The Bible in Its Traditions

James 3:2–5

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 2 Controlling one’s speech Jas 1:19,26; Prv 10:19; Sir 5:11-12; 28:24-25
Byz S TR
Nes S

Consider that we put bits in horses' mouths that they may obey us, and we guide their whole body.

Now if we put the horses` bridles into their mouths that they may obey us, we turn about their whole body also.

For so we put bridles into the mouths of horses, in order to submit them to our will, and so we turn their whole body around.

Byz V

Consider also the ships: although they are so large and are driven by fierce winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the impulse of the pilot desires.

Behold, the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by rough winds, are yet turned about by a very small rudder, whither the impulse of the steersman willeth.

Behold also the ships, great as they are, when driven by severe winds, they are turned about with a very small rudder, wherever the pilot wishes.

Byz S TR

Even so the tongue is a small member and it boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles!

So the tongue also is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how much wood is kindled by how small a fire!

So also the tongue certainly is a small part, but it moves great things. Consider that a small fire can set ablaze a great forest.


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).


Literary Devices

4f,5:4,7,9,11 Look Call for Attention James uses the verb idou (V = ecce) several times throughout the work to call special attention to what follows.

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.

4a driven by fierce winds Image from Greco-Roman Moral Tradition: Chaotic Storms James again employs the image of fierce winds at sea first used at Jas 1:6 to evoke the inner state of a man with conflicting thoughts. Here too James alludes to a Greco-Roman moral tradition, appropriated by Hellenistic Judaism, in which the passions are symbolized as fierce storms on the sea (e.g., 4 Macc. 7:1–3). See also Ancient Texts 3:4b; Peritestamental Literature 3:3-4.


Ancient Texts

5c small fire ignites such a wood Traditional Image James draws on a conventional image:

  • Pindar Pyth. 3.37–38 "Fire that springs from one spark onto a mountain can destroy a great forest" (Race 1997, 255). Pindar uses the image to illustrate how one immoral action caused widespread disaster.
  • Plutarch Garr. 10 quotes Euripides' Ino to illustrate how quickly rumors spread: "With but a little torch one might set fire to Ida's rock; and tell one man a tale, soon all the town will know" (Helmbold 1939, 425).  He also applies the image of a spreading fire to gossip in Plutarch Cohib. Ira 4. See also Peritestamental Literature 3:5c-6a.


Textual Criticism

5b boasts : Byz TR | Nes : claims great [things]

  • The first hand of P20, א, and other witnesses (followed by TR and Byz) read megalauchei ('to boast");
  • P74, A, and B read megala auchei ("to claim great things").

There is little difference in meaning. 

3a See : Byz S TR | V Nes: For if

  • Some minuscules read ide ("see").
  • The first hand of א , A, and B read ei de, ("and if" or "but if").
  • א also adds "for" (gar), the reading accepted by Nes; also V reads autem.

Ide is more in keeping with James' regular style, although it may be due to iotacism, as eide would have been pronounced the same as ide. The mss. evidence favors ei de. See below Comparison of Versions 3:3a.

5c small : Byz TR | Nes: such: Clarification James uses the ambiguous adjective hêlikon for both "so small" and "so large" (Vocabulary 3:5c). To clarify his meaning the first hands of A (apparently) and C, along with Ψ and Byz replace hêlikon with oligon ("small") before "fire" (Comparison of Versions 3:5c).


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).


Historical and Geographical Notes

5c such a wood Palestinian Setting? Some commentators, including those who argue for a Palestinian provenance for James, argue that James does not refer to a forest fire (there being few forests in Palestine), but rather a brush fire that might have been set by a farmer to clear his fields of grass, thorns, or weeds (cf. Ex 22:5 (6); Zec 12:6). See also Vocabulary 3:5c.

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."

5c such a wood Symbolism of the Forest Fire A forest fire is often used a symbol of great destruction in Scripture. The following passages use it to symbolize God's wrath.

  • Ps 83:14: "As a fire raging through a forest, a flame setting mountains ablaze."
  •  Jer 21:14: "I will punish you, says the Lord, as your deeds deserve! I will kindle a fire in its forest that shall devour all its surroundings."
  • Ez 15:6–7: "Therefore, thus says the Lord God: Like vine wood among forest trees, which I have given as fuel for fire, So I will give the inhabitants of Jerusalem. I will set my face against them: Although they have escaped the fire, the fire will still devour them."

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

3a See Following some miniscules, part of the Byz tradition reads ide ("see"). The TR reads idou: "behold!" V (si autem) follows the first hand of א in reading ei de ("and if" or "but if"). See above Textual Criticism 3:3a.

5c such ...such: TR Byz V (Explanatory Variants) James (as witnessed in Nes) uses the ambigious adjective hêlikon for both "so small" and "so large" (Vocabulary 3:5c). To clarify his meaning:

  • Byz and TR replaces hêlikon with oligon ("small") before "fire";
  • V adds "how great" (quam magnam) before "wood";
  • S uses two distinct adjectives: "small" (z‘wr’) before "fire" and "many" (sgy’’) before "forests."

