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James, when making the argument that faith without works is dead, makes this statement:

James 2:18-19 (ESV)
18  But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19  You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!

In the ESV, it sounds like James is describing a bad argument that someone may make based on his previous statements. The expectation would be for him to correct it, but he seems to agree with it. The language doesn't make sense to me, so perhaps I am missing something.

However, in the NASB, we have

James 2:18-19 (NASB)
18  But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” 19  You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.

Here the quotation is extended one extra sentence, and the word "well" is added. This seems to change the meaning from the ESV completely, and makes the argument coherent. Here James isn't describing a bad argument that someone may make - he is describing something that someone may correctly say. Thus there is no need to refute it.

What are the justifications for the differences in the translations, and how should this passage be translated?

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Related: Who is speaking in James 2:18? – Soldarnal May 31 '12 at 15:15

7 Answers 7

I wrote a paper on James 2:14-26 a few years back.

Here's a link.


14: What (is) the benefit, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? That faith is not able to save them (is it)?

15: Suppose a brother or a sister is naked and lacking of daily bread,

16: and someone from you (pl.) says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be fed,” but does not give to them what is needed for the body, what is the benefit?

17: Likewise also faith, if it does not have works is dead unto itself.

18: But someone will say you have faith, likewise I have works. Show me the faith of you apart from works, likewise I will show to you by my works my faith.

19: You believe that God is one – you do well. Even the demons believe (that) and tremble.

20: And do you want to know, o empty person, that faith apart from works is workless?

21: Was not Abraham our father by works justified having offered Isaac his son upon the altar?

22: You (sing.) see that faith was working together with his works and faith was completed by works,

23: and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “And Abraham trusted God and it was counted to him as righteousness” and he was called friend of God.

24: You (pl.) see that by works a person is justified and not by faith alone.

25: In the same manner was not Rahab the prostitute also by works justified having received the messengers and (by) another road sent them away?

26: For as the body apart from (the) spirit is dead, likewise also faith apart from works is dead.

The "Imaginary Interlocutor"

(pages 22-24 in the paper)

Where does the diatribe with the imaginary interlocutor that begins in v. 18 end?

An imaginary “someone” (τις) addresses James in v. 18. In doing this James has introduced a dialog with a straw man (an interlocutor) as his chosen form of diatribe. We can assume that at some point James responds to this interlocutor with a rebuttal otherwise it would be a failed attempt to “demolish an opposing argument” (Dowd, “Faith” in Expositor, 198). We can also assume that at some point James ends this “back-and-forth” with this interlocutor since v. 26 is clearly a summary and Jas. 3:1 represents a significant shift in thought.

The first interpretive method takes vv. 18-25 as a unit that represents one argument between James and the interlocutor. This is Burdick’s chosen method of interpretation as he sees Rahab’s example of faith as complementary to Abraham’s and therefore subsumed into the argument with the interlocutor (Burdick, James, 185). Blue also seems to endorse this interpretation though it may be that he finds the end of the diatribe exegetically insignificant and instead chooses to focus on the examples (Blue, James, 826).

While taking the two examples as a single unit seems to be the logical decision there is a significant clue in the Greek text that helps determine the end of the diatribe. Whereas, beginning in v. 18, the verbs of direct address are all singular, James shifts his attention to the audience with “You see …” (ὁρᾶτε). Many commentators are quick to pick up on this transition and point to the shift in attention (Moo, James, 114; Adamson, James, 132; Davids, James, 78).

Thus it seems that James’ intent was to address an anticipated objection with this diatribe and used Abraham’s example to rebuff the objection and derive the theological principle found in vv. 22-23. But why would the example of Abraham’s faith adequately rebuff the objection of the interlocutor but not that of the very real audience? Perhaps James anticipated objections that Abraham is a difficult example to follow and used the example of Rahab to give the congregation no excuse to not act on faith.

Does the imaginary interlocutor agree or disagree with James?

Most modern English versions translate the phrase in v.18, “You have faith and I have works.” as the end of the interlocutor’s statement to James. The NASB, however, takes all of v. 18 as the statement made by this person. Some commentators even take all of v. 19 as the end of the interlocutor’s challenge (Blue, “James” in Bible Knowledge Commentary, 826). Because ancient manuscripts did not come with quotation marks and (as at least one Greek professor proclaims) punctuation in the UBS is not inspired, we are left to discern the most likely flow of this diatribe.

