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Summer Bible Study on the Apostles: St. James son of Alphaeus

posted Aug 5, 2017, 5:24 AM by Jason Stegman   [ updated Aug 5, 2017, 6:19 AM ]

The Apostles


James the son of Alphaeus aka "St. James the less”




Name: The English name "James" comes from Italian "Giacomo", a variant of "Giacobo" derived from Iacobus in Latin, which was itself derived from the Greek name Ἰάκωβος (Jacob). Jacob was a common Hebrew name among the men of his day, which means ‘heel gripper’ (Genesis 25:26). There are four men named James in the NT. All four are closely associated with Jesus. The first a younger son of Joseph and Mary, became an important leader in the early church, two are apostles, and the fourth the father of an apostle. He is often called “James the less” to distinguish him from James the son of Zebedee (James the greater).


Who was he?

Matthew 1:3, Mark 3:18, Luke 6:15, and Acts 1:13

James appears in each of the four New Testament lists of the twelve.

In Matthew he is paired with Thaddeus.


Mark 15:40 and John 19:25; In Mark’s Gospel he is referred to as “James the less,” which could refer to his size, or height, but more likely means he is younger than the other apostle with the same name. This passage also calls James’ mother Mary. The parallel text in John can be interpreted as identifying the mother of James as the sister of Mary the Mother of our Lord. If that interpretation is correct then James the son of Alphaeus would have been one of Jesus’ cousins.


Mark 2:14 We know that James had a brother named Joses. This text from Mark reveals that Levi, or Matthew was ‘son of Alphaeus,’ makes it likely he and James were brothers or at the least two different men bore the surname of Alphaeus. We may also conclude that because Matthew was also called Levi, that his family was of that tribe, James the less was also a Levite.


His discipleship under Jesus:

Nothing is known with certainty about James the less. He is mentioned only in the lists of the Apostles. It may well be that James was simply not very influential. Perhaps he was a quiet person who stayed mostly in the background. We might say his most distinguishing mark is his obscurity. But that in itself is a significant fact. Apparently he sought no recognition as did James and John. He displayed no great leadership nor aspired to it as did Simon Peter. He asked no crucial questions at an important juncture. He demonstrated no unusual insight. Only his name remains, while his life and labors are unknown.

Hebrews 11:33-38. Yet James the less was one of the twelve. The Lord selected him for a reason, trained and empowered him like the others, and sent him out as a witness. He is rather reminiscent of those unnamed people in the book of Hebrews whose names and the testimonies the world barely remembers and knows nothing about but are eternally ensconced in heaven.

In any case, we can be certain that he became a powerful preacher like the others. He surely performed ‘the signs of an apostle… in signs and wonders and mighty deeds’ (2Corinthians 12:12). And his name will be inscribed on one of the gates of the heavenly city. (Revelation 21:14)

The stories for some of the disciples do seem inadequate at best. It should be pointed out that all of the disciples more or less disappear from the biblical narrative within a few years after Pentecost. In no case does Scripture give us a full biography. This is because Scripture’s purpose is to keep the focus on the power of Christ and the power of the Word, not the men who were instruments of that power. These men were sent out to obey the Lord’s commission, inspired by the Spirit they preached the Word. That is all we really need to know, the vessel is not the issue, the Master is. No one epitomizes this better than James the Less.


Lore/Church tradition:

Church tradition has unfortunately confused St. James the Less with James the brother of our Lord, the first bishop of Jerusalem, and so he is sometimes called “James the just.” Church tradition also erroneously attributes the Epistle of James to James the less.

A modern writer named A.S. Atiya in his book “History of Eastern Christianity,” affirms certain old traditions that James the less was the first Bishop of Syria. This probably would have placed him at Antioch. However other histories of Christianity state that the first bishop of Antioch was Euodius, who was ordained by St. Peter.

According to tradition, at the ripe age of 96, James was thrown from the topmost portion of the Temple and his mangled body sawn in two. However this is the same story that is told of James the Righteous the first Bishop of Jerusalem, the half-brother of Jesus. Other traditions state that James remained in Jerusalem and was stoned to death by a mob of angry Jews and buried in Jerusalem (this is probably the better conclusion). Allegedly James’ remains were re-interred in Constantinople in 332 AD at the church of the Holy Apostles. In 572 AD his remains were again exhumed and re interred in Rome by Pope John III at the Church of the apostles St. Philip and St. James the less which was later re-named the church of the Holy Apostles.

The feast of St. James the less is May 1st and is in conjunction with the Feast of St. Philip. Often James is depicted with a palm branch or a fuller’s staff. The theme of the day is witnessing to the risen Christ. The day recalls the founding of the church in the honor of Philip and James under Pope John III. In northern Europe, May Eve or Walpurgisnacht (St. Walpurga’s night) is a night for witches to meet on Broken Mountain and wait for the arrival of spring. Apparently the church elevated the feast of Philip and James on that same day to counter the appeal of the pagan festival even though St. Walpurga is a canonized saint.

The shield of St. James the Less depicts a saw, which was allegedly the means by which he was martyred. As previously stated, his life is often confused with that of James the Bishop of Jerusalem who was indeed martyred by being thrown from the roof of the Temple beaten by fullers and sawn in two. Even in death James’ life is obscured.


Question 1: Does it, or would it trouble you to know that the many things you do in your Christian vocation, in service to the church, to your neighbor, etc. will never be known or acknowledged by anyone? Though we know the right answer is ‘of course not,’ the reality is often quite different. Working in obscurity can be appealing to some, as the limelite does not appealing. Yet we as human beings and children of God need encouragement and recognition of our efforts or we become discouraged and wonder if there’s any point to what we’re doing. We begin to wonder ‘why?’


Question 2: In what way or circumstance can we see the life of James the less like that of Christs?


Question 3: It is customary to name Christian congregations after one of the Apostles. What if the namesake reflected the congregation’s personality? Is there a place and a ‘need’ if you will for a part of the bride of Christ to go through her entire existence as ‘St. Obscurity.’ Must the church be loud and popular because we live in a time that values loudness and popularity over service and humility?


Prayer: Almighty God, Your Son revealed Himself to Philip and James and gave them the knowledge of everlasting life. Grant us perfectly to know Your Son, Jesus Christ, to be the way the truth and the life, and steadfastly walk in the way that leads to eternal life; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.



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Jason Stegman,
Aug 5, 2017, 5:24 AM
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