James son of Alphaeus was one of the twelve main disciples of Jesus Christ. The New Testament only mentions him in the four lists of disciples, and always toward the end, indicating he was less important than the others.
James son of Alphaeus is traditionally identified as James the Less and James the brother of Jesus. If these are all references to the same James, that would make James son of Alphaeus the author of the Book of James and one of the three men Paul called “pillars” of the church. Some have also argued that he’s the Apostle Matthew’s brother.
Many modern scholars are more hesitant to make these associations, but one distinction is absolutely clear: James son of Alphaeus is not the same person as James son of Zebedee, one of Jesus’ closest disciples who was martyred in Acts 12:2.
So who was James son of Alphaeus, and what do we know about him? In this guide we’ll cover the facts and the ambiguities, looking at what the Bible says and what the church has concluded.
Here’s a quick look at what we know.
Who was James son of Alphaeus?
“James son of Alphaeus” is only explicitly mentioned in the four lists of disciples. But there are three people named James in the New Testament, and plenty of people in the Bible were known by multiple names or had multiple monikers. So it’s possible that this James is also another James, which would give us more passages to go on and more early Christian writings to reference.
Here’s what we can say about James son of Alphaeus.
One of the Twelve
Some of the disciples’ callings receive special attention in the gospels. Jesus calls Andrew, Peter, James, and John while they’re tending to their fishing boats. And he calls Matthew the tax collector from his tax booth.
James son of Alphaeus doesn’t get this kind of attention. But he is one of the Twelve.
The New Testament lists all twelve apostles four times—Matthew 10:2–4, Mark 3:14–19, Luke 6:13–16, and Acts 1:13–16. While there are some variations in the order the apostles appear and even the names they went by, James son of Alphaeus is listed in all of them. He’s never mentioned in the Gospel of John, but John never explicitly lists all the apostles.
This means James son of Alphaeus was one of the people who was closest to Jesus, and that he spent about three years living with him, witnessing his miracles, and hearing his teachings. He saw numerous demonstrations of Jesus’ divinity.
Even though the Book of Acts and the epistles never describe James son of Alphaeus’ ministry, he would’ve been one of the most important leaders of the early church.
Just how important, though, depends on if he can be identified with any of the other Jameses.
Possibly James the Less
James the Less, also referred to as the Lesser, the Younger, the Little, and the Minor, is mentioned four times in the gospels, always in relation to his mother, Mary, whom John refers to as Mary of Clopas in John 19:25.
Technically, the moniker “the Less” is only used once, in Mark 15:40, but early Christians used it widely to distinguish which James they were referring to. The moniker is ambiguous, but it’s clearly intended to distinguish this James from James son of Zebedee, who was one of the most prominent disciples. It could mean he was younger, shorter, or less significant.
Some scholars believe the fact that the gospel writers used “the Lesser” here implies there were only two Jameses they needed to distinguish between, and Jerome and other early Christian writers were quick to identify James the Less as James son of Alphaeus and James, the brother of Jesus (although Jerome and others argued “brothers” must’ve meant “cousins,” to maintain the perpetual virginity of Mary).
One of the key arguments for why James the Less should be identified with James son of Alphaeus depends on whether or not you consider him an apostle, and how you define apostle. Many early Christians reserved the title for members of the Twelve, or the Seventy, but it technically just means “one who is sent,” and has been applied to other early Christians.
Here’s what Jerome suggests in The Perpetual Virginity of the Blessed Mary:
“Do you intend the comparatively unknown James the Less, who is called in Scripture the son of Mary, not however of Mary the mother of our Lord, to be an apostle, or not? If he is an apostle, he must be the son of Alphæus and a believer in Jesus, ‘For neither did his brethren believe in him.’
“The only conclusion is that the Mary who is described as the mother of James the Less was the wife of Alphæus and sister of Mary the Lord’s mother, the one who is called by John the Evangelist ‘Mary of Clopas’.”
