The Bible in Its Traditions

James 1:18–25

Byz Nes TR

18  Exercising His will He begat us by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.

18  For by his own will he produced us through the Word of truth, so that we might be a kind of beginning among his creatures.

18  It is he, who begot us of his own will with the word of truth, that we should be the firstfruits of his creatures.

18 first-fruits Lv 2:12; Rom 11:16; Rom 16:5; Rv 14:4
Byz S TR

19  So then, my beloved brothers, let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger;

19  Ye know [this], my beloved brethren. But let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath

19  You know this, my most beloved brothers. So let every man be quick to listen, but slow to speak and slow to anger.

19 slow to speak Prv 29:20; Eccl 5:1
Byz Nes V S TR

20  for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God.

Nes S TR

21  Therefore laying aside all filthiness and abundance of evil, in meekness receive the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.

21  Wherefore putting away all filthiness and overflowing of wickedness, receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.

21  Because of this, having cast away all uncleanness and an abundance of malice, receive with meekness the newly-grafted Word, which is able to save your souls.

Byz Nes S TR

22  But become doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.

22  So be doers of the Word, and not listeners only, deceiving yourselves.

22 doing the word, not just hearing Mt 7:24-27; Lk 8:21; Rom 2:13
Byz Nes

23  Because if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, this [one] is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror;

23  For if anyone is a listener of the Word, but not also a doer, he is comparable to a man gazing into a mirror upon the face that he was born with;

23  For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like a man who sees his face in a mirror;

Byz Nes TR

24  for he observed himself and has gone away, and immediately forgot what sort of [man] he was.

24  and after considering himself, he went away and promptly forgot what he had seen.

24  For he sees himself and goes his way, and forgets how he looked.

Byz Nes TR V S

25  But the [one] who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues [in it], and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one shall be blessed in what he does.


Comparison of Versions

19c slow to speak Parallelism V adds the word autem ("however")  after "slow" to parallel the autem of the previous phrase (19b). 


Literary Genre

19 Maxim The verse takes the form of a three part maxim (G= gnômê; L = sententia); parallels to it can be found in ancient Jewish wisdom literature, Christian literature, and Greco-Roman moral literature. 



12–18 Use in Lectionary RML : Tuesday, Week 6, Year 2

17–27 Use in Lectionary RCL : Proper 17, Year B

17–21 Use in Lectionary RML (1570) : 4th Sunday after Easter


Literary Devices

19a beloved brothers A More Gentle Appeal This is one of only three times (with Jas 1:16 and Jas 2:5) that James uses the intimate agapêtos to qualify his address to his "brothers" in the faith (Literary Devices 1:2). This together with his use of indirect third-person imperatives ("Let everyone"), instead of direct, second-person imperatives ("Do;" "Do not"), shows James wants to exhort his audience with a gentler tone.



19–27 Use in Lectionary



20 righteousness Divine Standard of Justice The Greek dikaiosunê, taken from the root dikê, refers to the basic concept of justice. Here it refers to the divine standard of justice (Vocabulary 2:21a).


Ancient Texts

21b implanted word Stoic Philosophy: Innate Moral Concepts The Stoics taught that the faculty of reason (logos) is not fully developed in the human soul until later in life (see Aetius Prooem. 2; [→SVF 2.83]), but that already from the beginning certain preconceptions (prolêpsis) are innate in the soul, including our innate sense of right and wrong.

  •  Cicero Tusc. 3.2 "The seeds of virtue are inborn (semina innata virtutum) in our dispositions, and, if they were allowed to ripen, nature's own hand would lead us on to happiness of life" (King 1927, 226).
  • Epictetus Diatr. 2.11.3 "who has come into being without an innate concept (emphyton ennoian) of what is good (agathos) and evil (kakos), honourable and base…what we ought to do and what we ought not to do?" (Oldfather 1928, 1:276).
  • Epictetus Diatr. 1.22.9–10 "To be eduated (paideuesthai) involves learning how to apply these natural preconceptions (phusikê prolêpsis) to particular situations" (Oldfather 1928, 1:142–43).



21b gentleness One of the Fruits of the Spirit Catholic tradition, based on Gal 5:22–23, identifies gentleness (L = mansuetudo) as one of the twelve fruits of the Holy Spirit (CCC 1832).


22–27 Use in Lectionary RML (1570) : 5th Sunday after Easter

Christian Tradition

23ff like a man who observes the appearance of his birth Kierkegaard: How to Read Scripture as in a Mirror Kierkegaard Mirror., in a reflection on Jas 1:22–27, exhorts his readers :

  • Do not look at the mirror, but look at yourself in the mirror. People of this age spends much time and effort in translating and puzzling over obscure passages in Scripture, but not allowing God’s Word to address them personally. To truly read the Word, one must be ready to follow Scripture's commandments.
  • One must read God’s word as if it were addressed to oneself personally. Kierkegaard criticizes the tendency of his age to cultivate objective views about the Bible but to avoid a personal encounter with its message. When one reads, in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, of the priest who ignored the beaten and robbed man lying in the road, he should say, “It is I.”
  • One must not hear the word and immediately forget. Rather than making rash promises to never forget, one should start with a short-term goal, such as reading aloud the epistle for the day. One should learn to avoid the noise of the world and remember the word in silence.



25b hearer of forgetfulness Genitive: Semiticism The use of a noun in the genitive is used as an adjective "forgetful hearer," which is not usual in Greek. It apparently imitates the construct chain in Hebrew.



25a perfect law of freedom Allusion in the Book of Common Prayer

  • BCP: A line from the "Collect for Peace" for Morning Prayer in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, may well allude to this line, "whose [i.e., God's] service is perfect freedom" (57).



19a know Indicative or Imperative The Greek verb  iste may either be an indicative, "you know [this]," or an imperative, "Know [this]!" Cf. Textual Criticism 1:19a and Literary Devices 1:19a.

Literary Devices

19a You know Paraenetic Discourse: Appeal to Shared Knowledge James assumes that his readers already know his following admonition: he is simply reminding them (cf. Jas 1:3; 3:1). In this case, the reminder is of traditional moral wisdom, not necessarily a particular Christian teaching.


21a put away Literal and Metaphorical Meanings: Allusion to Baptism? The literal meaning of the Greek apotithêmi is to take off one’s clothes (see Herodotus Hist. 4.78.4). Metaphorically it is often used in the NT to admonish believers to put off various kinds of ethical evil (see Rom 13:12; Col 3:8; 1Pt 2:1). This metaphorical sense may allude to the physical act of taking off one’s clothes during the baptismal ceremony (Literary Devices 1:21a).

21a all sordidness Specification as "Earwax"?

  • The Greek noun ruparia, a hapax legomenon in the Bible, literally means "dirt" or "filth" and was used metaphorically for moral uncleanness, especially greediness. Plutarch Adul. amic. 19 [Mor. 60E] parallels ruparia with mikrologia, "stinginess" or "pettiness" (Literary Devices 1:21a).
  • The specific meaning "earwax"  in Hippocrates Epid. 6.5.1, ôtos rupos, is also attested; with his emphasis on proper hearing (Jas 1:19–25), James may allude to this meaning.


21b with gentleness An Ambiguous Modifier The adverbial phrase "with gentleness" (en prautêti) may modify either the expression "after you have put away" or the imperative "receive" (Literary Devices 1:21b; Biblical Intertextuality 1:21b).

Literary Devices

21b with gentleness Contrast James contrasts the virtue of gentleness (prautês) with the ungodly vice of anger (orgê) mentioned in Jas 1:20 (Ancient Texts 1:21b).


Biblical Intertextuality

21b receive the implanted word The Word as the Gospel The NT often refers to receiving (dechomai) the word of God as a synonym for accepting the gospel message.  Jesus' parable speaks of those who receive the word with joy (Lk 8:13); Samaria received the word of God (Acts 8:14); cf. Acts 11:1; 17:11; 1Thes 1:6; 2:13 (Christian Tradition 1:21b).



22–25 doers of the word Semiticism The phrase "doers of the word" (poiêtai logou) most likely has a Semitic background. The most obvious referent of this phrase in Greek would be to poets: "makers of words"  (e.g., Thucydides Hist. 1.11.2: poiêtai logou). It is thus most likely influenced by the corresponding Hebrew "to do the word" ( ‘śh dbr), which often has the sense of performing words such as commandments (e.g., Ps 148:8: "Lightning and hail, snow and thick clouds…that fulfills his command").

Since for James "word" is equivalent with law (cf. the parallel in Jas 4:11: poiêtês nomou), James is here likely imitating the Scripture passages that refer to the "doing of the law (Torah)" (Jewish Tradition 1:22).

  • Dt 27:26: "Cursed be anyone whose actions do not uphold the words of this law!"; lit: "cursed be anyone who does not remain in the words of this Torah to do them" (cf. Dt 17:19; Jo 1:7).

24b what he was like Referent: Fallen or Renewed Human Nature? The Greek hopoios ên means literally "of what sort he was"; cf., 1Cor 3:13: "the fire will test what sort of work each has done" (NRSV).

Later Christian interpretation understands James to refer to human nature: either the original human nature created in God's image, fallen human nature, or human nature renewed by Christ (Christian Tradition 1:23-24).

Literary Devices

25c that one will be blessed in his doing Echo The one who both hears and does the word and the Law is blessed, just as the one who perseveres through trials is blessed and will receive the crown of life (Jas 1:12). The blessing here doubtless also connotes an eschatological blessing—salvation in the Kingdom (Literary Genre 1:12).

Textual Criticism

19a Therefore, my beloved brothers Unclear Relationship with Previous Verse

  • The likely original reading iste ("you know") is read by  א, A, B (followed by V).
  • hôste ("therefore") is read by P and ψ (followed by Byz and TR).
  • S simply reads "and."

The alternative readings are likely scribal attempts to avoid the ambiguous original reading iste (it is not obvious what the author expects his readers to know; Grammar 1:19a) and connect this verse more smoothly with the previous verse.


21b implanted Innate or Simply Firmly Established Qualities? The Greek emphutos literally means "implanted," and refers metaphorically to things innate or natural in humans. Plato Phaedr. 237d speaks of our innate desire for pleasure (emphutos epithumia hêdonôn) in contrast to opinions that are acquired (epiktêtos doxa; Fowler 1913, 444–45).

The word is sometimes used in the sense of something firmly established, but not necessarily inborn or innate:

  • Barn. 1.2: "his grace planted within you" (emphuton charin; Ehrman 2003, 2:12–13);
  • Barn. 9.9: Jesus' "placing the implanted gift (emphuton dôrean) of his teaching in us" (Ehrman 2003, 2:44).

21c save your souls Eschatological Salvation

In James

James uses the verb "to save" sôᵢzô in four other passages:

  • Jas 2:14: "Can this faith save him?"
  • Jas 4:12: "There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save or to destroy."
  • Jas 5:15: "and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up."
  • Jas 5:20: "he should know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins."

Jas 4:12 and 5:20 clearly refer to eschatological judgment; it is likely that all five of James' references have this connotation (Literary Devices 5:15ab).

In some passages (Jas 2:14; 4:12; 5:15), James speaks of saving the person; in others (Jas 1:21; 5:20) of saving the soul. It is thus likely that James thinks of the soul (G= psuchê) not as an immaterial spirit apart from the body (James uses the term "spirit"—pneuma—for this: 2:26), but rather as a term for the whole of the human person, body and spirit (cf. Heb. nefeš): cf. 1Cor 15:45: "The first man, Adam, became a living soul," which is a quote of Gn 2:7 (wayᵉhî hā-’ādām, lᵉnefeš hayyâ = kai egeneto ho anthrôpos eis psuchên zôsan).


19b let everyone be quick Semiticism? The construction "let every man" (estô pas anthrôpos) is not a typical Greek expression. It may be a Semiticism; cf. the rabbinic yh’ kl ’ḥd (e.g., in b. B. Meṣ. 42a).

21b receive Imperative Aorist The Greek dechomai means "to receive" (e.g., a gift), "to welcome a person" (cf. Lk 16:4), or "to receive a teaching" (e.g., Lk 8:13: "receive the word with joy"). The aorist aspectual form of the imperative suggests that the action take place once, completely. Thus it should be translated simply as "receive," and should not convey continuous duration (e.g., "be receptive to," "keep receiving," etc.). Nevertheless, the reception history of this passage shows that this continuous, durative interpratation of receiving the word was not necessarily excluded (not all languages have aspectual markers; Christian Tradition 1:21b). In this verse, then, the verb may be understood to denote:

  • receiving or accepting the message of the gospel; 
  • or receiving, i.e. being open to, the natural sense of right and wrong that exists in one's conscience.

Literary Devices

21a all sordidness and abundance of wickedness Creating an Impression of Comprehensive Evil James uses two strong phrases to create an impression of the pervasive and comprehensive evil of the world:

  • "all sordidness" (pasa ruparia);
  • "abundance of evil" (perisseia kakias).

18b first-fruits Cultic Purity Language James' language is full of allusions to Israel's worship and Israel's concept of purity. Here James calls church members, “a sort of first-fruits” (aparchê) of his creatures,” alluding to the first portion offered in a sacrifice. James employs purity language elsewhere:

  • Jas 1:27:  religion that is “pure (katharos) and undefiled” (amiantos) consists in caring for orphans and widows and keeping oneself “unstained” (aspilos) from the world;
  • Jas 3:6c: [the tongue] "defiling (spiloô) the whole body";
  • Jas 3:17b: the “wisdom from above” is called “pure” (hagnos);
  • Jas 4:8bc:  “Cleanse (katharizô; cf. kathoros in Jas 1:27) [your] hands, you sinners, and purify (hagnizo; cf. agnos in Jas 3:17) [your] hearts, you double-minded.”

