The Bible in Its Traditions

James 2:1–13

Byz S
Nes TR

My brothers, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, YHWH of glory, with partiality.

My brethren, hold not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, [the Lord] of glory, with respect of persons.

My brothers, within the glorious faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, do not choose to show favoritism toward persons.

Byz Nes TR V S

For if a man enters into your assembly with a gold ring, in fine clothes, and there should also come in a poor [man] in dirty clothes,

Byz TR Nes S

and you have respect for him that wears the fine clothes and you say to him, "You sit here in a good seat,"and say to the poor man, "You stand there,"or, "Sit here under my footstool,"

and if you are then attentive to the one who is clothed in excellent apparel, so that you say to him, “You may sit in this good place,” but you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit below my footstool,”

Byz Nes

and so did you not differentiate among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

are you not judging within yourselves, and have you not become judges with unjust thoughts?

Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?

Byz Nes V S TR

Listen, my beloved brothers. Did God not choose the poor of the world [to be] rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those that love Him?

Byz V
Nes S TR

But you have dishonored the poor. Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into court?

But ye have dishonored the poor man. Do not the rich oppress you, and themselves drag you before the judgment-seats?

Byz Nes S TR

Do they not blaspheme the noble name by which you are called?

Are not they the ones who blaspheme the good name which has been invoked over you?

Byz V
Nes TR S

If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself,"you do well;

Howbeit if ye fulfil the royal law, according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, ye do well

Byz V
Nes TR

but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors.

but if ye have respect of persons, ye commit sin, being convicted by the law as transgressors.

But if you discriminate among men, you commit sin and you will be condemned by the law as transgressors of the law.

Byz Nes S TR

10  For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one [point], he has become guilty of all.

10  Now whoever has observed the whole law, yet who offends in one matter, has become guilty of all.

Byz S
Nes TR

11  For He who said, "Do not commit adultery,"also said, "You shall not murder."Now if you do not commit adultery, but [yet ]you murder, [then ]you have become a transgressor of the law.

11  For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou dost not commit adultery, but killest, thou art become a transgressor of the law.

11  For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not kill.” So if you do not commit adultery, but you kill, you have become a transgressor of the law.

11a do not commit not kill Dt 5:17-18
Byz S TR
Nes V

12  So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty.

12  So speak ye, and so do, as men that are to be judged by a law of liberty.

Byz Nes V

13  For judgment is without mercy to the one who does not show mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

13  For a judgment without mercy will be on him, who does not show mercy; for you exalt yourselves by having mercy over judgment.

13  For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment.

Suggestions for Reading

1–26 Appraisal of Faith-inspired Action This chapter presents James' demonstration of the integral relationship between genuine faith and actions. It falls into two basic sections:

  • Jas 2:1–13: The faith of Jesus Christ is incompatible with actions showing favoritism towards the rich. This section is a chiselled rhetorical argument (Literary Devices 2:1–13).
  • Jas 2:14–26: Verbal acceptance of the faith of Jesus Christ is not a true faith unless it is expressed through concrete actions, especially actions that assist the poor.



1b,9b partiality Semitism The Greek noun prosôpolêmpsia (Jas 2:1) and the corresponding verb prosôpolêpteô (Jas 2:9) literally mean to "lift up the face" (or "countenance"). The noun is not attested in G or in secular Greek and may be a Christian neologism. It is clearly derived from G's verbal phrase prosôpon lambanein (cf. Lv 18:15). G's phrase, in turn, is modeled on the Hebrew phrase nāśā pānîm (cf. Lv 19:15); it is another indication of the deeply Jewish character of James' language and thought. 

Literary Genre

1–26 Deliberative Rhetoric The whole of chapter 2 is a fine example of deliberative (sumbouleutikon) rhetoric (see Aristotle Rhet. 1.3.3), where the speaker seeks to dissuade his audience from a certain action or exhort them to it. Here James attempts to dissuade his readers from showing favoritism to the rich (Jas 2:1–13) and to exhort them to live out their faith through actions (Jas 2:14–26). The diatribe style is used frequently in deliberative rhetoric.

Literary Devices

2b sordid Echo James uses the noun form (rhuparia) of this same word (rhuparos)  for an "unclean action" in Jas 1:21

Textual Criticism

3d Adding “here” for Parallelism The likely original reading (witnessesd in A, the original hand of C, and Ψ, and followed by V) lacks "here" (de). P74 (vid.),  א , C2 (followed by Byz, TR, S) read "here" (de) after "sit" in order to create a better parallelism in the imperatives, i.e., "stand there" balances "sit here."


4b evil thoughts Allusion to a Corrupt Legal Judgment? The Greek word for "reasoning" (dialogismos) is also a technical term for a judge's decision (cf. →BGU 1. 226.22); thus the phrase may mean, "judges who give corrupt decisions." See V.

Literary Devices

5c heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him Echo The verse echoes Jas 1:12: "the man who perseveres through trials...he will receive the crown of life that the Lord promised to those who love him." James thus equates the "crown of life" with inheriting the kingdom. James also identifies the poor of the world with those who persevere through trials and are found worthy.


Biblical Intertextuality

5b has not God chosen the poor God’s Choosing of the Poor and Weak God's special concern for the poor is a marked theme in both the Old Testament and in Jesus' teaching. See also →James: Rich and Poor.

Paul's language in 1 Corinthians is quite close to that of James: "God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something" (1Cor 1:27).

5c to those who love him Connection between Loving God and Keeping His Commandments The phrase is often used in deuteronomistic texts in association with those who keep God's commandments (see Dt 5:10,7:9); a theme echoed in 1Jn 5:3: "For the love of God is this, that we keep his commandments."



5b Has not God chosen the poor Preferential Option for the Poor  In line with James' view, Catholic social teaching calls all people to show a special concern for the poor.

  • Leo XIII Rer. Nov. 28–30 "Neither must it be supposed that the solicitude of the Church is so preoccupied with the spiritual concerns of her children as to neglect their temporal and earthly interests.…Such was the ardor of brotherly love among the earliest Christians that numbers of those who were in better circumstances despoiled themselves of their possessions in order to relieve their brethren; whence 'neither was there any one needy among them' (Acts 4:34)…Thus, by degrees, came into existence the patrimony which the Church has guarded with religious care as the inheritance of the poor. Nay, in order to spare them the shame of begging, the Church has provided aid for the needy."
  • The phrase "preferential option for the poor" has been used in Latin American "theologies of liberation" and at the 1979 Conference of Latin American Bishops at Puebla, Mexico.
  • CDF Liberation, an instruction from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, notes that this term may used in an "authentic evangelical spirit" to respond to the needs of the poor, but that certain liberation theologians employ it within a Marxist analysis that is incompatible with Christian faith.
  • Comp. Soc. Doc. 182 "The principle of the universal destination of goods requires that the poor, the marginalized and in all cases those whose living conditions interfere with their proper growth should be the focus of particular concern. To this end, the preferential option for the poor should be reaffirmed in all its force" (cf. §449).

See also →James: Catholic Social Teaching.



8a the scripture Individual Passage or Scripture as a Whole? The Greek hê graphê can refer to an individual scriptural passage (e.g., as in Mk 12:10) or to scripture as a whole (e.g., Acts 8:32). V takes it in the latter sense, rendering scripturas; S simply renders, "as it is written" (passive participle of ktb).


8a in accordance with the scripture Scripture as the Norm The G is kata tên graphên. This use of kata with the accusative means "in conformity with," "according to the norm of"; cf. 1Cor 15:3


Biblical Intertextuality

8b in accordance with the scripture Jesus’ Teaching: Love as The Norm of The Law James teaches that the royal law (the Torah as interpreted by Jesus) is fulfilled when it is carried out in accordance with one of its commandments, "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Lv 19:18).  In other words, Lv 19:18 expresses the key value which governs the law as a whole.

James may follow Jesus' teaching here (see →James: Jesus' Traditions in James). Jesus had identified Lv 19:18, together with Dt 6:4–5 (loving the Lord with all one's heart, soul, mind, and strength) as the two greatest commandments of the Torah (Mk 12:28–34; cf. Mt 19:19).

Paul also knows the centrality of the love commandment, "For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'"(Gal 5:14); cf. also  Rom 13:8–10.

Peritestamental Literature

8a royal law Royalty, Freedom, Reason, and the Law in 4 Maccabees

  • As James characterizes the law as "royal" and a law of freedom (Jas 1:25; 2:12), so 4 Macc. 14:2–3 refers to reason (logismos) as royal and free: "more kingly than kings, than freemen more free" (basileôn logismoi basilikôteroi kai eleutherôn eleutherôteroi).
  • 4 Maccabees in turn closely connects reason and the Mosaic law. Both work in harmony to control the irrational passions: 4 Macc. 2:9 "And if a man be stingy, he is brought under the rule of the Law through reason (hupo tou nomou krateiai dia ton logismon), so that he neither gleans over the stubble in his harvest fields nor picks the last grapes from his vines" (trans. rev., Anderson, 2:546).


Christian Tradition

8a royal law Deist View: Love is the Essence of Christianity

Tindale here cites this passage, along with numerous other NT texts, to demonstrate that Christ and his apostles valued the virtue of love (charity) over dogmatic confessions of faith (53).


Literary Devices

9b convicted by the law Irony In Jas 2:4, community members set themselves up as judges over community members; here they themselves are convicted by the law as violators of the law.

10b stumbles Metaphor for Sinning

  • The Greek ptaiô literally means "to stumble"; James uses the same word at Jas 3:2. Cf. the similar metaphor for sin used in Jas 5:19: "if any one among you strays away from the truth." Sinning is pictured as an error or misdirection in one's walk of life.
  • James' metaphor is echoed elsewhere in the NT—cf. 1Jn 1:6; 1Jn 2:11,  "walk in darkness." These NT passages likely draw on the common OT metaphor of one's course of life as a "walk"—e.g., Ps 86:11: "walk (hlk) in your truth."

11b If you do not commit adultery, yet do kill Allusive Accusation of Murder?

  • James here may simply have chosen two well-known commandments to illustrate his point that one must keep all the commandments. 
  • James' choice of examples ("If you do not commit adultery, but do kill"), however, seems more pointed. While he uses the term "adulterer" only in a metaphorical sense (Jas 4:4), James later refers to killing twice (Jas 4:2; 5:6). In both cases, James makes an accusation of murder: Jas 4:2 clearly accuses community members; Jas 5:6 accuses "the rich"—commentators disagree as to whether these rich are part of the church community or not. 


Ancient Texts

12b law of freedom Stoic View: True Freedom is Following The Divine Will (Law) On the Stoic view that true freedom arises from following the divine law and divine will, see Ancient Texts 1:25a.

Biblical Intertextuality

12b law of freedom Paul and James on Law, Slavery, and Freedom For the relationship of James' views to Paul's view on freedom, slavery, and law, see Biblical Intertextuality 1:25a .

Peritestamental Literature

12b law of freedom Torah Frees One from Slavery to Passions On Philo's views on how following the Torah leads to true freedom from the slavery to passions, see Peritestamental Literature 1:25a.


Jewish Tradition

12b law of freedom The Mishnah on Freedom and Study of the Law The Mishnah associates following the Torah with freedom:

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

Suggestions for Reading

1–13 Exhortation to Impartiality towards the Rich


Jas 2:1–13: The faith of Jesus Christ is incompatible with actions showing favoritism towards the rich. This section is a chiselled rhetorical argument (Literary Devices 2:1–13).

Contextual Contrast and Continuities


Two specific passages have attracted the greatest attention in the history of interpretation:

Jewish Tradition

1b glory Glory as God’s Presence The targums use the term "glory" for a manifestation of God's presence (Biblical Intertextuality 2:1b). The Aramaic yqr regularly translates the Hebrew kbd. It is also used as a circumlocution to avoid the conclusion that God can be seen directly:

  • Tg. Onq. Ex 24:10 translates the M's "they beheld the God of Israel" as "they perceived the Glory (yqr) of the God of Israel" (Grossfeld 1988, 72; Sperber 1962, 130).
  •  Tg. Isa. 6:5 renders M's "my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts," as "My eyes have seen the glory of the Shekhinah of the eternal king (yqr škynt mlk ‘lmy’), the Lord of hosts!" (Chilton 1987, 14; Sperber 1962, 13).



2f gleaming Semantics The adjective lampros literally means bright or shiny, referring to fine clothes that would be noticed by others (cf. Philo Ios. 105). In Acts 10:30 it is used of an angel's appearance or banquets Sir 29:28 (G-Sir 29:22) See also Ancient Cultures 2:2-3.

2a synagogue Semantics The Greek word sunagôgê literally means a "gathering together"; by metonymy it refers to the building in which the gathering happens (Ancient Cultures 2:2a).


Biblical Intertextuality

2a synagogue A Gathering of the Church Heb 10:25 uses the closely related episunagôgê to refer to the gathering of the church (Vocabulary 2:2a).


Textual Criticism

5b of the world “Of the world” or “in the world”? "Of the world" (tou kosmou) is read by correctors of A, C, P, and Ψ and followed by S, Byz, and TR. The dative reading "in the world" is read by all the major uncial witnesses and followed by V (Grammar 2:5b).


Peritestamental Literature

7 blaspheme the noble name The Name and God’s People To "blaspheme" essentially means to slander, to speak badly, of God or of people.

  • Philo Fug. 84: Those blaspheme God who make false claims: "what more foul reviling could be uttered than the statment that the origination (genesis) of evil lies not at our door but at God's?" (Colson 1934, 5:54–55).
  •  Bar Salibi Ep. Cath. ad loc. suggests that the rich "blaspheme when they claim that their wealth is from God, when in fact it is obtained unjustly through oppression" (Sedlacek 1910, 93; Syriac-ibid., 122).

See further Christian Tradition 2:7.