McCartney provides an excellent summary of the suggestions of how to view this exchange. They are: (1) make textual alterations, (2) view the interlocutor as an ally supporting James, (3) attribute only σὺ πίστιν ἔχεις to the interlocutor and reframe it as a question (“Do you have faith?”), (4) with the NASB that all of 2:18-19 should be attributed to the interlocutor who is a “Paulinist,” (5) partial ally who is presenting a non-Christian Jewish perspective, (6) use the Byzantine Text and read all of 18-19 as the interlocutor’s words translated as “Show me your faith by your works” instead of “…without works,” (7) accept that James simply confused the grammar accidentally, and (8) abstract the faith of “you” and “I” to a concept that separates different “types” of faith that vary from person to person (McCartney, James, 158-160). Blomberg and Kamell add that all of verse 18 could be indirect discourse in which James is rephrasing “the opponent’s statement … from his own side.” (Blomberg and Kamell, James, 134).

Dowd agrees with option 4 while McCartney with 8 (Dowd, “Faith” in Expositor, 198; McCartney, James, 160). Davids seems split between 8 and 2 (Davids, James, 76) but option 2 does not properly consider the tone that James carries throughout the discourse with the “invective apostrophe” in v. 20 (Dowd, 200) and the strong adversative (Ἀλλ’) with which James starts the diatribe. Option 1 seems the least preferred by most (Davids, 76; McCartney, 158) and McCartney seems to categorize 3, 5, 6, and 7 as exegetical leaps (McCartney, 158-160). Option 4 is certainly viable but depends more on lexical studies than literary studies. McKnight ultimately lands on option 8 but supports this position by assuming a Christian challenger who believes that faith and works are two different aspects of the Christian life whereas James views them as inseparable (McKnight, “Unidentifiable Interlocutor,” in WTJ, 358, 361-2). But option 8 suffers from the weakness that it would be an extremely awkward method of trying to use abstract concepts of “someone” and “someone else.” (Blomberg and Kamell, James, 133; Davids, 76).

Brosend finds no acceptable solution and believes that any attempts to decipher 18a by using 18b are futile because he detects sarcasm in James’ challenge to “show” or “demonstrate” faith since it is clear that James believes that works are the “showing” or “demonstration” of faith (Brosend, James, 74). While it seems that Brosend’s lament is valid, the most satisfying explanation to date is the Blomberg and Kamell solution that James has rephrased the stance of his opponent to make himself the subject of the statement. This solution also allows for “someone” (tis) in v. 18 to parallel in v. 16 both literarily (word repetition) and conceptually (attitude repetition).

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I guess I prefer something of a courtroom setting (which is legitimate, given the context of the συναγωγὴν, "assembly") in which James believes he has concluded his argument in v. 23 and turns to the "audience" in the synagogue (v. 24) explaining the implications of his conclusion/justification to explain justification by faith AND works in the "real-world" example of Rahab. Abraham refutes the theological objection, Rahab refutes the practical, "everyman" objection on the same principle. – swasheck Jun 11 '12 at 22:50
+1 slow clap. This is the best analysis of these verses I've ever read. – Dan Apr 12 '13 at 18:17
good example of 'what we are looking for in a good answer'. – Mike Apr 13 '13 at 2:34
thanks @Mike - i appreciate that – swasheck Apr 13 '13 at 4:30
I'm going to study your paper more, but wanted to thank you for this. I also wanted to suggest that the interlocutor model occurs in various places in James. I find it helpful to imagine that James is having this read at the synagogue, and when he has adversarial conversations, that is the nature of the dialogue at the Temple. This would be similar to the model Jesus demonstrated, of preaching among the "competing" Rabbis, and I think that is what James was doing. See also James 3:13-16. – Heath Hunnicutt Sep 17 '13 at 17:22

You might be interested in Zane Hodges' interpretation of this verse, as presented in his books The Gospel Under Siege, The Epistle of James: Proven Character Through Testing, and in The Grace New Testament Commentary.

Basically, Hodges says that the objector's response goes from vv 18-19, and it is meant to be a reductio ad absurdum. Here is how he translates it:

**But someone will say:

"You have faith and I have works. Show me your faith from your works, and I will show you, from my works, my faith. You believe that there is one God; you do well. The demons also believe, and tremble."**

Whereas James has proposed that there is an integral connection between faith and works, the objector denies it. But for the sake of argument he is willing to grant the premise and challenges James to show his faith by his works, and he will do the same. In order to show that such a demonstration is futile, the objector offers an analogy between believers and demons. While James recites the Shema and lives a good life (does well), the demons believe the same thing, but live in sin and tremble at the judgment that awaits them. The implication is, there is no connection between one's faith and one's works.

