The Bible in Its Traditions

James 4:17

Byz V S TR

17  Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do [it], to him it is sin.

17  To him therefore that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.

17 knows to act nobly Lk 12:47-48; Rom 7:19-20



17 for him it is a sin Semiticism? hamartia autôᵢ estin—with its paratactic style and similarity to Dt 15:19 (M: wᵉhāyâ bᵉkā ḥēṭᵉ’; G: estai en soi hamartia megalê; cf. Dt 23:21; 24:15), the maxim may have a Hebrew origin.

Literary Devices

17 the one who knows to act nobly Concluding Maxim James concludes this section (Jas 4:13-17) with a maxim (Greek: gnômê; Latin: sententia), a technique he uses elsewhere (Jas 1:12; 2:13; 3:18). In this case, however, the precise connection between Jas 4:17 and Jas 4:13-16 is far from clear. Originally, then, this maxim may have been independent of its current context in Jas 4:13-17.

At the same time, the maxim, with its characteristic emphasis on practical application over theoretical reflection (e.g., Jas 1:22-27; 2:14-26), has themetic connections with other passages in James.

Literary Genre

13–17 those you say Genre Influences

Diatribe Style

James employs several characteristics of the diatribe style in this section (→James: Diatribe Style and James):

  • v. 13a calls for special attention: "come now" (Vocabulary 4:13a);
  • v. 13a introduces of the opponent's view: "those who say (hoi legontes), 'Today or tomorrow...'";
  • v. 14 corrects the opponent.

Prophetic Judgment Oracle

While Jas 4:13-17 shares these elements, it does not fall neatly in any one genre.


Ancient Texts

17 knows to act nobly and does not act Medea's Internal Conflict Greco-Roman literature also knows this internal conflict, as Medea in her internal conflict over her love for Jason:

  • Ovid Metam. 7.19-21 "but some strange power draws me on against my will (invitam). / Desire (cupido) persuades me one way, reason (mens) another. / I see the better approve it, but I follow the worse" (deteriora sequor; Miller 1984, 1:342-43).

Biblical Intertextuality

17 for him it is a sin Aspects of Knowing and not Acting in Gospels and Romans

Knowing and not Acting

  • The general point that neglecting to do what is right is a sin is often made in Scripture. Those who neglect to care for the hungry and imprisoned prison are condemned (Mt 25:31-46); the rich man ignores Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31).

A Conflict between Knowing and Acting

  • Paul speaks of a conflict between knowing and acting: "For I do not do the good (agathon) I want, but I do the evil I do not want. Now if [I] do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me" (Rom 7:19-20).

Knowledge and Degrees of Culpability

  • Jesus' parable in Luke makes a similar distinction between degrees of culpability and punishment: "And that servant who knew his master's will, and did not get ready or do according to his will, shall be beaten [with] many [blows]. But he who did not know, yet did things worthy of [blows], shall be beaten [with] few. For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be demanded; and to whom much has been entrusted, of him they will ask much more" (Lk 12:47-48). The connection between Luke and Jas 4:17 is often made in the tradition: Bede Ep. cath. ad loc.; Aquinas ST 1-2.77.2; Bonaventure Exp. Ev. Lc. ad 12:47.



4:7–5:9 Use in Lectionary BL : Thursday, 32nd Week after Pentecost.

13–17 Use in Lectionary RML : Wednesday, Week 7, Year 2.

Christian Tradition

17 sin

Proof of Sin after Baptism

Jerome Adv. Jov. 2.2 takes this as a proof (against the position of his opponent Jovianus) that a Christian is still capable of sin after baptism.

Nature of the Sin

  • Ps.-Andreas Catena ad loc. (attributed to Chrysostom) quotes a variant of the teaching found in Ps.-Oecumenius Comm. Ep. Cath. ad Jas 4:15: "He [James] does not take away power (exousian) [of free will], but shows that not everything is under his control; rather he also needs the grace from above (tês anôthen charitos). It is necessary both to wish and to run, on the one hand, yet on the other to have confidence not in one's own efforts, but rather in the benevolence (philanthropia) of God. For it says in Proverbs [27:1], 'Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what the next day will bear'" (Cramer 1844, 8:32). The Catena thus takes the boasting as the sin referred to in Jas 5:17.

Knowing the Right Thing to Do

  • Ps.-Hilary of Arles Tract. Iac. ad loc. interprets "what is right" as "the good of the teaching (bona doctrinae) of the whole letter" (col. 79);
  • Bede Ep. cath. ad loc. similarly comments, "Throughout the whole text of this Letter blessed James has shown that they to whom he wrote had the knowledge to do good things (Scientiam bona faciendi habebant) and at the same time they had so learned a right faith (fidem rectam) that they presumed to be able to become teachers even for others; but still they had not yet attained perfection of works or humility of mind or restraint of speech" (Hurst 1985, 54; Hurst 1983, 216).

