History. Maxims and aphorisms. Wordplay. Textual discrepancies. Alliteration. Textual criticism. And, of course, context. . . . All these factors (and more) are significant in James 3.
Last Sunday, our small group worked through the first section of James 3. This letter, supposed to have been written by Iakob (Jacob) (James), the half-brother of Jesus, displays connections with Matthew’s gospel in particular and seems to have strong internal unity and intentional construction. A few have said this could be the earliest extant Christian document.
3:1-13 constitutes one of the more clearly self-contained sections in the letter, making analysis of the micro-context not only key to interpretation, but also easier to manage. One hint of the fact that this is a discrete section is the book-end-ish instances of the word-pair adelphoi mou (brothers my) in 3:1 and 3:12.
A few miscellaneous comments . . .
That teaching/teachers are at issue is clear in 3:1; the questions of who’s doing the judging of them (3:1b) is curious. At least these three possibilities appear to me:
- that God ultimately judges (i.e., final judgment) those who teach by a higher standard
- that God expects more of (judges more stringently) teachers on an ongoing basis during this life
- that human peers judge public teachers by a higher standard
Many in our group leaned toward #3; this feeling might have resulted, in part, from reading onto the text the 20th– and 21st-century “public teacher” scenario of paid clergy, senior ministers, and televangelists (not that all of those terms are of the same stripe). Folks were at first interested in how teachers and preachers are often held to a higher standard than run-of-the-mill Christians because they live in a glass house. That is a syndrome, to be sure, but I’m not convinced it was what James had in view.
No firm answer appears for this question, but I lean toward a combination of 1 and 2, based on the context provided toward the end of chapter 2. No matter, though: the import of the warning to those who teach holds, regardless: speech (the tongue) is a huge pitfall, and those who speak words of instruction ought to keep an especially vigilant watch. The warning is extended to others, as well.
A built-in question appears in v2 related to the “perfect man”; James’s intent (and he did have one, regardless of whether we dig it out and wash it off enough to see the potsherd’s edges) may be illuminated by recognition that “perfect” might be translated “complete” or “mature,” as well. With one of those readings, the thought could become less an ironic assertion—obviously, no one can be perfect with the tongue—but more a call to mature thought and action.
Word order appears to be significant in v6: the word gehenna appears in a prominent, final position in Greek. (Many English translations obscure this fact.)
“Doubles” appear frequently in James, starting with the “double-minded” man of chapter 1. Here, the tongue is pictured as capable of two diametrically opposing results (blessing/curse, sweet/bitter, etc.).
A neat, little textual variant occurs in James 3. The first characters in the Greek 3:3 could be one of these three:
- ιδε (ide, “see”)
- ει δε (ei de, two words, roughly “if then” or “and it”)
- ιδou (idou, “behold”)
Like so many such variants among the best Greek texts we have available, this one is a curiosity that allows conjecture over which is the most likely. It is also like most variants in that one’s chosen answer to the question doesn’t change the big picture.
In mentioning alliterations, I’ll give three of the six or seven English transliterations of the Greek words highlighted by Luke Timothy Johnson in his Anchor Bible series commentary:
- mikros melos . . . megale (3:5)
- phlogizousa . . . phlogizomené (3:6)
- damazetai . . . dedamastai (3:7); damasai dynatai (3:8)
An English reader might notice possible assonance or rhyme in the last of the three above, but that is not necessarily a valid a perception; the “ai” ending is merely a function of verb declension and not a “rhyme” per se, although the aural effect might well have played some role when first hearers heard the letter.
There is much more here—some, discussed in our small group, and some, of more specialized and/or esoteric interest. It is a good review for me to write out a few mentionables for sharing here. And ya know what’s great? I get to be part of another Bible investigation tonight!