Many English-speaking Christians today are shocked to discover that James, half-brother to Jesus, was actually named Jacob! In fact, the same rule applies to his New Testament letter and every other biblical figure called James. In Hebrew, it’s Yaakov, after the patriarch who was later renamed Israel (Genesis 32:28; 35:9–10).
The name change confirms an old principle: Subtle changes over time add up to significant consequences.
The name change confirms an old principle: Subtle changes over time add up to significant consequences. In this case, it inadvertently marginalizes Christianity’s Jewish roots. After all, what could sound more English (and less Jewish) than a name connected to a famous English king?
The issue is compounded by James’ increased marginalization (including his letter) as church history progresses. Let’s rediscover James’ Jewishness by asking two questions:
1. Why the name change?
2. Who was “the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:19), really?
To avoid confusion, this article will refer to him as James.
Rejecting the Messiah
If rejection of Jesus is part of your history, you may be surprised to know that it’s part of James’ too. Scripture even records an incident where he and his siblings outright challenged their brother Jesus. Why?
Scripture answers, “For even His brothers did not believe in Him” (John 7:5). James probably asserted that Jesus was “out of His mind” while seeking to “lay hold of Him” (Mark 3:21, 31–32, NKJV). But it’s wonderful that we know this because fabricated stories whitewash the messy stuff. The Bible is reliable, in part, because the ugly details remain included.
Accepting the Messiah
Jesus’ brothers did not remain in unbelief forever. After the crucifixion, in Acts 1:14 we find them gathering with the disciples! So, what happened?
Paul testified about more than 500 eyewitnesses who saw that Jesus was truly resurrected. Most were still alive to be questioned at the time; the list includes James and Paul himself (1 Corinthians 15:3–8). Neither of them could oppose Jesus any longer. They could have gained favor with Jerusalem’s elite if they continued their opposition, but they didn’t. They couldn’t deny what they saw. Most would not be willing to die for their false stories, but these men later died for the truth.
Overseer of the Yeshua Movement
Surprisingly, James eventually became the person everyone listened to after he accepted his brother’s messiahship. Will Varner asserted that a “careful reading of . . . Acts and . . . Galatians supports the idea that James was not merely a significant leader in the early church and not just a leader of the Jerusalem church, but that he was the leader of the church. . . . significant not only for the Roman Catholic attitude toward Peter, but also for the Protestant evangelical attitude toward Paul.”1
In Acts 12:17, Peter wanted James to be notified once he was miraculously freed from jail. At the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:19, James gave the final decree with subsequent action steps, prescribing a communiqué towards not imposing circumcision onto Gentiles seeking salvation in the Messiah.
In Galatians 2:9, Paul recalled the circumcision controversy, listing James first among the “acknowledged pillars” of the faith (Galatians 2:9, NRSV).2 James’ authority had reached the point that false teachers had come claiming to be sent from him (v. 12). Later, Paul and Luke reported to James about the gospel’s advancement among the Gentiles. James revealed that Paul was rumored to have been persuading Jews to abandon their customs. Paul again submitted to James’ authority by doing what he recommended to prove the rumors false (Acts 21:17–26).
What did it look like for the top Jewish leader of the Messianic movement to exercise his authority from Jerusalem, the center of religious life? Look no further than James’ epistle. Likely predating the Jerusalem Council, the letter is so early that the Gospels probably weren’t written yet.3 Therefore, James is found paraphrasing Jesus’ teachings in a “Diaspora encyclical,” authoritatively written to everyone as opposed to a single congregation.4
The letter “shows the influence of the practical wisdom literature of Judaism as refracted through the teachings of Jesus.”5 It was likely written from Jerusalem, as he addressed the “twelve tribes of the Diaspora” (1:1), used the term “synagogue” instead of “church” (2:2), referred to hell as “Gehenna” instead of Hades (3:6), and referred to the Levantine “early and latter rains” (5:7, BLB).6 Interestingly, two of the three oldest, uncial manuscripts of the New Testament placed James first after the Gospels and Acts; it was always followed by the letters from the other “pillars” that Paul listed (Peter and John).7
The Buried “Pillar”
Gradually, James and his letter have been forced into a much lower profile. Paul’s writings were eventually moved up behind the Gospels and Acts, while James and the other general epistles were relegated towards the end of the New Testament canon. By the time of the Reformation, Martin Luther was infamously calling James an “epistle of straw.”8
But why the name change? Even Luther’s German translation of the New Testament leaves the name recognizably as Jakobus. Several suggestions have been made. One assumption was the desire to reserve Jacob for the patriarch alone. Another assumption was that the King James translators wanted to honor the monarch—whose reign is known as the Jacobean Era. Neither assumption seems accurate.
