The Bible in Its Traditions

James 5:12

Byz
Nes S TR
V

12  But above all, my brothers, do not swear, neither by heaven nor the earth, nor any other oath. But let your "Yes"be "Yes,"and [your] "No,""No,"so that you may not fall into hypocrisy.

12  But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by the heaven, nor by the earth, nor by any other oath: but let your yea be yea, and your nay, nay; that ye fall not under judgment.

12  But before all things, my brothers, do not choose to swear, neither by heaven, nor by the earth, nor in any other oath. But let your word ‘Yes’ be yes, and your word ‘No’ be no, so that you may not fall under judgment.

12d let your “yes” be yes Mt 5:37; 2Cor 1:17-18 12b do not swear Mt 5:34

Reception

Christian Tradition

7–12 Divisio Textus In Ps.-Andreas Catena the heading for this section is, "Concerning patience (makrothumia) and perseverance (hupomonê) during suffering, and concerning the truth" (Cramer 1844, 8:34).

Text

Literary Devices

12e fall under judgment Echo James again sounds the theme of judgment. Humans have no right to judge others: judgment is a divine prerogative (e.g., Jas 2:12-13; 4:11-12; 5:9).

Context

Ancient Cultures

12c oath Importance of Oaths in Greco-Roman Society Swearing an oath was an essential practice of the ancient Mediterranean world. An oath is a solemn statement, claim or promise that invokes the gods as witnesses to its truth. The implicit or explicit expectation is that the gods will punish the speaker for perjury. The oath's intention, then, is to guarantee the speaker's words.  

Oaths were a regular part of legal and political procedures. In political contexts, one took an oath of office; members of political alliances took oaths to not harm one another. Parties in legal disputes took oaths to abide by the settlement. Representatives of a city took oaths of loyalty to a new ruler. Oaths were also common in more informal contexts involving business or friendships. 

Oaths were sworn to the relevant deities. Thus the Hippocratic oath was sworn to all the gods and goddesses, but especially to those concerned with medicine: Apollo the Physician, Asclepius, Hygieia, and Panacea as witnesses.  In Euripides Med. 731-47, Medea asks King Aegeus for asylum, and also asks that he swear an oath as a guarantee (pistis) of his promise. After some persuasion, he asks Medea by which gods he should swear; she names the Earth, the Sun, and the other gods. The supreme oath is said to be one taken by the river Styx, e.g., Homer Il. 15.38. Finally, Socrates often swears "by the dog" or "by the dog of Egypt," possibly referring to the Egyptian dog-headed god Anubis.

Reception

Comparison of Versions

12d let your “yes” be yes Versions of Jesus’ Sayings S, C and others in the Latin tradition (e.g., Ps.-Hilary of Arles Tract. Iac. ad loc.) and the Bohairic Coptic, following the reading witnessed in א, add "word" to the verse, resulting in the reading, "Let your word be 'yes, yes' and 'no, no'" (Textual Criticism 5:12d). The addition is presumbably influenced by the version of Jesus' saying in Mt 5:37.

Christian Tradition

12b do not swear Divine Pedagogy

  • Ps.-Oecumenius Comm. Ep. Cath. wonders how the old law can praise a person for swearing an oath to God (e.g., Dt 6:13), when the new law forbids oaths? Ps.-Oecumenius attributes it to the divine pedagogy: just as God allowed the Jewish people to offer sacrifices to him in order to wean them away from sacrifices to idols, so too he allowed them to swear in his name to lead them away from the habit of swearing in the name of idols (col. 505).

Liturgies

10–20 Use in Lectionary BL : Special and General Feasts: Prophets; 1 of 3 reading options.

Suggestions for Reading

12 do not swear Context? James’ prohibition on swearing oaths has no obvious connection to either the previous discussion on the need for patient endurance in the face of Christ’s imminent parousia (Jas 5:7–11), nor to the following discourse on prayer (Jas 5:13–18). Equally ambiguous is the introductory phrase, “above all” (pro pantôn): the phrase’s comparison is not clear. Thematically, this prohibition of oaths may be seen as the culmination of James’ concern for proper speech in the community (Literary Devices 5:12b). 

