Unlearning Religion: James 3:13-18

An edited excerpt from James: Tyndall New Testament Commentary.


Overcoming dissensions through true wisdom (3: 13 –  4: 3)


Most commentaries and English translations follow the chapter division and place a significant break between the last paragraph of chapter 3 (3: 13– 18) and the first of chapter 4 (4: 1– 3 or 4: 1– 10). There are good reasons for this division, since the focus seems to move from wisdom to quarrels. However, without ignoring the differences, we think there are good reasons to consider these paragraphs as two sides of the same coin. In both paragraphs, James attacks unrighteous and misguided ‘zeal’ or ‘envy’ (Greek zēlos): it is a key characteristic of ‘earthly’ wisdom (3: 14, 16), and this same ‘envy’, or ‘coveting’ (zēloō) leads to the bitter arguments James condemns in 4: 1– 3 (see v. 2). Lending greater importance to this word is the fact that James may be following a general pattern of teaching prominent in his world, a pattern, or ‘topic’, that focused on this vice of ‘envy’ or ‘jealousy’ (often phthonos in Greek).  The closest parallels to James come in The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, a Jewish pseudepigraphical work, most of which was written around 100 bc. In this book, slander (katalalia, Testament of Gad 3: 3), violence (polemos) and murder (Testament of Simeon 4: 5) are all traced to jealousy. And these, of course, are just the same issues attacked by James in 4: 1– 12. Moreover, the Testaments frequently highlight as a basic spiritual problem ‘double-mindedness’, striking another familiar chord for the reader of James (cf. 1: 8 and 4: 8). Direct dependence of James on the Testaments is unlikely. James, we may surmise, knows of the kind of tradition found in the Testaments because it was so common in the ancient world. He presses it into use here in order to rebuke his readers for jealous and selfish attitudes that are manifesting themselves in disunity and bitter disputes.

If ‘envy’ is the key vice running through 3: 13 – 4: 3, peace is the key virtue. After the initial rhetorical question setting up the issue of wisdom (3: 13a), James calls on his readers to demonstrate the reality of their wisdom in humility and good works (v. 13b). This leads into the contrast between two kinds of wisdom that dominates the paragraph. The wrong kind is characterized by envy, selfishness and disorder (vv. 14– 16) – the opposite of peace. The right kind of wisdom, on the other hand, is above all ‘peace-loving’ (the first specific ‘fruit of wisdom’ listed in v. 17). And James underscores this virtue with his concluding blessing on ‘peacemakers’ (v. 18). The absence of peace, on the other hand, is obviously the main issue in 4: 1– 3. The community is marked by quarrels and arguments – some of them perhaps even violent. And James traces these disputes to the characteristics of false wisdom that he pointed out in 3: 14: envy (v. 2) and selfishness (v. 3).


13. The question introducing this section – Who is wise and understanding among you? – is in fact a challenge: if you claim to be wise, demonstrate your wisdom in the works that true wisdom produces. Many commentators think that James’ question is directed particularly to the teachers who were mentioned in verse 1. But neither sophos (wise, ‘wise person’) nor epistēmōn (‘ knowledgeable’, ‘full of understanding’) is regularly used as a title for the teacher. They occur together several times in the Septuagint, once with reference to the qualities leaders should possess (Deut. 1: 13, 15) but also with application to all of Israel (Deut. 4: 6; Dan. 5: 12 applies them to the prophet). Clearly James considers ‘wisdom’ a virtue available to all (1: 5), and even 3: 1 is not really directed to teachers, but to those who would become teachers. Therefore James’ exhortation is better taken as directed generally to all believers, but especially to those who pride themselves on their superior understanding.

As Dibelius points out, James’ exhortation to the ‘wise person’ reads awkwardly, because he has combined two ideas in it: wisdom is to produce works and wisdom is to be characterized by humility. The first idea reminds us strongly of James’ earlier demand that faith manifest itself in works. True wisdom, like real faith, is a vital, practical quality that has as much (or more) to do with the way we live as with what we think or say. In this James is true to the Old Testament conception of wisdom as a way of life, the attitude and conduct typical of a godly person. But James is even more interested in the second idea mentioned above, the qualities that wisdom should manifest. The deeds, or ‘works’ (erga), that demonstrate wisdom are to be done in the humility that comes from wisdom (taking sophias as a genitive of source). Humility (praütēs) was not always prized as a virtue among the Greeks; it suggested to many a servile, ignoble debasement.  But Jesus, who was himself ‘gentle and humble’ (praüs kai tapeinos, Matt. 11: 29), pronounced a blessing on those who were meek (Matt. 5: 5). This Christian meekness involves a healthy understanding of our own unworthiness before God and a corresponding humility and lack of pride in our dealings with others.