First, in Jesus’ genealogy, we find that His adoptive grandfather is left as Jacob in virtually all English versions of Matthew 1:15–16. Second, the name change for all other New Testament Jacobs predates the King James Version, beginning with Wycliffe in the 14th century. If anything, the KJV translators only solidified the use of James.
Intentional or not, the end result is a marginalization of the New Testament’s Jewish heritage.
Some charge that the change intentionally minimized the Jewish roots of Christianity. However, that charge has proven difficult to substantiate; plus, Jewish-sounding names and letters, like Jude, have been left alone. Intentional or not, the end result is a marginalization of the New Testament’s Jewish heritage, along with the heritage of multiple Jameses.
Answering why the name was changed may be impossible, but determining how James became an accepted alternative for all but two Jacobs is possible. As far back as we can tell in the manuscripts, the Greek text makes a distinction between the Jacobs of Matthew 1 and the rest of the Jacobs in the New Testament, with the former being Iakob and the latter being Iakobos—a Graecized version of the same name.
The consensus is that James is the result of a Hebrew name that has evolved through three other languages before appearing in English: Yaʻakov (Hebrew) → Iakobos (Greek) → Iacomus (Latin) → Gemmes (Old French) → James (Old English).
Unearthing the Pillar
There may not be any viable solutions for overturning a name choice that’s over 600 years old. However, we can meditate on the fact that Mary and Joseph demonstrated that they were unashamed of their Jewish heritage when naming their children. We should resolve in our minds that the half-brother of Jesus was a Jewish sage who served the Messiah well from Jerusalem. Indeed, he had the reputation of being just—hence, the moniker James the Just.
In Jewish terminology, you could call him a tzaddik (righteous one); he was highly revered throughout Jerusalem.9 Josephus reports that James’ martyrdom—at the hands of the corrupt high priest, Ananias ben Ananias—was met with public condemnation; the opposition was so great that King Agrippa II stripped Ananias of the high priesthood shortly thereafter.10
1 William Varner, James: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Dallas, TX: Fontes Press, 2017), 5.
2 A minority of manuscripts favor listing Peter first. Additionally, many good translations do a poor job translating Galatians 2:9, preferring “seemed to be pillars,” probably in order to exalt Paul over the other apostles. This seems uncharacteristic of Paul given his submission to James even later in Acts 21:18–26.
3 D.A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, “James,” in An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 627..
4 Varner, 12, 31–35.
5 Everett Ferguson, Church History, Volume 1: From Christ to Pre-Reformation: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 35..
6 Varner, 16.
7 Compare Codex A and B with Codex Sinaiticus in “How Do The Earliest Complete Greek Manuscripts Help Us Understand the Extent of the New Testament Canon?” Blue Letter Bible, accessed May 26, 2023..
8 Thomas D. Lea and David Alan Black, “The Epistle of James,” in The New Testament: Its Background and Message, 2nd ed. (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2003), 516..
9 Testimonies of James’ martyrdom are preserved by Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History, translated by C.F. Cruze (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998), 59–62.
10 Flavius Josephus, “Antiquities 20.9.1,” in The Works of Josephus, translated by William Whiston (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1987), 538.