James’ teaching is clearly based on Jesus’ (Christian Tradition 5:12b, Christian Tradition 5:12d, Christian Tradition 5:12e). James’ admonitions against swearing should be understood in light of the importance of oaths in both Greco-Roman and Jewish cultures, as well as traditional critiques of that practice (Ancient Cultures 5:12cAncient Texts 5:12bPeritestamental Literature 5:12b; Jewish Tradition 5:12b).

In the history of interpretation, early Christians and later Anabaptist traditions understood this verse as an absolute prohibition of all oaths; many Western churches followed Augustine’s interpretation that James only means to prohibit frequent, frivolous, or false oaths; oaths on solemn occasions such as courtroom oaths are licit (Christian Tradition 5:12b; Theology 5:12b). 

Text

Textual Criticism

12d But let your "yes" be | But Let Your Word Be: Harmonization with Mt 5:37  א, apparently influenced by the version of Jesus' saying in Mt 5:37, adds "the word" (logos) before the word "your", thus giving the reading, "Let your word be 'yes, yes' and 'no, no.'" S follows this reading (Comparison of Versions 5:12d).

12e into hypocrisy : Byz TR | Nes: under judgment 

  • P and Ψ read eis hupokrisin ("into hypocrisy") reading hupo krisin as one word. This reading is followed by Byz and TR (Literary Devices 5:12e; Christian Tradition 5:12e).
  • Nes reads hupo krisin ("under judgment"); the same reading is presumed by V and S. 

Literary Devices

12a above all Ambiguity of the Introductory Phrase There are several possibilities for how the Greek phrase pro pantôn relates to the rest of James' letter:

  • it serves to introduce the final part of the letter (Jas 5:12-20), drawing attention to the discussion of oaths as of special importance;
  • it indicates that the prohibition of oaths is the most important teaching of James given this far in the letter;
  • the phrase is independent of its context and simply indicates the importance of this teaching.

In any case, the phrase is awkward in its current position.

12b do not swear Theme of Improper Speech This prohibition may be seen as the culmination of James' concern for proper speech in the community: 

  • Jas 1:19: one should be slow to speak;
  • Jas 1:26: one should bridle his tongue;
  • Jas 3:1-12: dangers of not controlling one's tongue;
  • Jas 4:11: one should not speak badly of a brother;
  • Jas 5:9: community members should not grumble against one another;
  • Jas 5:12: "Above all": prohibition on swearing oaths.

Context

Peritestamental Literature

12b do not swear Criticism of Frequent and Frivolous Oaths

Josephus on the Essenes' Avoidance of Oaths

  • According to Josephus B.J. 2.135 the Essenes avoided oaths, "any word of theirs has more force than an oath (horkos); swearing they avoid (omnuein periistantai), regarding it as worse than perjury, for they say that one who is not believed without an appeal to God stands condemned already" (cf. A.J.15.370-71).

This passage apparently applies to more trivial oaths, however, since B.J. 2.139-42 himself also refers to the Essenes' requirement that initiates take solemn oaths (horkous omnuô) when fully entering the community. The Dead Sea Scrolls also evidence oath-taking (e.g., →CD 9.9-12; 15.1-3).

Philo's Criticism of Frequent or Frivolous Swearing of an Oath

  • Philo Decal. 92 criticises those who have "an evil habit of swearing (omnuô) incessantly and thoughtlessly about ordinary matters where there is nothing at all in dispute, filling up the gaps in their talk with oaths... for from much swearing springs false swearing (pseudorkia) and impiety" (Colson 1937, 52-53).
  • In his commentary on the commandment to not take the name of the Lord in vain, Philo Spec. 2.2 advocates avoiding the swearing of oaths (omnuô), but if they must be taken, they should not be sworn with God as a witness, but rather "the oath should be by a father and mother, their good health and welfare if they are alive, their memory (mnêmê) if they are dead" (Colson 1937, 306-307).
  • Spec. 2.5 also recommends swearing by "earth, sun, stars, heaven, and the whole universe," since they were created before humans and are in fact eternal (Colson 1937, 308-39). The holiness of God's name must be protected by avoiding frivolous or false oaths: a false oath "pollutes (miainô) the name that is by nature unpolluted, the name of God" (Spec. 4.40; Colson 1937, 332-333).

