Unlearning Religion: James 3:1-12

An edited excerpt from The Letter of James by The New International Commentary on the New Testament.

6.1.1. The Warning (3: 1– 2)

3:1 James begins with a simple prohibition: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters.”  NRSV and TNIV’s “my brothers and sisters” makes the text inclusive, but may cloak the simple “my brothers” with a viewpoint that is not in James’s mind. Perhaps he means by “brothers” simply “male teachers.” 3: 13, which might refer to the same group, might support a more exclusive translation. We cannot be sure, but we should at least be aware of what happens when we translate such texts in an inclusive manner.

When James urges individuals in the messianic community not to become teachers, 19 he may be concerned not so much with the number of teachers in the community or even with candidates for the teaching office  as he is with the impact of too many talking and teaching in irresponsible, unloving ways.  We say this because of how 3: 1– 12 develops and, if there is a strong connection to the next section, how 3: 1– 4: 12 develops. Not once does James bring up again how many teachers there are; instead, he is concerned with the impact of speech patterns in the community, and here particularly with the crucial role teachers play in such a community. His concern shifts from the number of teachers to the impact of teachers. This verse fits with Matthew 23: 6– 8: “They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students.” If Jesus perceived the desire for power and prestige to be a vice for teachers, James augments those two desires with the desire to dominate verbally.

Teaching has always been necessary and, to one degree or another, prestigious because knowledge and power go hand in hand, especially in that world, where only about 10% could read.  From the glories of Cicero and Quintilian  and on to Moses and the sages and prophets  and the early churches  and the rabbis,  teaching carries with it the capacity to know, guide, and offer wisdom, not to mention criticism and rebuke.  At the time of James, and the evidence is not entirely clear, education took place in the home and in schools and in synagogues.  

In the New Testament we see the gradual development of a class of teachers in the church, though we need to be careful to avoid thinking of them in terms of official qualifications and credentials as we would today with seminary and university degrees. It is possible that “teachers” were more local and prophets more itinerant.  For instance, we see teachers in Acts 13: 1, and they are mentioned with “prophets.” This fits with Paul’s listing of the gifts of the Spirit: “God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers” (1 Cor 12: 28). Paul also lists “teachers” with “pastors” and “elders”: “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers” (Eph 4: 11; see 1 Tim 6: 3; 2 Tim 4: 3). Peter depicts the elders as teachers (1 Pet 5: 1).

The church carried on what we find already in the New Testament. Thus, Didache 13: 1– 2 and 15: 1– 2:

But every genuine prophet who wishes to settle among you is worthy of his food. Likewise, every genuine teacher is, like the worker, worthy of his food.
Therefore appoint for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men who are humble and not avaricious and true and approved, for they too carry out for you the ministry of the prophets and teachers. You must not, therefore, despise them, for they are your honored men, along with the prophets and teachers.

And the dying Polycarp is called “an apostolic and prophetic teacher” (didaskalos apostolikos kai prophetikos):

When the lawless men eventually realized that his body could not be consumed by the fire, they ordered an executioner to go up to him and stab him with a dagger. And when he did this, there came out a large quantity of blood, so that it extinguished the fire; and the whole crowd was amazed that there should be so great a difference between the unbelievers and the elect. Among them most certainly was this man, the most remarkable Polycarp, who proved to be an apostolic and prophetic teacher in our own time, bishop of the holy church in Smyrna. For every word which came from his mouth was accomplished and will be accomplished (Martyrdom of Polycarp 16: 1– 2).

James’s problem, however, transcends the issues of power and prestige. It is the status of a teacher that leads James to turn toward them. He prohibits the rise in numbers of teachers because of the abuse of the teaching position with irresponsible speech. We take it as entirely likely that some of the “elders” of 5: 14 were also the teachers at whom James here must point his finger (1 Tim 5: 17; Tit 1: 9). The fundamental problem is that these teachers, who explained God’s Word and God’s ways for the messianic community and who brought “a new insight into an old word from God”  could also abuse that vulnerable charismatic authority by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong persons or about another person and so lead to the destruction of the delicate relationships that characterize the Christian community.

James now begins to clarify why they should not become teachers: “for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (3: 1b). 31 His concern is an abuse of power, but the abuse— so unlike many warnings in the rest of the New Testament— is not false teaching but bad manners leading to a fractured and fractious community.  The long-term impact of these teachers is not heresy but a community at odds with itself (3: 13– 18). One might wonder how James’s community had learned about the strictness of judgment for teachers, and since Paul also uses “you know” of tradition that was passed on orally (Rom 5: 3; 6: 9; 13: 11; 1 Cor 15: 58; 2 Cor 4: 14), it is reasonable to think there were traditional codes of behavior for the teaching office that came with special warnings. Perhaps something like Matthew 23 was part of that code.  

