God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

On James 2:23-24: Why Faith Without Works is Dead

James 2:23-24 uses the same root twice to highlight the point that Faith requires Works. But that important rhetorical device — duplication of the root — is lost in most translations. For example (NRSV):

(23) …”Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” [Genesis 15:6] … (24) You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

That translation, like most others, is ambiguous regarding the exact connection between Abraham’s belief (in James 2:23, which quotes Genesis 15:6) and faith (in James 2:24).

But in Greek, “believed” is pisteuo and “faith” is pistis. The text connects Abraham’s pistis with the general nature of pistis. It’s essentially a grammatical accident that we see a verb in Genesis 15:6 — so also in James 2:23 — and a noun in James 2:24.

Why do translations have such a hard time capturing this basic effect? The KJV, ESV, NAB, NIV, NLT, and NRSV all have “Abraham believed” here, instead of the obvious other choice: “Abraham had faith.”

(The NAB’s lapse is particularly surprising. In Genesis itself that translation reads, “put his faith.” The CEV opts for “had faith” in James 2:23, but then goes with “what we believe” in verse 24.)

I also think it’s no small matter that the same root appears twice, a topic I’ll turn to soon.

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June 10, 2010 - Posted by | Bible versions, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , , ,

25 Comments »

  1. This is an unfortunate aspect about English, some obvious connections in Hebrew or Greek are simply lost in translation so many will not even suspect that they are connected if they just read the translation.

    Comment by Don Johnson | June 10, 2010 | Reply

    • Sometimes there’s no way to capture the affect of the Hebrew/Greek in English, but here most translators seem to have overlooked the obvious English option. I wonder if it’s because they didn’t recognize how important it is.

      Comment by Joel H. | June 10, 2010 | Reply

    • After studying the original language for years, and reworking the translation over and over, and praying long concerning this, I am convinced that the primary teaching of James 2 is found in the QUESTION, “IS faith, separately things of works (no better than) a corpse?” The answer is absolutely NO, and this is in complete agreement with the whole of the Bible.

      Of course, this is concluded from reworking the whole chapter.

      The ‘called’ works of God begin from the small mustard sized seed of faith, and NOT the reverse.

      Comment by Diane Galvacky | February 7, 2012 | Reply

      • So the body, separate from the breath is, despite the obvious… alive?

        Comment by WoundedEgo | February 7, 2012

      • This is to reply to ‘wounded ego’, since no way to ‘reply’ was next to the name.

        As I said, I’ve reworked the entire chapter, so it’s not all going to fit without the rest of it. I mentioned here only the so-well-known part to keep my answer short. But I’ll try to answer to what you said by at least writing what I believe should be the translation starting around vs.24: “Behold now all of you! Is man righted [alongside God] out from works also not singularly out from faith’s works?” or, paraphrased, ” Is a man righted alongside God out from just SOME of his works?” “Likewise, also Rahab the harlot was NOT righted out from works (when she was) entertaining the messengers and sending out from a different way. Therefore, as-concerning that a body is a corpse separately of-spirit , so also the faith, separately of works, is it a corpse?” ——of course not. Man is righted in UN-circumcision, out from faith (Romans 4). First, like Abraham, in UN-circumcision Rahab faithed to God and was reasoned into rightness. Then the faith itself (not her or any person) worked-together-with the works of her (good and/or bad), and the faith was left-complete. The term ‘work of faith’ has caused many to believe that faith is a work. But it means “faith’s work”. Faith is not a work. It is a work-er. Now there is NO conflict with Romans 4, Galations 3, Ephesians, and more.

        Comment by Diane Galvacky | February 10, 2012

      • I would say that faith separate of works is a corpse, by reason of the very fact that James used one point, that is, what the body is without the spirit (a corpse), to clearly demonstrate his other point of what faith is without works.

        Just because one believes there is no conflict with Paul or others elsewhere, gives nobody the right to rework the original language. Let the text speak for itself; let it say what it says in its own right.

        By drawing your own conclusions in this way, you are not only at odds with the translators themselves in all versions of the Bible; you also obviously put yourself above them. And in doing so, you annul the plain meaning intended by the immediate context.

