Peter H. Davids is Visiting Professor of Theology at Houston Baptist University and Visiting Professor of Bible and Applied Theology at Houston Graduate School of Theology. Davids has written commentaries on James (NIGTC), 1 Peter (NICNT), and 2 Peter & Jude (PNTC) in addition to numerous articles and a few special studies related to these books. Now, he builds on that extensive background to author A Theology of James, Peter, and Jude: Living in The Light of The Coming King in the Biblical Theology of The New Testament series (see also John’s Gospel and Letters and Luke and Acts).
The opening chapter introduces common themes and issues related to these four general epistles. Davids explains that his book is “primarily a theological readings of the texts,” but is also “a theological reading informed by a social-rhetorical understanding of the texts – that is, what the texts meant in the context of their original cultural settings, as best this can be determined” (23). Before getting to that, Davids rounds out the introductory chapter by highlighting common theological threads between the books.
Each of the remaining chapters tackles a book in turn. 1 Peter receives the longest treatment, but each book takes at least 50 pages of space (with Jude being the shortest chapter). Davids follows a common format chapter to chapter. He begins with a bibliography, then looks very briefly at recent scholarship on the book in question, before mapping out introductory issues. The heart of each chapter is a literary-theological reading of the book which is then followed by a section on the important theological themes that have emerged from this reading, as well as the book’s canonical contributions.
Readers may be curious to note how Davids handles the authorship question of the books. For James, he says, “It is therefore our conclusion that the best explanation of the data is that the letter of James was written shortly after the death of James, the brother of Jesus, making use of sermons and sayings stemming from James (and/or Jesus)” (41). In framing it this way, Davids is attributing the actual writing down of the letter to someone else, but attributing the substance to James. Because of this, throughout the commentary itself, he refers to James as if he were the actual writer of the letter.
Davids makes a similar move when it comes to 1 Peter. Here he says, “We are talking about something closer to an anonymous ghostwriter” He adds:
With our lack of a detailed biography of Peter and especially of the impression he made on educated people during his later ministry, we cannot prove or disprove that Peter could have written this work with the help of some type of amanuensis. The degree to which Peter was or was not involved becomes, then, a matter of faith that is either supported or not supported by the historical context of the letter; as we will discuss later, it is supported if the historical context of the letter could have taken place in Peter’s lifetime. (109)
Concerning this latter qualification, Davids lays out the evidence for the letter being written during Peter’s lifetime, in which case he would be the author but we are hearing his voice through a composer that is more ghostwriter than scribe. He contrasts this with the evidence for the letter originating in the Flavian period (late 1st century, after Peter’s death), in which case Peter would be the inspiration for the contents but not the dictator or directly involved in the writing. He concludes that noting in the letter demands either conclusion and therefore it is a matter of theological conviction and weighing of historical evidence.
In comparing 1 Peter and 2 Peter on the question of authorship, Davids states, “the one responsible for the style, the relationship to the Hebrew Scriptures, and the philosophical sophistication of 2 Peter is different from the one responsible for 1 Peter” (194). While Davids notes that the majority position in the “nonevangelical” world is that 2 Peter is a clearly pseudapigraphal letter, Davids suggests that another entirely reasonable option if one doubts Peter could have written the letters is that 2 Peter, as well as 1 Peter, could have been written after Peter’s death as a testament to what he would have said in the particular circumstances. This I suppose would be suggesting that the letter is in the spirit of Peter’s preaching and teaching and thus attached to his apostolic authority even if not directly authored by him. More conservative evangelicals will probably like neither of these options, but the latter at least preserves a clear connection to Peter and removes the hint of deception in the writing of the letter.
When it comes to Jude, Davids says, “There seems to be no good reason for someone writing under a pseudonym to choose Jude; there would be good reasons not to choose Jude, for the author of such a letter in any area where Jude was known as uneducated (assuming he was uneducated), and also good reasons for choosing a better known leader (even a deceased leader, such as James)” (256-257). In commenting later on the literary style of the book, Davids notes, “[The writer of Jude] has heard the Scriptures read; their reading has influenced the language of his community. As a result, Semitisms, creep into his style. He is probably unaware of it. Conscious quotation would mean that he would have to be aware, but linguistic influence often operates on the unconscious level” (263). From this vantage point, Jude, though he may uneducated in the classical sense, may very well have heard enough Scripture that it influenced his rhetorical style but did not allow conscious or direct quotations.It would seem that this opens the possibility that Jude stands in relation to the letter bearing his name in the same way Peter does with 1 Peter (as argued above).
There are of course other points of interest, but I’ve always been curious about the authorship question and Davids’ arguments were stimulating. I’m not sure if I’m prepared to abandon the traditional attributions, but if I were, I would opt for Davids’ route that keeps the historical person closely connected to the written project. I would like to do more research on the nature of authorship in general in the ancient world, which from what I can tell, is significantly different than our understanding. There are also issues of apostolic authority, but the letters may not need to have come directly from an apostle’s hand so much as represent the apostles’s teaching which is authoritative. In any case, the issues here are far more complex than with the disputed Pauline letters and are worth looking into further.
If you are interested in studying these particular books further, or are interested in thematic biblical theological reading of New Testament letters, this book is for you. Davids has an easy to follow style when dissecting scholarly arguments and is an able guide through these four books. Especially since they tend to get neglected in New Testament studies, this book can fill in a missing gap in your understanding if you’ve spent most of your time vacillating between Paul and the Gospels.
Peter H. Davids, A Theology of James, Peter, and Jude: Living in The Light of The Coming King (Biblical Theology of The New Testament). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, October 2014. 352 pp. Hardcover, $39.99.
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Thanks to Zondervan for the review copy!