The Bible in Its Traditions

James 3:7–12

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.

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.

Nes TR

With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who are created according to [the] likeness of God.

Therewith bless we the Lord and Father; and therewith curse we men, who are made after the likeness of God

By it we bless God the Father, and by it we speak evil of men, who have been made in the likeness of God.

Byz Nes V S TR

10  Out of the same mouth come blessings and curses. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.

Nes V S TR

11  The spring does not pour forth from the same opening [both ]the sweet and the bitter [water, does it]?

11  Doth the fountain send forth from the same opening sweet [water] and bitter?

Nes S TR

12  It is not possible, my brothers, [for] a fig tree to make olives, or a vine [to make ]figs, [is it]? Thus no spring is able to produce [both] salt and sweet water.

12  Can a fig tree, my brethren, yield olives, or a vine figs? Neither [can] salt water yield sweet.

12  My brothers, can the fig tree yield grapes? Or the vine, figs? Then neither is salt water able to produce fresh water.

12 appropriate fruits Mt 7:16-20


Literary Devices

10a mouth Metonymy  Here James switches from the tongue to the mouth as a figure for the power of speech. 


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).



9f with it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse humans Proper Use of Technology in Proper Speech Pius XII Mir. Pr. 122 welcomes the development of motion pictures, radio, and television, as these technologies can be used for good in the fields of education, art, recreation, and the spread of the Gospel. Yet, citing Jas 3:9-10, he notes that these technologies can also be used for morally bad purposes.



11 spring Literal and Metaphorical Senses The Greek pêgê (V: fons; S: nbywt’) refers to the source of flowing water, either a natural spring or a fountain. It can then be used metaphorically as the source of any thought or activity.


11 Does a spring Interro-negation James uses the interrogative particle mêti, indicating an expected negative answer. 

Literary Devices

11f Diatribe Style: Rhetorical Questions In the diatribe style, James asks rhetorical questions, expecting negative responses, "Does a spring pour forth both fresh and brackish water from the same opening?" (3:11). "Can a fig tree, my brothers, produce olives, or a grapevine figs?" (3:12a).


Biblical Intertextuality

11 sweet and bitter The Bitter Water at Marah A Jewish audience likely would have heard an allusion to the account in Ex 15:22-25, where the people find the water at Marah bitter (Greek: pikros) and undrinkable, and the Lord has Moses throw in a piece of wood to "sweeten" (Greek: glukainô) the water.



12b Neither can salty [water] produce sweet water V Nes: A Compressed Expression The grammar of this phrase is very compressed, reading (in Nes) literally: "neither salty produces sweet water." In analogy with the image in Jas 3:11 (a spring does not produce both brackish and sweet water from the same opening) and taking the verbs "can" as implied from 3:12a, one may translate, "neither can salty [water] produce sweet water" or "neither can a salty [spring or fountain] produce sweet water." See also Textual Criticism 3:12b.


Ancient Cultures

12a olives Cultural and Religious Significance James' reference to olives in his analogy would have been familiar to his Mediterranean readers; on the cultural and religious significance of olives (especially in connection with olive oil and anointing), see Ancient Texts 5:14c; Biblical Intertextuality 5:14c; Peritestamental Literature 5:14c.

12a fig tree Cultural Significance of Figs Figs were a staple in ancient Mediterranean cultures; they were eaten fresh or pressed into cakes (e.g., 1Sm 30:12). Figs were also considered to have medicinal value: Isaiah orders Hezekiah to apply a "poultice of figs" to a boil (Is 38:21).

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

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).



9a bless the Lord Liturgical Blessing A prayer blessing the Lord begins the Liturgy of the Eucharist in the Roman Catholic Mass:

  • MR:  "Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you" (529).


Textual Criticism

12b no spring produces salty and sweet water Explanatory Variants The likely original text (as given in Nes) reads elliptically "neither salty produces sweet water." Various textual traditions added words, apparently in an attempt to clarify the meaning.

