THE SEARCH FOR THE TWELVE APOSTLES
by McBirnie, Ph.D.
JAMES THE SON OF ALPHAEUS
James, the son of Alphaeus, who is also called the "Less" or
perhaps "Younger," was a brother of Matthew Levi and the son of
Mary. Which "Mary" is not altogether certain though she appears
to be the wife of one Clopas [Cleophas], which may have been
another or second name for Alphaeus.
As with Matthew, James was a native of Caperuaum, a city on
the northwestern shores of the Sea of Galilee. Here in the early
part of his ministry Jesus also moved into His own house. He
preached in the local synagogues, in private homes, as well as at
the seashore where large numbers of people often gathered. We do
not know how or where Jesus first met James and Matthew. Probably
they had heard him during His preaching services. It is quite
likely that when Jesus called Matthew to follow Him it was not so
much a first acquaintance, but a final call to decision to one
who had already shown a keen interest. If James and Matthew were
brothers, and were cousins of Jesus, that fact would of course
shed light on their previous acquaintance.
Matthew, no doubt, suffered in his conscience because, as a
tax-gatherer for the house of Herod Antipas, the satrap of Rome,
he must necessarily have incurred the displeasure of the Jews who
hated Herod and Rome alike. In any case, it would seem quite
evident that Matthew had made his peace with Herod's
administration if not with the Romans, but he must have had to
have overridden his conscience. After Jesus called film, Matthew
immediately threw a great feast for his friends, who included a
number of other tax-gatherers and their mutual friends, none of
whom would have been in very good repute with the Jewish
community. Jesus was the guest of honor at this feast, and we get
a picture of the enmity of the Jewish community toward the tax
collectors in that Jesus was bitterly criticized by the local
Pharisees for eating with those they called, "Tax Collectors and
Sinners." In Israel at the time this phrase "tax collectors and
sinners" seems to have been a colloquialism for those who were
hopelessly corrupt and outside the mercy or interest of God.
Having defiled themselves they would necessarily defile any whom
We have no indication that James was among those who
gathered for that feast. Every indication is that he was not.
Temperamentally and perhaps ideologically, he differed from his
James and Matthew Levi Bar Alphaeus were said to have been
of the tribe of Gad, one of the ten tribes of the northern
confederacy which was taken captive in the eighth century B.C. as
a result of the Assyrian invasion by Tiglath Pileser. However,
bearing the name Levi more probably indicates that both Matthew
and James were of the tribe of Levi, the priestly tribe. The
tribe of Levi, unlike the tribe of Gad, had fled from northern
Israel before the Assyrian invasion and had joined with Judah.
That a child not of a priestly tribe of Levi should have been
named Levi would be most unlikely in those days.
But Matthew had betrayed his priestly heritage and had
become a collaborator with Herod and Rome. It would be natural to
suppose that his brother James was in total disagreement with
Matthew Levi's choice of secular matters. Later tradition about
James indicates that James himself was at first a "Zealot" (a
revolutionary group seeking to throw off the yoke of both Herod
Antipas and Rome). But his patriotic and nationalistic idealism
was rudely dashed by the policy of bloodshed which characterized
the Zealots. Therefore, James probably became an ascetic, who
sought refuge in his own piety from the bloodshed of the Zealots.
But was he an ascetic? This opens the question which must he
settled about the identity of James himself.
THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN THE MEN CALLED "JAMES"
(1) With the identity of James, the brother of John, the son of
Zebedee, known otherwise as "James the Elder" and "James the
Great", we have no trouble. His is the only fairly complete story
in the New Testament of any of the original Twelve, besides, of
course, Judas Iscariot. This James was slain by beheading at the
command of Herod Antipas to please the Jewish leaders who always
suspected Herod's devotion to Judaism was mere lip service.
