A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Robbie Booth
William Varner is a professor of Bible exposition and Greek exegesis at The Master’s University located in Santa Clarita, California. He has pastored the Sojourners fellowship in Grace Community Church for eighteen years. His publications include The Book of James: A New Perspective: A Linguistic Commentary Applying Discourse Analysis (2011), Philippians: A Linguistic Commentary (2017), and James: A Devotional Commentary (2017). He has also published several articles including “A Discourse Analysis of Matthew’s Nativity Narrative,” “The Didache’s Use of the Old and New Testaments,” and “The Main Theme and the Structure of James.”
Historically, the letter of James has received less scholarly attention than most other books of the New Testament. Martin Luther’s misguided designation of James as “an epistle of straw” certainly did not help its cause. The last forty years, however, have witnessed renewed interest in Jacobian scholarship. Unfortunately, many still do not recognize the letter’s structural or thematic unity. This misunderstanding of James has led many to use its content for proof-texting and misapplication. Varner seeks to help readers to interpret the letter of James appropriately by providing a strong foundation, centered on a faithful analysis of the Greek text, upon which interpreters can build.
James: A Commentary on the Greek Text is a thoroughly revised edition of an earlier commentary by William Varner that is no longer in print. In addition to making corrections, he also removed some introductory discussions, homiletical outlines, and comments on biblical theology. In this volume, Varner seeks to present a fresh reading of the letter of James by focusing specifically on the linguistic character of the book. Varner compares and analyzes the differing readings between NA27, the five new readings of NA28, the SBL Greek New Testament, the Greek text underlying the NIV2011, and the Tyndale House Greek New Testament. In order to shed new light on the Greek text of James, Varner also engages in discourse analysis, reasoned eclectic textual criticism, and thorough interactions with Greek grammars such as the Brill Dictionary of Ancient Greek.
Varner devotes forty-four pages of his commentary to dealing with typical introductory matters.
(1) James the half-brother of Jesus wrote the letter bearing his name from Jerusalem in the mid- to late forties. Since the epistle of James is an encyclical letter, the original recipient communities were most likely located in and around Syria.
(2) While some scholars claim that James used a higher literary Greek style than would be expected of a Galilean, Varner argues that they have misinterpreted James’s language and style. The reason James draws from a larger vocabulary pool than other books in the New Testament is because his illustrations from nature and the mercantile arts require specialized vocabulary. James also uses simple sentences that lack complicated subordinate clauses. The letter of James is a “colorful and rhetorically vibrant message [that] seems more like an impassioned homily than the polished deliverance of an Attic Greek rhetorician” (20).
(3) Rather than including a section on the theology of James, Varner highlights what he believes to be the two main themes that permeate the letter of James: wisdom and faith. For James, wisdom is centered in the Lord Jesus Christ and manifests itself in the poor inheriting the kingdom. A great contrast exists between earthly and heavenly wisdom. Regarding faith, Varner concludes that Paul and James do not contradict each other because they discuss different subjects. When read in their own contexts, the letters of Paul and James “complement rather than contradict each other” (30). Both Paul and James agree that salvation comes only through divine grace and not human merit. This salvation is demonstrated in obedience to God and in good works toward others.
(4) While James never directly quotes the teachings of Jesus from the Synoptic Gospels, his letter is saturated with them. Varner lists twenty-six echoes and allusions to Jesus’s instruction in the Gospels. He concludes that “in James we may not have the ipsissima verba (‘very words’) of Jesus, but we do hear loudly the ipsissima vox (‘very voice’) of Jesus” (31).
(5) Varner briefly discusses the canonical role of James. He does not address how James was accepted into the New Testament canon but rather examines the placement of the letter of James in early copies of the New Testament.