Even the pervasive concept of "wholeness" (expressed especially with the word teleios: see Jas 1:4,17,25; 3:2; cognates and verbal expressions in Jas 1:15; 2:8,22; 5:11) is cultic, alluding to the requirement that a sacrifice should be whole (teleios; cf. Literary Devices 1:27; Ancient Cultures 1:18b).


Biblical Intertextuality

18a word of truth Possible Referents of “the word of truth”  The term "word of truth" (logos alêtheias) may refer to several concepts found in Scripture. Its meaning is closely connected with how the exegete understands the phrase: "he gives birth to us." Does the "us," refer to (1) all humanity, (2) Israel, or (3) Christians? 

  • (1) The word by which God created all humans. Cf. Gn 1:26–27: God creates through speaking and Jon 1:1–3: God creates all humans and all things through his Word.
  • (2) The Torah. The Law is called a “word of truth” in Ps 119:43. In this case, the reference is to the word of the Torah “giving birth” to the people of Israel as the “first fruits” of creation—a people set apart and specially dedicated to God. If this is the meaning, then the interpreter must decide if the reference to Israel applies literally to Jews or in an extended sense to followers of Jesus.
  • (3) The gospel message. “Now you too, in him, have heard the message of the truth (logos alêtheias)  and the gospel of your salvation.” (Eph 1:13, cf. Col 1:5; 2Tm 2:15). In this case, the language of “giving birth” refers to God “giving birth” to the Christian in baptism (cf. Jn 1:13; 3:3–5; 1Pt 1:23–25; cf. Paul’s image of giving birth to members of his churches: 1Cor 4:15 and Gal 4:10).

The three options as not necessarily mutually exclusive. In the Hellenistic Jewish-Christian context presupposed by the Letter of James, one could well understand the word (logos) as the rational power through which the cosmos was created and is upheld, the Torah as the written expression of that cosmic logos, and the Christian message as the Lord Jesus' interpretation of the Torah (Christian Tradition 1:18a).

19c slow to anger General Biblical and Jesus' Teaching on Anger

Biblical Parallels

The wisdom tradition teaches the need to control anger:

  • G-Prv 16:32: “A man who is slow to anger (makrothumos) is better than the mighty; and he who controls his temper (ho kratôn orgês) better than one who captures a city.” 

  • Prv 12:16: “Fools immediately show their anger.” 

  • Prv 29:8: “Pestilent men set a city aflame, but the wise turn away wrath” (hoi sophoi apestrepsan orgên). 

  • Sir 27:30: “Anger and wrath, these also are abominations, yet a sinner holds on to them.” 

Several aspects may be noted in the NT:

  • It appears in NT vice lists: Col 3:8 and Eph 4:31 include both orgê and thumos in their lists. These lists parallel the Stoic view that sees anger (orgê) as a wholly negative vice. 1Tm 2:8 admonishes believers to be “without anger or argument” (dialogismos), suggesting the connection between uncontrolled anger and disputes in the community). See also Ancient Texts 1:19c

  • Eph 4:26, however, suggests that anger is not sinful in itself, but only if it is uncontrolled: “Be angry but do not sin (orgizesthe kai mê hamartanete); do not let the sun set on your anger” (epi parorgismôᵢ humôn). 

  • Anger, in the sense of punishing a wrongdoing, is only proper to God (“the wrath of God”); see Jn 3:36; Rom 1:18; Rom 5:9; 1Thes 1:10. Thus Rom 12:19, “Beloved, do not look for revenge but leave room for the wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord,’” but cf. Rom 13:4: governing powers are “the servant of God to inflict wrath.” 

Jesus’ Teaching

Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount singles out anger as a serious sin: “whoever is angry (orgizomenos) with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ [i.e., rêqâ / rêq’ā – “fool, worthless person”] will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna” (Mt 5:22). 

With James’ admonition to be slow to anger, he seems to accept the view that anger should be controlled as opposed to being completely eradicated.

Peritestamental Literature

18a Of his own will God’s Free Creation Philo uses the same participle (the passive of boulomai) to express God's careful planning of his creation:

  •  Philo Opif. 16 "When he willed (bouletheis) to create this visible world, He first fully formed the intelligible world, in order that He might have the use of a pattern, wholly God-like and incorporeal" (Colson 1929, 1:14–15).

See also Opif. 44 wherein God willed to create the cyclical patterns of nature (Ancient Texts 1:18a).

18a word The Role of God’s Logos in Creation, Especially of Humans

 God's Creation through the Word

Philo Migr. 6 teaches that God used his logos as an instrument (organon) to fashion the world (Colson 1932, 134–35).

God's Word is the Model for the Human Soul

  • Philo Opif. 139 ( cf. Philo Leg. 3.96): God's creation of the human soul is particularly associated with his logos: "for the Creator, we know, employed for its making no pattern (paradeigma) taken from among created things, but solely, as I have said, creation,  his own Word" (logos). This special creation through the Word is connected with humans being made in the "likeness and imitation" (apeikonisma kai mimêma) of God (Colson 1929, 110–11).

The human mind is thus in contact with divine reason:

  • Philo Opif. 146 "Every man, in respect of his mind is allied to the divine reason (kata tên dianoian ôᵢkeiôtai logôᵢ theiô); having come into being as a copy or fragment or ray of that blessed nature" (Colson 1929, 114–15).

21b implanted Virtues Implanted in the Human Soul  Philo Plant. 37 speaks of virtues implanted in the human rational soul (cf. Ancient Texts 1:21b; Christian Tradition 1:21b):

  • Scriptural references to the trees in the Garden of Eden (the Tree of Life, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil) are allegorical: "these can be no growths of earthly soil, but must be those of the reasonable soul" (psuchê logike).
  • “We must conceive therefore that the bountiful God plants (emphuteuô) in the soul as it were a garden of virtues (paradeison aretôn) and of the modes of conduct corresponding to each of them (tôn kat' autas praxeôn) garden that brings the soul to perfect happiness" (Colson 1930, 3:230–31).


Comparison of Versions

21a sordidness S's Use of Ritual Purity Language S translates "sordidness" with ṭnpwt’ ("uncleanness"). The word is also used at Dn 11:31 ("the abomination that makes desolate") and in several NT texts, e.g., Gal 5:19 and Eph 4:19, where it translates the Greek akatharsia ("impurity"). 

21b the implanted word The Word Implanted in Human Nature S adds "in our nature" (bkynn) after "implanted," supporting the interpretation that James here refers to a characteristic implanted in all human beings, rather than a special grace given to Christians (Christian Tradition 1:21b).  S uses this same word in Jas 3:7: "Every kind (kyn’) of beast…nature (kyn’) of human beings."

Christian Tradition

18a by the word of truth Identify of the Word? The tradition offers several possibilities concerning the identify of “the word of truth.”

The Pre-existent Word through Whom the World was Created

The Incarnate Word

The Word of the Gospel (= Acceptance of the Christian Message)

Other Interpretations

Cornelius à Lapide lists several other interpretive options, including a sacramental sense: it refers to the “word” spoken in the sacraments (e.g., in baptism, “I baptize you,” in penance, “I absolve you,” or the words of consecration during Mass). This refers to Scholastic sacramental theology, wherein a specific verbal formula is necessary (along with proper matter and intention) to effect the sacrament. 

Here is the moral sense:

  • Lapide Comm. ad loc. “The moral sense (moraliter) of the passage is that it teaches about the divine sonship in which Christians become heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, sharers of the divine nature. God is the father, the seed is prevenient grace, breathed upon through the passion and merits of Christ, the mother is our will, whose seed is the consent to the grace and vocation of God: the offspring is the new person (homo novus) living a life of grace” (20:70).

18a Of his own will He gave us birth God's Unmerited Election Commentators, both Catholic and Protestant, find here a reference to God's unmerited grace in salvation:

  •  Bede Ep. cath. ad loc.: God begets a new person in baptism "not because of our merits (non nostris meritis) but because of the generosity of his will" (Hurst 1983, 189; Hurst 1985, 17); similarly Augustine of Hippo Enarrat. Ps. 67.12; Augustine of Hippo Ep. 149.6.
  •  Gloss. Ord. ad loc. "Every good is from God, and you have not come to this through your merits, but only through the grace of the divine will" (sola gratia divinae voluntatis; col. 1271).
  •   Calvin Comm. Iac. "But this passage teaches us, that as our election before the foundation of the world (nostra electio ante mundum conditum) was gratuitous (gratuita), so we are illuminated by the grace of God alone as to the knowledge of the truth so that our calling (vocatio) corresponds with our election" (Owen 1849, 292; Reuss and Erichson 1896, 392).
  •  Lapide Comm. "without our merit, he mercifully called, elected, justified, and regenerated…we are born from him by his certain plan, deliberation, proposition, and predestination" (certo consilio, deliberatione, proposito et praedestinatione Dei; 20:70).

Reformation Debate on Free Will

  •   Luther Serv. arbit. 5 holds that this text proves that human free will has absolutely no role in becoming a new creature in God's Kingdom—this is completely due to God's working: God's grace gives birth, and the human is passive (LW 33:243; WA 18:754).
  • In reply Erasmus Hyper. insists that a human must have some positive role in cooperating with God's grace in becoming a new creature; "Of his own will He gave us birth" simply means that salvation is a free gift of God that cannot be earned by humans, but it does not preclude the free will to cooperate or not cooperate with that grace" (Miller 2000, 622–25).

Other Interpretations

Bernard of Clairvaux Serm. Cant. 16.4 connects the passage with the Christian's ability to call on God as Father.

18b first-fruits Identity of the “First-Fruits” The tradition offers two main options for the identity of the “first fruits.”

Human Beings are the First Fruits of God’s Creation

Several authors interpret “first fruits” as humanity; in particular, “first fruits” refers to humanity’s privileged place over the rest of creation.

Christians are the First Fruits

  • Bede Ep. cath. ad loc. sees the reference to giving birth (v. 18a) as a reference to baptism: “he has changed us from sons of darkness into sons of light through the water of regeneration” (Hurst 1983, 189; Hurst 1985, 17).
  • Aquinas ST 3.23.2 applies this passage to spiritual re-birth (regeneratio spiritualis; English Dominicans 1947, 4:2142).
  • Calvin Comm. Iac. “For as man excels among all creatures, so the Lord elects some from the whole mass and separates them as a holy offering, to himself” (segregat sibi in sanctam oblationem; Owen 1849, 293; Reuss and Erichson 1896, 392); cf. also Luther Lect. Heb. ad 3:14.
  • Baptist Statement 2 refers the passage to the new birth in Christ (CCFCT 3:810).

Similarly: Augustine of Hippo Ep. 140.62.

Distinction between “Giving Birth” and the Father’s Begetting the Son

In referencing this passage, the tradition is careful to distinguish the “giving birth” of Christians from God’s begetting of his Son: Augustine of Hippo Cons. 2.3.6 (Weirich 1903, 87); Bede Ep. cath. ad loc. (Hurst 1985, 17); Ps.-Andreas Catena ad loc.; Ps.-Oecumenius Comm. Ep. Cath. Jac. ad loc. (col. 465); Chemnitz Loc. Theo. 2.1 (Preus 2008, 1:156).

  • Aquinas ST 3.23.2 “There is this difference between an adopted son of God and the natural Son of God, that the latter is “begotten not made”; whereas the former is made (filius Dei naturalis est genitus non factus, filius autem adoptivus est factus), according to Jn. 1:12: “He gave them power to be made the sons of God.” Yet sometimes the adopted son is said to be begotten, by reason of the spiritual regeneration which is by grace, not by nature (spiritualem regenerationem, quae est gratuita); wherefore it is written (Jas 1:18): ‘Of His own will hath He begotten us by the word of truth’” (voluntarie genuit nos verbo veritatis; English Dominicans 1947, 4:2142).

19f quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger Drawing on the Greco-Roman Tradition Commentatators add similar quotations and examples from the Greco-Roman writers, showing their conviction that James' advice is not narrowly Jewish or Christian, but draws on a wider tradition.

  • Bede Ep. cath. ad loc. cites the example of the Pythagoreans—“endowed with the capacity to reach natural knowledge” (naturalis scientiae magisterio praediti)—who insisted that their listeners keep silence for five years before they were allowed to preach (Hurst 1983, 190; Hurst 1985, 18).  See also Ancient Texts 1:19c.
  • Lapide Comm. ad loc.: After insisting that "all ancient wise men (omnes prisci sapientes), both pagan and Christian, taught this type of wisdom" (hunc sapientiae modum) Lapide quotes relevant sayings from Apollodorus, Zeno, Theocritus, Demosthenes, Isocrates, Nicostratus, Xenocrates, Plutarch, and Martial (20:74–75).
  • Gloss. Ord. quotes Seneca's lengthy description of an angry man (Seneca Ira 3.1.3-4 [col. 1271]).

19b quick to hear, slow to speak Interpretations of Listening and Speaking

Advice for Teachers and Bishops

The tradition often connects James' admonitions with advice for teachers, and especially for bishops in their role as teachers. 

