The Bible in Its Traditions

James 3:2,6–8

Byz Nes

For we all stumble in many [ways]. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a mature man, able also to bridle the whole body.

For we all offend in many ways. If anyone does not offend in word, he is a perfect man. And he is then able, as if with a bridle, to lead the whole body around.

For in many things we all stumble. Anyone who does not offend in word, this one is a perfect man, and able also to subdue his whole body.

2b perfect man Jas 1:4
Byz Nes TR

And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. Thus the tongue is set among our members, as that which defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell.

And so the tongue is like a fire, comprising all iniquity. The tongue, stationed in the midst of our body, can defile the entire body and inflame the wheel of our nativity, setting a fire from Hell.

The tongue is a fire, and the sinful world like a forest: that very tongue, while it is among our members, can defile our whole body, and set on fire the records of our race which have rolled down from the beginning: and in the end it is consumed by fire.

6a Destructive Nature of the Tongue Prv 13:3; Sir 28:11-26 Destructive Speech as a Fire Prv 17:27; 26:18-21; Sir 28:14-15;
Byz Nes S TR

For every kind of both beasts and birds, of both reptiles and sea creatures, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind.

For the nature of all beasts and birds and serpents and others is ruled over, and has been ruled over, by human nature.

7a every nature of beasts Gn 1:25-28
Byz S TR

But no man can tame the tongue. [It] is an unrestrainable evil, full of deadly poison.

But the tongue can no man tame; [it is] a restless evil, [it is] full of deadly poison.

But no man is able to rule over the tongue, a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

8c death-bearing poison Ps 140:3


Literary Devices

2b perfect man Theme of Completion and Wholeness James again picks up the theme of wholeness and perfection, first discussed at Jas 1:4, "that you may be complete and whole, lacking in nothing" (cf. →James: Perfection / Wholeness in James).

The Greek teleios echoes Jesus' teaching ("Be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5:48), just as it ties in with the Stoic doctrine that the person who has all the virtues is perfect and complete. Here James refers specfically to the teacher as the "complete man" (Ancient Texts 1:4a; Ancient Texts 1:4b; Biblical Intertextuality 1:4b; Peritestamental Literature 1:4a).


Ancient Texts

2b in word Internal and External Logos The Stoics distinguished between an internal logos (endiathetos logos) and a "spoken" or "uttered" logos (prophorikos logos) (→SVF 2.43). Here James seems to have in mind the latter, while Jas 1:18,21 likely refers to the former; cf. Philo Migr. 71.  See also this distinction in Jas 3:11 (Peritestamental Literature 3:11).



6b establishes itself Connotation of Power In its transitive sense, the verb kathistêmi means to set down or place something, thus in a more metaphorical sense to appoint or establish someone in a certain position (cf. 1 Macc 3:55).

In a reflexive sense, it can mean to establish or appoint oneself. This is likely James' meaning here: as the tongue claims great things for itself (v. 5), here it appoints itself or establishes itself (by implication, in a position of power or authority) among the other parts of the body. This interpretation is consistent with James' other use of the verb kathistêmi in Jas 4:4, where the person who wishes to be a friend of the world establishes himself, or makes himself, an enemy of God. From this position of power and authority, the tongue (representing sinful speech) affects the whole rest of the person (body) negatively.

Literary Devices

6a tongue is a fire Metonymy The tongue here stands for speech; fire for the destructive consequences of improper speech. At times, the "tongue" takes on  the particularly negative connotation of uncontrolled, destructive speech (e.g., Jas 3:6–8).

6c staining the whole body Use of Cultic Purity Language James uses cultic purity language elsewhere at Jas 1:18b; 1:27; 3:17c; 4:8bc. This passage's use of spiloô is a specific echo of  the use of the cognate aspilos at Jas 1:27 "to keep oneself unstained by the world." See also Literary Devices 1:27.


Biblical Intertextuality

6a tongue is fire Fire as an Image for the Destructiveness of Uncontrolled Speech Sirach also warns against the destructiveness of the tongue, comparing it to a fire (Sir 28:13–27):

  • The tongue "will have no power over the godly, nor will they be burned in its flame. But those who forsake the Lord will fall victim to it, as it burns among them unquenchably" (Sir 28:26–27). Cf. Prv 17:27; Sir 26:18–21.


Comparison of Versions

6a the world of unrighteousness Attempt to Clarify James' Meaning S attempts to flesh out James' metaphor, balancing the comparison of the first clause with a second comparison: "And the tongue is a fire, and the sinful world is like a forest."


Biblical Intertextuality

7b tamed by human nature Allusions to the Genesis Creation Account Given his allusion to the four categories of animals in the creation account (Gn 1:26) in 3:7a, James' reference to "taming" animals likely alludes to the divine command  to "have dominion over" (Greek: archô) all other living creatures (Gn 1:28). James again alludes to the creation account ( Gn 1:26-27 : humans created in God's likeness) in Jas 3:9b.

The biblical tradition often reiterates the theme of human rule over all other creatures: e.g.,  Ps 8:6-9; Sir 17:4.


Literary Devices

8a But the tongue Emphatic Anastrophe James begins this sentence with the object of the verb, emphasizing the power of the tongue that is so difficult to control.


Ancient Texts

8a tongue To Tame the Tongue The Hellenistic moral tradition often counseled against speaking too much. See above Ancient Texts 1:19c.

Biblical Intertextuality

8b uncontrollable evil Allusion to Prov 26:28? The original text of James (akatastaton kakon) may allude here to Prv 26:28: "A false tongue hates truth, and an unguarded mouth works instability" (akatastasia).

8a tongue Wisdom Literature: Admonitions to Control One’s Speech Biblical wisdom literature frequently admonishes the reader to control his speech (Biblical Intertextuality 1:19c; Biblical Intertextuality 1:26b).

8c full of death-bearing poison Biblical Allusions?

  • James may well allude to Ps 140:3 (G-Ps 139:4): "They have sharpened their tongue (glôssa) as the tongue of a serpent; the poison (ios) of asps is under their lips"; Paul quotes this verse at Rom 3:13.
  • A further allusion to the serpent in the Garden of Eden, who led the first humans astray with his deceitful speech, is possible, given the other allusions to Genesis in Jas 3:7-9 (Biblical Intertextuality 3:7a). In addition, some Second Temple and rabbinic traditions associate the Eden serpent with poison (e.g., Apoc. Mos. 19.3).

