By way of an addendum to the previous piece on Jesus’ subversion of the Jewish Gehenna, I want to look briefly at James 3:5b-6, which is the only place in the New Testament outside the Synoptic Gospels where the word geenna occurs. The verse reads (my translation):
Behold, how small a fire sets ablaze how great a forest—and the tongue is a fire!—a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the circle of existence, and set on fire by Gehenna.
Interpretation is problematic at several points—notice that I have made “and the tongue is a fire” a parenthesis, which may or may not help the flow of thought. But the basic argument is clear: i) the tongue is responsible for causing a great deal of harm in the world (cf. Ps. Sol. 12:1-4); and ii) that corrupting and destructive power, in some sense, derives from Gehenna.
The phrase “set on fire by Gehenna” has the look of an idiomatic expression—rather like Jesus’ words to Peter: “on this rock I will build my congregation, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matt. 16:18). James is not talking about judgment or punishment here; there is no reference to people being thrown into Gehenna or going down into Gehenna.
We still have to ask, though, whether in James’ mind this is the Gehenna of Jesus’ prophecies regarding the destruction of Jerusalem or the Gehenna of popular Judaism, which was an underground place of punishment after death. It’s a difficult call to make.
The letter was written presumably to Jewish-Christians in the diaspora in expectation of the new coming of the Lord (James 5:7-9), when the rich and powerful of an “adulterous” generation of Jews would be judged and the poor, whom God has chosen, would inherit the kingdom (James 1:9-10; 2:5, 13; 4:4, 12; 5:1-9). The impending overthrow of the current order would entail persecution for believers (James 1:2), and under these conditions James highlights the particular responsibility of teachers to speak honestly and constructively because a few ill-chosen words can ignite a “world of unrighteousness” (James 1:26-27; 3:1-12).
James’ prophetic outlook is not as sharply focused as Jesus’, but the narrative indicates clearly enough that a national-historical end is in view and not merely the judgment of individual sinners. The rich are not warned about what will happen after they die; they are warned about a day that is coming in the near future that will result in their overthrow and the elevation of the poor who have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
There is much in the letter which suggests an affinity with Hellenistic and Hellenistic-Jewish thought, which may lead us to think that James is drawing on the popular notion of Gehenna as a vividly punitive version of Sheol or Hades—keeping in mind that he does so only for a narrow rhetorical purpose. But the general eschatological outlook keeps open the possibility that he shared Jesus’ perspective on the judgment of Gehenna as concrete historical judgment on Israel, principally in the form of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. The saying assumes that Gehenna is an existing reality, but the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, with its sinister reputation, perhaps smoking with the fires of the rubbish burned there, was an ever present reminder of the concrete wrath of God against the city.
Intriguingly, R.P. Martin writes in his commentary on James: ‘There is a good case made by Chilton, A Galilean Rabbi, 101–7, for the origin of “Gehenna” in a logion of Jesus, which seems to relate to warnings about false teachers, as in James).’1 It’s unclear whether he means a canonical logion or a hypothetical one, and I don’t have Chilton’s book. But in the Gospels false teachers or false prophets belong to the prophetic narrative: they predict peace and security for Israel when there is none, solutions to the crisis that are destined to fail (Matt. 7:15; 24:11, 24; Mk. 13:22; Lk. 6:26).
- 1R.P. Martin, James (1988), 116.