The Greek that is translated into English as “moth(s)” was translated as “cockroach(es)” in Gola “since moths are not seen as destroying things but cockroaches are” (source: Don Slager). The same translation was chosen for Uripiv (source: Ross McKerras).
The Greek that is translated as “your riches have rotted” or similar in English is translated in Guhu-Samane as “your riches stink” (source: Ellis Deibler in Notes on Translation July, 1967, p. 5ff.).
Following are a number of back-translations of James 5:2:
- Uma: “Your wealth has disappeared. Your clothes are bug-eaten.” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
- Yakan: “Your wealth is already destroyed. Your nice clothes have already been eaten by mice.” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
- Western Bukidnon Manobo: “Your wealth will rot. Your cloth will be eaten by cockroaches.” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
- Kankanaey: “Your wealth will most-certainly be of no value/use, because your possessions will in-the-future indeed (prophetic formula) be-ruined and the clothes you have stored-away will be mildewed.” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
- Tagbanwa: “Really as for your wealth which is just being kept in storage, it is rotting now. And your clothing which is being kept in storage has all been chewed by cloth-chewing-bugs.” (Source: Tagbanwa Back Translation)
- Tenango Otomi: “That which you have been accumulating has rotted. The good clothing you have accumulated has been eaten by insects.” (Source: Tenango Otomi Back Translation)
James now proceeds to bring out the charges against the rich; these charges constitute the reasons why they must weep and howl.
Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted: the first charge is that their worldly riches are worthless. James uses three perfect tense verbs for the three descriptions of what happens to the riches, literally “have rotted … have become moth-eaten … have rusted” (New American Standard Bible). This may be interpreted in two ways.
(1) It is sometimes taken as a prophetic perfect, anticipating something so sure to happen that we can speak as though it has already happened. In this case two translations are possible. In languages accustomed to using this sort of rhetorical style, we may retain the perfect tense throughout as New American Standard Bible has done (so also Contemporary English Version). Another possibility is to render all three verbs in the future tense, since James is speaking of future events; thus “will rot … will become moth-eaten … will rust.”
(2) The shift to the future tense in verse 3 (“will be evidence … will eat…”) makes interpretation (1) unlikely and unnecessary. The suggestion has therefore been made that we should understand the saying figuratively, and that we should therefore interpret the force of the perfect tense as emphasizing the present state of worthlessness of material possessions. In this case the verbs are rendered as present tenses; thus “is rotten … are moth-eaten … are rusted” (similarly Phillips, Living Bible, New Jerusalem Bible).
The stylistic demands of a particular language will help a translator decide whether to use the equivalent of a perfect tense, “your precious things [or, treasures] have already rotted away,” or whether to use the present tense and say “your treasures are rotting [or, are in a rotting state].” The meaning is essentially the same.
Riches (sometimes rendered as “wealth,” Barclay, New American Bible, New International Version), garments, and gold and silver were the most common forms of wealth in the ancient world. The word riches is sometimes understood as a reference to crops, since it is argued that what is “rotten” must be perishable produce and therefore is to be rendered as “food.” If so, what James has here is three kinds of wealth, namely food, garments, and precious metals. Now to interpret the word riches as “food,” though not entirely impossible, is nevertheless a bit forced. It is best therefore to take the word riches, or “wealth,” as a general descriptive term for any form of wealth or treasured possessions, and then garments, gold, and silver are particular forms of wealth. Expensive clothes and silver and gold are sometimes mentioned side by side as evidence of wealth, as in Paul’s speech to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20.33).
The verb rendered have rotted is used here only in the New Testament. Most likely it is used here not in the literal sense of riches rotting away, but figuratively of the riches as liable to be corrupted and disappear. This sense has been brought out in some translations; for example, “Your riches are corrupted” (American Standard Version) or “Your riches are ruined” (Phillips). In some languages the idea of “disappear” will bring out this meaning; for example, “your treasured possessions are disappearing.”
The garments are “fine clothes” (Phillips, Revised English Bible). The verb rendered are moth-eaten is used only here in the New Testament. The clause may be restructured as an active statement such as “Moths have eaten your clothes” (New International Version, Contemporary English Version). The moth is a particular type of insect whose larvae feed or chew on clothes made from wool.
The gold and silver may refer to coins and therefore mean “money” (so Contemporary English Version), or it may refer to silver and gold bowls or plates. It is best not to be too precise. In the Greek the order is gold and silver, but in some languages it may be more natural to say “silver and gold” (so Revised English Bible), with the less expensive one mentioned first. In cultures where silver and gold do not exist, we may say, for example, “expensive [or, precious] metals.” The statement gold and silver have rusted is not true of what actually happens but is proverbial. Neither silver nor gold ever rust, although silver can become “tarnished” (so Phillips). The point James wishes to make here is to emphasize that even gold and silver, often considered valuable goods, are temporary and useless. Consequently it is foolish to rely on material and therefore corruptible goods. Here we are reminded of Jesus’ saying contrasting the storing up of rusty and moth-eaten treasure with lasting treasure (Matt 6.19-20). Even though the statement is not actually true, it is still best to retain the literal rendering have rusted, as the figure of “rust” is picked up again immediately in the next statement.
