Speech ethics (James 3)

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James’ guidelines on speech ethics, while rooted in the Old Testament and the teachings of Jesus, were also in harmony with widespread social conventions in the ancient world. The comparison of the tongue to the rudder of a ship (James 3:4), for example,  had been made generations earlier by the ancient Egyptian sage Amenemope. The image of the tongue as a destructive fire (3:6) has parallels in Hellenistic literature (e.g. in the writings of Seneca and Plutarch). The same may be said for the importance of being slow to speak (1:19) and for the need to mach words with deeds (1:22); the Roman Cicero also affirmed this ideal. James’ absolute prohibition against oaths (5:12, cf. Matthew 5:33-37) was a Christian distinctive, but even here Greco-Roman writers agreed that a person’s character ought to be so blameless that oaths were not strictly necessary (such ideas are expressed by the classical writers Epictetus and Diogenes Laertius).

It is important to realize that these standards of Christian behaviour have parallels in the best ethical literature of the ancient world. This reminds us, first, that the Bible does not claim to be presenting new moral standards. The morality it proclaims is for the most part ancient and universal. Second, the parallels reminds us that the Bible texts affirmed what was good and true in the culture around the writers and their audiences. Biblical authors did not perceive themselves to be invariably opposed to the norms of their day (see Philippians 4:8).


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