The ability to distinguish good and evil given by God to all humans at creation.

  • Origen Princ. 1.3.6 quotes this passage in support of his teaching that a person is not responsible (obnoxius) for sin until he has reached the age of reason, and is then able to make use of the reason implanted in him (ratio intrinsecus inserta) to distinguish good from evil (Butterworth 1973, 35; Koetschau 1913, 57).
  • Bar Salibi Ep. Cath. ad loc. comments that everyone knows the good, since God placed in our nature (kyn) the ability to hold to the good and to avoid evil (Sedlacek 1910, 99, Syriac-ibid., 130).  Cf. the Peshitta's translation of Jas 1:21: "the word implanted in our nature." Bar Salibi comments: "That is, he refers to natural law (nmws’ kyny'); for God implanted it into [our] nature, in order that it should love good things and have an aversion to bad things" (Sedlacek 1910, 92; Syriac-ibid., 120).

Sins of Omission

  • Aquinas ST 1-2.71.5 understands James to be referring to sins of omission (peccata omissionis). Some mantain that sins of omission always involve some act (actus), either interior or exterior, as, for example, when a person wills not to go to church, while Jas 4:17 seems to imply that an act is not necessary. Thomas clarifies that some act of the will is necessarily involved if an action is to be judged sinful. In some cases, however, the act of the will does not directly involve the sinful action, as when a person wills to stay up late and misses church in the morning. Since this does not involve a direct action, it is better to conclude that there can be sin without a (direct) act (see also ST 2-2.79.3).
  • Chemnitz Loc. Theo. 7.B also cites this passage as an example of a sin of omission (Preuss 2008, 1:576).

Is Every Sin Due to Ignorance?

  • Aquinas ST 1-2.77.2 considers the question, "Whether the reason (ratio) can be overcome by a passion, against its knowledge (contra suam scientiam)?" He sees truth on both sides of the question. As Aristotle Eth. Nic. 7.2 reports, Socrates believed that every sin was a kind of ignorance. Thomas agrees to the extent that the will is always attracted by a good or at least by an apparent good; a person can only be attracted to an evil if he mistakenly reasons that there is some good in it. Neverthless, passages such as Lk 12:47 and Jas 4:17 show that a person can know the good, and still fail to do it. Aquinas explains that even though a person may have general (universalis) knowledge concerning what is evil, particular circumcstances (e.g., when a person suffers an intense passion) may lead to a person acting against reason (English Dominicans 1947, 2:935-36). 

17 Levels of Culpability

Knowledge a Prerequisite for Sin

  • Origen Princ. 1.3.6 "men are said to 'have sin' when they share in the word or reason (ex participatione verbi vel ratione), that is to say, from the time when they become capable of knowledge and understanding (intellectus atque scientiae capaces effecti), as soon as the reason implanted (ratio intrinsecus inserta) in them has taught them the distinction between good and evil (boni vel mali discretionem); and when once they have begun to know what is evil then, if they do it, they render themselves responsible for sin" (peccato efficiuntur obnoxii; referencing Jas 4:17 ;Butterworth 1973, 35; Koetscheau 1913, 57).

Knowledge and Culpability

  • Augustine of Hippo Incomp. Nupt. 1.9 comments on this passage, "Does it follow from this that someone who does not know the right thing to do (nescit bonum facere) and therefore does not do it, does not also commit a sin? This person does, of course, commit a sin (utique peccatum est), but the sin is worse (gravius) if the person knows and still does not do it. Being a less serious sin does not make it no sin at all" (Kearney 1999, 147; Zycha 1900, 356).
  • Bede Ep. cath. ad loc. "someone who knows how to do good (bona facere) and does not do what he knows has a greater sin (maius peccatum) than the one who fails through ignorance, although neither the one, who has sinned unwittingly, can be entirely free of guilt, for the ignorance of good (boni ignorantia) is itself no small evil" (Hurst 1985, 54; Hurst 1983, 216). Bede then quotes Lk 12:47-48 in support of his point.  
  • Isidore of Seville Sent. 2.1.9 quotes this passage to support the conclusion, "It amounts to a degree of greater blame (maioris culpae) when someone knows what he ought to do, but does not desire to do what he knows he ought" (Knoebel 2018, 85; Cazier 1998, 92).
  • Peter Damian Ep. 31.14 "The more aware a person is, the more reprehensible is his offense (deterius delinquit), because anyone who, had he wished, could prudently (prudenter) have avoided sin, will inevitably deserve punishment [quotation of Jas 4:17 follows]" (Blum 2005, 11; Reindel 1993, 1:291).
  • Erasmus Iac. Par. ad loc. "But he sins more gravely (gravius peccat) who, though he knows from the teachings of the gospel what must be done, nevertheless under the corrupt influence of his evil feelings pursues the same objects which those pursue who are ignorant of Christ" (Christum ignorant; Bateman 1993, 165; Bateman 1997, 152-53).

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.