  •  א , the second hand of C,  P, and Ψ, along with Byz, add "similarly" (houtôs) to clarify the relationship with the previous clause; TR, S, and V follow this reading;
  • Byz and P add "no spring" (oudemia / oute mia pêgê) to clarify the reference of "salty."

See also Grammar 3:12b.


Biblical Intertextuality

12a grapevine Symbolism

= Prosperity and Eschatological Plenty

Together with the fig tree, owning grapevines was a proverbial sign of self-sufficiency, security, and peace in ancient Israel. See above Biblical Intertextuality 3:12a.

= Israel

In Isaiah's parable, the vineyard symbolizes Israel,and the Lord is the owner (Is 5:1-7). Although the Lord carefully tends the vineyard, it produces only wild grapes, a symbol of the people's unfaithfulness and corruption. Jesus took over this basic symbolism in his parable of the vineyard (Mk 12:1-12) See also Ps 80:8, Jer 2:21; Hos 10:1 for Israel as a grapevine.

= Christ

In the Gospel of John (Jn 15:1-17) Jesus applies the imagery to himself: "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower." His disciples are the branches; those that did not bear fruit would be cut off and burned; branches that did bear fruit would be pruned so that they would bear even more fruit. See also Ancient Cultures 3:12a.


Textual Criticism

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).

9a God : Byz TR | V S Nes: the Lord

  • The best mss. (e.g.,  P20  א  A B C) read kurios ("Lord"); 
  • Some minuscules and Byz read theon ("God"); cf. Jas 1:27:  "God and Father". See also Comparison of Versions 3:9a.


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:

11f sweet and bitter Metonymous Use: Drinkable and Undrinkable Water

  • Glukus ("sweet") and pikros ("bitter") literally refers to sweet and bitter taste; cf. Rv 10:9, "Take it, and eat; it will be bitter (pikrainô) to your stomach, but sweet (glukus) as honey in your mouth." The words are applied by extension to water that is drinkable and water that is not drinkable (e.g, brackish water, or salt water). See Herodotus Hist. 4.52; Philo Her. 208 for the contrast of these two words.
  • In Jas 3:12, the comparison is between fresh water (glukus) and salt water (halukos). Herodotus Hist. 7.35 uses both halukos and pikros to describe the Hellespont in his account of how Xerxes lashed the stream as punishment for destroying his bridge.

11 pour forth Image of Overflowing Abundance The Greek bruô has the sense of something being full to the point of overflowing; it can also refer to budding plants. This may well be a conscious allusion to Jesus' teaching: "For from the fullness (perisseuma) of the heart the mouth speaks" (Mt 12:34). 

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).

11f Comparisons with Nature

Staying True to One’s Nature

To support his point that one should not both bless God and curse others, James draws some analogies from nature:

  • The same opening in a spring does not produce both fresh and brackish / salty water.
  • Fruit trees produce their own fruit, not the fruit of other types of trees.

The point of the comparisons is that nothing in nature acts against its own nature. Thus James argues not simply that it is inconsistent to bless God and curse others, but rather that such behavior contradicts human nature. God gave humans speech in order to worship God (Jas 3:9a) and to facilitate a harmonius life together (cf. Jas 3:17-18).

See also Ancient Texts 3:7a.

Evoking a Visual Similarity

James' image in 3:11 relies on a visual similarity between the human mouth and the opening of a spring: two types of water gushing forth from a single opening correspond with righteous and unrighteous speech coming forth from a single mouth.


Ancient Texts

12a Can a fig tree Acting According to One’s Nature Hellenistic authors often used agricultural analogies to make the point that all things, including human beings, should act according to their nature in order to reach their fulfillment.