Teachers will be judged more strictly  because of those to whom much is given much will also be required (Luke 12: 48).  Not only are teachers “in the know,” but their knowledge leads to responsibility for both what they teach and how they live. This, after all, is precisely the point Jesus makes in Matthew 23 when he excoriates the scribes and Pharisees for both knowing and not doing. In the words of Daniel Doriani, teachers

are especially vulnerable to failures of speech because their role demands that they speak so much. More words mean more errors. As we grow accustomed to public speaking, we can become careless. When asked to offer opinion, we tend to comply, even if we have scant qualifications and little factual basis. Humor is a dangerous gift. It pleases the crowd, but can easily wound or mislead. Too many laughs come at someone else’s expense. 

3:2 James concedes now, but only slightly. Once his concession is made, he returns to his exhortation to challenge the “brothers [and sisters],” or teachers, to a life of verbal purity. The concession is simple, a timeless bit of wisdom: “For all of us make many mistakes.”  Even if one can never render confident judgment, “all of us” might suggest that James has now gone beyond an exhortation to teachers alone, unless he means “all of us teachers.” If the emphasis of the language of 3: 1 is not how many teachers are present in the community but on the danger of the tongue, then “all of us” is best rendered as referring to teachers and anyone else speaking publicly.

To observe that we all sin is a commonplace. Thus:

Can mortals be righteous before God?
Can human beings be pure before their Maker? (Job 4: 17)

But who can detect their errors? (Ps 19: 12)

Who can say, “I have made my heart clean;
I am pure from my sin”? (Prov 20: 9)

The heart is devious above all else;
it is perverse—
who can understand it? (Jer 17: 9)

Both Proverbs and Sirach apply the same understanding of human nature to the tongue:

Rash words are like sword thrusts,
but the tongue of the wise brings healing (Prov 12: 18).

Those who guard their mouths preserve their lives;
those who open wide their lips come to ruin (13: 3; see 18: 7).

Death and life are in the power of the tongue,
and those who love it will eat its fruits (18: 21).

A person may make a slip without intending it.
Who has not sinned with his tongue? (Sir 19: 16)

Some of the more interesting comments are found in the Dead Sea Scrolls:

You [God] have taught me Your covenant and my tongue is as one of Your disciples (1Q Hodayota 15: 10).

with a clean heart and does not slander with his tongue (4Q525 f2ii + 3: 1)

with your lips, and be very careful against a slip of the tongue  … lest you be caught by your own lips and trapped together by the tongue (4Q525 f14 ii: 26)

Jesus’ own teaching moves in the same circle. If he recognizes that humans are evil (Matt 7: 11), he is particularly concerned about sins of the tongue:

It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person (Mark 7: 20– 23).

and how one uses the tongue to label others:

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,” you will be liable to the hell of fire (Matt 5: 21– 22).

Commonplace statements like these form the context for James’s words in 3: 2– 12 because he, too, ties inevitability of sin to the need to control the tongue as he focuses his attention on the teacher and the tongue. NRSV’s “make many mistakes” renders a more literal “stumble in many ways” less metaphorically. “Stumble” (Greek ptaiō) 38 is found three times in James (2: 10; twice in 3: 2) and elsewhere in the New Testament only in Romans 11: 11, where it refers to Israel’s overall relationship with the God of the covenant, and in 2 Peter 1: 10, where it refers to the need for moral perseverance. The word is used in the Septuagint for moral lapse (Deut 7: 25) and military defeat (1 Sam 4: 2– 3, 10; 7: 10; 2 Sam 10: 19; 1 Kgs 8: 33). A striking parallel is found in Sirach 37: 12:

But associate with a godly person whom you know to be a keeper of the commandments, who is like-minded with yourself, and who will grieve with you if you fail (ptaiō).

While one might be tempted to see gravity in this term, it seems James is using it more for peccadilloes since he says “all of us” trip up in “many” ways (adverbial polla). James here scans the teachers and says that all of us trip up in many ways and often.  Rhetorically he gains their attention without pushing too hard.