(2) James the Less or Younger, son of Alphaeus and Mary, who is
the object of our study here, is a man of whom we know
comparatively little except that he was brother to Matthew, also
an Apostle, Joseph, an early Christian and Salome, an unknown
(3) There is also a James who was the father of the Apostle named
Judas or Thaddeaus, now commonly called St.Jude, who is carefully
distinguished in Scripture from Judas Iscariot. James, the father
of Jude, is probably the same as James the son of Zebedee and
brother of John.
(4) James, the brother of Jesus, is the best known to us of all
the early Apostles except for Peter, John and Paul. He was not
one of the Twelve, however.
It is the confusion of identity between James the Less and
James the brother of Jesus which makes it practically impossible
to know who each was, and what each did as distinct from the
Most of the ancient denominations, such as the Roman
Catholic or Armenian Orthodox, identify James the Less and James
the brother of Jesus as one and the same. Their reasoning is
complicated, contradictory and not defensible by the Scriptural
record. Essentially though, it is an attempt to assert that,
contrary to what St.Paul wrote in Galatians about "James the
brother of the Lord," James the just was a cousin of Jesus. The
reason for this tortured attempt to explain St.Paul's plain
statement away is to protect the doctrine of the perpetual
virginity of Mary by implying that when St.Paul wrote "brother"
he really meant cousin. Obscure references in Greek literature
are used by some to show that this was possible.
The early heresy of Docetism attempted to convince
Christians that all sexual intercourse was evil. The later
elevation of Mary to the stature of a demigoddess, forced some of
those who took this view to invent out of whole cloth the notion
that the brothers and sisters of Jesus were perhaps children of
Joseph by a previous marriage. Thus James the brother of the Lord
becomes James the half brother. However, at this point a further
contradiction inserts itself. How could James the Less be the son
of Joseph and also be the son of Alpheaus?
The answer which has apparently satisfied most of the
scholars of the oldest branches of organized Christianity is to
make Mary the mother of James the Less, a sister of Mary the
mother of Jesus. This reduces James the Less to the status of a
cousin of Jesus rather than a half brother.
One cannot but sympathize with the defenders of this point
of view under the pressure they were under to preserve the
doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
But their solution is simply impossible. Never in history have
two sisters been given the same name in the same family. The
purpose of names is to distinguish between children. With the
great number of names available to the ancients it would be
grotesque to suggest that there were two Marys in the same
We may be safe, therefore, in assuming that James the
brother of Jesus was indeed just that. There is little doubt that
this James did not believe in Jesus before the resurrection, for
the New Testament is careful to tell us that Jesus made a special
post-resurrection appearance to a "James". This was probably the
brother oŁ Jesus. We are not told when this happened nor why it
was necessary, but we do have two facts. Jesus' brothers in the
flesh did not believe in Him before the resurrection, yet in the
book of Acts, James the brother of Jesus, is described as the
chairman of the church of Jerusalem, exceeding in rank Peter and
John. It is a probability, therefore, that James the Less and
James the brother of Jesus were not only different people, but
also that each time in the New Testament where the name of
"James" appears, after the official roster of the Apostles is
listed in the first chapter of Acts, it refers to James, the
brother of Jesus. We are sure that he was the spokesman for the
Apostles. At the conference where Paul and Barnabas received a
special commission to preach to the Gentiles, Paul certainly
mentions him as having been the first and only Apostle with whom
he personally conferred three years after his conversion, except
When Paul went to Jerusalem again before his final
imprisonment in Jerusalem, James appears again as the spokesman
of the Twelve, urging Paul to demonstrate his fidelity to the
Mosaic Law in order not to offend the Jews in Jerusalem. Paul
purposely refers to this "James" as one of the "pillars" of the
church along with John.
A careful reading reveals that it is James, the brother of
Jesus, whom Paul meant rather than James the Great, since by this
time James the Great was dead. It is not an utter impossibility
that James the Less is meant, but the whole thrust of Paul's
historic references to "James" seemed to be, according to the
context of Paul's writing, the "James" who is the brother of the
James the brother of Jesus undoubtedly wrote the Epistle
which bears his name.
There is also a great deal of traditional information about
the life and death of James the brother of Jesus, which has been
wrongly attributed to James the Less.
