In the English New Testament, the name James is derived from the Greek form of Jacob (Iakōbos). The Greek transliterated form of the Hebrew name (Iakōb) is translated as Jacob, and is always used with reference to the patriarch Jacob. Matthew (1:15, 16) also uses Iakōb to name the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus. One of Joseph's sons was named Iakōbos, continuing this tradition. Interestingly, the Jewish historian Josephus (a contemporary of the NT authors) always uses Iakōbos, whether referring to the patriarch, or to one of his own contemporaries, including “James” the brother of Jesus. Eusebius, the fourth-century historian and bishop of Caesarea, also always uses Iakōbos, whether referring to the patriarch or a member of the Jesus movement. The decision to translate Iakōbos as James is unfortunate and misleading, obscuring the Jewish roots of a Christian name.

The name Iakōbos was common. Eusebius, writing in the early fourth century, quotes Hegesippus (ca. 110–180C.E.) to the effect that “he was called the ‘Just’ by all men from the Lord's time to ours, since many were called Iakōbos” (HE 2.23.4). Those called Iakōbos needed an additional identifier such as, “the son of Zebedee,” “the son of Alpheus,” “the small,” “the brother of the Lord,” also known as “the Just.” According to Ilan, it was one of the top ten Jewish names in Palestine at the time.

The NT identifies as many as nine people with this name.

