James 3:7: Blatant untruth?


I’ve read some posts here from time to time but this is my first question. It’s not something that really troubles me to the core but I found it amongst my notes and thought this would be a good place to bring it up and see what other’s have to say.

James 3:7: “For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race”

Is this a blatant untruth in the New Testament?

Thanks for your responses!

My response would be that similar to the way I read Genesis, a literal reading is improper, as James point is really about taming the tongue, and has nothing to do with taming animals. Also I would say it is a mistranslation, as the idea of species did not exist in James time, but even if it did, it is a misreading to look for scientific truth is something that is obviously metaphoric.


Welcome to the forum. What a witty forum name you have! :grinning:

I would say this is an example of hyperbole to make the rhetorical point that controlling your tongue is particularly challenging.

Or another way to look at it is that it’s an example of a proposition that needs to be filled in before a truth value can be assigned. This is actually very common in human communication. If I say to my child who shows me a paper cut, “You aren’t going to die,” we can’t really assign a truth value to that statement until we fill in my mental context (…from this paper cut.). My child is mortal and is going to die someday, but no one would accuse me of telling my child a blatant untruth. You can do something similar with James statement. “Every species (…that I can think of right now) has been tamed.” The intended truth value is indeterminate until the presumed mental context of the author is filled in. I even have a citation for this because I just took comprehensive exams - Bach 1994 :older_woman: (For lack of a super nerd emoji, this librarian-esque woman will have to do.)


I don’t have anything to add to what @Christy and @jpm have contributed. I just wanted to thank you for asking the question. I wonder the same thing every time I come across this verse. I’ve never got around to talking through it with anyone, but honestly I always sort of shake my head and murmur in my mind about how unscientific the statement is. But here you bring it out into the open in a forum like this, and you get a couple of quite reasonable explanations that help put it in perspective.

From which I derive two lessons:

  1. Safe places like this are really important; and
  2. Go ahead and ask, because someone else is probably wondering, too.
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May I piggy-back a question about another passage while we are raising questions on passages?

I’ve never understood Paul’s teaching about tongues in I Corinthians 14. Not that I’m obsessed with that particular spiritual gift (I’m not). But I am interested in Paul’s logic as he applies general principles to church behavior … and in that vein, I can’t see how his isn’t contradicting himself just within a short space of that chapter.

… up to 14:20 it’s all pretty clear: tongues need to be interpreted if the church is to be edified, and a few intelligible words prophecied are to be greatly preferred over thousands of words in a tongue (14:18). So far so good. Then in 14:22 we are told that tongues are a sign for unbelievers while prophecy is for believers. … okay … slight disturbance in the force here … but I’ll still roll with it. But then we reach verse 23 and he contradicts everything he just so clearly said!!! Now tongues are seen as gibberish to unbelievers and it is prophecy that they need! Did I miss something here? Final score: tongues: 0 (not for anybody apparently except maybe the person doing it, though even that is in doubt given verse 14); prophecy: 2 (preferred for everybody whether in the church or not). That conclusion sounds right given the tenor of the whole chapter, but it sure does leave verse 22 as an outlier to the theme.

Unlike the scientific journals you’re used to reading, the Bible contains several different types of literature. Each needs to be read in the proper way. Maybe some journals need to include poetry or wise sayings to help folks come up to speed.

Merv - an attempt at a reply.

But first, a general observation that the “every kind” in James is one of many biblical examples of an inclusive “all” which requires contextual treatment. As Christy says, it’s hyperbole, but in a soft sense - it’s as much to do with a colloquial generalization.

Caesar Augustus didn’t issue a decree that “the whole world should be taxed”, and Luke doesn’t expect you to picture eskimos and Chinese trekking to Rome. We wouldn’t fault a politician who said, “Any criminal can get hold of a gun legally” by saying there are poor criminals who couldn’t afford one, criminals in jail to whom it doesn’t apply, etc. This point is of importance in many more important passages where “all” is assumed to quickly to be an absolute term.

Now, Merv, my understanding of 1 Cor 14 comes from the quote in v21, which (in Paul’s interpretation) treats tongues as a sign specifically, and a sign that is intended to reveal unbelievers (“they will not listen to me”), not to win them over.

So the Christian may benefit from tongues, not as a sign, but as an aid to worship - whereas for Christians to see them as a sign of God’s presence is foolish and even superstitious.

The sign of God’s presence for believers, Paul says, is the word that clearly speaks forth his will, ie prophecy. And in fact, that kind of sign may make believers out of unbelievers (or perhaps, referring back to a different discussion on Romans 9) sort out the “Jacobs” who hear prophecy and are convinced from the “Esaus” who hear tongues and scoff.

Any help?

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That does make sense, Jon. Thanks. And it leaves intact the basic thrust of the whole chapter which does seem pretty clear.

poetry in science has been done. Oh what a beautiful abstract from a 1981 paper on membrane potential measurements :slight_smile:

By now, it’s well established that the surface of a cell

Contains transmembrane proteins which, on binding ligands, tell

The biochemical computer inside what to do

Without a need for any of the ligands coming through.

Receptor-triggered cytoplasmic “interrupt routines”

May lead the nucleus to activate new sets of genes,

Or otherwise induce a cell, which never reasons why,

To twitch, secrete, endocytose, or reproduce, or die.

By merely watching labeled ligands bind, we cannot know

Down which of many paths the cells thus tagged are apt to go,

But other changes, shortly after binding, may predict

Which of its several options any given cell has picked.

Flow cytometric methods are described here which allow

Membrane potential to be estimated, to show how

Potential changes may occur in seconds after binding

Of ligand to a functional receptor, or for finding

No change when cells don’t have the right receptor, or can’t see

The ligand for antagonists of like affinity.

With chlorotetracycline fluorescence, one can find

Release of membrane calcium soon after ligands bind;

Both this and the potential measurement can help support

Decisions in an instrument about which cells to sort,

Though narrowing the distributions which these methods yield

Would greatly help to broaden applications in this field.

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