14. The opposite of meekness is bitter envy and selfish ambition. Envy (zēlos) is not, of course, always a bad thing. The same Greek word can also be translated ‘jealousy’; and jealousy for the right thing is often commended. Thus Phinehas is rewarded for his ‘zeal’ for the Lord’s cause (Num. 25: 11– 13) and Jesus himself was consumed by a similar zeal (John 2: 17). But true, unselfish zeal for the Lord lies all too close to a selfishly motivated, harsh and violent fanaticism. It is ‘jealousy’ or ‘zeal’ in this sense that Paul often condemns (Rom. 13: 13; 2 Cor. 12: 20; Gal. 5: 20) and that James speaks of here. It is related to what we would call ‘jealousy’ in that such zeal is often selfishly motivated and involves truth. It is always wrong.

15. In a somewhat ironical way, James now contrasts the ‘wisdom’ such as these jealous and contentious people have with the wisdom that comes down from heaven. Heaven is the NIV rendering of anōthen, ‘from above’ (see e.g. ESV); the NIV perhaps chooses this translation to highlight the implicit contrast with demonic at the end of the verse. 20 In any case, ‘from above’ indicates divine origin (see 1: 17). True wisdom, as Scripture makes plain, comes only from God: ‘the LORD gives wisdom’ (Prov. 2: 6). That is why it can be attained only by asking God (Jas 1: 5). The ‘wisdom’ that manifests itself in selfishness and envy has a quite different nature and origin. James describes it with three adjectives, each of which takes its meaning from its implied opposite. First, this wisdom is earthly instead of heavenly. Earthly (epigeios) can have a neutral significance (cf. John 3: 12), but it easily takes on negative connotations, describing that which is transitory, weak and imperfect (see the contrast between ‘earthly’ and ‘heavenly’ bodies in 1 Cor. 15: 40; cf. 2 Cor. 5: 1). Its derogatory sense is obvious in Philippians 3: 18– 19, where Paul says that the ‘enemies of the cross of Christ’ have their minds ‘set on earthly things’. Second, this wisdom is unspiritual rather than spiritual. The word James uses, psychikos, is the adjective derived from psychē, ‘soul’, and always has a negative nuance in the New Testament. It has to do with that part of the person ‘where human feeling and human reason reign supreme’ (Knowling). In every other New Testament occurrence, the word is explicitly contrasted with ‘spiritual’ (1 Cor. 2: 14; 15: 44, 46; Jude 19). Third, this wrong kind of wisdom is demonic (daimoniōdēs, lit. ‘pertaining to demons’). This word occurs only here in the Greek Bible and may mean that the wisdom is demonic either in nature or, more probably, in origin. The wisdom that does not produce a good lifestyle (v. 13) is, in sum, characterized by ‘the world, the flesh and the devil’. In each of these ways, it is the direct antithesis of ‘the wisdom that comes from above’ – heavenly in nature, spiritual in essence and divine in origin.

16. James now justifies his harsh verdict on false wisdom by describing the effects it produces. Envy (zēlos) and selfish ambition (eritheia) have already been singled out as characteristic of those who are making a false claim to wisdom (v. 14). Now James points out how egocentric, selfish attitudes inevitably lead to disorder and every evil practice. Akatastasia (disorder) is the noun form of the adjective James has used in 1: 8 and 3: 8 to characterize the ‘double-minded’ person and the ‘double-speaking’ tongue. The term connotes a restless, unsettled state. It is used in Luke’s Gospel to describe the ‘tumults’, the uprisings and revolutions, that will typify the period preceding the parousia (Luke 21: 9). And Paul, pleading with the Corinthians to refrain from an unbridled, unorganized display of individual spiritual gifts in the assembly, reminds them that ‘God is not a God of disorder [akatastasis] but of peace’ (1 Cor. 14: 33). ‘Confusion’, ‘disorder’ and ‘tumults’ will inevitably break out in the church where Christians, especially leaders, are more interested in pursuing their own ambitions or partisan causes than the edification of the body as a whole. What one ends up with is every evil practice, or ‘every kind of evil’ (HCSB – the Greek pan [‘ every’] can have this sense [BDAG]). Where the hearts of individual Christians are wrong, an unlimited variety of sins will be found also.

17. James has described what the wisdom that comes from heaven is not (v. 15); now he tells us what it is, with a series of seven adjectives. Or, more properly, he tells us what effects divine wisdom should produce – for almost all of these adjectives describe what wisdom does rather than what it is. It is again clear that James does not view wisdom as a series of correct propositional statements but as a quality that motivates certain kinds of behaviour. James’ description of the wisdom that comes from heaven reminds us inevitably of Paul’s description of ‘the fruit of the Spirit’ in Galatians 5: 22– 23. While there is little verbal resemblance, the emphasis in both texts is on humility, peaceableness and upright behaviour. What Paul says the Spirit produces, James says wisdom produces. This similarity, coupled with the fact that James never (except perhaps in 4: 5; see below) mentions the Holy Spirit, may point to the equivalence of wisdom and Spirit in James’ thinking. Certainly, the two were frequently associated in Jewish literature. 21 However, we must be cautious in speaking of ‘equivalence’; although what is produced by James’ wisdom and what is produced by Paul’s Spirit are similar, that does not mean that the two can be seen as equivalent concepts.  