Reception

Liturgies

12 Liturgical Reading from Augustine’s Time Augustine of Hippo Serm. 180.1 preached a sermon on Jas 5:12: Prima lectio quae nobis hodie recitata est apostoli Jacobi (Boodts 2016, 657).

Christian Tradition

12e so that you do not fall under judgment

  • Bede Ep. cath. ad loc. and Ps.-Hilary of Arles Tract. Iac. ad loc. connect this verse with Mt 12:36, "people will render an account for every careless word they speak." This should motivate believers to avoid superfluous oaths and focus on the integrity of their everyday speech.  
  • Calvin Comm. Iac. ad loc. comments that some manuscripts read fall into hypocrisy" (hupokrisin; L: simulationem) rather than "fall under judgment" (hupo krisin; Textual Criticism 5:12e). Both readings are legitimate for Calvin: To "fall under judgment" means the punishment one incurs for taking the Lord's name in vain by frivolous oaths. To fall "into hypocrisy" refers to the hypocritical attitude of one who resorts to superfluous oaths to bolster his credibility (Owen 1849, 354; Reuss and Erichson 1896, 430). 

Context

Ancient Texts

12b do not swear Criticism of Oaths Against the common Greco-Roman use of oaths as a guarantee for the truthfulness of a statement (Ancient Cultures 5:12c), Stoic and other philosophical schools urged their followers to avoid oaths and rely on the trustworthiness of their own statements:

  • Diogenes Laërtius Vit. Phil. 8.22: Pythagoras is said to have advised his disciples, "Not to call the gods to witness (mêd' omnunai theous); man's duty being rather to strive to make his own word carry conviction" (axiopiston parechein; Hicks 1925, 338-41). 
  • Epictetus Enchr. 33.5 teaches, "Refuse, if you can, to take an oath at all (horkon paraiteomai), but if that is impossible, refuse as far as circumstances allow" (Oldfather 1928, 516-17). Like James, Epictetus links the avoidance of swearing with restained speech: "And be silent for the most part, or else make only the most necessary remarks, and express these in few words" (Oldfather 1928, 516-17; cf. Jas 1:26). 
  • Marcus Aurelius Med. 3.5 admonishes his reader "Be not a man of superfluous words...having need neither of oath nor of any man's testimony" (mête horkou deomenos mête anthrôpou tinos marturos;Haines 1916, 52-53).

Reception

Liturgies

9–12 Use in Lectionary RML : Friday, Week 7, Year 2.

Jewish Tradition

12b neither by heaven Pharisaic / Rabbinic Debate on the Binding Nature of Oaths The Mishnah distinguishes between vows (nᵉdārîm) and oaths (šᵉbû‘ôt). Several tractates are devoted to legal discussions on vows or oaths: Nedarim (Vows), Nazir (the Nazarite Vow), and Shevu'ot (Oaths), thus showing the importance of vows and oaths for the rabbis.  

One frequent topic of discussion is the circumstances under which an oath or vow is not binding, e.g.,

  • m. Ned. 3.1 "Four kinds of vow the Sages have declared not to be binding" (Danby 1933, 266).

Discussion on this topic certainly dates back to the first-century, as evidenced in passages such as Mt 5:34-37 and Mt 23:16-22.

The original practice of swearing by the name of God (Biblical Intertextuality 5:12b) was avoided in many quarters, perhaps to avoid pronouncing the holy name. Jews then swore by a variety of lesser authorities: by heaven, earth, the Temple, articles on the altar, a person's head (perhaps representing the person's life; cf. m. Ker. 1.7;  b. Ber. 3a).

