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The strange case of the missing Jacob

One of the books in the Bible which has always generated a lot of controversy is the Letter of James. Luther called it a ‘right strawy epistle’ mainly because he couldn’t make it fit in with his theology. Its outspoken condemnation of riches and wealth cannot have made easy reading in the corridors of Christian power.

But the thing that interests me about the Letter of James is that it wasn’t written by ‘James’ at all. The author is a man called Jacob.

‘James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ…’ it begins (1.1), but the Greek word translated ‘James’ is Iakob, i.e. Jacob. And the other places in the New Testament where the word ‘James’ is used, the Greek word is always Iakob or Jacob. Jesus’ brother was Iakob. John’s brother was Iakob, son of Zebedee. James, son of Alphaeus was Iakob. All of these are ‘Jacobs’.

The name James wasn’t even invented until the fifteenth century – it’s an English versionĀ  of the Spanish name Jaime. Jesus’ real name was Yeshua, but a Greek speaking Jew of the time would have called him Jesus – as does the New Testament. But no-one could ever have called James ‘James’ because the name wasn’t invented until 1300 years later.

Now you might argue that it’s just a translation. But in which case, why don’t the translators use James elsewhere in the New Testament? Because, the New Testament does include some other Jacobs and these are not translated as James. Every mention of the Patriarch Jacob, for example, is translated as Jacob, not James – yet it’s the same Greek word. And more significantly, according to Matthew 1.16, Joseph’s father – Jesus’ adoptive grandfather – was called Iakob. And in English Bibles you will find that he is called Jacob, not James. Here’s the NRSV:

‘Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born’ (Matt 1.16)

Yet, when the same name – Jacob – is used for Jesus’ brother in Matthew 13.55, it’s translated as James:

‘Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?’ (Matt 13.55)

Let’s be quite clear: it’s the same word – Iakob. And yet it’s translated two different ways. Joseph clearly named his son in honour of his own father. And yet in every English translation, the translators call one Jacob, and the other James.

I have tried to find out why this should be, but as far as I can tell, no-one has done any research on this. I thought at first it was a nod to King James, but the choice to use James occurs in the Wyclifite version written around 1382, which has the same Jacob/James split between grandfather and grandson. (Luther’s German Bible has Jakob throughout.)

Let’s be even more clear: this is a translation decision, not a textual one. In the Greek text the same word is used for both: Iakob. But translators choose to use James for the disciples and Jesus’ brother, and Jacob for anyone pre-Christ.

And that, I’m beginning to suspect, is the real origin of this. Jacob is a very common boy’s name now. But in the time when the Bible was first being translated into English, the only people who had the name Jacob were Jews. I wonder if the real driving force behind this was a worry that the name Jacob was too Jewish: the same concern that so many exegetes over the centuries have had about the letter that bears his name. Was the choice to call Jacob ‘James’ a deliberate ploy to modernise his brother, to make him more Christian?

Whatever the case, it’s clearly insupportable today. In a day and age when Jacob is among the most common boy’s names, the only possible excuse for translating Iakob as James is because that’s the way it’s always been done. But in doing so we Christianize him, we make him a gentile. James’ letter represents a very important strand of early Judaeo-christianity, one that was deeply influential in the Early Church, but which was later marginalised and lost. Restoring his proper name is one way of reminding ourselves of the origins of our faith: its roots in the Jewish world of the first century.

So, the campaign for the real Jacob begins here. It’s about time that translators had the courage to correctly translate this name and restore to the Bible the long-lost letter of Jacob, son of Joseph, grandson of Jacob, and brother of Yeshua aka Jesus.