Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Language of James



The author of the epistle of James, who I believe to have been the half-brother of Jesus, was quite the wordsmith. There are at least a dozen words or phrases in his short letter that appear nowhere else in the New Testament (two of those words he used twice), and it is possible that one of those words is one he invented. Additionally, there are at least three other words used by James that only appear one other time in Scripture.

1.     Double-minded (1:8, 4:8)
Literally “double-souled,” (dipsuchos) James uses this word first to apply to those who pray for wisdom, but lack faith when they pray. The double-minded man should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. The second usage appears in the back half of a Hebraic parallel, an ancient form of Hebrew literature in which the same thing is said twice, but the second time is more specific than the first. In 4:8, James says, “Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” Just as purifying the heart is more important than cleansing the hands, calling someone double-minded exposes the greater problem than simply being sinners. James is speaking to the root of the problem, and showing them how to repent. 

2.     Ought Not (3:10)
This stern warning comes on the heels of addressing the hypocrisy of the tongue. The tongue is a fire, James says; something small that can cause major problems. From the same mouth they were pronouncing blessings and curses, something that ought not (ou chre) be found in the life of a Christian. This is an emphatic way of saying, “Absolutely not!”

3.     Understanding (3:13)
James associated understanding (epistemon) with wisdom. The Greek word is akin to having a specialty, someone who learns a specific job as opposed to a jack-of-all-trades. The nature of this passage seems to indicate that many in the audience were boasting in their skills, but James told them to prove it with their actions, not their words. Wisdom from above naturally manifests good works.

4.     Unwavering or Impartial (3:17)
Going along with number three, the wisdom from above is a pure wisdom; it will lead the Christian to actions that are peaceable, gentle, reasonable, merciful, full of good fruits, sincere, and unwavering (adiakritos). The Greek word means to not be divided, and James used it to show that Christians should not show partiality in how they treat each other.

5.     Friendship (4:4)
Friendship comes from the common word for love, phileo. Many have heard this word for brotherly love contrasted with agape, two verbs that describe different ways of showing love. James is the only one to use a noun form of phileo (philia). If he had used the verb, it would literally say something like, “brotherly-loving the world is enmity with God.” (John used the verb form in 1 John 2:15—“Love not the world.”) Either way, James is teaching that whoever chooses the sinful system of the world (cosmos) is by default choosing to be an enemy of God.

6.     Be Miserable (4:9)
In four of James’ “10 Imperatives (4:7-10),” he gives the unusual commands to (1) be miserable, (2) mourn, (3) weep, and (4) let your laughter be turned to mourning and joy be turned to gloom (another Hebraic parallelism). Be miserable (talaiporeo) is used in its noun form a few times in the New Testament, but only James uses it as a verb. As a command, it means to feel deep regret and remorse over a person’s actions. The four imperatives in 4:9 together show unbelievers how to turn from their sin and turn to God for salvation.

7.     Lawgiver (4:12)
The Lawgiver (nomothetes) is clearly God, although that is an inference from the text. Lawgiver is used in conjunction with Judge, showing that it is not the believer’s job to pass condemnation on others; we neither wrote the law nor judge the accused. “But who are you to judge your neighbor?” does not mean that we should not use discretion and evaluate people; it means we are not to pass condemnation on a person’s eternal fate. We leave that up to God. 

8.     Come Now (4:13, 5:1)
Come now (age nun) is used here to call the listeners’ attention back to James. It is similar to saying “Listen up!” James used the phrase in these passages because he was addressing different groups of people (“you who say” in 4:13, “you rich” in 5:1). 

9.     Howl (5:1)
Howl (ololuzo) is another imperative, joined together with weep. Together, these words command the listeners to mourn and cry out in despair due to the punishment that is coming their way. They made their bed, and James is telling them to lay in it. Their great offense was mistreating the poor. They had been hiring day laborers, but at the end of the shift they were refusing to pay either any or the full amount. The poor laborers had no way to represent themselves in court, and the rich knew how to take advantage of them. James knew they would soon be howling in misery.

10. Rotted (5:2)
The riches accumulated by the rich would not do them any good. They stockpiled their stuff instead of sharing. Their extra garments became moth-eaten, and their coins were corroded. Rotted (sepo) is used in extra-biblical writings to refer to spoiled food and rotten wood, so James must be referring to what they had hoarded. Their stockpiled food rotted before they could eat it, but they refused to give it to the less fortunate. What is the point of hoarding things that can never be used? James indicts them for their refusal to help the poor.

11. Lived Luxuriously (5:5)
Continuing his soliloquy against the rich, James points out how they have lived in luxury (truphao) and self-indulgence. They had everything they wanted, yet never lifted a finger to help others. In a prophet-like judgment, James says they fattened their hearts (a term used to refer to intentionally fattening an animal to sell or eat) in a day of slaughter. Just as a cow would be fattened for the slaughter, so their fattened hearts from a life of luxury would end in their own slaughter. 

12. Full of Compassion (5:11)
The rich man had no compassion, but James points out one who had extra compassion. Referring to Jesus as literally “many-boweled” (polusplagchnos), a word James probably made up himself, James contrasts the man with no compassion in his bowels with the Lord whose bowels were full of compassion. Bowels was an idiomatic expression in their time that referred to the inner parts of a person, similar to how we say, “she has a big heart.” We are not referring to the organ, but to the love and compassion she shows. James’ use of the term bowels referred to the compassion of a person, and his coined phrase “many-boweled” shows that Jesus is full of compassion.

The three words James used that have only one other usage in the New Testament are:

1.     Miseries (5:1, Romans 3:16)
2.     Self-indulgence (5:5, 1 Timothy 5:6)
3.     Sick (5:14, Hebrews 12:3)

I find James to be a fascinating man. In many ways he comes across as an Old Testament prophet. He called out social injustice; used multiple forms of poetry, metaphors, and idioms; spoke in paradox; loudly called his readers to attention; personified inanimate objects; composed his letter in a chiasm; and boldly called people to make a choice, leaving no room for middle ground. The next time you read James, pay attention to his choice of words, notice the color in his language, and most importantly, see if there is something in your life you need to change.

“Therefore, whoever knows the right thing to do, and fails to do it, to him it is sin.”

James 4:17

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