  • Plutarch Tranq. an. 13 "Therefore not all pursuits are for everyone, but one must, obeying the Pythian inscription, 'know one's self,' and then use one's self for that one thing for which Nature has fitted one (chrêsthai pros hen ho pephuke) and not do violence to Nature (phusis) by dragging one's self towards the emulation of now one sort of life, now another…runners are not discouraged because they do not carry off wrestlers' crowns…we do not expect the vine to bear figs nor the olive grapes" (Helmbold 1939, 209-13).
  • Epictetus Diatr. 4.1.121-25 "For when is a vine faring badly? When it is acting contrary to its own nature (para tên heautês phusin prassêᵢ). When is a cock faring badly? Under the same conditions. So also man. What, then, is his nature? To bite, and kick, and to throw into prison, and behead? No, but to do good, to work together, and to pray for the success of others... everything's evil is what is contrary to its own nature... the nature of man is gentle (hêmeros), and affectionate (philallêlos), and faithful" (pistos; Oldfater 1928, 285-87).

Stoic thought makes a clear distinction between the the nature of a good person and the nature of a bad person (phaulos).

  • Marcus Aurelius Med. 12.16 "Note that he who would not have the wicked (phaulos) do wrong is as one who would not have the fig-tree secrete acrid juice in its fruit, would not have babies cry, or the horse neigh, or any other things be that must be" (hosa alla anagkaia; Haines 1916, 331).

Seneca applies this teaching to moral context: an action is good or bad based on its own nature, not on human opinion:

  • Seneca Ep. 87.25 "good (bonum) does not spring from evil (malum), any more than figs grow from olive-trees. Things which grow correspond to their seed; and goods cannot depart from their class" (Gummere 1917, 2:337).

Biblical Intertextuality

9b come into existence according to the likeness of God Moral Application of Gn 1:26-28

Allusion to Genesis 1?

James uses the phrase kath' homoiôsin theou gegonotas, alluding to G-Gn 1:26: "Let us make humans in our image (kat' eikona) and in our likeness (kath' homoiôsin)." G uses the verb poieiô for creating, while James uses the perfect of gignomai. James is unusual in the biblical tradition in his reference to the "likeness" (homoiôsis); most references back to the creation accounts (e.g., Gn 5:1; 9:6) recall the phrase "in our image" (kat' eikona).

Humans Made in God's Image

James alludes to Gn 1:26-28 (humans, make in God's image and likeness, so as to rule over all other living creatures); cf. Gn 5:1. James' reference reinforces the similar allusion in Jas 3:7: humans are able to tame every other creature, alluding to God's commandment "to have dominion over" the rest of creation (Biblical Intertextuality 3:7b).

Moral Implications of the Creation in God's Image

Gn 9:6 reads, "Anyone who sheds the blood of a human being, by a human being shall that one's blood be shed; For in the image of God have human beings been made."  The implication is that it is a horrendous crime to kill someone who is created in God's image. Two justifications for this view are possible:

  • Attacking the divine image may in some way be considered an attack on the creator of the image.
  • The divine image makes human life itself sacred in some way and thus it is a serious offense to attack it (Peritestamental Literature 3:9b; Theology 3:9b).

James thus reads the creation account in Gn 1:26-28 through the lens of Gn 9:6.

Peritestamental Literature

9b curse humans who have come into existence according to the likeness of God Moral Implications of Human Creation in the Divine Image In Second Temple Jewish texts one finds further expansions of the two moral implications of the divine image: (1) the one who disrespects humans made in the divine image disrespects the creator of that image; (2) humans should be treated well because they are made in the divine image (Biblical Intertextuality 3:9b; Theology 3:9b).

  • 2 En. 44:1-2 [longer recension]: "The Lord with his own two hands created mankind; and in a facsimile of his own face, both small and great, the Lord created [them]. And whoever insults a person's face, insults the face of a king, and treats the face of the Lord with repugnance. He who treates with contempt the face of any person treats the face of the Lord with contempt. He who expresses anger to any person without provocation will reap anger in the great judgment"  (OTP 1:170; Macaskill 2013, 164).
  • T. Isaac 6:33 "Jacob, my beloved son, keep my injunction which I lay down today that you preserve my body. Do not profane the image of God by how you treat it; for the image of man was made like the image of God; and God will treat you accordingly at the time when you meet him and see him face to face" (OTP 1:910).

