James the son of Alphaeus (literally, Jacobos, [he] of Alphaeus) was one of the twelve Apostles of Jesus, appearing by this name in the lists in the first three Gospels. The name is repeated in the list of the eleven disciples in Jerusalem in the Book of Acts. He is the second James in the list, sharing a name with James, the brother of John. Since there was a “James the Less,” it can be safely assumed there was a “James the Greater.” Of the two Jameses, James, son of Zebedee was the better known. This leads to the conclusion that the son of Alphaeus was “the Less.”
If this is the case, then James of Alphaeus was probably the “James the less” who was the son of the Mary elsewhere designated as the mother of “James and Joses” and the wife of a man named “Cleophas .” The designation of “son of Alphaeus” is also used when referring to the tax collector Levi who seems to be also known as Matthew, the tax collector and apostle of Jesus.
Even if Levi is not the brother of James, it is probable that another of the apostles was. In the list of apostles in Luke's account there is a “Judas [brother] of James .” Context within the list, though not conclusive, provides a logical link to the son of Alphaeus as the relative. A young son of James Alphaeus is not out of the question, but likely, this Judas, listed as Lebbeus (called Thaddaeus), was in the same age range as the other disciples.
James (Jacob) was born to Alphaeus (Cheleph/Cleophas) and Mary somewhere in the Roman Province of Galilee during the reign of Augustus Caesar. Mary also had a son named Joses (Joseph). He possibly had a brother named Judas (“Jude” or his Hebrew name “Judah”). He may have had a brother by the name of Levi, called Matthew, who became a tax collector for Rome.
Called to be an Apostle
The lists of the assigning the office of Apostle fall in different places in the Gospels. However, Luke, the writer of the gospel to Theophilus, made it clear that his was a careful chronological account. With this being the case, the Apostles were commissioned from among the disciples that were with Jesus after the calling of Levi, known also as Matthew. Levi is said to be “of Alphaeus,” and James of Alphaeus appears to have been among the outliers in the third group of four among the twelve.
Assuming the commission came after a time of discipleship, the sequence in John’s account puts the initial call of Andrew, who came over with another disciple (probably John), as the first disciple. Andrew called his brother Peter and the next day Jesus called Philip. Philip called Nathanael (the Bartholomew of the list) and then after a few miracles, the account of the feeding of the five thousand men and their families becomes an anchor for the chronologies. At that time the apostles were all there.
James of Alphaeus is listed after Philip, Bartholomew and Matthew in all the lists. He is listed before Judas Thadeus in those same lists. This Judas -- the “Judas, not Iscariot” of John’s account -- is said to be “of James.” It seems that the brothers are listed together, for the most part. In the three Gospels the apostles are grouped in three groups of four:
- Peter, Andrew, James and John (Mark has Andrew last);
- Philip, Nathanael Bartholomew, Levi Matthew and Thomas (Matthew lists “self” last) ;
- James Alphaeus, Judas Thadeus (“of James”), Simon Zealotes (the “Canaanite”) and Judas Iscariot.
James of Alphaeus is in the “outer circle” of the three along with his brother Judas Thadeus. After them are two radicals, Simon the Canaanite and Judas Iscariot. This scenario seems to indicate that Matthew’s relatives were among the “sinners” at his house when he gave up his post as a tax collector. James and Judas then joined the disciples and were among those commissioned to be apostles.
The name rendered “James” in the English is a translation of the Greek Ἰάκωβος (Iakōbos). This is the Greek form of the given name rendered “Jacob” in the Old Testament. The Hebrew, יעקב, traditionally transliterated Ya’aqob, is formed from the root word עקב, `aqab , meaning “heel” and thus the verb, "to grab the heel." The form in English Bibles came by way of the Latin Iacomus (the Hebrew "b" sound being replaced by a phonetically similar "m"), and finally shortened, with a loss of the “k” sound altogether, to Jamus, and then “James.” (See main “Jacob” for more on this word.)
Though arguments can be made to identify some of the other Jameses, the son of Alphaeus was set apart in the lists as having a father, or at the very least heritage related to a man named Alphaeus. This name is a Greek form of the Hebrew Heleph, a place name meaning “exchange." The Greek form of the Aramaic name is Cleophas.