Rabbinic literature records a dispute on the binding nature of oaths sworn by these lesser authorities:

  • m. Sanh. 3.2 "If a man must take an oath before his fellow, and his fellow said to him, 'Vow to me by the life of they head,' R. Meir says, He may retract. But the Sages say: He cannot retract (Danby 1933, 385; cf. m. Ned. 1.3).

A similar distinction between a binding and non-binding vow is evident in Jesus' reference to Pharisaic teaching, "If one swears by the temple, it means nothing, but if one swears by the gold of the temple, one is obligated" (Mt 23:16).

Jesus' teaching rejects this distinction between binding and non-binding oaths. Since all created things have a relationship with God, an oath by a created thing implies an oath to God: "one who swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it; one who swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who is seated on it" (Mt 23:16).

Jesus' teaching goes further, however, in rejecting the need for oaths at all: "Let your 'yes' mean yes, and your 'no' mean no" (Mt 5:37). There should be no need to further verify the truth of a trustworthy person's statements. This then is the implicit logic behind James' less sophisticated version: "do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath." See also Ancient Cultures 5:12c and Christian Tradition 5:12b.

Christian Tradition

12b do not swear History of Interpretation: Strict and Modified Comment on James' teaching in later Christian tradition often combined this passage with Jesus' very similar teaching in Mt 5:33-37 (Biblical Intertextuality 5:12b).

Early Tradition: Literal Understanding that all Oaths are Prohibited

Early Christian tradition understood Jesus' commandment forbidding oaths in Mt 5:33-37 and / or Jas 5:12 to be absolute; see Justin  1 Apol. 16.5; Irenaeus Haer. 2.32.1; Tertullian Idol. 11.1; Eusebius of Caesarea Praep. ev. 1.4; John Chrysostom Hom. Matt. 17.5; Ps.-Clem. Hom. 3.55.1. Even Origen Princ. 4.3.4 insisted that this commandment should be interpreted literally (kata tên lexin têrêteon) (Butterworth 1973, 295; Koetschau 1913, 330). Specific comments on Jas 5:12 include:

Later Interpretations: Limitations on Oaths

Augustine

By the time of Augustine, however, the understanding of an absolute prohibition of oaths in Jas 5:12 and in Mt 5:34-37 is modified.

Augustine of Hippo Serm. 180 on Jas 5:12 (Hill 1997, 3/5: 314-22); Boodts 2016, 657-84) makes the basic arguments that will be taken up by later Christian authors; cf. a similar discussion in → Ep. 157.40; see also Augustine's similar interpretation of the version in Mt 5:34-37→ Serm. Dom. 1.17.51; cf. De Mend. 28.

  • James could not have meant that one should not swear at all, since God himself swears (e.g., Gn 22:16); the Law allows swearing (Augustine quotes the Matthean summary of OT teaching in Mt 5:33; cf. Lv 19:12; Ps 50:14), and even Paul in the NT swears oaths (e.g., Gal 1:20: "As to what I am writing to you, behold, before God, I am not lying"; cf. 2Cor 1:23).
  • The commandment was given as a precaution to keep people away from habit of swearing lightly and frivolously and above all to avoid the great sin of swearing falsely. James' introductory phrase, "Above all," means that Christians should be especially alert to avoid making frequent and frivolous oaths.
  • Swearing an oath is legitimate in situations where the truth cannot be established without the help of an oath.
  • Commenting on the version in Mt 5:34-37 , Augustine's → Serm. Dom. 1.17.51 thus interprets the final phrase of v 37, "Anything more is from evil" [or "the evil one"] thus : "anything more" refers to swearing an oath; this legitimate swearing is not evil in itself, but comes from the evil situation in which one is forced to swear because of another party requires an oath before he will believe (Campbell 2014, 51-52; Mutzenbecher 1967, 59; cf. De Mend. 28).
Later Patristic and Medieval Interpretation

 Later interpretation followed Augustine's lead in taking James to limit, rather than prohibit, taking oaths.

