Luke Timothy JOHNSON, Brother of Jesus, Friend of God: Studies in the Letter of James. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004. Pp. xii + 290. $30.00 pb. ISBN 0-8028-0986-3.
Reviewed by Richard STEELE, Seattle Pacific University, SEATTLE, WA 98119

Luke Timothy Johnson has established himself as one of the foremost modern interpreters of the Letter of James. The present volume might be said to encompass one half of his labors in this field. It is a collection of fifteen essays. Eight were previously published in various scholarly journals between 1982 and 2000; two were delivered as lectures at Abilene Christian University in 1995; the other five were written expressly for this volume. The book therefore stands as a companion piece to the magisterial commentary on James that Johnson published in 1995 for the Anchor Bible. As Johnson himself tells us, “[these] essays provide richer and fuller examination of specific issues than is possible within a commentary” (vii). 

The “specific issues” treated range far and wide. They include the history of the letter’s canonization and interpretation, the relation of James to Jesus, the social world from which the letter springs, and such important issues in Christian ethics as speech ethics, gender relations, and the mutual exclusivity of “friendship with the world” and “friendship with God.” Johnson assigns the letter a relatively early date—approximately contemporary with Paul and before the composition of the Synoptic Gospels—and shows its rich thematic and literary relationships to various Hellenistic Jewish and Greco-Roman moral writings. He rebuts those critics who have denied the traditional claim that the author of the letter was the brother of Jesus, and shows how that claim is amply supported by textual and historical evidence. And he attacks the standard readings of the letter, which see it as a regrettable example of sub-Christian moralizing (Luther), or as"a rather structureless compendium of wisdom traditions” (Dibelius) (118), or, at best, as a modest corrective to an antinomian misreading of Paul (Harnack et al.). Johnson’s stated aim is to let James “speak with his own voice” and to show that that voice is both theologically substantial in its own right and highly relevant to the needs of the contemporary church. 

Johnson’s reading of James’s theological program, and his defense of James’s contemporary relevance, emerge with particular clarity in the last two essays. Consider, for example, the fourfold conclusion to the essay on gender: “1. James is concerned with morals rather than manners [i.e., with faithfulness to God rather than easy social conformity]…. 2. James addresses an intentional community rather than a household…. 3. James is egalitarian rather than authoritarian…. 4. James is communitarian rather than individualistic…” (232ff). What makes these conclusions so arresting is that they show how the Christian community, which James was trying to build up in his own day—as well as any twenty-first century congregation that takes James seriously as Christian scripture—will reject and subvert “the ways of the world.” And that would include the world’s endemic sexism, which reflects in the domain of gender relations the worldly vices of envy, arrogance, domination and self-aggrandizement. Yet Johnson’s expansive hermeneutic is carefully controlled by his rigorous exegesis. He freely admits, for example, that James’s language—in contrast to his theology—“shares the casual androcentrism typical of his time and of the symbolic world of Torah” (223). Johnson’s reading is not driven by a faddish agenda in search of useful proof texts.

Robert W. Wall, who provides a cover blurb for the book, rightly notes that Brother of Jesus, Friend of God is written for “advanced Bible students” and contains “extensive notes and a current bibliography.” This is a kind way of saying that the book is a formidable read. Johnson is frequently in conversation with other exegetes, and readers unfamiliar with the history of interpretation will find much of it heavy going. Moreover, several chapters include detailed analyses of the Greek text—sometimes transliterated, sometimes not—of James and of other ancient Jewish and Christian writings. But those readers ready and willing to endure the scholarly apparatus will be richly rewarded. For in this book, as in all of his writings, Johnson deploys his immense erudition not just for the instruction of the learned, but for the edification of the faithful. He restores to us, as it were, a portion of the New Testament canon that has long suffered neglect or disdain, and lets it speak again as the Word of God to the people of God.

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