Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Messianic-Jewish Commentary on James is a Mixed Bag

Newly minted from Messianic Jewish Publishers is the book James the Just Presents Applications of Torah: A Messianic Commentary by Dr. David Friedman with B.D. Friedman. The preface states that the books in this series “are not meant to be a verse-by-verse exegetical commentary,” so someone looking for a verse-by-verse exposition of James from a Messianic Jewish point of view will have to look elsewhere. What we have here instead is a series of chapters that correspond more to introductory materials from a full-blown commentary.


Before addressing the content of the book, something should be said about the way that the book is written. For the most part, except when quoting other authors, the author uses a transliteration of the Hebrew equivalent to many common words and names we know from the Bible. The New Testament is B’rit Hadasha, Jesus is Yeshua, James is Ya’akov, and Paul is Sha’ul. At best it is a helpful reminder of the Hebrew roots of our faith. However, since this is not done merely for effect, but is apparently common within Messianic Judaism, I’m afraid it creates an unnecessary us/them division between Jew and Gentile, between those who are inside and those who are outside the movement. The author also tends to present first century Judaism in nothing but a positive light, yet if the activities of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Herodians, and the harassers of Paul on his missionary journeys are any indication, there were a sizeable number of Jews with erroneous views of the law (Torah), obeying the commandments, and how to be right with God.


Regarding content, the author begins with a copy of an anonymous chat room post alleging that the traditional translation of the Greek “Iakobou” as “James” rather than “Jacob” is an attempt to remove the Jewishness of the New Testament from our English Bibles. “This is just another instance where man has intervened to change the truth. This situation is minor, but where else has man changed the truth of the bible [sic]?” The argument is unsupported apart from the anonymous author’s own faulty logic, and I found it a rather unprofessional way to begin a book that is being passed off as an academic work. By the way, for those interested in the reason why it is translated differently, New Testament scholar Robert Mounce has a good article about it at his Teknia.com website.


The rest of the book is much more beneficial. His portrayal of James as “a chief rabbi, a Torah scholar, a Bible commentator, and akin to a high court judge” was helpful, although the way churches were structured and governed in the New Testament didn’t fully correspond to the organization of a synagogue or the Sanhedrin. The most innovative idea was that the book of James was a summary of James’s teaching on Leviticus 19-22—essentially a New Testament exposition of the Old Testament. The link between the two sections of Scripture is clear, and the allegation holds quite a bit of merit. The author’s further supposition that the book corresponds to a Scripture reading plan used by Jews during the first century is worth looking into, but he admitted that he didn’t have any substantial evidence showing this to be the case.


The last section on faith-versus-works argued that Paul and James were not at odds with each other (agreed), but it didn’t really address the question that undergirds the faith-versus-works issue, namely, What is the basis of our salvation?


Ultimately the book offers an interesting and somewhat helpful look at the book of James through culturally Jewish eyes. It also offers some unsupported assertions and unwarranted allegations of intentional efforts to distort the Jewishness of the Bible. Modern commentators are very good at addressing the historical and cultural contexts of the books they are writing about, including the Jewish and/or Gentile background to these books and their authors. For verse-by-verse exposition, those are the books I would recommend consulting first.


Disclosure of material connection: I received this book from the publisher for the purposes of review.

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