The English name James is translated from Iakōbos, which is the Greek form of the Hebrew Ya`aqob or Ya`aqov (“Jacob”), meaning “heel-grabber” or “supplanter” (Gen. 25:26).1 While multiple persons in the New Testament wear this name, the present study concerns James the son of Alphaeus. He is mentioned by name only in the four lists of the apostles and is always listed ninth (Matt. 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13). If he is the same as “James the Less,” he is identified three more times in the biblical record along with his mother Mary and brother Joses/Joseph (Matt. 27:56; Mark 15:40; 16:1). The qualifier “the Less” [mikros]2 may suggest that he was younger, or of smaller stature, or simply less prominent than Zebedee’s son James.
While it is possible that James the son of Alphaeus was the brother of Matthew Levi the son of Alphaeus (Mark 2:14; cf. Matt. 9:9; 10:3), this is not certain since the name Alphaeus was fairly common. John Chrysostom (347-407) and Jerome (347-420) suggested that he was the Lord’s brother James, but this is highly unlikely. Not only is there a distinction made between the apostles and the siblings of Jesus (Acts 1:13-14), the Lord’s brothers did not believe in him as the Messiah even after the twelve had been chosen (John 6:67; 7:5).
Little else is known about Alphaeus’ son James, but he would naturally be included in the narratives of the Gospels and Acts where the apostles are alluded to collectively.3 After about three years of apostolic training, he was among the eyewitnesses of the risen Lord, spending nearly six weeks with Christ prior to observing his ascension into heaven (Acts 1:2-11). He was present with his fellow-apostles on the Day of Pentecost as they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke in various languages to a multitude of foreign Jews (2:1-11). He stood alongside Peter as the message of Christ was proclaimed (v. 14), as a result of which around 3,000 souls obeyed the gospel (v. 41).
James continued teaching new converts and evangelizing the lost, confirming the word he preached with miraculous signs (Acts 2:42-43; 4:33; 5:12-16, 42; 6:4). He was also involved in benevolence work (4:34-37) and conflict management (6:1-7; 15:6). The gospel successfully spread through the evangelistic efforts of James and his co-workers, leading to imprisonments, beatings, and ongoing persecutions (Acts 5:17-41; 8:1, 14; 9:1; 12:1). James eventually left Jerusalem to carry on his ministry elsewhere, taking along his believing wife (1 Cor. 9:5). He faced many more dangers and hardships as he dutifully proclaimed the good news of Jesus to a lost and dying world (1 Cor. 4:9-13).
Through his devoted apostolic ministry, James played a critical role in laying the spiritual foundation upon which the church of Christ continues to stand (Eph. 2:19–3:5). According to tradition he went on to preach the gospel in Lower Egypt (Ostrakine), where he eventually died as a martyr by crucifixion.
James the son of Alphaeus does not stand out as a prominent figure in the New Testament. He shared a very common name with others who were much more renowned than he (e.g. Acts 12:2, 17). Although the spotlight never shone on him as an individual, he was just as committed to the Lord’s cause as the other apostles among whom he diligently labored. Let us learn from James that unrecognized faithfulness in God’s service is infinitely more valuable than earthly acclaim.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 See The 12 Apostles (Part 4): James of Zebedee and The NT Epistle of Jacob. At least five men are mentioned in the New Testament by the name Iakōbos: (1) The Old Testament patriarch Jacob (Matt. 1:2, 8; 22:32; etc.); (2) James, son of Zebedee and Salome and brother of John (Matt. 4:21; 27:56; cf. Mark 27:56); (3) James, son of Alphaeus (Matt. 10:3; Mark 3:18; etc.); (4) James, father of Judas (Luke 6:16); and (5) James, the Lord’s brother (Matt. 13:55; Gal. 1:19).
2 Also rendered “minor,” “little,” “lesser,” “younger,” etc. In some traditions James the son of Zebedee is identified as “James the Greater.”
4 All scripture quotations are from the NKJV.
Related Posts: The 12 Apostles (Part 1)