Breath in James 2:26

If you are a regular reader of my blogs, you might recall a blog that I wrote entitled What Happens When We Die? This topic of what death can be very controversial amongst Christians. Even the nature of death itself is debated. Everything from purgatory, to flying away to heaven in a disembodied/spirit like existence, to soul sleep, (none of which compel me from what I see in the Bible), are fiercely defended. The thing is, none of us who are reading this have actually come back from the dust ourselves, nor have we ever even met anyone in person who has returned from the dust. Therefore, dividing over opinions of what happens after we die (prior to judgement) is really senseless…

Psalms 104:29 (HCSB)When You hide Your face, they are terrified; when You take away their breath, they die and return to the dust.

In the blog that I mentioned above, I listed a series of common questions at the end, which come up from detractors as a result of wrestling with the position that I defended in it from Scripture. Some questions I have answered already and some I have not yet answered. In this article, I continue to chip away at answering the ones that are leftover unanswered by addressing what James might be describing in chapter 2 verse 26 of his epistle. Here is the verse…

James 2:26 (HCSB)For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.


Now, before I offer what I believe what “the body without the spirit is dead” means, it is important to understand the context of this verse. James is encouraging the reader by simile to be more deliberate about doing the right thing in order to prove or authenticate the faith that he/she claims to have. James does this by saying that both the body and faith are dead when they are each missing spirit and works respectively.

Regardless of whether or not you agree with how I understand what James means by “the body without the spirit is dead,” we all must walk away from this reference by understanding that at the very least our “faith without works is dead.” In other words, we all need to get out there and intentionally represent Christ in all that we say and do, no excuses.


The Greek word for “spirit” in James 2:26 is “pneuma.” Here below, I have added the Strong’s number if you wanted to look it up yourself for further reference and usage in the New Testament…

James 2:26 (HCSB)For just as the body without the spirit (pneuma, g4151) is dead, so also faith without works is dead.

Pneuma can refer to different things. It is the Greek word most often used to render the Hebrew word “ruach” (h7307) in the Septuagint, which is an Ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. The Septuagint was also the version of the Old Testament that was available at the time of the New Testament’s writing. Therefore, to better understand what a word like pneuma might mean, it might be wise to first understand what ruach meant to the Ancient Hebrew’s ears.


The word “ruach” is found at the very beginning of the Old Testament in verse 2…

Genesis 1:2 (HCSB)Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness covered the surface of the watery depths, and the Spirit (ruach, h7307) of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.

Here is the same verse in the Septuagint…

Genesis 1:2 (Septuagint)Yet the earth was invisible and unformed, and darkness was over the abyss, and a divine wind (pneuma, g4151) was being carried along over the water.

Did you notice the difference in how God is described in these two examples of Genesis 1:2?

Spirit of God = divine wind

Both ruach and pneuma have a range of meaning and both can describe either spirit or wind, as depicted in these two examples.

The Ancient Hebrew Mind

In the Ancient Hebrew mind, the entire range of meaning that a word has contributes to what is being said whenever the word is used. This allows for a deeper and more complex understanding without the need for extra to be expressed. This is not the same in English. Yes, English words also have a range of meaning. However, when English words are used they do not usually have in mind their full range of meaning, but only a single aspect of it.

Today, when we read something like “spirit,” our minds do not immediately (if ever) include wind. We hear spirit and we think about some ethereal/non-physical/ghost-like expression of a reality that we do not quite understand or are sometimes uncomfortable with. But, the Ancient Hebrew mind didn’t work the way that our modern Christian minds do. In order to better understand the Bible, we need to better understand how the Ancient Hebrew used words. When they heard “ruach,” not only did they hear “spirit,” but they also heard “wind,” and both concepts were in view at the same time. There was also one additional concept that came into the Hebrew mind when they used the word ruach… “breath.” Check out how one of the most accomplished Old Testament scholars, John Goldingay renders ruach in Genesis 1:2 in his interpretation of the entire Old Testament entitled The First Testament

Genesis 1:2“…when the earth was an empty void, with darkness over the face of the deep, and God’s breath sweeping over the face of the water…”


I said all this because when we read verses like James 2:26, it is helpful to start thinking as the Ancient Hebrew does in order to get a better handle on what is being offered when we read the Bible. I once heard Old Testament scholar, Tim Mackie say this about the New Testament writers (I’m paraphrasing)…

“Even though they wrote in Greek, they thought in Hebrew.”

This poses a question…

Do any English translations offer any different English words for “spirit” in James 2:26?

There are in fact many versions which render pneuma as “breath” instead of spirit. Here are some examples…

James 2:26 (NLT)Just as the body is dead without breath, so also faith is dead without good works.

James 2:26 (CEV)Anyone who doesn’t breathe is dead, and faith that doesn’t do anything is just as dead!

James 2:26 (GWT)A body that doesn’t breathe is dead. In the same way faith that does nothing is dead.

James 2:26 (HNT)For as the body without breath is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

James 2:26 (EHV)For just as the body without breath is dead, so also faith without works is dead.

James 2:26 (VOICE)Removing action from faith is like removing breath from a body. All you have left is a corpse.

James 2:26 (WE)A body is dead if it does not breathe. In the same way, believing is dead if it does not do anything good.


To be fair, there are also some Bible versions which use yet another word for pneuma, because those interpreters assume that something else is being expressed in James 2:26 that is akin to the non-physical aspect of a person which can exist apart from the body. “Soul” is the word that they have chosen to render pneuma in this verse…

James 2:26 (MNT)…as the body then without the soul is a meer carcase, so faith without its effects is lifeless.

James 2:26 (PHILLIPS)Yes, faith without action is as dead as a body without a soul.

But, I think that this us really way off considering that the Greek word here is “pneuma” and not “psuche.” If psuche was in this verse instead if pneuma, then rendering it as “soul” would be a reasonable option. However, that’s not what James wrote. He wrote “pneuma.” Plus, if he had in his Hebrew mind spirit/breath (which is consistent with the Old Testament), then soul doesn’t really work in this instance in order to properly understand what is being said in English.


Most Bible versions do use “spirit” (as does the HCSB that I referenced at the start), and some versions go even a step further capitalizing spirit in order to suggest that it’s the Holy Spirit specifically which is in view…

James 2:26 (BRG)For as the body without the Spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

Other Versions

This is an interesting rendering…

James 2:26 (CEB)As the lifeless body is dead, so faith without actions is dead.

The Orthodox Jewish Bible also assumes that “breath” is in view in James 2:26, because it renders pneuma as “neshamah” (h5397) which almost always means just breath in the Hebrew…

Yaakov 2:26 (OJB)For just as the guf (body) without the neshamah is niftar (deceased, dead), so also is Emunah without Ma’asim.

Something to noodle on…

Godspeed, to the brethren!

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