But he is not done. His concern is not to let his community, or much less the teachers, off the hook by giving them a platitude they can bank on when they sin. Instead, he concedes a point— that we all sin— in order to sharpen his focus on his favorite subject: verbal sins. He is scouting for the messianic teacher who can avoid those sins: “Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle.” The NRSV masks the grammar: the entire sentence is a conditional construction.  James does not believe in sinlessness, nor does any writer in the New Testament (cf. 1 John 1: 8), but he does believe that those who have the implanted word (James 1: 21) can obey the royal law of love (1: 25– 27; 2: 8– 13). The royal law of love manifests itself in verbal purity. James puts it this way: “Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking.” Speech purity is a central concern of James: 1: 19– 21 brings the matter up and 3: 1– 4: 12 is shaped by this concern. But does James perhaps mean “in teaching”  instead of just “in speaking” (in general)? Again, since it is not clear that James ever leaves the teachers from 3: 1 to 4: 12 and since 3: 13 returns to the teachers, the more accurate translation would be “in teaching.” However, inasmuch as 3: 3– 12 will illustrate 3: 1– 2 and “in speaking” (en logō) is considered by some a near equivalent for “tongue” (glossa) in 3: 5, some think “in speaking” is preferred. We are back to the same issue: Does James retain his focus on the teacher? Since he started with a direct interest in them (3: 1), since teachers are prone to verbal sins and specifically verbal sins that fracture communities (4: 1– 10), and since 3: 13 is about teachers, it remains a stubborn exegetical accuracy to think James has in mind the teachers when he says “Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking.” Teachers and preachers know full well how difficult it is to avoid verbal sins.

The teacher (or person) who avoids stumbling in speaking is “perfect.”  By now the careful reader of James is familiar with this term. James has spoken of believers being “mature and complete” in 1: 4, of God’s gifts as “perfect” in 1: 17, and more importantly of the “law of liberty” being the “perfect law” in 1: 25. The law of liberty in 1: 25 is a synonym for the “royal law,” the second half of the Jesus Creed (e.g., Lev 19: 18) in 2: 8. Thus, when James speaks of a “perfect” teacher in 3: 2, his concern is more focused than on just Torah observance. This person is a fully developed follower of Jesus’ own teachings of the Torah as the Torah of loving God and loving others. The perfect teacher is one whose love shapes how he or she teaches and speaks of others. Indeed, the term speaks of maturity and completeness or, even better, of having arrived at the destined goal designed by God.  This was the point about Abraham (2: 22), and it makes one wonder if James has not almost incorporated behavior and deeds into what he means by avoiding speech sins (cf. 3: 13).  

Such a teacher, because he or she is shaped by God’s own design, is “able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle” (3: 2b).  This inelegant NRSV phrasing seeks to keep James’s metaphor of the bit that guides the horse in view while rendering it into English. The point is that the teacher who controls the tongue controls everything. This seeming overstatement is expounded in 3: 3– 12, where it is shown that James is not in fact overstating his point. James really does believe that control of the tongue is a sign that one can control one’s moral life. We have spoken here of the “whole body,” the physical body, and of “everything” and “one’s moral life,” making “body” a metaphor for one’s moral life. Is this the case? Clearly James uses “body” (sōma) for the physical body and speaks of the tongue as a part of that body (cf. 3: 2– 3, 6). But the exegetical conclusion that James is speaking to teachers could guide us to a fresher and more accurate perspective on what he means in 3: 2b. If James is speaking to teachers and if “speaking” refers to “teaching,” it is not impossible that James refers to the messianic community or “messianic body” with “body.” The teacher who controls the tongue is one who can guide the whole messianic body.  While there is no evidence that James uses the word “body” as Paul does (e.g., 1 Corinthians 12– 14), the emphasis of James 3: 1– 4: 12 is not on individual piety but on ecclesial peace and harmony (3: 13– 18; 4: 1– 10, 11– 12). The same ecclesial shape was seen the first time James brought up speech sins (1: 19– 21). We consider “body” in 3: 2 to be an image for the messianic community.

6.1.2. The Magnitude of the Tongue’s Impact (3: 3– 12)

6.1.2.1. The Problem: Three Analogies (3: 3– 6)

James launches now into an exposition of the magnitude of the tongue’s impact: though small, it has an influence grossly out of proportion to its size. James does not explain his point so much as give analogies— three of them. He begins with the bit and the horse (3: 3), moves to the rudder and the ship (3: 4), and then turns to the spark and the fire (3: 5b– 6). Just prior to the spark and fire analogy, though, James explains the point of his analogies: “So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts great exploits” (3: 5a).