  • 1. The patriarch Iakōb, son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, who is referred to 25 times in the NT.
  • 2. Iakōb the father of Joseph, Mt 1:15, 16, but named Eli in Lk 3:23.The remaining seven figures are referred to using Iakōbos, commonly translated as James. This form of the name is used forty-three times in the NT. Roughly half of these refer to James the son of Zebedee (8), another quarter to James the brother of the Lord (9), leaving roughly a quarter with reference to up to five people. From the time of Jerome (ca. 383C.E.) all five have sometimes been identified with the brother of the Lord, though the identification is not clear in any case. Since J. B. Lightfoot's essay on “The Brethren of the Lord” (1865), these identifications have lost credibility, but still appear in popular treatments.
  • 3. The author of the letter of James refers to himself as “Iakōbos servant of God and Lord Jesus Christ.” Though the authenticity of this letter was doubted until the mid-fourth century (see Eusebius HE 2.23.24–25), it was never attributed to any other James than “the brother of the Lord.” Doubt of authenticity implies suspicion of pseudonymity, where the name of James has been used to lend authority to an anonymous writing.
  • 4. The author of the letter of Jude refers to himself as “a servant of Jesus Christ, brother of Iakōbos.” Probably that is meant to be a reference to “the brother of the Lord,” but that may be doubted. Like the letter of James, the authenticity of the letter of Jude was doubted until the mid-fourth century.
  • 5. James the son of Alpheus, one of the Twelve, is unmentioned apart from his place in the list of the Twelve (Mt 10:2–4; Mk 3:16–19; Lk 6:13–16; Acts 1:13). He is sometimes identified as James the Little (6) and brother of Joseph, whose mother Mary was present at the crucifixion (Mk 15:40). Jerome mistakenly referred to him as James the Less compared with James the son of Zebedee, to whom he referred as the Greater. He argued that the comparative reference implies that there were only two apostles of this name, and that the second was James the brother of the Lord, son of Alpheus and Mary of Clopas. This threefold identification is dubious. The identification of Clopas (Jn 19:25) with Cleopas (Lk 24:18) is also probably mistaken.
  • 6. James the Little (Iakōbos ho mikros; Mt 27:56; Mk 15:40; cf. Jn 19:25; lit., “James the Small”; KJV: “James the Less”; NRSV: “James the younger”). According to Matthew and Mark, the mother of this figure was present at the crucifixion, though only Mark 15:40 identifies him as ho mikros. All four Gospels mention the women followers of Jesus who were present at the crucifixion, watching from afar (Synoptics) or nearby (John). Luke does not name or number the women (Lk 23:49). Matthew and Mark identify three from a wider group, while John identifies four, without mentioning a wider group. The women in Matthew are Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee, who is not named. It is possible to reduce the number of women referred to in John 19:25 to three if the second of the two women identified by relationships (the mother of Jesus and his mother's sister) is also the first of the two women named (Mary the [wife] of Clopas and Mary Magdalene). If the sister of the mother of Jesus is Mary the [wife] of Clopas, it is possible to make a further identification with a figure not mentioned in John, but only in Matthew and Mark, that is, with Mary the mother of James and Joseph. There is nothing in any of the Gospels to suggest that this harmonization of the Gospels should be made. It unlikely because it results in two sisters, each named Mary. The attempt to identify people on the basis that they bear the same name is naive in a context where a small number of names were commonly used. Nevertheless, Jerome chose to make these identifications in order to show that those named as brothers and identified as sisters in the NT (Mt 13:55; Mk 6:3 and elsewhere) were actually the cousins of Jesus. His hypothesis is implausible, and is unknown prior to his advocacy of it c. 383C.E. The brothers of Jesus are never called his cousins and James (9) becomes known as “the brother of the Lord.”
  • 7. One of the Twelve, distinguished from Judas Iscariot, is “Judas of James” (Lk 6:16; Acts 1:13), probably referred to as “Judas, not Iscariot” in Jn 14:22. “Judas of James” probably means son of James. Given the correspondence of the other names in the Synoptic lists of the Twelve, the absence of this Judas from the lists in Matthew and Mark, being replaced by Thaddaeus (or Lebbaeus), suggests that this Judas was commonly known as Thaddaeus. If the genitive case “of James” was taken to mean “brother of James,” it could be argued that these two were also known as brothers of Jesus but were sons of Alpheus. This reconstruction moves back again into Jerome's web of unlikely identifications of obscure figures for no better reason than that they bear the same names.
