A Pun in James 2

James writes his epistle with style.[1] Some of this is obvious in any English translation of the New Testament. For instance, he employs images to present his ethics vividly, as when he mocks the duplicity of the human tongue by asking, “Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs?” (3:12). How then can we alternately praise God and curse others?

Other features of winsome expression are more evident in Greek. One example comes in Jas 2:14–26, when James practices “paronomasia,” the repetition of a word or root in a short span of text, in this case reiterating the ἐργ- (“work”) root. The densest cluster of terms comes in vv. 20–23:

Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works [ἔργων] is un-working [ἀργή]? Was not Abraham our father justified by works [ἔργων] when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was working along with [συνήργει] his works [ἔργοις], and faith was completed by his works [ἔργων]; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. (ESV, adapted)

English translations bring out some of the repeated words, particularly “works” (sometimes “deeds”). But other elements of the literary device are lost: “un-working” is not standard English (hence the typical “useless” or “idle”), and often “was working along with” is replaced by another verb (such as “was active along with” in the ESV). While English style prefers variation, the common Greek of the first century delighted in repetition.

A Pun in James 2

I discern another play on words in the passage above. Alongside the paronomasia, James seems to pun on three terms that have to do with empty or full: κενέ (translated “foolish person” in the ESV, above) in v. 20, ἐτελειώϑη (“was completed”) in v. 22, and ἐπληρώϑη (“was fulfilled”) in v. 23. The basic logic of the passage is captured adequately in all versions, but like any pun, the humor derives from the fact that two different meanings of the same word(s) can be heard simultaneously. No major translation renders these three terms in a way that an ordinary English reader could guess the dual meanings, though. Indeed, CEV removes any sense of “filling” from all three terms:

Does some stupid person want proof that faith without deeds is useless? . . . Now you see how Abraham’s faith and deeds worked together. He proved that his faith was real by what he did. This is what the Scriptures mean.

Yet all three words in Greek fit within the domain of empty/full. It is evident in English for the final term, the verb πληρόω in v. 23: “to fulfill.” The noun κενός (v. 20), likewise, means “empty,” not “foolish” directly. We must supply “empty (of knowledge)” to arrive at that normal translation — and perhaps the individual is lacking works, instead. The verb τελειόω (v. 22) might seem the greatest stretch, since “to complete” or “to perfect” would appear to be similar, but not quite the same, as “to be full.” But τελειόω and related words consistently have the sense of “fullness” in James. It references the maturing of something to its full, intended form (as of a growing child reaching adulthood). Indeed, τελειόω and πληρόω are largely interchangeable in ancient Greek. Thus, I venture that James’s audience would have heard a clever pun in vv. 20–22, to the effect that an “empty” person is told to learn from the “filled out” faith of Abraham whose willingness to sacrifice Isaac “fulfilled” the earlier pronouncement about his righteousness.

Why It Matters

If I am right, perhaps it bespeaks James’s rhetoric, and no more. We can imagine him writing a subtle threefold pun with a sly smile, and move on. I am inclined that it is more than wordplay, however.

(1) “Completion” is an integrative theme in James, with the τελ- root occurring nine times in the letter, in addition to related words like κενός and πληρόω. The letter opens with this focus:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full [τέλειον] effect, that you may be perfect [τέλειοι] and complete, lacking in nothing.

Completion also comes through Scripture, as the law is described as “perfect” (τέλειον) (1:25) and James enjoins his recipients to “fulfill” or “complete” (τελεῖτε) the biblical command to love your neighbor as yourself (2:8). The pun in 2:20–23 would fit into this theme. Abraham is an example of incipient faith (Genesis 12) reaching its intended fruition (Genesis 22), thereby bearing out the scriptural pronouncement of his righteousness (Gen 15:6). James’s foil is thus far “empty,” but is called to grow in his faith.

(2) I would add this consideration, too. Most of us who have had the privilege of learning the biblical languages do so, I assume, in a quest for theological precision. This is the Word of God, and the church needs some of its members to know it as accurately as possible. I have greatly valued this aspect of learning Hebrew and Greek.

Yet an unexpected benefit has also accrued through my study. I now sense the personality of the biblical authors better. English versions generally adopt standard translation guidelines to provide a cohesive reading experience. Most aim, for instance, at a specific reading level, which affects the vocabulary and sentence length chosen. That is a judicious decision overall, but it smooths out the differences between authors. Learning the ancient languages allows you to encounter the characteristic traits of each author more clearly. In the case of James, you sense his playfulness, which complements, and in certain ways lightens, the rigorous moral exhortation that recurs throughout the letter.

Timothy Gabrielson is assistant professor of biblical studies at Sterling College in Kansas and an academic tutor for the BibleMesh Institute. To see the Greek courses available from BibleMesh Biblical Languages, visit https://biblemesh.com/certificate-tracks/biblical-greek-certificate/.

[1] This post is a digest of my article, “Filling the Empty: An Unnoticed Pun in James 2.20–23,” The Bible Translator 71 (2020): 357–67. Occasionally the wording is identical to the published version. Available online (but with free access limited to research libraries): https://doi.org/10.1177/2051677020949645.