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The tongue is set on fire by Gehenna

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).

  • 1. R.P. Martin, James (1988), 116.

Comments

Great series. Question: Does Jesus tell anyone but the religious leaders that they are going to hell?

The contexts for the use of geenna in the Gospels:

Matthew 5:22, 29: part of the sermon on the mount, which is addressed to the disciples; but the sermon sets the terms and conditions for a new righteous Israel, so the sayings about being liable to, or thrown into, Gehenna have in view that large part of Israel which is on the broad road leading to destruction.

Matthew 10:28; Luke 12:5: addressed to the disciples, but again part of a narrative about their prophetic mission to Israel, judgment on the cities of Israel, conflict, persecution, and eventual vindication and reward when the Son of Man comes; in other words, being cast into Gehenna is a constituent of a thoroughly political narrative about the judgment and renewal of Israel.

Matthew 18:9; Mark 9:43, 48: addressed to the disciples, a warning to differentiate themselves by their behaviour from that part of Israel which will have no part in the coming reign of God (cf. Matt. 18:1-4).

Matthew 23:15, 33: addressed to the scribes and Pharisees, who will not escape the judgment of Gehenna, the leaders of that generation of Israel which will finally pay the price for “all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar” (Matt. 23:35).

Yeah, this is tricky. It’s difficult for me to imagine James thinking of an upcoming Roman invasion when he talks about the tongue being set on fire, but it certainly could be. You get these false teachings around, and it gets the people worked up, and brings on the siege.

But it’s also difficult for me to envision James meaning fiery torments and imprisonment of individuals after death - he seems to envision the false teachings spreading through believers en masse and making shipwreck of them. The “fire” portion of the imagery could be related to the “fires” of Gehenna, but it doesn’t have to be. The idea is that these tongues are the firebrands to burn down the forest, and Gehenna lit the torch.

I think Gehenna here just might be a sort of metonymy for “a very bad end for the unrighteous” and not dependent on a very specific referent.

A couple of suggestive passages from Josephus:

But there was an Egyptian false prophet that did the Jews more mischief than the former; for he was a cheat, and pretended to be a prophet also, and got together thirty thousand men that were deluded by him… (War 2:261)

A false prophet was the occasion of these people’s destruction, who had made a public proclamation in the city that very day, that God commanded them to get up upon the temple, and that there they should receive miraculous signs of their deliverance. (War 6:285)

Your third option is certainly plausible.

Again, I note and disagree with your characterization of the punitive aspect of Gehenna being Hellenistic. And I cannot figure out where you see James saying anything “derives from Gehenna.”

James is simply warning his readers about the power of the tongue. He says the tongue is a fire that can destroy ones entire life and if that happened, the tongue would in turn be destroyed in the fire of Gehenna. (The implication here is that the person would be destroyed since the tongue is a member of the body.)

James 3:6 and Matthew 5:22 are saying roughly the same thing.

“But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the Gehenna of fire.”

At the beginning of your post you say interpretation is problematic, but I think it’s only problematic if you have to figure out a way to make James’ statement work with your view that he could not have been talking about postmortem punishment in Gehenna.

The part of the interpretation that is problematic is 6a: “And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body” (ESV). R.P. Martin writes: “These words comprise a half-verse that at face value is not hard to understand in terms of its general meaning but is extremely complex and difficult when the detailed parts are examined.”

6b is grammatically straightforward, and I don’t think there is any question about the meaning of “set on fire by Gehenna”. James is not saying that the tongue of the wicked will burn in hell after they have died. He is saying that the source of the tongue’s destructive force is Gehenna. Martin again: “In the closing words of v 6 the source from which the tongue gets its power is traced.” Two exegetical points to consider. First, the present participles in 6b are parallel and synchronous: the tongue “is setting on fire” (phlogizousa) the wheel of existence while “being set on fire” (phlogizomenē) by Gehenna. Secondly, with your interpretation we would expect “in Gehenna” rather than “by (hupo) Gehenna”. The meaning is very different to Matthew 5:22.

I imagine that we are going to have to agree to disagree again on this one.

Like most commentators, R.P. Martin would disagree with your view of Jesus’ use of “Gehenna.” Martin believed the NT usage of Gehenna was synonymous with “lake of fire,” a place of punishment for wicked angels and humans.

Like you said, he did think James was using a figure of speech to say the destructive power of the tongue derives from the place that would house all evil, i.e. Gehenna. This appears to be a minority interpretation of this verse. Most of the commentaries I’ve looked at say James is using a progression to say the tongue, which can start a large fire with wide-ranging consequences will one day itself be consumed by the fire of Gehenna.

But I’ll agree to agree to disagree. :)