Augustine of Hippo preached a sermon on Jas 1:19,22, applying the admonition to himself and his fellow preachers. He admits that he himself prefers listening, because when he preaches he is in danger of self-conceit. Cf. his application of the passage in Augustine of Hippo Ep. 193:13: "For I prefer…to learn rather than to teach" (Teske 1923, 2: 286).

  •  Augustine of Hippo Serm.  179.2 "when we listen, we are humble; but when we preach, even if we are not in danger (periclitamur) of pride, assuredly we are at least restrained" (certe vel frenamur; Boodts 2016, 620; cf. Hill 1997, 3: 299).

He further reflects on Mary of Bethany, who sat and listened to Jesus' words (Lk 10:38–42). Hearing the words of the Lord is beneficial in this world and will continue into eternity. See the similar application to his work as a preacher in Augustine of Hippo Retract. Prol. 2; Augustine of Hippo Tract Ev. Jo. 57.3.

Lapide Comm. ad loc. gives the example of Thomas Aquinas, who listened attentively to his teacher Albert the Great and was so silent that he earned the nickname "the Dumb Ox" (bos mutus). Albert defended him saying that "the dumb ox would soon send forth such bellowings that the whole world would hear them" (20:73).

  • Bede Ep. cath. ad loc. "And properly he first advises (ammonet) each to lend his ear rather quickly to someone teaching, but only later to open his mouth to teach, because it is foolish (stultum) for anyone to wish to preach to others what he himself had not learned. Let anyone who loves wisdom, therefore, first beg this from God, as he advised above (Jas 1:5), then let the humble hearer (humilis auditor) seek out a teacher of truth, and all the while let him not only most carefully restrain his tongue from idle conversations (otiotis sermonibus) but also hold back from preaching the very truth which he has recently learned" ( Hurst 1983, 190; Hurst 1985, 17–18). Erasmus Iac. Par. ad loc. also connects Jas 1:19 and the warning to teachers in Jas 3:1.
  • Gloss. Ord. thus glosses "slow to speak": "do not presume to teach before the right time" (ne ante tempus praesumat docere); i.e., make sure that one is properly prepared before beginning to teach. (col. 1272).

Eager to Hear Beneficial Words

  • Bar Salibi Ep. Cath. : James refers to listening to divine words and profitable stories (Sedlacek 1910, 91; Syriac – ibid., 119).
  •  Gloss. Ord.: The words "quick to listen" are glossed with "to the teachers of truth" (doctoribus veritatis; col 1272).

Guard against Idle Words

  • Gregory the Great  Reg. Past. 3.14 quotes several passage from James in his discussion on how the pastor should admonish talkative people: Jas 1:26; 1:19; 3:8.  Gregory connects these passages with Jesus' saying, "on the day of judgment people will render an account for every careless word they speak" (Mt 12:36): "For indeed every word is idle (otiosum) that lacks either a reason of just necessity or an intention of pious usefulness" (Barmby 1895, 38; Judic, Rommel and Morel 1992, 348).

21a all sordidness and abundance of wickedness Distinction: Inner and Outer Vices

Interior and Exterior Evils

The tradition distinguishes between the two terms "all sordidness" and "abundance of wickedness".  Bede Ep. cath.Hurst 1983, 191; Hurst 1985, 19); reproduced in the Gloss. Ord. ad loc. (col. 1272): 

  • sordidness: "both of body and of soul";
  • wickedness: "belongs particularly to the perversity of the inward man" (interior homo).

Preparation for Receiving the Word

Many interpreters see here James' admonition to prepare oneself to receive God's world:

  • Bede Ep. cath. "he orders that they cleanse both body and mind from vices, that they may be able to receive the word of salvation" (verbum salutis; Hurst 1983, 191; Hurst 1985, 19).

Building on James' reference to the implanted word, many see here an agricultural image: the person must clear away the weeds of sin before the word can grow:

  • Erasmus Iac. Par. ad loc. "if you want the seed of the evangelical word, which has been cast only once, to produce fruit in you…then clear away from the field of your breast…all the passions with which the human soul is polluted, the thorns of greed, the sand of rashness, the mud of lust, the rocks of pride and obstinacy" (Bateman 1993, 144).

21b with gentleness A Virtue Opposing Anger

  • Gloss. Ord. glosses "gentleness" (mansuetudo) with "against anger" (contra iram), in harmony with the Greco-Roman ethical tradition (col. 1271; Ancient Texts 1:21b).
  • Ps.-Oecumenius Comm. Ep. Cath. ad loc.  "The handing on of the teaching (paradochê didaskalias) should be with gentleness (en prautêti), and not with noise and confusion" (en thorubôᵢ kai tarachêᵢ; col. 468b).


Literary Devices

22–25 be doers of the word Theme of Living out Faith in Works This passage introduces James' characteristic focus on action and living out one's faith:


24a he observed …is gone…forgot: Gnomic Aorists The verbs are gnomic aorists: these state general truths or principles, often employed in making general comparisons. Although the aorist is often translated into English using the simple past tense, the aorist actually denotes aspect, namely a single completed action. More generally, it marks an action that lacks temporal duration—hence, it can denote something that is eternal and timeless. Thus it can be used to name states of affairs that are always generally true; in this case it is translated into English with the present tense (cf. Jas 1:11; Smyth 1920 § 1931).

Literary Devices

22–25 doers of the word Rhetorical Jewel

Elocutio: Key Words

James gives literary coherence to this section with the repetition of the key nouns akroatês ("hearer") and poiêtês ("doer"):

  • Jas 1:22: "doers of the word and not only hearers;"
  • Jas 1:23: "hearer of the word and not a doer;"
  • Jas 1:25: "not a hearer who forgets but a doer of works."

Dispositio: Finely Carved Contrast

v 22: Thesis: Be doers of the word, and not only hearers
v. 23–24 Comparison elaborating on those who hear only
  • a. v 23b: he is like one who observes his own face in a mirror;
  • b. v 24: he observes himself and goes away;
  • c. v 24: and immediately forgets what he looked like.
v. 25: Comparison elaborating on those who hear and do
  • v 25a: the one who looks into the perfect law;
  • v 25a: and remains;
  • v 25b: becomes a doer of works.

v 25c: Conclusion: the doer of works is blessed.

Cf. Allison 2013, 322.


Ancient Cultures

23b mirror Greco-Roman Mirrors In Hellenistic times, the typical mirror was hand-held and used mainly for personal adornment. Usually made of polished metal, its reflection was imperfect (cf. 1Cor 13:12: "we see indistinctly, as in a mirror;" Ancient Cultures 1:23b).

Ancient Texts

25a perfect law The Divine Law Governing the Universe In Stoic philosophy (and the Platonic-Aristotelian tradition generally), that which is “perfect” is “complete” according to nature (secundum naturam; kata phusin). In this sense, “nature” is quite different from the wild, spontaneous, and anarchic view of nature that we have inherited from Romanticism. Nor is “nature” the mere aggregate of corporeal physical movement—as opposed to the realm of mind— as in much of western philosophy after Galileo. For a Platonist or Aristotelian, “nature” (phusis) is energized form (eidos) or form in the process of being actualized: in other words, it is a complex of matter joined with an intellgible structure (i.e., form) set in motion (i.e., experiencing change). In this sense, “nature” is inherently teleological and ordered; hence in ancient Greco-Roman thought, one can derive ethical predicates by appealing to “nature” in a way that is not possible in modern philosophy (cf. Collingwood 1946).

Here Seneca, though equivocating somewhat about the meaning of 'nature,' exemplifies this connection between form, nature, perfection, and reason:

  • Seneca Ep. 124.13–15 "But the true Good is not found in trees or in dumb animals' the Good which exists in them is called 'good' only by courtesy…There are four natures which we should mention here: of the tree, animal, man, and God. The last two, having reasoning power, are of the same nature, distinct only by virtue of the immortality of the one and the mortality of the other. Of one of these, then—to wit God—it is Nature that perfects the Good; of the other—to wit man—pains and study do so. All other things are perfect only in their particular nature, and not truly perfect since they lack reason. Indeed, to sum up, that alone is perfect which is perfect according to nature as a whole and nature as a whole is possessed of reason" (Gummere 1917, 3:445–46).


Christian Tradition

23ff mirror Interpretations of the Mirror

The Mirror is the Law and the Scripture

As James moves from gazing into a mirror to speaking of looking into" the perfect law of liberty (Jas 1:25), the tradition naturally associates the mirror with the law and thus with Scripture (both Old and New Testaments).

  •  Ps.-Hilary of Arles Tract. Iac. ad loc. "Mirror" represents the law: "For there are two mirrors, i.e., small and large. In a small mirror small things are seen; in a large one, large things. Thus truly there are two laws: the small is the old, which led no one to perfection. The large is the new law of the Gospel (lex nova Evangellii), because the fullness of perfection (plenitudo perfectionis) is observed in it" (col. 68).

The Mirror Reveals the True Self

  •  Erasmus Iac. Par. "The mirror of evangelical teaching (evangelica doctrina) displays not the warts and bumps on the body, but puts all the diseases of your soul (omneis animi tui morbos) before your eyes. Not only does it reveal them, it also cures them" (verum etiam medetur; Bateman 1993, 144–45; Bateman 1997, 131). 
  • Gloss. Ord. (V), quoting Bernard of Clairvaux: "Let us observe, brothers, ourselves in that [mirror] which we have heard in the reading of the sacred Gospel, so that we might profit (proficiamus) from it, and correct ourselves, if we discover anything in ourselves that should be corrected" (corrigamus si qua in nobis deprehendimus corrigenda; col. 1272). See above Ancient Texts 1:23.


25a law of freedom The Catechism on Freedom CCC 1965-74 connects the "law of freedom" with the "New Law or Law of the Gospel" (Christian Tradition 1:25a).

  • CCC 1972 "The New Law is called a law of love because it makes us act out of love infused by the Holy Spirit, rather than from fear; a law of grace, because it confers the strength of grace to act, by means of faith and the sacraments; a law of freedom, because it sets us free from the ritual and juridical observances of the Old Law, inclines us to act spontaneously by the prompting of charity and, finally, lets us pass from the condition of a servant who "does not know what his master is doing" to that of a friend of Christ—'For all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you'--or even to the status of son and heir" (Jn 15:15; cf. the summary in CCC 1985).
  • The Catechism describes this New Law as "the perfection here on earth of the divine law, natural and revealed." It is the work of Christ, "expressed particularly in the Sermon on the Mount" (CCC 1965). It is also described as "the grace of the Holy Spirit, given to the faithful through faith in Christ." (CCC 1966). The New Law also includes "the evangelical counsels" (CCC 1973).

One can draw several parallels between the description of the New Law in the CCC and James.

  • CCC 1967: The New Law is addressed especially to the poor and humble...and so marks out the surprising ways of the Kingdom" (cf. Js 2:5).
  • CCC 1969 "The New Law practices the acts of religion: almsgiving, prayer and fasting" (cf. Jas 1:27).
  • CCC 1970 "The Law of the Gopsel requires us to make the decisive choice between 'the two ways' (cf. Jas 4:4) and to put into practive the words of the Lord" (cf. Jas 1:22).

22 be doers of the word and not only hearers Admonition to Put the Church's Teaching Social Teaching into Practice

  • Pius XI Div. Redemp. 39:  Pope Pius cites this passage in his exhortation that the social teaching of the church "be consistently brought into (deducantur) practice in everyday life" in the struggle against communist ideology.


Ancient Texts

23 mirror Mirror as a Metaphor for Self-Reflection In Greco-Roman cultures, looking into a mirror was often understood as a metaphor for self-reflection. Although physical mirrors can lead to a vain obsession with one's beauty and appearance, gazing upon onself can also inspire self-awareness and virtuous action.

  • Seneca Nat. 1.17.4 asserts that originally "mirrors were invented (inventa sunt, i.e., discovered) in order that man may know himself (ut homo ipse se nosset), destined to attain many benefits from this: first, knowledge of himself; next, in certain directions, wisdom. The handsome man, to avoid infamy. The homely man, to understand that what he lacks in physical appearance must be compensated for by virtue. The young man, to be reminded by his youth that it is a time of learning and of daring brave deeds. The old man, to set aside actions dishonourable to his grey hair, to think some thoughts about death" (Corcoran 1972, 1:90–91).
  • Seneca Ira 2.36.1–3: If an angry man would see in a mirror how passion distorts his face, he might be motivated to control his anger.
  • Plutarch Rect. rat. aud. 8 [Mor. 42b]: Just as a young man examines the cut of his hair in a mirror after a visit to the barber shop, so too he should examine himself after attending a lecture for signs of moral improvement. 

Biblical Intertextuality

18b first fruits Literal and Metaphorical Meanings

Literal Meanings

  • According to the commandments of the Torah, the “first fruits” (Hebrew: bkkwrym or r’šyt; Greek: aparchê) refers to the first ripe grain and fruits (e.g., Ex 23:16; Lv 23:10) and the first pressings of wine and oil (e.g., Dt 18:4), which were offered in sacrifice to God. 
  • The first-born of animals and humans was also dedicated to God as sacred (e.g., Ex 13:2–16). 

