Book Review: James, ICC (Dale Allison)

jamesdaleallisonTitle: James: A Critical and Exegetical Commentary

Series: International Critical Commentary

Author: Dale C. Allison, Jr.

Bibliographic info: 848 pp.

Publisher: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2013.

Buy the book at Amazon.

With thanks to Bloomsbury T&T Clark for the review copy.

Dale Allison is a Professor of the New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary. He has authored a previous volume in the the International Critical Commentary series: the three-volume commentary on Matthew.

The introduction to this volume on James spans a little over a hundred pages, covering the expected issues: author, date, Sitz im Leben, sources, genre, structure, literary characteristics, leading ideas (on the epistle’s theology), the local origin of the epistle, the text used, and the epistle’s reception. Of particular value was the fantastic (20 page) section on the sources of the epistle.

After discussing the issue of authorship for a few pages, Allison states his position:

One can indeed slot James into pre-70 Palestine if so inclined. But one can equally read the epistle, as does this commentary, as a second-century pseudepigraphon composed in the diaspora. (13)

Allison also dates the epistle to the second century. His view on authorship and the date are due to a variety of reasons, amongst which is the lack of a “clear knowledge” of James prior to Origen, some early references to a pseudonymous letter of James, the resistance the epistle received at making it into the canon, and, of course, the dubious probability 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(25).

The epistle was written “for 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” (43), and regarding provenance, Allison says, This author, while conceding that the evidence is circumstantial and fragile, believes that the best bet is Rome” (95).

On the Greek text used of James in this commentary, Allison uses the text of the Editio Critica Maior (1997), with one instance of him using a reading that the ECM relegated to the apparatus (in 5.19) and two instances where he goes with his own conjectural emendation (in 2.1 and 4.2).

Allison divides the epistle up into the following sections:

  • 1.1
  • 1.2-27
  • 2.1-13
  • 2.14-26
  • 3.1-12
  • 3.13-18
  • 4.1-12
  • 4.13-5.6
  • 5.7-12
  • 5.13-20

Mention has to be made, of course, to Allison’s view on the faith and works pericope (Jas 2.14-26). His commentary on these twelve verses is over 80 pages long, though this shouldn’t be surprising considering the controversial nature of the passage in the history of interpretation for the past five centuries. Indeed, Allison notes that “the secondary literature on Jas 2.14-26 seemingly exceeds that dedicated to the rest of James put together” (426).

A few tidbits from Allison’s commentary on this pericope:

The argument is complete in itself. It sets up a contrast between two sorts of faith. The first is no more than theological belief (v. 19). It has no deeds (vv. 14-17) and so is dead (vv. 17, 26) and barren (v. 20). It cannot make one righteous (vv. 21-25). But there is also a second and superior sort of faith. This is the saving faith that co-operates with deeds and is perfected by them (vv. 21-26). It is the faith of Abraham and Rahab, who were justified by their works. (443)

James is rejecting a view which allegedly claims that faith does not need works, a view associated with a scriptural argument that he seeks to overturn. (443)

For James, religion is walking, not talking; it is halakah, a way of life, not dogma. (444)

On the possible connection between James and Paul, Allison says:

The point to emphasize with regard to James and Paul is simply this: the constant reading of the former in terms of the latter is exactly what one would expect if the author of James intended auditors of his work to think about Pauline theology. To complain that readers too often and too readily turn to Paul may be akin to objecting that Heb 13.2–‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares’–has regularly moved readers to recall Gen 18, where Abraham hosts three mysterious visitors. Hebrews 13.2 is supposed to prod an intertextual exchange, to move informed readers to go back to Genesis. Maybe, in like fashion, Jas 2.14-24 is also a deliberately allusive text: it wants us to recall Paul. (445)

Allison then goes on to demonstrate why everyone reads James with Paul in mind. For example, Paul’s writings are the earliest extant texts to use δικαιοω in the passive + instrumental εκ (seven times in Romans and Galatians). And guess what… it shows up in three times in James as well (2.21, 24, 25).

Allison translates Jas 2.18 as follows:

Yet someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have deeds’. Show me your faith without deeds, and I by my deeds will show you my faith.

This verse has produced a lot of differing interpretations. After listing twelve of them, Allison says:

Not one of these explanations satisfies, and as this commentator is unable to offer anything better in their place, he reluctantly concludes either that the text is corrupt, the original beyond recovery, or that James expressed himself so poorly that we cannot offer any clear exposition of his words. If every interpretation seems dubious, it is best to defend none. (471)

A few of my favorite aspects of this commentary are the fifty page(!) bibliography, the copious amounts of in-depth footnotes (the author seems quite at home in all the secondary literature), and how each pericope of the epistle contains a section on its reception history.

All in all, I think that Allison’s contribution to the epistle of James will be held as the definitive commentary on the epistle for some time to come. This isn’t just because it is the latest commentary to have been written on the epistle. After all, look at Bauckham’s commentary on Jude and 2 Peter in the Word Biblical Commentary series. It was written way back in the early 80s and it is still the commentary on those epistles, despite the fact that several very good contributions have been published since then. In a similar manner, I think this volume by Allison will be the yardstick by which all other commentaries on James will be measured for quite some time. It is superb.


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  1. Pingback: Biblical Studies Carnival - August 2014 - Biblical StudiesBiblical Studies

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