11 sweet and bitter An Apocalyptic Sign: Confusion in Nature

  • 4 Esd. 5.9: the signs of the end times will show chaos in nature ("e.g., the sun shall suddenly shine forth at night"); one of the signs is "salt waters shall be found in the sweet" (in dulcibus aquis salsae invenientur; OTP, 1:532).

James does not allude to these eschatological signs, however. His point is to emphasize the regular order in nature as a foil for a disordered human nature.

11 a spring + from the same opening / Metaphor for Inner and Outer Logos? James' choice of a spring pouring forth through its opening as a metaphor for human speech is not original. Philo uses the image to illustrate the distinction between the inner logos (reason within the human mind) and the outer logos (speech). Philo here draws on a Stoic distinction between an internal logos (endiathetos logos) and a "spoken" or "uttered" word (prophorikos logos; e.g., →SVF 2.43).

  • Philo Migr. 71 "logos has two aspects, one resembling a spring (pêgê), the other its outflow; logos in the understanding (dianoia) resembles a spring and is called 'reason' (logos), while utterance by mouth and tongue is like its outflow, and is called 'speech'" (logos; Colson 1932, 173).


Comparison of Versions

8b uncontrollable

9a God Variations of the Divine Name  The Sahidic Coptic and some Syriac, Vulgate, and Boharic Coptic manuscripts, read theos ("God") instead of kurios (Textual Criticism 3:9a).

9b according the likeness of God Interpretive Expansion The biblical lemma in the Gloss. Ord. (V) ad loc. (col. 1287-88), as well as in the commentary of Dionysius the Carthusian En. jac. ad loc. (586) expand James' text to read "in the image and likeness of God," emphasizing the link to Gn 1:26.

Christian Tradition

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).


Literary Devices

12b Neither can salty [water] produce fresh water Concluding Aphorism James concludes his lengthy exhortation on controlling the tongue with a maxim, a common closing technique (see Jas 1:12; 2:13; 2:26; 3:18; 4:17).


10b ought not to be A Expression from the Classical Greek The classical Greek impersonal expression ou chrê is rare in Koine Greek, where it was largely replaced by dei. It does not appear elsewhere in the NT or in G.

Literary Devices

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.

9 bless the Lord ...curse humans: Reiterating Central Themes of James: Contrastive Comparisons James' reference to blessing the Lord and cursing humans builds on several themes prominent in James:

Importance of Right Speech

See →James: Speech in James.

Link between Worship and Good Deeds

James closely connects worship of God and practical ethics, for example:

  • Jas 1:22-25: be a doer of the word, not a hearer only;
  • Jas 1:27-27: "true religion" bridles the tongue and cares for widows and orphans;
  • Jas 2:1-13: genuine community worship excludes partiality towards the rich;
  • Jas 2:14-26: true faith is empty unless completed through practical works.

Evils of Division

Blessing the Lord while cursing the humans is an example of what James calls double-mindedness (Jas 1:8). The person displays an inner conflict; he is divided, attempting to follow both values associated with God and values associated with "the world" (cf. Jas 4:4). This internal division is a variation of James' overriding theme that all division is sinful: his goal is unity and integrity both within each person and within the community. See also →James: Perfection / Wholeness in James .


Ancient Cultures

9f curse Cursing in Ancient Cultures

Formal and Informal Curses

The curse (Greek verb: kataraomai; noun: katara): is a wish that harm or disaster befall another person. Motives for cursing vary and include envy or desire to avenge a past wrong. Other curses involve future actions, cursing those who would transgress some sacred law. This category may also involve a self-curse. Often a divine power is invoked to carry out the curse. Many formal curses were inscribed on thin lead sheets (Greek: katadesmos; Latin: defixio).

  • Mid-3rd c. AD epitaph from Phrygia: "If any one shall open the tomb, there shall be upon him the curses (katarai) as many as are written in [the book], on his sight and his whole body (eis holon to sôᵢma autôᵢ) and his children and his life" (Moulton and Milligan 1929, s.v. katara). Epitaphs such as this from central Phrygia often exhibit a similarity and possible influence from the curses in Dt 27-29.