Metaphorical Meanings, Especially the Holy Community as “First Fruits”

  • The term is applied to Israel as the “first fruits” of the Lord’s harvest (Jer 2:3). 
  • The NT’s use of aparchê is exclusively metaphorical. The Holy Spirit is the “first fruits” of the new life in Christ (Rom 8:23). 
  • The 144,000 in Revelation “have been ransomed as the first-fruits of the human race for God and the Lamb” (Rv 14:4). 
  • The term applies to the first members who join a Christian community (Rom 16:5; 1Cor 16:15). 
  • Paul also uses the word to refer to those of Israel who accept the Gospel (Rom 11:16). 
  • Christ, as the first to overcome death, is called the “first fruits” of those who will rise from the dead (1Cor 15:20–23). 


Literary Devices

18a gave birth to us Birth Imagery The Greek verb—apokueô—literally denotes the act of giving birth. In its metaphorical use, it is similar to the English "engender."

Contrastive Echo

James' use of birth imagery contrasts strongly with his previous use of that imagery:

  • Jas 1:15b: [sin] "gives birth (tiktei) to death";
  • Jas 1:18: [God the Father] "gave birth to us by the word of truth."

Feminine Imagery Applied to God

Having just described God as the Father of lights (Jas 1:17), James' use of a feminine methaphor is striking.


21c save your souls Eschatological Salvation James uses the verb sôᵢzô ("save") in four other passages:

  • Jas 2:14: "Can this faith save him?"
  • Jas 4:12: "There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save or to destroy."
  • Jas 5:15: "and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up."
  • Jas 5:20: "he should know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins."

Jas 4:12 and 5:20 clearly refer to eschatological judgment; it is likely that all five of James' references have this connotation (Literary Devices 5:15ab).

In some passages (Jas 2:14; 4:12; 5:15), James speaks of saving the person; in others (Jas 1:21; 5:20) of saving the soul. It is thus likely that James thinks of the soul (G= psuchê) not as an immaterial spirit apart from the body, but rather as a term for the whole of the human person, body and spirit.

21c,5:20b soul Multivalent Term The Greek psuchê is a multivalent term.

  • A basic meaning is the life-force that animates a body; e.g., Acts 20:10; cf. Aristotle De an. 2.4; (415b).
  • It can refer to the seat of a person's emotions: "My soul is sorrowful even to death" (Mt 26:38); cf. Mt 22:37
  • It can refer to a person's whole life, including physical life: "the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life (psuchê) as a ransom for many" (Mk 10:45).

James' understanding of psuchê is not philosophically precise. The parallelism of Jas 4:8 identifies the dipsuchos (literally "two-souled") person with the sinner; the opposite of the dipsuchos is the person with a purified heart.  The soul here is understood as the seat of the thought and will, and thus, for James, essentially equivalent with the "heart" (G= kardia; cf. heart at Jas 1:26; 3:14; 5:5,8).

James' use of psuchê  is likely similar to its use in the Gospel tradition: "For whoever wishes to save his life (psuchê) will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it" (Mk 8:35). The soul here is considered as the whole life of the person, including both the earthly, bodily existence and the transcendent existence that survives bodily death. Cf. also the usage of its Hebrew analogue, nepeš, which rendered psuchê in G: e.g., 1Cor 15:45: "The first man, Adam, became a living soul," which is a quote of Gn 2:7 (wayᵉhî hā-’ādām, lᵉnefeš hayyâ = kai egeneto ho anthrôpos eis psuchên zôsan). This transcendent element is clear in a further Synoptic saying,"And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna" (Mt 10:28). 

Jesus' reference to destroying soul and body in Gehenna is thus equivalent to James' reference to death: a sinner who is turned away from the error of this way will save his soul from this eschatological death. 

James also speaks of the "spirit" (pnuema = rûa; see Vocabulary 2:26a). Here pneuma is clearly the "life-force" of the physical body. James speaks further of the "the spirit which [God] made to live in us" (Jas 4:5). The relationship between pneuma and psuchê for James is not clear.


Ancient Cultures

18b first fruits Cultic Terminology In ancient Greek religion, "first fruits" (aparchê) is a technical term referring to the first part of a religious sacrifice or offering; it also refers to the first portion of anything that was held sacred or consecrated to the gods before the rest was put to secular use  (see Herodotus Hist. 1.92, 4.71; see also Biblical Intertextuality 1:18a, Peritestamental Literature 1:18b).

Ancient Texts

18a word The Rich Philosophical Background of Logos  Logos has a rich variety of meanings in ancient Greek philosophy, all occuring within the general semantic field of language and reason (→James: Philosophical Background of Logos ).

Biblical Intertextuality

18–21 Drawing on a Common Christian Baptismal Exhortation?

James and 1 Peter

Jas 1:18–21 and 1Pt 1:23–2:2 have several parallels: 

  • 1Pt 1:23: “You have been born anew” (anagegennêmenoi) || Jas 1:18: “Of his own will, He gave us birth by the word of truth.” 
  • 1Pt 1:23: “through the living and abiding word of God” (dia logou zôntos theou) || Jas 1:18,21: “gave us birth by the word of truth (logôᵢ alêtheias)…receive the implanted word” (emphuton logon).
  • 1Pt 2:1: “Rid yourselves (apothemenoi) of all malice” || Jas 1:21: “put away (apothemenoi) all sordidness”; cf. 1Pt 3:21: “not a removal of dirt (apothesis rhupou) from the body.” 
  • 1Pt 2:2: reference to salvation (sôteria) || Jas 1:21: reference to saving (sôsai) your souls.

Some scholars explain these parallels by suggesting that Peter and James draw on a common Christian teaching associated with the spiritual renewal of life at baptism. Other posit some literary relationship between Peter and James.

Other Parallel Uses of "Putting Away"

One should also note other NT uses of the verb "to put away" (apotithêmi) which may originally have been baptismal exhortations. All passages refer to "putting away" one's old sinful life; many specify sinful vices (e.g., anger, slanderous speech) that James also warns against. Several also parallel James' use of "all" and "every", emphasizing the exhortation to make a complete change of life.

  • Rom 13:12: "let us then throw off the works (erga) of darkness."
  • Eph 4:22: "that you should put away the old self of your former way of life."
  • Eph 4:25: "Therefore, putting away falsehood, speak the truth, each one to his neighbor, for we are members one of another."
  • Col 3:8: "But now you must put them all away: anger (orgê), fury, malice (kakia), slander, obscene language."
  • Heb 12:1:  "let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us."

Peritestamental Literature

21c able to save your souls Salvation of the Soul through the Logos

  •  Philo Leg. 3.137 "For only then does the soul (psuchê) begin to be saved (sôᵢzetai), when the seat of anger (thumos) has received reason (logos) as its charioteer" (hêniocheô; Colson and Whitaker 1929, 1:392–93).



18 Lectionary Reading RMLJas 1:18 is the basis for the Alleluia for the 8th and 22nd Sundays in Ordinary Time (Cycle B).

19,22 Liturgical Reading from Augustine Augustine of Hippo Serm. 179 is based on a liturgical reading from Jas 1:19 and 1:22.

Christian Tradition

13–18 Divisio Textus

  • In Ps.-Andreas Catena, Jas 1:13–18 is presented under the heading, "Concerning the burning desire (purôsis) in us and the passions [that arise] from it: that the cause is not from God (ou para tou theou to aition). For if there is anything good (agathon) in us, it is from him" (Cramer 1844, 8:5).
  •  Langton Comm. Iac. labels Jas 1:13–18, "To encourage the imperfect so that they resist interior trials" (ut resistant temptationibus interioribus; Arnold 2013, 83).

See further →James: Medieval Divisio Textus.

20 anger does not accomplish the righteousness of God Vice of Human Anger

Traditional Christian Views on Anger

  • Anger (Latin: ira) is traditionally listed as one of the seven capital sins ("capital," or "head," in the sense that these sins engender other vices):Gregory the Great Moral. 31.45; CCC 1866. Cassian Coll. 5.2, refers to eight principal faults, including anger (ira). 
  • Aquinas ST 3.15.9, follows the traditional Greek understanding of anger: "anger is a passion composed of sorrow and the desire of revenge" (passio composita ex tristitia et appetitu vindictae; English Dominicans 1947, 4:2105). See also Ancient Texts 1:19c.

Distinctions within Anger

Human Anger Differs from God's Anger. James Refers to Sinful Human Anger
  • Gloss. Ord.: the interlinear gloss labels anger as iracundus, "irritable and easily provoked"; such anger is not just (iustus) before God. Another comment lists another type of sinful anger: being irritable without cause, whether sinning against subordinates, or against any brothers, or against the good of wicked people (col. 1271).
  • Bar Salibi Ep. Cath. distinguishes between two types of anger: one praiseworthy, the other not. Examples of praiseworthy anger are one's anger against Satan or Paul's anger against the Corinthians and Galatians that leads him to correct them. It is better to be angry with a neighbor who sins, as a means of correction, than to laugh with them and allow them to continue their evil. James, however, is speaking of an evil kind of anger. (Sedlacek 1910, 91; Syriac, ibid., 119)
Reasonable and Unreasonsable Anger
  • Aquinas ST 3.15.9 distingishes between reasonable and unreasonable anger. Unreasonable anger seeks punishment or vindication (vindicta) beyond the order of reason. Reasonable anger, seeking to punish or vindicate according to justice (vindictam secundum ordinem iustitiae), is zealous anger (ira per zelum) and is without sin and indeed praiseworthy (English Dominicans 1947, 4:2105). Unreasonable anger does not allow the righteousness of God to be accomplished (Jas 1:20). A reasonable anger, however, can serve the cause of justice (ST 3.15.9 ad 1).
Examples of Righteous Anger
  • For Bede Ep. cath. ad loc. there is a time for righteous anger: "For example, if we perceive that those around us, particularly those who have been entrusted to us, are not otherwise able to be corrected, we may show towards them harshness (severitatem) of word or even of a more severe judgment, provided that the condition of our mind remain calm (statu nostrae mentis sereno), as far as human nature allows." He cites biblical examples of the righteous who killed sinners by the sword or by a word: Phineas [Nm 25:6-8); Samuel (1Sm 15:32-33), Elijah (1Kgs 18:40), and Peter (Acts 5:1-11 ;Hurst 1983, 191;Hurst 1985, 18).
  • Francis de Sales Love 10.16 distinguishes between human anger (referenced in Jas 1:20) and righteous anger inspired by God. Men such as Moses, Phineas, and Mathathias "made use of anger (cholere) in the exercise of their zeal" on extreme ocassions. Their anger was inspired by the Holy Spirit, however, who helped them to control it properly.  Ordinary Christians must therefore not be too quick to claim that their anger is divinely inspired. (Mackey, 455–57; Niérat, 2:223–25).

Unrighteous Anger Clouds the Ability to Judge Rightly

"Righteousness" (G= dikaiosunê; L = justitia) is closely tied to the ability to make good judgments. Giving in to anger inhibits the ability to judge rightly:

  • Cassian Inst. 8.1.1–2: Anger "must be totally uprooted from the depths of our soul," or we shall never be able "to get a grasp on righteousness as a result of our heart's clear-sighted discretion (perspicaci discretione cordis)…because "man's anger does not work God's righteousness" (Ramsey 2000, 193; Petschenig 1888, 151).
  • Gregory the Great Moral. 5.78 "By Anger wisdom (sapientia) is parted with, so that we are left wholly in ignorance of what to do, and in what order to do it; as it is written, 'Anger resteth in the bosom of a fool' (Eccl 7:9); in this way, that it withdraws the light of understanding (intelligentiae lucem subtrahit), while by agitating it troubles the mind.  By Anger life is lost, even though wisdom seem to be retained; as it is written, 'Anger destroyeth even the wise' (G-Prv 15:1).  For in truth the mind being in a state of confusion never puts it in execution (confusus animus nequaquam explet) , even if it has power to discern any thing with good judgment.  By Anger righteousness (iustitia) is abandoned, as it is written, 'The wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God'" (Jas 1:20; Marriot et al., 1:303; Adriaen 1985, 1:276).
  • Bede Ep. cath. "He who heedlessly gives in to the vice of anger, although he may appear righteous to people, in the divine judgment he is not yet perfectly righteous" (perfecte iustus). A human judge "is not able to imitate the justice of divine judgment, into which emotion (perturbatio) does not know how to enter"  (Hurst 1983, 191;Hurst 1985, 19; ). A version is quoted in the Gloss. Ord. ad loc. (col. 1271).
  • Both Gregory and Bede, in the discussions quoted above, contrast human justice done in anger with a quotation from Wis 12:18, which speaks of God judging "with clemency" (cum tranquillitate).

Specific Applications

  •  Augustine of Hippo Ep. 250.3 cites this verse in asking his young fellow bishop Auxilius to reconsider his (Auxilius') excommunication of a certain Classicianus and his household. Was Auxilius swayed by his anger to act unjustly?
  • Jerome Pelag. 2.5 uses the passage as a proof-text to prove that no human can remain without sin (Moreschini 1990, 60).
  • Caesarius of Arles Serm. 235.6 quotes the passage in his admonition to monks to avoid even minor sins, including sins of anger and hatred; cf. Serm. 156.6, where anger is associated with the sin of pride.

Anger to be Avoided Absolutely

A minority tradition refuses to make the distinction between justified and unjustified anger, and, agreeing with the Stoics (Ancient Texts 1:19c), argues that anger must be rooted out of a person's heart competely.