Suggestions for Reading

1–12 An Ethics of Language The connection of this pericope with Jas 2:14–26 is not obvious. In general, however, it sustains James' concern with proper speech (→Speech in James).  The specific concern of Jas 2:14–26 was the consistency between speech (confession of faith) and action. The major point of Jas 3:1–12 is clear enough: James exhorts his readers to control their tongues.  

Artistry: Coinage of a "Classic"

  • In contrast with other parts of James that are a collection of materials that have no clear relationship, Jas 3:1–12 is a coherent composition that features substantial rhetorical design (Literary Devices 3:1–12).


Among the most notable individual passages:



2a in many [ways] Adverbial Use of the Adjective The plural adjective polla may thus nuance the verb "to stumble":

  • one stumbles frequently or a lot;
  • one stumbles in many ways.

Since James immediately refers to going astray in the specific aspect of speech, the latter translation makes better sense.

Literary Devices

2a stumble Metaphor for Sinning The Greek ptaiô, literally meaning "to stumble," is also used at Jas 2:10. The literal sense of stumbling was expanded to making a mistake, suffering a misfortune, or sinning. In this way, it would also resonate with the Greek hamartanô, which literally means to miss a target, but is figuratively used to denote sinning (Ancient Texts 3:2a; Biblical Intertextuality 3:2a; Peritestamental Literature 3:2a). 

2b does not stumble in word Irony? Interpreters disagree on whether this statement is to be taken at face value as an actual possibility, or whether James means it ironically or hyperbolically, in the sense, "If someone would be able to not go astray in speaking [though this is impossible]..."

Given the centrality of the theme of wholeness (perfection) in James, however, one should take James' word at face value. James clearly thinks it possible to be a "perfect man": "so that you may be complete (perfect) and whole, lacking in nothing" (Jas 1:4). But "pefect" here does not mean flawless but complete, perfected, fully matured. For the Stoics, the "complete" man is able to control his passions. Nonetheless, Jesus' teaching in Mt 5:48—"be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect"—is undoubedtly at work here. Cf. Ancient Texts 1:4a; Ancient Texts 1:4b; Peritestamental Literature 1:4aBiblical Intertextuality 1:4a.


6a world of unrighteousness Unclear Syntax The syntax of this verse is unclear. The basic interpretive issue is to determine how the phrase "the world of unrighteousness" (ho kosmos tês adikias) is related syntactically to the previous phrase ("the tongue is a fire") and to the following phrase, "the tongue is placed among the parts" [of the body]," along with the attributive participles that modify the tongue: "staining the entire body," "sets on fire the course of life," and "is set on fire by hell."

There are two basic options: 

  • This phrase is a predicate: "The tongue is placed among our members as a world of unrighteousness"; cf. NRSV.
  • Byz, TR and V place the first two phrases in apposition: "And the tongue is a fire; a world of unrighteousness." Byz and TR place the adverb outôs before the second reference to the tongue. Cf. Textual Criticism 3:6b.


Peritestamental Literature

6d Gehenna References to Gehenna and Connection with Fire The term appears in Second Temple literature, e.g.: Apoc. Ab. 15:6; Sib. Or. 1.103; 2:292; 4:186; Mart. Ascen. Isa. 1:3; 4:14.

Some texts associate it explicity with fire: Apoc. Ab. 15:6. Many other texts associate eternal punishment with fire: e.g., 1 En. 10.6; 54.1; 90.24–25; 4 Esd. 7:36–38.

Ancient Texts

7b human nature Human Nature The Greek anthrôpinê phusis is a common phrase:

See also Peritestamental Literature 3:7b.

Peritestamental Literature

7b human nature Hellenistic Jewish Adoption of the Phrase The Greek anthrôpinê phusis (Ancient Texts 3:7b) was taken up in Hellenistic Judaism:

  • Philo Spec. 2:225 "parents are midway between the natures of God and man" (Colson 1937, 447); cf. other uses in Philo: Philo Mos. 1.6; Philo Virt. 79.4
  • T. Job 3.3 "his is the power of the devil, by whom human nature (anthrôpinê phusis) is deceived" (OTP 2:840).



8c death-bearing Etymology The Greek thanatêphoros literally means "death-bearing"; it is used to describe sin in G-Nm 18:22 (Biblical Intertextuality 3:8c).


Peritestamental Literature

8c full of death-bearing poison Biblical Allusions Several Second Temple texts pick up on the biblical connection between deceitful tongues and the poison of snakes (Biblical Intertextuality 3:8c).

  • 1QHa 13 (5).27 "a lying tongue, like viper's venom (hmh) that spreads to the extremities" (DSSSE 1:173).
  • T. Job 43.12: "the poison (ios) of asps in his tongue" (OTP 2:862).



1:27c,3:6,4:4 world Negative Connotations The word kosmos is negative in James's worldview, expressing a realm or state opposed to God (Biblical Intertextuality 1:27; Christian Tradition 1:27; Christian Tradition 4:4b).

  • Jas 1:27: "keep oneself unstained from the world";
  • Jas 4:4: "Do you not know that to be a lover of the world means enmity with God?"

Textual Criticism

6b P and Byz add houtôs ("thus") before "the tongue." See below Grammar 3:6a.

8b uncontrollable : Byz TR | Nes: unstable

  • א , A, and  B read akatastatos ("unstable"); cf. also V.

  • C and Ψ read akatascheton ("uncontrollable"); cf. also S. This is a more common word, and thus scribes might have substituted it for the original akatastatos (Comparison of Versions 3:8b).


2b word Semantic Range of Logos Literally meaning “word,” logos has a rich range of meaning (→James: Philosophical background of logos).

In this context, the most natural referent is speech, since a discourse concerning the ability to control one’s tongue immediately follows this verse (Jas 3:2–5). Since James is discussing teachers, logos could also be translated as "teaching" in the sense of the content of one's teaching; cf. Lk 10:39: "[Mary] sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak" (lit.: "listening to his logos"). Ps.-Hilary of Arles Tract. Iac. ad loc. takes it in this sense: doctrina recte fidei (col. 75).