In addition to these more formal, written, or ritualized curses, there were doubtless many informal curses.

Literary Examples of Curses

Following are some examples of curses found in literature:

  • Xenophon Anab. 7.7.48 "Seuthes cursed (katêrasato) the man who was to blame for the fact that the soldiers' wages had not been paid long ago" (Brownson 1922, 1:639).
  • Diodorus Siculus Bib. hist.  1.45.2: The Egyptian king Tnephachthus "pronounced a curse (katarasthai) on the king who had first taught the people their extravagant way of living" (Oldfather 1967, 1:161).

Ancient Texts

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.

9f bless the Lord + curse humans / Application of Jesus’ Teaching?

  • James' teaching here may be an application of Jesus' teaching: "bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you" (Lk 6:28); James and the Luke passage use the same words for blessing and cursing. Paul echoes this same teaching: "Bless those who persecute [you], bless and do not curse them" (Rom 12:14). See also 1Cor 4:12; 1Pt 3:9. Rather than quoting the teaching of Jesus, James describes the actual hypocritical behavior of his community and admonishes them: this should not be (Jas 3:10b).
  • Compare also James' further teaching on avoiding swearing oaths (Jas 5:12), a practice closely connected with cursing, as oaths were often accompanied with curses.

9a bless the Lord and Father Reference to the Liturgical Worship of God With the phrase "bless the Lord," James likely refers to prayers said during liturgical worship.

Blessing Formula

James likely refers to the blessing formula used in prayers:

  • "Blessed be the Lord" (eulogêtos ho kurios; e.g., G-Ex 18:10, G-Ru 4:14).
  • Both "Lord" and "God" are used in blessing formulas (e.g., G-Ps 41:13, "Blessed be the Lord , the God of Israel; G-Tb 3:11: "Blessed are you, Lord my God").

Other combinations of "Lord" and "Father"

For the combination of Lord and Father, see

9b curse Prevalence of Cursing in the OT In G kataraomai means to invoke a curse on someone:

Blessings Paired with Cursing

Passages often pair the promise of God's blessings with the threat of his curses:

  • Gn 12:3: "I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you."
  • Dt 27-28: Moses sets before the people the curses that will fall on those who break the commandments of the covenant law as well as the blessings for those that obey; cf. Dt 11:26: "I set before you here, this day, a blessing (eulogia) and a curse" (katara).

12a fig tree Symbolism 

= Security and Peace

Owning one's own fig tree was a proverbial sign of self-sufficiency and calm in ancient Israel: "Every one sat under his vine and fig tree, with no one to disturb them" (1Mc 14:12; cf. 1Kgs 5:5). See also Jl 1:12 for the opposite symbolism.

= Eschatological Fulfilment

The fig tree also figured in visions of eschatological plenty: "the people shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks...Every man shall sit under his own vine or under his own fig tree, undisturbed" (Mi 4:3-4; cf. Zec 3:10). 

= Israel as a Whole

The fig tree could represent the people of Israel as a whole (see Jer 8:13; Jl 1:7; Hos 9:10). 

= Use in the Gospel

Jesus' parables refer to fig trees (cf. Mt 24:32: sprouting leaves as a sign of summer); especially significant are references to their ability to produce fruit (cf. Lk 13:6-9). Jesus' cursing of a fig tree has been seen as a symbolic foreshadowing of the coming destruction of the Jerusalem Temple (Mk 11:12-14,20-25).

James Reworking Jesus' Teaching?

  • Mt 7:16-20: "By their fruits you will know them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Just so, every good tree bears good fruit, and a rotten tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a rotten tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. So by their fruits you will know them."

Jesus' teaching recorded in Luke connects this principle explicitly with speaking:

  • Lk 6:45: "A good person out of the store of goodness in his heart produces good, but an evil person out of a store of evil produces evil; for from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks." See also Lk 6:44.