I highly recommend Hodges' books.

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These verses are all about cultural context and considering that the written book of James was intended to be read aloud; it is an address.

I agree quite a bit with the answer of swasheck, but my translation would differ as follows:

The τις of 2:18 could refer to a straw man, but that straw man would be a close facsimile to his living contemporary Rabbis (not Paul) who were preaching in the same synagogues as him.

In other words, I would translate the verse as this:

James 2:18

However, should anyone be saying that you [anyone] have faith, while I [James] am having works, then show to me the faith of you, without the actions of you, and I will show you the faith of mine, out of my actions.

So James is being rhetorical and he means, of course, that faith without work is dead. To rephrase what James is saying to his imaginary person:

"Ok, you show me your faith without any works to show and I will show you my works so that you will see my faith."

The idea is that clearly James is going to produce a better display of faith, by showing works. The counter-party who attempts to show pure faith without actions will surely have difficulty making the better demonstration.

James even covers the logical incongruity that, yes, sometimes pure faith does result in the better demonstration, through God's miraculous answers to prayer. James points out that Elijah prayed a lot, and that praying counts as works. James recommends praying alone and together for both mundane and miraculous (in modern terms) results.

On the other hand, James makes it clear that Abraham and Rahab were reckoned friends of Yahweh, and had their prayers answered by Him, because of their works for Him. Abraham worked for Yahweh at his request. Rahab was wise and volunteered to His service, saving her family at Jericho. (Which OT history, btw, has recently received archaeological backing.) So I speculate James would also stipulate that Elijah got his faithful prayers answered due to the devotions and services he had performed for God.

It was said that James was called "Camel Knees" because he spent so much time on his knees praying.

(The words "ek twn" for "out of" ([my actions]) mean "stemming from" and establish causality here and also in James 4:1.)

To what community his address was directed during that verse is a project I am working on. He's not talking to Paul, he's talking to local people who would hear his address. Paul was away travelling when James wrote most of this, and he wrote to a non-Pauline audience which included Hellenized Jews. Those Hellenized Jews included both those who accepted that Jesus was Christ, who followed James, and those who did not, and lived in the same city.

This was the time and place of the beginning of the name "Christianity"1, and the "Christians" were worshipping at the synagogue. (see James 3:1. Literally: "synagogue")

I'll update this when I'm further along in my project.

1That the context is the dawn of the name "Christianity" is implied in James 2:7. That the Christians were worshipping at the synagogue is stated in at least 2:2, 3:1 and implied elsewhere.

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This is Knox's translation from the Vulgate:

14 Of what use is it, my brethren, if a man claims to have faith, and has no deeds to shew for it? Can faith save him then? 15 Here is a brother, here is a sister, going naked, left without the means to secure their daily food; 16 if one of you says to them, Go in peace, warm yourselves and take your fill, without providing for their bodily needs, of what use is it? 17 Thus faith, if it has no deeds to shew for itself, has lost its own principle of life. 18 We shall be inclined to say to him, Thou hast faith, but I have deeds to shew. Shew me this faith of thine without any deeds to prove it, and I am prepared, by my deeds, to prove my own faith . . .

This is the best translation I can find of this passage. James is responding to the hypothetical man mentioned in verse 14 who claims to have faith but has no works. A hypothetical retort begins in James 2:18 and continues to the end of verse 23. At the beginning of verse 24, the second person singular changes to the second person plural, indicating that James is no longer speaking to the hypothetical man mentioned in verse 14 but to the audience.

The error people make is that they assume that the words "But someone may say" introduce an objection. However, they do not. They introduce the words of someone who agrees with James, and the words of this ally continue to the end of the chapter.

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It seems painfully obvious to me that all of verses 18-19 should be attributed to an objector and not to James. This is comparable with these passages:

Romans 9:19-20 (ESV)
19  You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20  But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?”

1 Corinthians 15:35-36 (ESV)
35  But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” 36  You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.

