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James, Proverbs, language, envy, biblical interpretation


Although a few interpreters have noted in passing the numerous verbal links between James 3:13–4:10 and LXX Prov 3:21–35, James’ passage is regularly read as a polemic against jealousy that is most at home within Hellenistic moral literature. This paper argues that the literary and thematic coherence of James 3:13–4:10 derives not primarily from the Hellenistic topos on envy (so Luke Timothy Johnson) but from metaleptic interplay with Prov 3:21–35. That is, the explicit appeal to “the scripture” in James 4:5 and the citation of Prov 3:34 in James 4:6 indicate that the tropes usually interpreted against the backdrop of Hellenistic moral literature (friendship, violence, etc.) resonate more naturally within the “cave” of Proverbs 3. Like many passages in sapiential literature (e.g., Prov 14:1, 19; 4Q416 2ii11; 4Q418 8,12; Wis 1:9-12; Sir 9:1-11), Jas 3:13-4:10 foregrounds the language of “jealousy” to expose the tragedy of bad ζῆ��ος. In trying to locate parallels to James’ usage in Hellenistic writings, interpreters have failed to appreciate how the movement from ζῆ��ος in James 3:14, 16, and 4:2 to φθόνος in 4:5 simply resonates with a description found already in Isocrates: an envious person (φθόνος) is one whose good emulation (ζῆ��ος) has degenerated into jealous imitation because of unfulfilled desires. More significant than the particular semantic choices, then, is that James’ usage mimics the way Prov 3:31 links קנאה/ζῆ��ος with the neglect of the needy, distorted friendship, and emulating the ways of evil/violent people (Prov 3:27, 29, 31). Using this wisdom motif from Prov 3:21–35 as the interpretive lens for James 3:13–4:10 lends further support to a growing consensus about the notorious interpretive crux in James 4:5; namely, (1) that the formula in 4:5 does not introduce a citation of an unknown text, and (2) that it is the human spirit (rather than God’s) that is characterized by “envy” (φθόνος).


Presentation delivered at the annual Society of Biblical Literature conference in Atlanta, Georgia, in November 2015.