The name James is derived from the Hebrew name Jacob. In the New Testament, the name James refers to three different men who were important early Christian leaders. Additionally, there are a few other minor characters named James mentioned in the New Testament. This article will examine the question: how many Jameses are in the Bible? We will look at the background of each James and his significance. A key takeaway is that while there are several Jameses mentioned, three stand out as prominent leaders in the early church.
- There are three primary Jameses in the New Testament: James the brother of John, James the son of Alphaeus, and James the brother of Jesus.
- James the brother of John was one of Jesus’ 12 disciples. He was killed by Herod Agrippa I around 44 AD.
- James the son of Alphaeus was another of the 12 disciples. He is often called James the Less.
- James the brother of Jesus was a leader of the Jerusalem church and likely author of the Epistle of James.
- In addition to the three primary Jameses, there are a few minor characters named James mentioned in the New Testament.
James the Brother of John
The first James we will look at is referred to as James, son of Zebedee and brother of John. This James was one of the twelve original apostles chosen by Jesus. He played a significant role during Jesus’ ministry and was part of the inner circle along with his brother John and the apostle Peter.
James and John were fishermen along with their father Zebedee. Jesus called them to be his disciples while they were fishing in the Sea of Galilee, as recorded in Matthew 4:21-22:
“Going on from there, He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and his brother John, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and He called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed Him.” (NKJV)
This passage shows that James immediately responded to Jesus’ call to follow him.
In Mark’s Gospel, James and John were given the nickname “Sons of Thunder” by Jesus, likely referring to their bold and enthusiastic personalities (Mark 3:17). James was one of the few disciples that Jesus gave a nickname to, indicating his close relationship with James.
Along with Peter and John, James was chosen to witness some of the key events in Jesus’ ministry that the other disciples did not, demonstrating his trusted position in Jesus’ inner circle:
- James witnessed Jesus heal Peter’s mother-in-law and cast out demons (Mark 1:29-39).
- James was present at the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:37).
- James witnessed the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain (Matthew 17:1).
- James was close to Jesus during his agony in Gethsemane (Mark 14:33).
So while James started out as a humble fisherman, he quickly became a confidante and leader among the twelve. The biblical record shows that James was often present at the most important moments of Jesus’ ministry.
James remained a prominent disciple after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. In Acts chapter 1, James was present with the other apostles in the upper room in Jerusalem as they waited for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 1:13). Later in Acts, James was arrested along with Peter by the Jewish authorities and then miraculously released by an angel (Acts 12:1-17). This shows that James continued to be a leader of the early Christian movement in Jerusalem and faced persecution for his faith like the other apostles.
According to church tradition, James spread the gospel in Spain after Pentecost and then returned to Judea. Back in Judea around 44 AD, James was martyred by King Herod Agrippa I, who was seeking to persecute church leaders to please the Jewish authorities (Acts 12:1-3). James was the first of the original twelve apostles to be martyred. His death is recorded by the Jewish historian Josephus as well as referenced in Acts 12.
So in summary, James the brother of John stands out as one of Jesus’ closest disciples and a bold leader of the early church who faced persecution and martyrdom for the sake of the gospel. His prominent role sets him apart as the first key person named James we meet in the New Testament.
James the Son of Alphaeus
The second James included among the twelve disciples is referred to as “James the son of Alphaeus” (Matthew 10:3, Mark 3:18, Luke 6:15, Acts 1:13). He is not the same James who was John’s brother.
To distinguish him from the other apostle named James, this James is often called “James the Less” or “James the Younger” in church tradition. He did not attain the same level of prominence as James the son of Zebedee.
The Bible does not tell us much about James the son of Alphaeus. His father Alphaeus is unknown other than his name. His calling as an apostle is listed along with the other eleven disciples. Other than the lists of the twelve, James the Less is only referenced one other time in the Bible, in Mark 15:40, which describes him as the “son of Mary,” possibly implying that Mary was his mother or that Alphaeus had died:
“There were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the Less and of Joses, and Salome.” (Mark 15:40 NKJV)
This verse shows James the Less was present at the crucifixion of Jesus along with the other disciples and followers of Christ. Aside from this reference, there are no other mentions of James the son of Alphaeus in the New Testament. He remains somewhat obscure compared to the other prominent apostles like Peter, John and his name-sake James the brother of John.
According to tradition, James the Less spread the gospel in Egypt and was crucified in Egypt around 61 AD. However, these traditions are late and unverified, so most is unknown about James after the writing of the New Testament.
