Book Review

Book Review: The Letter of James (Pillar New Testament Commentary Series)

May 31, 2023

Originally published: “Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James, 2nd ed, PNTC, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2021),” in Presbyterion 48, no.1 (Spring 2022), 275-76.


The Book of James, while small in size, has been a storm of controversy over the centuries of church history. For some, James consistently ranks as their favorite book in the Bible—for others, the most unhelpful and confusing book of the Bible. Many are aware of prominent pastors and scholars from church history who spurned the book, such as Martin Luther calling James “the epistle of straw.” Almost two thousand years after its initial writing, the book of James is still inspiring conversation among christians, scholars, and pastors. In the second edition of his commentary, Douglas J. Moo has provided us a thorough exegetical analysis of the book of James that is both rigorous in its scholarship and helpful in its pastoral application. 


A book review is only helpful to the extent that the reviewer can engage the material in whom the material was written to. In this case, the Pillar New Testament Commentary series is written primarily for pastors, Bible teachers, and serious students of the Bible. For those familiar with the series, you will find comfort in the depth of exegetical analysis while not succumbing to a slough of academic minutia that is irrelevant to the present work you are engaged in. While Moo does engage in scholarly and academic debate (such as the ongoing debate about the role of works compared to the Apostle Paul, or the issues surrounding the New Perspective on Paul), this monologue is not simply an academic tomb. Pastors and Bible teachers will find an invaluable depth of insights that will aid in their preparation for sermons, lectures, and Bible studies. As is customary with a commentary like this, Moo interacts with the Greek text but students of the text who are unfamiliar with Greek will not be lost or confused. Knowledge of the original languages will help in your understanding but it will also not detract from value of this work. 

Potentially the most helpful part of Moo’s latest commentary is its 64-page introduction that deals with various important topics such as genre, author, date, and difficult theological issues that arise from the text. By far the most controversial section of James is found in chapter 2, where James deals with the subject of faith and works. There has been significant disagreement on how to interpret James’ view of faith and woks compared to the Apostle Paul. Moo provides an excellent overview of various interpretations that surround the ongoing debate between James and Paul. For those unaware of the dialogue in academic circles, Moo will bring you into the conversation while also providing a clear interpretation of James’ view of faith and works, which aligns with the traditional Protestant understanding. Lastly, in this section, Moo lays out several theological themes that are highlighted throughout the letter, so that as you read through the individual notes, you can pick up on the major structural themes of James. The introduction serves as a helpful roadmap for the rest of the commentary. 


For those who have the first edition of Moo’s commentary, you may be wondering if it is worth the investment of picking up the latest edition. I would unequivocally advocate for pastors and Bible teachers to pick up the second edition as substantial improvements have been made. The first edition was published 20 years ago and since that time, significant monographs, books, and commentaries have been published. In the second edition, Moo has the opportunity to engage with the most recent scholarship. Furthermore, Moo has rewritten several sections of the commentary and has provided a significant increase in length to the commentary as a whole (the commentary is 30% longer than the previous version). For those on the fence in the acquisition of the latest version, I would highly recommend it as this revision contains notable improvements that will help in preparation and study. 

While many Christians love the book of James due to its conciseness, one should be aware that this commentary does spend significant time working through each individual verse. Once Moo finishes his introductory remarks, the commentary devotes 255 pages to exegetical notes about the text itself. Keep in mind, the book of James is 108 verses, meaning that Moo will spend a little over two pages on each verse. Obviously, some sections are longer than others, but it is helpful to keep in mind that this commentary is thorough, not terse.  Nevertheless, Eerdmans Publishing has consistently published excellent academic and pastoral commentaries and this latest edition is no exception. This commentary will help you not only understand the book of James better, but Lord willing, will help you to live it as well. To give you a flavor of the commentaries aim and style, I close with the words from series editor D.A. Carson:

“When God speaks to us through his word, those who profess to know him must respond in an appropriate way, which is certainly different from a stance in which the scholar projects an image of autonomous distance. Yet this is no surreptitious appeal for uncontrolled subjectivity. The writers of this series aim for an evenhanded openness to the text that is the best kind of ‘objectivity’ of all. If the text is God’s word, it is appropriate that we respond with reverence, a certain fear, a holy joy, a questing obedience. These values should be reflected in the way that Christians write. With these values in place, the Pillar commentaries will be warmly welcomed not only by pastors, teachers, and students, but by general readers as well” (xi).

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