The Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek that is translated as “wisdom” in English is rendered in Amganad Ifugao and Tabasco Chontal as “(big) mind,” in Bulu and Yamba as “heart-thinking,” in Tae’ as “cleverness of heart” (source for this and all above: Reiling / Swellengrebel), in Palauan as “bright spirit (innermost)” (source: Bratcher / Hatton), in Ixcatlán Mazatec as “with your best/biggest thinking” (source: Robert Bascom), and in Dobel, it is translated with the idiom “their ear holes are long-lasting” (in Acts 6:3) (source: Jock Hughes).
The Greek that is often translated as “meek” or “meekness” in English is translated in Malba Birifor as hɛlɛlɛ. David B. Woodford (in The Bible Translator 1962, p. 181) tells how that translation was uncovered: “Some words come by the accidents God provides. For a long while we had searched in vain for a word adequate to express ‘meekness.’ Then we gave up (temporarily), and took a walk outside for a break. The grain-stalks left after harvesting were beginning to sprout again, so I said [to the language assistant], ‘Look, they’re sprouting.’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘they’re hɛlɛlɛ.’ ‘What does that mean?’ ‘That is the word we use for new leaves when they are big enough and strong enough to bend and not to break. We use it for people too, who are so strong inside that they don’t need or want to fight you. But if a person is hard and brittle like a dead leaf it means that he is not really strong.’ And that is surely a better word for Bible meekness than anything we can say in English!”
Following are a number of back-translations of James 3:13:
Uma: “If there is in our midst a person whose thinking is good and whose heart is clear [i.e., aware, mature, wise], he must show his clearness of heart with his good behavior and with his character that appears from a humble [low] heart, like is fitting for people whose hearts are clear.” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
Yakan: “If there is a person among you who has deep thoughts/wisdom and really understands, he should show his knowledge in his good works. And his liver should be lowly/humble for like that is a person whose thoughts/wisdom is truly deep.” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
Western Bukidnon Manobo: “Any of you who are wise and have large understanding, he must show it by means of his good works. He must not consider himself high as he shows his wisdom by means of his good workds.” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
Kankanaey: “If there is someone among you who is thinking/reflective and understanding, he should show his kind-of-wisdom in his good behavior/character and in his humbling (lit. lowering) himself in his doing what is good.” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
Tagbanwa: “Well who of you is knowledgeable and perceptive/understanding? It’s necessary that you prove it through your good nature/ways, and through the good things you are doing with meekness/patience which accompanies true understanding/wisdom.” (Source: Tagbanwa Back Translation)
Tenango Otomi: “When there arises one who is wise, who thinks on the words he hears, it will be seen who such a person is because he does good. He does what he knows and is not arrogant in what he does.” (Source: Tenango Otomi Back Translation)
Central Mazahua: “When anyone of you knows what is good to do and knows how, he will be careful how he will live and he will not make himself great. In that way people will notice that truly that one knows.”
Rincón Zapotec: “If there is among you a man who has great ability and he understands exceedingly, with complete humility he ought to show that he is thus by means of the good things he is doing.”
Alekano: ” . . . if he remains humble and does good things, he will demonstrate the substance of his wisdom.” (Source for this and two above: Ellis Deibler in Notes on Translation July, 1967, p. 5ff.)
Who is wise and understanding among you?: James continues with his favorite style by asking another rhetorical question. He addresses those among his readers who consider themselves to be wise and understanding. This pair of terms is found often in the Old Testament (Deut 1.13; 4.6), describing a person who lives in accordance with the insight given by God. The wise person is not someone who possesses intellectual capacity or abstract knowledge, but someone who has moral insight on practical matters in daily life. The Greek word translated understanding appears only here in the New Testament. It is rendered as “endued with knowledge” by King James Version, “clever” by New English Bible, and “learned” by Revised English Bible, and is used to describe someone who possesses expert knowledge with deep perception and understanding. There is, however, no need to press for a precise and distinct difference of meaning between the two. Rather, comparable to their usage in the Old Testament as a pair, the two words are perhaps best taken as having the same sense, so Contemporary English Version “wise and sensible.” In languages not accustomed to using similar words like this, the pair may be rendered as “truly wise,” “having great spiritual insight,” “a person who considers everything very carefully,” or idiomatically, for example, “a person with a very big mind.” The clause Who is … among you? may also be expressed as “Are there any of you…?” (Good News Translation), “Are any of you…?” (Contemporary English Version) or, “Do any of you…?”
