Before we get there, I want to set this up a little with an experiment using two other New Testament verses. As we get into it, it's important to understand that the original Greek text (or manuscript copies) lacked such things as quotation marks and even periods and commas. In fact, the Greek text was just solid "uncial" (upper case) Greek letters without so much as spaces between words. And so wherever you find things like quotation marks in your English Bible, the translators inferred those quotation marks… they weren't in the original text.
The other thing to keep in mind is that translations, in fact not even the manuscript copies, of the New Testament are not considered to be divinely inspired. That description is reserved only for the "autographs" or original text, which has never been found and is probably long gone. This means that we have a "permission" of sorts to ask certain questions of decisions that translators made, and maybe even to make certain corrections… so long as we have good reason to do so.
With all of that in mind, let's take a look at two New Testament passages in a way that approximates how they would have been read in the Greek. We'll look at Romans 9:19-20 and 1 Corinthians 15:35-36. I have removed the punctuation from these passages, though I've left in the word spaces, and I've made all the text lower case, so that it's uniform and easier to read. In each of these passages, the author (Paul) introduces a hypothetical objector and he lays out the argument which he expects this person to make, and then he responds to that argument. Now here's the game: Read these passages just a they are below and decide where the quotation marks need to go in order to accurately represent the conversation.
you will say to me then why does He still find fault for who has resisted His will but indeed o man who are you to reply against God will the thing formed say to him who formed it why have you made me like this
1 Corinthians 15:35-36In each case the correct placement of the quote marks is pretty obvious. It might help to represent the conversation using something like a script format, like for a movie. And let's give the hypothetical objector a name. Let's call him "Kramer."
but someone will say how are the dead raised up and with what body do they come foolish one what you sow is not made alive unless it dies
PAUL:1 Corinthians 15:35-36
You will say to me…
Then why does He still find fault, for who has resisted His will?
But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it 'why have you made me like this?'
PAUL:What's funny about this is that we do this all the time in our own conversations with people, and we never use quote marks to clarify who says what… as we listen to someone, we usually know intuitively where the quote starts and when it stops. These cues, sometimes subtle and sometimes not, are present in these two passages. The beginning of the quote is a little more obvious… clearly, "Someone will say…" is the author speaking, and what follows is the content of this hypothetical person's speech… and even though those words are uttered by the author, those words don't express thoughts and attitudes held by the author. Quite the contrary, often times the author disagrees with that content and he's about to show you why.
But someone will say…
How are the dead raised up, and with what body do they come?
Foolish one! What you sow is not made alive unless it dies.
And because the content of the objector's speech is contrary to the author's thoughts and attitudes, the author can only begin his rebuttal with something that indicates a change in direction… because the author's rebuttal will run contrary to the objector's argument. That's what a rebuttal does. So, we can see that the end quote in the Romans passage belongs just before "But indeed, O man…" The word "but" is an adversative conjunction, which indicates a change in direction. And in the 1 Corinthians passage, the end quotes belong right before what amounts to an insult. "Foolish one!!" Those are Paul's words, expressing his low opinion of the argument that he's now responding to.
When you double-check this on any online Bible or in a printed Bible, you'll see that for these two passages there is no disagreement as to the placement of the quotes across our English translations… they follow the pattern above. But interestingly enough, we find that there IS disagreement in James 2:18-20, and even more interesting is the fact that for this passage, no English translation follows the pattern above!
So, how do the English translations render this passage? Where do they place the quotes?
Again, we'll use a movie script format to help make the breakdown more clear, and we'll name the hypothetical objector "Newman." First we'll explore the King James, New King James, English Standard and New International versions. Here's how they deal with it:
JAMES:So, let me get this straight. Newman is coming at James with what argument? "You have faith and I have works?" That is Newman's argument? That's the whole thing? Seven words? That's not much of an argument, is it? What exactly do you suppose Newman thought he was going to accomplish by telling James that "you have faith and I have works?" Does that make any sense?
But someone will say…
You have faith and I have works…
Show me your faith without your works and I will show you my faith by my works you believe that there is one God you do well even the demons believe and tremble but do you want to know, o foolish man, that faith without works is dead?
Also, remember that this passage is commonly used to teach that if works doesn't accompany faith, then the faith isn't real. But notice that (according to these translations) James seems to say just the opposite here… that Newman's faith can be shown without works! James seems to be saying that faith can be shown without works, (Show me your faith without your works) or by works (and I will show you my faith by my works) Good Lord, what's going on here?
But let's suppose that it all does make sense. Let's suppose that really is the totality of Newman's argument. How does James respond to it? Does James' response fit? Let's take a look…
"Show me your faith without your works and I will show you my faith by my works…"Okay, wait a minute. Newman just said "You (James) have faith and I (Newman) have works." So why is James asking Newman to show his faith when Newman never claimed to have faith? Newman only claimed to have works.
According to the KJV, NKJV, ESV and NIV, James continues:
"…you believe that there is one God you do well even the demons believe and tremble but do you want to know, o foolish man, that faith without works is dead?"Notice that in this translation, the "demons believe and tremble" line is depicted as James' own thoughts and attitudes.
I don't know how to pull a coherent conversation out of that breakdown, do you? What does "you believe that God is one, even the demons believe…" have to do with Newman's incredibly brief and, apparently irrelevant "You have faith and I have works" argument? How does this make sense? This just doesn't add up!
Well, we could always try the New American Standard translation and see if their solution is helpful. Here it is:
JAMES:So okay… now at least we have Newman giving something that looks a little more like a serious argument. The crushing seven-word argument that the other translations leave him with is just plain insulting!
But someone will say…
You have faith and I have works. Show me your faith without your works and I will show you my faith by my works.
You believe that there is one God you do well even the demons believe and tremble but do you want to know, o foolish man, that faith without works is dead?
But even so, is this right? Whatever Newman's argument is supposed to mean, why does it deserve a rebuttal involving demons and what they believe? What relevance does this have? When you break it apart this way, it looks as though James hasn't paid any attention at all to Newman's argument.
I really don't see how this breakdown is much better in terms of coherence.
So what if we try something else? Remember the pattern we saw in Romans 9 and 1 Corinthians 15? Why don't we see if that pattern can be discovered in James 2:18-20? How would we test that?
Well, let's try reading without any punctuation and see if we notice any similarities…
but someone will say you have faith and I have works show me your faith withoutRight away we see the same cue at the beginning as we did in Romans 9 and 1 Corinthians 15.
your works and I will show you my faith by my works you believe that there is one God you do well even the demons believe and tremble but do you want to know, o foolish man, that faith without works is dead
"Someone will say…"This, we know, is James.
And now we have to look for a place where the flow of thought changes direction. And in Romans 9, that was the adversative conjunction "but" and in 1 Corinthians 15, it was an insult. So… do we find either of these in the James passage? Yes we do!! In fact, we find both of them!
"but do you want to know, o foolish man…"So now we have a whole new way to look at this passage. And guess what? If this is right, then the infamous "demons believe and tremble" line isn't even something that James himself says… that line is in Newman's mouth, and James thinks Newman is a "foolish man!"
So the next step will be to re-examine this exchange with a completely different breakdown, and we can also look at verse 14 and work forward to see what point Newman is trying to score against James. Then we just might see something that approaches a coherent conversation. Stay tuned!