In this final post on the New International Commentary (NIC) in Accordance Bible Software, I want to demonstrate how the NIC commentary compares to other major commentary series. The idea for this post arose naturally in the course of regular Bible reading.
As I read, I wondered about “law of liberty” (νόμος ἐλευθερίας) in James 2:12, and I checked a few commentaries for what they might say about the context of phrase. The goal was to get a better understanding of the conceptual world with which James might have been operating when he chose those particular words.
Let’s take a look at NIC, the New International Greek Testament Commentary, the Anchor Yale Bible Commentary, and Hermeneia.
NIC on “law of liberty”
Scott McKnight is the author of the NICNT James commentary. He has one short section on the phrase in his comments on James 2:12. He states,
By attaching ‘of liberty’ to ‘law,’ though, James changes the game of the yardstick by which one is judged. Yes, Torah observance is the yardstick, but James’s Torah has been clarified by Jesus … the law of liberty is the law of loving your neighbor as yourself (2:8) … There are no substantive differences, then, between James 2:12 and Matthew 25:31–46.p. 220
The reason this section is so short, however, is because McKnight devoted four pages to the expression when it first occurred in 1:25.
In his commentary on 1:25, McKnight surveys three options of interpretation. He summarizes the three views this way,
First, there is a (supposedly) Hellenistic Judaism view: it refers to a free life in accordance with reason, with “reason” being a way of describing the Law of Moses. Second is a nomistic Judaism view: it refers to the Law of Moses as that which brings freedom to the obedient. Third is a Christian Judaism view: it refers to the Law of Moses as understood by and interpreted by Jesus in accordance with the double commandment to love God and others.p. 155
In explaining the first option, McKnight cites Philo and 4 Maccabees, Epictetus and Seneca. For the second view, he discusses Psalms, 1QS from the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Mishnah, and Leviticus. Finally, for the third view he discusses Eusebius and several New Testament passages.
The main observation I want to make here is that McKight cites and discusses the primary literature in support of each position. Here’s how he concludes his discussion:
James’s point is this: those who look into the Law as understood by Jesus, which an be called the “word,” is “perfect,” and brings “liberty,” and persevere in their following of that understanding of the Law, are those who will be blessed (1:25c).p. 158
NIGTC on “law of liberty”
In his NIGTC commentary on James 2:12, Peter Davids comes to essentially the same conclusion as McKnight, stating concisely,
This certain judgment will be according to (διά, as in Rom. 2:12) “the law of liberty,” which, as has already been observed (cf. 1:25), is nothing less than the law of Moses as interpreted (and to some extent altered) by Jesus and the early church, which took its cues from Jesus.p. 118
Davids, too, devotes more attention to the issue at 1:25. There, he has about a page surveying the interpretive options, whereas McKnight had four pages. Instead of citing and discussing the key passages, Davids merely provides parenthetical lists of references. His conclusion is that “law of liberty/freedom” should be understood as “the OT ethic as explained and altered by Jesus.”
AYBC on “law of liberty”
At 2:12, Luke Timothy Johnson points directly to his comments on 1:25, where he devotes a paragraph to the issue. He also cites Jewish parallels and mentions the Stoic context.
The position that obedience to the law renders a person free reminds some commentators … of the Stoic principle that only obeying the law of nature makes a person truly free and that, therefore, only the sage is truly free … but the idea is widespread enough—as the examples from Jewish literature attest—to make direct dependence on Stoic ideas unnecessary.p. 209
Hermeneia on “law of liberty”
Hermeneia offers a much more extensive discussion of the Stoic context, while citing and discussing the parallel Jewish literature, as well. Dibelius’s commentary is a classic and provides a discussion of “law of liberty/freedom” similar in length to that of McKnight.
Of all the commentaries surveyed here, Dibelius provides the most throughout discussion of both the stoic context and that of Philo. When he cites ancient literature, he provides the key words in the original language and in translation.
Dibelius’s discussion is around four pages, but he offers no definitive conclusion on the context of our phrase. He writes,
Stoic concepts such as those sketched above could easily have influenced this formulation—especially by way of Diaspora Judaism, whose missionary terminology, just like any missionary terminology, made every effort to accommodate the needs of those to whom its mission was directed. But such a hypothesis does not exclude the other possibility that in adopting the expression Jas is looking back already to Paul’s struggle over freedom from the Law. Now, since misunderstandings of the Jewish Law are no longer a threat, Jas ventures to call the Christian norm “law” again, albeit “perfect law” and “law of freedom”—somewhat in the sense of Gal 5:13.p. 120
No commentary is going to answer every question. I do, however, think McKnight’s commentary is likely the most helpful for most people. McKnight offers the most robust discussion of both the interpretive options and the broader scriptural context, emphasizing the way scripture reshapes the concept of law around the advent of Jesus.
I hope this three post series gives you a better idea of the content the NIC series offers and the benefit of accessing it in Accordance. The sale runs through midnight Monday, 9/21/20. Until that time, the entire 45 volume series is available for $599.