The James passage matches that diatribe pattern of introducing an objector, quoting him, insulting him, and finally responding to him. The objector is trying to prove that since:

  1. James believes in the unity of God and does good works but
  2. demons believe in the unity of God and don't do good works, therefore
  3. belief and actions are unrelated, so we can do whatever we want with no fear of consequences.

James replies that faith, when there are no good works accompanying it, is dead and doesn't profit you anything in this life.

I can't figure out how so many translators and interpreters have gotten this so wrong. The only translation I can find that includes quotation marks and places them in the correct location is Weymouth.

James 2:18-19 (WEY)
Nay, some one will say, "You have faith, I have actions: prove to me your faith apart from corresponding actions and I will prove mine to you by my actions. You believe that God is one, and you are quite right: evil spirits also believe this, and shudder."

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Thanks, very interesting answer. Can you elaborate? It seems to me that if v 18-19 are attributed to an objector, the objector's argument would be along the lines of "Actions are important, and belief in God is not", in which case his refutation in the subsequent verses wouldn't make sense. The objector says "I have actions", and I'm having difficulty seeing how he is arguing "we can do whatever we want" – Eric Apr 12 '13 at 14:39
Punctuation is not part of the original text and the grammar of the source text lends itself to a degree of speculation. Please cut the weasel words "painfully" and "obvious" and the other filler ("I can't figure out ...") and shore up this answer a bit. You've missed a significant portion of the debate. – swasheck Apr 12 '13 at 16:35
Could you add the verses to your final quote of James that follow the pattern of insult and response that you mention? I would, but I'm not sure if you want just verse 20 or beyond it. Thank you! – Frank Luke Apr 12 '13 at 17:10

The key to understanding this very difficult verse in James, and therefore for providing a proposed clarifying translation, is found in Genesis 15:6, which alludes to Abraham's faith as the basis of righteousness. When we compare the citations of Genesis 15:6 to other places in the Bible where this verse is quoted, then we will be better able to understand the nuances of “faith” in the Book of James.

Genesis 15:6 (NASB)
6 Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.

In Genesis 15:6, the “it” comes from the feminine pronoun (verb suffix), which is the object of the Hebrew verb. In the Christian New Testament, we see that this “it” is faith. That is, the Lord reckoned “faith” to Abraham as righteousness (Romans 4:9). The Hebrew word for faith (אֱמוּנָה) is feminine, and therefore readers of the Hebrew Bible inferred that the unidentified feminine pronoun in Genesis 15:6 was therefore “faith” (as noted in Romans 4:9). Thus the Lord reckoned/imputed faith to Abraham as righteousness.

Now here is the major twist in the Christian New Testament.

To start, Genesis 15:6 is mentioned in Romans 4:22, but in this instance there is no relevant referent in the Hebrew Bible. That is, Paul mentions Genesis 15:6 in the context of Romans 4:19-22, when Abraham proceeded to sire Isaac. In the Hebrew Bible there is NO MENTION that Abraham's act of siring of Isaac was ever reckoned/imputed as righteousness, but Paul ascribes it as such in Romans 4:19-22, when he happens to quote Genesis 15:6 in the context of siring Isaac. In other words, Paul is “stretching” Genesis 15:6 to include Abraham siring Isaac as an act of faith. So Abraham’s “faith” was not just believing the words of the Lord as articulated in the Abrahamic Covenant, but in actually acting out his faith in siring Isaac. The Apostle Paul therefore bifurcated Genesis 15:6 to mean not only that Abraham believed the Lord (Romans 4:1-4), but that he actually acted out his faith when he subsequently sired Isaac (Romans 4:19-22).

Another example will illustrate.

In the Book of Numbers, we read that Phinehas plunged a spear through the Israelite and the Midianite, who were in the act of copulation in the immediate vicinity of the Tabernacle of the Lord (Numbers 25:7-8). This moral outrage (or “jealousy”) was imputed to Phinehas as righteousness. That is, the exact same Hebrew words that appeared in Genesis 15:6 to refer to Abraham, now appear in Psalm 106:31 in direct reference to Phinehas.

Psalm 106:31 (NASB)
31 And it was reckoned to him for righteousness,
To all generations forever.

