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Common sense to the rescue (James 3:7)

I came across an interesting Greek conundrum in small group tonight. James is talking about the tongue and its power to destroy.

He writes, “For every kind (πᾶσα φύσις) of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed (δαμάζεται) and has been tamed (δεδάμασται) by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue” (3:7-8a, ESV).

Part of the issue is that there is no Greek word or grammatical construction meaning “can” (contrary to the ESV, NRSV).

The NLT simply skips the entire construction; “People can tame all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and fish, but no one can tame the tongue.” In my opinion, that is not translation. A point is being made, and it should be reflected in the translation.

The HSCB is a little closer to what James says: “Every sea creature, reptile, bird, or animal is tamed and has been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue.” The problem, of course, with this translation is that it is not true. Every animal is not tamed, nor has every animal ever been tamed.

The NIV skillfully moves around the issue. It translates “All kinds of animals … are being tamed and have been tamed.” There are three points to be made.

(1) πᾶσα generally in the singular means “each” or “every,” but that brings us back to the point that the verse simply is not true. I am reminded of the similar passage in 1 Tim 6:10 where, in my commentary, I write this. “BAGD shows that πᾶς can designate ‘everything belonging, in kind, to the class designated by the noun “every kind of,” “all sorts of”’ (631[1aβ]), listing these examples among others: γέμουσιν … πάσης ἀκαθαρσίας, ‘they are full … of all kinds of uncleanness’ (Matt 23:27); ἀπὸ παντὸς ἔθνους, ‘from every kind of nation’ (Acts 2:5); πᾶσαν ἐπιθυμίαν, ‘[evil] desire of every kind’ (Rom 7:8); and πᾶν ἁμάρτημα, ‘every kind of sin’ (1 Cor 6:18). If this is applicable here, Paul is saying that every different category of sin, but not every specific sin, has a root in the love of money.”

(2) Perhaps it would have been better to translate φύσις as “species” (see Davids and Martin). BDAG says it “can also mean species [X. et al.; 4 Macc 1:20; Philo].” James would then be saying that people have been able to train animals from every species, not specifically every animal within a species.

(3) Treating δαμάζεται as a true imperfective, as does the NIV, helps as well. In the past, animals have been trained (δεδάμασται), and in the present they are still being trained (δαμάζεται).

There is a final option, and that is James would be speaking with rhetorical force to make his point, something we all do. No one I know always speaks with scientific precision; has not everyone, at some time, said they are “starving to death,” or used “all” when they mean “most” or “many”? As Blomberg comments, we were put on the earth to “rule over ‘the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground’ (Gen. 1:26). James even employs the typical biblical division of the animal world in four classes (cf. also Gen. 9:2).”

Davids comments, “every species of animal is domesticatable, as past (δεδάμασται) and present (δαμάζεται) experience shows” (144). This seems to be the point James is making. We have done, and are doing, part of what God has called us to do, but even with all that success we can’t control our tongues.