Friday, December 17, 2010

Book Review: James

Thanks to the folks at Zondervan for providing a review copy and a slot in their blog tour. Make sure to check out the first batch of reviews here.

The Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament is a new series on the market geared towards pastors. I've heard excellent things about each of the volumes so I was looking forward to getting my hands on a Blomberg's and Kamell's work. I won't detail the features of the series in this review (you can see my description at the bottom of my commentary series overview post). I will say, though, that the layout is unique and very helpful. One concern that I had seeing the commentary proper split into so many sections, was that there would be substantial overlap of material. My fear proved to be unfounded. The authors and editors did a stellar job at fully utilizing the format. I also must say that they hit their intended audience dead on. The amount of technical information was just right. They don't bog you down with gobs of detail on minutiae, but there's enough to inform you on important matters, whether they be grammatical, lexical, or of cultural/historical background.

As for the contents of the commentary, again I was quite pleased, though, of course, certain elements of the commentary were better than others. The introduction was brief but helpful. It covered the usual topics, such as authorship, dating, and the circumstances prompting the letter taking traditional stances and giving reasonable defense for their positions. Blomberg and Kamell also spent several pages explaining the overall structure of James. I found this to be the most beneficial section of the introduction as I've always struggled to see an overall cohesiveness to the letter. They argue in the introduction (and defend in the commentary proper) that the entire letter focuses on three themes: trials, wisdom, and riches and poverty. These are introduced initially in 1:2-11, reiterated in the same order in 1:12-27, and then developed at length in reverse order from 2:1-5:18.

Of the three main topics of the letter, I most appreciated Blomberg's and Kamell's discussion of wealth and poverty. Much of what James says on this topic sounds so harsh that it's easy to say that he didn't really mean it that strongly. Blomberg and Kamell don't go down that path. They're not afraid to make the conclusions that many of us don't want to hear like, 'It may well be true that it is impossible to be both rich and a Christian unless one is generous in giving from one's riches' (254 - emphasis mine). This does seem to be the clear emphasis of Jas. 2:14-26. At the same time I liked the balance of their approach. They don't go overboard like some liberation theologians do. James is not advocating salvation by social class, but again, that shouldn't make us wealthy Western Christians any more comfortable in our shoes.

At a broad level, several aspects of the commentary stand out. One is the way in which Blomberg and Kamell colorfully draw out the meanings of the various metaphors and adjectives that are sprinkled throughout James. For a reader familiar with the text it can be easy to gloss over these, but Blomberg and Kamell help you understand how they would have been heard by the first audience. One example is in the sexual and reproductive metaphor in Jas. 1:14-15. Specifically, they point out that James is using the metaphor to show how difficult it is to stop the process of desire, sin, and death once it has started. 'Here James uses a more vivid metaphor, showing the reproductive process as difficult to stop once it begins...One can almost envision three generations here: desire as a "parent," sin as a "child," and death as a "grandchild"' (72). This isn't a mind blowing observation, but it's easy to miss this type of thing and Blomberg and Kamell consistently make the easy to miss, obvious, while presenting it in a fresh way.

I also appreciated the way in which the commentary matched James in tone. James sometimes is very cordial and at other times rebukes his audience. Blomberg and Kamell are not afraid to wear both of those hats. At several spots throughout the commentary they addressed the reader directly (I offered a snippet that I found particularly powerful here). This is often not done in commentaries. Many commentators are willing to write purely at the level of description (and granted this may be a necessity in most academic series). I am very glad that they were willing to confront the reader on several matters, especially in a series geared towards pastors and teachers. If one is going to teach the text, one must first live the text. It's easy to try to get away without applying the text to yourself, but Blomberg and Kamell do their best to keep that from happening.

My only complaint with the commentary is that too much space was allotted to the issue of gender-inclusive translation. I favor gender-inclusive language, and I personally use the TNIV and NRSV as my primary translations, so it's not as if I disagree with their translation. It just seemed like every word that could be translated in a gender-inclusive manner drew substantial comment. In fairness much of this was relegated to the footnotes, but I am a compulsive footnote reader, so I quickly drew tired of the same issue being rehashed.

Overall, I have to say that James is an excellent commentary that will both inform and nourish the reader. Every pastor, seminary student, and serious lay student should have this volume on their shelf. It will provide you with the literary, lexical, and grammatical help that you need while also furthering your thought on the implications of the text in the life and ministry of your church. 5 stars out of 5.

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