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Monday, October 20, 2014

"James the Just: Presents Applications of the Torah" (Dr David Friedman)

TITLE: James the Just: Presents Applications of the Torah
AUTHOR: David Friedman
PUBLISHER: Clarksville, MD: Messianic Jewish Publisher, 2012, (152 pages).

There are many commentaries on the New Testament book of James but very few from a Messianic perspective. Come to think of it, it does take one to know one. If James is Jewish, the context of the book is Jewish, would it not be appropriate to have a Jewish commentary on the book of James (Ya'akov)? That is exactly what the author of this book aims to do. He does it historically, culturally, grammatically, and also contextually. The author is a Jewish Rabbi, scholar, and author. In this book, he argues that:
  • the book of James is consistent with a specific style of Rabbinic writings
  • it is collected by his disciples and distributed to believers beyond
  • it is about applying the Torah to everyday life.
  • Most English translations miss the Jewishness of the letter
  • James reflects upon the subjects covered in Leviticus 19-22
Friedman asks three chief questions. 
  1. Who was Ya'akov?
  2. Is this book a "rabbinic yalkut'?
  3. What are the main points?

He argues that Ya'akov performs three roles during his time, namely; as a teacher, as a "chief halakhic judge"; and as a spokesman for the whole community. There is a continuity of teachings from Paul to Ya'akov. From a Jewish standpoint, readers will learn that "works" is actually acts of obedience to the Torah; purpose of works is not to earn salvation; and faith propels works. Friedman covers the name of James, explaining the Hebrew Ya'akov and the Greek name "Iakovos" and how there is a loss of translations as one moves to the variants in English translations.  He spends time dwelving into the works of rabbinic literature to show how the book of James is part of that genre, which is to make the work relevant for modern worlds.  The reason why the book was written in Greek rather than Hebrew is largely due to the larger number of the intended audience who spoke and understood Greek. It is more "instructional" rather than philosophical. Jewish readers will be able to see the parallels between Leviticus and James

For the first question of who Ya'akov was, Friedman tries to show us the prominence and the respect the elder was. In fact, it was the "authoritative decision" from a person like Ya'akov that helped settle disputes about circumcision, conversion in Acts 15. The believers then recognized circumcision as a way to make a person "legally Jewish." It takes an authoritative figure like Ya'akov and Shim'on (Acts 15) to authenticate Paul and Barnabas' position. Friedman points out the progression of speech and decision making, a final summary of what is essential for belief (Acts 15:6-19). Ya'akov was also the chief rabbi in Jerusalem at that time. In terms of reputation, role, and respect, Ya'akov fits the bill.

Some interesting observations include the understanding of "prayer of faith" in James 5:14-15 as "vow of faith" rather than mere prayers. Friedman connects it to the Nazirite vow of faith and compares Acts 21 with Numbers 6, and argues that it is the popular practice of life then, and that Ya'akov himself oversees such proclamation of vows. The decisions of the Jerusalem council were overseen by him.

Second, the purpose of the "yalkut" was to help the Jewish community retain their sense of identity. While the language used within was Greek, the culture and context are very Jewish. From symbols, imagery, vocabulary, language, and concepts, Friedman spends time linking the book of James back to how it fulfills the book of Torah and reflects Jewish thought. There are concepts of forgiveness, guilt offerings, atonement, connection of "quick to listen" with acts of obedience, James's reference to caring for widows and poor as discharging responsibilities of a good religion.

Third, Friedman chooses to devote one entire chapter on "faith and works." He is keenly aware of how this aspect can be a controversial subject in Christian circles. He notes that the Jewish mind does not see a delineation of faith and works, but demonstrates that true faith includes the doing of good works.  In fact, the "ergon" or deeds are signs of one's faith, indicating an intricate connections of the teachings of Ya'akov and the Torah. Good works honour God. Honouring God means the demonstration of one's faith through good works. It is the faith that affects the working.

This book offers a fresh look at the book of James, and tries to make a case for a Jewish interpretation. Friedman has made some interesting insights with regards to the understanding of key terms such as faith and works, the repute and stature of Ya'akov, the nature of the letter, and an explicit link to the Old Testament. This is most helpful because many of us doing New Testament studies fail to do enough of referencing the Old Testament texts. This book helps us to do just that. Having said that, I feel that the book can be organized in a clearer way, maybe a chronological flow through the five chapters of James. There is room for more scholarly references, so that the work does not appear too dependent on Friedman's analysis.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Cross-Focused Reviews and the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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