  •  Bede Ep. cath. ad loc. understands this as the culimination of James' teaching on controlling one's speech. The commandment is given to avoid the dangers of swearing excessively and lightly, which can lead to the sin of perjury; Bede connects it with Jesus' teaching in Mt 12:36. One should avoid swearing, "except under pressing necessity" (nisi proxima necessitate; Hurst 1985, 60; Hurst 1983, 220). See also Nicholas of Lyra Post. ad loc. (col. 1301).
  • Apos. Con. 2.36.5 "Avoid swearing falsely, and swearing often, and in vain (epiorkian kai poluorkian mataion pheuge); for you shall not be held guiltless," implying that some oaths are permissible (ANF 7:413; Funk 1906, 123).
  • Apos. Con. 7.3.4 "You shall not forswear yourself (epiorkêseis); for it is said, 'You shall not swear at all' (Mt 5:34). But if that cannot be avoided, you shall swear truly; for 'every one that swears by Him shall be commended'" (G-Ps 62:12; ANF 7:466; Funk 1906, 392).
  • But cf. Apos. Con. 5.12, which seems to assume that the Lord prohibited all oaths.
  • Aquinas ST 2-2.89.2, considering the question, "Whether it is lawful to swear" (iurare), quotes clear Scriptural commandments forbidding swearing. Yet, on the contrary, reads, "The Lord, your God, shall you fear; him shall you serve, and by his name shall you swear."  Thomas argues that an oath is in itself lawful and commendable (iuramentum secundum se est licitum et honestum), since humans swear because they think that God (called on as a witness in the oath) possesses all truth and knowledge, and because oaths are used to attain justice and put an end to disputes (Hb 6:16). Thomas appeals to Augustine's arguments that the apostle Paul's clear use of oaths in his letters means that they are licit (De Mend. 28) and his interpretation of Mt 5:37 (→ Serm. Dom. 1.17). An oath is only evil when one "employs it without necessity and due caution" (sine necessitate et cautela debita; English Dominicans 1947, 3:1573-74). 
  • The Gloss. Ord. (V) quotes Bede's arguments (Gloss. Ord. (V) adds Augustine's argument) that James prohibits rash and false oaths, but not swearing oaths in itself (col. 1301).

Interpretation in the Reformed Tradition

  • Calvin Comm. Iac. ad loc. explicity rejects the interpretation of the Anabaptists (Anabapistae) that James means to prohibit the swearing of oaths in general. Rather, he teaches that the purpose of James and Jesus was to condemn the habit of swearing by lesser authorities (e.g., heaven and earth), since, as Jesus' taught, when one swears by a created thing one implicitly swears by the Creator. Calvin takes this habit as a violation of the commandment, "You shall not invoke the name of the Lord, your God, in vain" (Ex 20:7). The modifier "in vain" implies that the name of the Lord can be used properly. He intereprets the "above all" in Jas 5:12 as referring to the seriousness of violating this commandment (Owen 1849, 352-53; Reuss and Erichson 1896, 429). 
  • Creedal statements in the Reformed tradition allow swearing when required by government authorities or on other serious occasions, but see unnecessary swearing as a violation of the commandment against taking the Lord's name in vain: Heid. Cat. qq. 99-101; WCF 22; Presbyt. Conf. 31.

Licit to Swear Oaths in Court

Among interpreters who limit the scope of James' prohibition, several specificy that James does not forbid swearing an oath in a court of law when it is necessary.

  • Art. XXXIX "As we confess that vain and rash (iuramentum vanum, et temerarium) swearing is forbidden (interdictum esse) Christian men by our Lord Jesus Christ, and James his apostle, so we judge that Christian religion doth not prohibit (minime prohibere censemus), but that a man may swear when the magistrate requireth in a cause of faith and charity (in causa fidei, et charitatis), so it be done according to the prophet's teaching, in justice, judgment, and truth" (CCFCT 2:539; Evans and Wright 1991, 173); cf. Heid. Cat. Q. 101.