Moreover, Mk 11:12-13,20-21: in Jesus' enacted parable, he curses a fig tree that does not produce fruit.

It is unclear, however, whether James relies on Jesus' teaching here or on common themes of the Greek philosophical tradition (Ancient Texts 3:12a).

Peritestamental Literature

10a Out of the same mouth come forth blessing and cursing Relationship of Blessing and Cursing

Integrity of Speech

  • Philo Decal.   93 in his warning about taking oaths too rashly, echoes James' point, "For it would be sacrilege (ou hosion) to employ the mouth by which one pronounces the holiest of names, to utter any words of shame" (Colson 1937, 53-55).
  • T. Ben. 6:5-7 closely parallels James' horror of divided motivation and speech, and his insistence on integrity: "The good set of mind does not talk from both sides of its mouth (lit.: "does not have two tongues"): praises (eulogia) and curses (katara), abuse and honor, calm and strife, hypocrisy and truth, poverty and wealth, but it has one disposition, uncontaminated and pure (kathara), towards all men...The works of Beliar are twofold, and have in them no integrity" (haplotês; OTP 1:827; de Jonge 1978, 172-73).

Benefit of Both Blessing and Cursing

In contrast to James' wholly negative view of cursing, Philo sees its benefits:

  • Philo Her. 177-78: Commenting on Moses (Dt 27) assigning Jacob's sons to two mountains for both blessing (eulogeô) and cursing (kataraomai), Philo observes that "curses are equal in number to blessings and (if we may say so without offence) of equal value. For praises given to the good and censure given to the bad are equally beneficial, since, in the judgment of men of sense, avoiding evil and choosing good are one and the same" (Colson 1932, 371-73).



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.

3:11–4:6 Use in Lectionary BL : Wednesday, 32nd Week after Pentecost. 

Jewish Tradition

9a bless the Lord Blessing Formulas in Rabbinic Prayers Phrases blessing the Lord are common in rabbinic prayers:

  • m. Ber. 7.3 "Blessed be the Lord our God" (Danby 1933, 8);
  • "Blessed are you O Lord"  is used frequently in the Eighteen Benedictions (Amidah).

9b made according to the likeness of God Moral Implications of the Divine Image Rabbi Akiva thus comments on the central biblical principle of Lv 19:18, "Love your neighbor as yourself":

  • Gen. Rab. 24.7 "R. Akiva teaches, 'you must not say, 'Since I have been put to shame, let my neighbour be put to shame.' R. Tanhuma said, 'If you do so, know whom you put to shame, [for] 'In the likeness of God made he him'" (Freedman 1939, 204).

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 .

9b likeness of God Reflection on God's Image in Humans

Distinguishing Image and Likeness

  • Patristic and medieval tradition made a distinction between the two terms used in Gn 1:26: the image (G: eikôn; L: imago) of God (understood as a natural resemblance to God) and the likeness (G: homoiôsis; L: similitudo) God (understood as a more spiritual resemblance); see Irenaeus Haer. 5.6.1; 5.16.1-2. Some theologians taught that fallen humanity retained the image, but lost the similitude.
  • The Catholic post-Reformation theologians Estius Comm. ep. cath. (4299) and Lapide Comm., (155) however, see no distinction between the two terms.

Cursing Humans Means Cursing God

  • Bar Salibi Ep. Cath. "the insult borne by the image ascends to its prototype" (Sedlacek 1910, 97; Syriac-ibid., 127).
  • Lapide Comm.  "By cursing humans, we curse God, since humans are the work, creature, and image of God" (20:155).

Respecting God's Image

  • Calvin Comm. Iac. ad loc. comments, "For since God ought to be blessed in all his works, he ought to be so especially as to men, in whom his image and glory (imago et gloria) peculiarly shine forth. It is then a hypocrisy not to be borne, when man employs the same tongue in blessing God and in cursing men" (Owen 1849, 322-23; Reuss and Erichson 1896, 411).

Is God's Likeness Still Visible?

