Too Many Jameses: Untangling Jesus’s Family and Friends

Apostle St. James the Greater, by El Greco (1606).

Apostle St. James the Greater, by El Greco (1606).

This is a little reflection I meant to make a few months ago on May 3, the Feast of Saints Philip and James, regarding the confusion about who that particular Saint James, the son of Alphaeus, actually is. But I got busy that day and didn’t post. Today is the Feast of Saint James the Greater, the son of Zebedee, and while there’s no confusion about who he is, this post is still nibbling at me, and I don’t want to wait until next May 3. It’s still kind of relevant.

Because there are at least two or three men in the New Testament named James. And that’s really no surprise — because there were no doubt thousands of men with that name in Judea in the first century. The name translated James in English comes from the name Ιάκωβος (Iakōbos) in the Greek New Testament. Yes, you guessed it; that’s the name יעקב (ya‛ăqôb) in Hebrew — the Old Testament Jacob in English. James is named for Jacob, Israel himself, the patriarch of the Jewish people.

James II, by Peter Lely

James II of England, by Peter Lely.

Francis II, Jacobite King

All hail His Majesty King Francis II, our rightful king.

(The name becomes Iacobus or Jacobus in Latin, giving rise, in English history, to the terms Jacobean, pertaining to the period of King James I's reign, and Jacobite, the name for the restorationist followers of the deposed King James II and his line of Stuart pretenders to the throne. James was removed for being Catholic, and for his tolerance toward English Catholics, in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which I now see to have been not so glorious. Some of my ancestors, apparently, were Scottish Jacobites, and were exiled to America for taking part in the failed Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, in support of James’s grandson Charles Edward Stuart, “Bonnie Prince Charlie.” Maybe I have some Catholic ancestors after all? Bonnie Prince Charlie and his father, James Francis Edward Stuart, styled James III by the Jacobites, are buried (1) in high Catholic honor (2) in the Grottoes of St. Peter’s Basilica. I’m no longer sure how I feel about the “Glorious” Revolution or the Jacobites. James II was pretty well lawfully usurped, at least in as much as usurpation is ever lawful. I now see, though, that this is a history of which I know very little. The intolerance and persecution toward Catholics that spurred it was certainly not a good thing. I hope you have enjoyed this rabbit trail as much as I have.)

Anyway — to the matter at hand. There were a lot of Jameses in Judea at the time of Christ. James the Greater, the Apostle celebrated today, was so called to distinguish him from the other Apostle named James, the son of Alphaeus (Matthew 10:3, Mark 3:18, Luke 6:15). James the Greater, we know, was the son of Zebedee (Mark 1:19, 3.17, etc.) and the brother of John. He and John were called by the Lord Boanerges, “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17). In Jesus’s Aramaic, scholars reckon, this was probably בנירגיש (bnê•rğaš), lit. “sons of tumult,” or בנירגז (bnê•rğaz), lit. “sons of anger” — or as Aramaic scholar Maurice Casey supposes, בנירעם (bnê•r`am), the most literal Aramaic translation of “sons of thunder,” the result of a poor transliteration from Aramaic into Greek. So apparently, James and John were rather hot-headed, as we see in Scripture (Luke 9:51–56).

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were fellow fishermen with their father, and the associates of Simon Peter and his brother Andrew — or possibly their competitors (Mark 1:16–20). They were among the first disciples to follow Jesus, and with Simon Peter, formed His most intimate circle, who were chosen to witness His Transfiguration (Luke 9:28–36, etc.). We know that Saint James was the first of the Apostles to suffer martyrdom (Acts 12:1–3), about A.D. 44, perhaps having provoked Herod’s wrath on account of his temper.

Santiago Matamoros (Saint James the Moor-slayer)

Santiago Matamoros (Saint James the Moor-slayer), according to Spanish legend, appeared at the Battle of Clavijo to fight the Moors alongside the Spanish Christian army.

Saint James is the patron saint of Spain. According to Spanish legend, James ministered there, then sailed back to Jerusalem to meet his martyrdom. His relics were then transported back to Spain, either by his disciples or miraculously by angels, where they are said to be venerated in Santiago de Compostela (the Spanish name Santiago is actually Sant’Iago, or Saint James). Saint James’s patronage is a pious legend of the utmost importance to the Spanish, as fanciful as it seems. It is not out of the question that James went to Spain, a province of the Roman Empire; travel there in the first century was certainly possible. Paul desired to minister there, according to his Epistle to the Romans, written ca. A.D. 57 (Romans 15:22–24). According to the tradition of the Early Church, he did before his death.