  • 8. James (Iakōbos) the brother of John, both sons of Zebedee. This Iakōbos was notable in his own time and has left a significant trail alongside his brother John in the literary evidence (Mt 4:21; 10:2; 17:1; Mk 1:19, 29; 3:17; 5:37; 9:2; 10:35, 41; 13:3; 14:33; Lk 5:10; 6:14; 8:51; 9:28, 54; Acts 1:13; 12:2). They, along with Peter, form an inner circle of three (Peter, James, and John) within the Twelve. When James was martyred, the circle of three continued with the three pillar apostles of the Jerusalem church (James the brother of the Lord [9], Cephas [Peter], and John; Gal 2:9).According to Matthew and Mark, Jesus began his Galilean mission by calling two groups of brothers, first Simon (Peter) and Andrew, then James and John the sons of Zebedee (Mt 4:18–22; Mk 1:16–20). The brothers were fishermen in family businesses on the Sea of Galilee. Luke places the incident later under different circumstances (Lk 5:1–11) and indicates that the two sets of brothers were partners in a fishing business (Lk 5:10). The calling of the first disciples is different in Jn 1:35–51. Andrew, described as the brother of Simon Peter, is one of the first two to follow Jesus, and brings his brother to Jesus. In John, there is no mention of fishing at the time of the call (but see 21:1–3) and, unless James or John is the unnamed second disciple of Jn 1:40, no mention of the sons of Zebedee, until 21:2. Following the call stories, Mark describes an incident in a synagogue in Capernaum (Mk 1:21–28), which Luke places before the call stories (Lk 4:31–37). Immediately thereafter, Jesus goes to the house of Simon (Peter) and Andrew with James and John (Mk 1:29–34; Lk 4:38–41), where Jesus heals Peter's mother-in-law of a fever. Mt 8:14–17 places this incident somewhat later. Only Mark mentions the presence of James and John with Jesus at this time (Mk 1:29). The close proximity of the call of these four to this incident is found only in Mark, perhaps explaining their continuing presence in the Markan narrative.James is mentioned in all lists of the Twelve (Mt 10:2–4; Mk 3:16–19; Lk 9:13–16; Acts 1:13). The two sets of brothers make up the first four in all lists. Peter is always named first, using some combination of Simon Peter, except in Acts where he is simply Peter. In Matthew and Luke, Andrew is named second. In Mark, James is second and in Acts, John is second. Andrew is fourth in Mark and Acts. The order Simon and Andrew, James and John reflects the traditional order of the call stories and is retained in Matthew and Luke. Andrew is displaced in Mark and Acts because of the prominence of the three at certain important points in the ministry of Jesus. In Acts 1:13 the order of the brothers is Peter, John, James, and Andrew, perhaps because of the early death of James (Acts 12:2).The three are singled out in the account of the healing of Jairus's daughter (Mk 5:21–43; Lk 8:40–56). Matthew's account (Mt 9:18–26) is much abbreviated, placed before the naming of the Twelve, and omits reference to the three disciples. In Mark and Luke only Peter, James, and John accompany Jesus into the house and witness the raising of Jairus's daughter, and only these three accompany Jesus to the mount of transfiguration (Mt 17:1; Mk 9:2; Lk 9:28). Less auspiciously, only Luke (9:54) reports that James and John asked if they should call down fire on a Samaritan village which refused to receive Jesus because he was headed for Jerusalem. This incident is consistent with their reputation and nickname, “the sons of thunder.” Another low point is their request to sit, one on Jesus' right, and the other on his left in his “glory” (Mk 10:35). Matthew removes the brothers a step by attributing the request to their mother, who speaks of Jesus' “kingdom” (Mt 20:21). Both Matthew and Mark report the ire of the ten disciples at the attempted one-upmanship of the two brothers (Mt 20:24; Mk 10:41). The irony is that Jesus had already exposed the dispute among the Twelve about which of them was greater (Mk 9:33–34).The Synoptics tell of the questions that arise from Jesus' critical comments about the Temple as they viewed its great stones. In Mt 24:3, the disciples ask Jesus when these things will happen, and what is the sign that it is all about to happen. In Mk 13:3 it is Peter, James, John, and Andrew, alone with Jesus, who ask. Luke is unclear about who asks Jesus, though most likely it is the disciples as a group (Lk 21:7). Finally, Peter, James, and John are involved with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane (Mt 26:36–46; Mk 14:32–42; Lk 22:39–46). Matthew and Mark portray a situation of dread and foreboding in which Jesus tells the disciples to sit while he goes to pray. He then takes Peter and the sons of Zebedee (Matthew), Peter, James, and John (Mark), and begins to be exceedingly troubled. He tells them to watch and pray, but they can not stay awake. Luke's narrative gives no special place to the three disciples. In Matthew and Mark the three disciples fail to watch and pray but fall asleep. Three times Jesus returns to find them sleeping.James is mentioned again in Acts 1:13 amongst the disciples who have reassembled in Jerusalem. The only other mention is his death notice in Acts 12:1–2, which reports that “King Herod [the elder Herod Agrippa] laid hostile hands on some members of the church. He beheaded James the brother of John with the sword.”In postbiblical tradition, James the son of Zebedee is sometimes called James the Great(er), to distinguish him from James the Little (6).