But there is a slight difference between Genesis 15:6 and Psalm 106:31. In Genesis 15:6, the verb חָשַׁב is in the Qal, which is active voice, and so the Lord (active voice) imputed/reckoned Abraham’s faith to him as righteousness. But here in Psalm 106:31, the same Hebrew verb is in the Hifal, which is passive, and so the act of faith (moral outrage) was imputed/reckoned by the Lord (passive voice) to Phinehas as righteousness. In other words, Phinehas’s outrage was an extension of his faith, but in the passive voice it was not Phinehas's self-righteousness, but his act of faith that was reckoned/imputed to him as righteousness. His reaction was focused on the desecration of the sacred procreative seed entrusted to the Israelites (Abrahamic Covenant), and so his moral outrage was reckoned/imputed to him --passive voice-- as righteousness.

So in the Hebrew Bible we see the bifurcation of faith between Abraham and Phinehas. In the case of Abraham (Genesis 15:6) the Lord imputed/reckoned faith as righteousness (active voice); and in the case of Phinehas (Psalm 106:31), the act of faith (outrage) was imputed/reckoned by the Lord to him as righteousness (passive voice).

So when we go back to the Book of Romans, we see that Paul quoted Habakkuk 2:4 saying, “The righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17), however in that same verse Paul bifurcates faith when he says that the righteous live “from faith to faith.” That is, from active faith to passive faith. When Paul later developed the idea that Abraham sired Isaac (Romans 4:19-22), and then attributed Genesis 15:6 to the action, he was bifurcating faith into two aspects: faith and the acting out of faith (or what I call the active and passive aspects).

So how does all this now fit together to help us translate James 2:18?

If we assume the two bifurcated aspects of faith (active and passive as discussed above), then a technical rendition in English would be as follows—

But someone may say, “You have the 'active' kind of faith, which the Lord imputes as righteousness, and I have the 'passive' kind of faith, whose acts are imputed by the Lord as righteousness.” So show me now how your “active” faith exists in the absence of “passive” acts, and I will show you how my “passive” acts demonstrate the existence of my “active” faith.

Last but not least, when the two bifurcated aspects of faith occur together (that is, living “from faith to faith”), James indicates that ones faith is then “perfected” (James 2:22-23), and interestingly enough, he mentions Genesis 15:6 in the very and selfsame verses.

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that's a lot of theology to read into a translation. – swasheck Apr 13 '13 at 4:08
@Monica - The noun אֱמוּנָה is implied in Gen 15:6, and therefore inferred by the reader, since the pronoun is in the feminine. The Christian New Testament (Rom 4:9) makes explicit that "faith" was the implied-antecedent of this pronoun. Since the word אֱמוּנָה (faith) is feminine in Hebrew, and since the pronoun suffix in Gen 15:6 is feminine in Hebrew, the Hebrew word אֱמוּנָה was in view (according to Rom 4:9). Also, in Ps 106 the subject is not Phinehas, but his act of faith, which is passively ascribed to him as righteousness - i.e., the act is not ascribed as self-righteousness. – Joseph Apr 14 '13 at 19:04
@Monica, I am drawing from the Christian New Testament to interpret the Hebrew Bible. For example, Paul and James respectively ascribe "righteousness by faith" to Abraham for the siring and attempted sacrifice of Isaac. That is, his siring and attempted sacrifice were acts of faith. Then I jump back to Psalm 106 and say that what Phinehas did was an act of faith, since the Abrahamic Covenant was in view. The Israelite was desecrating the sacred procreative seed with the Midianite woman in the immediate vicinity of the Tabernacle. The killing thus an act of faith as well -- unto righteousness. – Joseph Apr 14 '13 at 19:36
@monica - I rewrote the posting in accordance with your recommendations. Thank you again for the candor and feedback to improve my posting. – Joseph Apr 15 '13 at 5:01

You overlook the conjunction "BUT"! It is an interlocutor, not an ally.

Could it be translated "One has faith, another has deeds"? This would flow, because the interlocutor would mistakenly be SEPARATING genuine faith from necessarily proceeding deeds. It's a short phrase that summarizes the false philosophy that deeds don't flow from thoughts.

Its kind of a catch phrase for a false philosophy, like the catch phrase: "what's right for you is right for you; what's right for me is right for me" (which summarizes subjective ethics).

The word for "faith" is pistis. It just means to believe. It doesn't necessarily mean to believe in the Gospel. It is vital to believe in THE TRUTH regarding the Gospel to be saved. Man's "believing", if not based on the Word, is vain.

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This doesn't show its work, which is a requirement on this site. Don't just tell us what you know, tell us how you know it. Please keep in mind that this is not a Christian site. – Paul Vargas Jun 17 at 22:26

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