James or Jacob in the Bible?

Giving Jacob his due


Baroque artist Guido Reni depicts the apostle James, son of Zebedee, in his painting Saint James the Greater (c. 1636–1638).

The problem of names surfaced at a recent Bible study at the St. Paul Union Church in Antalya, Turkey. Pastor Dennis Massaro was discussing the three men named “James” in the New Testament: Two were apostles, and the third was the leader of the Jerusalem church and author of the eponymous letter—the Book of James. Participants in the study came from a range of countries, including the Netherlands, Iran, Mexico, Moldova and Cameroon. When I asked what the name of these men was in their languages, they all said “Jacob.”

When I was teaching a course on the New Testament General Letters (Hebrews through Jude), I began by introducing the Book of Jacob, also known as the Book of James. Students were perplexed until they learned that Jacob is the proper translation of the Greek name Iakōbos. One student wrote later that knowing this “turned my understanding of the writing upside down.” Another observed that “with the name change, the loss of the Jewish lineage occurs.”

So how did the Jewish name Ya’akov become so Gentilized as James? Since the 13th century, the form of the Latin name Iacomus began its use in English. In the 14th century, John Wycliffe made the first Bible translation into English and translated Iakobus as James. (However, in both the Old and New Testaments he arbitrarily used the name Jacob for the patriarch). In all future English translations the name stuck, especially after 1611, when King James I sponsored the translation then called the Authorized Version but since 1797 called the King James Bible.

So what is lost by using James instead of Jacob? First, it has created an awkwardness in academic writing. Scholars providing a transliteration of James indicate Iakōbos, which even lay readers know is not the same. Hershel Shanks has noted that the reason Israeli scholars failed to understand the significance of the eponymous ossuary is that they didn’t connect James with Ya’akov.1

Second, James’s ancestral lineage is lost, as the student noted above. In Matthew’s genealogy, we learn that Joseph’s father was named Jacob (Matthew 1:16) and that his family tree included the patriarch Jacob (Matthew 1:2). James was thus named after his grandfather. As Ben Witherington writes, “It is clear that the family of ‘James’ was proud of its patriarchal heritage.”2 So Jacob was the third Jacob in the family.

In the free eBook Exploring Genesis: The Bible’s Ancient Traditions in Context, discover the cultural contexts for many of Israel’s earliest traditions. Explore Mesopotamian creation myths, Joseph’s relationship with Egyptian temple practices and three different takes on the location of Ur of the Chaldees, the birthplace of Abraham.

Third, James’s Jewish cultural background is minimized. Tal Ilan identifies Jacob as the 15th most popular name in Palestine in antiquity, with 18 known persons carrying it.3 Including both the Eastern and Western Diasporas, Jacob was the third most popular Jewish name, with 74 occurrences.

Fourth, the Jewish literary heritage is muddled. The Book of Jacob (i.e., the Book of James) is addressed to “the twelve tribes in the diaspora” (James 1:1) and full of references and allusions to the Torah and Wisdom Literature of the Jewish Bible (Christians’ Old Testament). Scholars consider James the most “Jewish” book in the New Testament. Its genre is considered to be a diaspora letter like Jeremiah 29:1–23 and the apocryphal works The Epistle of Jeremiah, 2 Maccabees 1:1–2:18, and 2 Apocalypse of Baruch 78–86.

For these reasons, changing English translations of James to Jacob makes a lot of sense. In my lifetime we have adapted to a number of name changes: Bombay to Mumbai, Peking to Beijing, Burma to Myanmar, and Rhodesia to Zimbabwe. These changes were soon incorporated by the media as well as in subsequent editions of geographical and historical books. Making such an onomastic adjustment need not be too difficult in religious circles, either.

