Book Review–The Letter of James (Douglas Moo)


Douglas Moo has a well-earned reputation for being one of the finest New Testament commentators, and this volume in the Pillar New Testament Commentary series is no exception to his usual high standard of work. It begins with a thorough introduction, which includes a defence of James the brother of Jesus as author. He dates it in the mid 40s, with the assumption that James was not yet familiar with what Paul meant by “justification by faith”, but had heard the phrase being used (or abused). He devotes several pages in the introduction to the topic of “faith, works and justification”, in which he compares James and Paul’s teaching. He does not see a fundamental contradiction, rather that they are bringing complementary teachings targeting different errors: “Paul strikes at legalism; James at quietism.”


The commentary itself is based on the NIV text and works through usually a verse at a time. He doesn’t assume the reader has knowledge of Greek, although some understanding will help. His interest as a Bible translator shines through as he often explores the semantic range of a word, and he likes to highlight good translations (and occasionally criticise – such as the use of “happy” instead of “blessed”).

He breaks the letter up into small chunks, while acknowledging that it is very hard to find a structure to James. He keeps the sermon-like feel to James by making his section headings read like sermon points.

Whilst the Pillar series is primarily focused on explaining the text, there is latitude to discuss the theological implications, which Moo often does, albeit succinctly. He is a cautious exegete, never making the text say more than it actually does. He is particularly helpful in the parts where James is accused of being at odds with Paul, by looking at the different ways they each use the words “faith”, “works”, and most importantly “justify”.

Moo believes that “the heart of the letter is a call to wholehearted commitment to Christ.” He is especially helpful in highlighting links to the teaching of Jesus, as well as how James understood the “law”. Having read a few commentaries on James now, I would say that Moo remains my favourite. Sometimes I wish he would be a bit more preachy, but it is an invaluable aid to any serious study of the book of James.

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