Over 2o0 years ago an English scholar, Darman Newman, summed
up this tradition:
"Prayer was his constant business and delight. He seemed to live
upon it and to trade in nothing but the frequent returns of
converse with heaven. In the procuratorship of Alvinus the
successor to Festus, the enemies of James decided to dispatch
him. A council was hastily summoned. They plotted to set the
scribes and Pharisees to insnare him. They told him they had a
mighty confidence in him and that they would that he might
correct the error and false opinion the people had of Jesus. To
that end he was invited to go to the top of the temple where he
might be seen and heard by all. There they demanded, 'Tell us,
what is the institution of the crucified Jesus?' The people
below, hearing it, glorified the blessed Jesus. The Scribes and
Pharisees perceiving now that they had overshot themselves and
that instead of reclaiming the people had confirmed them in their
(supposed) error, thought there was no way left but presently to
dispatch him, that by his sad fate others might be warned not to
believe him. Wherefore, suddenly crying out that James the just
himself was seduced and had become an imposter, they threw him
down from the place where he stood. Though bruised, he was not
killed by the fall, but recovered so much strength, as to get
upon his knees and pray to heaven for them.
They began to load him with a shower of stones until one more
mercifully cruel than the rest with a fuller's dub beat out his
brains. Thus dyed [sic] that good man in the 90th year of his
life [this is of course, impossible. ED] and about 24 years after
Christ's ascension, He was buried upon the Mt.of Olives in a
tombe which he bad built for himself." ("The Lives and Deaths of
the Holy Apostles," Dorman Newman, 1885).
Newman based his narration on fairly good early traditions.
James the brother of Jesus is, therefore, the James who was
prominent in the Jerusalem church and was martyred by being
thrown from the pinnacle of the Femple and then buried on the Mt.
This is the "James" whom the Armenians and others confuse
with James the Less. According to Armenian tradition, after the
destruction of the Monastery in which the body of the martyred
Apostle was originally buried, his bones were removed to the
Cathedral of St.James in Jerusalem on Mt.Zion. They were placed
beneath the principal altar. This Cathedral is also believed to
be the site in which the head of the Apostle James the Great,
brother of John, was buried.
The Armenian Monastery of St.James covers the entire summit
of Mt.Zion totaling 300 acres, or 1/6 of the entire old city of
Jerusalem. The remains of James the brother of Jesus were
transferred from the Kedron Valley in the fourth century and
buried in his home, the ruins of which were later incorporated
into the Cathedral.
In the Treasury of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem
are listed (1) a reliquary containing the "arm of James the Less"
and (2) another containing "the fingers of James the brother of
It is more likely that the reliquaries contain bones of the
same man, James the brother of the Lord.
The tomb in the Valley of the Kedron, now called the Grotto
of St.James, was originally the burial place of a Herodian
priestly family of the sons of Hezir. In the fourth century,
monks living in the Grotto found a skeleton which was held to be
that of an apostolic "James" though they incorrectly identified
this skeleton as that of James the Less. There is nothing to
mitigate against it being the genuine skeleton of James the
brother of Jesus, merely because it was found in the family tomb
of the sons of Hezir. From the treatment of the body of Jesus by
Joseph of Arimathea, who weleomed Jesus body in his own family
tomb, it is quite conceivable to infer that the family of Hezir
might have extended compassionate burial to the body of James.
This is the skeleton which now lies under the altar in the
Cathedral of St.Tames.
An unbroken tradition among the Armenians traces this body
back to its discovery in the fourth Century. The tomb of the sons
of Hezir is located immediately across from the "pinnacle" of the
temple area to this day. Of James, Tbeodorus said, "He was thrown
from the pinnacle of the temple and did not hurt him, for a
fuller slew him with a club he carried and he was buried on the
Mt.of Olives." ("Dome of the Rock" Judith Erickson, Jerusalem,
It is interesting and perhaps significant that recent
excavations of the exterior southwest wall of the old city have
uncovered fuller's vats. Fullers were the laundrymen of the first
century, and fuller's earth was a kind of soap in wide use until
comparatively modem times. The water that comes from the pool of
Siloam, which is not far from the pinnacle of the temple, would
have been a necessity for the public laundries of Jerusalem.