10b guilty of all Integrity of the Law The author of 4 Maccabees agrees with James about the implication of breaking one commandment, giving the following reasoning: 

  • 4 Macc. 5:19–21 "Accordingly, you must not regard it as a minor sin for us to eat unclean food; minor sins are just as weighty (isodunamon) as great sins, for in each case the Law is despised" (OTP 2:550).



13b boasts over In a Triumph? The verb (katakauchaomai) literally means "to boast over" (cf. the V's superexulto), as when a gladiator boasts over his fallen foe. The verb can thus have the extended meaning of "triumph over." See also the use in Jas 3:14. See the discussion on a possible conflict between mercy and judgment in Christian Tradition 2:13b.



13b mercy boasts over judgment Allusion in Paradise Lost?

  • Milton Par. Lost. 3.131–34 may allude to this verse: "man therefore shall find grace, / The other [i.e., Satan and his followers] none: in mercy and justice both, / Through heaven and earth, so shall my glory excel, / But mercy first and last shall brightest shine."



3,8,19 nobly Semantic Field of Kalôs The Greek adjective kalos denotes something excellent in quality, morally good, or beautiful. James uses the adjective and its adverbial form several times in this pericope (Jas 2:1–13). The present translation as "noble" attempts to render the connotations expressing both external and internal value qualities of persons and actions.

An Honored Social Position

In Jas 2:3, the Greek reads the adverb "sit here well" (kalôs). James here intends a contrast with the seating of the poor man—"sit here by my footstool." The contrast is clearly between seating one in a place of honor (appropriate to his rank as a wealthy man) and seating another, the poor man, in a less honorable position. Alternatively, kalôs can also be taken as a term of politeness, as in the NRSV rendering, "Have a seat here, please."

Contrast with the "Noble Name"?

In Jas 2:7, James applies the adjective kalos to God's name; he may intend a contrast between the false honor of giving preferential treatment to a rich man and the true honor associated with God.

Acting Well, or Honorably

James also uses the adverb kalôs in Jas 2:8: the one who fulfills the royal law does well; one could also translate "acts nobly;" see the same phrase in Jas 2:19. The adjective kalos in Jas 3:13 and Jas 4:17 is also with a clear stress on the morally good aspect.


1b of glory Possible Syntactic Functions There are several grammatical possibilities for this phrase echete tên pistin tou Kuriou hêmôn Iêsou Christou tês doxês.

  • It may modify "faith," and thus be translated as "glorious faith" (so S takes it) or "faith in the glory of our Lord."
  • It may modify "Lord," thus giving "Lord of glory" (see 1Cor 2:8; cf. also 1 En. 22.14).
  • It may be in apposition to Jesus Christ: "our Lord Jesus Christ, the glory."
  • It may be a genitive of quality modifying "Jesus Christ," thus "our glorious Lord Jesus Christ."

The distance of the word "glory" from "faith," (Biblical Intertextuality 2:1b; Textual Criticism 2:1b) the use of "glory" as a common eschatological concept in Second Temple Judaism (Jewish Tradition 2:1b), and the parallel use in 1Cor 2:8, make "Lord of glory" the best choice (Vocabulary 2:1b).

4a made distinctions Active, Passive, or Middle Meaning? The passive aorist diekrithête can be interpreted in a threefold manner.

  • Understood as a verbum deponens, it is rendered “to make distinctions,” “to judge” (cf. V).
  • Understood in the passive transitive sense of the verb diakrinô “to be separated,” “to be discriminated,” “to be judged,” gives the translation, “Have not you been judged/divided within yourselves?” Cf. S.
  • Or understood as a middle voice, which has a reflexive meaning, its sense is “to be at variance with oneself,” “to hesitate” — “Were you not hesitating within yourselves?” Cf. Jas 1:6

5b in the world Dative of Location or of Reference? The dative case tôᵢ kosmôᵢ, without any preposition, may simply refer to location, but more likely should be taken as a dative of respect or reference, hence the translation, "poor in the eyes (with respect to) the world." Such a translation fits James' conception that "the world" (kosmos) is a realm opposed to the values of God (cf. Jas 1:27c and Jas 4:4b; Textual Criticism 2:5b).

Literary Devices

1–13 Rhetorical Structure Watson 1993a analyzes the rhetorical structure of this section as follows (cf. Ps.-Cicero Rhet. Her. 2.18.28 for the categories). 

Propositio (the proposition to be proved; Jas 2:1): The faith of Jesus Christ is incompatible with displays of partiality towards the rich and powerful within the Christian community. 

Ratio (the causal basis for the propositio; Jas 2:2–4): The specific example of partiality in seating the rich and influential shows that community members are making judgments incompatible with the non-judgmental faith of Jesus Christ. 

Confirmatio (further confirmation of the propositio; Jas 2:5–7): In aligning themselves with the rich, church members align themselves with enemies of the faith: it is the rich who oppress poor community members and who blaspheme the name of the Lord Jesus: 

  • Jas 2:5–6a: partiality directly contradicts God’s preference for the poor; 
  • Jas 2:6bc: partiality supports the very people who oppress the community; 
  • Jas 2:7: partiality supports the blasphemy of the rich against God. 

Exornatio (embellishment and enrichment of the argument once the propositio is established; Jas 2:8–11): the one who shows favoritism violates the royal law (i.e., the faith of Jesus Christ: the Torah of the Kingdom taught by Jesus). 

Conplexio (a brief conclusion summarizing the argument; Jas 2:12–13): James exhorts the community to abandon favoritism and to speak and act in a way consistent with the royal law. If they continue with their unwarranted judgmental and partial behavior, they themselves can expect a harsh judgment.

1–13 beloved brothers Softening of the Criticism While strongly criticizing the community for the sin of partiality towards the rich, James uses rhetorical techniques to soften his criticism’s harshness:

He also employs hypothetical scenarios and rhetorical questions instead of directly accusing members of sin:

  • Jas 2:2: “if a man wearing gold rings”; 
  • Jas 2:4: “have you not made distinctions”; 
  • Jas 2:9: “if you show partiality”. 

Only at Jas 2:6a does one find direct accusation: “But you have dishonored the poor person.” 

2–7 Enthymeme Wachob 2000 analyzes this section as an enthymeme (77). Aristotle Rhet. 1.2.8 defines the enthymeme as a rhetorical syllogism.

  • Major premise (unstated): making distinctions within the community between rich and poor is incompatible with holding the faith of the Lord Jesus.
  • Minor premise: making distinctions between rich and poor is an act of partiality (Jas 2:4).
  • Conclusion: acts of partiality are incompatible with holding of the faith of the Lord Jesus and should not be done.

4–7 have you not made distinctions Confirmatio: Rhetorical Questions Written in the diatribe style, this section asks a series of rapid-fire rhetorical quesitons (cf. Epictetus Diatr. 1.12; cf.  Quintilian Inst. 9.2.6–11 on using rhetorical questions in proofs):

  • "Have you not made distinctions?"
  • "Has not God chosen the poor?"
  • "Are not the rich exploiting you?"
  • "Is it not they [i.e., the rich] who blaspheme?"

In each case, the expected answer is "Yes": these are points that James' readers should know.

James' questions also gives a clue as to the social location of James' audience. Since he questions them on their response to both rich and poor, it may be inferred that they themselves are at neither extreme. 

5f Has not God chosen ...but you have dishonored: Contrast James sets up a sharp contrast between God's actions and the actions of the community:

  • Has God not chosen the poor?
  • But you have dishonored the poor.

12f Speak in such a way, and act in such a way Concluding Call to Action Rhetorical theorists list the call to action as one conclusion to an argument; e.g., Rhet. Alex. 20 [1434a].


Ancient Cultures

1–4 Judicial Setting The legal system in the Roman Empire enshrined preferential treatment for the rich and powerful.

  • Convicted men of the upper classes (senators, equestrians, decurions), known as honestiores, received lighter penalties (e.g., they were exempt from forced labor in the mines, flogging and execution by crucifixion or burning). The rest of the population, the humiliores, were liable to these harsher punishments (cf. Acts 16:37; 22:25, where Paul appeals to the rights of Roman citizens to be spared beatings and scourgings).
  • Tacitus Ann. 4.11 alludes to crucifixion as a "slave's punishment" (servile supplicium; Moore and Jackson 1937, 3:20–21; cf. Tacitus Hist. 2.72). 
  • In the courts, statements of the elite classes received greater weight than statements of the non-elites. Pliny Ep. 9.5 advises a provincial governor to "preserve the distinction of class and rank" (discrimina ordinum dignitatumque) in his administration of justice (Radice 1969, 1:86–87).

2f Public Reinforcement of Social Status In ancient Mediterranean societies, great importance was placed on clearly acknowleging social rank in public gatherings.

  • Seating persons of prominence in places of honor (Greek: proedria) at public games, theaters, and assemblies was a firmly established custom in the Hellenistic world (cf. Plato Leg. 881b). Patrons were often rewarded in such a fashion: a woman named Tation, who had paid for the construction of an assembly hall for the local Jewish assembly (sunagogê) in the 3rd century AD in the Ionian Greek city of Phocaea, was so recognized (CIJ 2.738).

Seating arrangements for meals in upper class society, for example, was strictly arranged by rank.

  • Pliny Ep. 2.6.2 describes the behavior of a host at a dinner party to which he was invited: "The best dishes were set in front of himself and a select few, and cheap scraps of food before the rest of the company. He had even put the wine into tiny little flasks, divided into three categories, not with the idea of giving his guests the opportunity of choosing, but to make it impossible for them to refuse what they were given. One lot was intended for himself and for us, another for his lesser friends (amici minores—that is, the patron's clients) and the third for his and our freedmen" (liberti; Radice 1969, 1:94–97).
  • Suetonius Aug. 44 reports Augustus' rule that only senators could be seated in the first row of public games (cf. Tacitus Ann. 15.32).
  • Juvenal Sat. 5 describes the poor meal served to a humiliated client invited to a meal by his patron.

Patron-Client Relationships

The patron-client (Latin: patronus-cliens) relationship was an important social relationship in ancient Mediterranean society. The patron, in a more powerful social position, provided protection and benefits to the client; the client in return pledged loyalty and provided various services to the patron.

Members of James' community may have been seeking the patronage of the rich man by giving him preferential treatment in the assembly.

6c dragging you off into court Possible Scenarios The following are two possible scenarios in which the wealthy or powerful may have taken a poor person to court.

Compelling a Debt Payment

The wealthy could take debtors to court to force them to repay loans. In the Roman Empire of James' time, farmers and other workers often went into debt, in part due to a relatively high rate of taxation. Small farmers would often lose their ancestral land if they were unable to pay their debts.

The Gospel tradition often refers to debtors who are unable to repay loans (see Mt 18:21–35; Lk 7:41–43; 12:57–59; 16:1–8) and are thus threatened with legal action and perhaps prison (see Mt 18:30–35; Lk 12:58). Note Jesus' advice to settle matters with adversary before going to court (Lk 12:58), implying that justice would be hard to attain in a court system that legally gave preferential treatment to the rich.

Legal disputes may well have also involved disputes over rents, wages, and taxes.

In a first-century Jewish context, the court was likely the local synagogue with the priest acting as judge.

Fraudulent Legal Claims

In accusing a man of using armed force to seize the rightful property of others, Cicero also alludes to less overtly violent means of defrauding others of property:

  • Cicero Mil. 74 "the chicanery of litigation (calumnia litium)…illegal titles and securities" (iniustis vindiciis ac sacramentis; Watts 1931, 88–89).

Ancient Texts

6b oppressing Oppression of the Poor by the Rich One particular and common example of the oppression of the poor by the more powerful and wealthy was the illegal seizure of property (cf. →James: Rich and Poor).

  • Egyptian papyri of the first centuries AD describe wealthy or influential people using threats, intimidation, and physical attacks to deprive the poor of their land (MacMullen 1974, 6–11).

One 2nd c. AD letter describes what must have been a typical scenario:

  • P. Fouad 26.14–16: a villager complains of unjust treatment by an official "who possesses a great deal of influence in the villages through his arrogance and violence (authadiaᵢ kai biaᵢ); and I shall be unable to oppose him before a [local] jury (dikastai) of this kind, for he is very influential" (polu dunastês esti; MacMullen 1974, 11).

Eusebius quotes from Melito's apology to Marcus Aurelius regarding anti-Christian legislation:

  • Eusebius of Cesarea Hist. eccl. 4.26.5 "shameless informers and lovers of other people's property have taken advantage of the decrees, and pillage us openly, (phanerôs lêᵢsteuousi) harrying day and night those who have done nothing wrong" (Lake et al. 1971, 1:388–89). 
  • Seneca Ep. 90.39, personifies greed (avaritia): "she adds one estate to another, evicting a neighbor either by buying him out or by wronging him" (iniuria; Gummere 1917, 2:424–25); cf. Cicero Mil. 74.

Even the upper classes were not free from the danger of having their land illegally seized:

  • Josephus A.J. 17.308 reports that Herod killed nobles under unjust pretenses and took their estates;
  • Pliny Nat. 18.35: the Emperor Nero put to death six great landowners who owned "half of Africa."

8a royal law Royal Law in Stoic and Platonic Contexts  The phrase "royal law" would have been familiar in a Greco-Roman philosophical context:

  • Chrysippus opens his treatise on law as follows, "Law is king of all things human and divine" (ho nomos pantôn esti basileus theiôn kai anthrôpinôn pragmatôn; →SVF, 3.314).
  • Chryssipus apud Diogenes Laërtius Vit. Phil. 7.88 further identifies the law with the king of the gods, Zeus: "the law common to all things (ho nomos ho koinos), that is to say, the right reason (orthos logos) which pervades all things…is identifical with this Zeus, lord and ruler of all that is" (Hicks 1925, 2:196–97).

This Stoic conception of the law closely parallels James' understanding of law as God's law naturally inherent in humans as the "impanted word" (Jas 1:21). The written form of this natural law is the Torah (Jas 1:23–25; 2:10–11).