James’s three analogies were commonplaces in the ancient world, showing James to be at home in the Hellenistic world. Plutarch, a first-century Greek moralist and priest at Delphi, in his essay Concerning Talkativeness (10), urges his readers to guard their words because trusting them to others turns those words loose. “Thus, then, the story goes on increasing and multiplying by link after link of incontinent betrayal.” Only a “story confined to its first possessor is truly secret; but if it passes to another, it has acquired the status of rumour.” Words, he learned from Homer, have wings. At this point, then, Plutarch compares words let loose to boats caught by winds that shipwreck and sparks caught by winds that set off fires. It is Plutarch’s combination of boats and fire that catches our attention. Philo connects horses and bits, but what strikes the reader of his On the Creation is that these are set in a context of humans being made in God’s image and having the capacity to tame animals (83– 86). In his Allegorical Interpretation of Genesis, Philo connects the rudder and boat to a mind set ablaze by irrational sense like a fire (3.224). One could easily conclude that these were stock examples of small things with huge impacts instead of thinking that James had recently read or consulted either Plutarch or Philo. In the words of a classicist, David Nystrom, “Therefore, no specific parallel is in view. James simply appropriated what he knew to be stock phrases and crafted them to his own ends.”  

If James’s rhetoric connects to the style of others in the ancient world, it also illustrates something every good speaker, preacher, or teacher knows: the power of a graphic image to convey a message. One is reminded here of Jesus’ graphic images (yokes, kings, crucifixion) as well as the power of images in the prophets, like Hosea’s use of a harlot.

3:3 Teachers, James tells them, need to be aware that their tongues are like a bit that can direct and misdirect the entire messianic community. We concluded in the translation above that the original text of 3: 3 was a conditional sentence. Thus: “If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies.” It is the smallness of the bit that captures James’s attention: in comparison to a horse a bit is tiny, but that tiny bit can be used to guide the large animal. Plutarch again trades in the same themes we find in James: “And again,” he says quoting, “’ Tis character persuades, and not the speech.’ No, rather it is both character and speech, or character by means of speech, just as a horseman uses a bridle, or a helmsman uses a rudder, since virtue has no instrument so humane or so akin to itself as speech” (How to Study Poetry 12).

James’s point is that the bit enables the rider to “make them [the horses] obey us.”  The bit is placed into the mouth so we can “guide their whole bodies.”  That he uses “guide” both here and in v. 4 suggests that he is thinking of the teacher’s tongue as the guide of the church. But, we need to remind ourselves that James makes his point in 3: 5a: “So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.” His concern is the smallness of something having a large destructive impact. The bit and the horse and the guidance illustrate his point: as a little bit can guide a large horse, so the little tongue can destructively impact the entire messianic community.

3:4 The tongue of a teacher, James adds, can be compared to the rudder of a ship: as the small rudder guides a big ship, so the tongue can direct and misdirect the messianic community.  James describes ships as “so large that it takes strong winds to drive them.” A question arises as to whether James is speaking of the size of wind that large ships require in order to sail effectively or how a violent wind that buffets a boat can be mastered by even a small rudder. Since James defines “boats” with two clauses (“ so large” and the strong winds that drive them) in order to sketch the image, leaving us with a big boat driven by wicked winds, the second view seems more likely. His emphasis remains the contrast of small with large. The use of “strong winds,” even if not neatly parallel, evokes the violence done by the tongue. The oddity here is that the rudder is used to control a violently blown ship, but James’s own logic is the rudderlessness of the teachers’ tongues. This shows that his emphasis is on the contrast of a small object influencing a much larger object.

James indirectly throws the responsibility back on the will of the teachers in his extension of this analogy to include the sovereign control of the helmsman: “wherever the will of the pilot directs.”  The pilot, even if the winds are more than he can control, controls the impact of the winds on the sails by operating the rudder with expertise. By moving into the will of the pilot, James now prepares the messianic community to hear more explicitly the point he is making. As Luke Timothy Johnson states, James has his audience now prepared: “James makes all three components [of his rhetorical point] explicit: the guiding desire (the steersman), the means of control (the rudder), and that which is controlled (the ship), corresponding in turn to human desire, the tongue, and the body.”  

