James' "Missing Quote"
Of James 4:5, Albert Barnes wrote in his commentary: “Few passages of the New Testament have given expositors more perplexity than this” (1972, p. 70). Those hostile to Christianity often try to find anything they can to discredit the Bible. The slightest “discrepancy” or “contradiction” is considered as solid proof that the Bible is inaccurate and therefore unreliable. The passage in James 4:5 is one such instance where skeptics and infidels have taken a verse and tried to use it to discredit the Scriptures. In context, the passage reads as follows (the section in bold type is the particular portion in question):
Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God. Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy? But he giveth more grace. Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble. Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you (James 4:4-7, KJV).
Unfaithful creatures! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is in vain that the scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit which he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives more grace; therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you (James 4:4-7, RSV, emp. added).
The KJV and RSV separate this verse into two sections. The first introduces a supposed quote with the phrase “the scripture says,” and draws attention to the second section, which seems to highlight the quotation either via quotation marks (as in the RSV) or by capitalizing the first word of the quote (as in the KJV). According to those attempting to discredit the Bible, this verse “proves” that the Bible is false since the supposed quotation is found nowhere in scripture. If it is true that there is a missing quote in the Bible, then some would perceive it as bringing into doubt the validity of the book of James. If the Bible is called into question, then Christianity’s foundation crumbles. So there is a need to answer such charges brought against the inspired Word of God.
With careful study and consideration, it appears that the reason for this alleged controversy is very simple: when correctly translated and taken in context, it seems that James apparently did not intend for the second half of the verse to be taken as a direct quotation from the Old Testament. The translations provided by the King James Version, Revised Standard Version, and others that render the verse as a quotation are inaccurate.
Such a suggestion raises the question as to what the correct translation is for the passage. Several solutions have been presented, with the most likely being that James did not intend to quote a specific verse, but instead was referring to ideas and concepts found throughout the Old Testament. In his commentary on the books of Hebrews and James, R.C.H. Lenski wrote:
Many pages have been written regarding the different interpretations of v. 5 and the discussions of these interpretations. We confine ourselves to two points. We are not convinced that the question is a formula of quotation. Such a formula has never been used: “Do you think that the Scripture speaks in an empty way?” If a quotation were to follow, we should certainly expect the addition “saying that.” What follows has never been verified as being a quotation; nothing like it has been found in any writing as all admit. The fact that the Scripture does not speak in an empty way refers to v. 4 which presents as a teaching of Scripture the truth that friendship of the world is enmity against God, etc. The idea is not that this is a quotation, but that it is a teaching of Scripture and by no means empty (1966, p. 631, emp. in orig.).
The late Guy N. Woods supported the idea of James’ reference being, not to a specific quote, but rather to a general concept within the Old Testament writings. He cited Genesis 6:3-7, Exodus 29:5, Deuteronomy 32:1-21, Job 5:12, Ecclesiastes 4:4, and Proverbs 27:4 as verses where the thought behind James 4:5 is conveyed (1972, p. 214). Several commentators believe that James’ statement represents a “condensation” of the Old Testament instead of an exact quotation. This seems to best fit the context of the verse, and solves the problem of the “missing quote.”
James Coffman offered another possibility along the same line. He suggested that the verse is referring to the New Testament writings, particularly those of Paul, instead of those from the Old Testament (1984, p. 87). However, it seems highly unlikely that, as Coffman maintains, James’ comment refers to the Pauline epistles, since New Testament Scripture is referenced only twice—once where Paul (in 1 Timothy 5:18) quotes the words of Christ as written by Luke in Luke 10:7, and once where Peter (in 2 Peter 3:15-16) mentions as a whole the writings of Paul. The rest of the scriptural citations in the New Testament come from the Old Testament, except for a quote from an Athenian poet in Acts 17:28, and a quote from a now-lost hymn or poem in Ephesians 5:14.
Whether it is a reference to Old or New Testament concepts, the KJV and RSV do a poor job of translating the verse. Greek scholar J.W. Roberts was right in saying that the 1901 American Standard Version provides the closest match to the correct meaning (1977, p. 129).
Ye adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? Whosoever therefore would be a friend of the world maketh himself an enemy of God. Or think ye that the scripture speaketh in vain? Doth the spirit which he made to dwell in us long unto envying? But he giveth more grace. Wherefore the scripture saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble. Be subject therefore unto God; but resist the devil, and he will flee from you (James 4:4-7, ASV, emp. added).
Hugo McCord, in his independent translation of the New Testament, rendered James 4:5 very much like the American Standard Version, with a slight updating of language. His translation reads: “Do you think that the scripture speaks emptily? Does the Spirit living in us lust to envy?” (1988, p. 442).
Regardless of which version is used, it appears that James did not intend this verse to be taken as a quotation. The most likely answer is that James did indeed refer to ideas and thoughts expressed in the Old Testament, rather than quoting a specific verse.
Barnes, Albert (1972 reprint), Barnes’ Notes—James, Peter, John, and Jude (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Coffman, James Burton (1984), Commentary on James, 1 & 2 Peter, 1, 2 & 3 John, Jude (Abilene, TX: ACU Press).
Lenski, R.C.H. (1966), The Interpretation of the Epistle to the Hebrews and of the Epistle of James (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg).
McCord, Hugo (1988), McCord’s New Testament Translation of the Everlasting Gospel (Henderson, TN: Freed-Hardeman College).
Roberts, J.W. (1977), The Letter of James (Austin, TX: Sweet).
Woods, Guy N. (1972), A Commentary on the Epistle of James (Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate).