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James 4:2 – “Murder”, He Wrote

You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask.

This second verse of chapter four continues on the theme of conflict among the brethren that James began in the previous verse. But before we dive into that, let’s solve a “murder mystery”.

More specifically, the mystery of why James uses the word “murder” in the second sentence of the verse. It appears as a couplet with the word “covet”, and follows “lust” in a listing of sins. “lust”, “murder”, “covet”. Two of these are terrible sins. One is a capital crime. The progression, if indeed there is a progression, does not seem to make sense.

So abrupt is the appearance of “murder” in the text that it has lead some scholars, Erasmus and John Calvin among them, to suggest that this is a copyist error. And there is at least some circumstantial evidence for this. The word translated “murder” here is φονεύετε (foneuete), which means “you murder”. However, the Greek word φθονεύετε (fthoneuete) – identical but for the addition of the letter θ – means “you are jealous”. On the face of it, this would seem to fit better in the progression: “You lust…you are jealous…you covet…”

Upon cross-examination, however, we find that there are exactly zero ancient texts where φθονεύετε is used in place of φονεύετε. If this were truly a copyist error, one would expect at least a couple documents to have survived bearing the original wording.

So we are left with two options: awkward wording, or copyist error. Or are we? Is there perhaps a third option?

I think there is.

The more I read this text, the more I am convinced that James chose to write “murder”, knowing full well that it was similar to the word “jealous”. People would be expecting to read “jealous”, and would be brought up short by “murder”, which is what James wants to happen. He wants people to associate the two concepts in their minds. Even more, he wants people to remember the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:21-22:

You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder (φονεύσεις – foneuseis), and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire.

I have mentioned before that, in my experience, jealousy and envy are some of the most destructive forces within the life of a local church. By this clever turn of phrase I think James – echoing Jesus – is showing us just how destructive it is. It’s not just “interpersonal problems” or “incompatible personalities”. It fosters the actual root of murder within the heart of the believer.

So let us all evaluate our own hearts with regard to our fellow believers, and turn over any lusting, jealous, covetous tendencies to the authorities for questioning.

(For a more in-depth explanation of the use of φονεύετε in this text, watch this video)

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