The Bible in Its Traditions

James 5:19–20

Nes S TR

19  Brothers, if anyone among you wanders away from the truth, and anyone turns him back,

19  My brethren, if any among you err from the truth, and one convert him;

19  My brothers, if anyone of you strays from the truth, and if someone converts him,

19b someone turns him back Mt 18:15-18; Lk 17:3; Gal 6:1; 1Jn 5:16
Byz Nes S TR

20  let him know that he who turns a sinner back from the error of his way will save a soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

20  he ought to know that whoever causes a sinner to be converted from the error of his ways will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

20c cover a multitude of sins Prv 10:12; 1Pt 4:8



16–20 Use in Lectionary RML (1570) : Rogation Days (Monday and Wednesday before Ascension).


Textual Criticism

19a from the truth : passim | S the way of truth

  • א reads "from the way of truth" (S follows this reading);
  • P74 reads "from the way";
  • Ψ omits the entire phrase.


19a If anyone among you A Generalized Situation James uses the indefinite pronoun tis and the aorist subjunctive in order to present a very generalized situation in the community (Literary Devices Jas 5:19f).


20c cover a multitude of sins Metaphorical Use of Covering Applied to Sin The Greek kaluptô means literally to cover (e.g., the instruments used at the altar are covered with a skin covering (G-Nm 4:12). It thus also means to hide or conceal (e.g., the Greek fighters hidden in the horse at Troy in Homer, Od. 8.503). 

In relation to sin, the sense is to hide or cover them from the sight of God, a metaphor for God's forgiveness (e.g., Diogn. 9:5: "the lawless deeds (anomia) of many should be hidden by the one who is upright" [sc., the Son of God]; Ehrman 2003, 2:150-51).

Literary Devices

20a sinner Echo In parallel with Jas 4:8, James identifies "sinners" (hamartôloi) with those who are double-minded: those who are torn between following the values of God and the values of the world (cf. Vocabulary Jas 1:8).



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

Suggestions for Reading

19f Overview

Place of Jas 5:19-20 within the Letter's Overall Structure

This generalized example of one community member helping to turn back a fellow community member who had strayed from the faith follows naturally upon James' discussion in Jas 5:13-18 on the importance of intercessory prayer for mutual needs in the community. 

After spending so much of the letter excoriating the community for its divisions (e.g., Jas 2:1-13; 4:1-2; 11-12), James ends with a vision of how members of the community should cooperate with one another. 

Interpretive Options

In this passage, one member (the converter) helps another return to the faith (the converted). Verse 20 has two basic ambiguities. 

  • (1) 20b: "save his soul from death." Is the soul that of the conveter or the converted? 
  • (2) 20c: "cover a multitude of sin." Whose sins: the converter or the converted? 

Regarding (1), the reference is almost surely to the soul of the converted. The danger of eternal death applies much more naturally to the one who has wandered from the faith than from the one who has remained in the faith.

Regarding (2), it seems anti-climactic to assert that the converted's soul is saved from death and then add that a multitude of his sins are covered. The consensus of the Christian tradition takes this phrase to apply to the sins of the converter (Christian Tradition Jas 5:20c): his sins are covered as a reward for bringing a wandering sheep back into the fold. 


Textual Criticism

20b save his soul from death Whose Soul? The textual tradition reflects the passage's ambiguity as to whether the soul of the converter or the converted is saved (Christian Tradition Jas 5:20b).

  • Ψ Byz (followed by the TR) omit "his" (autou).
  • P74 (apparently) and B read autou after "death," giving the meaning, "death itself."  


19f truth Truth as the Christian Way of Life James has used the word "truth" (alêtheia) twice previously: 

  • The "word of truth" by which the Lord "gave birth" to the community members (Jas 1:18a), identified with the "implanted word" (Jas 1:21), in turn identified with the "perfect law of freedom" (Jas 1:25).
  • With their arrogant lifestyle, community members are "lying against the truth" (Jas 3:14b; Literary Devices Jas 3:14b).

By truth, then, James clearly understands the entire Christian way of life, centered on following the "perfect law of freedom," the Torah as interpreted by Jesus, with its emphasis on God's mercy (Jas 2:12-13).

In this sense, James is close to the "two ways" theology, where the Christian "way" (hodos), the way of life, is contrasted with the way of death (e.g., Did. 1:1; Barn. 18.1). Some textual traditions in fact have expanded "truth" to "way of truth" (hodos alêtheias). Cf. Textual Criticism Jas 5:19a.

19a wander from the way Imagery of Wandering and Error The Greek planaô has the sense of wandering about aimlessly: Matthew uses it to describe the one sheep who wanders away from the rest (Mt 18:12); 1 Peter applies it to the community: "For you had gone astray like sheep" (1Pt 2:25; cf. G-Is 53:6); cf. the application to false prophets (2Pt 2:15).

At Jas 1:16, James uses the passive of the same word to warn the community, "Do not be misled!" The Greek planê (error, used in v. 20a: "the error of his way") is the noun form of the verb planaô. See also Christian Tradition Jas 1:16.


20b save his soul …multitude of sins: The Converter or the Converted? The third person pronoun autou is ambiguous: it could refer to the one who converts the sinner or to the converted. Similarly, it is unclear whether "sins" refers to those of the converter or the converted. See also Textual Criticism Jas 5:20b and Christian Tradition Jas 5:20b.

Literary Devices

19f brothers Establishing a Fraternal Tone James returns to the direct address of his audience as "brothers," last used at Jas 5:12 to introduce the prohibition of oaths. James again employs his typical phrase "among you" (en humin; e.g., Jas 4:1; Jas 5:13-14) in order to emphasize the communal setting of his audience. 

20a let him know Assumption of Shared Knowledge The third person singular imperative (ginôsketô) could also be paraphrased as "he should know." Here, as before, James appeals to knowledge or values that he assumes should be shared by the community. Codex B reads the third person plural ("let him know" or "you should know") to emphasize that James' message is for the whole community (Literary Devices Jas 1:3). 


Biblical Intertextuality

20b death Eschatological Death

Sin and Death

James associates death (G= thanatos) with sin (Jas 1:15), an association made often in the biblical tradition. A passage in Ez 3:18-21 is particularly relevant, since it connects sin, the intervention of a second party, and life and death consequences. The main points of Ezekiel follow:

  • If a wicked person continues in his wickedness, he shall die. If he turns away from wickedness, he shall live.

  • If one fails to warn the wicked, he will be held responsible along with the wicked. If one does warn the wicked, he saves (G = ruomai; H= Hiph. of nṣl) his own soul.

Eschatological Death

That James refers not merely to physical death is clear from two reasons:

  • (1) James uses the the phrase “saving the soul,” which itself connotes more than this worldly, bodily life (Vocabulary Jas 5:20b); 

  • (2) it is not clear how repentance from sin should lead to salvation from physical death.

Rather, James refers to an eschatological destruction, in line with Jesus’ saying, “And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna” (Mt 10:28). 

James’ conception also seems similar to the “second death” described in Revelation: “their lot is in the burning pool of fire and sulfur, which is the second death” (Rv 21:8; cf. Rv 2:11; 19:20; 20:6,14). James too knows of the fires of Gehenna (Jas 3:6). 

It is unclear, however, whether James envisions a final destruction (e.g., Pss. Sol.3:11–12 = apôleia) or an eternal punishment (e.g., Mt 13:42: “wailing and grinding of teeth”). With James’ close connection with the Synoptic tradition, the latter is more likely.


Christian Tradition

19f divisio texta Ps.-Andreas Catena places Jas 5:19-20 under the heading, "That one must assist (diakonêteon) the salvation of one's neighbor" (Cramer 1844, 8:39).


Literary Devices

19f turns back a sinner Contrasting Models of Community Relationships James' model of a community member gently correcting another community members contrasts with James' earlier descriptions of quarreling and condemnation within the community (e.g., Jas 4:11; 5:9).


Ancient Texts

19f turns back a sinner Fraternal Correction and Conversion in Greco-Roman Moral Tradition

  • The Greek epistrephô can denote the act of persuading another to change his beliefs or actions. Thus Plutarch Adol. poet. Aud. [Mor. 21c] relates how Menander's poetry is able to "turn us about and draw us toward the good" (to kalon; Babbit 1927, 110-11).

For the Greeks, the mark of a true friend is his willingness to correct one’s faults. There ought to be “frankness of speech” (parrêsia) among friends.

  • Plutarch Adul. amic. 26-37 [Mor. 66e-74e] distinguishes between the true friend, who rebukes one’s wrongdoings, and the mere flatterer, who never criticizes.
  • Philo Her. 21 "Frankness of speech (parrêsia) is akin to friendship (philia). For to whom should a man speak with frankness but to his friend?" (Colson 1932, 294-95).
  • Philodemus Lib., an Epicurean treatise on parrêsia, includes a discussion on how teachers should practice this virtue with their students, and the danger that those being corrected will misunderstand or take offense.

Biblical Intertextuality

19b turns back a sinner Conversion and Repentance The word epistrephô is commonly used in prophetic admonitions to return to the Lord: 

  • "Afterward the sons of Israel will turn back and seek the Lord, their God" (Hos 3:5).
  • "'Now therefore,' says the Lord your God, 'turn to me with all your heart'" (Jl 2:12).
  • "Thus says the Lord Almighty: 'Turn to me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will turn to you'" (Zec 1:3).
  • "'Return to me, O house of Israel,' says the Lord; 'and I will not set my face against you: for I am merciful'" (Jer 3:12).

The NT also employs the word in its calls to repentance.

  • Peter's admonition to the crowd, "Repent, therefore, and be converted (epistrephô), that your sins may be wiped away" (Acts 3:19; cf. Acts 9:35; 11:21).
  • Paul reminds the Thessalonians, "you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God" (1Thes 1:9).

The above examples are all intransitive: the people turn themselves to the Lord. For the transitive sense, used in James, of one person turning around another, see the prophecy about John the Baptist: "and he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God" (Lk 1:16). See also Josephus A.J. 10.53, where King Josiah "turned the people away from their belief in gods to the service of God" (Thackeray 1965, 4:186-87).



1:21c; 5:20b soul Multivalent Term The Greek psuchê is a multivalent term.

  • A basic meaning is the life-force that animates a body; e.g., Acts 20:10; cf. Aristotle De an. 2.4; (415b).
  • It can refer to the seat of a person's emotions: "My soul is sorrowful even to death" (Mt 26:38); cf. Mt 22:37
  • It can refer to a person's whole life, including physical life: "the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life (psuchê) as a ransom for many" (Mk 10:45).

James' understanding of psuchê is not philosophically precise. The parallelism of Jas 4:8 identifies the dipsuchos (literally "two-souled") person with the sinner; the opposite of the dipsuchos is the person with a purified heart.  The soul here is understood as the seat of the thought and will, and thus, for James, essentially equivalent with the "heart" (G= kardia; cf. heart at Jas 1:26; 3:14; 5:5,8).

James' use of psuchê  is likely similar to its use in the Gospel tradition: "For whoever wishes to save his life (psuchê) will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it" (Mk 8:35). The soul here is considered as the whole life of the person, including both the earthly, bodily existence and the transcendent existence that survives bodily death. Cf. also the usage of its Hebrew analogue, nepeš, which rendered psuchê in G: e.g., 1Cor 15:45: "The first man, Adam, became a living soul," which is a quote of Gn 2:7 (wayᵉhî hā-’ādām, lᵉnefeš hayyâ = kai egeneto ho anthrôpos eis psuchên zôsan). This transcendent element is clear in a further Synoptic saying,"And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna" (Mt 10:28). 

Jesus' reference to destroying soul and body in Gehenna is thus equivalent to James' reference to death: a sinner who is turned away from the error of this way will save his soul from this eschatological death. 

James also speaks of the "spirit" (pnuema = rûa; see Vocabulary Jas 2:26a). Here pneuma is clearly the "life-force" of the physical body. James speaks further of the "the spirit which [God] made to live in us" (Jas 4:5). The relationship between pneuma and psuchê for James is not clear.



13–20 Use in Lectionary

  • RML : Saturday, Week 7, Year 2.
  • RCL : Proper 21, Year B.


Literary Devices

19f if anyone among you Positive Exemplum James gives a generalized, hypothetical example of one community member turning another back to the faith. The exemplum is given as part of James' paraenesis: it is an example of proper behavior that the community should imitate. Elsewhere, James uses biblical exempla of behaviors to be imitated (e.g., Jas 2:21-23; 2:25; Jas 5:10). He also gives generalized examples of behavior to be avoided (Jas 2:2-4; 2:15-16).


Christian Tradition

20a wandering from his way Nature of the Error? Erasmus Iac. Par. ad loc. suggests that the person straying from the truth of the gospel might err "either by still clinging with excessive devotion to the law of Moses or by tenaciously cultivating the pagan traditions of his ancestors" (Bateman 1993, 169; Bateman 1997, 158). 

20b turns back a sinner from straying away Aspects of Conversion

Conversion to the Religious Life

  • Aquinas ST 2-2.189.9 cites this verse to show that it is permissble for one to induce (induco) another to join the religious life. "Those who induce others to enter religion not only do not sin, but merit (merentur) a great reward" (English Dominicans 1947, 4:2008).

Conversion of Heretics

  • Bernard of Clairvaux Serm. Cant. 64.(3).8 "They are to be caught, I repeat, not by force of arms but by arguments (non armis sed argumentis) by which their errors may be refuted....So if an experienced and well-instructed churchman (homo de Ecclesia) undertakes to debate with a heretic, he should direct his intention to convincing him of the error of his ways in such a way as to convert him, bearing in mind the saying of the Apostle James, that anyone who causes a sinner to be converted from the error of his ways will save his soul from death and cover a multitude of sins" (Leclercq, et al. 1977, 2:170).

Conversion a Special Task of Teachers

  • Bede Ep. cath. ad loc. , noting Jas 4:1, comments that it is the special role of the teachers (magistri) of the community to convert sinners; yet anyone whose virtuous life is an example to others takes on the office of the teacher (Hurst 1985, 64-65; Hurst 1983, 223-23).

Conversion through Example

  • Bede Ep. cath. ad loc. notes that people are converted not only by words, but by actions. "For if anyone shows his neighbors the examples of good action (exempla bonae actionis) and turns them back (convertit) to imitating the works of almsgiving or hospitality or of the other virtues which they had neglected, even though his tongue be silent, he actually executes the office of teacher (officium doctoris)..." (Hurst 1985, 65; Hurst 1983, 223-24). A shortened version of Bede's comment appears as an interlinear gloss in the Gloss. Ord. ad loc. (col. 1304).

Eternal Salvation is Greater than Physical Healing

Bede Ep. cath. ad loc. and Erasmus Iac. Par. ad loc., referring to the healing of the sick in Jas 5:14, comment that while it is good to relieve a person's physical suffering, it is far greater to rescue a person from eternal death. The Gloss. Ord. ad. loc. quotes Bede's comment (col. 1304). Cf. Biblical Intertextuality Jas 5:20b.

  • Bede Ep. cath. ad loc. "For if it is a matter for great reward to snatch the body, which is going to die in the end, from death, how worthwhile (quanti est meriti) is it to set free (liberare) from death the soul which will live for ever in the heavenly homeland?" (in caelesti patria;Hurst 1985, 64; Hurst 1983, 223). Bede takes this passage, without attribution, from Gregory the Great Moral. 19.31 comment on this passage (Adriaen, 2:983).

Conversion is a Mutual Effort

 Ps.-Andreas Catena ad Jas 5:19-20 includes Chrysostom's comment that the one converting another can only sow the seed-- it is up to the hearer to take care of the seed to ensure that it grows (Cramer 1844, 8:39).

Christians are Responsible for their Neighbor's Salvation

  • Calvin Comm. Iac. ad. loc. writes that Christians have a great responsbility towards their fellow believers: "We must therefore take heed lest souls perish through our sloth, whose salvation God in a manner (quodammodo) puts in our hands. Not that we can bestow salvation on them; but that God by our ministry (ministerio nostro) delivers and saves those who seem otherwise to be nigh destruction" (Owen 1849, 361; Reuss and Erichson 1896, 434).
  • Ps.-Oecumenius Comm. Ep. Cath. ad loc. comments in a similar sense, "One must assist (diakoneô) the salvation of one's neighbor." He then comments how God speaks through people, "Everyone who proclaims his words becomes the mouth of God" (col. 509); the Catena ad. loc. has these same comments (40).

Particular Applications of Caesarius of Arles

With this passage, Caesarius of Arles admonishes his congregation:

  • to admonish their fellow congregants who leave the Mass early with no legitimate cause (Serm. 74.4; Mueller 1973, 1: 349).
  • to admonish, pray, and fast on behalf of fellow Christians who participate in pagan celebrations, such as those for the god Janus (Serm. 192.3; Mueller 1973, 3:29).

Mennonite Interpretation

Many Anabaptist communities have practiced "shunning" or excommunication of members who are public and unrepentant sinners.

  • Dor. Conf. 16 on excommunication cites this passage in recommending a gentle approach to admonishing those in the congregation who stray in order to lead them to repentance; but in case of obstinate sinners, one must reprove them "as seems fit" (nae behooren; CCFCT 2:783; Brüsewitz and Krebber 1983, 53); similarly Simons Excom.10 (985-87); Ris Menn. Art. 27.3.

Visual Arts

1:1–5:20 James Depictions of the Author Depictions of James, the author of the epistle, in paintings, statues, manuscript illustrations, engravings, woodcuts, and embroidery on liturgical vestments are particularly prominent in the Middle Ages. A common consensus of the artists is that the author of the epistle is James the Just, leader of the Jerusalem church; he is typically further identified with James, son of Alphaeus, one of Jesus' Twelve (Mk 3:18), and "James the Less" (Mk 15:40). The iconography of James draws particularly on accounts of James recorded in Eusebius of Cesarea Hist. eccl. 23 and Jerome Vir. ill. 2, who in turn draw on accounts from Clement of Alexandria and Hegesipus. See also →James: Introduction

Several prominent features of these portrayals may be noted:

  • Following the tradition that he was the first bishop of Jerusalem, James is often portrayed anachronistically in bishop's vestments.
  • James is often portrayed holding a fuller's club, alluding to the tradition that James was beaten to death with a such a club. Variations show him holding different types of clubs. Another related tradition shows James holding a bow such as one used by hat-makers of the Middle Ages.
  • James bears a striking physical resemblance to his brother Jesus.
  • One artistic tradition, based on accounts found in the preface to the Gloss. Ord. and de Voragine Leg. aur., portrays the infant James as part of a large extended family. According to this legend, St. Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary, had three children named Mary with three different husbands. James and his brothers Joses (Joseph), Simon, and Jude (cf. Mk 6:3) are the sons of Mary (daughter of Anne and Cleophas; cf. Jn 19:25) and Alphaeus (cf. Mk 3:18). James and his brothers are thus cousins of Jesus (son of Mary, daughter of Anne and Joachim) and of St. John the Evangelist and James the Greater (sons of Mary, daughter of Anne and Salomas).

The following images are noteworthy:

  • A painting of James in the Armenian Sts. James Cathedral, Jerusalem: James is dressed in episcopal robes, wears a miter and holds a crozier (Gowler 2014, 54).
  • Blessed James Apostle. In the Stav. Bib. (1093-97) illuminations of the apostle James are at the introduction to the Catholic epistles (f. 197 r→) and at the beginning of his epistle (f. 197 v→.). The apostle stands, holding a book.
  • Apostle James the Less, statue, south portal of Chartres Cathedral, early 13th century.

Anonymous, James Among Other Apostles (sculpture on limestone, early 13th c.),  South Portal, Chartres Cathedral, France

© D.R. Photo Mary Ann Sullivan→ 

James holds a club.

  • Leonardo da Vinci (1495-98), The Last Supper, Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. 

Giampietrino (1495–1549), The Last Supper (oil on canvas, ca. 1520, after Leonardo da Vinci [1452–1519], The Last Supper [1495-1498]),  298 cm x 770 cm

Royal Academy of Arts, London, exhib. Magdalen College, Oxford

Public Domain © Wikicommons→ 

James, who resembles his brother Jesus, is second from his left. This full-scale copy was the main source for the— unfortunate—twenty-year restoration of the original (1978–1998). It includes several lost details such as Christ's feet, the transparent glass decanters on the table, and the floral motifs of the tapestries that decorate the room's interior.  It was first mentioned in 1626 by the author Bartolomeo Sanese as hanging in the Certosa di Pavia, a monastery near Pavia, Italy, but it is unlikely that it was intended for this location. At some point, the upper third of the picture was cut off, and the width was reduced. Giampietrino is thought to have worked closely with Leonardo when he was in Milan. A very fine, full-size copy of this painting, before it was cut down, is installed at Tongerlo Abbey in Westerlo, near Antwerp, Belgium. 

  • Lucas Cranach the Elder (1509), Infant Saint James among his relations, a triptych in the Stadelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt, Germany. The infant Jesus, his mother Mary, and Mary's mother St. Anne are portrayed in the center. To the right is St. Anne's other daughter Mary, her husband Zebedee, and sons John the Evangelist and James the Greater. To the left is another of St. Anne's daughters named Mary with her husband Alphaeus; their children James, Joses (Joseph), Simon, and Jude are in the left and center panels.

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553), The Holy Kinship, (mixed media on lime, Wittenberg, 1509), Altarpiece, central panel: 100.4 × 121.1 cm; wings: 40 × 120 cm

Städel Museum — 1398, Frankfurt am Main

Public Domain © Wikicommons→

The side and central panels describe a a great hall with blue grey walls and three-colored tiles. In the side panels are depicted the half sisters of Virgin Mary, called after their fathers Mary Cleophas (left) and Mary Salome (right) together with their husbands.

Left panel: St. Mary Cleophas and Alphaeus (with the features of Friedrich the Wise with their two sons, the Apostles St. James the Less (at her breast) and Joseph Justus, called St. Barnabas, as annunciator of the Gospel of Matthew depicted with a book.

Central panel: Joseph, who seems to seems to sleep, the Virgin, dressed in blue with yellow lining, Anna and the Christ Child on her knee, who is stretching out his hand towards an apple given to him by Virgin Mary. Anna's three husbands following de Voragine Leg. aur. are shown in the background in the matroneum: on the left Joachim, who is attracted by the holy women in front of him and whose relation is also shown by the corresponding blue and yellow color of his dress, Cleophas (with the physiognomy and chain of Emperor Maximilian I and Salomas, with the physiognomy of Sixtus Oelhafen von Schöllenbach, secretary of Friedrich III, Maximilian I and Karl V), who are talking to each other. There is an architectural structure by a great stone bench in the foreground of the central panel with two marble columns on the sides, over which is strectched a cloth of gold. On the right column is a tablet with date and signature: [LVCAS CHRONVS FACIEBAT ANNO 1509. The parapet of the matroneum is decorated by a sculptured frieze with dancing putti holding six escutcheons with the six fields of Electorate of Saxony. In the hall are shown the 17 members of the Holy Kinship. In the central panel are shown two more children of Mary Cleophas and Alpheus, the Apostles Simon, patron saint of weavers, dyers, tanners and saddlers and Jude, who went on mission and suffered their martyrdom together and therefore are regularly depicted together.

Right panel: St. Mary Salome and Zebedee (with the features of Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, and his brother Herzog Johann der Beständige). St. Mary Salome, dressed in gold with dark red lining, is combing her son Saint James the Greater and while Saint John the Evangelist is hiding in her dress.

  • Paolo Veronese (Caliari) James as Bishop (1500s). Burghley House Collection, Lincolnshire, UK. The Bridgeman Art Library. James with crozier and miter, holding a book.

Paolo Veronese Cagliari (1528-1888), Saint James, (oil on canvas, ca. 1578), 200 X 85 cm, One of the volets of the organ of the church of San Jacopo, Murano, Venice — the other is a portrait of St. Augustine.

Burghley House Collection, Lincolnshire, UK, © A Graduate of Pomona→

  • Saint James the Less, painting by El Greco (c. 1612), Museo del Greco, Toledo, Spain. 

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El Greco (Domenikos Theotokópoulos) 1541-1614, The Apostle James the Greater, (Oil on canvas, 1610-1614), 100 cm X 80 cm

 Museo de El Greco→ (Toledo, Spain), © Wikicommons, 

James is shown holding a Bible, symbolizing his status as a scriptural writer, in one hand. James is depicted in the Mannerist style with elongated form and without any of the traditional iconographic symbols

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Nicolò Bambini (1651-1736), San Giacomo Minore (Oil on canvas, 1722-1723), Communion of St James (Series of the Twelve Apostles), Presbytery: right wall, center, Saint Stae,Venezia, © Chorus Venezia→ 

The risen Jesus appears to James and breaks bread with him (based on an account recorded in Jerome Vir. ill. 2, said to be drawn from the Gospel according to the Hebrews).

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Angelo de' Rossi (1671 – 1715), Jacobus Minor (Sculpture on marble, 1710-1711), Gli Apostoli, (h: 424 cm), Nef, San Giovanni in Laterano, Roma, © Wikicommons

James holds a book and club.

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James Tissot (French, 1836-1902), James the Lesser, (Opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper, 1886-1894), 30.6 x 23.5 cm, Brooklyn Museum, 00.159.237, © Brooklyn Museum photograph, 2008

James, resembling Jesus, prayers on his knees with outstretched arms. It perhaps reflects Hegesippus' statement that James spent so much time in prayer that his knees were as hard as a camel's.

Eastern Orthodox traditions

  • James the Just, Russian icon, 16th century. Novgorod. James is depicted in episcopal robes and holds a book.

Anonymous, James the Just, (pigments on wood, mid. 16th c.), icon, Novgorod or Moskow, Novgorod

Public Domain © Wikicommons→,

The inscription bearing the name of the saint has disappeared, but the iconography—facial features and beard shape —suggest that the icon is of James. Byzantine art places him among the founding fathers of the Church. As the creator of the first liturgy containing memorial services and the author of the message, which speaks of the healing power of prayer (Jas 5:14-16), he was also worshipped in ancient times as a healer. In Novgorod, James is prayed for the end of the epidemics. In sacred iconography, the representations of James of Jerusalem alone are very rare. We know the icons of Novgorod in which he is represented with other saints: Nicholas the Thaumaturgist, James the brother of God, Ignatius the bearer of God, end of the 15th c.; James the brother of God, Cosmas and Damian, 2nd quarter of the 16th c. The icon comes from the best workshops in Moscow or Novgorod.

  • Martyrdom of James the Just. Illustration from the Menologion of Basil II. (PG 117:6-612). Late 10th, early 11th c. AD. Vatican Library. 1613. Image 131.→  

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

Christian Tradition

20c cover a multitude of sins Good Works Cover Sins The tradition is divided on whether James refers to the sins of the converted person or the sins of the converter.

Sins of the Converted

  • Calvin Comm. Iac. ad loc. seems to take the covered sins to refer to the sins of the converted person: “but there is no better or more excellent way of covering them than when they are wholly abolished before God (in totum corum Deo aboluntur). And this is done when the sinner is brought by our admonition to the right way” (Owen 1849, 362; Reuss and Erichson 1896, 436); similarly Simons Excom. 10 (986–87).

Sins of the Converter

The principle that one who brings a straying believer back to the faith receives the reward of the forgiveness of his own sins is common in the tradition; see Poen. Big. (McNeill and Gamer 1938, 152; Wasserschleben 1851, 444).

  • Ps.-Hilary of Arles Tract. Iac. ad loc., “The one who preaches (praedicat) to sinners to make them turn from their sins, even if they do not turn, saves his own soul” (salvam suam animam fecit; col. 83).

  • Cassian Coll. 20.8.5 “The stain of vice is sometimes destroyed in virtue of mercy and faith…sometimes this occurs thanks to the conversion and salvation of those who are saved by our warnings and preaching” (Ramsey 1997, 699; Petschenig 1886, 563).

  • Bar Salibi Ep. Cath. ad loc., “And for his sake (ḥlp hw), the one who is converted by your care, you will receive a reward” (Sedlacek 1910, 102; Syriac: ibid., 133).

  • Barn.19.10 thus admonishes readers to support one another in the community, “going out to comfort another, being concerned to save a life (sôsein psuchên) through the word,” or working with their hands “as a ransom (lutrôsin) for your sins” (Ehrman 2003, 2:78–79). Cf. Did.4:6 “If you acquire something with your hands, give it as a ransom for your sins” (dos eis lutrôsin hamartiôn sou; Ehrman 2003, 1:424–25).

The discussion in 2 Clement parallels James both thematically and verbally.

  • 2 Clem. 15.1 teaches “whoever takes my advice [sc.: on self-restraint] will have no regrets, but will instead save (sôᵢzô) both himself and me, the one who has given the advice. There is no small reward for the one who converts (apostrephô) a person who is going astray (psuchê planômenê) toward destruction, that he may be saved” (sôᵢzô; Ehrman 2003, 1:188–89).

  • 2 Clem. 16.4 further discusses the principle of how doing good brings about forgiveness of sin for the one doing good, “Giving to charity (eleêmosunê) therefore is good as a repentance (metanoia) from sin…Love covers a multitude of sins, and prayer from a good conscience will rescue a person from death…For giving to charity lightens the load of sin” (Ehrman 2003, 1:190–91).

  • 2 Clem. 17.2 “we should help one another and bring those who are weak (asthenountas) back to what is good, so that we may all be saved and turn one another around (epistrephô) and admonish one another” (Ehrman 2003, 1:192–93).

  • Ep. Apos. 47 (39) “But if someone should fall under the load because of the sins he has committed, (then let) his neighbor admonish him for (the good) that he has done to his neighbour. Now if his neighbour had admonished him and he returns he will be saved; (and) he who admonished him will receive a reward and live for ever” (NTApoc 2:276; Schmidt 1919, 24*). This text may reflect an early dependence on the Letter of James.

A Traditional Form of Penance

Jas 5:20 took its place on a traditional list of ways in which a Christian could expiate his or her sins: 

  • Origen Hom. Lev. 2.4.5 lists several ways in which sins may be remitted: baptism, martyrdom, giving alms, forgiving those who sin against us (referencing Mt 6:12-15, turning a fellow sinner back to the right path (referencing Jas 5:20 ), loving much (referencing Lk 7:47  and 1Pt 4:8), and "remission of sins through penance," citing penitential Psalms and quoting Jas 5:14-15 (omitting Jas 5:15b, "and the Lord will raise him up"). 

Later versions of Origen's list all include Jas 5:20 (most also reference Jas 5:14-15): 

Sins of Both

  • Bede Ep. cath. ad loc. takes it that both the sins of the converted and the converter are covered. “Anyone who turns a sinner back from straying, through this act of turning him back both hides (abscondit) his sins from the sight of the inward judge by the superimposition (superpositione) of a better life and by curing his neighbor conceals (contegit) as well his own misdeeds (errata), however he offends, from the gaze of him who sees all things.” The converter receives “ a sure reward (certam mercedem) in return for the salvation of his brother whom he has corrected” (Hurst 1985, 64–65; Hurst 1983, 223–24).

A Related Saying

The closely related maxim “love covers a multitude of sins,” outside of quotations of 1Pt 4:8 and Prv 10:12 (Biblical Intertextuality Jas 5:20c)  also seems to have become an independent proverb in early Christianity; see 1 Clem. 49.5; 2 Clem. 16.4; Clement of Alexandria Paed. 3.91.3; Didasc. 4. In partciular, Clement and the Didascalia (Vööbus 1979, 46; Syriac: ibid., 55) quote it as one of Jesus' sayings.


Biblical Intertextuality

20c cover a multitude of sins What Kind of Covering?

Covering as Forgiveness

In some OT passages, covering sins is identified with God's forgiveness, apparently in the sense of removing sins from God's sight (Vocabulary Jas 5:20c).

  • Ps 31:1 (G): "Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sins are covered" (NRSV; epikaluptô; H = ksh).
  • Ps 84:3 (G): "You forgave your people their acts of lawlessness; you covered (kaluptô) all their sins."
  • 1Pt 4:8 has an important parallel to James' phrase, "Above all, let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sins." The latter part of this passage is an apparent allusion to the Hebrew of Prv 10:12, "Hatred stirs up disputes, but love (’hbh) covers (ksh) all offenses"; G-Prv 10:12 is quite different: "friendship (philia) covers those who are not contentious (mê philoneikountas).

Covering as Atonement for Sin

A consenus of the Christian tradition interprets this phrase as applying to the sins of the one converting the straying brother. This interpretation is supported by the general biblical principle that almsgiving (eleêmosunê) "covers" or atones for, one's own sins.  This principle is found in the following passages:

  • G-Dn 4:27: "atone (lutrôsai) for all your unrighteous deeds (adikia) by giving to the needy" (en eleêmosunais).
  •  Sir 3:30 (V-3:33): "Water will quench a flaming fire; and alms (eleêmosunê) atone (exilaskomai) for sins."
  • Tb 4:9-11: Advising his son to give alms to the extent he can, Tobit says, "You will be storing up a goodly treasure (thema agathon) for yourself against the day of adversity. For almsgiving (eleêmosunê) delivers from death and keeps one from entering into Darkness. Almsgiving is a worthy offering in the sight of the Most High for all who practice it."

 The concept of saving oneself through saving others is witnessed in 1 Timothy: "Attend to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in both tasks, for by doing so you will save (sôᵢzô) both yourself and those who listen to you" (1Tm 4:16).