Their rust will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire: not only are the riches of the wealthy people worthless, they will also testify against them. The expression will be evidence against you in Greek is simply “in testimony for you” or “for testimony to you,” and the meaning is ambiguous. The problem is in the dative “to or for you”; but is it to be taken as dative of advantage or of disadvantage? It can be taken to mean that the testimony serves to enlighten the accused, letting the rich know the folly of their trust in wealth. But in this context it is best taken as a testimony against the rich, and this is the understanding adopted by most translations; for example, “will be a witness against you” (Good News Translation), “will testify against you” (Goodspeed, New International Version), or “will accuse you” (Die Bibel im heutigen Deutsch). In this case the statement is to be understood as a threat to the rich, that on the Day of Judgment their worthless possessions cannot help them, and that they can be used as evidence for a guilty verdict against them. We can therefore render the sentence as “This rust will be used as the evidence for accusing you” (Today’s Chinese Version).
The rust will not only tarnish the gold and silver but will also eat your flesh like fire. There is a question as to whether the phrase like fire should be taken with eat your flesh, as the UBS Greek text has it and as accepted by the majority of translations, or whether to connect it with the following statement, as the Revised Standard Version alternative rendering and New Jerusalem Bible have done.
(1) Scholars who favor the second alternative do so because the verb “to store up” in the next clause does not have an object. They feel that this is rather odd and have therefore taken like fire as its object. According to this interpretation two renderings are possible. One is the New Jerusalem Bible rendering, “It is like a fire which you have stored up for the final days.” The other possibility is the alternative rendering of New Revised Standard Version (following the suggestion of Ropes): “… will eat your flesh, since you have stored up fire for the last days” (similarly Goodspeed). In this case the particle normally rendered as “as” or “like” is taken in the sense of “since” or “for.” This interpretation, while not impossible, is a bit forced and so has not won wide acceptance.
(2) The other alternative, following the majority of translations, is to take like fire with eat your flesh. This is preferable for the following reasons: it is the most natural way of grouping the words, and it has scriptural support. Fire destroys by consuming; and the judgment of God is often spoken of as a devouring fire in the Bible (Isa 30.27, 30; Jer 5.14; Matt 13.42; Mark 9.47-48). What James is saying here is this: the very rust that eats into the rich person’s gold and silver will eat into them like fire. That is to say, the judgment of God on the worthless possessions of the rich people will eventually destroy them.
The activity of fire can be described in various ways, depending on usage in a given language. In English, for example, “fire” can be said to “eat up” (Good News Translation), “consume” (Revised English Bible), “devour” (Translator’s New Testament), or “burn” (Phillips). The word flesh, sometimes rendered as “body” (New Jerusalem Bible, Contemporary English Version), means the person.
A possible alternative translation model for verses 2 and 3a is:
• Your precious possessions have already rotted away [or, disappeared] and moths have chewed up your clothes. Rust [or, corrosion] has eaten into your gold and silver, and this rust will be evidence accusing you as it eats up your bodies like burning fire.
You have laid up treasure for the last days: James here summarizes the first charge against the rich people. There are two problems in this statement. One is understanding the verb laid up. The verb is a verbal equivalent of the noun “treasure” found in Matt 6.19, 21. When used with an object it means “store up” or “gather,” as in Matt 6.19, “store up … treasures” (NRSV). Here, however, the verb is used absolutely; that is, there is no object, unless fire is taken as object, but this is not the best solution. When the verb is used without an object, it means “store up treasure.” This is the meaning found in Revised Standard Version. Related renderings are “have heaped treasure” (King James Version), “have made a fine pile” (Phillips), “have piled up riches” (Good News Translation, Translator’s New Testament), “have hoarded wealth” (New International Version), and “keep on storing up wealth” (Contemporary English Version). The use of this verb here has a certain element of irony in it. James is charging the rich with “piling up treasure,” but in fact what they are doing is storing up “miseries” (see 5.1) that will befall them when the last days arrive.
The second problem has to do with the interpretation of the expression for the last days, literally “in last days.” The Revised Standard Version translation for the last days (also of King James Version and New Revised Standard Version) appears a bit forced and unnatural. If the preposition (which normally means “in”) is rendered as for, we have to understand the last days as pointing to the future, that is the Day of Judgment. For translations that take fire to be the object of laid up, it is natural and consistent for them to follow this interpretation and translation. However, to be consistent with New Testament teaching, it is perhaps best to understand the last days as already dawning, and indeed as a present reality (see Acts 2.17; 2 Tim 3.1; 2 Peter 3.3). So the expression is best taken to refer to the time when the rich people were living, not some time in the future; that is, the rich people are piling up riches “in the world that is coming to an end” (Barclay; similarly Translator’s New Testament), “in an age that is near its close” (Revised English Bible), or even “in these last days” (Good News Translation).
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 .