6d wheel of birth Course of Life? The noun trochós has the basic sense of "wheel" (distinct from tróchos "race-course"). The word can refer metaphorically to the turning and changing of events, a cycle, a whole round of; cf. Ps.-Phoc. 27: "life is a wheel" (ho bios trochos; van der Horst, 88–89). See also Peritestamental Literature 3:6d.

The phrase "of birth" (tês geneseôs) translates the Greek word genesis, which means also the beginning and origin of something. It can refer to a person's birth (e.g., Diodorus Siculus Bib. hist.  17.51.3). James also uses this term at Jas 1:23 (Vocabulary 1:23b). One can understand James' phrase as referring to a person's course of life, beginning from birth.

8c poison and "rust": Polysemy or Homonymy? The dictionaries vary in deciding whether the noun ios is a case of polysemy (one word with two meanings) or a case of homonymy, i.e. the two nouns have no etymological relation. James uses ios in both meanings:

Literary Devices

8b uncontrollable Echo James' original text read akatastasos ("unstable"). See also Textual Criticism 3:8b. James uses the same word to describe the double-minded man in Jas 1:8; the noun form is used in Jas 3:16, which can be translated as "instability."

James thus connects the instability of the double-minded person (who is caught between his attraction to sin and his attraction to God) with the instability of a person's tongue (which speaks both good and evil: cf. Jas 3:9). This internal instability within a person results in instability within the community: "For wherever there is jealousy and rivalry, there is instability and every low-minded practice" (Jas 3:16).


Biblical Intertextuality

2a stumble Metaphor for Sinning In the scriptural tradition, the metaphorical sense of ptaiô as sinning is attested, but not common (Literary Devices 3:2a):

  • Rom 11:11: "did they [Israel] stumble so as to fall?"
  • 2Pt 1:10: "be all the more eager to make your call and election firm, for, in doing so, you will never stumble."

Peritestamental Literature

5c–6a a small fire ignites such a great wood + tongue is a fire | Metaphor: Destructive Nature of the Tongue James' metaphor is common in Second Temple literature:

Fire as a Metaphor for Uncontrolled Passions

  • Pss. Sol. 12:2 "The discourse (lit: words of the tongue) of this wicked man takes many twists and turns. It is like a fire burning among a people, scorching their beauty" (Wright 2007, 142–43).
  • Fire was often linked with uncontrolled passions: Philo Decal. 173 writes that nothing ever escapes desire (epithumia), but, like a flame in a forest (hulê), it consumes and destroys everything (Colson 1937, 93). James implicitly links the uncontrolled tongue with uncontrolled passions (Jas 3:2,6–8; cf. Philo Leg. 222–24).

Small Spark Leads to Great Results

  • Ps.-Phoc. 144 (variant): "By a tiny spark a vast wood (hulê) is set on fire" (van der Horst 1978, 96–97).
  • Philo Migr. 123 "For a smouldering spark, even the very smallest, when it is blown up and made to blaze, lights a great pile" (Colson 1932, 203). Philo's metphor illustrates how the smallest bit of virtue can lead to extensive positive outcomes.


Comparison of Versions

8b uncontrollable

Christian Tradition

1–4 bridle his entire body also Reason Controls the Passions Some commentators understood James to refer to the Greek philosophical principle that reason (logos) must control the passions of the body:

  • Ps.-Andreas Catena ad Jas 3:3–4 "If we drive back the high spirit (thrasos) of a horse with a bridle, and change the rushing course (hormê) of a ship with a small rudder, how much more should we guide the tongue by right reason (orthos logos) to what is good" (Cramer 1844, 8:19–20). Ps.-Oecumenius Comm. Ep. Cath. ad loc. repeats this interpretation (col. 484).
  • Ps.-Andrew of Crete Bios 7: James placed a restraint on the tongue and taught that one should both remain silent and speak according to reason (kata logon; Noret 1978, 52). See also Literary Devices 1:26.

6bc the tongue …staining the whole body: Body as the Body of Christ

  • Bar Salibi Ep. Cath. ad loc., understands the body as the church, the body of Christ, and the parts of the body as the members of the church (Sedlacek 1910, 96–97; Syriac: ibid., 126), referencing 1Cor 12:27. He takes, "among the parts of our body" to refer to the tongue's injurious speech against fellow Christians."

See also Grotius Annot. Jac. ad loc. (36).

7 every nature of beast ...has been tamed: Examples of Tamed Animals The tradition illustrates James' statement that all species have been tamed with specific examples:

  • Bede Ep. cath. ad loc. reports on stories, from Pliny and Marcellinus, about a tamed asp and tiger, apparently attempting to illustrate James' statement that every species of animal has been domesticated (Hurst 1985, 42; Hurst 1987, 206). The Gloss. Ord. (V) ad loc. quotes Bede's interpretation (col. 1286).
  • Erasmus Iac. Par. ad loc. "Crocodiles too are subjugated, vipers become mild, eagles and vultures are made friendly, dolphins are even enticed to friendship" (Bateman 1993, 156; Bateman 1997, 142). See also Lapide Comm. ad loc. (20:152).

7a every nature of beasts and of birds Allegorical Interpretation Bede Ep. cath. ad loc. holds that James wishes to to show that the human tongue surpasses various animals in their vices. Each point is supported by a scriptural proof-text:

  • the tongue surpasses beasts in cruelty (quoting G-Ps 64:3: some people "sharpened their tongues like a sword");
  • the tongue surpasses birds in fickleness and exaltation (quoting G-Ps 72:9: some people "placed their mouth into the sky");
  • the tongue surpasses snakes in deadliness (quoting G-Ps 140:3: "The poison of asps is under their lips"; Hurst 1985, 40-41; Hurst 1987, 206).

Gloss. Ord. (V) ad loc. quotes Bede's interpretation (col. 1286).

8b uncontrollable evil Dangers of Uncontrolled Speech

A Parallel in Hermas

  • Herm. Mand. 2.3 uses the same adjective, akatastatos, to describes slander (katalalia): "Slander is evil, a restless (akatastatos) demon, never at peace but always living in dissension" (239). James specifically condemns this vice of the tongue at Jas 4:11. On the close relationship between James and Shepherd of Hermas, see →James: Introduction.

