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  • Blessing God and Cursing People: James 3:9–10
  • Dale C. Allison Jr.

The Birkat ha-minim, the twelfth blessing in the Shemoneh Esreh or Eighteen Benedictions, has played an important role in some reconstructions of early Christian history.1 In 1964, for example, W. D. Davies urged that, sometime around 85 c.e., the twelfth benediction was reformulated so as to include a curse against Christians: “Let the notserim and minim perish in a moment.” Davies thought this circumstance relevant for understanding the Gospel of Matthew, and especially the Sermon on the Mount, which he interpreted in the light of a growing hostility between the synagogue and followers of Jesus.2 [End Page 397]

A few years later, J. Louis Martyn offered a similar thesis regarding John.3 Paying special attention to John 9:22; 12:42; and 16:2, all of which use the term ἀποσυνάγογος, Martyn related portions of the Fourth Gospel to the Birkat haminim, which, he argued, functioned to separate Christians from the synagogue.

Since Davies and Martyn wrote in the 1960s, the Birkat ha-minim has been the subject of much critical debate, some of it skeptical of the proposition that Jews formally cursed Christians in the first or second centuries.4 This is not the place for a critical review of that complex discussion.5 Here instead, by way of preface to my argument, I can only express my conviction that recent work has made three propositions more probable than not. First, it is likely that a benediction against the minim goes back to at least the first century.6 Second, even if notserim (= Nazarenes or Nazoraeans, that is, Christians or Jewish Christians) was not added until 100 c.e. or later,7 minim by itself would almost inevitably have brought Jewish Christians to mind in places where they were perceived to be a problem.8 Third, Justin Martyr remains strong testimony to the circumstance that at least some Christians were cursed in some second-century synagogues, whatever the precise prayer(s) or formula(s) may have been.

With all this as backdrop, I should like to call attention to a passage in the Epistle of James. The following appears in the middle of the discourse on the tongue in 3:1–12:

(8) But no human is able to subdue the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly venom. (9) With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings made in the likeness of God. (10) From one and the same mouth come forth blessings and curses. This need not be, my brothers. (11) Does a spring pour forth from the same opening fresh water and brackish water? (12) Is a fig tree, my brothers, able to make olives, or a grapevine figs? No more than a salt spring can make fresh water. [End Page 398]

These lines contrast “blessing” (εὐλογοῦμεν/εὐλογία) with “cursing” (καταρώμεθα/κατάρα). This is a natural antithesis, one at home in both Jewish and Christian rhetoric. Illustrations include Gen 12:3 (“I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse”); 27:29 (“Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you!”); Num 23:25 (“Balak said to Balaam, ‘Do not curse them at all, and do not bless them at all’”); 1QS 2:10 (“All those who enter the covenant will say, after those who pronounce blessings and those who pronounce curses: ‘Amen, amen’”); Rom 12:14 (“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them”); and 2 En. A 52:1–4 (“Blessed is he who opens his heart for praise and praises the Lord. . . . Blessed is he who opens his lips, both blessing and praising the Lord. Cursed is he who opens his lips for cursing and blasphemy, before the face of the Lord”).9

Not one of these texts, however, has to do with what we find in James, which is a group of people both blessing God and—perhaps simultaneously10—cursing other people.11 Yet this is precisely what we find also in the twelfth blessing of the Birkat ha-minim, for this immediately follows its curse...


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