  • Cf. Plato Ep. 8 [354C] "they have already been kept safe and glorious all these generations since Law became with them supreme king (kurios basileus) over men instead of men being despots (turannoi) over the laws" (Bury 1926, 578–79).

In this sense, James may use "royal" to refer to the law as authored by God the King; or perhaps "royal" in the sense of the supreme law that rules all things.

13 mercy A Range of Views

A Natural Human Trait

Aristotle Rhet. 2.8.2 [1385b–1386b] defines eleos as "a kind of pain excited by the sight of evil, deadly or painful, which befalls one who does not deserve it" (Freese 1926 224). A person feels pity for another to the extent that he realizes that the same misfortune could happen to himself or to his friends. Demosthenes 1–2 Aristog. 1.81 regards it as part of human nature, and a fitting quality for a juror.

Negative View of Mercy in Stoicism

Diogenes Laërtius Vit. Phil. 7.111 reports that the Stoics regarded mercy (eleos) as a negative passion, one of the subcategories, along with jealousy and envy, of pain (lupê; Hicks 1925, 2:217).

Plato: Mercy is not Always Appropriate

Plato Leg. 5 [731C–D] argues for a balance: in general one should show mercy (eleein) to those who do wrong, and to be gentle (praus) with wrongdoers. But in dealing with those who are obstinately wicked, one must be ready to fight them, for example, in self-defense. In punishing such people, one must allow anger (Plato uses both thumos and orgê in this discussion) free reign, and punish them severely (Bury 1926, 1:336–7).

Biblical Intertextuality

1b glory Glory as a Manifestation of God’s Presence In G, the Greek word doxa is often used to translate the Hebrew kābôd, a concept referring to a visible manifestation or revelation of God’s divine nature, often described as a fire (Ex 24:17).

Old Testament

The glory of the Lord is regularly associated with

New Testament

In the NT, the glory of God is associated with Jesus. Just as Jesus shares the name of the Lord, so he shares his glory. The doxa of Jesus is closely associated with his resurrection (Rom 6:4; 1Pt 1:21), and with his future parousia (Tt 2:13; Mk 8:38; 13:26 par.) Mk 8:38, for example, speaks of the Son of Man returning "in his Father's glory with the holy angels."

1b partiality God is Impartial: the Torah’s Commands Against Partiality

God Shows no Partiality

God shows no partiality in his dealings with humans (all references use prosôpolêmpsia and cognates):

The Torah's Prohibition of Partiality in Legal Contexts

The Torah warns judges not to show partiality.

  • Lv 19:15: "You shall not act dishonestly in rendering judgment. Show neither partiality to the weak (Hebrew: nś’ pnh; Greek: lambanô prôsopon) nor deference to the mighty, but judge your neighbor justly."
  •  Dt 1:17: "In rendering judgment, do not consider (Hebrew: nkr panîm; Greek: epiginôskô prôsopon) who a person is; give ear to the lowly and to the great alike, fearing no one, for the judgment is God's."
  •  Dt 10:17–19: "For the Lord…has no favorites (Hebrew: nś’ panîm; Greek: thaumazô prôsopon), accepts no bribes, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and loves the resident alien, giving them food and clothing. So you too should love the resident alien." Cf. Jas 1:27.
  • Ex 23:6: "You shall not pervert justice for the needy among you in a lawsuit."

Note James' different emphasis, however: Lv 19:15 and Dt 1:17 stress treating both poor and rich equally; James suggests a type of "preference for the poor" (Jas 2:5).

3 sit here Jesus' Criticism of Seeking Places of Honor

Criticism of Scribes and Pharisees

Jesus criticizes the scribes who seek "seats of honor in synagogues, and places of honor at banquets" (Mk 12:39: prôtokathedriai en tais sunagôgais); cf. Lk 20:46; Mt 23:6). Here Jesus refers to the custom (common in both Jewish and Hellenistic cultures) of seating people according to social rank in public gatherings (Vocabulary 2:3; Ancient Cultures 2:2–3).

Encouragement of Humility

When invited to a wedding banquet, Jesus advises his followers not to sit in the place of honor.

  • Lk 14:10–11: "Rather, when you are invited, go and take the lowest place so that when the host comes to you he may say, 'My friend, move up to a higher position.' Then you will enjoy the esteem of your companions at the table.  For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted." 

While recognizing the reality of social ranking, Jesus calls his followers to practice humility—a key virtue for James (Jas 1:9–11; 4:6).

4b judges Churches: Warnings against Partiality in Legal Cases The early Christian communities held gatherings where judgments were made on cases within the church: Mt 18:15–20; 1Cor 5:3–5 (cf. 1Cor 6:1–8).

  • 1Tm 5:19–21 warns against showing partiality in such cases: "Do not accept an accusation against a presbyter unless it is supported by two or three witnesses. Reprimand publicly those who do sin, so that the rest also will be afraid. I charge you before God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels to keep these rules without prejudice, doing nothing out of favoritism" (proklisis).

5c heirs of the kingdom Inheritors of God’s Promises With his discussion of "heirs" chosen by God, James taps into a rich biblical tradition involving God's promises and inheritance.

  • OT: God promised Abraham the inheritance of the land (e.g., Gn 28:4). Deuteronomy recalls that promise, "God has delivered the land before you; go in and inherit the land, which I swore to your fathers, Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, to give it to them and to their descendents" (G-Dt 1:8).
  • NT: Paul understands Christians as spiritual descendents of Abraham and thus as inheritors of God's promises to him (Gal 3:29), they are children of God, and thus heirs (Gal 4:7, Rom 8:17; cf. Eph 1:14,18; Heb 4:1–11; Tt 3:7). 

7a name The Divine Name: God and Jesus' Presence and Authority In ancient Judaism, the name (Hebrew: šem) of God had a rich significance. A central point in the relationship between God and Israel occurs when God reveals his name (Yhwh) to Moses at the burning bush (Ex 3:14). Jesus shares the divine name, Lord, with God the Father (cf. Phil 2:9; Rv 1:8).

The Name as the Revelation of One’s Essential Character

In the ancient world in general, a person or deity's "name" is not just an arbitrary label: it represents the person or deity's essence. The importance of the "name" of Jesus is so self-evident that no other reference is necessary: the apostles rejoiced  "that they had been found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name" (Acts 5:41; cf. 3Jn 7; Ign. Eph. 3.1).

The Name of God as God’s Manifestation on Earth

The "name" of God was understood as a kind of manifestation of God's presence on earth. Thus Solomon says of the Jerusalem Temple, "I have built this house for the name of the Lord, the God of Israel" (1Kgs 8:20; cf. Dt 12:11; 14:23). This conception is similar to the "glory" of the Lord as a divine manifestation: Isaiah parallels the two: "Those in the west shall fear the name of the Lord, and those in the east, his glory" (Is 59:19; cf. Biblical Intertextuality 2:1b Jewish Tradition 2:1b).

The Name’s Connection with Power and Authority

 "Name" is closely connected to the power and authority of a person or deity (cf. Acts 4:10; 1Cor 5:3–4). Thus a prophet speaks "in the name of the Lord"(cf. Dt 18:19), i.e., by the power and authority of the Lord. Peter heals a man who is crippled "in the name of Jesus Christ" (Acts 3:6).

  • James has two examples of this type of use, referring to the "the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord"  (Jas 5:10) and the elders of the church who pray over and anoint the sick with oil "in the name of the Lord" (Jas 5:14). 



7 the noble name which is invoked over you Use in the Liturgy of St. James

  • Lit. Jas.: After the recitation of the Lord's Prayer, the priest comments, "Do not lead us into temptation, Lord, Lord of the powers, who knows our weakness, but deliver us from the evil one and his works and all his abuse and craftiness through your holy name that we invoked upon our humility" (to onoma sou to hagion to epiklêthen epi tên hêmeterên tapeinôsin; Brightman-Hammond 1896, 60).

10 Liturgical reading from Augustine Augustine of Hippo Serm. 179A delivered a sermon on this "terrifying reading" (terribilis lectio; Jas 2:10) from the liturgy (Hill 1997 3.5: 306; Boodts 2016, 634).

Jewish Tradition

13 judgment is merciless to the one who has not done mercy The Same Principle in Rabbinic Literature

  • Sipre Deut. 96 "Whenever you show mercy (mrḥm) to others, mercy is shown to you from heaven, when you show no mercy to others, no mercy will be shown to you from heaven" (Hammer 1986, 144; Finkelstein 1939, 157); cf. b. Šabb. 151b. 

Christian Tradition

1–13 Liberation Theology Perspectives

Taking the Perspective of the Poor

Commenting on Jas 2:5b from the perspective of the Latin American poor, Elsa Tamez concludes,

  • James clearly states that God indeed has a partiality for the poor. "If favoritism is prohibited in the community it is because favoritism always favors the rich, never the poor."

Tamez criticizes contemporary biblical exegetes of Jas 2:1–13 on two points:

  • Many exegetes comment that one should not conclude from this passage that all wealthy people are bad or should be condemned (Christian Tradition 2:5b). Nothing in the text itself would occassion such a comment, and thus reveals that these exegetes write from the perspective of the wealthy and powerful.
  • Some exegetes argue that James' reference to "the poor" signifies those who are pious, and thus does not indicate their economic status.  In the view of these scholars, "The rich become the piously poor and the poor rich in piety, and the economic order and the unjust power stay as they are." In Tamez's view, James, on the contrary, clearly refers to the economically poor, and criticizes the wealthy for their oppression of them (Tamez 2002, 36–37).
Partiality as Discrimination
  • Smit argues that the closest modern counterpart to James' concept of partiality is discrimination, and applies it specifically to apartheid in South Africa. Partiality towards the wealthy and powerful necessarily involves a dehumanization of the poor and powerless, who are seen not as human beings created in God's image, but defined by non-essential characteristics such as race and economic status (Smit 1990, 65–67).

8b love your neighbor as youself Three Types of Love

  • Ps.-Hilary of Arles Tract. Iac. ad loc. "In this testimony, three types of seeing (genera visionum) are contained: the physical type (genus corparale), understood literally (per litteras); the spiritual type (genus spiritale) by which the neighbor who is absent is loved; the intellectual (contemplative) type (genus intellectualis): by which love (caritas) is perceived by the intellect" (col. 70).


Literary Devices

3d sit here below my footstool Figurative Speech? It is possible that James meant this command to be taken literally (Historical and Geographical Notes 2:3). It is also possible that it refers figuratively to sitting in a humble position. Cf. G-Ps 98:5: "Exalt the Lord, our God; bow down before his footstool."

9f convicted by the law as transgressors Enthymemes James argument in Jas 2:9–10 may be characterized as an enthymeme. Aristotle Rhet. 1.2.13 [1357A] describes the enthymeme as a kind of deductive argument with an implicit premise which the hearer supplies based on assumed common knowledge. Quintilian Inst. 5.10.1–3 lists five types of enthymemes, one of which is an "imperfect syllogism":

James' enthymemes may be analyzed thus (Watson 1993a, 106–7): 

  • Major premise: Whoever keeps the whole law but fails to obey one commandment fails to keep the whole law
  • Minor premise (implicit): Showing partiality breaks one of the commandments of the law
  • Conclusion (Jas 2:9): The one who shows partiality is a transgressor of the whole law.

The enthymeme in Jas 2:11 is a variation of this argument:

  • Major premise:  The commandments of the Torah form an integral whole, since God is the author of the whole law and thus of each commandment
  • Minor premise (implicit): If one breaks any individual commandment, he breaks the whole law, since God is the author of all
  • Conclusion: One who upholds the commandment against adultery, but breaks the commandment against killing, still breaks the whole law.


Peritestamental Literature

4b judges of unjust reasonings Justice Demands No Partiality to the Rich  Ps.-Phoc. 9–11 connects right judgment with an admonition against partiality:

  • "Always dispense justice (dikaia) and stretch not judgment (krisis) for a favour."
  • "Cast the poor not down unjustly (mê ripsêᵢs peniên adikôs), judge not partially" (mê krine prôsopon).
  • "If you judge evilly (kakôs dikasêᵢs), God will judge (dikassei) you thereafter" (van der Horst 1978, 88–89).


Textual Criticism

1b the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ of glory Disputed Word Order The major mss. witness the following word order: tên pistin tou Kuriou hêmôn Iêsou Christou tês doxês, literally, "the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ of glory." The construction is awkward, and in an attempt to clarify the meaning, some late minuscules place tês doxês, "of glory," after pistin, "faith," giving the literal reading "faith of glory," i.e., "glorious faith;" cf. S in Comparison of Versions 2:1b.


2f,5f poor Severity of Poverty Emphasized

Two Words to Describe the Poor

James here uses the term ptôchos for the poor person, in contrast to his earlier use of tapeinos (Jas 1:9–11Vocabulary 1:9). Ptôchos emphasizes the physical poverty of a person, rather than his humble social status or character—the connotation of tapeinos

The Relatively Poor and the Absolutely Poor

Ancient Greek makes a distinction between the relatively poor (pênes) and the absolutely poor (ptôchos).

  •  Aristophanes Plut. 551 "you're describing the beggar's (ptôchos) life, which means living without possessions (mêden echonta); by contrast, the poor man's (pênes) life means being thrifty and hard-working (pheidomenon kai tois ergois prosechonta), and though he has nothing to spare, he doesn't lack the necessities either" (mê mentoi mêd' epileipein; Henderson 2002, 506–7).

James thus emphasizes the extremely vulnerable state of the poor (cf. Jas 2:15: "poorly dressed and in need of food for the day"; Ancient Cultures 2:6a; Ancient Cultures 2:6c).

10b guilty Judicial Language The Greek enochos can mean that a person is legally responsible, and thus subject to punishment for a particular transgression.


1b faith of our Lord Objective or Subjective Genitive? State of Belief or Body of Teaching?

Objective or Subjective Genitive?