Literal Interpretations of the Radical Reformers

Groups in the radical Reformation and related traditions revived a strict interpretation of Jesus' prohibition of oaths. 

  • Swiss Brethren: The 1527 Schleitheim Confession of the Swiss Brethren includes an extended justification for the refusal to take any oath, although it only references Jesus' teaching at Mt 5:33-37 (Schl. Conf. 7; CCFCT 2:701-2; Fast 1973, 2:33).
  • Mennonite Tradition: The 1632 Dutch Mennonite Dordrecht Confession cites Jas 5:12, along with Mt 5:34, and 2Cor 1:17 in support of their practice of refusing to take any oath whatsoever, including civic or legal oaths (Dor. Conf. art. 15; CCFCT 2:782; Brüsewitz and Krebber 1983, 52). Cf. Simons Conf. 7 (519); Simons Ep. Micron (Wenger 1956, 924-25); Ris Menn. Art. 30  (CCFCT, 3:189; Ris 1766, 148).
  • Quaker Tradition: Penn Treat. Oath. is a 1675 apology for the Quakers' refusal to swear oaths references Jas 5:12, along with Mt 5:34, Jer 32:10 and a host of Greco-Roman, Jewish, patristic, and medieval witnesses. See also Friends Conf. 21 (CCFCT, 3:147; Barclay 1857, 90-91).
  • Several groups, including the Cathari, the Waldensians, and followers of John Wycliffe, took the passage literally (Allison 2013, 724).

Higher Standard for Religious

  • Leander of Seville Inst. virg. 29 (19) advises religious sisters, "Never take an oath (numquam jurare), always tell the truth; these precepts are to be observed equally. Although the carnal (carnalibus) are allowed to swear from terror of fraud, the spiritual (spiritualibus) may never use oaths, even though they have a clear conscience" (Barlow 1969, 224; PL 78:891). Leander refers to Mt 5:37.

Theology

12b do not swear Church Tradition on Swearing Oaths The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes the following points:

  • CCC 2150 "The second commandment forbids false oaths. Taking an oath or swearing is to take God as witness to what one affirms. It is to invoke the divine truthfulness as a pledge of one's own truthfulness."
  • CCC 2153: Citing the second commandment and Mt 5:37, the CCC states, "Jesus teaches that every oath involves a reference to God and that God's presence and his truth must be honored in all speech. Discretion in calling upon God is allied with a respectful awareness of his presence, which all our assertions either witness to or mock."
  • CCC 2154: Church tradition, in line with Paul's example (referencing 2Cor 1:23 and Gal 1:20), "has understood Jesus' words as not excluding oaths made for grave and right reasons" (gravi et justa fit de causa; for example, in court). The Catechism quotes the Code of Canon Law, "An oath, that is the invocation of the divine name as a witness to truth, cannot be taken unless in truth, in judgment, and in justice" (CIC can. 1199 par. 1).
  • CCC 2155: Addressing civil oaths, the Catechism teaches that oaths required by illegitimate civil authorities may be refused. Such an oath must be refused "when it is required for purposes contrary to the dignity of persons or to ecclesial communion."

Context

Biblical Intertextuality

12b do not swear Prohibition on Swearing: Biblical Background and Comparison with Gospel Version

Old Testament Background

Ancient Israelites followed the common ancient practice of calling on divine powers to verify or strengthen the truth of a human statement (Ancient Texts 5:12b). 

  • Oaths before God are part of legal proceedings when there are no witnesses (Ex 22:9–10). 
  • Curses often accompanied oaths to ensure that they were kept (e.g., 1Sm 14:24). 

Swearing in the Lord’s Name

  • Deuteronomy prescribes that oaths should be taken in the name of the Lord (Dt 6:13; 10:20 [M = bšmw tšb‘; G= tôᵢ onomati autou omêᵢ]).

