Book Review: James (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament) by Dan G. McCartney

This commentary, by Prof. Dan McCartney of Redeemer Seminary, Dallas, furthers the high standards of the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (BECNT) series. In my view, some of the commentaries in this series are somewhat lacking but this effort by McCartney joins the front rank of BECNT works (along with Schreiner on Romans, Bock on Luke, Garland on 1 Corinthians).

Like other commentaries in the series, its focus is technical/exegetical and is aimed at pastors and serious students. Greek words are transliterated and translated and in-depth grammatical and syntactical issues are covered in extensive endnotes and footnotes.

As might be expected for those familiar with McCartney, the commentary takes a conservative evangelical approach. For instance, the epistle’s author is recognised as James, the half brother of Jesus with the ability to write literary Greek perhaps accomplished through an amanuensis (p. 32). Other introductory matters include a date of composition sometime in the 40s with the letter recipients being the Jewish Christian diaspora that likely included Gentile “God-fearers”, thereby accounting for certain Hellenistic traits.

Perhaps the most discussed aspect of the epistle of James is the “conflict” between James and Paul on the issue of faith and works. The difficulty arises from apparently contradictory remarks by the two New Testament writers:

Romans 3:28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
James 2:24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

McCartney’s view (rightly in my opinion) is that the epistle should be read on its own terms and not as a response, reaction, or correction of Paul or his interpreters. Indeed, McCartney views the epistle as having been written before the main Pauline corpus. Paul and James addressed matters from independent perspectives and although their language and terminology were similar, their contexts were not the same. McCartney writes, “They appropriated the same Jewish heritage, the same vocabulary, and the same story of Abraham, but they have applied it differently, not because they hold essentially different theologies, but because they are struggling with different problems from different vantage points and have different concerns.” (p. 278). An excellent eight-page excursus deals with this conundrum most ably by demonstrating that there is no contradiction when one considers the overall context of Paul and James.

The discussion helps to highlight the most distinctive aspect of McCartney’s commentary, which is the insistence that faith is the central concern of James. (“A concern with faith runs throughout the letter. James is not about good words as such; it is about true faith.” p. 267 and “I propose that the overall theme of James, the matter that occurs not just at the beginning and the end but throughout, and that drives the deep concerns of the whole letter, is that genuine faith in God must be evident in life” p. 57). This matter is also given an extended examination by way of an excursus and is especially valuable given that it is “frequently overlooked” (p. 267) in other studies of the epistle. There are two other excursuses accompanying the commentary, one discussing the relationship of James to the wisdom literature of the Old Testament and the intertestamental period, and the other discussing suffering in the epistle.

The commentary proper is consistently scholarly and language students will value the technical input from a renowned interpreter. For those of us with an interest in translation, it is hard to miss the author’s obvious interest in this area that goes some way beyond the usual space devoted in BECNT volumes. There are numerous comments on translational matters and I can highlight only a few by way of example. Students should note his discussion on the reading of the third person singular imperative at 1:5 and 4:9, the lexical choices for “gift” at 1:17, and a thorny translation issue at 4:17. Much of the best of such comments are found in copious endnotes at the end of the chapters — and these endnotes are sometimes accompanied by footnotes!. (However, note one or two errors/disputes highlighted by Craig Blomberg in his review from June 2010)

Elsewhere, McCartney is fair and responsible in his discussion of alternative viewpoints with the treatment of horses and ships in the tricky section 3:2-12 exemplary. Overall, his writing is clear, albeit sometimes too concise, and at times some of the endnotes might have been better placed in the commentary proper. Much fresh insight can be found on most of the pages and there is healthy examination of secondary literature.

A downside of this commentary concerns the use of a valuable learning aid. One of the best features of the BECNT commentaries is the presentation of a logical outline at the beginning of each section. This is a particular highlight in Schreiner’s commentary on Romans but not all BECNT volumes aid students quite as well. This effort also disappoints in this respect and is a shame in this volume where a logical structure in the epistle of James is sometimes hard to grasp.

Nevertheless, the commentary as a whole is very worthy and although I still marginally prefer Douglas Moo’s Pillar Commentary, this commendable 300 page effort should be seen as one of the very best exegetical works on James.

James (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament)
Hardcover: 335 pages
Publisher: Baker Academic (November 1, 2009)
ISBN-10: 0801026768
ISBN-13: 978-0801026768

Andy Cheung teaches at King’s Evangelical Divinity School, an accredited, distance education Bible College and Seminary in the UK.

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