Reviews

“James: An Exegetical Guide for Preaching and Teaching (Big Greek Idea Series)” by Herbert W. Bateman IV & William C. Varner– A Book Review

Bateman, Herbert W. IV, and William C. Varner. James: An Exegetical Guide for Preaching and Teaching. Big Greek Idea Series. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2022. 317pp.

Herbert W. Bateman IV (PhD, Dallas Theological Seminary) taught New Testament Greek for more than twenty years and is editor of the Big Greek Idea Series. He is author or coauthor of more than fifteen books, many on the subject of New Testament exegesis and proclamation, including Hebrews (Kerux), John’s Letters (Big Greek Idea), and Jude (Evangelical Exegetical Commentary).

William C. Varner is a graduate of Bob Jones University, Biblical Seminary, Dropsie College, and Temple University. He is currently professor of biblical studies and Greek at The Master’s University and is the author of thirteen books, including four on the letter of James.

The Big Greek Idea Series is an excellent resource for preachers and Greek students. The volume on James by Hebert W. Bateman IV and William C. Varner will invigorate pastors who have forgotten their Greek and persuade Greek students that mastering Greek is not in vain. I received a free copy of this commentary from the publisher, Kregel Academic, in exchange for an honest review.

In this review, I will make comments on three areas. First, I want to present four ways this volume benefits pastors and Greek students. Second, I will examine the exegetical analysis given in this commentary on selected texts. Lastly, I have two very minor quibbles I observed from this volume.

Four Benefits for Pastors and Greek Students

Benefit #1: Improved Greek

First, this volume will sharpen pastors and students in Greek. Students will see the grammatical concepts they are learning in action. Principles learned in the classroom or read in the textbook are now applied in the biblical text.

Sadly, many pastors have forgotten their Greek, perhaps due to lack of practice or infrequent encounters with the text. The Greek analysis in this volume evokes Greek concepts that pastors previously learned but have long forgotten.  Although translations are made available, simply seeing the Greek text could trigger a recall of previously memorized vocabulary. In a less intimidating way, it encourages pastors to sharpen their Greek tools and improve their exegetical skills. Students will find the Greek insights beneficial and be encouraged to persevere in their mastery of Greek.

Benefit #2: Exegetical Nuggets

Second, the sidebar or exegetical nuggets found throughout are worth the price of this volume. These exegetical nuggets are categorized as grammatical, syntactical, semantical, lexical, theological, text-critical, structural, interpretive, figure of speech, historical, literary, quotation, and backgrounds.

Some of these categories, perhaps, could be consolidated. For example, how is a  “semantical nugget” different from a “lexical nuggets” or a “historical nugget” from  a “backgrounds nugget”?

Benefit #3: Big Idea of Each Passage

Third, as the series title indicates, this volume summarizes the big idea of each section—allowing the reader to see the forest—before it analyzes the individual trees. For pastors preaching a series, this feature is invaluable and a unique contribution of the resource. While it is heavy on detailed insights—down to the parsing of individual Greek words—it never removes the details from the context of the discourse level.

Benefit #4: Literary Appreciation

Lastly, this volume helps pastors and students appreciate James’s Greek. The discussion on the style and vocabulary of James reveals the literary beauty of this letter. Bateman and Varner astutely point out the parallels between James and the teaching of Jesus in Matthew.

Literary features include alliteration (for example: πᾶσαν, περιασμοῖς, περιπέσητε, ποικίλοις in 1:3), wordplay (ἔργων and ἀργή in 2:20), and figures of speech (a list on pp. 299–305). These features highlight the artistry, care, and even authorial emphasis in James that may not be apparent in English translations.

Analysis of Specific Passages

In this review, I have selected two passages: the exegesis of 3:13–14 and 5:14–15. The former passage is selected because of the authors’ insightful comments, and the latter passage because of its controversy.

James 3:13-14

Here is the text and the authors’ translation:

Τίς σοφὸς καὶ ἐπιστήμων ἐν ὑμῖν; δειξάτω ἐκ τῆς καλῆς ἀναστροφῆς τὰ ἔργα αὐτοῦ ἐν πραΰτητι σοφίας.

εἰ δὲ ζῆλον πικρὸν ἔχετε καὶ ἐριθείαν ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ ὑμῶν, μὴ κατακαυχᾶσθε καὶ ψεύδεσθε κατὰ τῆς ἀληθείας.

Who [is] wise and understanding among you? He should prove it by good conduct in actions with the gentleness of wisdom.

But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, stop boasting and [stop] lying against the truth.

I find the authors’ discussion of James 3:13–14 very insightful. For example, on the semantical nugget sidebar, Bateman and Varner examines σοφὸς καὶ ἐπιστήμων (wisdom and understanding) in the OT. In Deut 1:13, Moses commanded the people to assign for themselves men who were “wise and discerning” (the same adjectives in James 3:13 in the LXX). If Israel kept the statues, they would be “wise and understanding people” (Deut 4:6). This is the description given to Daniel both as a young man (Dan 1:4) and in his older years (5:11).

