The Bible in Its Traditions

James 3:5

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

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:


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. 

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).


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

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

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."



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.



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

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 .

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).


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.