Waxing Eloquent on James 1:21

Michael Gilleland of Laudator Temporis Acti discovers some earwax in the New Testament book of James.

I haven’t heard of this glossing of the word ῥυπαρία but maybe my ears were just plugged. This word only occurs once in the New Testament although cognate words meaning “dirt” and “filthiness” are attested. “Getting rid of the ear wax” would make sense in this passage that makes repeated use of hearing metaphors.

HT: John Hobbins who offers a translation of his own based on this insight.

8 thoughts on “Waxing Eloquent on James 1:21

  1. J. K. Gayle says:

    Isn’t the emphasis in James on getting rid of all of it? That is, “πᾶσαν ῥυπαρίαν,” or as John Hobbins puts it “all the crud”?

    So really: Hippocrates’s phrase “ὠτὸς ῥύπος” does not imply that all “ear crud” is wax, does it? And how is Sophocles’s phrase “ὠτὸς ῥυπωμένου” to suggest that every bit of dirty crud in the ear blocking hearing is wax? (See Michael Gilleland’s post for this). Why the focus on wax here? Isn’t this the translator’s “technical” straining at a gnat but swallowing a camel? Hear what I’m saying here?


    Where the words occur in the bible, the cognate and the crud:

    ῥύπος – 1 Peter 3:21; (LXX) Job 9:31, 11:15, & 14:4; and (LXX) Isaiah 4:4. Where’s the earwax?

    ῥυπαρία – James 1:21

    Too bad we don’t have a commentary on James from John Chrysostom. We do have Chrysostom’s commentaries on the gospel of John, and on I Thessalonians, Ephesians, and II Timothy — in which he uses ῥύπος and ῥυπαρία in close proximity as synonyms.

    Here’s Chrysostom on 2 Timothy and Ephesians, for example, with Philip Schaff’s 19th century English translation [and my using John Hobbin’s phrase too].

    Καὶ ῥυπαραῖς μὲν χερσὶν οὐ τολμᾷς εὔξασθαι, ῥύπον δὲ καὶ ἀκαθαρσίαν προσφέρων ἐξ ἁρπαγῆς οὐδὲν ἡγῇ ποιεῖν δεινόν;

    “And thou who darest not to pray with [cruddy] unclean hands, dost thou offer the [crud] dirt and filth of robbery, and think thou doest nothing wrong?”

    Οὐ γὰρ ἀνέχεται μετὰ τοιούτου σώματος εἰσελθεῖν εἰς τὸν νυμφῶνα ὁ Χριστός. Εἰ τὸν ἱμάτια ῥυπαρὰ ἐνδεδυμένον ἀπήγαγε καὶ ἐξέβαλε, τὸν τῷ σώματι ῥύπον προστιθέντα τί οὐκ ἐργάσεται;

    “For Christ cannot endure that we should enter into the bride-chamber with such a body as this. If He led away, and cast out the man that was clothed in [cruddy] filthy garments, what will He not do unto the man who attaches [crud] filth to the body?”

    ALL cruddy stuff. But where’s just the “wax”?

  2. Mike Sangrey says:

    I think, given the new information, I would translate as “dirty ear wax.”

    I suspect that ‘dirt‘ would have been strongly associated with ῥύπον in much the same way as nude has a sexual association (though bare does not). However, the referent in the James passage of ῥύπον appears to be the actual wax. I suspect that the original readers thought ear wax was dirty. At least, more so than we do (not that I’m particularly fond of the stuff. I’m not.)

    Given the fact that the surrounding text rather significantly lights-up all the constituents of the hearing/ear linguistic frame, it would be quite natural for the ancient reader to quickly and easily think the meaning “dirty ear wax“.

    That’s my two cents.

  3. David Frank says:

    Just for interest sake, the St. Lucian French Creole expression for ‘ear wax’ is ‘kaka zòwèy’. In the St. Lucian Creole dictionary (of which yours truly was the editor), ‘kaka’ is glossed as ‘excrement’. ‘Zòwèy’ is the word for ‘ear’, and when you put the two together, ‘earwax’ is how you would say it in English, but it doesn’t have a word for ‘wax’ as one of its elements in St. Lucian Creole.

  4. J. K. Gayle says:

    Mike & David,

    Why wouldn’t James mark the phrase with ὠτὸς (the way Sophocles & Hippocrates did – and the way St. Lucian French Creole speakers do with zòwèy)? Your St. Lucian French Creole example is perfect.

  5. Mike Sangrey says:

    J.K.Gayle asked: Why wouldn’t James mark the phrase with ὠτὸς?

    Because he didn’t have to.

    Well, that’s a bit terse. One can easily talk all about the ‘ear’ without ever mentioning the word. This is especially true when an author creatively and engagingly builds up a metaphor as James does here.

    Also, James, in verses 23-25, refers to another sense organ, and yet, he doesn’t mention it. Interestingly, he refers to this other organ via a simile. So, ‘ear’ is just like ‘eye’. And this “likeness” is in a number of ways! And one of those ways is not mentioning it. 🙂

  6. Mike Sangrey says:

    I should add that James really isn’t talking about the ear. So, again, he doesn’t have to mention it. He’s talking about not listening. You actually don’t have to have ears to be like that (consider the deaf). In the case of not listening, earwax is a perfect metaphor, especially since there’s an association with what we would call dirty (aka, unclean).

  7. Robert says:

    “You actually don’t have to have ears to be like that (consider the deaf).”

    Oh, now I understand, how this improves Bible translations!.

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