Previously, we saw that a copyist’s mistake – accidentally skipping forward from one set of letters to an identical, or similar, set of letters – appears to have caused the loss of the word “murders” in Galatians 5:21: in the course of a list in which several words end with the same letters, φόνοι (murders) was lost in an early transmission-line, having appeared immediately after φθόνοι (envyings).
Elsewhere in the New Testament text, the visual similarity between φθόνοι and φόνοι raised a question for a scholar in the early 1500’s – the famous Desiderius Erasmus. Others have already described the remarkable career of this Roman Catholic scholar and author, whose research fueled the Protestant Reformation. Let’s look at what he wrote about the second verse of the fourth chapter of the Epistle of James, in the notes he wrote about his printed compilation of the Greek text of the New Testament.
Before we do that, though, let’s get to know this verse. James – not James the son of Zebedee, but James who was called one of the brothers of Jesus; the James who presided at the church council in Acts 15 – wrote to this effect in 4:2, addressing the problem of covetousness and conflict in the church:
“Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war; yet ye have not, because ye ask not.” – KJV (Authorized)
Here is the verse in more modern terms (from the 1973 New International Version):
“You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God.”
Some folks might consider the 1973 NIV to be an antique, so let’s also consult the text of the new Christian Standard Bible (
“You desire and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and wage war. You do not have because you do not ask.”
That is, however, not quite the same meaning that we find in the latest edition of the English Standard Version (
ESV), which gives a cause-and-effect structure to the verse’s clauses:
“You desire and do not have, so you commit murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask.”
CSB, and ESV
are all translating the same Greek text of verse 2, which is, without
punctuation: Ἐπιθυμεῖτε καὶ οὐκ ἔχετε
φονεύετε καὶ ζηλοῦτε καὶ οὐ δύνασθε ἐπιτυχεῖν μάχεσθε καὶ πολεμεῖτε οὐκ ἔχετε
διὰ τὸ μὴ αἰτεῖσθαι ὑμᾶς.
That is also how the words appear in the Byzantine Text, in the NA/UBS text, and in the family-35 text compiled by Wilbur Pickering. The Textus Receptus, the KJV’s base-text, has a minority reading: it includes δέ in the last part of the verse, between ἔχετε and διὰ; this is represented by “yet” in the KJV.
|Erasmus' Annotations on James 4:1-4|
Jan Krans described and translated that statement from Erasmus, and provided Erasmus’ Latin text of it, in his interesting book, Beyond What Is Written: Erasmus and Beza as Conjectural Critics ofthe New Testament (© 2006 Kononklijke Brill NV,
The Netherlands). Dr. Krans also reported that during the Reformation-period,
Erasmus’ theory was very widely accepted.
Although the first edition of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament, the 1516 Novum Instrumentum, read φονεύετε (you kill), in the second edition (1519),
Erasmus placed φθονεῖτε (you are envious)
in the text.
|James 4:1ff., from a 1558 |
edition of Erasmus'
Greek and Latin text.
Because Martin Luther used the second edition of Erasmus’ compilation as the basis for his 1522 German translation, Luther’s translation of James 4:2a accordingly says, “Ihr seid begierig, und erlanget’s damit nicht; ihr hasset und neidet, und gewinnet damit nichts; ihr streitet und krieget.”
For the third edition, and thereafter, Erasmus re-adopted the extant text, and φονεύετε was printed. Nevertheless, in his own Latin translation that was printed alongside the Greek text, the word “invidetis” (“You are envious”) was retained instead of the Vulgate’s term “occiditis.”
John Calvin accepted Erasmus’ idea; Krans reports that Calvin wrote as follows: “While some manuscripts have φονεύετε, I do not doubt that φθονεῖτε must be read, as I have rendered, for the verb ‘to kill’ can in no way be applied to the context.” (The statement, in Latin, is in Ioannis Calvino Opera Quae Supersunt Omnia, Volume 33, part 415, edited by Baum, Cunitz, and Reuss.)
Thus it is no surprise to find that in the 1557 Geneva Bible, James 4:2 read as follows: “Ye luste, and haue not : ye enuie, and have indignation, and can not obtayne : ye fight and warre, and gayne not, because ye aske not.” [Emphasis added. Bear in mind that “v” and “u” were fairly interchangeable in the old font; “ye envy” is what is meant.]
In 1582, a group of Roman Catholic scholars translated the Rheims New Testament (named after the city in France where it was made), based on the Vulgate. They used part of the introduction to their work to explain why it was based on the Vulgate instead of on a Greek base-text. In the course of that introduction, one of the things they pointed out was that the Vulgate generally agreed with the Greek manuscripts, and that at this particular point – James 4:2 – it did so better than the Greek compilations used by their Protestant adversaries. “Beza,” they stated (referring to the Protestant scholar Theodore Beza, who issued multiple editions of Greek and Latin compilations in the second half of the 1500’s), “correcteth the Greeke text also as false.” Beza’s Greek text retained φονεύετε but his Latin text, like Erasmus’ Latin version, read “invidetis” instead of “occiditis.”
All Greek manuscripts of James that have been discovered since Erasmus’ time have supported φονεύετε (except for a note in the margin of minuscule 918; this note was probably made by someone in the 1500’s who read Erasmus’ second edition and jotted down the variant from the printed text). Nevertheless, for many years, Novum Testamentum Graece, the compilation-series begun by Eberhard Nestle, included a note mentioning Erasmus’ proposal that James 4:2 might have originally read φθονεῖτε instead of φονεύετε. In the recent 28th edition, however, this longstanding custom was abandoned; no conjectural emendations were included in the new apparatus. (This is rather ironic, since the editors of the 28th edition demonstrated their willingness to put a theoretical Greek variant into the text, doing so at Second Peter 3:10.) However, if an ancient Greek manuscript of the Epistle of James should ever happen to be discovered that read φθονεῖτε in 4:2, some translators might consider putting it in the text, or at least adding a footnote to mention it.
A closing note: all this should remind us that φθόνοι and φόνοι are similar not only in their letters but in their essence; envy is close to murder. Let each believer desire to receive whatever it is that God desires for him to receive, and no more nor less than that. With that resolve to trust the wisdom of God, each of us may find joy in the gifts God has prepared for him, and each will rejoice with those who rejoice in what God has prepared for them.
Scripture quotations marked “
are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible,
English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry
of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
The 1973 NIV is Copyright © 1973 by New York Bible Society International, published by The Zondervan Corporation.
Scripture quotations marked CSB have been taken from the Christian Standard Bible®, Copyright © 2017 by Holman Bible Publishers. Used by permission. Christian Standard Bible® and CSB® are federally registered trademarks of Holman Bible Publishers.