145 Dead or Useless, James 2;20

If our faith is not confirmed by our deeds, does that mean our faith is dead, leaving us lost? Or that our faith is useless, of no value to the congregation? Does this statement reflect on the salvation of the Christian, or on the practical implementation of his faith? These are the two versions found in the manuscripts we have. Which one would be what had been written in the original autograph?

James 2:20, KJV: “But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?”
NIV: “You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?”

1. External criteria

Our first criterion is to look at the manuscripts available. The table below gives the versions according to the time the manuscript had been copied:

Possibilities: Useless: Dead:
Witness: Greek: Translations: Church Fathers: Greek: Translations: Church Fathers:
201-300 Sahidic
301-400 Vaticanus Sinaiticus Bohairic
401-500 Ephraemi Armenian, Ethiopic Alexandrinus 1 Syriac Cyril
501-600 1 Old Latin Pseudo-Athanasius
601-700 1 Syriac
701-800 1 Old Latin Atous- Laurae Vulgate
801-900 Porphyrianus, Uncial 049 1 Old Latin Mosquensis
901-1600 4 Minuscules 4 Old Latin, Present Vulgate Uncials 056 & 0142, 19 Minuscules, 1 Lectionary 1 Old Latin Ps-Oecumenius

Looking at the manuscripts available, the version with “useless” that corresponds with the NIV has slightly better evidence to portray the original with the old Egyptian Sahidic translation, but for the rest the two versions are very equal. Both the Nestle Aland and the United Bible Society base their choice on manuscript evidence and therefore agree on “useless” rather than “dead”.

2. Internal criteria.

A logical explanation of how the deviating version could have originated, can help us decide which would be the original and which the diversion. The two words “argy” and “nekra” are very different and could therefore not been confused. “Dead” describes the situation while “useless” the effect of being dead. It is more acceptable that a scribe could have replaced the direct word with the effect while pondering the meaning of the paragraph in his mind than the other way around. Therefore the variation could rather have originated from “death” to “useless”.

3. Intrinsic criteria.

Both words fit perfectly in the sentence. The concept of “useless” might be derived from the example James gives of a person in need, not being helped by supposedly Christians. Yet in the paragraph we find “death” in verse 17 and twice in verse 26. Right in the beginning of this paragraph in verse 14, James comes to the point he wants to stress. Can faith without deeds save a person? The example from everyday life, a person in need can give one the impression that James might be looking at the benefits to the congregation of faith in action. But when he presents two examples from the Old Testament, Abraham and Rahab the prostitute, it is not about the benefits of their deeds, but about there own salvation. This makes the point clear that James is not looking for the well-being of the congregation, but that he is issuing a stern warning that people who might think all is well, might in fact be lost! This is better conveyed by “dead” than “useless”.

4. Conclusion.

Though the version with “useless” has slight better manuscriptural support, the version with “dead” has a better internal and intrinsic basis. Therefore the version found in the King James Version should be preferred.

God bless,


Comments at the bottom of this page, or to me at bibledifferences.co.za are welcome

About Herman of bibledifferences.net

The reasons for the differences between older Bibles like the King James Version and newer Bibles like the New International Version have fascinated me ever since my studies in Theology at the University of Pretoria in the seventies. I have great respect for scribes through the ages as well as Bible translators, so there must be good reasons for the differences. With more than 5600 Greek manuscripts and more than 19000 manuscripts of ancient translations to our disposal, the original autographs of the New Testament can be established without doubt. I investigate the reasons behind the differences and publish the facts in a post on my blogs www.bibledifferences.net (Afrikaans: www.bybelverskille.wordpress.com) to enable my readers to judge for themselves. Personally I love to make an informed decision based of facts. That is why I endeavor to provide that same privilege to the readers of my blogs. Since 1973 I am married to my dear wife and greatest friend, Leah Page, founder director of Act-Up Support (www.actup.co.za) a prayer ministry for families struggling with drug-, occult- and other dependencies. We are blessed with two daughters and two sons, four grand sons and two grand daughters. God is alive and omnipotent! Glory to His Name! Herman Grobler.
This entry was posted in Context, External Criteria, Internal Criteria, Intrinsic Criteria, KJV/NIV Controversy. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to 145 Dead or Useless, James 2;20

  1. Jim Kerr says:

    Hey, Herman, have you considered the possibility of wordplay on the part of the author (who I believe is indeed James the Just) between ἔργων and ἀργή, for mnemonic reasons? After all, because of its aphoristic style, some have referred to the Book of James as “The Proverbs of the New Testament.”

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