The Bible in Its Traditions

James 3:8

Byz S TR
Nes
V

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

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

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

8c death-bearing poison Ps 140:3

Text

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.

Context

Ancient Texts

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

Biblical Intertextuality

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

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

8c full of death-bearing poison Biblical Allusions?

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

Suggestions for Reading

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

Artistry: Coinage of a "Classic"

Structure
  • 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).
Rhetorics
Philosophy

Reception

Among the most notable individual passages:

Text

Vocabulary

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).

Context

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).

Text

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).

Vocabulary

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

Literary Devices

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

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

Reception

Comparison of Versions

8b uncontrollable

Christian Tradition

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).

Text

Literary Devices

7f every nature of beast ...no 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.

Reception

Liturgies

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 .

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. Vat.gr. 1613. Image 131.→  

For discussion of visual depictions, see Gowler 2014, 53-62; Bedford 1911.

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).