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.

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).

5c wood Forest or Matter The noun hulê has a range of meanings.

  • A dense growth of trees (a forest). But see Historical and Geographical Notes 3:5c.
  • A pile of wood, whether in nature or collected for use in building.
  • Most generally, the material out of which anything is made. Aristotle uses hulê to refer to matter in his distinction between matter and form, as in Aristotle Metaph. 1029a. Erasmus (in Iac. Par. and Annot. Ep. Iac. ad loc.) takes it in this latter sense, translating hulê with materia. Likewise the KJV: "Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!"

5c such a [size of] fire ignites such a wood (Nes) An Ambigious Adjective The adjective hêlikos generally means "how large" (cf. Col 2:1), but can also mean "how small" (cf. Lucian of Samosata Hermot. 5). James (as witnessed in Nes) takes advantage of this ambiguity to contrast, "how small" (hêlikon) a fire with "how great" (hêlikon) a wood [i.e., forest]. See also Literary Devices Jas3:5c; Textual Criticism 3:5c.

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


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.

4b wherever the impulse of the steersman wishes Use of Stoic Terminology?


  • "Impulse" (Greek: hormê) can refer to any rapid motion, or an effort or strong desire. It is a standard term used in the Stoic analysis of human action; the "movement (phora) of the soul towards something" (Stobaeus Anth. 2.86.17; →SVF 3:169; Long and Sedley 1987, 1:317).
  • According to Plutarch Stoic. rep. 1037F, Chryssipus understood one's hormê to be his own logos commanding him to do something (logos prostatikos autôᵢ tou poiein; Cherniss 1976, 450). James seems to use it in a Stoic sense here. 


Wishing (Greek: boulomai) is often connected in Stoic and other Greek philosophical discourse with a deliberate rational choice, as contrasted with a descision based on passions:

  • Philo Leg. 3.223 "When the charioteer is in command and guides the horses with the reins, the chariot goes the way he wishes" (bouletai; Colson 1929, 452–53).

See also Ancient Texts 1:18a.

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.

3f horses + Ships: Hellenistic Judaism’s Appropriation of Images of Greco-Roman Moral Discourse Like James, Hellenistic Judaism appropriated images taken from Greco-Roman moral discourse, often using the images of the chariot driver and the ship's helmsman. See Ancient Texts 3:4b.

Human Rule over the Rest of Creation

  • Philo Opif. 88  "And so the Creator made man after all things, as a sort of driver (hêniochos) and pilot (kubernêtês), to drive and steer the things on earth, and charged him with the care of animals and plants, like a governor (huparchos) subordinate to the chief and great King" (Colson 1929, 73). 

Human Reason Controls the Passions

  • Philo Leg. 3.223-24: Mind (nous) should rule over sense-perception; images of the chariot driver and ship's pilot illustrate. See also Philo Det. 53; Philo Agr. 67–77.

  • Philo Migr. 67: The rational part of the soul must govern the irrational parts; analogy of the charioteer.
  • 4 Macc. 7:1ff applies the pilot image to reason's control of the passions: "Like an outstanding pilot (kubernêtês), indeed, the reason (logismos) of our father Eleazar, steering (pêdalioucheô) the vessel of piety on the sea of passions (pathôn), though buffetted by the threats of the tyrant and swamped by the swelling waves of torture, in no way swerved the rudder of piety until he sailed into the haven of deathless victory." 

God's Providence Directs the Created World

  • Philo Conf. 115: The steering of ships and chariots is compared with God's providential rule over the created world.

See also Literary Devices 1:26; Peritestamental Literature 1:26b.



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).

3f horses’ mouths ...ships: Various Interpretations of James’ Analogies

Moral Application

  • Gloss. Ord. ad 3:3: The interlinear gloss reads, "we put bits of continence (continentia) into our mouths so that we are obedient to our creator" (col. 1286).

Allegorical Interpretations

  • Bede Ep. cath. ad 3:4  reads James' illustration as an allegory: "The large ships on the sea are the minds (mentes) of men, whether good or bad, in this life; the strong winds by which they are threatened are the very appetites (appetitus) of the minds by which they are naturally driven to do something as a result of which they may reach a good or bad end; the rudder by which the ships of this world are brought around where the inclination of the helmsmen wishes is the very intention (intentio) of the heart by which the elect, after having passed through the waves of this world, arrive at the happy harbor of the heavenly fatherland" (Hurst 1985, 37–38; Hurst 1983, 204).
  • Lapide Comm. ad 3:3, interpreted in the mystical sense (mystice), the horse stands for the human body; the rider is Christ who bridles and directs the body by his grace (20:139–40).

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).


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.→

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.


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?"