        Comment by Robert Kan | February 10, 2012

      • I am sooooo impressed by the clarity and cogency of the first half of your post. (The second all but ruined it).,

        Comment by bibleshockers | February 10, 2012

      • I completely agree with Robert. One of the most toxically self-exulted acts a human can commit is to torture a translation to fit their theology – rather than admitting that a section of the bible proves their theology must be wrong. Surprise, surprise, on judgement day you find out Paul wasn’t referring to acts of obedience by the word “ergon” at all. He was referring to the sacrificial works of the mosaic law to counter an argument by Jews that you must be circumcised in your flesh, follow the law of Moses and have the animal sacrifices made for you by Levitical priests at the temple to be justified. Paul says, no, Abraham was justified by his faith before the Mosaic law with animal sacrifices was instituted for the forgiveness of unintentional sin. Therefore just as Abraham was justified by believing God’s promises and obeying God’ commands before this system of sacrificial works, so those Paul spoke to could be justified by faith apart from that system of sacrificial works (because the covenant has changed from the agreement given through Moses to the agreement given through Christ). Or is God a God of the Jews only? No, of the gentiles also. If the sacrificial works of the Old Covenant were the only way to justification, then that would be limited to the Jews. Paul demonstrates that because justification is by faith (believing God’s promises), not of sacrificial works, (lest any Jew should boast in being one of God’s chosen, etc.) God is not a God of the Jews only but of the Gentiles also.

        Paul’s writings are completely misunderstood at the current time and at times so badly that theologians cannot even make Paul agree with himself on the same page. For all those who would persist in the error that by “ergon” Paul is referring to acts of obedience and somehow contrasting these with faith, explain why Paul also says those who do not obey will be sent to hell (2 Thessalonians 1:7-9) or why Paul refuses to even dare to speak about anything other than what Christ has done in him to make the gentiles obedient to Christ (Roman 15:18). The Reformers did not understand what Paul was referring to by the words “law” and “works” in his writings. They did not know about the above context to what Paul wrote. They have completely misconstrued Paul to have set up obedience and faith as in opposition with one another when Paul does no such thing, talking about the obedience of faith.

        John 8:51

        Comment by Kane called Brent | February 10, 2012

  2. Perhaps part of the problem is behavioural. I think Paul (the least of the apostles) would have eventually agreed with James the pillar. But neither of them would agree with the lenses we look through.

    We look for control over the words – for having something or believing some stuff. These are not real. What is real is what Abraham did – the doing is the thing not the thinking about it.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | June 10, 2010 | Reply

  3. An important observation. I wonder, however, whether the conclusion should run in the opposite direction.

    The wider context of James 2 is people who “believe that God is one” (v. 19) and think that that’s enough for them. Let others have good works if they must.

    Given that this seems to have been the problem, it might be more helpful to have this passage read:

    (23) …”Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” [Genesis 15:6] …
    (24) You see that a person is justified by works and not by believing alone.

    Of course, the difficulty here is that it is difficult to maintain consistently in the wider passage, where pistis appears repeatedly. “You have believing and I have works” is not pretty English.

    Comment by Tapani Simojoki | June 11, 2010 | Reply

    • My reply is not about the original Greek words and their intended meaning, but with modern interpretation. So, with that in mind…

      It seems to me that the faith/works debate can be blended together if we look at Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, and interpret that to mean a person is saved by faith alone, but rewarded (justified?), in addition to saved, by good works. Or said another way: You are saved by your faith in Christ, and further rewarded based on what you do with that faith.

      In this way, we have both theological camps (by faith or by works) united by understanding that both faith and works are important.

      Comment by Jason Engel | July 17, 2012 | Reply

  4. ISTM that the confusion associated with this passage has to do with the fact that Paul uses the term ERGOI with a completely different referent than does James. Same word, different meaning.

    For Paul, “works” relate specifically to the religious activities of “the law” (and don’t even get me started on NOMOS). For James, he is referring to “obedient actions.”

    Paul is not under any illusions that one can believe and thus forgo obedience, and James is under no illusions that one must believe and comply with “Torah.” These two passages are in “violent agreement.”

    But Luther was so “guinea pig like” in wanting a safe burrow that he refused any notion that a believer’s security could be related to their obedience, that he created a whole new form of antinomianism that ultimately vilified reason, obedience and judgment.