The Dangers of Speaking Too Much

In his discussion on the dangers of speaking too much, Gregory the Great quotes this passage together with Jas 1:19 and Jas 1:26. He connects these texts with Jesus' teaching in Mt 12:36, "on the day of judgment people will render an account for every careless word they speak."

  • Gregory the Great Moral. 7.58 "If then an account is demanded for idle speech (de otioso sermone), it is very deeply to be considered what punishment (poena) follows after that much talking (illud multiloquium), wherein we sin by words of pride" (per superviae verba peccatur; Parker, 1:411; Adriaen, 1:379).

Augustine also often connected Mt 12:36 with these passages on speech from James (e.g., Augustine of Hippo Retract. pref. 2).

Comparison of Versions

6d is flamed by Gehenna Interpretation of Gehenna S renders "by Gehenna" with bnwr’ ("by fire"). Isho'dad of Merv Comm. Cath. Ep. interprets this as a reference to eschatolgoical punishment: "burns in punishment from God" (Gibson 1913, 37; Syriac: ibid., 50).

6d wheel of birth Attempt at Clarification

  • In translating the phrase trochos geneseôs, S renders both meanings of trochos ("race-course" and "wheel"; Vocabulary 3:6d) and translates genesis as "generation": "the course of our generations that roll on like a wheel."
  • Isho'dad of Merv Comm. Cath. Ep. paraphrases, "[the tongue] devastates and destroys generations and tribes, as gradually when the former ones die, later ones follow, which are generated like the swift runners of the wheels" (Gibson 1913, 37; Syriac: ibid., 50).

Christian Tradition

2:14–3:2a Divisio Textus

  • Ps.-Andreas Catena groups Jas 3:1–2 with Jas 2:14–26 under the heading: "That a person is justified (dikaioutai anthrôpos) not from faith alone (ouk ek pisteôs monon), but also from actions (alla kai ex ergôn);  and not from each one individually, but from both together" (ex amphoion hama; Cramer 1844, 8:14).

See also →James: Medieval Divisio Textus.



2c body Connotations of "Body"

  • Physical body: for James, the term "body" (sôma) can mean simply one's physical body  (cf. Jas 2:16: needs of the body; and Jas 2:26: the body without the spirit is dead).
  • Metonymy for the whole person: sôma can also refer to the person as a whole (e.g., Mt 5:29:  "It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna"). This is the sense in Jas 3:6.
  • Weak human nature: in this passage, the body is seen as the locus of the passions and therefore temptation to sin (Ancient Texts 3:2a).  Here we have a sense of human nature as weak and susceptible to temptation; cf. the Pauline sôma tês sarkos (Col 2:11) or sôma tês hamartias (Rom 6:6); cf. Rom 7:24). See also Ancient Texts 4:1b

Lapide Comm. ad loc. lists other options: James uses "body" to mean an aggregate group, hence "body of sins" or "body of passions" (20:79).

Literary Devices

2f bridle his entire body also Long-drawn Metaphor of Bridling a Horse Jame again uses the Greek chalinagôgeô, meaning literally "to bridle a horse," first used at Jas 1:26; the word here sets up the image of bridling a horse in 3:3. James here draws on an extensive classical literary and philosophical background (Literary Devices 1:26; Ancient Texts 1:26b).

References to riders controlling horses and pilots controlling ships are common in Greco-Roman philosophical and moral texts as illustrations of the principle that right reason should control unruly forces, such as the passions. 

God's Rule of the Universe

  • Ps.-Aristotle Mund. 6 [400B] "as the helmsman (kubernêtês) in the ship, as the charioteer in his chariot, as the leader in a chorus, as the lawgiver in a city, as the commander in a military camp, so is God in the Universe" (theos en kosmôᵢ; Forster 1955, 402–3). Dio Chrysostom Borsyth. 50 = Or. 36.50) also compares the governor of the world with a charioteer ; see also Lucian of Samosata Iupp. Trag. 50. 

Application to Speech

7f every nature of beast human: Contrastive Comparison and Hyperbole In the previous verse, James established the meaning of "tongue": by metonymy, it stands for uncontrolled speech (Literary Devices 3:6a). Here James uses a contrastive comparison to emphasize the difficulty of controlling the tongue: although humans can tame wild animals, they cannot control their own speech. James' word choice creates an absolute contrast: every kind of animal has been tamed, but no human being can tame the tongue.

James' use of hyperbole to emphasize his point here is clear from the following, since he assumes that humans do have the ability to control their tongue:

  • Jas 3:2b: "If someone does not stumble in his words";
  • Jas 3:9-10 assumes that humans can and should avoid cursing one another.

It is unlikely that James literally believed that all animals have been tamed. Rather, James exagerrates, using hyperbole to drive home his point about the difficulty of controlling one's speech.


Historical and Geographical Notes

6d Gehenna Valley of Hinnom, South of Jerusalem The name "Gehenna" (Greek: geenna) derives from the Aramaic and Hebrew names of the Valley of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem. See also Vocabulary 3:6d.

Ancient Texts

2a we all stumble Universal Fallibility

Meaning of "Stumble"

The most common classical meaning of this word is literally to stumble against something (Polybius Hist. 31.11.5, citing a proverb warning against stumbling twice against the same stone) or, metaphorically, to err (Plato Theaet. 160d: to stumble in one's mind).

Universal Sinfulness

This idea of univeral sinfulness is commonplace in Hellenistic moral discourse:

  • Seneca Clem. 1.6.3f "We have all sinned—some in serious, some in trivial things (Peccavimus omnes, alii gravia, alii leviora)…Even if there is any one who has so thoroughly cleansed his mind that nothing can any more confound him and betray him, yet it is by sinning that he has reached the sinless state" (innocentia; Basore 1928 375). cf. Sophocles Ant. 1023–24.

6c wheel of birth An Orphic Background? Some commentators see an Orphic background to this phrase. To express their concept of existence as an endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, Orphic literature used such phrases as the "wheel of fate and birth" (trochos tês heimarmenês te kai geneseôs), as in Simplicius In Cael. 2 [168B] (Heiberg 1894, 377).

7a nature of beast Use of Hellenistic Terminology The Greek word phusis, generally translated as "nature," can also denote what modern science might call a "species"; thus Theophrastus Hist. plant. 6.1.1 uses phusis to refer to different classes of plants.