  • Cassian Inst. 8.21 argues, "For patience does not achieve its goal in righteous anger; it consists, rather, in not getting angry at all" (sed in penitus non irascendo consistit; Ramsey 2000, 203; Petschenig 1886, 165). If any anger is allowed, it should only be anger at one's own sins (8.7,9). For Cassian, Jesus' teaching on anger in Mt 5:21–26 shows conclusively that Jesus desired that all anger be extinguished (8.14). He quotes Jas 1:20 early in the argument (8.1.2).
  • Francis de Sales Intr. 3.8. Exhorting his reader to live out the virtues of meekness and humility, Francis insists, "I state absolutely and make no exception (nettement et sans exception), to not be angry at all if that is possible. Do not accept any pretext whatever for opening your heart's door to anger. St. James tells us positively and without reservation, 'The anger of man does not work the justice of God' (Ryan 1950, 147; Mackey 1894, 162).
  • See also Jerome Comm. Eph. ad 4:31.

Human Justice Differs from God's Justice

  • Erasmus Iac. Par. ad loc. "People are commonly inclined to think a man just when he returns insult for insult, wrong for wrong (malefium maleficio retaliat), but that man is far removed from God's view of justice. He taught us through his Son to bless those who curse us, to wish well to those who wish us ill, to do good to those who do us evil" (cf. Rom 12:14–21; Bateman 1993, 143–44; Bateman 1997, 130).

Suggestions for Reading

18–27 Exhortation to Doing the Word

Thematic Structure 

Although some interpreters see Jas 1:19 as a thematic statement developed in Jas 1:20–27, the following thematic flow of thought is evident:

  • Vv. 18–21: An example of God's good gift: "the word of truth." God implants (Jas 1:21)  a "word of truth" (Jas 1:18), the natural law of right and wrong, within each person. This law exhorts one to bridle his speech and his passions (such as anger). 
  • Vv. 22–27: One must not only hear this law, but act on it. Bridling one's tongue (Jas 1:19; 26) and caring for widows and orphans (Jas 1:27) are two specific ways of living out this law.

Interpretive Issues

  • Jas 1:18–21: One interpretive crux is clarifying the identity of the "word of truth" and the "first-fruits of his creatures" (Jas 1:18) together with the "implanted word" (Jas 1:21). One strand takes the "first fruits" as Christians, and thus the "the word of truth" and the "implanted word" as the gospel message of salvation through Jesus. Another strand, in contrast, takes the "word" to be God's word at creation, and thus the "first-fruits" to be humanity in its pre-eminence over the rest of creation (Christian Tradition 1:18b; Christian Tradition 1:21a).
  • Jas 1:19: James' advice on controlling anger renewed a classical ethical debate on whether anger should be rooted out as a wholly negative vice, or whether controlled anger has a place in the struggle to attain justice and the good (Ancient Texts 1:19c ; Christian Tradition 1:19–20). 
  • Jas 1:23–25: The word of truth is identified with the Torah. Comparing the "word of truth" to a mirror in which a human can see a reflection of his original, God-given nature (Jas 1:23–24, James then identifies the mirror with the "perfect law of freedom," the Torah as interpreted by Jesus (Jas 1:25). 
  • Jas 1:26: James' advice to bridle the tongue is situated within a rich Greco-Roman ethical tradition that valued brevity of speech and self-control; many biblical parallels are also apparent (Ancient Texts 1:26bLiterary Devices 1:26b; Biblical Intertextuality 1:26b).
  • Jas 1:27:  James' admonition to care for orphans and widows develops a common scriptural topos (Biblical Intertextuality 1:27). The tradition understood James' admonition both literally and as referring to the care of the poor and vulnerable in general (Christian Tradition 1:27; Christian Tradition 1:27b).


Textual Criticism

23a hearer of the word Identity of Word and Law The second corrector of C, several minuscules, and lectionaries read "of the law" (nomou) instead of "of the word" (logou). The scribes correctly assume that James identifies the two terms (Jas 1:23–25: looking into the mirror of the word || looking into the perfect law of freedom).


Biblical Intertextuality

22–25 that one will be blessed in his doing Rhetorical Elaboration of Jesus' Beatitude with an Example Jas 1:22–25 can be understood as a rhetorical elaboration of Jesus' saying, "Blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe (phulassô) it" (Lk 11:28; cf. Lk 8:21) or the version in  Mt 7:24 (cf. Lk 6:47), "Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts (poieiô) on them…" Just as Matthew and Luke elaborate the saying with the parable of a house built on rock or sand (Mt 7:24–27; Lk 6:47–49) so too James elaborates the saying with his example (Greek: parabolê; Latin: similitudo) of the forgetful person who looks into a mirror. Albert Sup. Matt. ad 7:26 notes the similarity between James and Jesus' teaching (Schmidt 1987, 271).

Peritestamental Literature

23f mirror Philo on the Image of a Mirror Philo uses the image of a mirror to signify contemplation, either of scripture or of one's own self.

Contemplating Scripture

Philo compares the process of rationally (logikê psychê) discerning the inner, allegorical sense of Scripture with gazing into a mirror:

  • Philo Contempl. 78 "looking through the words as through a mirror (hôsper dia katoptrou tôn onomatôn) beholds the marvellous beauties of the concepts (Colson 1941, 9:160–61).

Critical Self-reflection

Philo Migr. 96–98 and Philo Mos. 2.136–39 refers to the tradition that women gave their mirrors to make the bronze basin in which the priests purified themselves. While purifying themselves, the priests should reflect, as in a mirror, on any sins they may have so they might be purified. Philo also parallels James' reference to remembering: the priest should remember that the basin is made from mirrors.

  • Philo Mos. 2.139 "he himself may behold his own mind as in a mirror" (hina kai autos hoia pros katoptron augazêᵢ ton idion noun; Colson 1935, 6:516–17).
  • Philo Mos  98: the priests, while washing in the laver, "may be helped to see themselves reflected by recollecting the mirrors (enoptrizôntai heautous kata mnêmên tôn esoptrôn) out of which the laver was fashioned" (Colson 1935, 4:186–89).

25a law of freedom Philo: the Torah Frees One from the Slavery to Passions Philo often makes the point that those who follow the Torah are actually free, in contrast to those who are enslaved by their passions.

  • Philo Prob. 45: Philo notes that residents of a city who have laws to protect them are more free than those who live under the artbitrary rule of oligarchs or tyrants.
  • Philo Prob. 46 "Those in whom anger (orgê) or desire (epithumia) or any other passion, or again any insidious vice holds sway, are entirely enslaved, while all whose life is regulated by law are free (hosoi de meta nomou zôsin eleutheroi). And right reason (orthos logos) is an infallible law engraved not by this mortal or that and not, therefore, perishable as he, nor on parchment or slabs, and, therefore, soulless as they, but by immortal nature (athanatos phusis) on the immortal mind (athanatos dianoia), never to perish" (Colson 1941, 9:36–37).

 Similarly, much of James' moral teaching focuses on the need to free oneself from the domination of passions such as anger and desire.

25a law Philo and the Natural Law of Reason Philo accepted the Stoic concept of a universal law that orders the universe and is innate in the human mind.

  • Philo Opif. 143: The "constitution" (politeia) of the universe is the right reason of nature (orthos logos tês phuseôs), a divine law (theios nomos) that "duly apportioned to all existences that which right falls to them severally" (Colson 1929, 1:112–115).
  • Philo Prob. 46 "And right reason (orthos logos) is an infallible law (nomos) engraved not by this mortal or that…but by immortal nature (athanatos phusis) on the immortal mind (athanatos dianoia), never to perish" (Colson 1941, 9:36–37).
  • Philo Abr. 5 teaches that the patriarchs followed the natural moral law even before it was written down in the Torah. The patriarchs were in fact "laws endowed with life and reason" (empsuchoi kai logikoi nomoi; Colson 1935, 6:6–7).

The Torah is a written expression of this eternal law of nature implanted in the soul:

  • Philo Mos. 2.11: the laws of Moses are "likenesses and copies of the patterns (paradeigmatôn apeikonismata kai mimêmata) enshrined in the soul" which clearly display the virtues (Colson 1935, 6:454–57).
  • Philo Mos. 2.45–52: Philo explains that Moses begins his account of the laws of the Hebrews with the story of the creation to point out the harmony of the Mosaic laws with the eternal laws of nature. Mos. 2:52: "Thus whoever will carefully examine the nature of the particular enactments [of the Mosaic law] will find that they seek to attain to the harmony of the universe and are in agreement with the principles (logos) of eternal nature (tôᵢ logôᵢ tês aidiou physeôs sunadousas; Colson 1935, 6:474–75).


Comparison of Versions

23b the appearance of his birth : S his own face S lacks "of his origin."

Christian Tradition

23f the appearance of his birth What Is Reflected in the Mirror and then Forgotten? The tradition offers various suggestions as to what is reflected in the mirror, and then forgotten:

Forgetting One's Original Human Nature, Created in God's Image

  • Ps.-Oecumenius Comm. Ep. Cath. ad loc., "Thus also the one having observed, through the law of Moses, that he was created for the glory of God, and that he was made according to the image of the creating God. After observing, he put into practice nothing of what had been observed" (col. 468).

Forgetting One's Redeemed Nature in Baptism

  • Ps.-Oecumenius Comm. Ep. Cath., following Ps.-Andreas Catena: "the face of his origin" means "to know oneself through the law".…For through the law we learn how we were made; we observe what we became when the spiritual law perfected us by the washing (loutros: baptism) of rebirth (paliggenesia). Thus if we do not remain in such a contemplation (thea) through our actions (dia praxeôs), we also forget our gift of grace (charisma). For the one giving himself up to evil works does not remember that he was benefitted by God. For if he would have remembered that he was adopted as a son (huiothêtê) , and justified, and sanctified (which are the spiritual gifts), he would not have given himself over to the works that cancel grace" (col. 468).

Forgetting One's Sinful Nature

  • Gloss. Ord. ad. loc. glosses "mirror" with: "the bodily [mirror], where only shadows are reflected" (umbra relucet; col. 1273).  Commenting on the allegorical sense (allegorice), the Glossa takes the contemplation of the face of his birth (vultum nativitatis) to refer to a person's reflection on how one is born (qualiter homo sit natus): how fragile he is, how brief his future life will be, in what miseries he is placed. This knowledge leads to compunction and penitence. Drawn away by temptation, however,  a person forgets his remorse and returns to his sins. So too is the one who willingly listens to the word but neglects to fulfill it (col. 1272).
  •  →GEN  ad loc. "He alludes to that natural stain, which is contrary to the purity that we are born again into, the living image which we see in the law."

Forgetting the Hard Teachings of Scripture

  Erasmus Iac. Par. specifies some of the lessons the Christian has forgotten (Bateman 1993, 145; Bateman 1997, 131).

  • "You hear from Christ that the punishment of Gehenna awaits anyone who has said to his brother, 'Fool,' (cf. Mt 5:22) but you soon forget what you have heard and are up in arms over a trifling insult."
  • You hear that riches, subject as they are to moths and thieves, are to be disregarded and that true riches are to be stored in heaven (cf. Mt 6:19-21). But you depart from the preacher and go right on heaping up wealth rightly or wrongly (per fas nefasque) with might and main just as if you believed that there were not rewards for godliness after this life is over."


Ancient Texts

21b,3:13b gentleness Virtue opposite to Anger; Trait of Socrates

  • Aristotle Rhetoric 2.3 [1380a] "becoming angry is the opposite of becoming mild, and anger (orgê) of mildness (praotêtis)…Let us then define making mild as the quieting and appeasing of anger" (Freese 1926, 184–85).
  • Aristotle Nic. Eth. 4.5.1 [1125B] "Gentleness (praotês) is the observance of the mean (mesotês) in relation to anger" (orgê; Rackham 1934, 230–31).
  • Plutarch Cohib. Ira portrays the man who acts with gentleness (using praus and cognates) as the opposite of the man who gives way to uncontrolled anger (e.g., 453c, 458e, 459c, 461a, 462a, 462d, 464d; Literary Devices 1:21b).
  • Plato Phaed. 116C: Socrates is called the "noblest, gentlest (praᵢotaton), and best" of men faced with death (Emlyn-Jones 1914, 516–17); cf. Biblical Intertextuality 1:21b,3:13b.


Jewish Tradition

19bc quick to hear …slow to anger: Controlling Speech and Anger The Mishnah has similar admonitions and teachings:

  •  m. 'Abot  5.11 "There are four kinds of student: (1) swift to hear and swift to lose [i.e., to forget: ’bd]—his gain is cancelled by his loss; (2) slow to hear and slow to lose [to forget: ’bd]—his loss is cancelled by his gain (3) swift to hear and slow to lose [forget: ’bd]this is a happy lot; (4) slow to hear and swift to lose [forget: ’bd]—this is an evil lot" (Danby 1933, 457).
  • m. 'Abot  2.10 "Be not easily provoked" (Danby 1933, 449).


Ancient Texts

22 doers of the word and not only hearers Harmony of Words and Deeds is Wisdom For Seneca, coherence between one's words and deeds is a sign of wisdom:

  • Seneca Ep. 20.1–2 "Test your progress, not by mere speech or writings, but by stoutness of heart and decrease of desire.  Prove your words (verba) by your deeds (res)…philosophy teaches us to act (facere), not to speak; it exacts of every man that he should live according to his own standards, that his life should not be out of harmony with his words, and that, further, his inner life should be of one hue and not out of harmony with all his activities.  This, I say, is the highest duty and the highest proof of wisdom (sapientia)—that deed and word should be in accord (verbis opera concordent), that a man should be equal to himself under all conditions, and always the same" (Gummere 1917, 1:132–35).