Later commentators reflect on whether the likeness of God in humans is still discernable:

  • Calvin Comm. Iac. ad loc. "Were anyone to object and say, that the image of God in human nature has been blotted out by the sin of Adam; we must, indeed, confess that it has been miserably deformed (misere deformata), but in such a way that some of its lineaments still appear (lineamenta adhuc quaedam appareant). Righteousness and rectitude, and the freedom of choosing what is good (bonique appetendi libertas), have been lost; but many excellent endowments, by which we excel the brutes, still remain" (Owen 1849, 323; Reuss and Erichson 1896, 411).
  • Wesley Notes ad loc. "Indeed we have now lost this likeness. Yet there remains from thence an indelible nobleness, which we ought to reverence both in ourselves and others" (602).
  • Estius Comm. ep. cath. ad loc. explains that the image and likeness of God (the two terms are interchangeable for him) "consists in the faculties of the soul, in the intellect, in the will, (consistit in facultatibus animae, intellectu et volutate), and what follows from this, the dominion over things (dominio rerum). This image has not been lost in humans, as this passage from James confirms" (4299).

11f Logical Interpretation The Gnomon Novi Testamenti summarizes James' verses thus :

  • v. 11: Two contrary principles cannot come forth from one principle (principium).
  • v. 12: No principle can come forth from any other principle, unless it is of that principle's own species (quod sua speciei sit; Bengel 1759, 1110).

11 spring Allegorical Interpretations The passage was given various allegorical interpretations:

  • Bede Ep. cath. ad loc. (Hurst 1985, 41-43; Hurst 1983, 207) and Lapide Comm. ad loc. (20:157) flesh out the implicit allegory in James: the fresh water is anyone who blesses God through praying or preaching his word; the bitter water is anyone who curses others. Just as when brackish water and fresh water are mixed, the whole become brackish, so too blessings are corrupted when mixed with cursing. They find the principle in 1Cor 5:6: "a little yeast leavens all the dough."
  • Ps.-Andreas Catena ad loc. sees in the mixture of fresh and bitter the mixture of divine things and human ideas in the heretical teachings of false teachers (Cramer 1844, 8:23-24).
  • Ps.-Hilary of Arles Tract. Iac. ad loc. "The spring is the heart of man, the flowing stream of water is his speech (verbum), and the lips of a person are the opening. The fresh water is sound teaching (sana est doctrina), while the bitter water is faulty teaching" (nequam est doctrina; col. 76).


9b made according to the likeness of God The Catechism's Teaching on the Divine Image in Humans The Catechism teaches:

  • The image of God is the fundamental basis of human dignity, which distinguishes humanity the rest of creation (CCC 356-57).

  • The image is reflected especially in the ability of humans to have interpersonal relationships (CCC 357; 1702), and in their immortal soul, free will, intellect, their conscience with its orientation towards the true and good (CCC 1703-6).
  • The image of God in humans is connected with Christ ( CCC  359; 1701).
  • The image of God underlies the unity of all humans (CCC  360-61, 1934-35).
  • The image of God is damaged by sin, but can be restored through Christ (CCC 1707-9). 

See also Biblical Intertextuality 3:9b and Peritestamental Literature 3:9b.

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

9f we bless ...we curse: Condemnation of Hypocrisy and Double-mindedness

Hypocritical Speech as an Example of Doublemindedness

Early Christian traditions parallel James in connecting inconsistent, hypocritical speech with "doublemindedness" (cf. Jas 1:8; 4:8)

  • Did. 2.4 "Do not be of two minds (dignômôn) or speak from both sides of your mouth" (diglôssos; see also Barn. 19:7).  See also Peritestamental Literature 3:10a.
  • Herm. Sim. 9.18.3 associates those who are doubleminded (dipsuchoi) with hypocrites and blasphemers (i.e., those who misuse their speech; Ehrman 2003, 2:437).