    Simply put, Luther was fanatical in his reading of “faith without works” and so have all Protestants since. James is “the voice of reason” related to the issue.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | June 11, 2010 | Reply

    • Well done! I think you have identified something very, very important. More specifically Paul is referring to the sacrificial works of the Mosaic Law (the animal sacrifices) by which those under the old covenant had their unintentional sins forgiven. Paul is countering an argument by which Jews assailed early gentile believers which went as follows: “We are members of the old covenant. Our ancestors were sprinkled with the blood of animals by Moses and we have the sacrificial works of the Mosaic Law for the forgiveness of our (unintentional) sins to justify us (make us righteous). You are not part of that covenant, how are your unintentional sins forgiven so you can been seen as righteous? … (hence you must be circumcised, etc.).” Paul’s answer to this argument is to point out that Abraham was justified by his belief in God’s words/promises and proving faithful to them before the sacrificial works of the Mosaic Law existed. Paul says that as Abraham was justified by his faith before the system of sacrificial works was instituted, so gentile (and other) believers in Christ’s words/promises can be justified apart from the sacrificial works of the Mosaic Law by having the same faith Abraham had. “Or is God a God of the Jews only?” No of the gentiles also. Hence salvation is by believing the words/promises of God and proving faithful, not by the sacrificial works of the Mosaic Law.

      This passage has been completely misunderstood as though Paul was talking about obedience with the word “works”. He is not. He is talking about the sacrificial works of the old covenant. How central is this misunderstanding to much current theology?

      Comment by Kane called Brent | August 4, 2011 | Reply

  5. Presently, l’m writing my doctoral degree dissertation on “The Biblical Concept of Faith” (in the Old and New Testaments). Right now, l’m doing a study on how translators translated the words “faith and believe” in some passages like Genesis 15:6; Habakkuk 2:4; James 2:23,24, etc when l ran into this article in the internet. It is not my intention to speak on the proper interpretation of these words here since l did not learn Hebrew nor Greek languages(l had B. Rel. Ed, M. A- Christitian Education from Theological College), but with what l’ve studied so far on the biblical concept of faith and what l’ve read written by Joel H and others’ response to it, l’m begining to wonder how many people in christendom have been decieved and held to erronous beliefs because some translators were not meticulous enough like the Jews when they were recoping the OT scriptures when they were translating the Bible. I want to throw a challenge to scholars and theologians to come up with a new translation of the bible that will correct these errors in translations, using the Masoretic text (l know some of these are already in the market, but we need to print more of these) and also l’ld like to call on Jewish Christians to rise up to this occasion as well to educate the non-Jews about the correct interpretation of the Bible especially the Old Testament. Please, let me ask, “What is the Biblical Concept of Faith in the Old and New Testaments?” . This is because there is so much confusion now because of various translations.

    Comment by Revd. Abednego O. F. Oghenekevwe | September 29, 2010 | Reply

    • 1. You have to believe that God exists and that he rewards those who diligently seek him.
      2. You have to believe God’s promises/words.
      3. You have to prove faithful by obeying God’s words in reliance upon his promises.
      4. You cannot intentionally, wilfully, defiantly disobey God knowing that is what you are doing or there no longer remains a sacrifice for your sins and you have fallen away from faith and broken God’s covenant. (See Numbers 15:22-31; Psalm 19:12-13; Hebrews 10:26-27, 28-31 for the distinction between unintentional and intentional sin – only the former has provision made for it under God’s covenants).

      Comment by Kane called Brent | August 4, 2011 | Reply

  6. ISTM that PISTEUW is just the (transient) verbal form of the noun PISTIS, akin to what we enjoy in English. I say “transient” because you believe/trust [in] something/someone, where as faith is belief/trust in something/someone.

    I think the bifurcation is spurious. (ie: I believe the dichotomy is strictly a semantic one).

    Comment by WoundedEgo | September 29, 2010 | Reply

    • By the way, I realize that strictly speaking, a true Greek transitive verb does not take a preposition, so really it is a transient and an intransitive verb, since it can take a preposition.

