Community of the Wise: The Letter of James
A review of Robert Wall's, "Community of the Wise: The Letter of James," by Dr. Craig Blomberg.
Robert W. Wall, Community of the Wise: The Letter of James. [The New Testament in Context] Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1997. xi + 354 pp. $24.00 pap.
A significant new commentary series being produced by Trinity Press treats the books of the New Testament with particular concern for the historical-cultural-sociological contexts of their composition and the issues they address in light of the most recent and rapidly growing body of background literature on those topics. The series is relatively unique in that thus far it has included Roman Catholic, mainline Protestant, and evangelical Christian contributors. Of eight volumes currently in print, the most helpful (for me at least) have been Luke T. Johnson’s on the Pastorals (defending Pauline authorship!), Ben Witherington’s on Philippians (focusing on issues of friendship and finances), and Andrew Overman’s on Matthew (highlighting the Jewish-Christian audience as part of an intramural Jewish debate), in that order. Now the second volume by an evangelical (Witherington’s was the first) has appeared, and it offers a gold mine of important and distinctive perspectives.
Robert Wall, professor at Seattle Pacific University, has distinguished himself particularly in his numerous applications of canonical criticism to New Testament scholarship. This book is no exception. Even more starkly than in biblical theology, canonical criticism for Wall means listening to James as a book with its own integrity, not interpreting it in light of other Scripture but allowing it to stand, at times even in seemingly flagrant contradiction with othe’r biblical witnesses, lest we distort James’ own meesage. But Wall never stops there; instead he moves on to discuss multiple canonical witnesses to a distinct topic (in James, this occurs in the greatest detail with the theme of rich and poor), pointing out how the community of faith can accept them all as equally canonical and authoritiative (“intertextuality” is a key catchword for Wall). Important, lengthy appendixes treat “Reading the New Testament in Canonical Context” and “James and Paul in Pre-Canonical Context”
One of the distinctive contributions of Wall’s introduction is his analysis of the hotly contested issue of the structure of James. He sees 1:1-11 and 12-21 as presenting two triads of introductory statements on the themes of the testing of faith, the wisdom of God and the great reversal of rich and poor. The body of the letter then unpacks the three commands of 1:19. James 1:22-2:26 addresses the theme of “quick to hear;” 3:1-18 elaborates the message of “slow to speak;” and 4:1-5:6 discloses the wisdom of “slow to anger.” James 5:7-12 and 13-20 then offer two conlcuding statements which again repeat three key topics: an exhortation to endure; examples from the lives of key OT characters, and the confirmation of wisdom. A summary of the message of the epistle could be: “To be the church is to be wise when tested in knowing that the present trial of faith determines the future entrance into the age to come” (p. 38).
Space prevents inclusion of all but a sampling of interesting snippets of Wall’s exegesis. The joy that 1:2 calls us to have in the midst of trials “is an eschatological catchword, not an emotion: joy is a theological perception of trials, which considers their complete demise by a God who promises a new day” (p. 48). Under 1:12, we are reminded that “the believer’s fidelity to God is best demonstrated under hardship, when the experience of powerlessness tests one’s devotion to a powerful God” (p. 59). The “perfect law of liberty” of 1:25 refers to the levitical Jubilee law (p. 83). James 2:1-4 reflects the setting of an early Christian courtroom, but, contra most who have defended this background previously, Wall does not see the rich visitor as a Christian. Instead, either a poor Christian is su
ing his wealthy Jewish landlord for unpaid wages or the landlord is trying to collect unpaid debts from his hired hand (pp. 104-5). Justification by works rather than faith alone (2:24) means “that God will recognize the devotion of those whose public professions of monotheistic faith are embodied in public works of mercy toward neighbor” (p. 152).
The pointed rhetoric of 3:1-10 presupposes a “congregational crisis that pits one rival teacher over another in a struggle for power among the membership” ( p. 174). Overall 3:1-18 makes the point that we must “talk the walk” (p. 191)! James 4:1-2 thus refers literally to quarreling among the members (i.e., of James’ congregation), not to some internal psychological conflict in the individuals themselves (p. 195). Chapters 4 and 5 introduce us to the ” ‘poor-but-wanna-be-rich’ Christians, whose foolishness fails to recognize the anti-God motives (4:13-17) and antihuman results of their materialistic zeal (5:1-6)” (p. 215). But even the harsh language of judgment in 5:1-6 may be intended to bring these rich people to repentance, with fire as a metaphor for purification rather than annihilation (p. 229). Anointing believers with oil in 5:14 may address both physical and spiritual sickness, given their interconnectedness in first-century Judaism (p. 266).
Wall’s overall exegetical intuitions seem sound, though he seldom hesitates to suggest at least one innovative and/or dubious twist to the text in each pericope that he treats. The canonical emphases in his writing clearly succeed in helping us hear James’ own voice; whether they at times do so at the expense of unnecessarily pitting him against his fellow canonical speakers is a separate question. This would not be the commentary I would first turn to for help in understanding James’ epistle but it would be on a short list of four (along with P. Davids, D. Moo and L. Johnson).
Craig L. Blomberg
Professor of New Testament