One can easily get the picture: the crowd gathers on the pinnacle
of the temple to throw James to his doom in the valley below. The
fullers rush up from their laundry not far away with clubs in
their hands which they had used for beating their garments.
Caught up in the fury of the mob they smashed the skull of the
aged Apostle after he fell. The compassionate members of the sons
of Hezir, a family of priests offer a niche in their extensive
tomb. Not far from where he was slain the battered body of the
brother of Jesus is laid to rest. Standing in the doorway of this
tomb, while on the steep western rock wall of the lower slopes of
the Mt.of Olives, the visitor of today can easily reenact the
entire dreadful scene of martyrdom and burial.
It would be helpful to a critical study such as this if this
James the brother of Jesus, could indeed be successfully and
firmly identified as also James the Less, but this is simply not
possible to honest scholarship.
But what then of James the Less?
The linking together of James, the son of Alphaeus in the
various lists of the Apostles gives the impression of more than
an arbitrary or accidental grouping. James is listed with Simon
the Zealot. Jude, the son of James the Great, is also referred to
as a Zealot in the Apostolic Constitutions. The quotation in two
of the ancient manuscripts of that work describes him thus:
"Thaddeaus was called Lebbaeus who was surnamed Judas the Zealot"
("The Master's Men," William Barclay, p.115) The fourth figure in
the Apostolic listing is Judas Iscariot. He, too, may have been a
Zealot according to Barclay. ("The Master's Men," William
Barclay, p.115) However, it is quite evident that this is only
speculation as far as James, the son of Alphaeus is concerned.
His mother was a faithful follower of Jesus, going in company
with Mary, the mother of Jesus, all the way to the Cross. Was it
his mother, Mary, who won him to Christ, or was it James who won
his mother? We do not know. But certainly one thing is evident.
If James, the son of Alphaeus was, during his idealistic youth, a
Zealot, he soon forsook the movement and became an ardent
One of the earliest church historians who is quoted by
Eusebius, Heggesippus, who wrote in 169 A.D., says that James
lived the life of a Nazarene (Nazarite?) before and after
becoming an Apostle of Jesus Christ. As a member of this order he
drank no wine and ate no meat except the Paschal Lamb, never
shaved or cut his hair and never took a bath. James wore no
clothes except a single linen garment which (he) also carefully
avoided cleaning (with) water. He spent so much time in prayer
his knees became hardened like the hooves of a camel. [These
legends (which echo the sounds of the early days of the Monastics
more than those of the first century and lack probability) earned
for James the title 'James the Just'. So righteous was his life
that he alone of the Christians was allowed to go into the
Holiest of Holies, and Jews as well as Christians strove to touch
the hem of his garments as he passed in the street.
This tradition of Heggesippus simply does not ring true.
First, the description more nearly fits James the brother of
Jesus who is the more likely bearer of the title "James the Just"
Second, it is almost certain that no one but the Jewish high
priest was permitted to go into the Holiest of Holies. Whether be
was a Jew or a Jewish Christian, there is no reason to believe
that anyone else, however holy his life, was ever permitted into
the Holy of Holies. Third, none of the other Apostles are
recorded to have held scruples against eating of meat and
washing. This would have been contrary to the traditions of the
Jews and the early Christians alike. We feel there is nothing
whatsoever in this description to fit James, the son of Alphaeus.
A more interesting and perhaps more likely tradition is
preserved in the "Golden Legend," a seven volume compilation of
the lives of the saints arranged by Jacobus de Voragine,
Archbishop of Genoa in 1275 A.D., which relates that James
resembled Jesus Christ so much in body, visage and manner that it
was difficult to distinguish one from the other. The kiss of
Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane, according to this tradition,
was necessary to make sure that Jesus and not James was taken
prisoner. ("The Twelve Christ Chose," Asbury Smith, p.116,117)
If Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a cousin of Mary, the
mother of James, this could account for the family resemblance
between the two. Certainly there was no closer relationship
between the two Marys than that of cousins. But then, bearded
young men of the same race often have a resemblance. Yet we must
point out that it is not certain that Jesus even wore a beard.