For Aristotle, phusis is an auto-motive force that brings about growth oriented to a relative state of stasis (i.e., the telos): 

  • Aristotle Phys. II.1 "Each of them has within itself a principle [i.e., nature] of motion and of stationariness (in respect of place, or of growth and decrease, or by way of alteration). On the other hand, a bed and a coat and anything else of that sort, qua receiving these designations i.e. in so far as they are products of art-have no innate impulse to change."

See further Collingwood 1946.

7b tamed by human nature Common Stoic Topos: Human Ability to Control Nature The human ability to control and benefit from nature is a common Stoic topos.

  • Cicero Off. 1.22  "as the Stoics hold, everything that the earth produces is created for man's use" (ad usum hominum omnia creari; Miller 1913, 22-23).
  • Seneca Ben. 2.29  "[The gods] appointed us to be the lords of earth! Will anyone compare us with the creatures over whom we have absolute power?" (quorum potestas penes nos est; Basore 1935, 109).

Biblical Intertextuality

7a every nature of beast Classes of Animals Dividing animals into four classes is common in Scripture. Following are the four general classes together with their usual names in G:

  • Creatures of the sea: ichthus.
  • Creatures of the air: peteinon; orneon.
  • Creatures of the land: four-footed: thêrion, ktênon, tetrapoun.
  • Creatures of the land: crawling creatures: herpeton.

The paradigmatic reference occurs in the creation account of Gn 1:26-28, which employs ichthus, peteinon, ktênon, and herpeton. Many other lists occur, commonly using the four-fold division: e.g., Gn 9:2; Dt 4:17-18; Ps 148:10; Hos 4:3; Acts 11:6 (all from G).

James' use of peteinon, thêrion, and herpeton is standard in G. His use of the adjective enalios for "sea creatures," however, is unusual: it is unattested elsewhere in Greek Bible. An interesting parallel is Sophocles Ant. 345: pontou t' einalian phusin, "the watery brood of the sea" (Jebb 1891, 34-35), which occurs within a discussion of the human dominance over animals.

Peritestamental Literature

2a we all stumble Universal Sinfulness

  • Philo Deus 75 "there is no man who self-sustained has run the course of life from birth to death without stumbling" (aptaiston; Colson and Whitaker 1930, 47).

2b perfect man Completion and Wholeness (Perfection) In ancient Greek and Hellenistic Jewish philosophy, the "complete man" possesses all the virtues; the "complete man" and the "wise man" are closely connected (cf. Ancient Texts 1:4a; Ancient Texts 1:4b; Peritestamental Literature 1:4a; Ancient Texts 3:2b).

  • Philo Post. 88  says that the perfect man is one in whom intention, speech, and action are all in harmony: "bringing speech (logos) into harmony with intent (dianoia), and intent with deed (ergon); such an one would be considered perfect (teleios) and of a truly harmonius character" (Colson and Whitaker 1929, 377);  cf. also Philo Migr. 70–73.

6c wheel of birth The Instability of Life Second Temple Jewish authors used the word trochos to refer to the instability of life:

  • Ps.-Phoc. 27 "Suffering is common to all; life is a wheel; prosperity is unstable" (van der Horst 1978, 88-89); cf. Sib. Or. 2.87).



1–12 Use in Lectionary RCL : Proper 19, Year B.

1–10 Use in Lectionary

  • RML: Saturday, Week 6, Year 2.
  • BL : Tuesday, 32nd Week after Pentecost.

Christian Tradition

2a we all stumble Universal Sinfulness

Universal Sinfulness

This passage was a common proof-text to demonstrate that all humans sin, including baptized Christians.

  • Augustine of Hippo Serm.   23.2  "Who then would ever dare to call himself perfect?" (perfectum; Hill 1997, 3/1:57; Lambot 1961, 309). Augustine of Hippo Enarrat. Ps. 55.10 applies it specifically to sins of speech: "Inevitably, then, each of us will slip up through our tongue" (labatur in lingua; Boulding 2003, 3/17: 92; Dekkers 1956, 2:685).
  • Augustine used it especially in his anti-Pelagian writings (e.g., Augustine of Hippo Pecc. merit. 3.13).
  • Bede Hom. Ev. 2.23 refers to the passage as a basic principle (principalis sententia) of universal sinfulness (Martin and Hurst 1991, 2:237; Hurst 1955, 356)
  • Jerome Adv. Jov. 2.2 employs the passage against Jovinian's argument that Christians cannot be tempted to sin after baptism. He employs it often against the Pelagian position that it is possible to avoid all sin (e.g., Jerome Pelag. 2.13; 2.15).
  • Bernard of Clairvaux Praec. et disp. 10.24 quotes the passage in admitting that not even monks can avoid slipping up in seeking to obey the numerous regulations of their superiors (Greenia 1970, 123).
  • Ps.-Augustine Poen. 1.(5).14; 1.(8).20 teaches that since sins are committed daily, it is necessary that penance be readily available as well.
  • Oecumenius Comm. Apoc. 8.21 quotes this passage in his interpretation of Rv 15:2: the sea of glass mingled with fire represents the righteous dead who stilll require the purging of sins, since no one is without sin (Suggit 2006, 134–35; de Groote 1999, 205).
  • See further Origen Adnot. Deut. ad 23:12–14; Augustine of Hippo Spir. et litt. 64; Augustine of Hippo Ep. 167.10; Augustine of Hippo Perf. 21; Leo the Great Serm. 49.5; 88.3.
  • Abelard Eth. quotes the passage in a discussion on whether it is possible to live without sin. If sin is properly defined as "contempt of God" (Dei contemptum), then it is possible, although very difficult (Luscombe 1971, 68–69).
  • The Reformed tradition continued use of this proof-text. WLC Q. 149: "No man is able, either of himself, or by any grace received in this life, perfectly to keep the commandments of God; but doth break them in thought, word, and deed," citing Jas 3:2-13. See below Theology 3:2a.

Types of Sins

Several authors conclude that James refers to venial or light sins.

  • Jerome Ep. 57.7 applies the passage to the shortcomings and human frailities of the translators of scripture.
  • Lapide Comm. ad loc. refers to Conc. Trid. Just. can. 23 (DzH 1573), which condemns the propisition "that a man once justified can avoid all sins, even venial ones, throughout his entire life, unless it be by a special privilege of God, as the Church holds of the Blessed Virgin" (20:136).

