James son of Alphaeus
James son of Alphaeus (Hebrew: Yaakov ben Halfai—Greek: Iakōbos ho tou Halphaiou) was born in c. AD 15 (3775–3776 in the Hebrew calendar) in the Roman district of Galilee. The writers of the New Testament only mentioned him four times, always listed with Jesus' eleven other apostles (cf. Matt. 10:3; 3:18; Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13). James may have been a brother or relative of Matthew of Capernaum, who was also called Levi son of Alphaeus, or coincidentally just had fathers with the same first name (cf. Mark 2:14). He may have been the same man that John Mark called "James the younger" (Greek: Iakōbos tou mikrou, NRSV; cf. Mark 15:40; see here). If Mark was right, Mary was the mother of James and his brother Joseph (cf. Matt. 27:56). The Greek phrase tou mikros can also mean "the less" or "the lesser." However, "James the younger" probably referred to Jesus' brother, James of Jerusalem, since the gospels list him with three other brothers of his—Joseph, Simon, and Jude—with the same names (cf. Matt. 13:55-56; Mark 6:3).
Patristic Identification of James the Less
At the beginning of the second century, the Greek bishop Papias of Hierapolis (AD 70–163) wrote, "Mary the mother of the Lord; Mary the wife of Clopas [cf. John 19:25; Luke 24:18] or Alphaeus, who was the mother of James the bishop and apostle, and of Simon and Thaddeus, and of one Joseph; Mary Salome, wife of Zebedee, mother of John the evangelist and James; Mary Magdalene. These four are found in the gospel. James and Judas and Joseph were sons of an aunt of the Lord's. James also and John were sons of another aunt of the Lord's. Mary, mother of James the Less and Joseph, wife of Alphaeus was the sister of Mary the mother of the Lord, whom John names of Clopas, either from her father or from the family of the clan, or for some other reason. Mary Salome is called Salome either from her husband or her village. Some affirm that she is the same as Mary of Clopas, because she had two husbands" (Expo. 10).
Just a quick glance at Papias' interpretation makes it clear that he was guessing about the identity of James the Less, too. While it may be tempting to run with his statement because Papias lived in the late first century, he did not know Jesus' apostles. His writing here is an apologetic effort to reconcile various New Testament names, but without firsthand knowledge. Papias made no attempt to hide this fact, especially when using the word "either" twice.
Later in the second century, Jerome of Stridon (c. 347–c. 419) wrote, "James, who is called the brother of the Lord, surnamed the Just, the son of Joseph by another wife, as some think, but, as appears to me, the son of Mary, sister of the mother of our Lord [Mary of Clopas] of whom John makes mention in his book" (De viris illustribus 2). This statement was also conjecture, meaning Jerome was not writing from firsthand knowledge, either. Jerome erred when he confused the martyrdom of James son of Zebedee with James of Jerusalem, as each man died at different times, by different methods, and by different authorities.
Although James son of Alphaeus did not have a major role in the New Testament, he did spend three years with Jesus. He was there at the beginning of the Galilean ministry, to Jesus' passion, and then to Pentecost. James not only quested for the historical Jesus; he quested with him.
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, you gave to your apostle James the grace and strength to bear witness to Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life: Grant that we, being mindful of his victory of faith, may glorify in life and death the name of our Lord Jesus the Messiah; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
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