Erasmus on Religious Hypocrisy

  • Erasmus Iac. Par. ad loc. focuses on religious hypocrisy: "The tongue does the most harm under the pretext of godliness when it mixes things which cannot cohere. For the person who is cruel and slanderous (maledicus) towards a neighbor cannot be pious (pius) towards God. And yet with this organ we praise God, calling him Father, and with the same organ we revile and slander a neighbour created in the likeness of God (ad Dei similitudinem conditum). We use the tongue to sing to God from whom all blessings flow and we use it also to inflict the worst evils on another person as if the insult done to him is of no concern to God the creator. God's station is neither increased by our praises nor his person harmed by our insults. But a man can be either harmful or helpful to another man, and what we do to him, God reckons to be done to himself as well (hoc Deus putat ad se pertinere). Let no one believe, therefore, that the hymns which one produces with the tongue, not from the heart, are pleasing to God when that same tongue spews the poison of slander upon his neighbour" (Bateman 1993, 156; Bateman 1997, 142).

Erasmus' Application to Clerics

  • Erasmus Iac. Par. applies this passage to the clerics of his day in a long and unsparing passage: "They have on their lips, 'Our Father,' even as they pierce again and again with the lance of their tongue the neighbor for whose salvation Christ was pierced. They preach the goodness of God who saved mankind by his mercy while they themselves are quick to destroy it with the poison of their tongue....even from the same pulpit they begin with the praises of God and then launch into the denigration of a neighbor (infamiam proximi). The ruin with which they infect the minds of the audience is all the greater because under the fictitious appearance of religion they cover and disguise the deadly poison which they draw forth from their infected heart through the organ of the tongue. I ask you, brothers, does this not remind you of some kind of monster?" (prodigii simile videtur; Bateman 1993, 157; Bateman 1997, 143-44).

The Wages of Cursing

  • Ps.-Andreas Catena "Let nothing bitter be cast out of a mouth deemed worthy of such divine worship (mustagôgia); the tongue should not associate anything so distasteful with a holy (theion) mouth. Let us keep it pure (kathara). Let us bring forth no curses (aras) from it. For if even those who speak abusively will not inherit the kingdom of God (1Cor 6:10), how much more so those who curse (kateuchomenoi)?…Can you approach God to make an offering, and curse others?  Unless you forgive, it will not be forgiven you…" (allusion to Mt 6:15; Cramer 1844, 8:23).

12 Allegorical Interpretations of Figs, Olives, and Grapes According to Bede Ep. cath. ad loc.:

  • The fig tree stands for making excuses for sins (cf. Adam and Eve covering themselves with fig leaves after their sin: Gn 3:7).
  • The olives stand for the fruits of mercy; cf. Ps 52:8 (G-Ps 51:10): anyone who makes excuses for sin does not busy himself with works of mercy.
  • The grapevine stands for inebriation with divine love: a person drunk with divine love blames no one else but himself for his sins (Hurst 1985, 42-43; Hurst 1983, 207-8).


Ancient Cultures

12a grapevine Cultural Value of the Grape Grapes were an important crop in ancient Mediterranean cultures. They were eaten directly, dried to make raisins, used as a source of leaven for baking bread, or fermented to make wine, a dietary staple. A good harvest from the grapevines was essential to the prosperity of these societies (cf. Jl 2:22).  Sir 39:31 (G-39:26) identifies "the blood of the grape" as one of the basic necessities of life.

Biblical Intertextuality

10a Out of the same mouth Integrity in Speech Many biblical passages support James' point that human speech must be integral and not divided:

  • Sir 28:12-13 too notes the duplicitous nature of the tongue: "If you blow on a spark, it turns into flame, if you spit on it, it dies out; yet both you do with your mouth! Cursed be gossips and the double-tongued, for they destroy the peace of many."
  • Ps 62:4 (G-62:4): "with their mouth they would bless, and curse with their heart" ; quoted in 1 Clem. 15:3. See also Biblical Intertextuality 3:9a.



9a Lord V S Nes: The Title "Lord" in James On James' application of the title "Lord" to both God the Father and to Jesus, see →James: The Title Kurios in James.


Christian Tradition

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).