Many commentators connect these lighter sins specifically with the sins of speech that James turns to in Jas 3:3–12.

Moral Application of Universal Sinfulness

An awareness of universal sinfulness serves a moral purpose, writes Lapide Comm.: it can be the basis for a profound humility, and sharpen one's resove to commit few sins (20: 137).

2b–12 Divisio Textus

  •  Ps.-Andreas Catena groups verses Jas 3:2b–12 under the heading, "That the rash and undisciplined (propetês kai ataktos) tongue brings death to its possessor. It is necessary to master it for the honor (euphêmia) and glory of God" (Cramer 1844, 8:19).

See also →James: Medieval Divisio Textus .

2b does not stumble in word How Can One Avoid Sinning in One's Speaking?


The interpretive tradition often specifies ways in which one might possibly stumble in one's speech:

  • Bede Ep. cath. ad loc.  "deceit, slander, cursing, pride, boasting, making exuses in sins, jealousy, argument, heresy, lying, perjury, but even of worthless (otiosum) and also of unnecessary speaking" (superflua locutio;Hurst 1985, 36; Hurst 1983, 203). Gloss. Ord. ad loc. incorporates Bede's comment (col. 1284). The tradition often connects this passage with Mt 12:36.
  • Ps.-Andreas Catena (attributed to Basil) ad loc. catalogues some of the sins of the tongue: "In many ways sin is active by means of the tongue; in anger, in desires (epithumiais), in hypocrisy, in lawsuits (dikais), in deceit. And why is it necessary to go through in every detail the sinful things committed by the tongue? For from it come abusive language, frivolous talk, foolish talk (môrologia), speaking badly of one another (katalalia cf.  Jas 4:11) in ways that are not proper, idle conversation, false swearing (epiorkiai), falsely witnessing, all these evil things and still more are products of the tongue (Cramer 1844, 8:21–22). 

Sinlessness and Silence

  • Ps.-Andreas Catena attr. Cyril of Alexandria ad loc. and Ps.-Hilary of Arles Tract. Iac. ad loc. (col. 75) note that the one wishing to not go astray in speech must sometimes keep silent. Erasmus Iac. Par. ad loc. notes that nature "reminds us to use the tongue cautiously and with conscious control (circunspectem esse ac moderatum) by the wall and barricade made by the teeth and the lips" (Bateman 1993, 155; Bateman 1997, 142).
  • Lapide Comm. ad loc. writes, "The method and mode (ratio et modum), then, of directing the tongue to not offend is silence (silentium). Do you wish to learn to speak? Be silent and in silence consider what should be said and in what it should be said. For this reason, in all religions the discipline and cultivation (disciplina et cura) of silence is so great, since it is most useful, and indeed necessary, for guarding against offences and for the purity and and innocence of the heart" (20:138).

Other Applications

  • Augustine of Hippo Ep. 73.9 admits that in his own relationship with Jerome, he cannot claim to have lived up the perfection noted by James, and he asks Jerome's forgiveness if he has ever offended Jerome with his words.
  • Jerome Comm. Eph. ad 5:5 teaches that committing sins of speech (babbling or jesting) does not exclude one from the Kingdom of God, but it will cause one to be at a lower level (alluding to Jn 14:2 and 1Cor 15:41).
  • Francis de Sales Intr. 3. 27 quotes Jas 3:2b to introduce a section entitled, "Modesty (honessteté) in Speech and the Respect Due to Others," warning of the dangers of speaking an indecent (deshonneste) word. Even when the speaker has no bad intention, such words can have devastating effects on the hearer, filling him with unclean thoughts and temptations (Ryan 1950, 194–95; Mackey 1894, 230).
  • Bonhoeffer Leben applies the passage and Jas 4:11–12 to his rule that members of a community must never speak about one another in secret. This discipline will help to avoid forming judgmental attitudes about others (Bloesch and Burtness 1996, 94–95; Müller and Schönherr 1987, 78).

5f claims great [things] …such a small fire: What Are the "Great Things"?

 Positive and Negative Interpretations of v. 5

Several interpreters see understand James to give an ambiguous interpretation of the power of the tongue in v 5:

Much of the Latin tradition (e.g., Codex Amiatinus, Gloss. Ord. (S), C) read exaltat (exalt) instead of exultat (claim or boast about great things). Bede Ep. cath. knows both readings, and connects them with an ambiguous understanding of the tongue: it can be used both for great good and great evil. He then contrasts the destructive fire of the tongue with the refining fire described elsewhere in Scripture:

  • Bede Ep. cath. "The tongue is a fire, because by speaking evilly it consumes the forest of the virtues. Hence the wise man says about the foolish, 'And the opening of his mouth is a setting on fire' (Sir 20:15). That saving fire which, devouring wood, hay, straw, (1Cor 3:12) enlightens the secrets of the heart, is contrary, namely, to this destructive fire. Holy teachers are set on fire by it both that they themselves may burn with loving and that by preaching they may set others on fire with fiery tongues, as it were (Hurst 1985, 38–39; Hurst 1983, 204–5).
  • John Climacus Scal. Summ.  connects this phrase with Jas 5:20: "One spark has often set fire to a great forest, and it has been found that one good deed can wipe away a multitude of sins" (Luibheid and Russell 1982, 258).
  • Erasmus Iac. Par. ad loc. notes, "In the same way there can come from the human tongue both the greatest benefit and on the other hand the ultimate ruin to human life. Do you not see that nature's fabricator signified this very thing [i.e., that the human tongue can cause great good and great ruin in human life] when he willed the human tongue to have the appearance and colour of fire?" (Bateman 1993, 155; Bateman 1997, 141). Erasmus also wrote an extensive treatise on the power of the tongue (human speech): "The Tongue" (Lingua). In this work, Erasmus quotes Jas 3:2b–12 together with some brief comments on the positive and negative uses of the tongue (366–67).
  • Calvin Comm. Iac. holds that James does not refer to arrogant boasting, but rather is stating that the tongue can in fact do great things when it is controlled, as illustrated in vv 3-4 (Owen 1849, 319–20; Reuss and Erichson 1896, 409).
  • Lapide Comm. ad loc. similarly sees the boasting not as ostentatious, but rather as impetuous and powerful speech that impels people to do great things, either good or bad (20:141–42).

