That Other Guy Named “Jacob” (Part 1)

Welcome back to our twice-weekly  installment of our still-in-progress book on the apostles.  Starting today, we look at James, the Son of Alphaeus.

Our information regarding this James (whose name, in Greek and Hebrew, is actually “Jacob”) is very scant indeed.  Most of what we know for certain comes from general statements about the apostles in the gospels and Acts.  There is little more than this.

James, the Brother of a Tax Collector

As seen in the last chapter, Matthew (Levi) was also called “the son of Alphaeus.”  Mark is the only one who mentions this fact, and within one chapter, mentions someone else who is “the son of Alphaeus.”1  There is no reason at all to mention Matthew’s father if it wasn’t the same Alphaeus.2  It is possible that James, too, worked with his brother and that they were both tax collectors.  If this is the case, then James may have become a disciple of Jesus the same day.3

Regardless of his occupation, James, like his brother Matthew, was a man from Galilee, like the rest of the apostles4 (except, perhaps, for Judas Iscariot).5

James, the Wee Little Man?

Most writers identify James, the son of Alphaeus, with a man known as “James the less” in Mark 15:40.  The word translated “less” is the Greek word mikro (where we get “micro”).  It’s the same word that was used to describe Zacchaeus, the “wee little man” who was “short of stature.”6  This word can also mean younger, as in the younger brother.  The main reasons given for connecting these two are:

  1. There are three men named “James” who Mark mentions prior to this point, and it would make very little sense to mention—near the end of the gospel—someone being related to a “James” who has nothing to do with the story, and who hasn’t been mention at all. Thus, it must be one of the three men mentioned previously in the book.
  2. James, the son of Zebedee, is always described as such, and is almost always connected with John. Since neither John nor Zebedee are mentioned in Mark 15:40, it cannot be that James.7
  3. James, the brother of the Lord is mentioned only in passing by Mark, so (it is claimed) it cannot be him.8
  4. Therefore (the conclusion goes), it must be James, the son of Alphaeus.9

This sounds good on the surface, but it is based on guesswork.  The evidence is actually more in favor of “James the less” being the brother of Jesus instead of one of the apostles.10

James, the son of Alphaeus

The man known as Alphaeus is said by many to be the same man as Cleophas,11 Cleopas,12 or Clopas,13 due to a similarity in the pronunciation in Hebrew,14 though this is a matter of speculation.15  If indeed Alphaeus is to be identified with one of these men (or both, if Cleophas and Cleopas are the same man), then that would make for quite an impressive family: two apostles, whose parents were both disciples of Jesus—the mother being at the cross, and the father meeting with Jesus on the road to Emmaus.

-Bradley S. Cobb

1 Compare Mark 2:14 with 3:18.

2 Most Bible dictionaries seem to ignore this common sense explanation and say that there were two different men named “Alphaeus.”  The question then arises: If this is the case, why did Mark mention Matthew’s father at all?  Certainly the Roman readers would have had no idea who this Alphaeus was, so it wasn’t as though Mark was appealing to their existing knowledge.  Alphaeus doesn’t appear in the gospel narratives at all, so it wasn’t because Mark was introducing a new character that would appear later.  The only reasonable conclusion is that Matthew (the son of Alphaeus) is the brother of James (the son of Alphaeus).

3 This possibility is mentioned by David Smith in James’ Hastings Dictionary of the Bible, “James, the son of Alphaeus.”

4 Acts 1:11, 2:7.

5 Judas was probably from a small town in Judah.  See the chapter on Judas for more details.

6 Luke 19:2-3.  The phrase “wee little man” is not in the text, but is found in a children’s song about Zacchaeus the tax collector.

7 Matthew 27:56 also confirms this, by identifying the mother of Zebedee’s children as a different woman from “Mary, the mother of James and Joses.”

8 The same thing can be said about James, the son of Alphaeus, as well.  Both he and the brother of the Lord are mentioned just once in Mark’s gospel account.

9 This is compelling to an extent, but it must be pointed out that Mark mentions that the “Mary” who was the mother of “James the less” is also the mother of “Joses.”  The only “Joses” mentioned in Mark is the brother of Jesus (and the brother of James), whose mother is named “Mary” (see Mark 6:3).  So, if we accept this argument, then instead of proving this to be James, the son of Alphaeus, the evidence would actually prove it to be James, the brother of the Lord.

10 See the previous footnote, as well as the section “James the Less” in the chapter on James, the Brother of Jesus.

11 John 19:25

12 Luke 24:18

13 John 19:25, ASV

14 The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (“Clopas; Cleophas”) says “Upon the philological ground of a variety in pronunciation of the Hebrew root, [Clopas is] sometimes identified with Alpheus, the father of James the Less.”

15 James Hastings’, Dictionary of the Bible (“Cleopas”) says it is “a matter of dispute.”  Hastings’ Dictionary of Christ in the Gospels (“Clopas,” “Cleophas,” and “Cleopas”) shows that there’s not even agreement on whether Cleophas and Cleopas are the same individual, let alone that Alphaeus is another name for one or both of them.  Smith’s Bible Dictionary (“Cleopas”) says “Some think that this [Cleopas] is the same Cleophas as in John 19:25. But, they are probably two different persons. Cleopas is a Greek name, contracted from Cleopater, while Cleophas, or Clopas as in the Revised Version, is an Aramaic name.”

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