But can such a switch be made practically? Biblical scholars and publishers would need to agree that continued use of “James” is linguistically indefensible and culturally misleading. Most difficult to change would be Bible translations, which are very conservative. To start, a footnote could denote that James is really Jacob. And while we’re at it, let’s rehabilitate Jacob as the name of two of Jesus’ disciples/apostles. These connections, now lost only for English readers, were caught by Greek-speaking audiences as well as modern readers of translations in most other languages. Let’s give Jacob his due.

mark-wilson-2013Mark Wilson is the director of the Asia Minor Research Center in Antalya, Turkey, and is a popular teacher on BAS Travel/Study tours. Mark received his doctorate in Biblical studies from the University of South Africa (Pretoria), where he serves as a research fellow in Biblical archaeology. He is currently Associate Professor Extraordinary of New Testament at Stellenbosch University. He leads field studies in Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean for university, seminary and church groups. He is the author of Biblical Turkey: A Guide to the Jewish and Christian Sites of Asia Minor and Victory through the Lamb: A Guide to Revelation in Plain Language. He is a frequent lecturer at BAS’s Bible Fests.



1. Hershel Shanks and Ben Witherington III, The Brother of Jesus: The Dramatic Story & Meaning of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus & His Family (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2003), p. 28.

2. Shanks and Witherington III, Brother of Jesus, p. 97.

3. Ṭal Ilan, Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity. Part IV: The Eastern Diaspora 330 BCE–650 CE (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011).


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Bible Secrets Revealed, Episode 1: “Lost in Translation” by Robert Cargill

Jacob in the Bible
Who did Jacob wrestle with and how did Jacob become Israel?

Is the “Brother of Jesus” Inscription on the James Ossuary a Forgery?

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on April 27, 2017.


19 Responses

  1. Ron Drown says:

    For those who believe in unerring transliteration and translation of biblical record as aligns the text itself, there is no excuse sufficient for such glaring error. The foreword of the 1611 KJV claims adherence to Mss. copies of the Hebrew and Greek text. The simple fix is admission of error in the long standing KJV translations, and restoration of the name “Jacob” in areas where applicable.


    I think two names can stand on his own Jacob and James .

  3. Ms. SD Lofton says:

    Names of people and places should never have be ‘translated’. If scholars were half as intelligent as they claim to have been then names of people and places would not have been changed thus the connections to originality and truth would not be lost when it comes to civilizations. So much has been misconstrued, mistaken, falsified, stolen and forgotten due to translations and mis-translations of the original names of people and places.

  4. Jim says:

    The morphing of Jacobus to James is an issue of philology (Wycliffe did not just come up with it out of thin air). Here is a good summary:

  5. Ray says:

    In the Modern Hebrew translation of the NT there has been a re-Judaizing of some familiar names. Paul gets to keep his Hebrew name, Saul (Luke does not say his name was changed, just that he was also known as…), and Peter, who had three names, is generally called by his Hebrew and Aramaic names, Simon and Cepha. Even Saul’s companion Silas has been given back his Aramaic name, Shila. Shila was the Aramaic form of Saul, so perhaps Paul was Paul so as not to confuse the two Sauls.

  6. Arne Strand says:

    I just want to add a comment on the following statement in the article above:

    “In Matthew’s genealogy, we learn that Joseph’s father was named Jacob (Matthew 1:16) and that his family tree included the patriarch Jacob (Matthew 1:2). James was thus named after his grandfather.”

    Truth or tradition insists, in my opinion very convincingly, that it is the genealogy of Jesus through Mary that is recorded in Matthew, and not the one through Joseph:

    When Joseph accepted to name his first son Jacob after his wife’s grandfather, he was again (as in Matthew 1:24) demonstrating his humility and his wonderfully unorthodox attitude to conventions that made him so worthy of being Jesus’ step-father. Even when Joseph had his second son, Joses (Matthew 13:55), which is just another form of Joseph, he may have named him after Mary’s father whose name was Joseph, if Truth or Tradition is right, and not after himself. But since he and Mary’s father had the same name, Joseph would now also have a son named after himself.

  7. David says:

    “As the Israelites wandered 40 years in a circle missing the mark, it was their due since they refused to believe and even sought to suppress.”
    Believe or suppress what? They didn’t “wander in a circle missing the mark”, they encamped where they were told to, at one point for 38 years.
    Are you trying to say they didn’t believe in Jesus, who came a thousand years later? It’s easy to write a book using the number 40 once its significance has been established.
    None of this makes sense.

  8. wes says:

    This is a fascinating issue. At first glance one would be led to suspect ( as I did for a moment) that the origin of substitution of James for “Jacob” might have begun with the KJVB sponsored by the so-named monarch. But since this conversion begin in the time of John Wycliffe’s effort a couple of centuries earlier, then perhaps there is a different relationship here: What is the origin of the monarch’s name? Was James a common English or Scottish name in the late middle ages? Did it have any relation to the j’aime or some other first person pronoun and verb form in French? Or did John Wycliffe’s selection set off the trend? Just wondering.

