The Bible in Its Traditions

James 1:25

Byz Nes TR V S

25  But the [one] who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues [in it], and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one shall be blessed in what he does.

25a perfect law Ps 19:7 law of freedom Jas 2:12



17–27 Use in Lectionary RCL : Proper 17, Year B

19–27 Use in Lectionary

22–27 Use in Lectionary RML (1570) : 5th Sunday after Easter

Christian Tradition

23ff like a man who observes the appearance of his birth Kierkegaard: How to Read Scripture as in a Mirror Kierkegaard Mirror., in a reflection on Jas 1:22–27, exhorts his readers :

  • Do not look at the mirror, but look at yourself in the mirror. People of this age spends much time and effort in translating and puzzling over obscure passages in Scripture, but not allowing God’s Word to address them personally. To truly read the Word, one must be ready to follow Scripture's commandments.
  • One must read God’s word as if it were addressed to oneself personally. Kierkegaard criticizes the tendency of his age to cultivate objective views about the Bible but to avoid a personal encounter with its message. When one reads, in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, of the priest who ignored the beaten and robbed man lying in the road, he should say, “It is I.”
  • One must not hear the word and immediately forget. Rather than making rash promises to never forget, one should start with a short-term goal, such as reading aloud the epistle for the day. One should learn to avoid the noise of the world and remember the word in silence.



25b hearer of forgetfulness Genitive: Semiticism The use of a noun in the genitive is used as an adjective "forgetful hearer," which is not usual in Greek. It apparently imitates the construct chain in Hebrew.



25a perfect law of freedom Allusion in the Book of Common Prayer

  • BCP: A line from the "Collect for Peace" for Morning Prayer in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, may well allude to this line, "whose [i.e., God's] service is perfect freedom" (57).



22–25 doers of the word Semiticism The phrase "doers of the word" (poiêtai logou) most likely has a Semitic background. The most obvious referent of this phrase in Greek would be to poets: "makers of words"  (e.g., Thucydides Hist. 1.11.2: poiêtai logou). It is thus most likely influenced by the corresponding Hebrew "to do the word" ( ‘śh dbr), which often has the sense of performing words such as commandments (e.g., Ps 148:8: "Lightning and hail, snow and thick clouds…that fulfills his command").

Since for James "word" is equivalent with law (cf. the parallel in Jas 4:11: poiêtês nomou), James is here likely imitating the Scripture passages that refer to the "doing of the law (Torah)" (Jewish Tradition Jas 1:22).

  • Dt 27:26: "Cursed be anyone whose actions do not uphold the words of this law!"; lit: "cursed be anyone who does not remain in the words of this Torah to do them" (cf. Dt 17:19; Jo 1:7).

Literary Devices

25c that one will be blessed in his doing Echo The one who both hears and does the word and the Law is blessed, just as the one who perseveres through trials is blessed and will receive the crown of life (Jas 1:12). The blessing here doubtless also connotes an eschatological blessing—salvation in the Kingdom (Literary Genre Jas 1:12).

22–25 be doers of the word Theme of Living out Faith in Works This passage introduces James' characteristic focus on action and living out one's faith:

22–25 doers of the word Rhetorical Jewel

Elocutio: Key Words

James gives literary coherence to this section with the repetition of the key nouns akroatês ("hearer") and poiêtês ("doer"):

  • Jas 1:22: "doers of the word and not only hearers;"
  • Jas 1:23: "hearer of the word and not a doer;"
  • Jas 1:25: "not a hearer who forgets but a doer of works."

Dispositio: Finely Carved Contrast

v 22: Thesis: Be doers of the word, and not only hearers
v. 23–24 Comparison elaborating on those who hear only
  • a. v 23b: he is like one who observes his own face in a mirror;
  • b. v 24: he observes himself and goes away;
  • c. v 24: and immediately forgets what he looked like.
v. 25: Comparison elaborating on those who hear and do
  • v 25a: the one who looks into the perfect law;
  • v 25a: and remains;
  • v 25b: becomes a doer of works.

v 25c: Conclusion: the doer of works is blessed.

Cf. Allison 2013, 322.


Ancient Texts

25a perfect law The Divine Law Governing the Universe In Stoic philosophy (and the Platonic-Aristotelian tradition generally), that which is “perfect” is “complete” according to nature (secundum naturam; kata phusin). In this sense, “nature” is quite different from the wild, spontaneous, and anarchic view of nature that we have inherited from Romanticism. Nor is “nature” the mere aggregate of corporeal physical movement—as opposed to the realm of mind— as in much of western philosophy after Galileo. For a Platonist or Aristotelian, “nature” (phusis) is energized form (eidos) or form in the process of being actualized: in other words, it is a complex of matter joined with an intellgible structure (i.e., form) set in motion (i.e., experiencing change). In this sense, “nature” is inherently teleological and ordered; hence in ancient Greco-Roman thought, one can derive ethical predicates by appealing to “nature” in a way that is not possible in modern philosophy (cf. Collingwood 1946).

Here Seneca, though equivocating somewhat about the meaning of 'nature,' exemplifies this connection between form, nature, perfection, and reason:

  • Seneca Ep. 124.13–15 "But the true Good is not found in trees or in dumb animals' the Good which exists in them is called 'good' only by courtesy…There are four natures which we should mention here: of the tree, animal, man, and God. The last two, having reasoning power, are of the same nature, distinct only by virtue of the immortality of the one and the mortality of the other. Of one of these, then—to wit God—it is Nature that perfects the Good; of the other—to wit man—pains and study do so. All other things are perfect only in their particular nature, and not truly perfect since they lack reason. Indeed, to sum up, that alone is perfect which is perfect according to nature as a whole and nature as a whole is possessed of reason" (Gummere 1917, 3:445–46).


Christian Tradition

23ff mirror Interpretations of the Mirror

The Mirror is the Law and the Scripture

As James moves from gazing into a mirror to speaking of looking into" the perfect law of liberty (Jas 1:25), the tradition naturally associates the mirror with the law and thus with Scripture (both Old and New Testaments).

  •  Ps.-Hilary of Arles Tract. Iac. ad loc. "Mirror" represents the law: "For there are two mirrors, i.e., small and large. In a small mirror small things are seen; in a large one, large things. Thus truly there are two laws: the small is the old, which led no one to perfection. The large is the new law of the Gospel (lex nova Evangellii), because the fullness of perfection (plenitudo perfectionis) is observed in it" (col. 68).

The Mirror Reveals the True Self

  •  Erasmus Iac. Par. "The mirror of evangelical teaching (evangelica doctrina) displays not the warts and bumps on the body, but puts all the diseases of your soul (omneis animi tui morbos) before your eyes. Not only does it reveal them, it also cures them" (verum etiam medetur; Bateman 1993, 144–45; Bateman 1997, 131). 
  • Gloss. Ord. (V), quoting Bernard of Clairvaux: "Let us observe, brothers, ourselves in that [mirror] which we have heard in the reading of the sacred Gospel, so that we might profit (proficiamus) from it, and correct ourselves, if we discover anything in ourselves that should be corrected" (corrigamus si qua in nobis deprehendimus corrigenda; col. 1272). See above Ancient Texts Jas 1:23.


25a law of freedom The Catechism on Freedom CCC 1965-74 connects the "law of freedom" with the "New Law or Law of the Gospel" (Christian Tradition Jas 1:25a).

  • CCC 1972 "The New Law is called a law of love because it makes us act out of love infused by the Holy Spirit, rather than from fear; a law of grace, because it confers the strength of grace to act, by means of faith and the sacraments; a law of freedom, because it sets us free from the ritual and juridical observances of the Old Law, inclines us to act spontaneously by the prompting of charity and, finally, lets us pass from the condition of a servant who "does not know what his master is doing" to that of a friend of Christ—'For all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you'--or even to the status of son and heir" (Jn 15:15; cf. the summary in CCC 1985).
  • The Catechism describes this New Law as "the perfection here on earth of the divine law, natural and revealed." It is the work of Christ, "expressed particularly in the Sermon on the Mount" (CCC 1965). It is also described as "the grace of the Holy Spirit, given to the faithful through faith in Christ." (CCC 1966). The New Law also includes "the evangelical counsels" (CCC 1973).

One can draw several parallels between the description of the New Law in the CCC and James.

  • CCC 1967: The New Law is addressed especially to the poor and humble...and so marks out the surprising ways of the Kingdom" (cf. Js 2:5).
  • CCC 1969 "The New Law practices the acts of religion: almsgiving, prayer and fasting" (cf. Jas 1:27).
  • CCC 1970 "The Law of the Gopsel requires us to make the decisive choice between 'the two ways' (cf. Jas 4:4) and to put into practive the words of the Lord" (cf. Jas 1:22).

Suggestions for Reading

18–27 Exhortation to Doing the Word

Thematic Structure 

Although some interpreters see Jas 1:19 as a thematic statement developed in Jas 1:20–27, the following thematic flow of thought is evident:

  • Vv. 18–21: An example of God's good gift: "the word of truth." God implants (Jas 1:21)  a "word of truth" (Jas 1:18), the natural law of right and wrong, within each person. This law exhorts one to bridle his speech and his passions (such as anger). 
  • Vv. 22–27: One must not only hear this law, but act on it. Bridling one's tongue (Jas 1:19; 26) and caring for widows and orphans (Jas 1:27) are two specific ways of living out this law.

Interpretive Issues


Biblical Intertextuality

22–25 that one will be blessed in his doing Rhetorical Elaboration of Jesus' Beatitude with an Example Jas 1:22–25 can be understood as a rhetorical elaboration of Jesus' saying, "Blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe (phulassô) it" (Lk 11:28; cf. Lk 8:21) or the version in  Mt 7:24 (cf. Lk 6:47), "Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts (poieiô) on them…" Just as Matthew and Luke elaborate the saying with the parable of a house built on rock or sand (Mt 7:24–27; Lk 6:47–49) so too James elaborates the saying with his example (Greek: parabolê; Latin: similitudo) of the forgetful person who looks into a mirror. Albert Sup. Matt. ad 7:26 notes the similarity between James and Jesus' teaching (Schmidt 1987, 271).

Peritestamental Literature

25a law of freedom Philo: the Torah Frees One from the Slavery to Passions Philo often makes the point that those who follow the Torah are actually free, in contrast to those who are enslaved by their passions.

  • Philo Prob. 45: Philo notes that residents of a city who have laws to protect them are more free than those who live under the artbitrary rule of oligarchs or tyrants.
  • Philo Prob. 46 "Those in whom anger (orgê) or desire (epithumia) or any other passion, or again any insidious vice holds sway, are entirely enslaved, while all whose life is regulated by law are free (hosoi de meta nomou zôsin eleutheroi). And right reason (orthos logos) is an infallible law engraved not by this mortal or that and not, therefore, perishable as he, nor on parchment or slabs, and, therefore, soulless as they, but by immortal nature (athanatos phusis) on the immortal mind (athanatos dianoia), never to perish" (Colson 1941, 9:36–37).

 Similarly, much of James' moral teaching focuses on the need to free oneself from the domination of passions such as anger and desire.

25a law Philo and the Natural Law of Reason Philo accepted the Stoic concept of a universal law that orders the universe and is innate in the human mind.

  • Philo Opif. 143: The "constitution" (politeia) of the universe is the right reason of nature (orthos logos tês phuseôs), a divine law (theios nomos) that "duly apportioned to all existences that which right falls to them severally" (Colson 1929, 1:112–115).
  • Philo Prob. 46 "And right reason (orthos logos) is an infallible law (nomos) engraved not by this mortal or that…but by immortal nature (athanatos phusis) on the immortal mind (athanatos dianoia), never to perish" (Colson 1941, 9:36–37).
  • Philo Abr. 5 teaches that the patriarchs followed the natural moral law even before it was written down in the Torah. The patriarchs were in fact "laws endowed with life and reason" (empsuchoi kai logikoi nomoi; Colson 1935, 6:6–7).

The Torah is a written expression of this eternal law of nature implanted in the soul:

  • Philo Mos. 2.11: the laws of Moses are "likenesses and copies of the patterns (paradeigmatôn apeikonismata kai mimêmata) enshrined in the soul" which clearly display the virtues (Colson 1935, 6:454–57).
  • Philo Mos. 2.45–52: Philo explains that Moses begins his account of the laws of the Hebrews with the story of the creation to point out the harmony of the Mosaic laws with the eternal laws of nature. Mos. 2:52: "Thus whoever will carefully examine the nature of the particular enactments [of the Mosaic law] will find that they seek to attain to the harmony of the universe and are in agreement with the principles (logos) of eternal nature (tôᵢ logôᵢ tês aidiou physeôs sunadousas; Colson 1935, 6:474–75).

Ancient Texts

25a law Greco-Roman Views on Law and Word James' identification of the implanted word (Jas 1:21) and the "perfect law of freedom" may well rely on Greco-Roman, especially Stoic, ideas.

Law is the Standard for Distinguishing Right from Wrong

The Stoics regularly define "law" (Greek: nomos; Latin: lex) as the standard for determining right and wrong. 

  • Chryssipus: "Law is king of all things human and divine. Law must preside over what is honorable and base, as ruler and as guide, and thus be the standard (kanôn) of right (dikaios) and wrong (adikaios), prescribing to (prostaktikos) animals whose nature is political [social]  what they should do, and prohibiting (apagoreutikos) them from what they should not do" (Long and Sedley 1987, 1:432; →SVF 3.314).
  • Stobaeus Anth. 2.7  "Since the law, as we have said, is virtuous (because it is right reason [logos orthos]) which commands (prostaktikos) what is to be done and forbids (apagoreutikos) what is not to be done" (Inwood and Gerson 2008, 224).
  • Cicero Leg. 19 "Law is the highest reason, implanted in Nature (ratio summa insita in natura), which commands (iubeo) what ought to be done and forbids (prohibo) the opposite" (Keys 1928, 316–17).

Word (Logos) is Identified with the Law

  • Aristotle Pol. 3.25 [1287a] "He therefore that recommends that the law should govern (ton nomon archein) seems to recommend that God and reason alone should govern" (archein ton theon kai ton noun monous; Rackham 1932, 264–65).
  •  Aristotle Pol. 3.25 [1287a] "the law is wisdom (nous = mind) without desire" (orexis; Rackham 1932, 264–65).

The Stoics identified the "word" (logos)—the universal reason governing the universe—with law (nomos); see →James: Philosophical Background of Logos.

  • Cicero Rep. 3.33 "true law is right reason, in agreement with nature (vera lex recta ratio naturae congruens)…there will not be different laws at Rome and at Athens, or different laws now and in the future. Whoever is disobedient is fleeing from himself and denying his human nature" (Keys 1928, 210–11).
  • Cicero Leg. 1.19: law is the highest reason (ratio) implanted (insita) in Nature (Keys 1928, 316–17).

God is the Source of Logos and Nomos

Right reason and law are also identified with God.

  •  Diogenes Laërtius Vit. Phil. 7.88 (according to Chryssipus): "the common law (koinos nomos) is right reason (orthos logos) which pervades all things, and is identical with this Zeus, lord and ruler of all that is" (Hicks 1925, 2:196–97).
  • Cicero Leg.2.10 "the true and primal Law (lex vera atque princeps), applied to command and prohibition, is the right reason of supreme Jupiter" (ratio est recta summu Jovis; Keys 1928, 382–83).
  • Cicero Rep.  3.33 "but one eternal and unchangeable law (una lex et sempiterna et immutabilis) will be valid for all nations and all times, and there will be one master and ruler, that is, God, over us all, for he is the author of this law, its promulgator and its enforcing judge" (ille legis huius inventor, disceptator, lator; Keys 1928, 210–11).

Elsewhere Greek thought assumes that the ultimate source of law is divine:

  •  Xenophon Mem. 4.4.19–25: all societies recognize certain moral laws; breaking moral laws results in natural punishiments: thus these laws must be the work of the gods.
  •  Plato Ep. 8 [354E] "men of sound sense have Law for their God; but men without sense Pleasure (hêdonê)" (Bury 1926, 580–81).


Literary Devices

25a perfect law Theme of Wholeness and Perfection James's use of the adjective "perfect" (teleios) recalls his theme of wholeness, integrity, perfection and completion (→James: Perfection / Wholeness in James ;  Ancient Texts Jas 1:4a; Ancient Texts Jas 1:4b; Biblical Intertextuality Jas 1:4b; Peritestamental Literature Jas 1:4b; Christian Tradition Jas 1:4a).

  Here, James speaks of the perfection of the Torah through Jesus' interpretation: the Torah of the Kingdom. This law is perfected through love (cf. Jas 2:8).


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.


22–25 be doers of the word and not only hearers Echo in the Liturgy of St. James A priestly prayer in the Liturgy of St. James reflects this passage:

  • Lit. Jas. "enlighten the souls of us sinners to for the comprehension of the things which have been before spoken [read], so that we may not only be seen to be hearers (mê monon akroatai) of spiritual things, but also doers of good deeds (poiêtai praxeôn agathôn), striving after (meterchomai) guileless faith (pistis), blameless life, and pure conversation (politean anegklêton; ANF 7:539; Brightman-Hammond 1896, 1:38–39).

Christian Tradition

25a law of freedom Aquinas on the Law of Freedom Thomas understands James' "law of freedom" as the "new law" or "law of Christ."

Defining Freedom
  • Aquinas ST 1-2.108.1 follows Aristotle: "what is free is cause of itself" (liber est qui sua causa est).
  • "Therefore he acts freely, who acts of his own accord" (ex seipso agit).
  • To act of one's own accord is further defined as acting "from a habit that is suitable to his nature" (homo agit ex habitu suae naturae convenienti). An action prompted by the grace of the Holy Spirit is a free act, inasmuch as it "is like an interior habit bestowed on us and inclining us to act aright" (inclinans nos ad recte operandum).

Thomas thus speaks of

  • (1) "freedom from," i.e.,  freedom from external constraints;
  • (2) "freedom to," i.e., the freedom to develop habits that are in accord with human nature. One who has a habit opposed to human nature does not act freely, but rather acts "according to some corruption affecting that nature" (secundum aliquam corruptionem sibi supervenientem).

The new law (the law of Christ) is therefore called a "law of liberty" in two respects (ST 1-2.108.1 ad 2):

  • Freedom from all laws that do not bear on salvation. The law of freedom does not command or prohibit certain things "except such as are of themselves necessary or opposed to salvation" (vel necessaria vel repugnantia saluti). Thus the new law probits the denial of faith, but leaves many other areas open to the discretion of the individual.
  • Freedom to act according to one's nature: "it also makes us comply freely (libere implere) with these precepts and prohibitions, inasmuch as we do so through the promptings of grace" (ex interiori instinctu gratiae; English Dominicans 1947, 3:114).


Ancient Texts

25a law of freedom Stoicism: True freedom in Following the Divine Will (Law)

One who is Free is not Constrained by External Forces

  • Epictetus Diatr. 4.1.128:  The free person is "unhampered" (akôlutos). "But the man who can be hampered, or subjected to compulsion, or hindered, or thrown into something against his will (akôn), is a slave" (Oldfather 1928, 288–89).

Freedom Comes by Submitting One’s Will to God’s

  • Epictetus Diatr. 4.1.89 "I have never been hindered in the exercise of my will (thelôn ekôluthên), nor have I ever been subjected to compulsion against my will. And how is this possible? I have submitted my freedom of choice (hormê) unto God…He wills that I should choose something; it is my will too (thelei oregesthai. kagô thelô)…He does not will it; I do not wish it" (Oldfather 1928, 274–75). 
  • Seneca Vit. beat. 15.7 "to obey God is freedom" (deo parere libertas est; Basore 1928, 140–41).

God’s Will is Closely Associated with the Law

  • Epictetus Diatr. 4.1.158 quotes the Cynic philosopher Diogenes,"'Because I do not regard my paltry body as my own; because I need nothing, because the law (ho nomos), and nothing else, is everything to me.' This it was which allowed him to be a free man" (eleutheros; Oldfather 1928, 298–99).
  • Diogenes Laërtius Vit. Phil. 7.88: The ultimate goal (telos) of the Stoics is to live a life "in accordance with nature (to akolouthôs têᵢ phusei zên)…a life in which we refrain from every action forbidden by the law common (koinos nomos) to all things, that is to say, the right reason (orthos logos) that pervades all things, and is identical with this Zeus, lord and ruler of all that is. And this very thing constitutes the virtue of the happy man and the smooth current of life, when all actions promote the harmony of the spirit dwelling in the individual man with the will (boulêsis) of him who orders the universe" (Hicks 1925, 194–97).

Biblical Intertextuality

25a law of freedom James and Paul on Freedom and the Law

  • Some interpreters, assuming that James knows Paul's letters, believe that James' phrase is intended to refute Paul's association of the Law with slavery (see Gal 4:21–5:15) or at least refute misinterpretations of Paul's statement.
  • Others argue that one should not assume that James and Paul hold contradictory views on the Law and freedom. Like Jas 2:8, Paul identifies the commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" as the fulfillment of the law (Rom 13:10; Gal 5:14) and associates this law of love with freedom (Gal 5:13–14).

See also Biblical Intertextuality Jas 2:21–24 and →James: Traditional comparisons of James and Paul on faith, works, and justification 


Jewish Tradition

25a law of freedom The Mishnah associates the study of the Torah with freedom:

  • m. Avot  6.2 "R. Joshua b. Levi said, 'for you find no free man except him that occupies himself in the study of the Law' (Danby 1933, 459).

Christian Tradition

25a perfect law of freedom Various Interpretations

Christian Freedom Contrasted with the Mosaic Law

  • The "perfect law of freedom" is regularly identified with the new law of Christ or the law of grace, and is often contrasted with the Mosaic law, which is characterized, or cariactured, as a "law of slavery" or a law of fear (e.g., John of Damascus Fid. orth. 96 [4.23]). 

Law of Grace

  • Bede Ep. cath. ad loc. "He calls the grace of the Gospel (gratia evangelii) the perfect law of liberty. 'For the law [i.e., the Mosaic law] brought nothing to perfection (Heb 7:19)'"; Bede also quotes Rom 8:15, 2Cor 3:17, and Jn 8:36" (Hurst 1985, 20; Hurst 1983, 192).
  • The Gloss. Ord. develops Bede's comment: "He calls the grace of the Gospel the prefect law of liberty, which makes perfectly free from the slavery of fear (a servitute timoris); those who held the [Mosaic] law were serving in fear. Whoever would break the law, would be stoned without mercy (sine miseratione). This law brought no one to perfection. Although it compelled people to serve by fear (cogebat timore servire), it did not give grace, in order to fulfill with love (ut compleretur amore), and is unable to free from the punishments of hell. But love (charitas) is given in the gospel (col. 1273).

New Law of Christ

  • Irenaeus Haer. 4.34.4 identifies the "law of freedom" (libertatis lex) with "the word of God, preached by the apostles [who went forth from Jerusalem]" (Harvey 1857, 512; Rousseau 2008, 4.2:856).
  • Irenaeus Haer. 4.13.2 also calls Jesus' interpretations of the Torah in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5) the "laws of liberty" (decreta libertatis; Harvey 1857, 477; Rousseau 2008, 4.2:528). See also Barn. 2.6 which refers to "the new law of our Lord Jesus Christ" (kainos nomos tou kuriou; Ehrman 2003, 2:16) that replaces the abolished Mosaic law, and Justin Dial. 12.2; 18.3 who identifies Christ as the new lawgiver (nomothetês; Marcovich 1997, 89; 100).
  • Ps.-Oecumenius Comm. Ep. Cath. "The law of Christ (ho kata Christon nomon), freeing from the slavery of everything fleshly (sarkikon apêllaxas douleias): observance of Sabbaths, circumcision, and the other laws of purification" (col. 469).
  •  Bull Harmonia "the law of no other than the moral law itself, as Christ has explained and perfected it, and dlievered it to His disciples, as His law from the mount" (20–21).

Law of Love

The law of liberty is further characteristized as the "law of love":

  • Augustine of Hippo Nat. Grat. 57 [67] "This is the law of freedom, not of servitude, because it is the law of love (caritas), not of fear." The person who follows this law does so not out of fear of punishment, but out of love for righteousness; he is led by the Spirit. (Teske 1997, 260; Urba and Zycha 1893, 284).
  • Erasmus Iac. Par. "For at the level of the letter the Law was imperfect and deterred people from evil through fear (magis metu deterrebat a malis) more than it caused them to follow the right on their own initiative. But the law of the gospel (evangelica lex) obtains more through love (per charitatem) from those who are willing and free than the law of Moses tried to twist out" (Bateman 1993, 145; Bateman 1997, 131). 
  • Estius Comm. ep. cath. ad loc. "the law is of liberty…because it is the law of love, which makes them free, that is to say, children of God" (lex charitatis, quae liberos facit, id est, Dei filios) in contrast to the ancient law associated with slavery (4242). 

Discussions on the Meaning of Freedom

Reformation Views
  • Luther Rand. ad 1:25 held that James refers to the Mosaic law (WA DB 4:497), and complained that "he teaches nothing about faith, but everything about the law" (nihil de fide, omnia de lege doce); cf. Luther Pref. Jas. Jude (LW 35:397; WA DB 7:386–87). In contrast, the Lutheran theologian Chemnitz Loc. Theo. 14 understands this passage to refer to the liberty of the Christian (Preus 2008, 2:1143).
  • Lapide Comm. "But this freedom is not a freedom from the law, as if the Gospel made Christians free from the observation of commandments so that no law would be kept, but they are able to do whatever is pleasing, as Luther and the libertines teach. For if in the Gospel is law, and it is perfect, therefore the law obliges those who are subject to it, and it is to be kept by Christians" (20:87).
Christ is a Lawgiver
  • Lapide Comm. "For Christ came into the world not only to be its redeemer, but also be the legislator of a new law" (legislator novae legis).
  • Lapide refers to Conc. Trid. Just. cans. 19, 20, and 22 (DzH 1569–71) (20:87). See in particular Can. 21: "If anyone says that Jesus Christ was given by God to men as a redeemer in whom they are to trust but not also as a lawgiver whom they are to obey (ut redemptorem, cui fidant, non etiam ut legislatorem cui obediant), let him be anathema" (DzH 1571).
How does the Law of Freedom Lead to Greater Freedom for the Christian?

Lapide Comm. ad loc. reflects on the different ways in which the law of freedom leads to greater freedom for the Christian:

  • Freedom from observing the Mosaic law, especially the ceremonial law; however, one is still obligated to follow the Decalogue and the natural law (lex naturae) established by God and renewed by Christ.
  • Freedom from sin, the power of demons, and from hell.
  • Freedom from compulsion and fear, so that we fulfill the law not from fear of punishment, but from love of justice (non ex timore vindictae, sed ex amorie justitiae). Lapide quotes passages from Cicero, Ovid, and Seneca for similar views of freedom, including Seneca Vit. beat. 15.7: "We have been born under a monarcy, to obey God is freedom" (deo parare libertas est). Lapide then quotes Augustine of Hippo Contin. 8: “For we are not under the Law, which indeed commands what is good yet gives it not: but we are under Grace, which, making us love that which the Law commands (sumus sub gratia, auae id quod lex jubet faciens nos amare); it is able to rule over the free (potest liberis imperare).”
  • In the resurrection will be freedom from death and from all misery (20:87).
  • Erasmus Iac. Par. on Jas 2:12:  "It is the law of freedom, not because it offers a license to sin (liceat peccare), but because evangelical love secures free and voluntary assent to what man-made laws force from people against their will through fear of punishment" (evangelica charitas vitro impetret a volentibus quod leges humanae metu poenarum exorquent a nolentibus;Bateman 1993, 149–50; Bateman 1997, 135).

The Natural Law Inherent in All Humans

  • Bar Salibi Ep. Cath. ad loc. understands this law as the natural law that God placed in all humans at the creation, creating them in his image and likeness :"He who observes the law which God placed in human nature (kyn’ ’nšy’), that he should love the good and adhere to his creator, and remain in the law of nature (nmws’ kyny’) and in the pre-eminence which the Creator gave him, creating him "in his image and his likeness" (Sedlacek 1910, 92; Syriac-ibid., 120).
  • WCF 19.2–6: The Reformed tradition understands James to refer here, and in 2:8, 10–12, to the moral law, given already to Adam and expressed in the Ten Commandments (WCF 19.2). This moral law is still binding on Christians (citing Jas 2:8; WCF 19.5). This law serves to make people aware of their sins, and so they "may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against sin" and thus realize their need for redemption from sin in Christ. After people are baptized, it helps to retrain their corrupt ways by forbidding sins ( WCF 19.6; CCFCT 2:629; Carruthers 1937, 125).

Medieval Debates on Freedom, Law, and Church Authority

William of Ockham refers to James' law of freedom in his effort to limit papal authority.

  •   William of Ockham Princ. Tyrann. 2:3: Ockham rejects the thesis that the pope (based on an interpretation of Mt 16:19) has "such fullness of power that in temporal and spiritual matters he could by right do without exception anything not against divine or natural law" (ut omnia possit, que nec legi naturae nec legi divine repugnant; McGrade and Kilcullen 1992, 23; Scholz 1944, 53).
  •  William of Ockham Princ. Tyrann. 2.3: Such a thesis is heretical, however, since "it plainly conflicts with divine Scripture." "For compared with the law of Moses the gospel law (lex evengelica) involves, not more servitude, but less, and hence it is called by blessed James a law of perfect freedom" (Jas 1:25). Ockham then refers the teaching at the Council of Jerusalem, which freed the Gentiles from the burden of following the entire Mosaic law (Acts 15). Ockham cites several other texts on Christian freedom (e.g., Gal 2:2–3; Gal 5:12–13; 2Cor 3:17). If the pope truly had such fullness of power, this would reduce other Christians to the status of slaves (McGrade and Kilcullen 1992, 21–24; Scholz 1944, 56–57).

Marsilius of Padua, a contemporary of William of Ockham, was also involved in controversies over papal authority. Marsilius held that the Church should have no political and temporal authority, but should be subordinate to the State.

  •  Marsilius of Padua Def. Pacis 1.10.3: In a discussion on different meanings of the term "law," Marsilius understands Jas 1:25 as a reference to the "evangelical law" (lex evangelica), or the law concerning "instruction of the gospel" (disciplina evangelica) in contrast to the Mosaic law (Brett 2005, 52–53; Previté-Orton 1928, 37–38).