The following is an excerpt from William Varner, James: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Fontes, 2017), 17-20. Also check out Varner’s James Greek Reading Videos for a visual, guided tour through the epistle.

One of the classic commentators on James offered the following opinion about the author’s style: “If we are asked to characterize in a few words the more general qualities of St. James’ style, as they impress themselves on the attentive reader, perhaps these would be best summed up in the terms, energy, vivacity, and, as conducive to both, vividness of representation” (Mayor, ccxxix). No one familiar with the Greek text of James would disagree with Mayor’s remark about the way our author employs the Greek language in this letter, but nothing is as simple as it appears. Some have questioned that a “Galilean peasant” with no formal education could have written at the level of Greek in the book (Dibelius, 34–38).

What exactly do writers mean when they affirm that James used a more literary Greek than would be expected of a Galilean? And why do we think that a Galilean would write in a less literary style than a Jerusalemite? The labors of scholars like Martin Hengel have showed conclusively that all of first-century Israel, from Judea to the Galilee, was Hellenized. It was not a question about which residents in first-century Israel were Hellenized and which ones were not. All were Hellenized. The only question was how far along the continuum a person was considered as Hellenized.

N. Sevenster’s 1968 work Do You Know Greek? settled the question in many minds about whether a first-century Galilean could have written at the level of the Greek language found in James.[1] Alas, some writers still occasionally bring forward the old idea about James and the Greek language that we should expect him to use. The arguments of Sevenster, Hengel, and more recent scholars have established the point that there is nothing in James that a first-century Galilean who had any contact with the world around him would not be expected to know.[2]

Many of these critics seem to forget that Nazareth, although a small town, was only a couple of miles north of the ancient Via Maris, the most important international highway in the Middle East, and one of the most important thoroughfares in the entire ancient world! Recent excavations at Sepphoris, just two miles distant from Nazareth in the other direction, reveal that this town was a thoroughly Hellenistic center where Gentile Roman/Greeks with their theaters and mosaics of pagan scenes coexisted with a flourishing Jewish culture. Nazareth existed in the hub of a very thorough Hellenistic milieu. Who are we moderns to conclude anything about the literary knowledge of a skilled craftsman family who no doubt had business contacts within this culture? To express it colloquially, it should be stated clearly that Joseph and Jesus and James were not country bumpkins!

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Nevertheless, we should question what writers actually mean when they speak of the higher literary or even classical style of James. The first thing that strikes the Greek beginner in translating James is the larger vocabulary of the book, but if we recognize the peculiar register of the Greek, the larger vocabulary makes perfect sense. Probably more than any writer after the Synoptics, James constantly uses examples and illustrations from nature and the mercantile arts. This would demand a specialized vocabulary, but that does not mean that the vocabulary is somehow higher in its literary style! Different and even rare vocabulary words need only imply that the subjects discussed are simply different.

Some comments about James’ elevated, and even classical, style simply betray a misunderstanding of the difference between Classical Greek and literary Koine Greek. One of the characteristics that distinguish Classical Greek from Koine Greek is the former’s preference for using the periodic sentence—a complex sentence that involves more than the expected, or even required, number of subordinate clauses. Students who have translated the most classical of the NT books, Hebrews, know the unbelievably complex sentences they have to unravel. A personal favorite example is Hebrews 7:1–3, where the subject introduced at the beginning—“For this Melchizedek …” (Οὗτος γὰρ ὁ Μελχισέδεκ)—is then followed by more than a dozen subordinate clauses and appositional statements (7:1b–3a) before the predicate of that subject appears at the end of verse 3: “abides as a priest continually” (μένει ἱερεὺς εἰς τὸ διηνεκές). This characteristic of literary Greek, whether Attic or Hellenistic, is almost totally lacking in James.

To the contrary, the Letter of James is known for simple sentences with few subordinate clauses that are combined with a large use of asyndeton (lack of conjunctions). Out of the total number of 108 verses in the entire work, the author uses approximately 140 sentences that contain not a single finite subordinate verb. He employs only forty sentences that contain a single subordinate clause. He also employs only seven sentences that contain two subordinate clauses, plus only three sentences with more than two subordinate clauses. “James makes small use of subordinating particles, never doubles the relative, never uses genitive absolute, does not accumulate prepositions, or use the epexegetic infinitive—in a word, he never allows his principal sentence to be lost in the rank luxuriance of the subordinate clauses” (Turner 4, 118). This pales in comparison with the large number of complex sentences utilized by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews. Such a comparison is quite justified since both works share a common hortatory thrust. The clipped style of James would strike horror in an Attic rhetorician, but it is that very forceful, direct style that has endeared James to so many readers.

This simple and straightforward style, however, is anything but pedantic and boring. James can employ such tropes as alliteration (the use of π- in 1:2, 11, 17, 22) and wordplay (the use of ἔργων over against ἀργή [ἀ + ἔργων] in 2:20). Although obviously it is a written document, this colorful and rhetorically vibrant message seems more like an impassioned homily than the polished deliverance of an Attic Greek rhetorician.

Another word to describe the Greek style of James is its “energy” (Mayor, 277, to whom I am indebted for some of the following points). What James writes, he writes forcibly, with the style of one who is absolutely convinced of the truth and of the importance of his message. There is a great economy in his words with little or no circumlocution. Yet he often displays a poetic imagination (such as his description of the tongue in chapter 3). His tirades against sin (5:1–6) can be compared to the most powerful of the OT prophetic diatribes. These attacks, however, can be softened but not blunted by the gentler influence of that wisdom that is from above (3:13–18). In its rugged abruptness and brevity of its phrases, however, James’ language is almost unique among the writings of the NT. Note the biting irony in the words he uses to confront those who trust only in an orthodox creed: σὺ πιστεύεις ὅτι εἷς ἐστὶν ὁ Θεός· καλῶς ποιεῖς· καὶ τὰ δαιμόνια πιστεύουσιν καὶ φρίσσουσιν (“You believe that God is one? You are doing well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!”). The well-known irony utilized by Paul in 2 Corinthians is the only real comparison with the energy of the language of James. For example, in James 5:1–6 the tarnishing of precious metals witnesses to the defrauding of the day laborer and they eat as a canker at the very heart of these landed oppressors of the poor. While we may still be uncertain of its exact meaning, who can resist the energy in the abrupt yet powerful end to the passage: κατεδικάσατε, ἐφονεύσατε τὸν δίκαιον· οὐκ ἀντιτάσσεται ὑμῖν? (“You have condemned; you have murdered the righteous person. Does He not oppose you?”).

Perhaps this almost contradictory combination of simplicity of language with profundity of style is what has contributed to making this epistle such a favorite among lay Christian readers.

Buy James now and read the rest of the introduction. Also check out Varner’s James Greek Reading Videos for a visual, guided tour through the epistle.

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[1] J. N. Sevenster, Do You Know Greek? How Much Greek Could the First Jewish Christians Have Known? (NovTSup 19; Leiden: Brill, 1968). Sevenster illustrated how first century Galilee and even Judea were thoroughly Hellenized in language and culture and how it would be normal for a Galilean to be capable in the Greek language.

[2] For additional studies of the Greek in James and in first-century Galilee, see  A.W. Argyle, “Greek among the Jews of Palestine in New Testament Times,” NTS 20 (1973–74) 87–89; Martin Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism: Studies in Their Encounter in Palestine during the Early Hellenistic Period. Trans. J. Bowden. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974;  and S. E. Porter, “Jesus and the Use of Greek in Galilee,” in Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research, eds. B. D. Chilton and C. A. Evans (NTTS 19; Leiden: Brill, 1994), 123–54.