Grammatically, the phrase, "the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ" (pistis tou kuriou hêmôn Iêsou Christou) may be

  • a subjective genitive (Jesus' own faith),
  • or an objective genitive (Jesus Christ as the object of faith).

The Letter as a whole offers no contextual clues to specify James' meaning, since the Letter discusses neither Jesus as the object of belief nor Jesus' own faith. 

The Meaning of Pistis (Faith)

The word pistis has two basic meanings in Greek (cf. →James: Faith in James ):

  • faith as trust
  • and faith as belief.

As James speaks of holding (Greek: echô) the faith of the Lord, it is likely that he refers to faith as a body of beliefs, cf. Jude 3: "the faith that was once for all handed down to the holy ones."

It is possible that James thinks of beliefs concerning Jesus, as found in 1Cor 15:3:  "For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures." The Letter as a whole, however, says nothing directly about beliefs concerning Jesus. James' consistent use of Jesus' teaching (cf. →James: Jesus' Traditions in James) reveals that James' primary concern centers on Jesus as a teacher, specifically, the teacher of the messianic Torah: the royal law (Jas 2:8) which in turn is equivalent to the law of freedom (Jas 1:25; 2:12); cf. Jas 2:9–11; 4:11: the Torah as interpreted by Jesus. 

The "faith of Jesus Christ," then, seems to be equivalent to the religion (Jas 1:26–27) of Jesus, i.e., the body of teachings incorporating Jesus' interpretation of the Torah. Even with this emphasis on following Jesus' teaching, the subjective element is not completely lost. Jesus' teaching often called for a radical faith (trust) in God, and thus James' may presuppose a sense of Jesus' own strong faith in God the Father.

Literary Devices

1–13 Theme of Wholeness and Division James continues the contrast between godly wholeness and sinful division: just as an individual person should not be divided and double-minded (Jas 1:6–8), so too the church members should not be divided by showing partiality to the rich in the community (Jas 2:4). See also→James: Perfection / Wholeness in James .

2ff For if a man Ratio; Hypothetical Exemplum

Examples in Deliberative Rhetoric

An example in deliberative rhetoric may be either real or invented (e.g., Quintilian Inst. 5.11.6). James presents a hypothetical example in order to prove his proposition that partiality is inconsistent with faith in Jesus Christ. Two points suggest that the exemplum is an invented scenario rather than a record of an actual event.

  • The details are generic and stereotyped descriptions of the rich ("a man wearing gold rings") and poor ("dressed in filthy clothing").
  • The instruction to the poor person, "Sit here by my footstool" is likely an allusion to G's phrases (e.g., Ps 98:5; 109:1), where people are placed in a humble position at God's footstool.

Even granted that James' exemplum is hypothetical, however, one should by no means draw the conclusion that the scenario is disconnected from the social reality of James' audience. The argument would have no rhetorical effect if the readers / hearers were unable to connect the scene with their own experience. James' hypothetical example simply portrays a stylized example of typical and familiar social relationships within the community. 

Implied Contrast

Quintilian Inst. 5.11.10 holds that examples from unlikes or contraries are most useful in exhortation: here James contrasts the behavior of partiality towards the rich with the expected impartiality of one who holds the faith of Jesus Christ.  

Examples in the Diatribe Genre

The exemplum is likewise common in the diatribe genre. James uses such exempla at Jas 2:15; 2:21–25.  

4 made distinctions ...become judges: Paronomasia James plays on the similar sound and meaning of diekrithête (“make distinctions”) and kritai (“judges”), both of which are derived from the verb krinô—a fundamental semantic field for James.  See also →James: Judging .

6c–7 they themselves …is it not they: Emphasis Placed on “the Rich” Using the grammatically unnecessary pronoun "they" (autoi), James emphasizes the absurdity of his audience's actions: the readers show partiality to the rich, in spite of the fact that they themselves (i.e., the rich) oppress them and drag them to court.

8–11 If you actually fulfill the royal law Exornatio: Appeal to the Law In attempting to demonstrate that their partiality to the rich violates the law, James uses a typical topos in Greco-Roman protreptic (persusasive speech): the attempt to persuade the audience to act in accordance with the law.

  • E.g., Rhet. Alex. 1.4 [1421b] "the proposing (protreponta) speaker must demonstrate that those things for which he is appealing are just (dikaia), legal" (nomima; Mayhew and Mirhady 2011, 470–71).

More specifically, James' quotation of Lv 19:18 (in Jas 2:8) may be seen as a iudicatio, a judgment made previously.

  • Rhet. Alex. 1.13 [1422a] "what has been judged (kekrimenôn) already, either by the gods or by reputable people, by judges, or by our adversaries" (Mayhew and Mirhady 2011, 472–73). Cf. Quintilian Inst. 5.11.42 on the authority of supernatural oracles in rhetorical arguments (Watson 1993a, 105).

13a For judgment is merciless to the one who has not done mercy Concluding Use of a Maxim This passage may well be an originally independent maxim (Greek: gnômê; Latin: sententia), as suggested by the following considerations:

(1) the sudden appearance of a new topic: mercy;

(2) the compressed expression; 

(3) the switch from second person imperative to gnomic third person.

James commonly concludes a rhetorical unit with a maxim: Jas 1:12; 3:18; 4:17.


Historical and Geographical Notes

3 Sit here below my footstool Description of First Century Synagogues James' description of the building is reminiscent of first-century Palestinian synagogues, which commonly had two or more rows of stone benches along walls and places for standing, as in the synagogues at Magdala→  and Capernaum→ in Galilee.

Ancient Cultures

2a synagogue Importance of the Building in 1st c. Jewish Communities

Existence of Jewish and Non-Jewish Synagogues

The Greek word sunagôgê literally means a "gathering together."

  • In the wider Greco-Roman culture it could also refer to any type of public gathering (e.g., a festival) or association (e.g., a trade union or club). See, e.g., the reference in the Testament of Epicteta (from Thera in Crete) to the gathering of a society to worship heroes (IG 12/3 no. 330.118ff.).
  • In the NT, it refers to a Jewish place of worship (e.g., Lk 4:16; cf. also Josephus B.J. 2.285) or to a Jewish religious congregation (Acts 6:9).

The NT mentions Jewish synagogues:

Sunagôgê can also refer to Christian assemblies (Ign. Pol. 4.2; Herm. Mand. 11.9, 13, 14). Jas 2:2 is the only use of sunagôgê for a gathering of believers in Christ in the NT (but cf. the use of the related episunagôgê in Heb 10:25), an indication of the Jewish provenance of the letter.  



The ancient Jewish synagogue was a place of prayer, teaching, and study, but could also serve other community functions, including serving as a meeting space for discussions, places of hospitality for strangers, and as the site of certain judicial and legal proceedings. The well-known dedication inscription at a 1st c. AD Greek-speaking synagogue in Jerusalem refers to the synagogue and its accompanying buildings,

  • CIJ 2.1404 "Theodotus…built the synagogue for the reading of Torah and for teaching the commandments; furthermore, the hostel, and the rooms, and the water installation for lodging needy strangers" (kataluma tois chrêzousin apo tês xenês; Hanson and Oakman, 79; Frey 1952, 2:332–35).

The NT cites several instances where judicial proceedings ocurred in synagogues. Jesus warns his disciples that "they will hand you over to courts and scourge you in their synagogues" (Mt 10:17 par.; cf. Mt 23:34); "take you before synagogues and before rulers and authorities" (Lk 12:11; cf. Lk 21:12; Acts 22:19; 26:11).

Early Christian assemblies also considered legal issues: Paul assumes that the Corinthian church should be settling legal disputes among themselves (1Cor 6:5); Paul also alludes to the church gathering to excommunicate one of the church members (1Cor 5:3–5); legal issues are addressed at Mt 18:16–20; 1Cor 13:1–3; 1Tm 5:19

Given its overall context within a discussion on partiality (2:1)—a term associated with legal injustice (Lv 19:15; Dt 1:7)—as well as its references to the need for arranging seating, its description of an encounter between the rich and poor, and the use of the term sunagôgê, it is probable that Jas 2:2–3 refers to a gathering of the church community to resolve some legal dispute. 

2b poor man Conditions of the Poor in the Roman Empire See →James: Rich and Poor

Ancient Texts

10b guilty of all Stoic Doctrine: Integral Nature of All Virtues and Vices The Stoics believed that all virtues were interconnected, as were all vices:

  • Diogenes Laërtius Vit. Phil. 7.125 "They hold that the virtues (aretai) involve one another (antakolouthein allêlous), and that the possessor of one is the possessor of all, inasmuch as they have common principles" (theôrêmata koina) (Hicks 1925, 2:228–31).
  • Stobaeus Anth. 2.7.5b "The wise man does everything which he does well...the opinion that the wise man does everything well follows from his accomplishing everything in accordance with right reason (kata logon orthon) and, as it were, in accordance with virtue (hoion kat' aretên).…Analogously, the base man (ho phaulos) does everything which he does badly and in accordance with all the vices" (kata pasas tas kakias; Inwood and Gerson 2008, 207; Wachsmuth and Hense 1923, 2.66-67). 

Biblical Intertextuality

5b the poor of the world + heirs of the kingdom: Reformulation of Jesus’ Teaching This can be read as a reformulation of the teaching of Jesus, "Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours" (Lk 6:20; cf. Mt 5:3). See also →James: Jesus' Traditions in James

6a dishonored the poor one The Sin of Shaming the Poor

  • G-Prv 14:21 : "He who dishonors the needy sins (atimazôn penêtas hamartanei): but the one that pities the poor is deemed most happy" (eleôn de ptôchous makaristos).
  • 1Cor 11:20–22: Paul makes a similar point when he criticizes the inequalities evident in the gatherings of the Corinthian community, where some go hungry while others get drunk: "do you show contempt for the church of God and make those who have nothing feel ashamed (kataischunete)?"

6b oppressing you Prophetic Denunciation of the Rich Oppressing the Poor The same verb is often used in the prophetic tradition to refer to the rich and powerful taking advantage of the poor and weak:  

11a Do not commit adultery Two Examples from the Decalogue James lists two examples of commandments: the prohibition of adultery and of murder.

  • James follows the order of G; M lists "killing" before "adultery."
  • Specifically, James follows  Dt 5:17–18 (in G-Ex 20:13–15, the commandment prohibiting stealing is listed in between adultery and killing).
  • G gives the verbs in the future tense ("thou shalt not…"); James' verbs are in aorist subjunctive (as they are in the summaries of the Law in Mk 10:19 and Lk 18:20).

It is perhaps also significant that Jesus' teaching gives special attention to these two passages: see Mt 5:21–26 and Mt 5:27–30

13b mercy boasts over judgment Sirach and Jesus’ Teaching on Mercy The relationship of mercy, judgment, and forgiveness of sin is a central biblical theme.

Mercy and Judgment in Sirach

Sir 28:1–7 parallels James' teaching:

  • "The vengeful (ekdikôn) will face the Lord's vengeance; indeed he remembers their sins in detail.  Forgive your neighbor the wrong done to you; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.  Does anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the Lord?  Can one refuse mercy (eleos) to a sinner like oneself, yet seek pardon for one's own sins?  If a mere mortal cherishes wrath, who will forgive his sins?  Remember your last days and set enmity aside; remember death and decay, and cease from sin!  Remember the commandments and do not be angry with your neighbor; remember the covenant of the Most High, and overlook faults."

Teaching of Jesus

At the heart of Jesus' own teaching is this same principle. Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount:

  • Mt 5:7: "Blessed are the merciful, (eleêmôn) for they will be shown mercy" (eleeô).
  • Mt 6:14–15: "If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions" (cf. the parable of the unforgiving servant in Mt 18:21–35). 

The "royal law" (Jas 2:8) of the Kingdom of God, then, is characterized by mercy and forgiveness and not by a strict adherence to legal standards of judgment. This "law of freedom" is governed by the commandment, "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Jas 2:8): the attitude of love includes the inclination to show mercy rather than hold to a strict standard of judgment. See →James: Jesus' Traditions in James.


Comparison of Versions

13b mercy boasts over judgment Syriac and Latin Interpretations

Syriac Tradition

S changes the abstract principle of mercy triumphing over judgment to a personal application: "by mercy, you (pl.) will be raised above judgment." Bar Salibi Ep. Cath. paraphrases, "You will be raised up by [your] generosity above judgment, for you will not be seen under the condemnation of judgment" (Sedlacek 1910, 94; Syriac-ibid., 123).

Latin Tradition

The Latin tradtion witnesses two readings:

  • superexaltat autem misericordia judicium (judicio): mercy is exalted over, or triumphs over, judgment (Bede Ep. cath.; C).
  • superexultat autem misericordia iudicio : mercy "rejoices over" or boasts over judgment (V).

Erasmus Annot. Ep. Iac.. ad loc. prefers the reading superexulto, in the sense that mercy extols itself over against judgment (van Poll-van de Lisdonk 2014, 400).

Jewish Tradition

8b love your neighbor as yourself Love of Neighbor as the Central Commandment of the Torah The rabbinic tradition also sees the love of neighbor and Lv 19:18 in particular as central to the Torah.

  •  Gen. Rab. 24.7: Rabbi Akiva identified Lv 19:18 as a great principle of the Torah (204).
  •  b. Shabb. 31a: When asked to explain the whole Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel is reported to have said, "'What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbour: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it."

Christian Tradition

1–13 Divisio Textus

  •  Ps.-Andreas Catena, recognizing James' primary focus on the issue of partiality within the church, places Jas 2:1–13 under the heading, "Concerning imparital (aprosôpolêptos) love for each person according to the law" (Cramer 1844, 8:9).

See →James: Medieval Divisio Textus .

5b the poor in the world Implications of God's Choosing the Poor

Choosing the Poor Does not Imply Condemning the Rich

The tradition is careful to avoid the conclusion that God's choosing of the poor implies the rejection of the powerful and wealthy.

Several commentators are eager to show that James does  not condemn the rich by choosing the poor.

  •  Erasmus Iac. Par. ad loc. "to whom did he [God] make this promise of wonderful felicity—to kings and to the wealthy? No, to those who truly love him regardless of their condition in life, whether slave or free, rich or poor…not everyone who is wealthy is impious, of course; nevertheless, the rich of this world scarcely ever meet the demands of evangelical piety" (convenit cum evangelica pietate; Bateman 1993, 148; Bateman 1997, 134).
  •  Bar Salibi Ep. Cath. ad loc. "God did not say that he chooses one and condemns the other." Both the poor person and the rich person (if his riches were acquired in piety and faith) can use their free will to act so as to be chosen by God" (Sedlacek 1910, 93; Syriac-ibid., 121).
  • Isho'dad of Merv Comm. Cath. Ep. ad loc.: both the rich and the poor are chosen by God, based on the richness of their faith (Gibson 1913, 36; Syriac-ibid., 50).
  • Nicholas of Lyra Post. ad loc.,  "As is clear in the apostles, nevertheless, from the beginning he chose some rich people, as Zachaeus and Lazarus" (1276).
  • Bengel 1759  ad loc. "This description does not include all the poor, nor is it confined to the poor only; for poverty and riches of themselves do not render any man good or evil" (neminem per se faciunt bonum aut malum;Fletcher 1858, 5:14; Bengel 1759, 1101).

Identity of the Poor

Those Who Are Literally Poor
  • Gloss. Ord. ad loc. glosses the poor with "lacking the resources of temporal things" (inopes rerum temporalium; cols. 1277–78).
Those Who Are Humble
  • Bede Ep. cath. ad loc., "By the poor he means the humble (humiles) and those who because of their disregard for visible things but because of their faith in invisible riches appear contemptible to this world" (Hurst 1985, 23; Hurst 1983, 194).
A Justification for Evangelical Poverty
  • Aquinas Impug. 2.5 [1.6] quotes the passage to justify the poverty of the religious orders (Procter 1902, 177–78).

The Poor Can Be More Focused on God

  • Ps.-Oecumenius Comm. Ep. Cath. ad loc. "The freedom from the distractions (aperispaston) of the world makes the poor, when they come to faith, more energetic and effective than rich people" (473C). 
  • Lapide Comm. "Riches are the kindling and enticement to ambition, avarice (avaritia), gluttony (gula), the excess of all vices, through which is the road to hell; poverty indeed supplies (suggerit) the material of humility, continence, modesty, sobriety, the purity of all virtues, through which one is directed towards glory" (quibus tenditur ad gloriam; 20:107).

Liberation Theology Perspective

  • Tamez 2002 "To be rich in faith cannot be relegated solely to a spiritual plane, completely disconnected from their situation of poverty and suffering. To be rich in faith includes more than being open to the Spirit with more naturalness than the rich. It does indeed include being more sensitive to the presence of God, but it includes something more: it means to hope in the promise of God's reign. This is the reign inaugurated by Jesus as he cured the sick, restored dignity to the outcast, raised the dead" (37).


1b do not show partiality Catholic Social Teaching In line with the thought of James, Catholic Social Teaching strongly condemns partiality or discrimination, insisting that all people should be treated equally since all are created in God's image (cf. Jas 3:9) and redeemed by Christ:

  • Conc. Vat. II. Gaud. Spes 29 "Since all men possess a rational soul and are created in God's likeness, since they have the same nature and origin, have been redeemed by Christ and enjoy the same divine calling and destiny, the basic equality of all must receive increasingly greater recognition.…with respect to the fundamental rights of the person, every type of discrimination (modus discriminandi), whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God's intent."
  • Comp. Soc. Doc. 144–145 "'God shows no partiality' (Acts 10:34; cf. Rom 2:11; Gal 2:6; Eph 6:9), since all people have the same dignity as creatures made in his image and likeness" (CCC 1934).…Only the recognition of human dignity can make possible the common and personal growth of everyone (cf. Jas 2:1–9). To stimulate this kind of growth it is necessary in particular to help the least, effectively ensuring conditions of equal opportunity for men and women and guaranteeing an objective equality between the differerent social classes before the law" (cf. Paul VI Oct. Adv. 16).

See further →James: Catholic Social Teaching .

7 blaspheme the noble name which is invoked over you  The Significance of “the name”

Jesus is the Divine, Salvific Name

  • CCC 432 references Jas 2:7 in its teaching that the "name 'Jesus' signifies that the very name of God is present in the person of his Son." It is "this divine name alone that brings salvation, and henceforth all can invoke his name." 

Blasphemy and the Second Commandment

  • CCC 2148 cites Jas 2:7 in its discussion of blasphemy as a direct violation of the second commandment. Blasphemy consists "in uttering against God—inwardly or outwardly—words of hatred, reproach, or defiance; in speaking ill of God; in failing in respect toward him in one's speech; in misusing God's name."

10b guilty of all False Penance and the Integrity of the Law

Warning against False Penance

The Second Lateran Council (1139) quotes Jas 2:10 in its condemnation of false penances. The Council teaches that "a penance is false when many sins are disregarded and a penance is performed for one only or when it is done for one sin in such a way that the penitent does not renounce another."  Quoting Jas 2:10, the Council comments, "this evidently pertains to eternal life. Therefore, just as a person who is entangled in all sins will not enter the gate of eternal life, so also if a person remains in one sin" (in uno tantum maneatDzH 717; Christian Tradition 2:10b).

Integrity of the Law

Commenting on the Jewish understanding of the Torah, CCC 578 cites Jas 2:10 with the comment,  "The law indeed makes up one inseparable whole."

Integrity of the Decalogue

CCC 2069 references Jas 2:10–11 in teaching that the two "tables" of the Decalogue (i.e., commandments concerning the worship of God and commandments concerning behavior towards one's neighbor) form an integral whole:

  • "The Decalogue forms a coherent whole. Each 'word' refers to each of the others and to all of them; they reciprocally condition one another. The two tables shed light on one another; they form an organic unity. To transgress one commandment is to infringe all the others (referencing Jas 2:10–11). One cannot honor another person without blessing God his Creator. One cannot adore God without loving all men, his creatures. The Decalogue brings man's religious and social life into unity" (cf. the summary in CCC 2079).



13b,3:17 mercy Loving-kindness and Almsgiving

Translation of Hebrew ḥesed

The Greek eleos regularly translates the Hebrew ḥesed, a word referring to God's loving-kindness for his people:

  • Ex 20:6, the Lord will show "love (ḥsd) down to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments."

Later Association with Almsgiving

4a made distinctions Judging Means Dividing The verb diakrinô can have two related but different meanings:

  • to make distinctions (see S),
  • to pass judgment (see V); see also Vocabulary 1:6a.

For the meaning of the passive form see Grammar 2:4a. In Jas 1:6, James applies the middle form of the verb (meaning "contend" or "dispute") to the inner life of his readers, warning them not to have conflicting or hesitating thoughts, but rather to trust single-mindedly in God. Here James applies the aorist passive form of same word to the community as a whole: "Have you not made distinctions among yourselves"—in other words, have you not made judgments about the worth of others based on their external appearance and social status? In James' worldview, both internal and external divisions violate the holistic unity intended by God.

See also →James: Judging;→James: Perfection / Wholeness in James.

8a actually Setting up a Contrast The particle mentoi typically has an adversative sense, thus one may translate, "However, if you actually fulfill..." Mentoi can also have the sense of "actually" or "really." This latter sense is more consistent with the flow of James' argument. 

Mentoi should be taken with the de of the following verse to set up a strong contrast between two conditional statements: 

  • If you actually fulfill the royal law; 
  • But if you show partiality (cf. V).

James' point is that fulfilling the royal law absolutely excludes any partiality. 


Biblical Intertextuality

7 the noble name that is invoked over you Indication of God's People and a Worship Context

A Phrase Showing God’s Special Relationship with Israel

 When epikaleô is used in the passive with the preposition epi, as here ("to call a name upon someone"), it denotes a relationship of possession between the parties (e.g., the Lord promised Solomon, "if then my people, upon whom my name has been pronounced, humble themselves and pray...[2Chr 7:14]; cf.  Am 9:12; Dt 28:10). Thus the people of Israel could simply be called "those who are called by the name of the Lord" (i.e, the Lord's people);  terminology that was take over by Christians: cf. Herm. Sim. 8.1.1; 8.6.4). This relationship also implies the Lord's special presence among the people.

Calling on the Name of the Lord in Worship

James' language (to onomoa epikaleô) also invokes a context of worship.  To call on the name of the Lord means to worship him cultically: Abram built an altar and "invoked the Lord by name (epikaleô epi tôᵢ onomati kuriou)" (Gn 12:8; cf. Gn 4:26; Zep 3:9). 

James may refer specifically to baptism. Christians were baptized "in the name of Jesus Christ" (Acts 2:38; 8:16; 10:48) or "in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" (Mt 20:19). James also refers to the presbyters of the church anointing a sick person "in the name of the Lord" (Christian Tradition 5:14–15).

The Ambiguity of the Reference “Lord”

In the biblical tradition, "the name invoked upon you" would generally refer to God. James' use is ambiguous:

  • James' reference to God in Jas 2:5, and James' connnection of "the name of the Lord" with God in Jas 5:10 point towards a reference to God's name.
  • James' reference to the the Lord Jesus Christ in the beginning of this pericope (Jas 2:1) and the likely connection of "the name of the Lord" with Jesus in Jas 5:14 point towards a reference to the Lord Jesus.

James' ambiguity here corresponds with his ambiguous use of the title kurios (→James: The Title Kurios in James)—James applies the title both to the Father and to Jesus in different contexts. Here it likely refers to the name of Jesus, understood in the sense of Jesus sharing the divine name; this reinforces the association of Jesus with the divine glory or presence expressed in Jas 2:1 (Biblical Intertextuality Jas 2:1b; Jewish Tradition 2:1b).



1–9 Use in Lectionary RML : Thursday, Week 6, Year 2.

1–10,14–17 Use in Lectionary RCL : Proper 18, Year B- Longer Reading = Jas 2:1-17.

1–5 Use in Lectionary RML : 23rd Sunday in Year B.

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.



1b glory Range of Meanings The noun doxa has a wide range of possible meanings.

  • It can be translated as "opinion" or "appearance." If translated in this sense, the sentence would mean "do not show favoritism based on appearance." This translation was accepted by Erasmus Annot. Ep. Iac. (396) and Calvin Comm. Iac. (Reuss and Erichson 1896, 398).
  • It can have a sense of honor or public esteem, cf. Josephus A.J. 4.14: Korah is envious of the glory and honor given to Moses (Thackeray 1965, 2:9).
  • As a translation of the Hebrew kābôd, it refers to a visible manifestation or revelation of God’s divine nature (Jewish Tradition 2:1b).

Literary Devices

8a the royal law Echo

  • The adjective "royal" (basilikos) evokes James' reference to the kingdom (basileia) in Jas 2:5. James thus likely refers to the law of the Kingdom, in other words, the Torah as it is interpreted by Jesus in his teaching about the Kingdom of God (→James: Law in the Letter of James ).
  • Alternatively, "royal" may allude to God's law, with God understood as the universal King (Ancient Texts 2:8a).


Ancient Cultures

2a gold-ringed, dressed in gleaming clothes Clothing as a Sign of Social Status The same phrase used by James—esthês lampra—is used by Polybius Hist. 10.5.1 to refer to the toga candida—a white toga worn by candidates for political office (Paton and Olson 2012, 4:124–25).

  • The wealthy and powerful in the ancient Mediterranean cultures were identifiable by their luxurious clothing. The social elite would dress in fine linen and silk (Ez 16:10; Rv 18:12) and wear soft clothes (Lk 7:25). The clothing of the rich was dyed in blue, scarlet, and purple (Jer 10:9; 1Mac 4:23; Rv 18:12). Purple was especially associated with wealth and status: Jesus speaks of a rich man "who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day" (Lk 16:19); Roman senators wore togas with a broad purple stripe.
  •  Lucian of Samosata Tim. 20 briefly describes the wealthy who "go about dressed in purple, with rings on their fingers" (porphuroi kai chrusocheires; Harmon 1915, 2:348–49).
  • In Rome, the gold ring was a military decoration and a mark of social rank, originally limited to nobiles (descendants of consuls) and equites (an aristocratic order ranked just below the senatorial order). Later, in the Empire, it was opened to any free-born person (liberti; cf. Cassius Dio Hist. 48.45.8–9).

6a dishonored Public Shaming To dishonor a person is a serious offense in the Jewish and Greco-Roman societies of James' time, which relied heavily on honor and shame as mechanisms for enforcing cultural values.

  • P. Petr. II. 4 (6) 15–16: Referring to an incident when a crowd jostled and almost attacked him while he was distrubing bread, a 3rd c. BC Egyptian official writes, "for it is a terrible thing to be shamed before a crowd" (en ochlôi atimazesthai; 2:10).

In James' scenario (Jas 2:2–3), the poor person is publically shamed when he is directed to a less honorable seating or standing position (cf. Lk 14:9).


Jewish Tradition

3f Rabbinic Teaching on Partiality

God Shows No Partiality

  • m. ’Abot 4.22 "he is the Creator, he is the Discerner, he is the Judge…in whose presence is neither guile nor forgetfulness nor respect of persons" (l’ mšw’ pnym; Danby 1933, 455).
  • Sipre Deut. 304 "Blessed be the Truthful Judge, Master of all that happens, before whom there is no corruption or favoritism" (Hammer 1986, 293; Finkelstein 1939, 323).

Rabbinic Warnings against Partiality for the Rich in Legal Contexts

  • Deut. Rab. 5.6 "If before a judge two men appear for judgment, one rich and another poor, the judge should say [to the rich man], 'Either dress in the same manner as he is dressed, or clothe him as you are clothed'" (Rabbinowitz 1983, 107; cf. b.Šebu. 31a).  

