I'm confused about "James" in the New Testament. How many are there, and who are they?

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Last names would come in handy. Unhappily, they weren't used in biblical times. We're left to hazard a best guess when more than one James (or Mary, John, or Simon) appears. 

The first James is identified as the brother of John and son of Zebedee. James and John encounter Jesus at the shore of Galilee while they're in a boat mending nets with Zebedee. Jesus has already recruited brothers Simon (Peter) and Andrew who were similarly employed. Likewise, James and John leave family, home, and occupation behind the moment Jesus calls to them. Perhaps because of their boisterous natures, Jesus nicknames them Boanerges, "sons of thunder." James is always mentioned before John, which makes him the eldest or simply more celebrated brother: he's sometimes called James the Great. Along with Peter, these brothers form the inner circle of Jesus' followers. James was the second of the original Twelve to die (after the suicide of Judas), a martyr between 42-44 A.D.

Also on the list of apostles is James the son of Alphaeus. We don't know how he enters the story, his occupation or origins. He has no speaking part in the gospels. No wonder he's called James the Less—though this may be a reference to his age. His mother Mary was present at the crucifixion.

Another gospel list claims a James: that of Jesus' brothers. Unnamed sisters are sometimes noted, but all four gospels mention Jesus had brothers. Blood ties were tight in ancient times; the precise kinship may have been cousins or siblings. Attempts to clarify these relationships are unsatisfying. Belief in Mary's perpetual virginity weighs heavily in Catholic conversations on the matter. Some view these siblings as Joseph's children from a previous marriage. 

This third James—AKA James the Just—is significant in the early church. While the gospels repeatedly emphasize how the relatives of Jesus mistrusted the direction of his ministry, Paul notes that after the resurrection, James had a private revelation of Jesus. This cured his doubts and enfolded him into the church. His lineage may have catapulted him into leadership in the Jerusalem community, becoming a power triangle with career disciples Peter and John. Brother James could have written some kernel of the Letter of James in the New Testament. However, James the Just was martyred in 62 or 69 AD; the final form of the letter likely took shape later.

Mark 1:16-20; 3:13-19; 31-35; 6:1-6; 15:40; Matthew 4:21-22; 10:1-4; 12:46-50; 13:55-58; 27:56; Luke 6:12-16; 8:19-21; 24:10; John 7:3-5; Acts 1:13; 12:17; 15:13-21; 21:18; 1 Corinthians 15:7; Galatians 1:19; 2:11-12; James 1:1

Books: James of Jerusalem: Heir to Jesus of Nazareth, by Patrick Hartin (Liturgical Press, 2004)

What Are They Saying About the Letter of James?, by Alicia Batten (Paulist Press, 2009)

Reprinted with permission from PrepareTheWord.com. ©TrueQuest Communications.

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