  • 9. James (Iakōbos) the brother of the Lord (Mt [12:46–50]; 13:55; Mk [3:31–35]; 6:3; Lk [8:19–21]); Jn [2:12; 7:35]; Acts [1:14]; 12:17;15:13; 21:18; 1 Cor [9:5–6]; 15:5–8; Gal 1:19; 2:9, 12; Jas 1:1; Jude 1:1. In Mt 13:55 and Mk 6:3, James is one of four named brothers of Jesus whose unnamed sisters are also mentioned. The people of Nazareth describe them (and Jesus) as children of Joseph and Mary. Matthew and Luke describe the conception of Jesus, before Mary was married to Joseph, while she was a virgin, and attribute the conception to the activity of the Holy Spirit. The circumstances of Jesus' conception and birth are not described elsewhere in the NT. Despite this, by the early third century, the view had emerged and soon became widespread, that Mary not only conceived as a virgin, but her virginity remained intact after giving birth and throughout her life. Other children known as brothers and sisters of Jesus were identified as older children of Joseph by a marriage prior to his marriage to Mary. Earliest evidence of this view is found in the Book of Mary (Protevangelium Jacobi), which might have been known by Clement of Alexandria (Strom. 7.16.93) and was certainly known by Origen circa 244C.E. (Commentary on Matthew Book X.17 on Mt 13:55), and is found in the third-century Bodmer Papyrus V. J. B. Lightfoot argued that this view of Mary's virginity was widespread from earliest times, appealing to such witnesses as Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Justin, Irenaeus, and many others (“The Brethren of the Lord,” 1865, p. 259). He failed to note that these early witnesses claim no more than is common to Matthew and Luke, that Mary conceived as a virgin and did not consummate her marriage with Joseph prior to the birth of Jesus. For the view that Mary remained a virgin, Protevangelium Jacobi is our first evidence. Origen gave his support to this view. He does not claim that the view was widely held. He argues only that it is fitting that the mother of Jesus should be the model of virginal purity for women. By the beginning of the fourth century the position of Protevangelium was widely held in the East, and by 383C.E. was gaining acceptance in the West. Before Jerome developed his view, based only on scripture, Augustine also accepted this account of Mary's continuing virginity. Jerome attempted to show that those known as brothers and sisters of Jesus were in fact his cousins, children of the sister of the mother of Jesus, also named Mary. His arguments have lost favor over the last century or so. Writing circa 383C.E., Jerome mocked those who accepted the teaching of Protevangelium, accusing them of “following the ravings of the apocryphal writings and inventing a wretched creature” (see Lightfoot, p. 260). Jerome's scathing criticism of Protevangelium carried the Western Church with him.Lightfoot identified critical weaknesses in Jerome's hypothesis. First, it was unknown until proposed by Jerome in 383C.E. There was no biblical precedent for this use of “brother” to identify a “cousin.” The brothers appear with Mary and Joseph, and later with the mother of Jesus, their mother. James is known as the brother of the Lord, not his cousin. Helvidius, argued (ca. 380C.E.) that those known as Jesus' siblings were children of Joseph and Mary.In the West, Jerome's views were adopted and Protevangelium was consigned to the heretical list of books. It was condemned by successive Popes (Damasis, 366–384; Innocent I, 402–417; Gelasius I, 492–496) and was listed among the condemned books in the sixth century Gelasian Decree. No Latin manuscripts of Protevangelium survived in the West. It remained popular in the East where over 140 Greek manuscripts have survived, the earliest being from the third century, though most are from the tenth century. The weaknesses of Jerome's hypothesis, exposed by Lightfoot, have loosened its hold, and Protevangelium is unlikely to provide a credible alternative understanding of the brothers and sisters of Jesus.For both the Protevanelium and Jerome, the virginity of Mary was preserved, but Protevangelium achieved this by using a legendary story making Joseph the father of those called brothers of Jesus prior to his marriage to Mary. Mary remained a virgin and the step-brothers were known as his brothers. For Jerome those known as brothers were actually cousins, children of Mary's sister, also Mary.