Negative Interpretation

  • Isho'dad of Merv Comm. Cath. Ep. ad loc., in contrast, interprets, "this tongue, although it is small in its size and weaker than other members, yet is arrogant in pride, and does great things, and devastates and destroys..." (Dunlop 1913, 37; Syriac: ibid., 50).

6a world of unrighteousness Connotations of "the World"

Totality, or Collection of Evil

In the tradition, one finds kosmos understood more metaphorically with the sense of a totality or whole (Vocabulary 3:6a).

  • V: universitas iniquitatis ("a universe of iniquity").
  • Bede Ep. cath. ad loc. "It is rightly said of the uncontrolled tongue, however, that it is a world of wickedness, because almost all villianous deeds are either planned by it (as robberies, rapes), or carried out by it (as perjuries, false witnesses), or defended by it (as when some sinner by making excuses denies the evil he has committed and by boasting (ostentando) feigns a good that he has not done" (Hurst 1985, 39; Hurst 1983, 205). The  Gloss. Ord. (V) ad loc. (col. 1285) reproduces Bede's comment. 
  • Erasmus Iac. Par. ad loc. paraphrases, "The tongue is a world (mundus) and collection (congeries) of all the vices" (Bateman 1993, 155; Bateman 1997, 141).
  • Calvin Comm. Iac. ad loc. "because the contagion of the tongue spreads through every part of life" (Owen 1849, 320; Reuss and Erichson 1896, 409).

An "Ornamentation" of Evil


2a we all stumble Universality of Sin This text was cited as a proof-text against the Pelagian position that Christians no longer needed to pray for the forgiveness of their own sins:

  • 418 AD: Syn. Cart. can. 7 (DzH 229) : Whereas some have said that Lord's prayer's petition for forgiveness does not refer to all Christians but only to those who are sinful, the canon replies, "but the Apostle James was holy and just when he said [Jas 3:2]. For why would 'all' have been added, unless this sentence pertained to the psalm where it is read [Ps 143:2].

Later teaching continues to see it as a proof-text for universal sin, including post-baptismal sin:

See above Christian Tradition 3:2a.


5b–6 Also the tongue is fire Allusions in Dante's Divine Comedy Dante Div. Comm. Inf. cantos 26–27 allude to the images of the tongue and fire in Jas 3:5–6 (Bates 1989). In the eighth bolgia sinners are punished for giving evil advice— a sin of the tongue. Their punishment is to be enveloped in a tongue of flame:

  • Dante Div. Comm. Inf. 26.47–48 "These spirits stand within the flames / Each one is wrapped in that in which he burns."
  • Dante Div. Comm. Inf. 26.89 finds that Ulysses is punished for his deceitful words regarding the Trojan horse, his deceit of Achilles, and the theft of a statue of Athena. The flame enveloping Ulysses is described "as if it were the tongue of fire that spoke" (come fosse la lingua che parlasse).
  • Dante Div. Comm. Inf. 27, a tongue of flame envelops Guido da Montefeltro, who was punished for the false counsel that Pope Boniface VIII encouraged him to give.
  • Dante Div. Comm. Par. 25: the apostle James, considered by Dante to be the author of the Epistle (25:29–30, 77), also appears to Dante in a flame (25:37–38, 79–80), perhaps alluding to the Christian tradition's positive interpretations of Jas 3:5 (cf. Christian Tradition 3:5–6).

Visual Arts

5f the tongue is a fire Illustration of Dante's Inferno 26–27 Several artists portray the scenes in Dante Div. Comm. Inf. 26 and 27, where Dante and Virgil encounter the souls of those who gave false counsel, punished by being wrapped in tongues of fire (Literature 3:5b-6).

  • Gustave Doré (1832-1883), Canto XXVI. Seen here.→
  •  Bartolomeo di Fruosino (1366-1441), Dante e Virgilio con Guido da Montefeltro tra i Falsi consiglieri, ca. 1420. Biblioteque national, Paris. Seen here.→
  • Anonymous Lombard (ca. 1440), Dante e Virgilio sul ponte, Biblioteca Comunale of Imola MS 32, Italy. Seen here.→
  •  Amos Nattini (1923), Inferno XXVII: Gia era dritta in su la fiamma e queta. Seen  here.→



6a world of unrighteousness Extended Meaning or Semitism Kosmos may have a more extended meaning: "the totality" or "universality" of unrighteousness (Christian Tradition 3:6a). See also Vocabulary Jas 1:27c,3:6,4:4 and Grammar Jas 3:6a.

The phrase "world of unrighteousness" is a  Semitic influenced use of a genitive noun in place of an adjective: "unrighteous world"; (cf. Jas 1:25: "a hearer of forgetfulness = a forgetful hearer"). 


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.

Christian Tradition

2b perfect man The Meaning of "Perfect" Commentators try to clarify what James means by "perfect," especially since James has just insisted that all people stumble in many ways.

  • Perfection in forgiveness of sin: Bede Ep. cath. ad loc. asks, "How can he say that the man is perfect who does not offend in word, when he has just said, 'We all offend in many things'?" Bede explains that although the elect (electus) righteous may sin lightly (e.g., by frailty of flesh or ignorance), they remain righteous because "there is the daily remedy of prayers and good works that quickly raises up the righteous offender" (Hurst 1985, 36; Hurst 1983, 202).
  • Perfection in this life. Aquinas ST 2-2.184.2 ad. 2 considers the question of whether perfection (perfectio) is possible in this life. He answers that a certain type of perfection is possible (as demanded in Mt 5:48), and this perfection consists in love (caritas). Thus, "Those who are perfect (perfecti) in this life are said to 'offend in many things' with regard to venial sins (peccata venialia), which result from the weakness (infirmitate) of the present life: and in this respect they have an 'imperfect being' (aliquid imperfectum) in comparison with the perfection of heaven" (English Dominicans 1947, 4:1945).
  • Perfection in virtue. Ps.-Hilary of Arles Tract. Iac. "For perfection consists in justice; justice is cultivated by silence. Thus he holds that perfection is temperance in speech" (continentia in verbo; col. 75). See also Pelagius Ep. Dem. 19.3.