Similarly, the rabbis warned against partiality in seating:

  • b. Šebu. 30a "In righteousness you shall judge your neighbor (Lv 19:15), that one should not sit, and the other stand, one speak all that he wishes, and the other bidden to be brief" (modernized trans.).
  • Deut. Rab. 5.6 "if the judge wishes the litigants to be seated, he may have them seated; but what is not permissible? For the one to be seated and the other to remain standing" (Rabbinowitz 1983, 107).

See also, however, the tradition about the Alexandrian synagogue in b. Sûk. 51b, where members of various trades (e.g., goldsmiths, weavers) sit in certain areas; the poor man entering the synagogue can sit with his fellow craftsmen.


Biblical Intertextuality

9a show partiality ...convicted by the law: Different Senses in Which Partiality Violates the Law How precisely partiality transgresses the Law is unclear. Some of the possibilities are as follows.

  • Partiality to the rich violates the commandment "Love your neighbor as yourself (Lv 19:18), the commandment that serves as a norm for the royal law as a whole (Jas 2:8), since love for the poor is not displayed.
  • James may have a specific commandment in mind, such as the commandment in Lv 19:15, "You shall not act dishonestly in rendering judgment. Show neither partiality to the weak nor deference to the mighty, but judge your neighbor justly."

The first option is more likely for two reasons:

  • Lv 19:15 is directed specifically to judges.
  • Lv 19:15 and similar passages argues for no partiality for anyone, weak or mighty; James rather presupposes a type of partiality for the poor (Jas 2:5).

10b guilty of all Integrity of The Whole Law

Connection with Jesus' Teaching

Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:18–19), similarly taught that the violation of a single commandment is a serious matter that implies an attack on the Law as a whole:

  • Mt 5:18–19: "Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven." Albert Sup. Matt. ad 5:18 notes the connection between these passages (Schmidt 1987, 128).

Connection with Paul's Teaching

  • Paul similarly assumes that obedience or disobedience to one commandment has implications for the following of the Torah as a whole: "Once again I declare to every man who has himself circumcised that he is bound to observe the entire law" (Gal 5:3).
  • Cf. Paul's quotation of Dt 27:26 in Gal 3:10: "Cursed be everyone who does not persevere in doing all the things written in the book of the law."


Comparison of Versions

1b glory Uncertainty on the Position and Meaning of “Glory” in this Verse S, along with the Coptic Bohairic and some Sahidic witnesses, following some late miniscules, places "of glory" after "faith," yielding the reading: "glorious faith" (Textual Criticism 2:1b).

Jewish Tradition

10b guilty of all Integrity of the Whole Law The significance of following or not following a single commandment in relation to the Torah as a whole is a theme that surfaces frequently in rabbinic literature:

  • m. Qidd. 1.10 "if he neglects a single commandment it shall be ill with him and he shall not have length of days and shall not inherit the Land" (323; cf. b. Qidd. 39b).
  •  b. ‘Erub. 69a "a person who is suspected of disregarding one matter [of law] is held suspect in regard to all the Torah"  (cf. b. Bek. 30b).
  •  b. Menah. 43b "that you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord: as soon as a person is bound to observe this precept he must observe all the precepts."
  • Exod. Rab. 25.12 "God said, 'If you virtuously observe the Sabbath, I will regard you as observing all the commands of the Law, but if you profane it, I will regard it as if you had profaned all the commandments" (Lehrman 1983, 315–16).
  • Sipre Deut. 54 "anyone who acknowledges idolatry denies the entire Torah, and anyone who denies idolatry acknowledges the entire Torah" (Hammer 1986, 112; Finkelstein 1939, 122).

Christian Tradition

1–4 show partiality Teaching on the Sin of Partiality

Christian Leaders Must Avoid Partiality

  • Polycarp Phil. 6.1: Presbyters must abstain from "all anger, prejudice (prosôpolêpsia), and unfair judgment" (krisis adikos; Ehrman 2003, 1:340–41).

Augustine: Two Possible Scenarios for Partiality

Augustine of Hippo Ep. 167.18 discusses two possible scenarios:

  • (1) Favoritism in choosing honored Church positions: If James refers to positions of honor in the Church (honores ecclesiasticos), "who would tolerate it that a rich man is chosen for position of honor in the church (ad sedem honoris ecclesiae) when a better instructed and holier poor man is rejected?"
  • (2) Favoritism in the daily assemblies of the church. If James refers to daily assemblies (cotidiani consessus), "who does not sin in this case…when he so discriminates in his mind that he thinks that one person is better than another because he is richer?" (Teske 2005, 2/3: 103; Goldbacher 1923, 44:605). Augustine's comment is quoted by Bede Ep. cath. ad loc. (Hurst 1985, 22), the Gloss. Ord. ad loc. (1275–76), and Aquinas ST 2-2.63.2.

Partiality Wounds the Body of Christ

  • Ps.-Andreas Catena ad 2:1 (from John Chrysostom Hom. Rom 12:4), "For what reason do you think highly of yourself? Or again, why does another utterly despise himself? Are we not all one body, both great and small? When, then, taken all together, we are one and members of one another, why do you, in your madness, exalt yourself? Why do you shame your brother? For just as he is a part of you, so too are you of him. And it is based on this that your equality of honor (homotimia) is so great" (Cramer 1844, 8:9).

Basis of Equality

Bar Salibi Ep. Cath. ad 2:2 comments that partiality to the rich contradicts the essential equality of all Christians. All Christians are equal since:

  • all are worthy of the gift of the sacraments;
  • all are created as equal and are equal in the faith  (Sedlacek 1910, 93; Syriac-ibid., 121).

See also Theology 2:1b; Theology 2:5b.

Church Orders: Congregations Must Welcome the Poor

Church orders urge that concern be shown for the poor who visit a congregation:

  • Apos. Con. 2.58.6 "if a poor man (ptôchos), or one of a mean family, or a stranger, comes upon you, whether he be old or young, and there be no place, the deacon shall find a place for even these, and that with all his heart; that, instead of accepting persons [prosôpolêpsia = showing favoritism] before men, his ministration towards God may be well-pleasing. The very same thing let the deaconess do to those women, whether poor or rich, that come unto them" (ANF 7:422; Funk 1906, 169–71).
  • Didasc. 12 "But if, as you are sitting, another person should come, whether a man or a woman, who has honor in the world, either of the same locus or of another congregation, you, O bishop, if you are speaking the word of God, or hearing, or reading, shall not respect persons and leave off the service of your word and set them a place...But if a poor man or woman should come, whether from the members of your congregation or from another congregation, and especially if they are advanced in years, and there be no place for those as such, do you, O bishop, with all your heart appoint a place for them—and even if you have to sit upon the ground, that you be not as one who respects the persons of men, but that your ministry be acceptable with God" (Vööbus 1979, 2:133–34; Syriac: 2:147–48).

Ambrosiaster on Seating Arrangements

  • Ambrosiaster Comm. Ep. Pauli on 1Cor 14:31 "It is a tradition of the synagogue which he wishes us to follow…they dispute while sitting: the eldest in rank (seniores dignitate) on chairs, those next on benches (in subselliis), the youngest (novissimi) on the floor on mats" (PL 17:258).

The Sin of Partiality

Gloss. Ord. ad 2:1 "Whoever chooses the wealthy because of his wealth, and rejects the poor because of his poverty, in both cases sins" (utrobique peccat; 1275–76).

Pelagius' Challege to the Worldly Value of Favoritism

The Pelagian tract "On Riches" (Ps.-Pelagius Div. 14.2), a severe critique of Christians who rationalize their own accumulation and valuing of wealth, in contradiction to the pattern offered by Jesus and his disciples, alludes to Jas 2:1-4:

  • "But if anyone, however unbelieving (infidelis) and encompassed by a variety of sins and wrongdoing, comes to us distinguished in appearance and clothed in splendid apparel befitting his rank (vestiam dignitate praeclarus), he is given pride of place over all the poor, however holy their lives, contrary to the apostle's command, and this world's style is preferred to the pattern of Christ" (Rees 1998, 197; PL Sup. 1:1403).

Specific Applications of James' Teachings

James Begg's 1838 pamplet condemning the Church of Scotland's practice of charging rents for church seats, quotes Jas 1:1-4

  • James "desired the poorest man to meet with the richest on a level in the Church of God— and that as a matter of right, not of favour" (Begg 1838, 23).

Qualifying James' Teaching to Protect Hierarchical Order

  • Hilegard of Bingen Ep. 378 "A poor man, however, must be received for the love of Christ and because he is a fellow human being (frater hominis). But rich and poor must not be regarded as equals (nec isti pares habendi sunt) because such a judgment would be lacking in discretion (sine discretione). For if someone would have the rich man and poor man to sit down together, the rich man would refuse, and the poor man would be terrified" (Baird and Ehrman 2004, 166; Van Acker and Klaes-Hachmöller 2001, 135).
  • Aquinas ST 2-2.63.1–4: see discussion below.
  • Calvin Comm. Iac.: James' teaching does not imply that there should be no social distinctions between rich and poor; otherwise there would be no social distinctions between master and servant or between judges and those whom they judge. Rather, James condemns honoring the rich in a way that denigrates the poor; honoring the rich in itself is not wrong (Owen 1849, 300–301; Reuss and Erichson 1896, 397).

Aquinas: A Nuanced Discussion of Partiality

Aquinas ST 2-2.63.1–4 makes the following points in his teaching on partiality (acceptio personarum, translated as "respect of persons").

  • 2-2.63.1: It is a vice opposed to the virtue of distributive justice (iustitia distributiva).
  • 2-2.63.1: Rewarding a person for what he deserves is not partiality; it is partiality to reward someone for something he does not deserve, e.g., because he is rich or is a relative.
  • 2-2.63.2: Referring specifically to Jas 2:2–3, Thomas notes that dispensations to marry within forbidden degrees are more readily granted to the rich and powerful than to others. This practice should not be considered partiality, since allowing such marriages among the powerful often strengthens treaties of peace, and thus promotes the common good (bonum commune).
  • 2-2.63.3: Thomas notes that sometimes people are honored not for their personal virtue, but for what they represent: "thus princes and prelates, even if they are wicked, are honored (honorantur) for standing in God's place and as representing the community over which they are placed." Referring specifically to Jas 2:2–3, Thomas notes, "the rich ought to be honored by reason of their occupying a higher position in the community (propter hoc quod maiorem locum in communitatibus obtinent); but if they be honored merely for their wealth, it will be the sin of respect of persons" (English Dominicans 1947, 3:1459).

Christians to be a Model for the Rest of Society

  • Baptist Statement 8 "We believe that Christians, individually and collectively, are salt and light in society (Mt 5:13–16). In a Christlike spirit, they oppose greed, selfishness, and vice; they promote truth, justice, and peace; they aid the needy and preserve the dignity of people of all races and conditions" (Jas 2:1–4 cited with other texts; CCFCT 3:812).

5b Has not God chosen the poor Free Will, God's Election, and Predestination  The reference to God choosing the poor sparked commentary on the relationship between a person's free will and God's choice (election):

  • Augustine of Hippo Praed. (17) 34 "God, therefore, chose believers, but in order that they might be believers, not because they already were" (Elegit ergo Deus fideles, sed ut sint, non quia jam erant). After quoting Jas 2:5, he concludes, "By choosing them, then, he made them rich in faith, as well as heirs of the kingdom. He is, of course, correctly said to choose in them this faith since he chose them in order to bring it about in them" (Recte quippe in eis hoc eligere dicitur, quod ut in eis faciat, eos eligit; Teske 1999, 178; PL 44:986).

The Syriac tradition, by contrast, emphasizes free will:

  • Bar Salibi Ep. Cath.: both the poor person and the rich person can use their free will to act so as to be chosen by God (Sedlacek 1910, 93; Syriac-ibid., 121).
  • Isho'dad of Merv Comm. Cath. Ep.: both the rich and the poor are chosen by God, based on their faith (Sedlacek 1910, 36; Syriac-ibid., 50).

7 blaspheme the noble name God’s Name or the Name of Christians The tradition offers various interpretations of the identity of the “name” blasphemed by the rich.

The Divine Name

  • Ps.-Hilary of Arles Tract. Iac. ad loc. “This is the name of the God of Israel, which was invoked (invocatum est) over you in Egypt, or in baptism” (col. 70).
  • The →Gloss. Ord. glosses “the name” with “the healing (salutiferum) [name] of Christ” (cols. 1277–78).

The Name of Christians

  • Aquinas Impug. prol. understands “the name” as one’s reputation, citing this passage against those who seek to defame members of religious orders (Procter 1902, 45)
  • Hilegard of Bingen Ep. 378 “Through the pride of his riches the rich man rules over other men, whom he can harm, and treats them badly, just as if they were not fellow creatures, and in this way the good name (bonum nomen) of mankind (i.e., that man is the image and likeness of God) is blasphemed.” Hildegard adds that when the rich man blasphemes God’s image in another, his own image (shared with the poor man) is also blasphemed. Finally, since the Son took on the human form and image, blasphemy against the poor is also blasphemy against God (Baird and Ehrman, 166–67; Van Acker and Klaes-Hachmöller, 135–36).
  • Bar Salibi Ep. Cath. ad loc.: the name is “Christianity or ‘clothed in Christ’” (Sedlacek 1910, 93; Syriac-ibid., 122).

Blasphemy of The Rich

Bar Salibi Ep. Cath. ad loc. notes two ways in which the rich blaspheme.

  • They blaspheme when they say, “We are rich because of our own righteousness; they are poor because of their own wickedness.”
  • They blaspheme when they say that they have abundance and wealth from God, which was gathered through injustice and oppression. (Sedlacek 1910, 93; Syriac-ibid., 122).

Bar Salibi also suggests that poor behavior among Christians allows pagans to speak badly of them:

  • Those Christians who deny mercy to their brothers “open the mouths of pagans to blaspheme the excellent name of Christianity” (Sedlacek 1910, 93; Syriac-ibid., 122).