3:5 Before James trots out his third analogy (3: 5b), he breaks in to make the analogies clear:  “So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.”  The focus, once again, is small versus large, and his intent is to press home to the teachers that their tongue is a small instrument with potentially devastating effects. James’s wording is alliterative and mnemonic: hē glōssa mikron melos estin kai megala auchei. Perhaps surprising is James’s choice of the word “boasts” (auchei).  Johnson says “James does not denounce such boasting” because, in fact, what the tongue boasts about is in fact correct— that is, it says true things.  Another way of putting this is to say that James means nothing more than that this small tongue does great things. True enough, but I doubt that James would give so much away at his crucial point in his argument. Instead of thinking that James here says the tongue actually says right things, the context suggests that he is more concerned with the vaunting pride and vituperative rhetoric characteristic of teachers who are destructive in the community. His use of “tongue” here is negative. 61 Not only do the analogies suggest that James sees a dramatically negative impact on the community, but the rest of this section (3: 13– 4: 12) trades in similar ideas, even if it does not use the word “boast.” Thus, we should look to 3: 14– 16 and 4: 1– 6, 11– 12, and 16– 17. The boasting of which James speaks in 3: 5, then, is most likely the arrogant and divisive warmongering on the part of some of the teachers and leaders in the messianic community.

James then resumes by moving briefly to a third analogy, to fire, and this analogy will lead to a more complete exposition in vv. 6– 12. James wants the teachers to realize that their tongues are like a spark setting on fire a forest: “How great a forest is set ablaze 62 by a small fire!” 63 Anyone familiar with the American West these days knows that even a spark at the wrong time can threaten the lives and homes of thousands. It might also be observed that forests are uncommon in the Land of Israel, and this leads some to suggest that hylē, “forest,” might have its more common meaning “wood,” suggesting brush fires instead of the conflagration of a forest (cf. Isa 10: 17). 64 The best commentary is perhaps Philo, with whom James shares so many similarities in this passage. In speaking of desire (epithymia), Philo says that from desire “flow the most iniquitous actions, public and private, small and great, dealing with things sacred or things profane, affecting bodies and souls and what are called external things. For nothing escapes desire, and as I have said before, like a flame in the forest, it spreads abroad and consumes and destroys everything.”  

The emphases of James’s three analogies varies: the bit and horse emphasized small size and great impact, the rudder and ship emphasized not only small and great but also guidance, while the spark and forest now emphasizes small and great along with destructiveness.

3:6 James 3: 6 is a commentary on 3: 5. As 3: 5 connected the tongue to fire indirectly, 3: 6 clarifies that connection. Thus, James moves from the tongue being a “small member” with “great exploits” to a great forest being set ablaze by a “small fire” (v. 5) to “the tongue is a fire” (v. 6) and in the process he moves from simile to metaphor. But, as is sometimes the case in the New Testament, what is intended to be a clarification can become a source of contention.  

To begin with, there are textual problems. Is the standard text used for translations, as in the NRSV above, accurate, or is it in need of emendation? Even if textual emendation is rarely compelling, Ropes was unafraid to suggest that “as a world of iniquity” was a later scribal gloss and not the words of the original text.  Franz Spitta went further yet and suggested that “And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity” was all a gloss.  Dibelius went even further: “as a world of iniquity, the tongue is established among our members” is added to the original.  Ropes knew full well the attraction of this sort of speculative game: “Exegesis by leaving out hard phrases is an intoxicating experience.”  It is indeed the case that oddities in a text could indicate corruption; but it is far more likely that the more difficult reading indicates authenticity. Apart from textual evidence, the interpreter of the text of the New Testament is wiser to interpret the text we have than to speculate, without evidence, what may have been the text and then interpret that.  

If we take the text as printed as reliable, there remain exegetical problems because the syntax is unusual.  To begin with, what does “as a world of iniquity” mean? Does it mean an “ornament” that is evil, or does it mean an “iniquitous world”? And, is “a world of iniquity” an appositive (“ the tongue is a fire, a world of evil; the tongue  …”) or the predicate of “is placed” (as in NRSV)? And, what is the meaning of “is placed” (kathistatai)—“ is made, becomes” or “appoints itself”? And, entering into an even deeper thicket, what is the meaning of “sets on fire the cycle of nature”? Is this a use of the technical and pessimistic Hellenistic expression for the endless transmigrations of the soul from body to body with no hope for deliverance, or does it denote the more general ups and downs of the cycle of nature? Monographs have been written and will be written on the ideas and expressions in this short verse, but it is our task to set out an interpretation that seems most compelling.

“And the tongue is a fire.” From verse 3 James has been analogizing about the tongue and its impact on a community when teachers use it unwisely. Now he sees the teacher’s impact as analogous to a spark loose in a forest, and this means that his focus is on the destructive impact of loose words.  Several passages can serve to illustrate James’s point, namely the disastrous impact of abusive speech.


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Phillip Santillan