(6) Through discourse analysis, Varner argues for a cohesive structure centered on James’s “use of the direct address word ‘brothers’ accompanied by either an imperative command or by a rhetorical question” (38). Varner also demonstrates that both the thematic (3:13–18) and hortatory peaks (4:1–10) of James’s discourse stand out, because they are introduced by rhetorical questions rather than his usual “brothers.” For Varner the “coupling of a nominative of address with a command or a rhetorical question” is the discourse marker for the letter of James. The following figure from page 39 shows Varner’s outline of the letter’s major sections:
These divisions, in addition to his introductory chapter and a chapter on the letter’s prescript (1:1), constitute the commentary’s sixteen chapters. Each discourse section is further subdivided within each chapter. These subdivisions all contain the same five elements, which give a unified structure to the book:
- Greek text
- Textual notes
- Sentence flow and translation
- Exegetical comments
(1) Varner lists the Greek text of the section under consideration. For this commentary, he follows the Greek text of the 27th edition of the Novum Testamentum Graece, which is identical to the text found in the 4th edition of the United Bible Society’s Greek New Testament. Varner clearly notes each time NA27 differs from NA28 (1:20; 2:3; 2:4; 2:15; 4:10).
(2) If there are any textual variants in the section under consideration, Varner will list them and sometimes provide brief explanatory discussions.
(3) The sentence flow and translation portions provide the reader with Varner’s translation of the text. More significantly, they demonstrate the grammatical structure of the sections. He places the main clauses flush with the left margin and the dependent and independent clauses underneath the clauses they modify. This helps the reader understand and follow the flow of James’s discourse. The sentence diagrams caution the reader from overemphasizing minor points or underemphasizing major points.
(4) In the context portions, Varner helpfully discusses relevant historical contexts and demonstrates how they might influence the reader’s interpretation. He also discusses how the passage under consideration fits in the immediate context and overall context of the letter. Varner does not address each of these issues in every context section but addresses the issues which are most appropriate for the individual passages.
(5) The exegetical comments make up the bulk of the commentary. Varner thoroughly discusses each major phrase and often denotes an entire paragraph to address individual words. The focus of these exegetical comments remains on the linguistics of the book of James. While he does make some theological and interpretive comments, these are not his focus. Varner is most concerned with helping the reader understand what the text of James says. He often draws insights from the Old Testament, the Apostolic Fathers, and other extrabiblical sources, in order to shed light upon the Greek text.
Some of Varner’s insights into the letter of James do not fit neatly into one of these five elements, and he sometimes includes an introduction, conclusion, or summary to some of the passages under consideration.
Varner concludes his commentary with a chapter on some final thoughts on James and his message. This is essentially a brief summary of the introductory material. He also includes two appendices. The first is an extended note on James 3:3, where Varner lays out his argument for a different reading from the NA27/NA28 and UBS4/UBS5. The second is a table that indicates the old and new numbering for the reference system of the Shepherd of Hermas. In his commentary, Varner follows the new numbering.
Varner’s commentary on the letter of James is an excellent volume. Its greatest strength lies in the author’s thorough and knowledgeable engagement of the Greek text. In the past, people have taken many verses from the letter of James out of context. One of the reasons for this is that people have struggled to see the overall unity of the letter. Through discourse analysis, Varner demonstrates that there is a clear and united structure underlying James. He provides insightful comments on the syntax and grammar that expand the reader’s understanding of James. Often, he presents a range of possible interpretations when approaching grammatical issues. While he may suggest which interpretation may be the most likely, he allows readers to make their own decisions based on the textual evidence. It is a danger for any volume that dives deeply into Greek grammar and syntax to get bogged down in overly technical jargon. While Varner engages technical aspects of Greek, he writes clearly and succinctly. This writing style makes for a very readable commentary.
Varner’s specific goal of producing a fresh reading of the letter of James based on thorough linguistic analysis inevitably restricts his audience. Readers must have at least an intermediate level of understanding of Koine Greek in order to benefit from this commentary. Much of the good in this commentary will be lost on a person if they do not have a basic understanding of Greek grammar, syntax, and textual criticism. The volume’s primary focus on linguistics also prevents Varner from delving into discussions on interpretation and theology. While these discussions appear from time to time, they are not as thorough as in other commentaries that make interpretation their main objective.
Overall, James: A Commentary on the Greek Text is a great resource. Do not be fooled by the inexpensive cost of the commentary. It is high-quality work and full of exegetical gems. I would highly recommend it to any scholar, student, or pastor who possesses an intermediate understanding of Greek grammar and syntax and desires to gain a better understanding of the book of James or simply wants to improve their understanding of the Greek language. This volume will surely prove to enrich the spiritual lives, sermons, and Bible study skills of its readers.
Robbie Booth is a Ph.D. student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina.