Oct 22, 2014

Review of James the Just

David Friedman and B. D. Friedman, James the Just: Ya’akov Hatzaddik Presents Applications of Torah, Messianic Commentary (Clarksville, MD: Lederer, 2012).  

The commentary at hand is to be commended for attempting to read James and his book in light of a Jewish context. Many students of the New Testament have long recognized that the author James (or Ya’akov as preferred in the commentary) and his work are one of the most Jewish-oriented of the so-called general epistles. The authors contend that James was the chief rabbi of the messianic Jewish community and that the book is best read as a yalkut, a compendium or collection of teachings of a rabbi. They further contend that the book of James is a reflection on Leviticus 19 and perhaps interacting with the Parasha readings associated with this chapter.

This was a difficult “commentary” to evaluate. One problem is that so much of the “commentary” is devoted to the author Ya’akov and less is related to an examination of his book. While an examination of Ya’akov might be helpful (and has been done) much here is ultimately speculative, and even if correct, is only marginally helpful. I am not sure that many serious students of James would deny that he was a chief leader of the Jewish believers in Jerusalem. Additionally, an entire section is devoted to explaining why the Hebrew name Ya’akov was changed to the anglicized James. Not a problem, but the conclusion presented in the book is unwarranted: “this situation is minor, but where else has man changed the truth of the Bible” (p. 8). Now my preference would be to use the name Jacob rather than James, but is using “James” really changing the truth of the Bible? Indeed, the authors might be guilty of this very same thing when they change the divine name YHWH to Adonai (e.g., p.17). I understand that this qere reading is a traditional Jewish practice but should the one who follows a tradition be so critical of others who also follow another tradition?

A reader also gets the sense that using the Hebrew pronunciation of certain words adds authenticity or gravitas to the discussion. It is akin to the equally mistaken assumption held by a previous generation that the KJV’s “thees” and “thous” were somehow more pious than more commonly used pronouns. This mistaken notion also results in textual overkill. Many passages are reproduced in Hebrew/Greek, Hebrew/Greek transliteration, and English. I am not sure what the point is. Those who can read the Hebrew and Greek don’t need the transliteration. Those who can’t really can’t do much with the transliteration other than pronounce it. But pronunciation does not produce meaning. There is a further problem with the Greek and Greek transliteration. The Greek does not include breathing marks or accents and fails to utilize the final sigma at the end of words. The absence of breathing marks is carried over to the transliteration so that the rough breathing “h” is not included and this will affect proper pronunciation.

A methodological problem also relates to the use of the rabbinical traditions often utilized in this work. Namely, there is the potential of anachronistic interpretations. The authors are apparently aware of the possible problem (p. 28) but I am not sure that this awareness really affects the authors’ approach in the use of Jewish sources. 

Finally, if this series intends to reach a broader audience than a Jewish messianic one, then more care will need to be exercised in defining terms. For example, although this volume contains a four-page glossary, some terms such as B’rit Hadesha (p. xv) are not found there. Likewise, less familiar or unfamiliar abbreviations need to be explained or defined (e.g., CJB, p. 17).

In the end, a commentary should be evaluated primarily on how successfully it explains the text in question. Here it is a mixed bag. There are interesting insights here and there but a number of passages are under-discussed and/or ignored altogether. I doubt whether this volume does enough to distinguish it from better, more informative, and balanced commentaries to appeal to more than a niche Jewish messianic audience.

Thanks to Lederer Books for the free review copy used for this review.

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