The Letter of Jesus

By Douglas J. Moo
Grand Rapids : Eerdmans (2000). xvi + 271 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Paul Felix
11.2 (Fall 2000) : 258-260

Professor Moo is no stranger to commentary writing on the Book of James. As many students of James know, he contributed an earlier and briefer work on this letter as part of the Tyndale series (The Letter of James [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985]). The Pillar series allowed the author to double the space he could devote to commentary on the letter. The primary benefit of this is m ore attention given to pursuing issues of background and theology.

Moo lays the foundation for the commentary by discussing the following introductory topics: (1) The Letter in the Church, (2) Nature and Genre, (3) Author, (4) Occasion and Date, (5) Theology, and (6) Structure and Theme. This is not a hastily built foundation as Moo devotes 46 pages to these matters. A cursory survey of James in the life of the Christian church reveals that this canonical book is an important NT letter. It is a literary letter rather than a personal one that contains general admonitions concerning the condition of the readers. An obvious feature of James’ letter is his use of the teachings of Jesus as a source and its striking similarities to the words and emphases of a certain segment of Hellenistic Judaism. That the letter lacks clear organization has often been noted, and Moo agrees with this assessment. With regards to the genre of James, the author rejects the identification as paraenesis or the popular selection of wisdom, and favors a sermon or homily.

The author builds a strong case for James, the brother of the Lord, being the author of this letter. Awareness that a growing number of scholars in the last two centuries have rejected this universally held viewpoint prompts Moo to consider some of their objections. He quickly dismisses the objections that James is not a Christian book at all and that the book was written by someone other than the Lord’s brother. He devotes attention to James being a pseudepigraphical letter, giving a fair representation of this view. Yet, he does not deny that the letter was written by James of Jerusalem. James writes to believing Jews, who are experiencing poverty and oppression, and are compromising spiritually so that they can rightfully be labeled as worldly. This profound letter was written during the middle 40s and certainly before the Jerusalem Council.

It is rare that James is mentioned as a theological letter. Moo reacts against this rarity by showing the contributions that James makes to the following theological topics: God, Eschatology, The Law, Wisdom, Poverty and Wealth, The Christian Life, Faith, Works, and Justification. Readers will appreciate the introductory discussion of the alleged conflict between James and Paul with regards to the critical doctrine of “justification by faith alone.”The theme of James as advocated by the author is spiritual wholeness. “Basic to all that James says in his letter is his concern that his readers stop compromising with worldly values and behavior and give themselves wholly to the Lord” (46). The author develops this theme under the topics of the pursuit of spiritual wholeness (1:2-18), the evidence of spiritual wholeness (1:19–2:26), the community dimension of spiritual wholeness (3:1–4:12), and the worldview of spiritual wholeness (4:13–5:11).

The commentary proper consists of 205 pages devoted to a careful analysis of James’ message to his readers. It has five major sections that are dictated by the chapter divisions in James. These arbitrary divisions resulted in an unnatural break in the discussion of 3:13–4:3 (179). Within these chapter divisions, Moo faithfully follows the outline laid out in the Table of Contents. Each logical section is introduced by showing how the passage fits into the overall scheme of the structure of James, a fitting which due to the nature of this epistle can be a challenge for the interpreter. The author works hard to show that this practical letter has an overall structure.

A verse-by-verse interpretation of the text characterizes each section. Although the discussions are based upon the NIV, Moo frequently refers to the Greek text by means of transliteration. He gives primary attention to lexical details, but also a fair amount to syntactical discussions. Interpretive issues are handled fairly and evenly. The writer often gives “pros” and “cons” for various views, before taking a position. Textual problems are not ignored. Moo provides his readers with the preferred reading based on textual evidence (e.g., 78, 107, 103, 152, 166, 203). Numerous times he peppers his comments with good devotional insights (71, 76, 86, 87, 90, 93, etc.). He challenges the reader to consider how offensive and detestable sin really is (1:21) and how it is possible for seminary students, and even seminary professors, to deceive themselves regarding their true spiritual state by only hearing the word (1:22).

The author correlates the message of James to the teachings of Jesus as well as to extrabiblical material. The Index of Scripture References and the Index of Early Extrabiblical Literature reveal how often these parallels are brought out. Moo utilizes a number of significant resources that are available to the student of James. His Select Bibliography is good, up-to-date, and scholarly. The bibliography is strengthened by the various works that are identified in footnotes throughout the book. The Index of Authors shows that he most often refers to the works of Davids, Dibelius, Frankemölle, Johnson, Laws, Martin, Mayor, and Mussner. He does not ignore important issues such as James and Paul on justification and the meaning of “law.” One is able to get his perspective on these topics by utilizing the helpful Index of Subjects.

One shortcoming of this commentary is the use of the NIV as the preferred translation. On more than one occasion, Moo must take space to correct its translation (e.g., 185, 206). A small number of errors were also detected by this writer. The most noticeable w as a reference to Tit 3:20 (245, 265), which should be 2 Tim 4:20. The reader of this commentary is also cautioned to be aware of the eschatology of Moo (posttribulational rapture). This becomes an issue in his interpretation of 5:8-9.

The Letter of James is designed for serious pastors and teachers of the Bible to make clear the text of Scripture as we have it (viii). Moo has done a commendable job in accomplishing this goal. Pastors and teachers will profit greatly from this important work on the Epistle of James.