Question and Answer with Mariam Kovalishyn on James

Learn more about James in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament Series

Mariam Kovalishyn James commentaryMariam Kamell Kovalishyn (MA from Denver Seminary; PhD from University of St. Andrews) joined the faculty at Regent College in 2010, and was appointed Assistant Professor of New Testament in 2013.

The majority of Mariam’s research has centered on the epistle of James, Jewish literature of the Intertestamental period, and classical Graeco-Roman literature. Additionally, since coming to Regent, she has expanded to researching and writing across the epistles, Pauline and General.

Mariam has co-authored a commentary on James (Zondervan), has published a number of articles in books and journals. She is currently working on another commentary on James for the Story of God series, and a biblical theology of social justice for Zondervan, as well as a commentary on 1 and 2 Peter.

She has a diversity of interests including music (both making and listening), hiking, skiing, backpacking, art, and spending time with her family. She was on staff at Scum of the Earth Church in Denver, attended a Scottish Episcopal Church in St. Andrews, and now attends a local church in her neighborhood. She lives in Vancouver with her husband, Val, and son, Peter.

1. What previous research and/or personal interests led you to this project and helped prepare you to write this commentary on James?

I have been drawn to the epistle of James since I memorized it with my small group in undergrad. On entering seminary and discovering I would have to write a thesis (!), Craig kindly helped me explore areas of James that could use more research and exploration, so I did my MA thesis on wisdom in James. I was still at that point, however, uncertain what I wanted “to do with my life,” so Denver Seminary offered me a year’s position to teach Greek as an adjunct, I worked at my church, the Scum of the Earth, as a teaching pastor, and Craig thought my exploration of future options might be broadened if I learned what academic writing would be like. He had already been offered to write the ZECNT on James, and he contacted Zondervan to see if they would be open to us co-authoring it. It proved to be exceptionally helpful to me: working my way verse by verse through the text with commentaries open on all sides was likely what gave me the motivation and confidence to apply to do a PhD in James, and it was while working on my dissertation in Scotland that Craig and I finished our final edits and the book came into being.

2. Who is the intended audience for this commentary? Would it benefit pastors? professors? students? lay Christians in the local church?

This commentary is probably most aimed for pastors who need to see clearly where the text they are working on fits within the larger text, and also gain some ideas on the key exegetical questions and how to apply the text. That is not to say, however, that it would not benefit Christians of all levels. It is meant to be readable, but it deals with the Greek in the exegetical section. And Craig was phenomenal at slipping in scholarly footnotes that didn’t overwhelm the text. So there are what one Regent colleague called “cookies on every shelf” in this commentary. I have talked to people who have used it devotionally, and to people using it in their own dissertation work.

3. What is unique about this commentary? What contribution does it make to studies of James?

The many subsections of this commentary make it of particular use to the busy pastor. We intentionally chose to structure it around passages of preachable length, but guided by the structure and breaks of the text itself. Not many commentaries give not just a translation of the text, but also an outline of the section under discussion, a sense of the logical flow both of its place in the larger text as well as of the passage, and end with some sense of how to move from the ancient text to modern context. Somehow this commentary structure seems to me eminently practical, with so many approaches to the text. The discussion of the text uses the Greek and is fairly “academic” in nature, so it should also be of use to students and scholars. It contributes, therefore, in being a commentary with a remarkably wide use-level, whether for a research paper or a busy pastor. That kind of spread is not particularly common with commentaries!

4. What section or passage of this commentary was particularly memorable to research and write? Why?

Honestly, I had always avoided the end of the epistle. The community instructions were, well, challenging, the structure ambiguous (is there a conclusion to the epistle?), I had no idea how to tactfully talk about the various pieces of advice about prayer and anointing, and I really didn’t know why Elijah was plopped in there and described as he was (“a man like us”). You can hear me wrestle with that last question, asking why James hadn’t used a different example from Elijah’s life? But profoundly, the wrestling I did in writing this section has sparked a lot of further research interests: how do we talk about prayer in James? Is it all about how much faith you have — and what does that say about faith?? Following on the writing of the commentary, but pursuing these questions, I put the end of James together with the start (1:2-8) and it became clearer to me that James is concerned about who we have faith in, rather than individuals mustering up enough faith. This is something Elijah dramatically demonstrated as he called Israel back from their worship of Baal — and read in this light, the Elijah example helps us then understand how verses 19-20 fit as well. The whole epistle, as we argue in the theology section, seeks to make single-minded followers of God, faithful to him despite the trials and temptations that come our way and seek to lure us to waver — and we as a community are to call one another to that faithfulness in the good and giving God.

5. What personally edified you in writing this commentary, increasing your affections for Christ?

Oh man, what didn’t?! Working through James verse by verse made me pay much more attention to specific details and arguments, but more than anything it made the character of God — as good, as generous, as unchangingly good and generous, as pursuing us, seeking us, desiring our love and a relationship with us, all of this came out. It floored me how James speaks of God — yes, as just judge, but as responsive and loving and generous, too. So often I’ve heard people speak of James as “too bossy,” but I fell in love with the giving God the epistle depicts, and everything else flows out of our response to him.

6. Besides your commentary, what are your top recommended books (commentaries or otherwise) on James?

Obviously, Richard Bauckham’s James: Wisdom of James, Disciple of Jesus the Sage. That book has heavily influenced how I read what James is doing in his epistle. But I have also benefited significantly from Luke Cheung’s The Genre, Composition, and Hermeneutics of the Epistle of James, as well as Darian Lockett’s Purity and Worldview in the Epistle of James. For a sense of the background of James’s thought, I’d recommend David deSilva’s The Jewish Teachers of Jesus, James, and Jude: What Earliest Christianity Learned from the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. Dale Allison’s ICC commentary needs mention as probably the most thorough commentary out there and beautifully written, although I don’t agree with his choice of setting for the epistle. And finally, I can’t leave off David Gowler’s James Through the Centuries commentary, which is a history of reception commentary and introduces people to oft-forgotten voices.

7. What is next for you? What project are you currently working on? How can people follow your work and ministry?

Mostly I’ve been busy in the years since, because I finished up my PhD and then took a job where I was supposed to be specializing in Paul… So there’s been a lot of reading in the last 10 years! But I still work in James whenever I can. Right now I’m working on another James commentary for the Story of God series, but I hope soon to also make progress on my long-delayed work on a theology of social justice for Zondervan’s theology for life series. Mostly, during the school year I’m pretty swamped with teaching and time with students at Regent College, and they would have any relevant news for me. Since I now have a 1-year-old, I don’t make time for blogging or anything extra social!


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