This paper attempts to interpret and discuss James 1:22-27, a passage that consists of only a few sentences but carries a strong and influential meaning. Also, the meaning of the passage is not communicated directly; instead, it is disguised behind allegories and thus requires a proper and careful interpretation. Many scholars have worked on the translation of this passage and therefore, it currently has several different versions.
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In this paper, the discussion of the passage is based on several perceptions. First of all, I will read and interpret its New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) independently, formulating my idea of its meaning. Secondly, I will locate and read several scholarly sources that would cover the aspects of the passage concerning which I have questions; and I will present the interpretation provided by the authors. James 1:22-27 is a persuasive message that intends to clarify to the audience what the true meaning of being Christian and provide the necessary instruction as to the ethics which religious individuals ought to adhere.
James 1:22-27 (NRSV) Individual Interpretation
James 1:22-27 is a passage that pursues one clear purpose – to persuade the readers to adjust their perceptions of their religion as a set of instructions and not merely a text on the paper. The passage begins with the following sentence: “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves”.1 This remark of James signifies that he is attempting to convince his audience to behave in a certain way.
The further key of the passage remains unchanged – the author persists with his intention to teach the readers to adopt a set of beliefs according to which they would structure their actions. James wants his readers to become the doers of the word and not only the passive hearers. To make his message even more convincing, James employs an allegory and compares the passive hearers with the individuals in front of a mirror “who look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like”.2 Using this comparison, James seems to attempt to illustrate how unreasonable such behavior is, and how pointless it is for one to learn something important and then never use it in practice. The next sentence of the passage demonstrates that James is willing to encourage his readers to follow his instructions by telling them that “doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing”.3
The last two sentences of the passage represent a more direct message as James moves on from the analogy to the straightforward teaching. The last two sentences are explanatory. James says, “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless”.4
In this sentence instead of using the vague words such as “hearers of the word” and “doers of the word”, James specified that he is talking particularly about the religious teachings and wisdoms and explains that they are to be perceived as the recommendations as to the future actions of the listeners but not as empty words. James informs his readers that those who treat religious teachings as merely words and fail to act on them risk undermining their religiousness as the wisdom of religion is worthless when it does not have a practical reflection. Finally, in the concluding sentence of the passage, James provides a very clear explanation of the requirements of Christianity from its followers saying, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world”.5
Interpretation of James 1:22-27 Using the Opinions in the Scholarly Articles
In their articles, the scholars notice strong rhetorical skills of James that enhance the effectiveness of the message he is passing to the audience using the use of memorable words and analogies. In his article, Whartenby comments on the last sentence of James 1:22-27 pointing out the fact that James’ perception of God resembled that of Jesus; that author notices that James referred to God as Father, which implies that there are love and care between God and the believers.6
Besides, Whartenby mentions that “James’ thought seems to move forward using catch words rather than strict logic”.7 With this comment, the author shows his admiration of the style which James has chosen to address his audience. In other words, as a speaker and a writer, James possesses some unique and powerful skills that make his rhetoric more persuasive and effective. Also, Whartenby’s comment notes that James must have had quite a deep and knowledge of his audience to be able to use the persuasion techniques that would leave the strongest impression.
Boyce remarks on the analogy employed by James saying that “To make the point, James now resorts to another unique but powerful image, the image of the mirror”.8
The scholar notices the potential of the allegory used by the speaker. Commenting on the passage, Boyce compares its style with that used by Paul in Corinthians 13:12 where the mirror symbolizes a partial reflection of the reality emphasizing the difference between the real world and the dim reflection. Paul’s aptness to use analogies is also noticeable in his Letter to the Galatians when he says, “as long as an heir is underage, he is no different from a slave”9 comparing an heir before and after inheriting his father’s power to a believer before and after accepting and understanding Christianity. Comparing the two styles of James and Paul and their use of analogies, Boyce points out how powerful this technique is in terms of the impact on the audience, and how versatile the use of one symbol or analogy may be depending on the context in which the speaker decides to present it.
Conclusion: Interpretation after Learning the Perspectives of the Scholars
Having read the articles and the views of the scholars concerning the passage, I started to notice an aspect that remained hidden earlier. The uniqueness of James’ analogy is its double meaning and effect. Namely, saying that the listeners and readers should not be the passive hearers but are to act on the word refers both to the teachings of the Bible and to the passage by James. His analogy and his main point are focused on the persuasion of the audience to use whatever they learn from their religion in practice; however, James’ words also qualify as one of the instructions that the listeners are to act on. That way, the analogy obtains circular nature becoming even more effective.
Boyce, James L. “A Mirror of Identity: Implanted Word and Pure Religion in James 1:17-27.” Word & World 35, no. 3 (2015): 213-221.
Whartenby, Tom. “James 1:17-27, Between Text & Sermon.” Interpretation (2009): 176-178.
- Jas 1:22.
- Jas 1:24.
- Jas 1:25.
- Jas 1:26.
- Jas 1:27.
- Tom Whartenby, “James 1:17-27, Between Text & Sermon,” Interpretation (2009): 176
- Ibid, 177.
- James L. Boyce, “A Mirror of Identity: Implanted Word and Pure Religion in James 1:17-27,” Word & World 35, no. 3 (2015): 217.
- Gal. 4:2-3.