Westminster Seminary California
Words and Things Part 7
S. M. Baugh

Last time, I mentioned that the great Aaronic benediction in Num. 6:22-27 concludes with the wonderful line: “So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” The notion of God putting his name upon someone is an interesting one. One passage that has always stuck with me in this connection is in Exodus: “Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him” (Exod. 23:20-21; ESV; emphasis added). Having God’s name is really something!

Now let’s turn to a passage in James that requires some word study. Here it is in the English Standard Version (ESV): “Are they [the wealthy] not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?” (James 2:7). My first tweaking of this translation is very mild. The adjective in the phrase “the honorable name” is one that refers to something “good,” “attractive” or “beautiful” and so I prefer to render it as “the fair name” (so the New American Standard Bible [NASB]). This is somewhat old fashioned, but it brings out the attractiveness of our Lord’s name which is dragged into the mud by those who profess to be his disciples, but “blaspheme” the fair name through partiality and worse kinds of treatment of the poor (James 2:1-6).

Of more consequence is the phrase that the ESV renders as “. . . name by which you were called.” Frankly, I don’t know why this is preferred. I know how Greek would say “by which you were called,” but the statement in James 2:7 does not say this. This idiom is used elsewhere in both the OT and NT and it should be rendered: “the fair name which was invoked upon you.”

Before discussing what this means, let me pause to consider the translation given in the ESV. When you look at other renderings of James 2:7, you find that the ESV’s rendering of the target phrase as “by which you were called” goes all the way back to the King James Version (KJV) of 1611, which reads “by the which ye are called.” It is also found in the American Standard Version (ASV) of 1901 (“by which ye are called”), which was a revision of the KJV and became the basis of both the Revised Standard Version (RSV) of 1952 and the NASB of 1963. Interestingly enough, the NASB reads “by which you have been called,” but the RSV, of all modern English versions, reads, “which was invoked over you,” i.e., the rendering I suggested above. What makes this particularly interesting is that the ESV is a minor revision of the RSV, but those responsible for James chose to change the RSV on James 2:7 and revert to the older translation stemming from the KJV.

One final note on English versions is the New International Version’s (NIV) rendering of the verse that seems quite different from the two we have looked at: “Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong?” (NIV of 1973). One may well wonder how “by which you were called” or “which was invoked over you” can be taken to mean “to whom you belong.” The answer comes from yet one more English version, The NET Bible, which reads: “the good name of the one you belong to,” but then it provides a footnote that explains “[Greek]: ‘that was invoked over you,’ referring to their baptism in which they confessed their faith in Christ and were pronounced to be his own. To have the Lord’s name ‘named over them’ is OT imagery for the Lord’s ownership of his people (cf. 2 Chr 7:14; Amos 9:12; Isa 63:19; Jer 14:9; 15:16; Dan 9:19; Acts 15:17).”

What this examination of English translations of James 2:7 illustrates is that the process of translation is an interpretive process. All translations are always interpretations of meaning. In the case of the NIV and NET Bible, they are interpreting the idea of the invocation of the Lord’s name over us as referring to our baptism (i.e., we are baptized ‘into’ the triune name of God; Matt. 28:19), and they interpret the idea for us into being owned by the Lord. One thing to note here is that our baptism is not the only time the Lord’s name is invoked upon us, but also in the Lord’s benediction as mentioned above from Numbers 6. In the end then, we should always remember that we “bear” the name of the Lord, which means at the least that he dwells with us at all times as his prized possession: we are his and he is ours. Therefore, as James reminds us, we must be mindful of our public actions not to compromise that fair name which has been “invoked upon us.”