Scot McKnight on James (NICNT)

Eerdmans, 2011.

The NICNT has a number of truly excellent volumes already from Gordon Fee (1 Corinthians, Philippians, 1-2 Thessalonians), Douglas Moo (Romans), R.T. France (Matthew), F.F. Bruce (Colossians/Ephesians), and others. Scot McKnight’s (SM) contribution on the book of James will surely meet the same standard of excellence.

Introductory Matters

As one would naturally expect from SM, he supports a “story”-focused reading of Scripture, and so of James. He uses his Eikon model from his book A Community Called Atonement.

1. creation of Eikons

2. cracking of Eikons

3. the covenanted community of Eikons

4. the redemption through the perfect Eikon, Christ

5. the cosummation of the union of Eikons with the triune God.

He reiterates: “It is wise to see this plot from the angle of mission, and to see that mission as the missio Dei” (pp 4-5).

The Uniqueness of James

“James tells this one true Story of God’s redemption in moral, wisdom, and prophetic keys rather than in the more didactic, soteriological  keys one finds in Paul, Peter, and Hebrews” (p. 6-7)

Authorship

I was very interested in seeing what arguments and conclusions SM would make here. He settles on James (the brother of Jesus) as the author, but he does not do so dogmatically, nor out of a sense of conservative commitment. He summarizes his position (which I would also affirm) in this way:

We have turned over the rocks [of evidence for and against], we have smelled the earth afresh, but we have discovered no gold. In my estimation, the arguments against the traditional authorship are inconclusive; the arguments for traditional authorship are better but hardly compelling.” (p. 37).

For SM, it is reasonable to assume that it was written in the 50′s from Jerusalem (see 38).

Genre

“The letter [of James] is not an abstract “epistle” designed for posterity or intellectual reputation. It is a gritty in-your-face pastoral letter zippered up at times with some heated rhetoric” (p. 61)

Situation

SM takes, what I consider to be, a socio-rhetorical approach to his commentary. Rather than treating James as a random assortment of proverbs and aphorisms, SM tries to see a consistent thread of concern throughout most of the letter. Here are snapshots of his reconstruction.

“The trail [discussed early in James] is twofold: the socio-economic privation of the messianic community and their need to resist the desire to resort to violence (4:1-2) to establish justice (1:20) and peace (3:18).” (p. 76; see also 94)

“…being tested by economic stress and learning to respond to it properly” (105)

“…the messianic community or at least the poor in the messianic community are being oppressed by the rich and are suffering economically. Second, this condition promotes “desires” for revenge and violence (1:13-15, 19-21). Third, James mentions just these sorts of “desires” in 4:1-12, where he brings up such things as murder, disputes, and slander…[SM suggests that James] responds to the Messianic community where some are being tempted to use violence against oppressors in order to establish justice (1:20). He makes it clear that such desires do not come from God” (117)

The Commentary as a Whole

I am not going to take time to comment on everything in the book, but I will say that I appreciate that SM tries to offer some kind of holistic framework for understanding James. Commentaries, in my opinion, should do more than offer random “comments” of clarification. By and large, once upon a time, that is more or less what they did. SM thinks big picture, big story, and with application and theology in mind. That makes this commentary excellent.

I find the structure of the commentary challenging. It is so long and dense (not SM’s fault) that it is hard to just flip to a verse and “see what he thinks” about a particular issue. this is much easier in Black’s or WBC. So, this is one of the most comprehensive commentaries on James, but I don’t know if I will have the patience to search for the information I am looking for all of the time.

I want to point out, even if you have a few commentaries on James, SM is worth it because he is such a good interpreter of Scripture. Both his Galatians and 1 Peter volumes (NIVAC) are outstanding.

My book reviewed in Interpretation

Today I ran across Susan Hylen‘s review of my book, John and Thomas: Gospels in Conflict? in the most recent fascicle of Interpretation (65 [2011]: 311). Susan teaches at Vanderbilt and I got a chance to meet and hang out with her a little bit at last year’s SBL in Atlanta. She wrote an excellent little book (which I highly recommend) called Imperfect Believers: Ambiguous Characters in the Gospel of John, that was published right around the same time as my book. I am also pleased to note that she is contributing to a book on Johanine characterization I’m editing with the Library of New Testament Studies (slated for Fall 2012).

Anyway, in her review, which is generally quite positive, she writes:

Skinner’s work is a useful reminder that scholar’s who engage in constructing a history of the early church often neglect complex literary questions. . . .For those interested in characterization, Skinner’s interpretations of Thomas and Peter are the most developed of the characters he treats. He suggests that Peter and Thomas are characterized similarly: both characters show significant misunderstandin, but are rehabilitated in the end. . . . The book’s strengths are Skinner’s reading of Thomas’ character, and the resulting contribution to the question of conflict between the Gospels.

Hylen does take me to task for spending too much time on traditional exegetical questions while not attending as carefully to issues of characterization. I have two responses to her critique. First, it was a dissertation and that’s what my committee wanted to see. Second, since I was trying to enter a historical-critical debate using narrative-critical exegesis, I wanted to spend as much space possible examining the entire text.

Overall, I am appreciative of Hylen’s careful reading of my book. I’m also glad that she seems to have understood what I was trying to do (unlike, I believe, Stevan Davies, who gave me a less than flattering review in CBQ).