Even God is portrayed as taking oaths, especially in the context of his covenants with Israel:

  • Gn 22:16: The Lord promises to bless Abraham and make his descendants countless: “I swear (M = nšmw; G = omnuô) by my very self—oracle of the Lord.” 
  • Nm 14:28: “‘By my life’—oracle of the Lord—‘I will do to you just what I have heard you say.’” 

Critiques of Swearing Oaths

Condemnation of False Oaths
Condemnation of Lightly-made or Frequent Oaths
  • Sir 23:9–10: “Do not accustom your mouth to oaths (horkos), or habitually utter the Holy Name. Just as a servant constantly under scrutiny will not be without bruises, So one who swears (omnuô) continually by the Holy Name will never remain free from sin.”

Jesus’ and James’ Teaching on Oaths

James’ prohibition on oaths is manifestly drawn from Jesus’ teaching on the topic. Mt 5:34–37 records a more detailed version of Jesus’ teaching. Some scholars judge that James’ simpler version is closer to Jesus’ historical teaching; others see Jas 5:12 as a shortened version of the teaching in Matthew. 

The versions in Matthew and James share the following essential elements.

Absolute Prohibition of Swearing.
  • Mt 5:34: “Do not swear at all” (mê omasai holôs).
  • Jas 5:12b: “Do not swear” (mê omnuete). 

Further Elaboration of the Absolute Prohibition on Swearing Oaths

Both versions of Jesus’ teaching elaborate the prohibition, apparently in reaction to Jewish traditions that avoided swearing in the name of the Lord in favor of swearing by less powers (Jewish Tradition 5:12b). 

  • Mt 5:34: “not by heaven...nor by the earth” (mête tôᵢ ouranôᵢ...mête têᵢ gêᵢ).
  • Jas 5:12: “either by heaven or by earth” (mête ton ouranon mête tên gên).

Matthew adds rationales for not swearing by heaven (“for it is God’s throne”) and earth (“for it is his footstool”); James lacks rationales. Matthew gives two further examples: do not swear by Jerusalem; do not swear by one’s head. These are lacking in James, who gives a blanket prohibition on swearing “with any other oath” (mête allon tina horkon).

Exhortation to Honest Speech that Requires no Oath for Validation
  • Mt 5:37: “Let your word be ‘yes, yes,’ and ‘no, no’” (estô de ho logos humôn nai nai, ou ou). 
  • Jas 5:12c: “Let your ‘yes’ [be] yes and ‘no’ [be] no” (êtô de humôn to nai, nai, kai to ou, ou).

In other words, the validity of one’s words should stand on its own merits, not requiring ouside validation.

Final Warning against Adding Oaths
  • Mt 5:37: “Anything more is from the evil one” (ek tou ponêrou). 

  • Jas 5:12d: “lest you fall under judgment” (hupo krisin).

  • In Matthew, Jesus contrasts his own teaching with what was said “to the ancestors,” “Do not take a false oath (epiorkeô), but make good to the Lord all that you vow” (orkos; Mt 5:33). This is not a direct quotation, but is comparable to teachings in Dt 23:21–23, Lv 19:12, and Nm 30:3–15

Later Allusions

Paul apparently alludes to a version of Jesus’ saying in a discussion in 2Cor 1:17–18: “do I make my plans according to human considerations, so that with me it is ‘yes, yes’ (to nai nai) and ‘no, no’ (to ou ou)? As God is faithful, our word to you is not ‘yes’ and ‘no’” (2Cor 1:17–18). 

Reception

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. 

Not Found

Not Found

Not Found

Not Found

Not Found

Not Found

Not Found

Not Found

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

Not Found

Not Found

Not Found

Not Found

Not Found

Not Found

Not Found

Not Found

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).

Not Found

Not Found

Not Found

Not Found

Not Found

Not Found

Not Found

Not Found

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.

Not Found

Not Found

Not Found

Not Found

Not Found

Not Found

Not Found

Not Found

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.