So what of the other Jameses? There are three others mentioned in the New Testament: James, the son of Alphaeus, one of the Twelve (Mark 3:18, etc.); James, the brother of the Lord (Mark 6:3, Galatians 1:19); and James, the son of “the other” Mary (Matthew 27:56, etc.). Depending on what scholar you ask, two of these — or even all three — may refer to the same person.

Saint James the Just

Saint James the Just.

In history we say that there are lumpers and splitters. Catholic biblical scholars, especially the early ones, tended to be lumpers, desiring to make connections in Scripture, identify people and places with each other, and generally to lump ideas together. Protestants, on the other hand, perhaps by their very nature, are splitters, inclined to tear apart and question what is traditional and speculative and what Catholics have put together, especially where there lacks explicit evidence. The study of the biblical Jameses is a prime example of these tendencies.

There is very little known about the three other Jameses, aside from the few times they are mentioned in Scripture. Both Catholics and Protestants tend to agree that James, the brother of the Lord, was known in the Early Church as James the Just, and was the first bishop of Jerusalem (Galatians 2:1–13) and the author of the Epistle of James.

Catholic tradition records little about the Apostle James the Less, the son of Alphaeus. Orthodox tradition tradition holds that he first ministered in southwestern Palestine, then in Lower Egypt, where he met his martyrdom at Ostracine. Beyond this point, there is much Catholic conjecture.

Madonna and Child, by Carlo Maratta (c. 1660).

Madonna and Child, by Carlo Maratta (c. 1660).

First, Catholics and Orthodox do not believe that James the Just, the “brother” (ἀδελφός) of the Lord, was actually the brother of the Lord, or the son of Mary, who never bore another child. There is scriptural evidence to support this. When Joseph and Mary journeyed with the boy Jesus to Jerusalem (Luke 2:41–51), there is no mention of any other children. When Jesus, from the Cross, entrusted his mother Mary to John (John 19:25–27), it would make little sense for John to take Mary into his home if she had other children living. There are at least two views, then, of who the “brethren of the Lord” are: Either they are children of Joseph by a prior marriage (tradition holds Joseph to have been an older man and widower), or they are other close kinsmen of Jesus, perhaps cousins. The Aramaic language has no word for “cousin,” and used the word for “brother” instead, which could connote any relative. According to this view, when the Gospel was recorded in Greek, it followed this linguistic convention (the word ἀδελφός in Greek likewise can connote any relative).

St. James the Less, by El Greco.

St. James the Less, by El Greco (c. 1595).

And with this, the plot thickens considerably. If the “brethren of the Lord,” and our James the Just, are in fact Jesus’s cousins, who are their parents? Catholic scholars, beginning with the earliest of the Church Fathers, have made inferences based on these three verses of Scripture:

  • “. . . but standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.” (John 19:25)
  • “. . . among whom were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.” (Matthew 27:56)
  • “There were also women looking on from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger (ὁ μικρός, young, small, less) and of Joses, and Salome.” (Mark 15:40).

If we suppose, as appears to be the case, that all three verses refer to the same group of women who witnessed the Crucifixion, then it appears:

  1. Mary the mother of James and Joses (or Joseph) in Matthew and Mark, is the same woman as Mary the wife of Clopas in John.

  2. Salome in Mark is the same woman as the mother of the sons of Zebedee in Matthew.

  3. Depending on how one punctuates the Greek of John, either Mary the wife of Clopas (#1) or Salome the wife of Zebedee (#2) is the sister of our Lord’s mother in John. (The former would require that Mary had a sister named Mary, but this would not be unheard of, since Mary, or Miriam, was also a very common Jewish name, and one or both of the women may have had other names.)

  4. That would mean that either James and John, the sons of Zebedee and Salome, are the cousins of Jesus; or that James and Joses (or Joseph), the sons of Clopas and Mary, are the cousins of Jesus. The former would make some sense, since Jesus clearly had a close relationship with James and John, and entrusted his mother to John, who would have been her nephew.

  5. But the latter makes possibly more sense, since we are told that two of Jesus’s “brethren” were named James and Joses (Mark 6:3) or Joseph (Matthew 13:55). Mark refers, at the Crucifixion, to the “mother of James and Joses,” and Matthew refers to the “mother of James and Joseph.” It seems remarkable that Mark would spell the latter name Joses (Ἰωσῆ) both in reference to the Lord’s “brother” and to the second of the latter pair, when he was perfectly capable of also using the name Joseph (Ἰωσήφ) (Mark 15:43). It would appear, then, that this James and Joses, the Lord’s “brethren,” were in fact the children of Clopas and Mary.

  6. We can presume from the fact that the Evangelists identified “the mother of James and Joses” that James and Joses were people with whom the Early Church was familiar. Certainly the Early Church was familiar with James the Just, bishop of Jerusalem. If this James the Less (ὁ μικρός) is in fact implied to be James the brother of the Lord, then it seems James the Just and James the Less are the same person.

But is this James the Less (ὁ μικρός) the same man as the Apostle often referred to as James the Less? What of this last James, the son of Alphaeus? Some Catholic scholars, in their endless lumping, have suggested that Clopas (Κλωπᾶς), the father of James and Joses above, and Alphaeus (Ἀλφαῖος) are in fact the same man — meaning that all three of the obscure Jameses, James the Just the brother of our Lord, James the son of Clopas and Mary, and the Apostle James the Less, are one and the same man. The supposition that undergirds this is that Clopas had two names. Some have suggested that Clopas and Alphaeus were different transliterations of the same Aramaic name; but this doesn’t seem likely (the difficulty of this issue is discussed in Clopas’s article in the Catholic Encyclopedia). A secondary name, though, isn’t out of the question.

Apostle Judas Thaddeus, by Van Dyck

Apostle Judas Thaddeus, by Anthonis van Dyck (c. 1620).

Further, we know that Jude, author of the Epistle of Jude, is the brother of James (Jude 1), certainly James the Just, making him also the “brother” of the Lord, the Judas mentioned by Mark and Matthew. Catholic scholars have also identified this Jude with the Apostle Judas Thaddeus (Matthew 10:3, Mark 3:18, Luke 6:16). Most recent English translations of the Bible (including Catholic ones) translate Jude in Luke’s lists (here and in Acts 1:13) as “Judas son of James” — but the Greek actually reads Ἰούδας Ἰακώβου, literally Judas of James, with no relation made explicit. Jude may have been so identified by relation to his brother, the better-known James the Just, since James had already been listed; and traditional Catholic translations (the Douay-Rheims) read Judas brother of James. Jude likewise identifies himself by relation to his brother James in his epistle.

St. Simon the Zealot, by Rubens

St. Simon the Zealot, by Peter Paul Rubens (c. 1611).

But we Catholics aren’t quite done lumping. The last of Jesus’s “brethren” (Mark 6:3) was named Simon. Wasn’t there another Apostle named Simon, Simon the Zealot? James son of Alphaeus, Judas Thaddeus, and Simon the Zealot (or the Cananaean) are always listed together in the lists of the Apostles. Some Catholic scholars have taken that as a hint, together with the coincidence that Jesus also had “brethren” named James, Judas, and Simon, and supposed that the two sets might be connected. They have identified Simon the Zealot as another “brother” of the Lord. Further, some have also identified him with Simeon (or Simon), who succeeded James the Just (his brother?) as bishop of Jerusalem.

Paul lends some credence to the notion that at least two of the Lord’s brothers were members of the apostolic party: “Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?” (1 Corinthians 9:5). In increasing order of importance, Paul lists: (1) the other apostles, (2) the brothers of the Lord, and (3) Cephas, or Peter, the chief Apostle. Together, this statement seems to refer to the Twelve, and includes “the brothers of the Lord” among them.

All in all, it seems as if Jesus’s evangelic enterprise may have been something of a family affair. Two sets of brothers, Simon Peter and Andrew, and James and John; and possibly three of His own “brethren.” Of course, none of this is verified or can ever be verified. But it is traditions like these, enriching to the story and harmless if untrue, that make our Catholic faith full, rich, and beautiful.

16 thoughts on “Too Many Jameses: Untangling Jesus’s Family and Friends

  1. Are you sure that you’re not entering the zone of revisionist history concerning ‘persecution of catholics’ in England ?

    It was the Vatican that unfortunately was the main cause of bad blood between England and Rome.

    Here’s an excellent lecture by a former editor of the Catholic Herald. He takes about five minutes to warm up, but I recommend watching it.
    http://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/1302-and-all-that-papal-bulldozers-through-seven-centuries

    • Persecution certainly both went ways. I don’t deny that Catholics persecuted Protestants, too. But I’m rather a Catholic partisan now. :-p James II was at least doing his best to promote toleration for both Catholics and Protestants, to keep a very vitriolic situation in balance. He wasn’t the villain that he’s often painted in English history.

  2. Thank you for this piece Joseph – very enlightening. James II was really overthrown for being something of a tyrant. His abuse of due process of law was what made him rally unacceptable to the English. Certainly there was some anti-Catholic bigotry involved too, but it was his own bad habits and incapacity which led to his downfall.

  3. I had to read this twice to even vaguely get my Jameses straight… but great post! It’s fascinating to think about how much Jesus’ ministry might have been “a family affair”.

    And I loved the excursus on the Jacobites. 🙂 Just a question, do you know where the language about dividing historians into lumpers and splitters? I remember one lecturer telling me I was an impossible lumper… and I can’t quite figure out if I should be pleased or not!

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