Jesus' Family.

Although the family of Jesus is not mentioned prior to Mk 3:20–21, recent exegetes have identified those who tried to restrain Jesus in 3:21 as the family (see, e.g., NRSV, v. 21). This account is found only in Mark, following the calling and appointment of the Twelve to be with Jesus. After naming the Twelve, Jesus went into a house, presumably with those he had chosen. When Jesus went out to the crowd that had gathered, “those with him” (hoi par' autou) went out to restrain him, because they (who? his disciples, or the crowd?) were saying “he is beside himself.” Nothing in this language suggests the presence of the family. More likely the reference is to “his [Jesus'] associates,” that is, the Twelve. No negative view of the family is found here.

The arrival of Jesus' mother and brothers is narrated in Mk 3:31–35 (see Mt 12:46–50; Lk 8:19–21). While they wait outside, their arrival is reported to Jesus inside the house. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus' response is introduced by Jesus looking at those around him in the house and saying, “Behold my mother and my brothers,” and “Whoever does the will of God is my brother, sister and mother.” The initial action focuses on those inside rather than those outside. Luke omits this and reports only Jesus' words, “My mother and my brothers are these, the ones who hear the word of God and do it.” This does not suggest that Jesus' natural family is excluded, an innuendo which is found in Matthew and Mark. Certainly Jesus' natural family had no special claim on him.

The rejection of Jesus at Nazareth is recorded in each of the Synoptics, but only Matthew and Mark make knowledge of the family of Jesus an important factor in his rejection at Nazareth (Mk 6:3; see Mt 13:55–56; Lk 4:16–30). According to Mark the people of Nazareth say, “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James, and Joseph, and Judas, and Simon? And are not his sisters with us? And they were scandalized by him.” With some variations Matthew reports, “Is this not the son of the carpenter? Is not his mother called Mary and his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us?” Luke makes the offense of Jesus' teaching the basis of his rejection rather than suggesting that familiarity with the family bred contempt. Here Matthew and Mark identify the brothers of Jesus and mention his sisters in the company of his mother and father. There is no room for Jerome' hypothesis here.

The Brothers of Jesus.

John does not mention James by name but speaks of the brothers of Jesus on two occasions. On both they are in the company of Jesus during his ministry. In the first, they are with the mother of Jesus (cf. Mk 3:31; Mt 12:46), and the setting is positive. The first Cana miracle was initiated by the mother of Jesus. Following it Jesus went down to Capernaum with his mother and brothers and his disciples (mentioned in that order), and remained there for a few days (Jn 2:12). The narrative gives the impression that Jesus' mother and brothers are an integral part of his company.

In Jn 7:3–10 there is no mention of Jesus' mother or his disciples, but his brothers are present. The disciples are not mentioned in Jn 7–8, but return briefly to the narrative in Jn 9:2. Jesus' dialogue partners in Jn 7–8 are first his brothers, then the Jews, some of the people in Jerusalem, and the Pharisees. This grouping might suggest a negative portrayal of the brothers. In Jn 7:3 Jesus' brothers urge him to go to Judea during the Feast of Tabernacles to maximize the effectiveness of his “works,” revealing Jesus “to the world.” That this is a misunderstanding of Jesus' purpose and an expression of unbelief is made clear by the narrative (Jn 7:5). Yet, though Jesus rejects the suggestion, he goes to Jerusalem secretly, and dramatically reveals himself in the middle of the festival (7:10, 14).

Following the resurrection appearances, the foreshadowed empowerment of the disciples for mission from Jerusalem to the world, Acts reports the ascension of Jesus, and the gathering of his followers in Jerusalem, including the remaining eleven apostles, who are named (Acts 1:13), with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus and his brothers (Acts 1:14). Acts describes a harmonious gathering for prayer and for the choosing of a replacement for Judas Iscariot. This mention of the brothers of Jesus as group has the marks of a traditional description of well-known figures in the company of believers.

Of the brothers of Jesus, only James is mentioned in the following chapters. Before the first reference to him in 12:17, Acts deals with the martyrdom of James the son of Zebedee in 12:2. When Peter is released from prison he comes to the house where the followers of Jesus were gathered and instructs those gathered to report what had happened “to James and the brothers.” This can only refer to James the brother of Jesus. Reference to “the brothers,” not “the brothers of the Lord,” signals the believers generally, probably without excluding the women (see Acts 1:15 in the light of 1:14).

