Can the Greek word translated “himself” in James 1:27 also be translated “themselves”?


While reading a book by Basil Overton, I ran across this argument, "Some have argued that the church cannot help orphans but the individual Christians must do this. They say James 1:27 is addressed to the 'individual. James 1:27 is not addressed to the individual. "Himself" of the text is a third person pronoun. One is addressed in the second person. The truth is that James 1:27 is addressed to the church and what is said in this verse to the church is about what each in the church should do, and what is to practice pure and undefiled religion by relieving orphans and widows."

Is Basil Overton grammatically correct in his argument?


The word being questioned is heauton. Grammatically, it is a personal pronoun in the accusative case, masculine in gender, and singular in number. The word is a form of the more general word, heautou. It is upon this more general word that Basil Overton makes his argument. Quoting from The Complete Biblical Library, The New Testament Greek-English Dictionary, regarding the meaning of heautouin all its forms:

"Heautou is a third person reflexive pronoun generally translated 'himself.' In classical Greek this reflexive pronoun is very common, although a contracted form autou was often used rather than heautou. From the time of the Tragic writers onward (Sophocles, Herodotus) the pronoun was also used on occasion for the first and second person, e.g. 'ourself.' Likewise, there are some 70 examples of heautou used for the first and second person plural pronouns in the New Testament. This reflexive pronoun is frequently spelled heatou in the papyri and inscriptions. Heautou is used throughout the Septuagint. Like classical Greek, the plural heautoun is often used for the first and second person plural.

"In the New Testament heautou is the common word for 'himself,' appearing over 320 times. Whereas older Greek often used autou rather than heautou, this use appears only 20 times in the New Testament. The primary purpose of this reflexive pronoun is to indicate that the agent and the person acted upon are the same. ... Heautou is also used in the New Testament, to a much lesser extent, to express the idea of possession of very personal things. In these instances it is translated 'his own.' Such uses include the possession of his own life, body, soul, wife, work, flesh, and things."

An example of the word heauton, used in the same sense as used in James 1:27 is found in Mark 12:33. "And to love Him with all the heart, with all the understanding, with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love one's neighbor as oneself, is more than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices." I rather doubt that Mr. Overton would argue that this particular verse applies to group action instead of individual action.

Another example of the same word in the same form is found in Luke 18:14, "I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." The context of these two words clearly shows that individual action is under consideration.

What Mr. Overton has done is to apply a general definition of a word to all forms of the word. Yes, in some instances heautou can be translated as "themselves" or "their," such as in Luke 12:36 where "their" is the translation of heautõn, but notice that it is a different form of the same base word. The word form used in James 1:27 is always translated in the singular sense.

See Orphans and Their Care for additional information. See The Misuse of Truth regarding the type of logical error made by Mr. Overton.

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