While less information is given in Scripture about James the son of Alphaeus compared to the other apostle James, he still played an important role as one of the twelve chosen disciples of Jesus during his ministry on earth. Though obscured by his name-sake, James the Less contributed to the foundation of the early Christian church.
James the Brother of Jesus
The third prominent James in the New Testament is James, the brother of Jesus. This James was not one of the twelve disciples, but he became a leader in the Jerusalem church and is traditionally considered the author of the Epistle of James. He is also called “James the Just” due to his reputation for righteousness.
Initially during Jesus’ ministry, the Bible records that James did not believe in Jesus as the Messiah along with Jesus’ other brothers (John 7:5). But at some point James converted, likely due to a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:7). Possibly James’ unbelief was overcome when Jesus appeared to him personally in resurrected form.
James then emerged as a chief elder and leader in the Jerusalem church. When the apostle Paul came to Jerusalem after his conversion, he met with James and Cephas (Peter) to confirm his gospel message (Galatians 1:19). This meeting reveals the authority James held at that point alongside the apostle Peter in the Jerusalem community of believers.
In Acts 15, James presided over and made the final judgment at the Council of Jerusalem around 50 AD. This was a pivotal council regarding whether Gentile converts to Christianity needed to adhere to Jewish ceremonial law like circumcision. James settled the dispute in favor of Paul’s gospel of salvation by grace apart from the Law. The whole assembly accepted James’ binding decision, demonstrating his respected leadership (Acts 15:13-21).
When Paul traveled to Jerusalem again several years later, he reported to James and the other elders, who advised Paul on avoiding controversy over rumors about his teachings (Acts 21:17-25). This again shows the prominence of James in Jerusalem as the leading elder of the church there.
According to the Jewish historian Josephus (who was not a Christian), James was stoned to death around 62 AD by the order of the high priest Ananus, who illegally had James executed during an interim between Roman governors of Judea. Thus James met a martyr’s death like the earlier apostle James the brother of John.
The General Epistle of James is traditionally attributed to this James based on his leadership in the Jerusalem church. In the epistle, the author refers to himself simply as “James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1 NKJV). The teaching in the letter focuses heavily on righteous living, sounding much like James’ words at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. So while certainty of authorship is impossible, there are good reasons to accept this James as the author given the similarities between his speech in Acts and the content of the epistle bearing his name. Many scholars accept James the brother of Jesus as the most likely author.
To summarize, James the brother of Jesus stands out as one of the most important leaders in the beginnings of Jewish Christianity based in Jerusalem. Despite his lack of belief during Jesus’ earthly ministry, the risen Christ appeared to James at some point to convert him. James then took up leadership in the Jerusalem church alongside the apostles and presided over the pivotal Council of Jerusalem. The Epistle of James provides a valuable window into the wisdom and teachings of this key leader in the early church.
Other Minor Biblical Characters Named James
In addition to the three major Jameses we have covered, the New Testament mentions a few other minor characters who share the name James:
- James the father of Judas: In Luke 6:16 there is a disciple called Judas, son of James, distinguishing him from Judas Iscariot. This would make James the father of Jude/Judas the brother of Jesus, who later wrote the Epistle of Jude (Jude 1).
- James the father of the apostle Matthew: In Matthew 9:9 and Mark 2:14, the apostle Matthew is called the son of a man named Alphaeus, just like James the Less. Some scholars identify this Alphaeus as the father of both Matthew and James the Less. However, this is speculative and uncertain.
- James in Romans 16:7: Paul greets one named James in Romans 16 who was noteworthy among the apostles. Some equate this James with James the Just or James the Less, but there is no certainty.
- James in Mark 15:40: A James is mentioned as the father of Joses, distinct from James the Less. He is only referenced here.
So a couple other minor biblical characters named James are referenced, but they play no significant roles like the three main Jameses we have profiled. Most extra-biblical traditions about these lesser Jameses are unreliable legends.
To conclude, while several minor characters named James are mentioned briefly in the New Testament, three men named James stand out as hugely important leaders of the early church:
- James the brother of John – One of the twelve disciples in Jesus’ inner circle who faced martyrdom in the early church.
- James the son of Alphaeus – Obscure apostle also called James the Less or James the Younger.
- James the brother of Jesus – Converted after seeing the risen Christ and became head of the Jerusalem church and likely author of the Epistle of James.
So the number of significant Jameses in the Bible comes to three. While sharing a common Jewish name, each of these three Jameses played a unique role during the foundational period of Christianity recorded in the New Testament. By understanding each James in his context, we gain a richer picture of the diverse leadership evident in the early church. The prominence of these three early Christian leaders named James answers the question of just how many Jameses hold importance in the biblical record.