Even so, a facial resemblance could have existed. On the basis of
this tradition, James is usually pictured in Christian art as
beautiful of countenance. His handsome features full of spiritual
and intellectual beauty make him easily recognizable in early
pictures of the Twelve.
Again, we must challenge the generally held concept of Jesus
as being a handsome man. There is no indication whatsoever in the
New Testament that this was true. The only reference at all to
the appearance of Jesus is found in the 53rd chapter of Isaiah
(verse where we read the prophetic prediction that the Messiah
would have "no beauty that we should desire him."
Yet in all of this perhaps we can detect a small kernel of
truth. James the son of Alpbaeus may indeed have had a facial
resemblance to Jesus.
Such traditions as are preserved often contain at least a
grain of truth.
Though confusing James the Less with the James who was the
brother of Jesus, the authoritative writer, Aziz S.Atiya, in his
"History of Eastern Christianity" relates the one historical
tradition that has a ring of probability. He says, "The seeds of
Syrian Christianity had been sown in Jerusalem during the
Apostolic age, and the contention has been made that the first
bishop of the Syrian church was none other than St.James of the
Twelve Apostles, identified as `St. James the Less" ("A History
of Eastern Christianity," Aziz S.Atiya, p.239).
According to the study made by Budge, ("Contendings of the
Apostles II", E. A. Wallis Budge, p.264-266), James was stoned by
the Jews for preaching Christ, and was buried by the Sanctuary in
We must speculate at this point how and when the body of
James the Less was discovered in Jerusalem and taken to
Constantinople for interment in the Church of the Holy Apostles.
This could have happened during the reign of Justinian. According
to Gibbon, Justinian rehabilitated the Church of the Holy
Apostles which was built by Constantine the Great in the year 332
in Constantinople. ("The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,"
Edward Gibbon, p.510). Justinian had a keen awareness of Biblical
history and compared his building of Santa Sophia with the temple
of Solomon. (Ibid., p.508) Since this was the age of the frantic
search for the relics of the early Christians, especially those
of the Apostles, it is entirely possible that the body identified
as that of James the Less was brought from Palestine to
Constantinople to add Apostolic association to the Eastern
Orthodox Church and empire. This cannot be proven but it is
highly likely since Justinian's word was law in the entire Middle
East, and the churchmen were eager to please him.
The Armenian church in Jerusalem had, by the time of
Justinian, established its claim to the body of James the brother
of Jesus, whom they mistakenly supposed to be identical with
James the Less.
Justinian would probably have honored this conviction and
left the body of James the brother of Jesus in place in Jerusalem
while disagreeing with the identification of it as the body of
James the Less. Why he later forwarded the body or parts of it to
Rome can only be guessed at. Perhaps it was a part of some
political agreement to keep his political alliance with Rome
The historian who is aware of the complexities of the
histories of the relationship of the Eastern and Western Roman
Empires and the Eastern and Western division of organized
Christianity can easily sense this scenario.
The body of James the son of Alphaeus, was brought from
Constantinople to Rome about the year 572 ("A Traveller's Guide
to Saints to Europe," Mary Sharp) and was interred by Pope John
III in a church which was first known as the "Church of the
Apostles Philip and James the Less." Only in the 10th century was
this title shortened in common speech to the "Church of the Holy
Archaeologists who have examined the lower part of the
present day structure of the church in Rome affirm that the
structure is the work of the sixth century and beyond doubt that
which was constructed by Pope John III. The original church was
dedicated the first of May 580 A.D. The bones of St.Philip were
probably interred on that date, and the bones of James were added
later. Still later, skeletal remains of other Apostles were
added. There they may be seen to this day.
Entered on this Website April 2008