A project of the Bible in Its Traditions Research Program AISBL
Directed by the École Biblique et Archéologique in Jerusalem
To support us, click here
5 Even so the tongue is a small member and it boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles!
5 So the tongue also is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how much wood is kindled by how small a fire!
5 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.
6 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.
6 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.
6 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.
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.
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.
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.
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):
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."
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.
Among the most notable individual passages:
5c small fire ignites such a wood Traditional Image James draws on a conventional image:
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:
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).
5b boasts : Byz TR | Nes : claims 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).
6b P and Byz add houtôs ("thus") before "the tongue." See below Grammar 3:6a.
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; , 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., → 17.51.3). James also uses this term at Bib. hist. Jas 1:23 (Vocabulary 1:23b). One can understand James' phrase as referring to a person's course of life, beginning from birth.
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.
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.
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:
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:
6bc the tongue …staining the whole body: Body as the Body of Christ
See also → ad loc. (36). Annot. Jac.
6d is flamed by Gehenna Interpretation of Gehenna S renders "by Gehenna" with bnwr’ ("by fire"). → interprets this as a reference to eschatolgoical punishment: "burns in punishment from God" ( Comm. Cath. Ep. , 37; Syriac: ibid., 50).
6d wheel of birth Attempt at Clarification
5c wood Forest or Matter The noun hulê has a range of meanings.
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. →5). James (as witnessed in Nes) takes advantage of this ambiguity to contrast, "how small" ( Hermot. hêlikon) a fire with "how great" (hêlikon) a wood [i.e., forest]. See also Literary Devices Jas3:5c; Textual Criticism 3:5c.
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.
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 → 2 [168B] ( In Cael. 1894, 377).
2b–12 Divisio Textus
See also →James: Medieval Divisio Textus .
5f claims great [things] …such a small fire: What Are the "Great Things"?
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). → 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: Ep. cath.
6a world of unrighteousness Connotations of "the World"
In the tradition, one finds kosmos understood more metaphorically with the sense of a totality or whole (Vocabulary 3:6a).
5b–6 Also the tongue is fire Allusions in Dante's Divine Comedy → cantos 26–27 allude to the images of the tongue and fire in Div. Comm. Inf.Jas 3:5–6 (→). 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:
5f the tongue is a fire Illustration of Dante's Inferno 26–27 Several artists portray the scenes in → 26 and 27, where Dante and Virgil encounter the souls of those who gave false counsel, punished by being wrapped in tongues of fire ( Div. Comm. Inf.Literature 3:5b-6).
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").
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 → 23 and Hist. eccl.→ 2, who in turn draw on accounts from Clement of Alexandria and Hegesipus. See also Vir. ill.→James: Introduction.
Several prominent features of these portrayals may be noted:
The following images are noteworthy:
James holds a club.
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.
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 → 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. Leg. aur.
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.
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
The risen Jesus appears to James and breaks bread with him (based on an account recorded in → 2, said to be drawn from the Gospel according to the Hebrews). Vir. ill.
James holds a book and club.
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.
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.
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:
6d flamed by Gehenna Various Interpretations
See also Comparison of Versions 3:6d.