Which James is James?

Telemarketers. Junk mail. Email scammers. In our household, on any given day, we throw away more mail than we keep and ignore more calls than we answer. As I write this, my wife just finished a phone call with someone with whom we regularly do business. But she let the person start to leave a message before picking up, because neither of us recognized the caller ID. When we heard the voice on the other end, we knew the call was legit.

And of course, we never pick up when our phones tell us “Spam Risk” or “Scam Likely.” We’re just not that adventurous. We want to know who’s on the other end of the line.

No, not that James.

Sometimes, when we read our Bibles, we want to jump straight into the content of what’s said without ever being curious about who’s saying it. But before we launch into our ongoing study of the letter of James, I want us to ponder that question: out of all the people named “James” in the New Testament, which one are we talking about, or is it someone else?

First, we should probably note that the letter of James is not your typical letter, not by New Testament standards. It does begin with a greeting that identifies the author: “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings” (1:1, NRSV). But after that, there’s precious little that would remind us of the style and form of the letters of Paul.

Compare James, for example, to 1 Corinthians. Paul writes as someone who has a personal relationship and an ongoing correspondence with his audience. He answers their questions, and calls them out on specific problems he’s heard about in their congregation. He tells them his travel plans, and sends greetings on behalf of other people the Corinthians know.

There’s none of this in James. This letter is more like a general word of wisdom from someone who’s been around the church for a while. Indeed, there are numerous parallels in the letter with Jewish wisdom literature, particularly the book of Proverbs. And the letter appears to be addressed to Jewish believers (the “twelve tribes”) scattered by persecution and edict around the Roman Empire.

But again, whose wisdom is it?

. . .

The name given to us in the Greek text is actually Iakobos, or “Jacob.” Not surprisingly, many have wondered why the name is translated as “James” instead of “Jacob” — leading some to suggest that this was done at the behest of King James. There’s no way to be certain, but I’ve read at least one New Testament scholar who flat out declares that idea to be wrong. More likely, the name went through several small changes as it went from Hebrew to Greek to Latin to Old French to English, finally becoming “James.”

There are, of course, several men named Jacob/James in the New Testament story. The best known of these is James the son of Zebedee and brother of John. Another James, the son of Alphaeus, was also one of the Twelve (some have speculated that he might have been the brother of Matthew; see Mark 2:14). Although this James is barely mentioned in the New Testament, some believe that the son of Alphaeus was the same man Paul refers to in Galatians 1:19 as “the Lord’s brother.” This is because they believe that Mary never had any more children; what Paul means by “brother,” therefore, is that James the son of Alphaeus was Jesus’ cousin.

Confused yet? No wonder people want to jump straight into the text and forget about who wrote it.

But the consensus is that the man who wrote the letter, while only briefly mentioned in the Gospels, is one who plays a more prominent role in the book of Acts: James, the son of Mary and Joseph, the half-brother of Jesus, who became the leader of the Jerusalem church.

And as we’ll see, what we know of this James from those texts creates a speculative but potentially poignant backstory to the writing of the letter.