Dale Allison’s ICC James – Part I

Only just today did I have a chance to finally begin reading Dale C. Allison’s new ICC volume on James (Bloombury, T & T Clark, 2013). I was able to complete the introduction and I can confidently say that Allison’s knowledge of the secondary literature is astonishing and his discussion always insightful. He has read and interacts quite extensively with the relevant literature, not only in the last century, but throughout the centuries of Christian interpretation of this text. Indeed, he makes it a point to say that, while he intends to stay true to the ICC’s emphasis on historical-critical issues, he has a particular interest in the history of reception. Here are some key matters of note from the introduction.

(1) The commentary commences with a 49-page bibliography – a gold-mine of information for further study!

(2) The whole introduction is 109 pages, more than 1/8 of the total sum of pages.

(3) Authorship – As you might guess, Allison spends a good bit of time on the question of authorship. He lays out the history of the discussion fairly and engages the arguments for authentic attribution (along with scholarly rebuttals), and also those against (also but rebuttals). In the end, he leans towards (and then works from) the side that sees this is pseudonymous. He finds the most decisive matters to be these: (a) “there is no clear knowlesge of [James] in early times, or even before the time of Origen” (p. 13); (b) James “struggled to enter the canon” (18), (c) there are early Patristic referents to a pseudonymous letter of James (mentioned by Jerome), and (e) Allison finds a mismatch between the person James and the Greek of the text: “…how likely [is it] that the brother of Jesus could have written fairly accomplished Greek, possessed such a large Greek vocabulary, employed the LXX, and adopted Hellenistic literary topoi” (p. 25)? Also, given the likelihood that this text shows knowledge of 1 Peter and Romans, Allison dates it later than 100 (c. 100-120).

(4) Purpose and Setting – Here’s where things get interesting. Allison notes that, while James borrows from Christian tradition (and Jesus tradition), there is almost nothing explicit regarding Christian beliefs.  Put another way, “everything we think of as being characteristically Christian remains at best tacit” (p. 37). Allison builds from some work done by J.H. Moulton and A.H. McNeile to argue that the audience of this text is probably and mixture of Christian Jews and non-Christian Jews. Thus,

…James represents Christian Jews who did not define themselves over against Judaism. That is, our book emerged from a Christ-oriented Judaism, from 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).

Allison thinks of three groups: “There are Christian Jews, there are rich oppressors, and there are those belonging to neither group, whose sympathy James seeks to gain or preserve” (p. 45). Allison admits that, while James is not trying to evangelize, there is an apologetic element here: “James communicates, among other things, that Jesus’ followers are not apostates from Judaism but rather faithful members of the synagogue who live according to the Jewish moral tradition, are faithful to Torah and oppose those who want — as no doubt was rumored of other Christians — to divide faith from works” (p. 44).

From Allison’s point of view, then, the author collects teachings and arguments that help demonstrate this shared heritage of fidelity to Jewish religion: “It is designed to be Jewish; it is designed to look traditional” (48).

This is a fascinating theory and one worth further discussion (I know there is a SBL review session on this commentary, and I cannot be there, sadly!). My wider concern is this: is it likely to have such a purpose and situation (Christian Jews worshipping with non-Christian Jews in the synagogue in large enough numbers for this text to meet a wider audience) 3-5 decades after the temple’s demise and growing hostility against followers of Christ? Also, aren’t 1:1 and 2:1 enough to cause some Christian offense, James being a “slave” of Jesus Christ along with God? (Allison thinks that, for 2:1, the original text did not name Jesus Christ; see pp. 382-384). Many questions raised, but Allison can nowhere be accused of carelessness.

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Soundings in the Common English Bible Study Bible (Matthew)

Recently I read the CEB text and study material for the Gospel of Matthew in the Common English Bible Study Bible (Abingdon 2013). Here are some soundings:

– The study material is provided by Eugene Eung-Chun Park and Joel B. Green.

– A one-page introduction gets you into the basic orientation towards the First Gospel: “The overarching theme of the Gospel of Matthew is the role of Jesus as the Christ in relation to God’s plan of salvation for all humanity” (NT p. 3).

Visuals – lots of great charts in the Matthew section. Early on you get a breakdown of the Herodian family. There is a short discussion of the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven” – interestingly, the political edge of this phrase is drawn out (appropriately, I would say): “Proclamation of the kingdom of heaven by John and Jesus stands as a challenge to Rome’s way of ruling” (NT, p. 10). On p. 23 (NT) you will find a comparative list of the disciples according to the four evangelists as well as what we learn from Paul. On p. 46 (NT), there is a chronology of the final days of Jesus (Matthew and Mark).

The Notes – this tends to be the most important part of a Study Bible, and the Matthew notes are very good. For example, many have felt unsatisfied with the CEB’s choice to use “Happy” for the beatitudes instead of the more traditional “Blessed.” Park/Green explain: “Makarios refers to a person’s being fortunate or happy on account of their circumstances. In using the translation happy, the CEB is emphasizing the flourishing, contentment, and well-being of the persons described in Matthew 5:3-12. Jesus’ words may seem strange, though, since he regards as ‘happy people’ those who are usually regarded as troubled and unfortunate. Located at the beginning of Jesus’ first major sermon, this alerts us to the topsy-turvy nature of Jesus’ teaching. It shows us who experiences well-being and contentment under God’s rule rather than according to normal social conventions. In this way, each of these statements declares as happy people those ordinarily regarded as living miserable lives and provides them with an assurance in the form of a promise” (NT, p. 12). I am still not satisfied with using “happy,” but this explanation does help.

Additional elements – in the text outer-margins you will find helpful cross-references (this is priceless for personal study and sermon prep!). I appreciated that, in the text, quotations in Matthew from the OT are given a footnote offering the OT text citation – and it will designate when the OT text appears to be the LXX version (presuming on these occasions the LXX rendering is substantially different than that of the MT; example Matt 21:16 –> Ps 8:3 LXX).

-A couple of CEB translation notes

(1) In Matt 26:55 we read “Have you come with swords and clubs to arrest me, like a thief (lestes)?”; the parallel text in Mark 14:48 reads, “Have you come with swords and clubs to arrest me, like an outlaw (lestes)?” The Greek text is the same, so the differences here are in the translation are unfortunate.

(2) In Matt 27:28 – “They stripped him and put a red military coat (chalmus) on him” – I appreciate the CEB making this more clear, rather than translating it as “robe” as if the soldiers went looking for a royal-like robe. It is thought-provoking to consider how Matthew might be playing with this military imagery that the CEB makes clearer to the English reader.