James goes on to answer his own question by mentioning two things that are evidence of true wisdom, namely that true wisdom should show itself in deeds, and that it should manifest itself in meekness. First, the person who is truly wise and understanding should prove it by the quality of his or her own conduct. It is proven By his good life. The word life is not the usual word for life; it refers not so much to private and inner life, but to life in relation to others as shown in conduct. It is a favorite word in 1 Peter, referring to the whole manner and style of Christian living intended to be a witness to nonbelievers. The King James Version rendering “conversation” is misleading, since in modern usage it is used almost exclusively to mean “oral expression,” namely “talk.” In the present context it means more or less the Christian way of life, conduct, or behavior. To show here means to “prove” or to “demonstrate.” The force of the imperative let him show may therefore be brought out more clearly as “You are to prove it” (Good News Translation), “he must demonstrate” (Barclay), or “he must give evidence of.” Other ways to express this clause are “show it by living right” (Contemporary English Version) or “Show you are truly wise by walking a straight life.”
By his good life let him show his works: what exactly is the relationship between good life and his works, as the two expressions appear to be needless repetition of the same idea? What is to be shown is his works: and his good life is the means to be used. Since his works is the content of what is to be shown, it may be clearer in English to add the function word “that” to introduce a subordinate clause, thus “Show by his good life that his works….” In this case we can either make his works a verbal statement like “what he does is done…” (Goodspeed) or supply a verb like “his works are done…” (so Barclay, New Revised Standard Version). Another possibility is to take his works as in apposition to good life, thus “by your good life, by your good deeds…,” as Good News Translation has done (similarly Contemporary English Version). This alternative is the more likely one. We may also express this as “by walking his life well and doing good deeds.”
Secondly, true wisdom should show itself in the meekness of wisdom. The genitive construction “A of B” is ambiguous, as it may be understood in so many different ways.
(1) It is most often taken as “B modifying A” or “B as descriptive of A,” reflected in all literal translations, resulting in the meaning “wise meekness [humility]” (so Chinese Union Version [CUV], Chinese New Translation).
(2) It is also understood as a coordinate construction, “A and B,” as seen in the rendering of Good News Translation “with humility and wisdom” (so also Luther 1984, Bible en français courant; similarly Contemporary English Version).
(3) It can be interpreted as “A characterizing B,” apparently the sense favored by Barclay when he renders the phrase as “that gentleness which is the hallmark of wisdom.”
(4) It is also taken as “A agreeing with B,” for example, “meekness that is in accord with wisdom” (so Japanese colloquial version, Japanese Franciscan Translation).
(5) Finally, it is interpreted as “A originating from B,” resulting in the rendering “the humility that comes from wisdom” (New American Bible; similarly Phillips, Translator’s New Testament, Revised English Bible). This is the option favored by many modern scholars and translators.
To sum up, (2) and (5) appear to fit the context best and therefore are recommended by this Handbook.
Meekness is the opposite of arrogance. It is often understood as self-effacement or submissiveness and is therefore considered by many as a weakness rather than a virtue. In Jesus’ teaching, however, it is a desirable quality. In one of the beatitudes he pronounces “Blessed are the meek” (Matt 5.5). The “meek” there means people with genuine humility and awareness that they are unworthy before God and are totally dependent on him. In the present context the word has been rendered in various ways; for example, “modesty” (Revised English Bible), “gentleness” (Barclay), and “humility” (Good News Translation, Translator’s New Testament, New International Version). Indeed this sort of “humility” can come only from true wisdom—the wisdom from God! For more discussion on the meaning of “meekness,” see the discussion in 1.21.
The following are possible alternative translation models for this verse:
• Are any of you truly wise? If you are, then you must show this by living [or, walking] a good life, and also by doing good deeds with the humility [or, gentleness] that comes from your wisdom.
• Is there any person among you who is wise or sensible? You must show it by living a right [or, correct] life and by being humble and wise in everything you do.
Quoted with permission from Loh, I-Jin and Hatton, Howard A. A Handbook on The Letter from James. (UBS Handbook Series). New York: UBS, 1997. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .