James 3

Beware the Tongue

Bridling Horses

We put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us (James 3:3).

The word “bit” (Gk. chalinos) refers generally to the bridle equipment (including bridle, bit, and reins), although only a portion of this equipment is actually placed inside the horse’s mouth (thus the common practice among English versions to translate it “bit”). This bronze statue of a horse was crafted with a clearly defined bridle. It dates to the first century AD and was found in Emerita Augusta (modern Mérida) in ancient Hispania.

Steering Ships

Look at the ships as well, though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, yet they are steered by a very small rudder, wherever the desire of the pilot directs (James 3:4).

The reference to ships as “driven by strong winds” clearly refers to ships with sails. Sails were standard equipment for ocean-going vessels, even those (such as warships) that were also equipped with banks of oars. This marble relief from Carthage depicts a ship with square sails that is steered by two side rudders connected to each other, also known as a corbita.

Boasting Tongues

So also the tongue is a small member yet boasts of great things (James 3:5).

An example of making great boasts appears on the coinage of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The obverse side of this coin (left) shows a portrait of Antiochus IV, who claimed to be the manifestation of the god Zeus in the flesh. The reverse side of the coin (right) shows the god Zeus enthroned with a scepter in his left hand and a small winged statue of Nike in his right hand. The inscription reads “(A coin) of King Antiochus—God Manifest, Conqueror.”


It sets on fire the entire cycle of life, and is itself set on fire by hell (James 3:6).

The word translated as “hell” in this verse is “Gehenna” in Greek. The word Gehenna comes from the Hebrew gai, meaning “valley,” and the Hebrew name “Hinnom,” the name of the valley on the west and south sides of ancient Jerusalem. By the 1st century AD, gai hinnom had become gehenna and was identified with a place of fiery torment, possibly because of the idolatrous worship practiced in the days of Ahaz and Manasseh when children were sacrificed in the fires.

Ancient Poisons

No one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil, full of deadly poison (James 3:8).

James speaks of the tongue as full of poison. A well-known poison used by the Greeks was hemlock (conium maculatum), a deadly plant usually administered as a liquid to prisoners condemned to death. Socrates was the most famous victim of hemlock poisoning. These medicine bottles, dating to the 5th century BC, may have been used to hold the hemlock used by the prison in Athens. This display was photographed at the Athens Agora Museum.

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