9 show partiality ...convicted by the law: Which Laws are Broken?

  • Ps.-Hilary of Arles Tract. Iac. ad loc.: By showing partiality, a person commits "the sin of inequality (inaequalitatis)." Such a person is guilty of breaking specific scriptural laws: "hear the small and the great" (Dt 1:17), and "always judge with a just judgment" (Jn 7:24; col. 70).
  • Calvin Comm. Iac. ad loc. argues that partiality contradicts the specific law, "Love your neighbor as youself," quoted in Jas 2:8. For the Christian, love of neighbor includes love of strangers and even enemies. Thus one who shows partiality, loving only a few, contradicts this law of love (Owen 1849, 305; Reuss and Erichson 1896, 400).

10b has become guilty of all Various Interpretations

Proof of Universal Sin 

Many interpreters see here a proof that all people sin (e.g., Augustine of Hippo Pecc. merit. 2.3; Jerome Adv. Jov. 2.2). 

Augustine's Interpretation: Love is the Basis of the Law

Augustine devotes a lengthy letter to Jerome, as well as a sermon, to the interpretation of this passage. He questions: Is James really implying that a person who shows favoritism should also "be judged an idolater, a blasphemer, an adulterer, a murderer?" ( Augustine of Hippo Ep. 167.3; Teske 2005, 2/3: 96; Goldbacher 1923, 591). Is James really implying (as the Stoics teach) that all sins or vices are equal? Augustine rejects this idea, since some sins are indeed worse than others (Augustine of Hippo Serm. 179A.2).

Augustine's solution is to recall Jesus' teaching that the central commandments of the Law involve love: "Love the Lord your God" and "Love your neighbor as yourself": 

  • Augustine of Hippo Ep. 167.16 "The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments (Mt 22:40); cf. Rom 13:10). Since love is the essence of the Law, whenever one acts contrary to love, he in a sense disobeys the whole Law:  “a person who has observed the whole law becomes guilty of all the commandments if he offends on one of them, because  because he acts against the love on which the whole law depends" (quia contra caritatem facit, unde tota lex pendet; Teske 2005, 2/3: 102; Goldbacher 1923, 604).
  •  Augustine of Hippo Ep. 167.17 notes that this conclusion does not imply that all sins are equal.  Jas 3:2, "for we all go astray in many respects,"  shows that all people sin, yet some sins are more serious than others. Since sin is a violation of love, "He is therefore more full of sinfulness to the extent that he is more empty of love" (tanto itaque plenior iniquitatis quanto inanior caritatis; Teske 2005 2/3:103; Goldbacher 1923, 605). 

Other Interpretations Based on Love

 Many commentators agree with Augustine's interpretation:

  •  Ps.-Andreas Catena ad loc. "[the one who stumbles in one point] does not have perfect love (agapên teleian), for this is the source (kephalaion) of all good [deeds]. For if something is wrong with the head (kephalê), then the whole rest of the body is superfluous" (peritton; Cramer 1844, 8:11).
  • Bede Ep. cath. ad loc. quotes extensively (without attribution) Augustine of Hippo Ep. 167.3, 16-17 in discussing this passage (Hurst 1983, 195; Hurst 1985, 24–25).
  •   Caesarius of Arles Serm. 100A.12 "What does it mean to offend in one point and lose all, except to have fallen from the precept of love (de caritatis praecepto cecidisse) and thereby to have offended in all the other commandments?" (Mueller 1973, 2:96; Morin 1953, 1:415); similarly   Augustine of Hippo Serm. 23.4; 37.5.
  •   Ps.-Hilary of Arles Tract. Iac.  ad loc., "'Offends in one [point]': i.e., in the one commandment of love (in uno mandato caritatis), in which all commandments consist, as Paul says, 'the whole law is fulfilled in one statement for you" ['You shall love your neighbor as youself']" (cf. Gal 5:14; PL Supp. 3:71).
  • Gloss. Ord. "He who [offends] in one [point] offends against love, which is the root of every precept (radix omnium preceptorum); he is accused by all precepts, which are, so to speak (quasi) the children of love" (Gloss. Ord  [V] attributes the passage to Augustine; cols. 1277–78).
  • Peter Lombard Sent. (136) quotes Augustine in his discussion of whether all the virtues are present equally in any person who possesses them.
  •  Aquinas Serm. Acad. 10.2 "someone who offends against one thing, namely the precept of love (praeceptum charitatis), is made the transgressor against all other virtues, because love is the mother of all virtues" (mater omnium virtutum; Hoogland 2010, 131).
  •  Erasmus Iac. Par. ad loc. "Since the sum of the whole Law is contained in the love of God and of neighbour, whoever is oblivious to love, which is the root of the whole Law (radix est totius legis), has surely violated the whole Law and offended its author" (legis autorem offendit;Bateman 1993, 149; Bateman 1997, 135).

An Influential Interpretation of Ps.-Augustine

Ps.-Augustine Poen. 1.29 (14) offers two influential interpretations:

  • The sin of a good person is more culpable: "Let him also lament, since 'having offended in one point, he has become guilty of all' (Jas 2:10).  For he was ungrateful (ingratus) who, filled with virtues (plenus virtutibus), did not completely fear God. For each sinner becomes more culpable (culpabilior), to the extent he is more acceptable to God (quo est Deo acceptior). Thus Adam sinned the more, since he abounded with every good" (omni bono abundavit; Costanzo 2011, 274).
  • Commiting one sin involves commiting other sins. "There is also another way of offending in one point, and becoming guilty of all: because every virtue suffers loss from one vice" (omnis virtus detrimentum patitur ab uno vitio). For if someone falls into greed (avaritiam), he destroys generosity (largitatem), and has diminished purity (castitatem). For by love of money, he either dishonored purity, or at least loved less" (minus amaret; Costanzo 2011, 275).
  • Later authorities quote these interpretations: Gloss. Ord. (V) (col. 1278); Peter Lombard Sent. 4.16.2 (87).2; Gratian Decr. Pt 2. Causa 33. Ques. 3.  Dist. 5.1.4.

Sin against the Author of the Law

  • Gloss. Ord. "Truly the one who offends in one point is transgressor of the whole law, because the one who sins acts against the author of the Law, by whatever he neglects in his Law" (col. 1277).
  •  Aquinas ST 1-2.73.1: Although distinctions can be made among sins based on the goal to which they are oriented, all sins are connected in the sense that all sins involve turning away from God, the author of the commandments: "by committing one sin, he incurs the debt of punishment through his contempt (contemptus) of God, which is the origin of all sins." Cf. Aquinas ST 3.88.1: citing Jas 2:10 to show that turning away from God is common to all mortal sins (English Dominicans 1947, 2:910).
  •  Aquinas ST 2-2.5.3 teaches that the primary motive (unum primum motivum) of the various precepts of the Law is perfect obedience to God (perfecte obedire Deo). Since breaking one precept of the Law involves breaking perfect obedience to God, the one who offends in one point becomes guilty of all. For Thomas the case is analogous to an obstinate heretic rejecting one teaching of the Church, but accepting others. The heretic does not truly hold the other teachings of the Church in faith, since he holds them based on his own will and judgment (propria voluntate et iudicio) and not by adhering simply to the Divine Truth (prima veritas; English Dominicans 1947, 3:193–94).

Breaking One Commandment Attacks the Integrity of the Faith

  •  Hilegard of Bingen Ep. 378 "Whoever keeps all the other mandates of the Law, but fails to observe in one point only, does not perfectly fulfill the other commandments, because he hates that one.…Similarly, when a person is disabled in one limb—either from birth or from some misfortune—his other limbs will feel its pain, but will be unable to offer the wounded part either consolation or aid" (Baird and Ehrman 2004, 167; Van Acker and Klaes-Hachmöller 2001, 136).
  •   Calvin Comm. Iac. ad. loc. comments that a person is not free to pick and choose which part of God's law he will follow. If one refuses to obey some laws, but does obey others, then he is guilty of breaking the law as a whole, since God gives the law as a integral whole: "God has prescribed to us a rule of life, which it is not lawful for us to mutilate…nor does the law promise a reward except to universal obedience" (universali obedientiae). Calvin then criticizes a scholastic position: "Foolish, then, are the schoolmen, who deem partial righteousness (partialem iustitiam), as they call it, to be meritorious (pro meritoria reputant); for this passage and many others, clearly show that there is no righteouness except in a perfect obedience to the law" (Owen 1849, 306–7; Reuss and Erichson 1896, 401).
  •  Leo XIII Sat. Cog. 9 applies James' principle to the integrity of the faith: the one who denies one article of the faith has denied the whole of the faith;  cf. Aquinas ST 2-2.5.3.

Meister Eckhart on Unity and Multiplicty

Eckhart Exp. Exod. 58 interprets "one" as a reference to God as the ultimate One, and the "all" as a reference to the plurality of the created world. "Creatures, by the fact that they are from the One but below the One, necessarily fall into number, plurality, distinction, guilt, and fault…" (McGinn 1986, 63; Weiss 1954, 63-64). The context is Eckhart's defense of the thesis that there are no distinctions of attributes in the utter oneness of God (cf. Eckhart Exp. Sap. 110).

"Law" Refers to Natural Law

The Calvinist tradition understands James to refer to the moral law given to all humans, and exemplified in the Ten Commandments (→WLC Q. 99).

Other Interpretations

  • Jerome Pelag. 1.20 (19) insists that Jas 2:10 cannot mean that all sins are equal (this is a "delusion" of the Stoics); rather James is simply comparing serious sins like murder with serious sins like adultery (Jas 2:11; Hritzu 1965, 259; Moreschini 1990, 25); cf. Jerome Pelag. 2.18 where the passage is used as a proof-text for the universality of sin.
  • Gregory the Great Moral. 19.32 "he that is just in some deeds and unjust in others, it is as if he covered over this side [with clothing], and exposed that one naked; nor are those henceforth good deeds, which are defiled by other evil deeds springing up" (Marriot 1847, 2:422)
  • →Vit. Pach.(Boh.) 19: Pachomius understood the passage to mean that even one small sin, such as anger with a brother, would be enough for the devil to gain a foothold and eventually overcome that person (Veilleux 1980, 42)
  • John Climacus Scal. 26 paraphrases, "let us remember what is said about the person who keeps the whole spiritual law and yet, having slipped into one passion , pride, (en heni pathei, tout' estin, en hupsêlophrosunêᵢ) is guilty of all" (Luibheid and Russell 1982, 250; PG 88:165C).
  •  Chemnitz Loc. Theo. 8.A.5 takes the law as a reference to strictness of the Mosaic Law, contrasting it with the freedom of the Christian (Preus 2008, 2:628).
  •  Jeremias II Rep. Aug. Conf., the Patriarch of Constantinople, in his reply to the Augsburg Confession, art. 5 (cf. also reply to art. 24), quotes this passage against the Lutheran position that salvation is by faith and grace alone. Rather, he argues, the Christian is also called upon to obey every commandment of the gospel (CCFCT 1:403; Karmirês 1986, 1:450).
  •  Nicodemus the Hagiorite Ench. 11 refers to the teaching of Basil of Caesaria reg. fus. pref. 2 (PG 31:893A): "The commandments all have the same purpose according to their true and interrelated reason, so that by breaking one, you by necessity break the others" (Chamberas 1989, 176).

12b law of freedom Various Interpretations

Law of Freedom is the Law of Love

  • Augustine of Hippo Ep. 167.19 identifies the "law of freedom" with "the law of love" (the royal law governed by the principle, "Love your neighbor as youself" mentioned in 2:8; Teske 2006, 2/3: 103; Goldbacher 1923, 606).
  • Bede Ep. cath. ad loc. too makes this connection, commenting, "by acting in this way, you see to it that by loving your neighbor you deserve to be loved by God (proximos diligendo a Deo diligi mereamini); by showing mercy to your neighbor you become worthy of mercy (misericordia digni) in the divine judgment" (Hurst 1985, 25; Hurst 1983, 195).

Law of Freedom is the Law of Christ

  •  Bede Ep. cath. ad loc. further identifies the "law of freedom" as "the grace (gratia) of the Gospel which came through Jesus Christ" (Hurst 1985, 25–26; Hurst 1983, 195); he contrasts this with the "law of slavery" given by Moses, a standard contrast among early Christians.
  • Palamas Hom. 38.7 comments, "Christ's law is a law of liberty, for through holy baptism He has made us free from the law of sin and death" (cf. Rom 8:2; Veniamin 2009, 301–2; see also Christian Tradition 1:25a).

The Law of Freedom Shows No Partiality

  •   Ps.-Oecumenius Comm. Ep. loc. connects the topic of partiality with freedom: "He says that the law of liberty is the law that shows no partiality (aprosôpolêptos), which is the law of Christ. For the one who shows partiality is not free but a slave, for 'a person is a slave of whatever overcomes him'" (2Pt 2:19; col. 476).

Law of Liberty and Free Will

  • Bar Salibi Ep. Cath. ad loc. understands the law of liberty as a reference to free will: "according to that which you will do by your own will, you will be judged on the last day" (Sedlacek 1910, 94; Syriac-ibid., 123).
  • Lapide Comm. ad loc. also connects the law of liberty with one's conscience, "Since the evangelical law (lex Evangelica) is the law of liberty, it requires not such a precise (exactam), but rather a free and open (liberam et liberalem) observance of the commandments of Christ. God therefore begins to judge us immediately in this life by the judgment of conscience (conscientia), which is constituted as a kind of his tribunal in the human mind.” This judgment is then completed with the particular judgment at one's death, followed by final judgment on the last day, when all are judged by "the law of liberty, the evangelical law"  (20:115).

Luther: James' Contradiction of Paul

Luther Pref. Jas. Jude reads the "law of liberty" as a reference to the Old Testment law. James' characterization is thus one of the grounds for denying the apostolic authorship of the letter, "He calls the law a law of liberty, though Paul calls it a law of slavery, or wrath, of death, and of sin" (LW 35:397; WA DB 7:386-87). See also →James: Interpretation of James in the Reformation.