25a law Greco-Roman Views on Law and Word James' identification of the implanted word (Jas 1:21) and the "perfect law of freedom" may well rely on Greco-Roman, especially Stoic, ideas.

Law is the Standard for Distinguishing Right from Wrong

The Stoics regularly define "law" (Greek: nomos; Latin: lex) as the standard for determining right and wrong. 

  • Chryssipus: "Law is king of all things human and divine. Law must preside over what is honorable and base, as ruler and as guide, and thus be the standard (kanôn) of right (dikaios) and wrong (adikaios), prescribing to (prostaktikos) animals whose nature is political [social]  what they should do, and prohibiting (apagoreutikos) them from what they should not do" (Long and Sedley 1987, 1:432; →SVF 3.314).
  • Stobaeus Anth. 2.7  "Since the law, as we have said, is virtuous (because it is right reason [logos orthos]) which commands (prostaktikos) what is to be done and forbids (apagoreutikos) what is not to be done" (Inwood and Gerson 2008, 224).
  • Cicero Leg. 19 "Law is the highest reason, implanted in Nature (ratio summa insita in natura), which commands (iubeo) what ought to be done and forbids (prohibo) the opposite" (Keys 1928, 316–17).

Word (Logos) is Identified with the Law

  • Aristotle Pol. 3.25 [1287a] "He therefore that recommends that the law should govern (ton nomon archein) seems to recommend that God and reason alone should govern" (archein ton theon kai ton noun monous; Rackham 1932, 264–65).
  •  Aristotle Pol. 3.25 [1287a] "the law is wisdom (nous = mind) without desire" (orexis; Rackham 1932, 264–65).

The Stoics identified the "word" (logos)—the universal reason governing the universe—with law (nomos); see →James: Philosophical Background of Logos.

  • Cicero Rep. 3.33 "true law is right reason, in agreement with nature (vera lex recta ratio naturae congruens)…there will not be different laws at Rome and at Athens, or different laws now and in the future. Whoever is disobedient is fleeing from himself and denying his human nature" (Keys 1928, 210–11).
  • Cicero Leg. 1.19: law is the highest reason (ratio) implanted (insita) in Nature (Keys 1928, 316–17).

God is the Source of Logos and Nomos

Right reason and law are also identified with God.

  •  Diogenes Laërtius Vit. Phil. 7.88 (according to Chryssipus): "the common law (koinos nomos) is right reason (orthos logos) which pervades all things, and is identical with this Zeus, lord and ruler of all that is" (Hicks 1925, 2:196–97).
  • Cicero Leg.2.10 "the true and primal Law (lex vera atque princeps), applied to command and prohibition, is the right reason of supreme Jupiter" (ratio est recta summu Jovis; Keys 1928, 382–83).
  • Cicero Rep.  3.33 "but one eternal and unchangeable law (una lex et sempiterna et immutabilis) will be valid for all nations and all times, and there will be one master and ruler, that is, God, over us all, for he is the author of this law, its promulgator and its enforcing judge" (ille legis huius inventor, disceptator, lator; Keys 1928, 210–11).

Elsewhere Greek thought assumes that the ultimate source of law is divine:

  •  Xenophon Mem. 4.4.19–25: all societies recognize certain moral laws; breaking moral laws results in natural punishiments: thus these laws must be the work of the gods.
  •  Plato Ep. 8 [354E] "men of sound sense have Law for their God; but men without sense Pleasure (hêdonê)" (Bury 1926, 580–81).

Peritestamental Literature

21b gentleness A Characteristic of God

  • Philo Det. 146 "But if He punishes us, He will of His gracious goodness, gently and kindly (epieikôs kai praᵢôs) correct our faults" (Colson and Whitaker 1929, 2:298–99).


Literary Devices

25a perfect law Theme of Wholeness and Perfection James's use of the adjective "perfect" (teleios) recalls his theme of wholeness, integrity, perfection and completion (→James: Perfection / Wholeness in James ;  Ancient Texts 1:4a; Ancient Texts 1:4b; Biblical Intertextuality 1:4b; Peritestamental Literature 1:4b; Christian Tradition 1:4a).

  Here, James speaks of the perfection of the Torah through Jesus' interpretation: the Torah of the Kingdom. This law is perfected through love (cf. Jas 2:8).


Ancient Texts

18a Of his own will Willing in Greek Philosophy Although the verb boulomai is common; its use here may have a background in Greek philosophy.

One of the Three Good Emotional States

The Stoics identified the cognate noun boulêsis as one of the three good emotional states (eupatheia) that are the opposite of the vices. According to  Diogenes Laërtius Vit. Phil. 7.116:

  • joy (chara; Ancient Texts 1:2) is the opposite of pleasure (hêdonê; Ancient Texts 4:1; Ancient Texts 4:1b);
  • caution (eulabeia) is the opposite of fear (phobos);
  • wishing / willing (boulêsis) is the opposite of desire (epithumia; Jas 1:14–15).
  • Similarly, Aristotle Rhet. 1.10 [1369a] refers to wish (boulêsis) as a rational desire (logistikê orexis), while epithumia and anger (orgê) are irrational desires (alogoi orexeis).

Depending Virtues

Under the heading of boulêsis, the Stoics grouped the following virtues. Each one promotes good relationships between humans, while the vice of epithumia leads to conflicts.  Thus for Diogenes Laërtius Vit. Phil. 7.116 these are:

  • benevolence (eunoia);
  • friendliness (eumeneia);
  • respect (aspasmos);
  • affection (agapêsis).

James thus uses the verb boulomai to emphasize God's free choice to create (i.e., he did not create out of necessity; Peritestamental Literature 1:18a).


Visual Arts

1:1–5:20 James Depictions of the Author Depictions of James, the author of the epistle, in paintings, statues, manuscript illustrations, engravings, woodcuts, and embroidery on liturgical vestments are particularly prominent in the Middle Ages. A common consensus of the artists is that the author of the epistle is James the Just, leader of the Jerusalem church; he is typically further identified with James, son of Alphaeus, one of Jesus' Twelve (Mk 3:18), and "James the Less" (Mk 15:40). The iconography of James draws particularly on accounts of James recorded in Eusebius of Cesarea Hist. eccl. 23 and Jerome Vir. ill. 2, who in turn draw on accounts from Clement of Alexandria and Hegesipus. See also →James: Introduction

Several prominent features of these portrayals may be noted:

  • Following the tradition that he was the first bishop of Jerusalem, James is often portrayed anachronistically in bishop's vestments.
  • James is often portrayed holding a fuller's club, alluding to the tradition that James was beaten to death with a such a club. Variations show him holding different types of clubs. Another related tradition shows James holding a bow such as one used by hat-makers of the Middle Ages.
  • James bears a striking physical resemblance to his brother Jesus.
  • One artistic tradition, based on accounts found in the preface to the Gloss. Ord. and de Voragine Leg. aur., portrays the infant James as part of a large extended family. According to this legend, St. Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary, had three children named Mary with three different husbands. James and his brothers Joses (Joseph), Simon, and Jude (cf. Mk 6:3) are the sons of Mary (daughter of Anne and Cleophas; cf. Jn 19:25) and Alphaeus (cf. Mk 3:18). James and his brothers are thus cousins of Jesus (son of Mary, daughter of Anne and Joachim) and of St. John the Evangelist and James the Greater (sons of Mary, daughter of Anne and Salomas).

The following images are noteworthy:

  • A painting of James in the Armenian Sts. James Cathedral, Jerusalem: James is dressed in episcopal robes, wears a miter and holds a crozier (Gowler 2014, 54).
  • Blessed James Apostle. In the Stav. Bib. (1093-97) illuminations of the apostle James are at the introduction to the Catholic epistles (f. 197 r→) and at the beginning of his epistle (f. 197 v→.). The apostle stands, holding a book.
  • Apostle James the Less, statue, south portal of Chartres Cathedral, early 13th century.

Anonymous, James Among Other Apostles (sculpture on limestone, early 13th c.),  South Portal, Chartres Cathedral, France

© D.R. Photo Mary Ann Sullivan→ 

James holds a club.

  • Leonardo da Vinci (1495-98), The Last Supper, Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. 

Giampietrino (1495–1549), The Last Supper (oil on canvas, ca. 1520, after Leonardo da Vinci [1452–1519], The Last Supper [1495-1498]),  298 cm x 770 cm

Royal Academy of Arts, London, exhib. Magdalen College, Oxford

Public Domain © Wikicommons→ 

James, who resembles his brother Jesus, is second from his left. This full-scale copy was the main source for the— unfortunate—twenty-year restoration of the original (1978–1998). It includes several lost details such as Christ's feet, the transparent glass decanters on the table, and the floral motifs of the tapestries that decorate the room's interior.  It was first mentioned in 1626 by the author Bartolomeo Sanese as hanging in the Certosa di Pavia, a monastery near Pavia, Italy, but it is unlikely that it was intended for this location. At some point, the upper third of the picture was cut off, and the width was reduced. Giampietrino is thought to have worked closely with Leonardo when he was in Milan. A very fine, full-size copy of this painting, before it was cut down, is installed at Tongerlo Abbey in Westerlo, near Antwerp, Belgium. 

  • Lucas Cranach the Elder (1509), Infant Saint James among his relations, a triptych in the Stadelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt, Germany. The infant Jesus, his mother Mary, and Mary's mother St. Anne are portrayed in the center. To the right is St. Anne's other daughter Mary, her husband Zebedee, and sons John the Evangelist and James the Greater. To the left is another of St. Anne's daughters named Mary with her husband Alphaeus; their children James, Joses (Joseph), Simon, and Jude are in the left and center panels.

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553), The Holy Kinship, (mixed media on lime, Wittenberg, 1509), Altarpiece, central panel: 100.4 × 121.1 cm; wings: 40 × 120 cm

Städel Museum — 1398, Frankfurt am Main

Public Domain © Wikicommons→

The side and central panels describe a a great hall with blue grey walls and three-colored tiles. In the side panels are depicted the half sisters of Virgin Mary, called after their fathers Mary Cleophas (left) and Mary Salome (right) together with their husbands.

Left panel: St. Mary Cleophas and Alphaeus (with the features of Friedrich the Wise with their two sons, the Apostles St. James the Less (at her breast) and Joseph Justus, called St. Barnabas, as annunciator of the Gospel of Matthew depicted with a book.

Central panel: Joseph, who seems to seems to sleep, the Virgin, dressed in blue with yellow lining, Anna and the Christ Child on her knee, who is stretching out his hand towards an apple given to him by Virgin Mary. Anna's three husbands following de Voragine Leg. aur. are shown in the background in the matroneum: on the left Joachim, who is attracted by the holy women in front of him and whose relation is also shown by the corresponding blue and yellow color of his dress, Cleophas (with the physiognomy and chain of Emperor Maximilian I and Salomas, with the physiognomy of Sixtus Oelhafen von Schöllenbach, secretary of Friedrich III, Maximilian I and Karl V), who are talking to each other. There is an architectural structure by a great stone bench in the foreground of the central panel with two marble columns on the sides, over which is strectched a cloth of gold. On the right column is a tablet with date and signature: [LVCAS CHRONVS FACIEBAT ANNO 1509. The parapet of the matroneum is decorated by a sculptured frieze with dancing putti holding six escutcheons with the six fields of Electorate of Saxony. In the hall are shown the 17 members of the Holy Kinship. In the central panel are shown two more children of Mary Cleophas and Alpheus, the Apostles Simon, patron saint of weavers, dyers, tanners and saddlers and Jude, who went on mission and suffered their martyrdom together and therefore are regularly depicted together.

Right panel: St. Mary Salome and Zebedee (with the features of Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, and his brother Herzog Johann der Beständige). St. Mary Salome, dressed in gold with dark red lining, is combing her son Saint James the Greater and while Saint John the Evangelist is hiding in her dress.

  • Paolo Veronese (Caliari) James as Bishop (1500s). Burghley House Collection, Lincolnshire, UK. The Bridgeman Art Library. James with crozier and miter, holding a book.

Paolo Veronese Cagliari (1528-1888), Saint James, (oil on canvas, ca. 1578), 200 X 85 cm, One of the volets of the organ of the church of San Jacopo, Murano, Venice — the other is a portrait of St. Augustine.

Burghley House Collection, Lincolnshire, UK, © A Graduate of Pomona→

  • Saint James the Less, painting by El Greco (c. 1612), Museo del Greco, Toledo, Spain. 

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El Greco (Domenikos Theotokópoulos) 1541-1614, The Apostle James the Greater, (Oil on canvas, 1610-1614), 100 cm X 80 cm

 Museo de El Greco→ (Toledo, Spain), © Wikicommons, 

James is shown holding a Bible, symbolizing his status as a scriptural writer, in one hand. James is depicted in the Mannerist style with elongated form and without any of the traditional iconographic symbols

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Nicolò Bambini (1651-1736), San Giacomo Minore (Oil on canvas, 1722-1723), Communion of St James (Series of the Twelve Apostles), Presbytery: right wall, center, Saint Stae,Venezia, © Chorus Venezia→ 

The risen Jesus appears to James and breaks bread with him (based on an account recorded in Jerome Vir. ill. 2, said to be drawn from the Gospel according to the Hebrews).

