James: Peirazô / Peirasmos (Temptation and Trials)

Classical Greek

The verb peirazô (cognate noun: peirasmos) is a strengthened form of the verb peiraô.

Peiraô has the following related meanings in classical Greek:

  • (1) to attempt, to try, make an effort;
  • (2) to experience something (i.e., the experience gained by attempting something);
  • (3) to put something to the test.

In turn, the verb peirazô and its cognate noun peirasmos are quite rare in classical Greek.

Use in the Bible

One may note the following range of meanings in the Bible: 

(1) To Attempt, Try to Do Something
  • Acts 16:7: “When they came to Mysia, they tried (epeirazon) to go on into Bithynia.”
(2) To Test Something or Someone to Discover its True Nature.
  • This is the sense of God testing Abraham’s faith when he commanded him to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. Gn 22:1: “God put Abraham to the test” (G: epeirazen; M: nsh).

See also: 

  • 2Cor 13:5: “Examine yourselves (heautous peirazete) to see whether you are living in faith.”
  • Rv 2:2: “you have tested (epeirasas) those who call themselves apostles but are not.” 
  • Dt 13:3: God tests the love of his people by sending false prophets who entice them to follow other gods. 
  • Jdt 8:25: Various trials are understood as tests from God. 
  • Human beings are said to put God to the test when they fail to trust him; e.g., Ex 17:7; “the Israelites quarreled there and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord in our midst or not?’” 
(3) To Try to Entrap Someone 
  • Mt 16:1: “The Pharisees and Sadducees came and, to test him [Jesus], asked him to show them a sign from heaven.”
(4) To Tempt One to Sin
  • Gal 6:1: “Take care that you yourselves are not tempted” (peirasthês; NRSV). 
  • The devil is simply called “the tempter” (ho peirazôn) as in Mt 4:3; 1Thes 3:5

Peirasmos / Peirazô in James

James uses the noun peirasmos twice:

  • Jas 1:2: “Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials” (peirasmois). 
  • Jas 1:12: “Blessed is the man who perseveres through trials” (peirasmon).

James uses the verb peirazô 4X in Jas 1:13–14

  • “No one experiencing temptation (peirazomenos) should say, ‘I am being tempted (peirazomai) by God,’ for God is not subject to temptation (apeirastos) to evil, and he himself tempts (peirazei) no one. Rather, each person is tempted (peirazetai) when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (epithumia).

Meaning of Trials (Peirasmoi) in James

In Jas 1:2, James understands the peirasmoi as a “testing” (dokimion) of faith that produces (katergazetai) perseverance. James’ meaning is related to meaning (2) listed under “Use in the Bible”: a testing that reveals the true nature of something. Here however, James moves beyond that passive sense of discovering what is already there. Rather, James refers to an active process of testing that works to produce the result of perseverance (Vocabulary Jas 1:3). So the peirosmoi (“trials”) are not just tests that reveal whether one has true faith or other virtues; they also constitute a process of refining that helps a person to develop those virtues. This is not unlike the process of treating gold with aqua regia, which both purifies gold and reveals its purity.

In Jas 1:12, by contrast, James has the final result in view: “Blessed is the one who perseveres through trials, because, having been tested (and found genuine).” 

Meaning of “to Tempt” (Peirazô) in James

James uses the verb peirazô in a sense much closer to Biblical meaning (4) (”tempting to sin”). James thus insists that God would never tempt one to sin (peirazô), just as God himself cannot be tempted to sin (apeirastos). Rather, this temptation to sin originates in a one’s inner desire (epithumia). 

The Greek of James’ statement, “God himself tests (peirazô) no one,” seems to contradict passages such as Gn 22:1, “God tempted (epeirazen) Abraham.” James, however, would doubtless interpret epeirazen here as the testing of one’s faith, in line with Biblical meaning (1) and in line with James’ understanding of the role of peirasmoi in Jas 1:2 and Jas 1:12

The interpretive tradition makes a similar distinction when comparing Jas 1:13’s assertion “God tempts no one” with the petition in the Lord’s Prayer “lead us not into temptation” (G: mê eisenegkês hêmas eis peirasmon; cf. Christian Tradition Jas 1:2;  Christian Tradition Jas 1:12a). Jas 1:13 is understood as asserting that God tempts no one to sin, whereas the petition in the Lord’s Prayer is interpreted as speaking of God’s testing of one’s faith through external hardships or trials. The sense would perhaps be more clearly stated in English, “lead us not unto ordeals” or “lead us not unto trials.” Similar to peirasmos, both terms literally refer to a test to determine guilt, but can be used more generally to mean any situation that severely tests one’s abilities.