      But even that distinction may fall flat, if it is “have faith in God” and not “have God’s faith” – see Mark 11:22

      Mark 11:22 και αποκριθεις ο ιησους λεγει αυτοις **εχετε πιστιν θεου**

      Comment by WoundedEgo | September 30, 2010 | Reply

  7. My recent research has shown thaj in the OT the word faith means faithfulness especially when used in relation to God’s covemant relationship with Israel. While the word believe or believe in means trust in God or Christ. If it is correct that the concept of faith in the OT is carried over to the NT according to scholars then the word faith in OT and believe in the NT especially in James 2:23,24 are twin sisters; different sides of the same coin. You cannot be faithful to God if you do not believe in or trust in Him. So l think Abraham had faith in (was faithful to) God when he obeyed or acted upon God’s promises. He could not have been faithful to God if he did not trust in Him. Therefore, James 2:23,24 should be read as ‘Abraham believed in (trusted in) God by acting upon (faith or faithful to) what He said and it was accounted unto him for righteousness, … You see then that a man is justified by works(actions, faithfulness), and not by believing in (trusting in God) alone(only).’ But it is certain that works before salvation cannot save mankind. Therefore, Paul and James are not in disagreement- Paul says trust in God for salvation and James says after salvation obey God by acting on His word. Neither is the OT and NT in disagreement. Therefore, it is not enough to trust in chrit as christians, we must obey (faithful to) God as evidence of our trust in Him.

    Comment by Revd. Abednego O. F. Oghenekevwe - +2348033379736. | November 23, 2010 | Reply

  8. Wounded Ego said on Septenber 29, 2010 that pisteuw is the verbal form of the noun pistis (Is it verbal or verb form). “He” says faith is believe/trust in something/someone. The research l’ve done so far shows that the word believe or belief (mental assent) means trust or trust in while the word faith means faithfulness. In the New Testament, a preposition is added to the word believe- believe in or believe that. Here, believe in means trust in. This is not just a mental trust. It is deeper than mental trust. It is believing in Christ for salvation for instance. After salvation then what next? Any obligation for the Christian? Yes, there is. The entire NT especially Matthew 23:23-24, James 2: 23-24, and the entire Pauline epistles are doted with admonition to be faithful to God and engage in good works. So l believe that believe (in) and faith(fulness) are different sides of the same coin. Shalom! Maranatha!

    Comment by Revd. Abednego O. F. Oghenekevwe | December 5, 2010 | Reply

    • In looking again at the actual usage, I believe I mis-spoke, and withdraw my assertion. There does seem to be a very distinct character to the words (though they are not unrelated). “PISTIS” is “belief,” “PISTEUW” is “faithfulness.” I see now that Joel’s original post is very to the point.

      I apologize for any confusion I brought by my misstatement.

      Comment by bibleshockers | December 5, 2010 | Reply

    • I used to separate pistis (faith) and pisteuw (I-believe/faith), but I no longer believe that ‘to-faith’ and ‘to-believe’ mean the same thing or have the same depth. I ‘believe’ that many things are true, but I don’t ‘faith’ into all of them. Jesus said, ‘he faithing into Me will be saved/healed/made safe’. I love that He so often, especially in John, uses the participle form of the verb and the ‘into’ (eis).

      In hard times, It helps me in my walk with Him when I think, ‘I already know that I believe in HIm, but am I faithing into Him?’ It also helps by then connecting my mind with the verses that contain all the pist- rooted words: verbs (pisteuw), nouns (pistis), and adjectives (pistos).

      Comment by Diane Galvacky | February 16, 2012 | Reply

      • I really need to look at it more. I might easily be wrong. Thanks for the feedback.

        Comment by bibleshockers | February 16, 2012

  9. Okay, now I’m confused again…

    Joel, are you saying that they are the same? Or that they are different?

    Is the LXX saying, that “Abraham was faithful to God”?

    Is James saying, that “Abraham was faithful to God”?

    Or is either one saying that “Abraham had faith in God”?

    I might have to spend some time with this as it is not at all obvious how these words translate, and what they mean.

    Comment by bibleshockers | December 5, 2010 | Reply

  10. […] On James 2:23-24: Why Faith Without Works is Dead […]

    Pingback by The Year in Review « God Didn't Say That | December 31, 2010 | Reply

  11. Charles Finney wisely distinguished between the “grounds” of justification and “the conditions” thereof. The grounds are “faith” while the conditions are a confessing and forsaking of sin and return to obedience, along with confessing “Christos” before men. “Walking worthy” was a condition, but not the “ground” of justification. One is justified (has their sins forgiven) on the basis (and on this basis/ground alone) of one’s faith, but ON CONDITION that one repents, is baptized, obeys, etc.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | July 17, 2012 | Reply


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