  9. J Joel Farber says:

    Bernard is right. That is because every time you see the name of King James himself in Latin, it is “Iacobus.” And to Dexter, there was some kind of linguistic shift of B to M in the Middle Ages. If you try pronouncing both letters, you will see that they are both formed by the lips, differing only in whether the vocal cords are involved.

  10. Edison G Ocay says:

    I love this article. I was thinking to use Jacob in my Cebuano (a major dialect in the Philippines) translation but I found that I was the only one who thought about it until this time. Thank you for enlightening and strengthening my conviction concerning this matter. Edison Gon Ocay


    Another linguistic note: referring to King James I or II of England are the terms Jacobean or Jacobite

  12. Patrick says:

    In my forthcoming novel, Second Born, I attempted to use Jacob and Joshua as the brothers’ name, but it got too confusing for many lay readers. Since the story already emphasizes their Jewish heritage, I opted for the anglicized names to remove that barrier to readers’ understanding.

  13. Dexter says:

    But, but, how did Iacobus become Iacomus??? That seems to be the source of the change from Jacob -> James, but is not addressed at all.

  14. Elizebeth E. Veghte says:

    Hi Genna. The actual proper translation of Yeshua would be Joshua in English.
    An equally symbolic name since Yoshua/Joshua was the one who led the exiled Israelites (Jacob’s new name after God’s covenant with him) to the Promised land.

    As the Israelites wandered 40 years in a circle missing the mark, it was their due since they refused to believe and even sought to suppress. Isn’t it so interesting that Yeshua/Joshua began is ministry with 40 days of fasting and ended it with 40 days on the earth after his resurrection before he ascended back to the spiritual dimension of where the Godhead dwells?

    There is a new Bible coming out called the Prophecy Bible. It will correct the intentional Gentilization of the scriptures by the Romanized church and give special reference to all the prophesies in the Old Testament/Jewish Bible that relate to Yeshua.

  15. Frank Hamrick says:

    I have long been an advocate for Iakōbos or Jacob in English texts. But the public would probably struggle to pronounce Iakōbos, and find Jacob much more acceptable.

    As for Iesus, or Yeshua, I think “Jesus” is so firmly entrenched that it would never be replaced in English.

    My preference would be to have a Bible version that used the original Hebrew and Greek names for people, places. and the various names of God (Elohim, El, El Elyon, YHWH, etc., as well as the compound names for God (YHWH Tsidkenu, etc.).


    Of related linguistic interest:
    Why is James called Santiago?
    Santiago, (also San Iago, San Tiago, Santyago, Sant-Yago, San Thiago) is a Spanish name that derives from the Hebrew name Jacob (Ya’akov) via “Sant Iago,” “Sant Yago,” “Santo Iago,” or “Santo Yago,” first used to denote Saint James the Great, the brother of John the Apostle.Dec 12, 2013. Similarly, Diego corresponds freque ntly to James.

  17. Daniel says:

    I wonder my self for years I’ve known Jacob was translated James. On day I was researching this Simon who took over after the death of James. Why did he disappear? Then I pulled up Simon Bar Jacob, Also known as Simon Bar Kockba who led the last Jewish revolt. Also the mysterious Desposyni resided in the Jewish town Kockba……..??????

  18. TGG says:

    Agree with Genna in principle, but realize the greater implications of this (there are already several translations that transliterate and contextualize the NT to a Hebraic/Jewish context). Greek has a harder time with Yeshua, compared to Ya’ akov; though their need to add an “s” to the end of most male names is an issue with both. All translations should include a host of footnotes in the text for such things, but since there is so much context needed (mikveh/baptism, semitic idioms etc.) who would determine what is context and what is meant for reader interpretation…..

  19. Genna D says:

    How about restoring the transliterated Hebrew name of Jesus (Yeshua or Yehoshu’a)? The Gentilized version of His name would be unrecognizable by Yeshua Himself nor by His family and disciples. Similarly to James/Jacob the underlying intent seems to be to obscure their Jewishness.

Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Send this to a friend