On my desk: Varner’s commentary on James


William Varner. James. Evangelical Exegetical Commentary. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2012. 412 pp.

Although I wrote this review over a year ago, I stand by it today. The most significant change from when I first wrote this review is that Logos has since released the volume in hardcover, independent of the entire series (a wise move, to be sure, and one I was very happy to see). Enjoy!

There has been a steady flow of commentaries being written on the relatively small NT epistle of James in the last 40 years, so the question stands of whether another one is needed. William Varner answers this question in the affirmative in his commentary for the Logos Bible Software initiative, the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (EEC) series. Quoting an old Pilgrim pastor, Varner recognizes that the depths of Scripture still have more gold to be mined; the book of James is no exception. In fact, he argues for greater prominence for both the author and the epistle bearing his name. Varner attempts to shed more light on James through the use of new linguistic methods as well as good solid exegesis, and in this he proves exceptional.

William Varner is professor of Bible and Greek at The Master’s College, and the director of their IBEX semester in Israel program. He also pastors the Sojourners Fellowship at Grace Community Church. He received an M.Div and Th.M from Biblical Theological Seminary, an M.A. in Judaic Studies form Dropsie Colege, and his Ed.D. from Temple University. Varner has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles, including The Messiah: Revealed, Rejected, Received, The Way of the Didache: The First Christian Handbook, as well as a prior commentary on James, The Book of James—A New Perspective: A Linguistic Commentary Applying Discourse Analysis. Part of this latter work has been incorporated into his commentary for the EEC, particularly where he deals with the structure of James. His background in Jewish studies is clearly an asset to his analysis of this very Jewish NT letter.

Varner’s introduction is comprehensive, covering almost seventy pages. Here, he evaluates the different perspectives on each introductory issue of James, employing readable flair that is kind to alternative perspectives and balanced in its conclusions. From textual attestation to authorship, recipients and structure, Varner’s presentation is consistently thorough and competent. Helpful charts placed at key points in the introduction both evaluate connections between the sayings of Jesus and the Epistle of James, and help to address the epistle’s literary genre.

Of particular interest is Varner’s argument for Jacobean authorship. In his research for both of his commentaries on James, he undertakes “a fresh reading of both the letter and the sparse references to the man in Acts, Galatians, and 1 Corinthians” (15). While siding with the Helvidian view, which sees James as a younger brother of Jesus, he also supports the views of Hengel and Bauckham that James was “primus inter pares” (17), the “first among equals” of the early church over and above Peter and Paul. This makes for an interesting conclusion regarding the importance of James when coupled with Varner’s dating of the letter and early canonical placement. If James was the head of the church, whose letter was “the first NT document written” (24), which was placed immediately after Acts in the earliest canonical lists, then Protestants should be wary of giving “pope Paul” such an elevated status as they do above James and the other “pillar” apostles. Varner is navigating dangerous waters here, since it may be said in response that, whether Paul or James, Scripture speaks anyway. But Varner’s point should not be dismissed out of hand, and biblical scholars and ministers alike would be amiss to ignore James. Hopefully, Varner’s admonition will contribute to a heightened interest in this epistle throughout the church and the academy alike.

Varner’s introductory section on literary connections is detailed, but it is here that this reader wished for more. On the one hand, he does an excellent job showing the many possible literary connections between James and other early writings, including “Greco-Roman Moral Exhortations” (28), the Old Testament, and Jewish Second Temple literature. He concludes that despite the many similarities, James maintains a unique literary independence. On the other hand, he refrains from continuing into the Apostolic Fathers. He does inform the reader in a footnote that the scope of the study was just those writings previous to and contemporary with James (his section on Philo is fascinating). He then lists the Didache, 1 Clement, and the Shepherd of Hermas as books possibly influenced by James. Unfortunately, excluding these works removes strong support for his arguments regarding James’ leadership of the early church by withholding evidence of the pervasive influence of the man and his epistle in following generations of writers (some of whom, it may be argued, were James’ Christian contemporaries). This reader hopes that a supplementary monograph will cover these connections in detail, or that Logos will ask Varner to add a section in later, thanks to their unique ability to update the EEC as new information becomes available or revisions requested. Still, this is a minor point that in no way detracts from the strength of the study.

The body of the work follows a consistent format which should be well-received by pastors and lay people alike. Varner’s exhaustive outline (57-60) is the basis for his commentary, and it traces the hortatory emphases of James’ homily through 14 primary exhortations. He identifies James 3:13-18 as the “peak meta-theme” (56), connecting every other paragraph to it as he works through the following format:

1. Introduction – overview of background and key points of interest.

2. Outline – restates the hortatory point of the outline with detailed sub-points.

3. Original Text – from the NA27/UBS4.

4. Textual Notes – detailed information on variant readings and their support.

5. Translation – Varner’s original translation from the Greek with annotations.

6. Commentary – verse-by-verse analysis of the Greek text.

7. Biblical Theology Comments – theological insights and textual correlations.

8. Application and Devotional Implications – includes a sample preaching outline (!)

9. Selected Bibliography – a veritable goldmine for further study.

Of the above, the “Application and Devotional Implications” are what set Varner’s work apart. He has the enviable ability to embody the roles of both pastor and scholar with erudition. After taking his reader for a swim in the Greek text, he is able to lift them out again to see the sea they are swimming in, and then drive home the message with personal and corporate application. As a result, the commentary is both intellectually stimulating and personally edifying.

In conclusion, Varner’s commentary is a must for every scholar, pastor and layperson wishing to get at the heart of James. There is no issue of ancient or current scholarship that is left untouched. Varner’s conclusions are well-supported, and in the case of disagreement with other scholars, he is undeniably gracious. Varner has done more than make a lasting contribution to the study of this neglected epistle; he has set a model for future generations of pastors and theologians in combining critical scholarship, pastoral awareness and devotional piety into one delightful (though heavy!) package.

The commentary can be purchased here:

James – Evangelical Exegetical Commentary(Amazon.com)

James – EEC (Amazon.co.uk)

James at Logos



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