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Angelo de' Rossi (1671 – 1715), Jacobus Minor (Sculpture on marble, 1710-1711), Gli Apostoli, (h: 424 cm), Nef, San Giovanni in Laterano, Roma, © Wikicommons

James holds a book and club.

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James Tissot (French, 1836-1902), James the Lesser, (Opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper, 1886-1894), 30.6 x 23.5 cm, Brooklyn Museum, 00.159.237, © Brooklyn Museum photograph, 2008

James, resembling Jesus, prayers on his knees with outstretched arms. It perhaps reflects Hegesippus' statement that James spent so much time in prayer that his knees were as hard as a camel's.

Eastern Orthodox traditions

  • James the Just, Russian icon, 16th century. Novgorod. James is depicted in episcopal robes and holds a book.

Anonymous, James the Just, (pigments on wood, mid. 16th c.), icon, Novgorod or Moskow, Novgorod

Public Domain © Wikicommons→,

The inscription bearing the name of the saint has disappeared, but the iconography—facial features and beard shape —suggest that the icon is of James. Byzantine art places him among the founding fathers of the Church. As the creator of the first liturgy containing memorial services and the author of the message, which speaks of the healing power of prayer (Jas 5:14-16), he was also worshipped in ancient times as a healer. In Novgorod, James is prayed for the end of the epidemics. In sacred iconography, the representations of James of Jerusalem alone are very rare. We know the icons of Novgorod in which he is represented with other saints: Nicholas the Thaumaturgist, James the brother of God, Ignatius the bearer of God, end of the 15th c.; James the brother of God, Cosmas and Damian, 2nd quarter of the 16th c. The icon comes from the best workshops in Moscow or Novgorod.

  • Martyrdom of James the Just. Illustration from the Menologion of Basil II. (PG 117:6-612). Late 10th, early 11th c. AD. Vatican Library. 1613. Image 131.→  

For discussion of visual depictions, see Gowler 2014, 53-62; Bedford 1911.


Ancient Texts

19c slow to anger Differing Views on Anger Greco-Roman philosophical and ethical traditions were divided on the place of anger: for the Stoics and others such as Plutarch, it was a passion to be eradicated; Plato and Aristotle, by contrast, held that it was a important source of energy that one must harness and control.

Defintions of Anger

  • Aristotle Rhet. 2.2 [1378A] "Let us then define anger as a longing (orexis), accompanied by pain (lupê), for a real or apparent revenge for a real or apparent slight, affecting a man himself or one of his friends, when such a slight is undeserved" (mê prosêkontos; Freese 1926, 172–73).
  • The Stoics classify anger (orgê; Latin: ira) as a vice, a subcategory of "desire" (epithumia; Latin: libido; cf. Stobaeus Anth. 2.7 ; Diogenes Laërtius Vit. Phil. 7.113; Cicero Tusc. 4.7.16).
  • Likewise they say it is "a craving or desire (epithumia) to punish one who is thought to have done you an undeserved (ou prosêkontôs) injury" (Diogenes Laërtius Vit. Phil. 7.113;Hicks 1925, 218–19).

The terms orgê and thumos are both regularly used for the vice of anger (e.g., in Plutarch Cohib. Ira).

A Negative Passion Requiring Self-control

For the Stoics, anger is wholly negative and must entirely uprooted from a man if he wishes to be wise.

  • Seneca Ira 1.1–2: Anger is "the most hideous and frenzied (rabidum) of the emotions (affectus)…wholly violent…eager for revenge…a a temporary madness (brevis insania). Further, it is "devoid of self-control," "closed to reason," and "excited by trifling causes" (Basore 1928, 106–7).
  • Seneca Ira 2.36.6:  Anger is "the greatest of all evils…it brings into subjection all other passions." A greedy person forgets his greed due to anger; the ambitious man rejects an honor due to anger (Basore 1928,  250–51).
  • Seneca Ira 1.5.2: Anger is not in accord with nature (secundum naturam): Man is born for mutual help (homo in adiutorium mutuum genitus est); anger aims at mutual destruction (Basore 1928, 118–19). 
  • Seneca Ira 1.6.5 "Man's nature, then, does not crave vengeance; neither, therefore, does anger accord with man's nature, because anger craves vengeance (poena)…anger is contrary to nature" (non est naturalis;Basore 1928, 122–23).
  • Seneca Ira 1.9–10: Contrary to the opinion of Aristotle and others, controlled anger is not necessary to encourage action, e.g., in a dangerous situation. If anger can be controlled, then it is not truly anger, since the characteristic of anger is its lack of control. A virtue such as justice or courage should never depend upon a vice (Basore 1928, 128–33).
  • Seneca Ira 1.12–16: Criminals or wicked people should indeed be corrected or punished, but not with anger.
  • Seneca Ira 2.1–4: Anger is not an impulsive, automatic reaction to a wrong, but rather always involves a choice of the mind. After the initial reaction to being wronged, the mind determines whether to pursue revenge or punishment.

Even Plutarch, a Platonist and critic of Stoicism, agreed with the Stoic position that there is no positive use for anger, and one should work to get rid of it altogether.

  • Plutarch Cohib. Ira 5 [Mor. 455f]  calls it "the most hated and despised of the passions" (Helmbold 1939, 109).

Anger Closely Connected with the Inability to Control One's Tongue

  • Plutarch Cohib. Ira  7 [456e] "the tongue of angry men becomes rough and foul and breaks out in unseemly speeches" (Helmbold 1939, 114–15).

Plato and Aristotle: Anger Has its Place

  • Plato Leg. 5 [731b–d] insists,"Every man ought to be at once both passionate (thumoeidê) and gentle (praos = praus) in the highest degree (Bury 1926, 1:337; cf. also Resp. 2 [375]). In general, one should be gentle when dealing with wrongdoers, since no one does wrong willingly (hekôn; alluding to the Platonic teaching that sin is ignorance of the true good). Obstinately violent and wicked people, however, cannot be dealt with gently. One must summon up one's passionate anger in order to fight them when necessary (e.g., in self-defense).
  • For Aristotle Eth. Nic. 4.5.14 [1126b], being angry is not good or bad in itself—as with all passions, one must allow it in the right amount. "The middle diposition (mesê hexis) is praiseworthy, which leads us to be angry (orgizometha) with the right people for the right things in the right manner and so on, while the various forms of excess and and defect are blameworthy" (Rackham 1934, 234–35).

Biblical Intertextuality

19bc quick to hear, slow to speak Topos Common in Wisdom Literature Parallels to James' thought abound in biblical wisdom literature.

  • Sir 5:13 (G-Sir 5:11):  "Be swift (tachus) to hear, but slow (en makrothumiaᵢ) to answer."

Be Eager to Listen to the Words of the Wise and Learn

  • Sir 6:33–35: "If you are willing to listen, you can learn; if you pay attention, you can be instructed. Stand in the company of the elders; stay close to whoever is wise. Be eager to hear every discourse; let no insightful saying escape you."

One’s Speech Should not be Hasty

  • Prv 29:20: "Do you see someone who speaks in haste (G: tachus en logois)? There is more hope for a fool than for them. 
  • Eccl 5:1:  "Be not hasty in your utterance and let not your heart be quick to utter a promise in God's presence. God is in heaven and you are on earth; therefore let your words be few." See also Biblical Intertextuality 1:26.

21b,3:13b gentleness Moses, Sirach, Jesus, Christians


Moses' Extraordinary Humility

The wise lawgiver Moses is known as having been most gentle, meek, and humble (Vocabulary 3:13b): 

  • Nm 12:3: "Now the man Moses was very gentle (Greek: praus; Hebrew: ‘nw "humble"), more than anyone else on earth."
  • Sir 45:4: "Because of his [Moses'] trustworthiness and gentleness (prautês) God selected him from all flesh."

Christians maintained this tradition of Moses' exceeding humility (e.g., Jerome of Stridon Ep. 82.3).

A Major Theme in Sirach

  • Sir 1:34–35 (G-1:27): "For the fear of the Lord is wisdom and discipline; faithfulness and gentleness (prautês) are his delight."
  • Sir 3:19 (G-3:17): "My son, conduct your affairs with gentleness (en prautêti), and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts"
  • Sir 4:8: "Give a hearing to the poor, and return their greeting with gentleness (en prautêti)
  • Sir 10:31 (G-10:28): "My son, with humility (en prautêti) have self-esteem; and give yourself the esteem you deserve."


Gentleness in Jesus' Teachings
  • Jesus says of himself, "I am gentle (praus) and humble (tapeinos) of heart" (Mt 11:29). Cf. Mt 21:5 and Paul's application to Jesus in 2Cor 10:1.
  • Mt 5:5: "Blessed are the meek."
Doing Deeds with Gentleness
  • 1Cor 4:21: "Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love and a gentle spirit (prautês)?"
  • Gal 6:1: "correct that one [i.e., a fellow Christian] in a gentle spirit" cf. 2Tm 2:25.
  • 1Pt 3:15–16: an admonition to explain Christian beliefs with gentleness.
A Christian Virtue

Prautês and its cognates are often linked with tapeinos ("humble") and its cognates: Is 26:6; Mt 11:29; Eph 4:2; Col 3:12; cf. Ancient Texts 1:21b,3:13b.

Peritestamental Literature

19c slow to anger Controlling One’s Tongue and Passions  James' admonitions to control one's tongue and passions such as anger are frequent in Jewish Hellenistic writing: 

Controlling One's Tongue

  • Ps.-Phoc. 20 "Take heed of your tongue, keep your word hidden in your heart" (van der Horst 1978, 88–89).
  • Philo Her. 10–12: Commenting on Dt 27:9: "Be silent and hear": "There are indeed some [e.g., the ignorant] whom it befits to hear but not to speak." Philo also sees here an admonition to listen to a speaker inwardly, not letting one's attention wander (Colson 1932, 4:288–89).

Controlling Anger

Some Hellenistic Jewish authors favor the Aristotelian view that passions such as anger should be controlled by reason, not completely eradicated (Ancient Texts 1:19c).

  • 4 Macc. 1:29: "Each of these (i.e., the passions), reason (logismos), the master gardener, purges thoroughly and prunes and binds up and waters and irrigates all around, and so domesticates the wild undergrowth of inclinations and passions" (pathê). 
  • 4 Macc. 2:16: the temperate mind (sôphrôn nous) has mastery over anger (thumos) and the other passions.
  • Ps.-Phoc. 57 advises, "Be not rash with your hands, but bridle (chalinoô; cf. Jas 1:26; 3:2–3) your wild anger" (orgê; van den Horst 1978, 90–91).
  •  Ps.-Phoc. 59 "Let your emotions be moderate (estô koina pathê), neither great nor overwhelming" (Van der Horst 1978, 92–93).
  •  Ps.-Phoc. 69b "Moderation is the best of all (pantôn metron aristôn); excesses are grieveous" (Van der Horst 1978, 92–93). 

Link between Controlling Speech and Anger

  •  Pss. Sol. 16:10 "May I speak the truth (lit.: clothe my tongue and my lips, in words of truth); put fierce rage and anger (orgên kai thumon alogon) far from me" (OTP 2:142–43).



23b the appearance of his birth Contextual Meaning of the Expression The word genesis, "birth," in the expression to prosôpon tês geneseôs autou can refer to a remote origin (cf. the name of the first book of the Bible), or to one's own birth (e.g., Mt 1:18: the birth, genesis, of Jesus Christ). See also Christian Tradition 1:23-24. Here the phrase here may refer to:

  • the face of own his birth (i.e., the face he was born with), a way of emphasizing that it is his own face;
  • or a more remote or ultimate beginning or origin (i.e., the face or appearance given at creation).  James also uses the word at Jas 3:6: the wheel of birth (trochos tês geneseôs), where it is taken as the origin of one's life.



22–25 be doers of the word and not only hearers Echo in the Liturgy of St. James A priestly prayer in the Liturgy of St. James reflects this passage:

  • Lit. Jas. "enlighten the souls of us sinners to for the comprehension of the things which have been before spoken [read], so that we may not only be seen to be hearers (mê monon akroatai) of spiritual things, but also doers of good deeds (poiêtai praxeôn agathôn), striving after (meterchomai) guileless faith (pistis), blameless life, and pure conversation (politean anegklêton; ANF 7:539; Brightman-Hammond 1896, 1:38–39).

Christian Tradition

25a law of freedom Aquinas on the Law of Freedom Thomas understands James' "law of freedom" as the "new law" or "law of Christ."

Defining Freedom
  • Aquinas ST 1-2.108.1 follows Aristotle: "what is free is cause of itself" (liber est qui sua causa est).
  • "Therefore he acts freely, who acts of his own accord" (ex seipso agit).
  • To act of one's own accord is further defined as acting "from a habit that is suitable to his nature" (homo agit ex habitu suae naturae convenienti). An action prompted by the grace of the Holy Spirit is a free act, inasmuch as it "is like an interior habit bestowed on us and inclining us to act aright" (inclinans nos ad recte operandum).

Thomas thus speaks of

  • (1) "freedom from," i.e.,  freedom from external constraints;
  • (2) "freedom to," i.e., the freedom to develop habits that are in accord with human nature. One who has a habit opposed to human nature does not act freely, but rather acts "according to some corruption affecting that nature" (secundum aliquam corruptionem sibi supervenientem).