The first, and overarching, attribute of wisdom is that it is pure. The word pure (hagnos) connotes moral blamelessness, such as the unsullied chastity of the virgin bride (cf. 2 Cor. 11: 2). Wisdom which is free from any stain or blemish would be incapable of producing anything evil (cf. v. 16). James has arranged the following series of adjectives with a view to the way they sound (a letter such as this would have been read out in the Christian assembly). The Greek words for the first four virtues (peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy) all begin with an ‘e’ sound – eirēnikē, epieikēs, eupeithēs, eleous – and combine to produce an alliteration. The last two also involve an alliteration – this time with an ‘a’ sound – and, in addition, have an almost metrical, rhyming similarity – adiakritos, anypokritos (impartial, sincere [cf.also agathōn, ‘good’, just before these words in the Greek]).

James begins with the quality of peace-loving because this virtue is especially prominent in this context. He criticizes those who falsely claim to be wise for their contentiousness and the disputes they spawn (3: 14; 4: 1– 2). According to the Old Testament also, wisdom produces peace (Prov. 3: 17), and Paul lists ‘peace’ as a fruit of the Spirit. Why is wisdom peace-loving? Because it is also considerate and submissive. To be considerate, or ‘gentle’ (epieikēs), is to be kind, willing to yield, unwilling ‘to exact strict claims’ (Hort). With such an attitude, the believer, motivated and empowered by wisdom, will follow in the footsteps of his or her Lord, who also was characterized by ‘meekness and gentleness’ (praytētos kai epieikeias, 2 Cor. 10: 1). The person who is submissive (eupeithēs) is one who is ‘easily persuaded’ – not in the sense of a weak, credulous gullibility, but rather in that of a willing deference to others when unalterable theological or moral principles are not involved. Wisdom is also full of mercy and good fruit. James provides his own definition of ‘mercy’: it is that love for the neighbour that shows itself in action (2: 8– 13). It is not surprising, then, that James couples mercy so closely with good fruit – acts of mercy are those ‘fruits’ which genuine wisdom, like genuine faith, must produce.

The second-to-last attribute, adiakritos, is the most difficult to define. Most agree with the NIV rendering impartial (NIV; ESV).  But the word could also refer to the quality of consistency (‘ unwavering’ in NASB).  This last meaning makes good sense here in light of James’ use of the cognate verb (diakrinō) in 1: 6 (and possibly 2: 4 – see the notes on that verse). Moreover, we have seen the importance which James gives to the need to be ‘undivided’, ‘not of two minds’. On the other hand, James also stresses the incompatibility of Christianity and partiality (2: 1– 4) and mentions mercy in that context, as he does here. Probably the former meaning, ‘impartial’, should be accepted.  Finally, the wisdom that comes from heaven is sincere – genuine, ‘without show or pretence’ (anypokritos). Our world elevates intelligence and cleverness; but Christians, James teaches, should be focused more on wisdom and its fruit.

18. In this verse James singles out for special emphasis one attribute of wisdom – its peaceableness. This emphasis is no doubt the product of James’ desire to eradicate the bitter, contentious quarrels and disputes that were rending the church (3: 16; 4: 1– 2). The peace that genuine wisdom should produce was notably absent. While the connection to the preceding context through the stress on peace is therefore obvious (and note also the mention of ‘fruit’ in both v. 17 and v. 18), the verse as a whole fits a bit awkwardly in its present position. Dibelius may be right to suggest that the saying here was originally an independent proverb. This circumstance would help to explain why the verse is somewhat difficult to understand. The Greek of the verse uses a passive verb (speiretai, ‘is sown’) followed by a dative (tois poiousin eirēnēn, ‘for’ or ‘by’ those who make peace). The question is whether the harvest of righteousness is produced by those ‘peacemakers’ (a dative of instrument) or for them (a dative of advantage). The NIV – peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness – reflects the latter interpretation: people who are active in making peace reap (for themselves) the reward of a harvest of righteousness. But most of the other English translations reflect the other interpretation: peacemakers sow a harvest of righteousness (for others) (e.g. ESV; HCSB). Some interpreters claim that the former should be adopted because this construal of the dative fits New Testament style better than the alternative. But a dative of agency is not unknown in the New Testament and this translation makes better sense of the verse – peacemakers produce, in the atmosphere of peace they create, peace among the people they deal with.

What is this ‘fruit’ of righteousness? The phrase is a familiar one in the Septuagint, where it means ‘the fruit which is righteousness’ (an epexegetic genitive). Laws argues that this fruit of righteousness may be nothing else than wisdom itself,  but the focus here is not on wisdom but on what wisdom produces. Others, noting the frequent association of righteousness and peace in the Old Testament, interpret the fruit of righteousness as peace. But it is unnecessary to introduce these more specific ideas. Righteousness in James 1: 20 meant that conduct which is pleasing to God, and this is the ‘fruit’ intended here also. It includes all the virtues listed in verse 17 and is the opposite of every evil practice (v. 16). This righteousness cannot be produced in the context of human anger (1: 20); but it can grow and flourish in the atmosphere of peace. Those who create such an atmosphere are assured by their Lord of their reward: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God’ (Matt. 5: 9).

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Phillip Santillan