First year Greek students should be familiar with the following grammatical concepts, but they may not see them used within a literary context. Here are three examples:

  • Third-person imperative. The verb δειξάτω (“he should prove it”; literally: “to show”), 3rd imperative indicates expectation: “he should show” (NET) … even though δειξάτω is frequently rendered “let him show” (KJV ASV NASB NIV ESV).” Bateman and Varner comment that,

“Although the latter rendering is typically perceived as a permissive force, …  the imperatival force conveys that if there is a true understanding of God’s ways, the person is expected to “prove it” (NLT) … The expectation echoes the message that the one aspiring to be wise must demonstrate it by attractive (καλῆς) behavior displayed through his works of faith (cf. 2:18) and through his gentleness (3:13b).”

p. 195
  • First-class conditional clause (v. 14a). The εἰ (“if”) indicates that James assumes that the original readers have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition.
  • Present imperative with μὴ. Regarding the prohibition, μὴ κατακαυχᾶσθε (“stop boasting”; literally: “do not be boasting”), Bateman and Varner point out that the combination of the present imperative with μὴ together describe “the cessation of activity in progress.” Thus, it means “stop continuing your arrogance or boasting.”

James 5:14-15

Here is the text and the authors’ translation:

ἀσθενεῖ τις ἐν ὑμῖν, προσκαλεσάσθω τοὺς πρεσβυτέρους τῆς ἐκκλησίας καὶ προσευξάσθωσαν ἐπ᾽ αὐτὸν ἀλείψαντες [αὐτὸν] ἐλαίῳ ἐν τῷ ὀνόματι τοῦ κυρίου.

καὶ ἡ εὐχὴ τῆς πίστεως σώσει τὸν κάμνοντα καὶ ἐγερεῖ αὐτὸν ὁ κύριος· κἂν ἁμαρτίας ᾖ πεποιηκώς, ἀφεθήσεται αὐτῷ. (Jam 5:14-15 BNT)

Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and they should pray over him by anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.

And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.

I selected this passage in this review because many interpreters wrestle with this passage and come up with different conclusions. Regarding Bateman and Varner’s treatment of this passage, I offer three brief comments.

First, Bateman and Varner observe that ἀσθενέω could mean either moral weakness (Rom 4:19; 1 Cor 8:7) or physical weakness (Matt 10:8; 25:36; Luke 9:2; John 4:46; 5:3; Acts 9:37; Phil 2:26). They conclude that “Physical weakness because of sickness is clearly the intending meaning here” (p. 277). While I don’t necessarily disagree with the conclusion, there are exegetical grounds for the opposite viewpoint. See this journal article.

Second, it seems that Bateman and Varner are assigning two different participial uses for ἀλείψαντες. First, they say that “the clause describes an action that accompanies the second of the main imperative commands that precedes it”; a “concurrent but subordinate action.” The participle functions as an action accompanying “praying.” The confusing part is when they also say, “the participle expresses the means of their praying: “by anointing.” (p. 278). How does one pray by anointing someone with oil?

Finally, the discussion in this passage does not address the theological problem. Does the prayer of the elders effectively heal sickness all the time? They take “prayer of faith” (ἠ εὐχὴ τῆς πίστεως), to mean a prayer without doubting. The verbs σώσει (will save) and ἐγερεῖ (will raise up) are taken as predictive future, indicating something that will take place. Bateman and Varner say that the healing from illness will happen. “God will heal the person, the person is cured and raised up from the sickbed.” The theological problem is that this sincere prayer does not always lead to complete healing, unless one subscribes to the prosperity gospel explanation that lack of faith is the only explanation why healing did not take place.

Two Minor Quibbles

Clausal Structure

I find the discussion on the clausal structure to be helpful. This is one feature that I was initially excited about, but I find it to be disappointing for two reasons.

First, the clausal structure was not applied to the entire discourse at once; rather, the clausal outline was applied to sub-sections within the discourse. For example, James 1:1–18 is one discourse section with an overarching discussion on the big idea and overall structure. Yet it only applies the clausal outline to one sub-section at a time (James 1:1–4; 5–8; 9–11; and 12–18 respectively). This is unlike the volume in John’s Letters where the clausal structure is applied to the whole discourse. The problem is that—by not applying the clausal structure to the entire discourse—one could not see how the whole discourse fits together.

Secondly, the clausal structure provided has limited information regarding the relationships between clauses, especially between independent clauses. While grammatical connection is difficult to determine among independent clauses, (especially asyndeton clauses), it would be helpful to demonstrate how conjunctive independent clauses relate together. Furthermore, offering tentative logical connections—even if not suggested by the grammar—would be beneficial in piecing the whole discourse together. In other words, the clausal outlines were great, but more could be done to make them more useful.

Unnecessarily Pedantic

Lastly, discussion comments tend to be overly pedantic. Perhaps, it is due to the authors catering to first year Greek students or pastors with rusty Greek. The tendency of being too verbose, however, makes reading this commentary a little frustrating and even difficult. Here is an example of two long sentences describing the obvious:

This Greek word is a second person plural present middle imperative of ψεύδομαι that conveys the idea of telling falsehoods and is rendered “lie” (BDAG, s.v. “ψεύδομαι” 1, p. 1096). Syntactically, it is the main verb of this independent conjunctive clause and the second of two commands about speech in the apodosis of the first-class conditional εἰ clause.

Are the page numbers of BDAG and the lexical form really necessary? Can’t we just simply say, (BDAG)? For sure, there are other ways (like abbreviations for parsing) to write these sentences more succinctly.

Conclusion

Despite my minor quibbles, this volume—and the entire series—is worth having for serious Greek students and pastors who want to sharpen their Greek and to converse with Greek scholars regarding the insights they find in James.

When preaching through James, I suggest reading James first and wrestling with the text on your own before diving into the nitty-gritty exegetical details offered in this commentary. Going straight to the commentary first is actually more detrimental than beneficial. It will be like jumping into a middle of a conversation and trying to understand the nuances of the topic being discussed.

But if you engage with the commentary after wrestling with the text yourself, you will find this commentary an insightful conversation partner.

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