6d Gehenna Etymology The word geena is a Greek form of the Aramaic gé hinnam, which in turn derives from the Hebrew gé hinnōm, an abbreviation of gé ben-hinnôm (see Jo 15:8): the Valley of Hinnom.  See below Historical and Geographical Notes 3:6d.


Biblical Intertextuality

2a we all stumble Universal Sinfulness The sinfulness of all humans is a common topos in Scripture:

  • Ps 14:3: "They have all gone astray; together they have become useless. There is no one who does good; there is not even one."
  • Eccl 7:20: "yet there is no one on earth so just as to do good and never sin."
  • Sir 8:6 (G-8:5):  "You should not despise a man who turns himself away from sin, nor reproach him with it. Remember that we are all subject to correction."
  • Rom 3:23: "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."
  • 1Jn 1:8: "If we say, "We are without sin," we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (this passage is commonly quoted in the commentary tradition on Jas 3:2 such as in Lapide Comm. ad loc.).

See Ancient Texts 3:2a.

2b stumble in word Controlling One’s Tongue The biblical wisdom tradition warns of the need to control one's tongue (Biblical Intertextuality 1:19c; Biblical Intertextuality 1:19bc; Biblical Intertextuality 1:26).

  • Sir 22:34 (G-22:27): "Who will set a guard over my mouth, an effective seal on my lips, That I may not fail through them, and my tongue may not destroy me?" 


Christian Tradition

6d wheel of birth Interpretations of “Trochos Interpreters understand the phrase to mean that the sins of the tongue affect the entire course of one's life: 

  • Ps.-Andreas Catena ad loc. explains that the phrase refers to the course of our lives. James "calls time a 'wheel' (trochos) because of its circular and cyclical form (trochoeides kai kuklikon schêma), for it rolls into itself" (Cramer 1844, 8:20–21).
  • Erasmus Iac. Par. ad loc. paraphrases, [the tongue] "keeps a person's entire life (totam vitam) from the cradle to extreme old age ablaze with the fire of every vice" (Bateman 1993, 155; Bateman 1997, 142).
  • Calvin Comm. Iac. ad loc. notes that "when other vices are corrected by age or by the succession of time, or when at leat then do not possess the whole man, the vice of the tongue spreads and prevails over every part of life" (per omnes vitae partes; Owen 1849, 321; Reuss and Erichson 1896, 410).

6d flamed by Gehenna Various Interpretations

The Devil's Instigation to Sin

  • Bede Ep. cath. : Hell refers to the influence of the "devil and his angels" who "always burn with hellish fire" (igne semper ardent gehennali) even as they tempt humans with vices (Hurst 1985, 39–40; Hurst 1993, 205).
  • Gloss. Ord. (V) ad loc. the interlinear gloss reads, "at the suggestion of the devil" (suggestione diaboli; col. 1286); cf. Aquinas ST 1.64.4.
  • Calvin Comm. Iac. ad loc. "Satan by the fans of temptations kindles the fires of all evils in the world" (Owen 1849, 321; Reuss and Erichson 1896, 410).
  • Erasmus Iac. Par. ad loc. "This evil was inspired (afflata est) from the fire of Gehenna which first infects the mind with evil spirits" (Bateman 1993, 155; Bateman 1997, 142).

Eschatological Interpretation

  • Grotius Annot. Jac. ad loc., Taking the present participle (phlogizomenê) in a future sense, Grotius understands James to refer to the eschatological punishment of those who sin with the tongue, referencing Mt 5:22 (de Groot 1830, 36).
  • Isho'dad of Merv Comm. Cath. Ep. ad loc. also seems to indicate an eschatological punishment: the tongue "also burns in punishment from God" (Gibson 1913, 37; Syriac: ibid., 50). 

See also Comparison of Versions 3:6d.

8a the tongue no human can tame Debate on Sin, Free Will, and Grace

Latin Tradition: James Speaks Literally

 Augustine reports that Pelagius had argued that this passage should be taken ironically, so that James is really reproaching his reader, "You can tame wild animals; can you not tame your tongue?"  Augustine, however, argues that James meant the phrase literally: No human is able to control his tongue, and this knowledge should drive us to seek God's grace.  

  • Augustine of Hippo Nat. Grat. 15 [16] "He [James] did not say that no one can tame the tongue, but that no human beings can do so. Hence, when it is tamed, we would admit that this is done by God's mercy, by God's help, by God's grace. The soul should, then, try to tame the tongue, and, while it tries, it should beg for help (Teske 1997, 232; Urba and Zycha 1893, 242-43); cf. Augustine of Hippo Serm. 55.1-2. See also Augustine of Hippo Serm.  16A.3, where the passage is applied to the sin of using God's name to swear on trivial points.
  • Bede Ep. cath. ad loc. comments, "This thought can be understood properly in two ways: both that no learned good man can tame the tongue of those who neglect to restrain themselves from foolish outbursts; and that there is no one who speaks who does not occasionally lapse (delinquo) by his tongue" (Hurst 1985, 41; Hurst 1983, 206; see also Gloss. Ord. (V) (interlinear gloss, col. 1288).
  •  Bede illustrates with the example of Job, who although he was a "perfect man" who reportedly did not sin with his lips (Jb 2:10), did in fact chide himself for his inappropriate speech against God (Hurst 1985, 41; Hurst 1987, 206).

Greek Tradition: James Speaks Rhetorically

  • Ps.-Andreas Catena argues that, based on the context of the passage, the literal meaning of "the tongue no human being can tame" cannot be correct. If James has just asserted that every species has been tamed (Jas 3:7), this must include the tongue. If James later asserts "these things out not be to be" (Jas 3:10b, referring to cursing others with the tongue), how can James assume that humans can avoid cursing if it is literally true that no human can tame the tongue? (Cramer 1844, 8:22-23).
  • Ps.-Oecumenius Comm. Ep. Cath. ad loc. concurs, insisting that "The tongue no human being can tame" should be read not as a statement, but rather as a rhetorical question whose answer is, "No, the tongue can be tamed" (cols. 487A-489A).

Syriac Tradition

  • Bar Salibi Ep. Cath. ad loc. adds a qualifying statement: one is unable to tame the tongue "when a person is far from the love and knowledge of God," thus implying that one can control the tongue with God's help  (Sedlacek 1910, 97; Syriac-ibid., 126).