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Four persons in the New Testament have the name “James” (Greek Iakōbos), which is one of two Greek forms of the Hebrew name Jacob (the other being the simple transliteration Iakōb). Since Jacob was a revered ancestor of Israel, James was a common name among Jews in the Roman period.

James, Son of Zebedee

, was a Galilean fisherman in the area of Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee, a partner (along with his brother John) of Simon Peter (Luke 5.10). He was working in the family business headed by his father when called by Jesus to be his disciple (Mark 1.19–20). James and John along with Peter formed the inner core of three among the twelve apostles; they witnessed the raising of Jairus's daughter, were present at the transfiguration, and observed (and partially slept through) Jesus' agony in Gethsemane.

Apparently James and John either expressed themselves explosively or expected God to bring sudden judgment on the enemies of Jesus, for they were nicknamed “Boanerges” (“sons of thunder,” Mark 3.17; cf. Luke 9.51–56). Their request to sit at Jesus' right and left hand in his kingdom earned them the anger of the other apostles and a mild rebuke from Jesus (Mark 10.35–45; Matt. 20.20–28; Luke 22.24–27).

Outside the synoptic Gospels James, son of Zebedee, appears only in Acts. He was present in the upper room with the group waiting for Pentecost (Acts 1.13). The only other reference to him in the New Testament is the cryptic note that Herod (Agrippa I) had him killed (Acts 12.2). He was thus the second recorded martyr of the church (after Stephen) and the first of the apostolic band to die (except for Judas Iscariot, who had been replaced as an apostle).

James, Son of Alphaeus

, was a Galilean Jew and one of the twelve (Matt. 10.3; Mark 3.18; Luke 6.15; Acts 1.13); many believe he is the same person as James the younger (Mark 15.40). The Greek term translated “the younger” can also be translated “the little,” which probably gives the correct meaning (i.e., he was shorter than James, son of Zebedee). If this identification is correct, this otherwise unknown apostle had a mother named Mary who was present at the crucifixion and was a witness of the resurrection and a brother Joseph (or Joses) who was probably a well‐known early Christian (Matt. 27.56; Mark 16.1; Luke 24.10).

James, Father (KJV “brother”) of the Apostle Judas (not Iscariot)

, is mentioned only by Luke (Luke 6.16; Acts 1.13). Nothing further is known about him.

James, Brother of Jesus

, is named in Matthew 13.55 and Mark 6.3 along with three other brothers of Jesus (see Brothers and Sisters of Jesus). The Gospels indicate that neither James nor his brothers were followers of Jesus before the crucifixion (Mark 3.21, 1–35; Luke 8.19–20; Matt. 12–46–50; John 7.1–9). After the Resurrection, however, these same brothers are mentioned among the group of believers at prayer before Pentecost (Acts 1.14). Paul explains the reason for this change of heart (at least in James) in the statement that the risen Jesus had appeared personally to James (1 Cor. 15.7). James apparently rose quickly in the ranks of the church. In Acts 15.13 it is James, not Peter, who is named as the preeminent leader who summed up the deliberations of the council at Jerusalem (49 or 50 CE; see Apostolic Council). Thus, he is viewed as the person who presided over the compromise that allowed Jewish and gentile Christians to remain unified without either forcing gentiles to become Jews or violating Jewish cultural sensibilities (see also Acts 21.18–26).

In his letter to the Galatians (2.9), Paul mentions James along with Peter and John, son of Zebedee, as “acknowledged pillars” of the church at Jerusalem. James's authority appears clearly in Galatians 2.12, for emissaries from Jerusalem are said to come “from James” and apparently therefore had authority as his official representatives. Scholars are divided over whether the effort of the emissaries to split Jewish from gentile congregations was James's position (in which case Paul and Acts give differing pictures of James) or whether he had sent them for some other purpose.

James's leadership was well enough known so that the letter of James (see next entry) is attributed to him with a simple “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1.1), and the author of the letter of Jude identifies himself as “Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James” (Jude 1). While the attribution of both these letters is debated, there is reason to believe that at least the material in the letter of James, if not the writing itself, stems from the brother of Jesus, and this material reveals an authoritative leader in a Palestinian context.

In 61 CE James suffered martyrdom at the instigation of the high priest Ananus after the sudden death in office of the procurator Festus (Josephus, Ant. 20.9.200). In the following centuries legends about James developed. For example, Hegesippus reports that James was known as “James the Just” because of his exemplary piety (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 2.23), and Jerome connects him with the lost apocryphal Gospel according to the Hebrews (De viris illustribus 2). But other than the fact of his martyrdom and its approximate date, there is little evidence that any of these legends are accurate, and most are certainly apocryphal.

Peter H. Davids

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