Patrick J. HARTIN, Sacra Pagina, Volume 14: James. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press (Michael Glazier Book), 2003, 2009 (updated bibliography). pp 324, $39.95 pb. ISBN 978-0-8146-5975-5.
Reviewed by James ZEITZ, Our Lady of the Lake University, San Antonio, Texas 48207

This Sacra Pagina commentary achieves the series’ goal of offering a modern exposition that focuses on issues raised by the New Testament compositions themselves. Hartin, using a rhetorical-critical approach, demonstrates the overall unity of the letter as “protreptic discourse”—sustained argument to adopt a particular way of action—and, applying a social-sciences method, points to its value for the twenty-first century church. Addressed to “the twelve tribes in the Disperson,” and theological rather than Christological, it offers the church today a separate early Christian tradition independent from Paul, one which reminds Christians of their Jewish origins and provides a bridge to the world of Islam. It also employs the Wisdom tradition and focuses on social issues (concern for the poor, the need to avoid discrimination, community) that transcend time and place.

Patrick J. Hartin is professor of Religious Studies at Gonzaga and currently co-convener of the Social-Sciences and New Testament Interpretation Task Force of the Catholic Biblical Association. In this 2009 edition (identical to the original, 2003 work, except for an updated bibliography). This commentary, he says, is the culmination of twenty years of research on the letter of James.

How well does this work achieve the goal of the Sacra Pagina commentaries to “provide sound critical analysis” for biblical scholars, theologians, clergy, and religious educators”? The following observations cover only the most important features to help situate it within modern works (e.g. Luke Johnson’s 1995 Anchor Bible commentary):

First: the format of the work: Following Sacra Pagina format, Hartin offers first a succinct critical introduction (38 pages: cf. Johnson’s Anchor Bible 160 page introduction), followed by a translation (of each of his thirteen sections that remains close to the original Greek), then critical notes and finally an “Interpretation” and some excursuses.

Concerning the letter’s authenticity: Hartin accepts (with most modern scholars) that James of Jerusalem, the “brother of the Lord” is the authority behind this “circular or encyclical” letter, and that it was sent in the name of James shortly after his death, thus in the late sixties of the first century C.E. to Jewish Christians. All the parts of the letter and the final “Great Commission (5:19-20) encourage Jewish followers of Jesus to remain true to their commitment.”

Building on a modern consensus (see Johnson’s detailed response to M. Dibelius and defense of a loose structure based on themes), Hartin’s main contribution, following his interest in the letter’s “rhetoric,” is a detailed defense of “protreptic discourse, which was used by James to encourage those in his community who have “lost the fire” to maintain their identity (friendship with God rather than with the world). James 1 thus introduces the themes of the whole letter (in two “introductions”: 1:2-11; 12-27). James 3-4 (according to Hartin—using earlier work by Luke Johnson) twice employs the rhetorical “perfect argument” with its five-part structure (theme, reason, proof, embellishment, and conclusion). The first “perfect argument” is 3:1-12 (“the Tongue and Speech”); the second 3:13-4:10 (one rhetorical unit). The final two verses of the letter (5:19-20) are a “Great Commission”, focused on the community rather than a call to “evangelize the world as the synoptic gospels do.”

Finally, regarding James’ ethical message, Hartin summarizes how James teaches his community (the “twelve tribes in the Dispersion”) about lived faith as ‘imitation of God’. This faith is ‘theocentric’ faith, and Hartin summarizes (in his Introduction) the important themes developed throughout the letter in relation to the theological categories of: faith, God, Christ, eschatology, prayer and social concern. This introduction, as well as seven “Excursuses” that summarize important aspects of the world of James (such as Perfection and Purity, Wisdom, cultural scripts regarding honor and shame, etc) make this commentary a useful tool for teaching and use in parish discussion groups.

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