13a judgment is merciless to the one who has not shown mercy Various Interpretations

The Merciless Not Given Mercy

  • James' passage is often connected with the petition in the Lord's Prayer and Jesus' explication at Mt 6:12–15: "forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.…If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you.  But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions" (cf. Cassian Coll. 9.22; Ps.-Oecumenius Comm. Ep. Cath. ad loc. [cols. 475–478]; Augustine of Hippo Civ. 21.27).

Mercy Closely Connected with Almsgiving

The tradition closely connects mercy (G: eleos; L: misericordia) with almsgiving (G: eleêmosunê; L: eleemosyne). The Catholic tradition classifies almsgiving as one of the "works of mercy":

  • CCC 2447 "The corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead. Among all these, giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God."
  •  Caesarius of Arles Serm. 31.4:  Applying James' teaching to Jesus' parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19–31) and applying both to contemporary wealthy people, Caesarius warns that those who refuse to give alms to the poor will find no mercy in the final judgment (Mueller 1973, 1:157; cf. Caesarius of Arles Serm. 142.8). See the same application to Luke's parable in Ps.-Peter of Alexandria Riches 29.

The Merciful Saved from Judgement

  • Augustine of Hippo Serm.  389.5 (formerly Serm. 60.10): Commenting on the salvation of the those who helped the hungry and thirsty in Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats (Mt 25:31–46), together with other passages (e.g., Sir 3:30 [V-3:33]: "As water does fire, so almsgiving extinguishes sin"), Augustine concludes that Jesus in effect said to those who are saved, "you redeemed your sins with almsdeeds" (vestra peccata eleemosynis redemistis). Conversely, those who are condemned to eternal punishment would have been saved if they had shown acts of mercy (Hill 1997 3/10: 409–10; PL 38:407), but since they had shown no mercy, they receive no mercy at the judgment (quoting Jas 2:13). Cf. also Augustine's combination of the parable of the sheep and the goals, Mt 5:7 and Jas 2:13 in Augustine of Hippo Ep. 137.36. Similarly Caesarius of Arles Serm. 157.3.
  • Augustine of Hippo Ep. 140.75, 79 quotes the passage to suggest that one must rely on God's mercy on the Day of Judgment, and not on one's own good conscience (conscientia).
  • Leo the Great Serm. 10.3–4 (2) warns that the rich who keep other commandments but do not give alms to the "the poor of the Church" cannot obtain salvation, referencing Mt 5:7, Jesus' parable of the sheep and goats, Sir 3:30Jas 2:26 and other texts (Freeland and Conway 1996, 44–45; Chavasse 1973, 1:41–44); cf. Leo the Great Serm. 11.1–2.
  • Ps.-Oecumenius Comm. Ep. Cath. ad loc. writes similarly: "If we forgive our neighbors of the sins which they have committed against us and give a share (metadosis) of our possessions to those in need, then the mercy of God will be given back to us in the judgment" (col. 476 C).

But the Merciful Not Necessarily Saved

  • Augustine of Hippo Civ. 21.27 however, knows of interpreters who use Jas 2:13 (along with Jesus' parable of the sheep and goats and the Lord's Prayer) to argue that "only those are to burn in eternal fire (aeterno igne) who have neglected to perform works of mercy in reparation of their sins" (pro peccatis suis facere dignas elemosynas neglegunt; Dyson 1998, 1098; Dombart and Kalb 1955, 2:800). According to these interpreters, any sins can be forgiven, so long as they are balanced out by merciful acts. (cf. also Augustine of Hippo Civ. 21.22). Augustine warns against such presumptuousness, teaching that works of mercy must be accompanied by a sincere desire to amend one's life and a willingness to forgive those who sin against one.
  • Aquinas ST Supp. 99.5 concurs with Augustine's warning on misinterpreting Jas 2:13. He considers the question, "Whether all those who perform works of mercy (opera misericordiae) will be punished eternally? Evidence that the belief that they will not be punished eternally includes Jas 2:13a, Mt 5:7, and Jeus' parable of the sheep and goats. On the contrary, Thomas argues that one cannot attain to eternal life without love (sine caritate). But some people in fact do works of mercy (opera misericordiae) without love, as those who seize the property of others but still spend something on works of mercy. Neither works of mercy nor faith will save those who die in a state of mortal sin from eternal punishment. Thomas also quotes Jas 2:10 in suport of his argument that one can keep the law regarding works of mercy but neglect other works, and still be liable to eternal punishment. With Jas 2:13, those who do show mercy will obtain mercy "in an ordinate manner" (ordinate). Those who show works of mercy but neglect other areas "will not obtain the mercy that sets free altogether, even if they obtain that mercy which rebates somewhat their due punishment" (English Dominicans 1947, 5:3000–1).

Is God's Judgment of Sinners Mercy?

  • Peter Lombard Sent. 4.46.1 (265) discussing the question, "Whether mitigation of punishment (mitigatio poenae) is granted to the very evil" (valde malis), reports that some use this verse to conclude that there will be no relief of punishment for those who are very evil . Citing the authority of Augustine and Cassiodorus, Lombard concludes that the verse means that those who do not show mercy will indeed receive a judgment of damnation (iudicium damnationis), but does not rule out that the damned will still "feel God's mercy in some alleviation of his pain" (in aliqua poenae alleviatione misericordiam Dei sentite; Silano 2010, 4:250–52; Collegi S. Bonaventurae 1981, 2:529–31).

An Objection to Using Violence against Heretics

  • Castellio Haer., writing under the pseudonym Joachim Clutin, quotes Jas 2:13a in his argument that God is punishing Europe for practicing violent persection (i.e., without mercy) of religious dissenters. In particular, Castellio had in mind the execution of Michael Servetus (Bainton 1935, 216; Cluten 1610, 147).

13b mercy boasts over judgment Various Interpretations

The Power of Mercy

  • Ps.-Andreas Catena ad loc. (attributed to Chrysostom): "Mercy is a kind of noble art (technê tis aristê) and patron of those who practice it. It is the friend of God, standing always next to him and readily asking favor for whomever he wishes.…It breaks chains, scatters darkness, quenches fire, kills the worm and drives away the gnashing of teeth (cf. Mk 9:44–48). By it, the gates of heaven are opened with great confidence…Mercy is truly a queen making humans like God" (homoiôs anthrôpous poiousa theôᵢ ). 'For,' he says, 'be merciful (oiktirmones) as your Father in heaven'" (cf. Mt 5:48; Cramer 1844, 13).

God Merciful to the Merciful

  • Ps.-Hilary of Arles Tract. Iac. ad loc. "If you have been merciful and lenient (misericors et lenis) in judgment for the poor man, you will not fear the judgment of God" (col. 71).

Mercy Does Not Contradict Justice

  • Augustine of Hippo Ep. 167.19–20 translation of Jas 2:13 read, "But mercy exults in its superiority over (superexulto) judgment," (Comparison of Versions 2:13b) and thus he comments, "I do not say, 'Mercy conquers judgment' (vincit misericordia iudicium), for it is not opposed to judgment (non enim est aduersus iudicio), but exults in its superiority over judgment because many are rescued, but they are those who have shown mercy." God's forgiveness of sin does not imply that God overlooks the demands of justice: "it is indeed just (iustum est) that they be forgiven because they forgave and that it be given to them because they gave. To be sure, there is mercy in God when he judges, and judgment in God when he shows mercy" (misericordia iudicanti et iudicium miseranti; Teske 2005, 2/3: 538, Goldbacher 1923, 607).
  • Augustine of Hippo Enarrat. Ps. 2 of Ps 32 (31).11: "Even in his judgment, there will be mercy as well [for those who have shown mercy], yet not at the expense of judgment" (in illo iudicio erit et misericordia, sed non sine iudicio; Boulding 2004, 3/15:403; Dekkers 1956, 1:256).
  • Aquinas ST 1.21.3 too is careful to show that this passage does not imply that mercy contradicts justice: "God acts mercifully, not indeed by going against His justice (contra iustitiam), but by doing something more than justice (supra iustitiam); thus a man who pays another two hundred pieces of money, though owing him only one hundred, does nothing against justice, but acts liberally or mercifully (liberaliter vel misericorditer operatur). The case is the same with one who pardons an offense committed against him, for in remitting it he may be said to bestow a gift…Hence it is clear that mercy does not destroy justice, but in a sense is the fulness thereof (est quaedam iustitiae plenitudo). And thus it is said, 'Mercy exalteth itself above judgment'" (superexaltat iudicium; Jas 2:13; English Dominicans 1947, 1:119).

Mercy Complements Judgment

  • Gloss. Ord. ad loc. "[Mercy] is placed above (superponitur) judgment, and, as it were, illuminates judgment (quasi illuminat iudicium). [When judgment] is with mercy, through mercy itself it is more praiseworthy and more pleasing" (commendabilius est, magis placet; cols. 1279–80).

Human or Divine Mercy?

  • Calvin Comm. Iac. ad loc. insists that mercy here must refer to God's mercy, since only God's mercy could, in a sense, triumph over God's judgment (Owen 1849, 309; Reuss and Erichson 1896, 403).
  • Estius Comm. ep. cath. ad loc., in contrast, holds that James refers to human mercy that in a certain sense opposes and will extol itself over divine judgment (opponet se justo Dei judicio, et adversus illud quodammodo gloriabitur); this human mercy thus in a certain sense will compel God's grace (gratiam veluti extorquebit), in that it evades the severity of judgment. This is the meaning of passages such as Mt 5:7: "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy" (4267).

Three Interpretations of "Boasting Mercy" by Bede

  • Bede Ep. cath. "the one who has acted mercifully will exult and rejoice" (exultabit atque gaudebit) when he receives God's mercy
  • Bede Ep. cath. "It was not said, 'Mercy conquers (vincit) judgment,' for it is not opposed to judgment, but 'boasts over' (superexaltat) because a greater number of people are gathered in by mercy" (Augustine's interpretation: Augustine of Hippo Ep. 167.19).
  • Bede Ep. cath. "mercy is placed ahead (superponitur) of judgment. In someone in whom there has been found a work of mercy (opus misericordiae), although he may by chance have something for which he may be punished at the judgment, the fire of sin is extinguished as if by the water of mercy" (Hurst 1985, 27; Hurst 1983, 196–97).

Qualification of an Abbot

The sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict refers to this passage in its list of the qualifications of an abbot:

  • Benedict Reg. 64 "He ought, therefore, be learned in the divine law, so that he has a treasury of knowledge from which he can bring out what is new and what is old (cf. Mt 13:52). He must be chaste, temperate, and merciful (castus, sobrius, misericordis). He should always let mercy triumph over (superexaltat) judgment (Jas 2:13), so that he too may win mercy."

The Rule continues, perhaps in an illustration:

  • "He must hate faults, but love the brothers. When he must punish them, he should use prudence and avoid extremes; otherwise, by rubbing too hard to remove the rust, he may break the vessel. He is to distrust his own frailty and remember not to crush the bruised reed (Is 42:3). By this we do not mean that he should allow faults to flourish, but rather, as we have already said, he should prune them away with prudence and love as he sees best for each individual. Let him strive to be loved rather than feared (Fry 1981, 282–283). 

Luther on God’s Mercy and Justification by Faith

  • Luther Lect. Jon. 1:3 emphasizes the necessity of faith in God's grace. A person remains "in the kingdom of grace" when he does not despair of God's mercy, no matter how great his sin is. A person must "resolutely pin mind and conscience to the belief that there is still grace and forgiveness for me, even if the wrath of God and that of all creatures would threaten to consume me…That is elevating God's grace above everything else...joining in the words of the Epistle of James, 'Mercy triumphs over judgment,' that is, mercy asserts itself and proves stronger than all wrath (Gnade gilt und mag mehr denn aller Zorn) and every sentence and judgment of God" (LW 19:47; WA 19:200).

Lapide: Mercy Defeats Rigid Judgment

  • Lapide Comm. ad loc. "Mercy triumphs over judgment, that is, mercy exalts itself over judgment, overcomes and defeats (vincit) judgment and its rigid sentence of damnation….when it causes the merciful to be saved according to mercy (misericordes secundum misericordiam salventur), and not damned by the rigor and severity of judgment…The unmerciful will be judged rigidly (rigide) by judgment because they do not have a merciful patron who defends him; the merciful person, however, will be judged mercifully and attain mercy, because mercy defends him" (20:119–120).

Eschatology: the Ultimate Triumph of Mercy

  • Bernard of Clairvaux Serm. Cant. 6.(3).9 preaches of the spiritual struggle between mercy and judgment. If one neglects God's mercy, then the thought of God's judgment casts him into "an unbelievable fear (metu incredibili) and shameful misery." Likewise he "became dissipated, indifferent, negligent; lukewarm at prayer (oratio tepidior), languid at work." Thus throughout life, he stands in need of both mercy and judgment, "until one day when mercy triumphs over judgment, my wretchedness will cease to smart, and my heart, silent no longer, will sing to you. It will be the end of sorrow" (Walsh and Edmonds 1980, 1:37; Leclercq et al. 1977, 1:30). Cf Bernard of Clairvaux Serm. Cant. 73.4 on the prayer to the Lord Jesus to let mercy triumph over judgment on the Day of Judgment.
  • Bernard of Clairvaux Serm. Cant. 14.2 refers to God's eschatological mercy on a remnant of Israel (cf. Rom 9:27), even though "the Jews" deserve to be given "judgment without mercy" (Walsh and Edmonds 1980, 1:99).
  • Lapide Comm. refers to Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats in commenting on the anagogical sense: the passage alludes to the Day of Judgment when those who have shown mercy are exalted by Christ, "Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (Mt 25:31). Lapide connects this with Jas 1:9: "The brother in lowly circumstances should take pride in his high standing"—the "high standing" (exaltatio) understood as exaltation to heaven (20:122).