Top Seven Scholarly Books (Not Commentaries) on James* by Craig L. Blomberg
*So Far This Decade!
Commentaries on biblical books usually get a lot more attention than other works, especially more scholarly ones. Having just finished co-authoring James in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, it is interesting to think back and reflect on the best of the English-language book-length "non-commentaries" that we encountered. Since seven is the number for completeness throughout the Bible, it sounds like a good number for this blog post, too. But let’s make it fun and go in reverse order, like David Letterman in his top tens!
Number 7 on my list is Luke L. Cheung, The Genre, Composition and Hermeneutics of James (Carlisle, UK and Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster, 2003). It is the best and most thorough of a growing set of studies arguing for the theme of perfection, wholeheartedness or single-mindedness as the central theme of the letter. Cheung also makes helpful observations about the outline of the book and its background in Wisdom literature.
Number 6 is Robert L. Webb and John S. Kloppenborg, eds., Reading James with New Eyes: Methodological Reassessments of the Letter of James (London and New York: T & T Clark, 2007). This is a collection of papers originally given for a study group on the topic at SBL. As almost always in such a multi-author collection, the quality of the essays varies, but particularly useful are Darian Lockett’s preview of his larger Ph.D. thesis on purity and pollution in James, Margaret Mitchell’s detailed and almost persuasive case for James as a reaction to a distorted form of Pauline thought, and Duane Watson’s assessment of the rhetoric and rhetorical analysis of the letter.
Number 5 is Lockett’s published version of that thesis, Purity and Worldview in the Epistle of James (London and New York: T & T Clark, 2008). It has often been noted that James takes the language of ritual purity and applies it to the moral arena, but Lockett stresses that this is not just limited to matters of individual holiness. References in 1:26-27; 3:6, 17; and 4:8 in particular distinguish Christian community behavior from that of the world, not calling for sectarian withdrawal form the world but for clear boundaries of acceptable behavior while modeling a healthy social ethic within the world.
Number 4 is David H. Edgar, Has God Not Chosen the Poor? The Social Setting of the Epistle of James (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001). Too many studies of James downplay or ignore this question. While deciding on balance that the epistle is more likely pseudonymous than not, Edgar departs from most who come to this conclusion by dating the letter to the years immediately after James’ death (62-66), in a thoroughly Jewish Christian context, to encourage the poor Jewish-Christian tenant farmers persecuted by their rich, non-Christian landlords.
Number 3 is Mark E. Taylor’s A Text-Linguistic Investigation into the Discourse Structure of James (London and New York: T & T Clark, 2006). Here is a succinct, one-stop shopping overview of every major proposal for the outline of James and a carefully crafted, symmetrical, somewhat chiastic, clearly thematic proposal of his own by the author. Short of what Mariam Kamell and I suggested in the ZECNT commentary on James, just released in late 2008, it is the best suggestion for an outline I’ve seen!
Number 2 is Hershel Shanks and Ben Witherington III, The Brother of Jesus: The Dramatic Story and Meaning of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus and His Family (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003). Before you accept news reports that the James ossuary has been proven fraudulent, you must read this book. Of course, the case that this really was the bone box of the half-brother of our Lord, is far from conclusive, but it may be much stronger than many have suggested. The volume also nicely summarizes all that we know about James from Scripture and tradition and helps sort fact from fiction.
Topping our list at number 1 is the substantially revised edition of Elsa Tamez, The Scandalous Message of James: Faith Without Works is Dead (New York: Crossroad, 2002), with a sixty-page study guide by Pamela Sparr for individual or group work and numerous appendices including lists of resources for social action. Representing a moderate brand of liberation theology, Tamez nevertheless stays very close to the text. Anyone who disagrees with her at any point (and occasionally, one should) will have to make their case based on superior exegesis, not simply by protesting that she begins with different presuppositions than the typical evangelical. I’ve been using it as a supplementary textbook with my Exegesis of James course every year since it first appeared in 1990 and students find it perennially convicting.
Now all you need to do is heed the words Augustine thought he heard God saying to him: "Take and read!"
Craig Blomberg (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including James, which he co-authored with Mariam Kamell.