The popular view is that, in Acts 12:17, Peter was passing leadership to James. More likely, he was reporting to James because he was the leader. No early tradition identifies Peter as the leader of the Jerusalem church. Although Peter was the outstanding missionary of the Jerusalem church, early traditions in Acts, Galatians 2, and gathered by Eusebius, attest that James was the first leader of the Jerusalem church. James is next mentioned at the Jerusalem assembly of Acts 15. The narrative describes James presiding over the discussion of the requirements for Gentile believers (15:13). James sums up and gives his judgment at the end of the proceedings, “I judge … ” (15:19–21). When Paul returns to Jerusalem he goes to see James (21:18). James and the elders receive Paul's report on the Gentile mission and advise him on his conduct while in Jerusalem (21:20–36).

In 1 Cor 9:5, Paul asks of himself and Barnabas, “Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a wife, like the rest of the apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?” This suggests that the apostles and the brothers of the Lord were married and that their wives accompanied them when travelling on mission activities. Paul mentions James by name in 1 Cor 15:7. Here he lists the witnesses to the risen Jesus in order, Cephas, then the Twelve, then over five hundred brethren, then James, then all the apostles, and last Paul himself (15:5–8). Other tradition (the Gospel of the Hebrews) makes James the first witness to the risen Jesus, and the Gospel of Thomas attributes the appointment of James as leader to the initiative of the risen Jesus.

Paul reports that, after his conversion, he went to Jerusalem to see Cephas and that, of the other apostles, he saw only James, the brother of the Lord, (Gal 1:18–19). Then, having begun his mission to the nations, he again went to Jerusalem to establish the terms of his mission. He refers to James as the first of the three pillar apostles, naming them as James, Cephas, and John (Gal 2:2, 6, 9). When Paul and his delegation had returned to Antioch, messengers came from James, whose authority, even at a distance, was such that it brought about a change of policy and practice by the Jewish believers, except for Paul (Gal 2:12–14). The incident reveals unresolved tension between James and Paul in relation to the mission to the nations.

Early Traditions.

The early traditions concerning James gathered by Eusebius (HE 1.12.4–5; 2.1.2–5; 3.5.2–3; 3.7.7–9; 3.11.1; 3.12.1; 4.5.1–4; 4.22.4; 7.19.1) come via Josephus, Hegesippus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and others. From these we learn of James as the first leader of the Jerusalem church, of his outstanding piety and leadership, his place as the brother of the Lord and reference to him as James the Just. Eusebius gives detailed attention to gathering the traditions of the martyrdom of James in 62C.E. (HE 2.23.1–25).

The apocryphal Gospel of the Hebrews, and the Gospel of Thomas, provide a basis for the tradition, found in Clement of Alexandria, and in the Nag Hammadi Jacobaean tractates, that James received the higher teaching from Jesus. The fourth-century Pseudo-Clementine writings set James in Jerusalem as the bishop of bishops, deploying the agents of Christian mission in every place. Peter is the prime agent of mission and Paul is depicted as the enemy of James. While this builds on the tensions evident in the NT writings, it reflects antagonisms from a later period.

Overall, the evidence of the NT and from the early church is clear concerning the leadership of James of Jerusalem, the brother of the Lord. Because there were many called James he was identified as the brother of the Lord. That relationship was a key factor in establishing his leadership, along with the tradition of the appearance of the risen Lord to him. His reputation in the second century marks him as a towering figure in the early church. Even Jerome, who wished to preserve the virginity of Mary by showing that James was a cousin, not a brother, had no wish to minimize his greatness. In Jerome's Lives of Illustrious Men, the life of James comes second, only after Peter, and his account of James is longer. But the acceptance of Jerome's hypothesis in the West and of Protevangelium in the East, led to the demise of James's significance.

Bibliography

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