The New Testament authors mention atleast a couple men by the name of James, but keeping their identities straight can be a bit confusing. Here’s what you need to know.
We now refer to these men as St. James the Lesser and St. James the Greater, but the Bible contains different monikers. Sometimes, the Scripture just refers to “James” and expects that the reader knows who is being denoted.
James the Greater is one of the twelve apostles; he is brother to John and a son of Zebedee. He is the James of the “inner circle” of Peter, James, and John who was present at the Transfiguration. This James was martyred in the early 40s AD.
James the Lesser is a moniker for James, son of Alphaeus; he is the second of the twelve apostles known as James. If he is not the same man as James, the brother of the Lord, then this is probably about all that is known of him.
James, the brother of the Lord, is just that, a close relative of Jesus — either a step-brother born of Joseph’s previous wife, or perhaps a cousin of Christ. This James became the Bishop of Jerusalem and was a prominent figure in the early Church.
Although a few scholars believe that these are three separate individuals, I am of the opinion — as is Pope Emeritus Benedict — that James, son of Alphaeus, and James, the brother of the Lord, are the same man. That there appears to be only one James of any significance following the martyrdom of James the Greater is a fairly strong indicator that the two appellations refer to one person. Furthermore, that there is no evidence the early Church distinguished between the two, and that there are not separate stories regarding their lives or deaths post-Ascension, gives me some confidence in this view.
Some would argue that James’ being named among Jesus’ “brothers” in the gospels of Matthew and Mark constitutes an indication that James, son of Alphaeus, is a third person. That, however, is a specious argument. First, because the men there mentioned could have been cousins, which would allow for James’ father to be Alphaeus, rather than Joseph; second, because there is no reason to believe that those in the crowd would refrain from naming one of Jesus’ “brothers” solely on account of his being a disciple.
The only other argument against these two “James” being distinct figures is that it ought to be more obvious if the two monikers refer to a single person. Again, I believe that the fact that James, the brother of the Lord, did not distinguish himself from James, the son of Alphaeus and second of the twelve, speaks to that point.
So, James the Lesser is identified with the brother of the Lord because: this position was held by early Church figures such as Jerome and Augustine; it explains why the author of the epistle of James required no introduction; it explains Paul’s reference to James “the Lord’s borther” as an apostle (Galatians 1:19); it coincides with Paul’s submission to James’ authority (Acts 15 & 22; Galatians 2); and it resolves why after the death of James the Greater (Acts 12) both Paul and Luke make reference to only one James.
Finally, this means that the author of the epistle of St. James was James, son of Alphaeus, brother of the Lord (AKA James the Lesser, James the Just).
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