The new law (the law of Christ) is therefore called a "law of liberty" in two respects (ST 1-2.108.1 ad 2):

  • Freedom from all laws that do not bear on salvation. The law of freedom does not command or prohibit certain things "except such as are of themselves necessary or opposed to salvation" (vel necessaria vel repugnantia saluti). Thus the new law probits the denial of faith, but leaves many other areas open to the discretion of the individual.
  • Freedom to act according to one's nature: "it also makes us comply freely (libere implere) with these precepts and prohibitions, inasmuch as we do so through the promptings of grace" (ex interiori instinctu gratiae; English Dominicans 1947, 3:114).


Ancient Texts

25a law of freedom Stoicism: True freedom in Following the Divine Will (Law)

One who is Free is not Constrained by External Forces

  • Epictetus Diatr. 4.1.128:  The free person is "unhampered" (akôlutos). "But the man who can be hampered, or subjected to compulsion, or hindered, or thrown into something against his will (akôn), is a slave" (Oldfather 1928, 288–89).

Freedom Comes by Submitting One’s Will to God’s

  • Epictetus Diatr. 4.1.89 "I have never been hindered in the exercise of my will (thelôn ekôluthên), nor have I ever been subjected to compulsion against my will. And how is this possible? I have submitted my freedom of choice (hormê) unto God…He wills that I should choose something; it is my will too (thelei oregesthai. kagô thelô)…He does not will it; I do not wish it" (Oldfather 1928, 274–75). 
  • Seneca Vit. beat. 15.7 "to obey God is freedom" (deo parere libertas est; Basore 1928, 140–41).

God’s Will is Closely Associated with the Law

  • Epictetus Diatr. 4.1.158 quotes the Cynic philosopher Diogenes,"'Because I do not regard my paltry body as my own; because I need nothing, because the law (ho nomos), and nothing else, is everything to me.' This it was which allowed him to be a free man" (eleutheros; Oldfather 1928, 298–99).
  • Diogenes Laërtius Vit. Phil. 7.88: The ultimate goal (telos) of the Stoics is to live a life "in accordance with nature (to akolouthôs têᵢ phusei zên)…a life in which we refrain from every action forbidden by the law common (koinos nomos) to all things, that is to say, the right reason (orthos logos) that pervades all things, and is identical with this Zeus, lord and ruler of all that is. And this very thing constitutes the virtue of the happy man and the smooth current of life, when all actions promote the harmony of the spirit dwelling in the individual man with the will (boulêsis) of him who orders the universe" (Hicks 1925, 194–97).

Biblical Intertextuality

25a law of freedom James and Paul on Freedom and the Law

  • Some interpreters, assuming that James knows Paul's letters, believe that James' phrase is intended to refute Paul's association of the Law with slavery (see Gal 4:21–5:15) or at least refute misinterpretations of Paul's statement.
  • Others argue that one should not assume that James and Paul hold contradictory views on the Law and freedom. Like Jas 2:8, Paul identifies the commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" as the fulfillment of the law (Rom 13:10; Gal 5:14) and associates this law of love with freedom (Gal 5:13–14).

See also Biblical Intertextuality Jas2:21–24 and →James: Traditional comparisons of James and Paul on faith, works, and justification 


Jewish Tradition

25a law of freedom The Mishnah associates the study of the Torah with freedom:

  • m. Avot  6.2 "R. Joshua b. Levi said, 'for you find no free man except him that occupies himself in the study of the Law' (Danby 1933, 459).

Christian Tradition

22 be doers of the word and not only hearers Various Interpretations

Comparison with Sacrament and the Incarnation

Andrewes Serm. 9: In his sermon on Jas 1:22, Anglican bishop Lancelot Andrewes (one of the translators of the Authorized or King James Version) calls putting the word into action a "sacrament of godliness" (cf. V-1Tm 3:16: pietatis sacramentum). Further he says, "blessed are they who so incarnate the written word by doing it, as the blessed Virgin gave flesh to the eternal Word by bearing it" (5:196).

Anti-Jewish Polemic

The tradition often criticizes Pharisees or Jews in general for hearing the word but failing to act on it.

  • Ps.-Andreas Catena ad loc. "Since both the Pharisees and the scribes became hearers but not doers, they were no longer blessed, but gave themselves over to destruction" (paradedontai tôᵢ olothreutêᵢ; Cramer 1844, 8:8).
  • Erasmus Iac. Par. ad loc. "The Jews memorize their law but do not express it in their way of life" (nec eam exprimunt vita; Bateman 1993, 144; Bateman 1987, 130).

25a perfect law of freedom Various Interpretations

Christian Freedom Contrasted with the Mosaic Law

  • The "perfect law of freedom" is regularly identified with the new law of Christ or the law of grace, and is often contrasted with the Mosaic law, which is characterized, or cariactured, as a "law of slavery" or a law of fear (e.g., John of Damascus Fid. orth. 96 [4.23]). 

Law of Grace

  • Bede Ep. cath. ad loc. "He calls the grace of the Gospel (gratia evangelii) the perfect law of liberty. 'For the law [i.e., the Mosaic law] brought nothing to perfection (Heb 7:19)'"; Bede also quotes Rom 8:15, 2Cor 3:17, and Jn 8:36" (Hurst 1985, 20; Hurst 1983, 192).
  • The Gloss. Ord. develops Bede's comment: "He calls the grace of the Gospel the prefect law of liberty, which makes perfectly free from the slavery of fear (a servitute timoris); those who held the [Mosaic] law were serving in fear. Whoever would break the law, would be stoned without mercy (sine miseratione). This law brought no one to perfection. Although it compelled people to serve by fear (cogebat timore servire), it did not give grace, in order to fulfill with love (ut compleretur amore), and is unable to free from the punishments of hell. But love (charitas) is given in the gospel (col. 1273).

New Law of Christ

  • Irenaeus Haer. 4.34.4 identifies the "law of freedom" (libertatis lex) with "the word of God, preached by the apostles [who went forth from Jerusalem]" (Harvey 1857, 512; Rousseau 2008, 4.2:856).
  • Irenaeus Haer. 4.13.2 also calls Jesus' interpretations of the Torah in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5) the "laws of liberty" (decreta libertatis; Harvey 1857, 477; Rousseau 2008, 4.2:528). See also Barn. 2.6 which refers to "the new law of our Lord Jesus Christ" (kainos nomos tou kuriou; Ehrman 2003, 2:16) that replaces the abolished Mosaic law, and Justin Dial. 12.2; 18.3 who identifies Christ as the new lawgiver (nomothetês; Marcovich 1997, 89; 100).
  • Ps.-Oecumenius Comm. Ep. Cath. "The law of Christ (ho kata Christon nomon), freeing from the slavery of everything fleshly (sarkikon apêllaxas douleias): observance of Sabbaths, circumcision, and the other laws of purification" (col. 469).
  •  Bull Harmonia "the law of no other than the moral law itself, as Christ has explained and perfected it, and dlievered it to His disciples, as His law from the mount" (20–21).

Law of Love

The law of liberty is further characteristized as the "law of love":

  • Augustine of Hippo Nat. Grat. 57 [67] "This is the law of freedom, not of servitude, because it is the law of love (caritas), not of fear." The person who follows this law does so not out of fear of punishment, but out of love for righteousness; he is led by the Spirit. (Teske 1997, 260; Urba and Zycha 1893, 284).
  • Erasmus Iac. Par. "For at the level of the letter the Law was imperfect and deterred people from evil through fear (magis metu deterrebat a malis) more than it caused them to follow the right on their own initiative. But the law of the gospel (evangelica lex) obtains more through love (per charitatem) from those who are willing and free than the law of Moses tried to twist out" (Bateman 1993, 145; Bateman 1997, 131). 
  • Estius Comm. ep. cath. ad loc. "the law is of liberty…because it is the law of love, which makes them free, that is to say, children of God" (lex charitatis, quae liberos facit, id est, Dei filios) in contrast to the ancient law associated with slavery (4242). 

Discussions on the Meaning of Freedom

Reformation Views
  • Luther Rand. ad 1:25 held that James refers to the Mosaic law (WA DB 4:497), and complained that "he teaches nothing about faith, but everything about the law" (nihil de fide, omnia de lege doce); cf. Luther Pref. Jas. Jude (LW 35:397; WA DB 7:386–87). In contrast, the Lutheran theologian Chemnitz Loc. Theo. 14 understands this passage to refer to the liberty of the Christian (Preus 2008, 2:1143).
  • Lapide Comm. "But this freedom is not a freedom from the law, as if the Gospel made Christians free from the observation of commandments so that no law would be kept, but they are able to do whatever is pleasing, as Luther and the libertines teach. For if in the Gospel is law, and it is perfect, therefore the law obliges those who are subject to it, and it is to be kept by Christians" (20:87).
Christ is a Lawgiver
  • Lapide Comm. "For Christ came into the world not only to be its redeemer, but also be the legislator of a new law" (legislator novae legis).
  • Lapide refers to Conc. Trid. Just. cans. 19, 20, and 22 (DzH 1569–71) (20:87). See in particular Can. 21: "If anyone says that Jesus Christ was given by God to men as a redeemer in whom they are to trust but not also as a lawgiver whom they are to obey (ut redemptorem, cui fidant, non etiam ut legislatorem cui obediant), let him be anathema" (DzH 1571).
How does the Law of Freedom Lead to Greater Freedom for the Christian?

Lapide Comm. ad loc. reflects on the different ways in which the law of freedom leads to greater freedom for the Christian:

  • Freedom from observing the Mosaic law, especially the ceremonial law; however, one is still obligated to follow the Decalogue and the natural law (lex naturae) established by God and renewed by Christ.
  • Freedom from sin, the power of demons, and from hell.
  • Freedom from compulsion and fear, so that we fulfill the law not from fear of punishment, but from love of justice (non ex timore vindictae, sed ex amorie justitiae). Lapide quotes passages from Cicero, Ovid, and Seneca for similar views of freedom, including Seneca Vit. beat. 15.7: "We have been born under a monarcy, to obey God is freedom" (deo parare libertas est). Lapide then quotes Augustine of Hippo Contin. 8: “For we are not under the Law, which indeed commands what is good yet gives it not: but we are under Grace, which, making us love that which the Law commands (sumus sub gratia, auae id quod lex jubet faciens nos amare); it is able to rule over the free (potest liberis imperare).”
  • In the resurrection will be freedom from death and from all misery (20:87).
  • Erasmus Iac. Par. on Jas 2:12:  "It is the law of freedom, not because it offers a license to sin (liceat peccare), but because evangelical love secures free and voluntary assent to what man-made laws force from people against their will through fear of punishment" (evangelica charitas vitro impetret a volentibus quod leges humanae metu poenarum exorquent a nolentibus;Bateman 1993, 149–50; Bateman 1997, 135).

The Natural Law Inherent in All Humans

  • Bar Salibi Ep. Cath. ad loc. understands this law as the natural law that God placed in all humans at the creation, creating them in his image and likeness :"He who observes the law which God placed in human nature (kyn’ ’nšy’), that he should love the good and adhere to his creator, and remain in the law of nature (nmws’ kyny’) and in the pre-eminence which the Creator gave him, creating him "in his image and his likeness" (Sedlacek 1910, 92; Syriac-ibid., 120).
  • WCF 19.2–6: The Reformed tradition understands James to refer here, and in 2:8, 10–12, to the moral law, given already to Adam and expressed in the Ten Commandments (WCF 19.2). This moral law is still binding on Christians (citing Jas 2:8; WCF 19.5). This law serves to make people aware of their sins, and so they "may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against sin" and thus realize their need for redemption from sin in Christ. After people are baptized, it helps to retrain their corrupt ways by forbidding sins ( WCF 19.6; CCFCT 2:629; Carruthers 1937, 125).

Medieval Debates on Freedom, Law, and Church Authority

William of Ockham refers to James' law of freedom in his effort to limit papal authority.

  •   William of Ockham Princ. Tyrann. 2:3: Ockham rejects the thesis that the pope (based on an interpretation of Mt 16:19) has "such fullness of power that in temporal and spiritual matters he could by right do without exception anything not against divine or natural law" (ut omnia possit, que nec legi naturae nec legi divine repugnant; McGrade and Kilcullen 1992, 23; Scholz 1944, 53).
  •  William of Ockham Princ. Tyrann. 2.3: Such a thesis is heretical, however, since "it plainly conflicts with divine Scripture." "For compared with the law of Moses the gospel law (lex evengelica) involves, not more servitude, but less, and hence it is called by blessed James a law of perfect freedom" (Jas 1:25). Ockham then refers the teaching at the Council of Jerusalem, which freed the Gentiles from the burden of following the entire Mosaic law (Acts 15). Ockham cites several other texts on Christian freedom (e.g., Gal 2:2–3; Gal 5:12–13; 2Cor 3:17). If the pope truly had such fullness of power, this would reduce other Christians to the status of slaves (McGrade and Kilcullen 1992, 21–24; Scholz 1944, 56–57).

Marsilius of Padua, a contemporary of William of Ockham, was also involved in controversies over papal authority. Marsilius held that the Church should have no political and temporal authority, but should be subordinate to the State.

  •  Marsilius of Padua Def. Pacis 1.10.3: In a discussion on different meanings of the term "law," Marsilius understands Jas 1:25 as a reference to the "evangelical law" (lex evangelica), or the law concerning "instruction of the gospel" (disciplina evangelica) in contrast to the Mosaic law (Brett 2005, 52–53; Previté-Orton 1928, 37–38).