw, as well as presenting the current research on James and Jewish cosmologies.

At this point the main bulk of the thesis begins, with a focus on divine probation in Jewish literature. Ellis examines five different main texts (or groups of texts) in an attempt to discern the source of tests/temptations in human experience as well as how the texts deal with the perfection of God in relation to human failure. Is God to blame, or is making that claim putting God to the test? Examining samples from Jubilees (“rewritten Bible”), Sirach (“wisdom”), Philo (“Hellenistic philosophy”), the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies (a “cosmic drama”), and finally the Rabbinic Tradition (the “yetzer” and “demonic anthropology”), along with an abbreviated study on 4 Ezra and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Ellis shows himself to work adeptly across a wide range of literature to arrive at very different answers. The range of texts is broad, if slightly puzzling, but answers to his earlier challenge that scholars not prematurely settle for one comparative “type.” The paradigms he arrives at are quite varied, from heavenly courtrooms with demonic opposition—a picture based on the introduction to Job but applied to Abraham (cf. p. 70)—to internalized desires at war with our own will. (He identifies versions of this latter paradigm in both Philo and Sirach, the former taking a Platonist attitude to the question of whether the created order is intrinsically good, the latter assuming a non-Platonist answer to that question.) He then takes these varied paradigms and reads James, particularly James 1:8, 1:13–14, and 4:5–8, to seek to discern where the anthropology of James may fit. Finding the anthropology of cautions against desires and double-mindedness and warnings of demons and demonic wisdom to sit most comfortably alongside the rewritten Bible paradigm of a cosmic courtroom (pp. 178–79), he then tests this hermeneutic against the creation, Abraham, and Job narratives alluded to in the epistle of James. Here the fruit of his work can best be seen as he reveals a useful reading of James that pays close attention to the elusive elements in the text without filling in too many gaps ex nihilo. In the end, his conclusion ties together all the pieces, returning to the question of God as apeirastos in relation to a reconstructed “Jobraham” narrative found in the rewritten Bible tradition (p. 238).

This book makes for an enjoyable read, tramping through vast swaths of literature and fine debate with finesse and clarity. The revelation of the blending of the stories of Job and Abraham in the literature creates a fine intertextual background from which to develop a nuanced hermeneutic for James. Some question could be raised regarding the choice of each of the literatures (particularly the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies, a brow-raising choice, particularly given the absence of the Wisdom of Solomon and the relegation of the Testaments to an excursus; and why are no precedents given either?). One might also question the wisdom of attempting to put together Philo’s cosmology in a single chapter. However, Ellis repeatedly offers the caveat of the impossibility of surveying all the potentially relevant literature or compiling exhaustive cosmologies and anthropologies of every author, thus forcing the reader to concede the questions. The other difficulty for me with accepting his Jobraham thesis is the absence of any discussion of how Rahab fits in James’s hermeneutic (since he pairs Abraham with her, not Job, to reveal a tested faith).

Overall, I am very glad to have gotten the chance to read this book promptly upon its arrival in the field. Ellis raises challenging questions of hermeneutical assumptions regarding the epistle of James, and he then provides a winsome hermeneutical key. While the book assumes knowledge of Hebrew and Greek (and some German), it is still accessible to the average educated reader. For those who wish to study more deeply how God can relate to his creation in terms of tests but not be accountable for human failure, this work provides a generous set of options in literary backgrounds and a careful—and fruitful—reading of the text of James.

Mariam Kamell

Mariam Kamell
Regent College
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

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