Craig Blomberg's review of "James" by Dan G. McCartney
Dan G. McCartney, James. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009. Xxii +335 pp. $39.99. ISBN 978-0-8010-2676-8
The Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament continues to produce uniformly stellar volumes with this latest offering by Dan McCartney, longtime Westminster Seminary New Testament professor, now with Redeemer Seminary in Dallas. It came out just in time for me to use it this spring with my annual Exegesis of James course as one of three required commentaries on that letter which students read. Overall they seemed as pleased with it as I was.
A seventy-six page introduction covers everything one needs from such material outside of a full-scale critical commentary on a biblical book. After judicious assessment of all the various options, McCartney concludes that James, the half-brother of Jesus, perhaps with the help of an amanuensis who gave the letter some of its Greek polish, was the author of the epistle, at any early date (in the 40s), not in response to Paul or Paulinism, but writing an apostolic letter to the diaspora. Notwithstanding 1:1, it is quite likely a good number of God-fearing Gentiles attached themselves to these Jewish-Christian “synagogues” (2:2), accounting for the Hellenistic flavor of the letter in places. And while James had real churches in mind, the proverbial nature of the wisdom he imparts means that we should not try to be overly precise about their particular circumstances. Reminiscent of D. Edmond Hiebert’s commentary of thirty years ago, McCartney sees the nature of a living or genuine faith as the uniting theme of the letter with major divisions at the end of each chapter except for 4:13-5:6 which forms an interlude among James’ various “discourses.” James clearly knows the oral traditions of the teachings of Jesus but overlaps with the contents of contemporary documents, inside or outside of the New Testament, are not close enough to suggest literary dependence of any kind, just shared cultural emphases.
McCartney’s exegesis overall provides the student with a reliable guide through the nest of problems that this little letter raises. Asking God in faith for wisdom in 1:5-6 does not support a “name it and claim it” theology; recognizing God’s generous character, in context, is the faith that is required. But haplous also means “single-minded;” in contrast to the behavior of so many pagan deities, “God’s gift is sincere, openhanded, and free of hidden motives or trickery” (p. 89). The rich people in 1:9-11, 2:1-4, and 4:13-17 are probably Christians; the rich oppressors in 5:1-6 are almost certainly not. The setting of 2:1-4 is probably a regular worship service (though McCartney may rush past the evidence in favor of this as a courtroom scene too quickly). The “perfect law of freedom” in 1:25, like the “royal law” in 2:8, refers to the Torah “that has reached its ultimate redemptive purpose (Matt. 5:17)” (p. 123). 1:27 demonstrates that “both personal holiness and social responsibility are manifestations of the character transformation that genuine faith effects” (p. 130).
Although McCartney fits well into mainstream Calvinism, he recognizes the inseparability of trust and faithfulness in defining the faith that for James truly works. The “synergism” of 2:22 “is far from the notion that humans cooperate with God in their salvation. James is speaking instead about a person’s faith operating in synergy with his or her works as an unfolding of the righteous life” (p. 169). No one specific office of teacher in 3:1 limits the application of this verse, or the next eleven to which it is tied. AnÄ“r, here and throughout the epistle, is used synonymously with anthrÅpos and refers to men and women alike. The conflicts in 4:1-4 are not merely inside specific individuals but are overt squabbles among the members of the community. The enigmatic 4:5 remains puzzling on any interpretation, but fewest difficulties remain if we follow Craig Carpenter’s 2001 NTS article and see vv. 5b-6a as a midrashic paraphrase of the Proverbs quote in verse 6b.
In 4:15, James is more likely focusing on God’s declared ethical will than his decretive will (the specifics of what will or won’t happen) for the traveling merchants. The patience James commends to those oppressed is not passivity but perseverance and “fortitude in the face of suffering” (p. 243). The prayers for healing, like the role of the elders, in 5:13-18 are best understood in the context of the community functioning corporately. Mutual confession precludes any one person or group functioning as (a) sole granter(s) of absolution. McCartney’s appendices helpfully treat faith as James’ central concern: faith vs. works (and justification) in James and Paul, James and wisdom, and James and suffering.
There are some strange grammatical labels here and there in the volume. “Altogether joy” in 1:2 is termed adverbial when it should be called adjectival. “Wisdom” in 1:5 is the simple genitive direct object of “lack” (BDAG) not a genitive of separation (contra BDF). The aorist, perfect, aorist sequence in 1:24 need not reflect a Semitism and is adequately explained by verbal aspect theory (with “having gone away” begin most heavily marked). The dative in 3:18 in the expression McCartney translates “for those who do peace” could be a dative of advantage but this hardly makes righteousness (appearing earlier in the sentence) an “attribute” of the peacemakers. The bibliography is reasonably thorough, though not to the same extent as a number of the volumes in this series and a few surprising omissions include the monographs by Maynard-Reid (on wealth and poverty in James) and Tamez (also a commentary of sorts) and the articles by Bill Baker on James 5:12 and oath-taking and his two co-authored commentaries from Chalice and Standard with important alternative takes on texts such as 2:1. I suspect Tamez would argue that McCartney, by not using the references in texts such as 5:1-6 to highlight the very specific socio-economic plight of the majority in James’ audience but viewing the letter as much more general wisdom for a broader audience, has once again “intercepted” the letter and prevented Northern-hemisphere readers from feeling its full force—both to convict the rich and in hopes of liberating the poor.
Scot McKnight’s new NICNT volume on James was originally due out this spring, but given Eerdmans’ recent history of taking up to two years with manuscripts of any length or detail, who knows how long we may be waiting for it? When it appears, given McKnight’s abilities, it may supersede all existing English-language commentaries on James. Meanwhile, McCartney’s deserves to be included among the candidates for that prize.
Craig Blomberg, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of New Testament