Despite Jerome’s certainty, that is not the only conclusion. And while the church and many modern scholars take Jerome’s assertion for granted, some are more critical. Scripture doesn’t make these connections explicit, and while it’s certainly possible, the early church doesn’t offer much more clarity.
James the Less is as obscure and unknown as James son of Alphaeus, so little if anything is gained by their association. But if James son of Alphaeus can be identified as James, the brother of Jesus, suddenly we learn a lot more about the role he played in the early church.
And there’s a decent link between James the Less and James the brother of Jesus: Jesus had brothers named James and Joseph (see Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55), and James the less has a brother named Joseph (Mark 15:40). This is likely why Jerome was so confident all three Jameses were the same.
Possibly James, brother of Jesus
James, brother of Jesus, also known as James the Just, was the leader of the church in Jerusalem and is the traditional author of James. Paul mentions him in Galatians 1:19, while describing a visit to Jerusalem:
“I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother.”
Some argue that by including this James as one of the apostles, Paul is identifying him as James son of Alphaeus, because “apostles” usually referred to the Twelve. James son of Zebedee wouldn’t have been described as “the Lord’s brother,” and by this point he’d already been martyred, so by default, Paul would be referring to James son of Alphaeus. (Unless Paul used the title apostle for more than just members of the Twelve, as he appears to do in 1 Corinthians 15:5–8.)
Paul continued in Galatians 2, recounting a second visit to Jerusalem, where the Council of Jerusalem took place to discuss whether Gentile believers would have to follow the Law of Moses. In Acts, James presided over this council. Here, Paul describes him as a pillar of the church, along with Peter and John:
“James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised.” —Galatians 2:9
Paul doesn’t refer to this James as “the Lord’s brother” again, and he doesn’t introduce any other distinction from other Jameses. This likely means he’s discussing the same James (though it’s also possible that the James in 2:9 was so well-known that it would’ve been obvious who Paul meant).
The early church unanimously connected James, brother of Jesus to James, the leader of the early church. But other than Jerome’s inference that Paul would only call him an apostle if he were one of the Twelve, there’s no solid evidence that this James is also James son of Alphaeus. (Unless James son of Alphaeus is also James the Less.)
If he were, then we also have to piece together how James son of Alphaeus and Mary (which was a very common name) is “the brother” of Jesus, who was the son of Mary and Joseph (and God).
Did Mary and Joseph have more kids? Catholics give that a HARD “No.” Same with Mary having kids with another man. But Joseph, who phases out of the gospel narrative after Jesus’ childhood, could have divorced Mary, remarried, and had other children. Or, as Jerome argues, “brother” could’ve meant cousin—maybe.
The Mary described as James’ mother in Mark 15:40, Mark 16:1, Matthew 27:56, and Luke 24:10, is believed to be Mary of Clopas in John 19:25. These parallel passages list women who were at the foot of the cross when Jesus died. So the synoptic gospels all describe this Mary as the mother of James (and Joseph, according to Matthew and Mark), and the Gospel of John calls her Mary of Clopas and describes her as the sister of Mary, Jesus’ mother.
It’s unclear if “of Clopas” means she was married to Clopas or the daughter of Clopas. Traditionally, it was assumed Alphaeus was married to Mary, the daughter of Clopas, but some scholars argue that Alphaeus and Clopas are the same person. In either case, these assumptions led to Jerome’s conclusion that all three Jameses: James the Less, James son of Alphaeus, and James, brother of Jesus are the same person.
Unfortunately, the text doesn’t explicitly tell us, and thus we can’t say for sure how James the Just is Jesus’ brother or if that James is the same person as James son of Alphaeus. So it’s safer not to assume they are the same.
James isn’t the only disciple who is described as “son of Alphaeus.” Mark 2:14 identifies Levi the tax collector as the son of a man named Alphaeus, too. Levi the tax collector is the same person as Matthew the apostle. (Most likely, Levi either indicated Matthew was from the tribe of Levi, or Matthew was simply his Greek name.)
But there’s a problem.
There are at least two sets of brothers among the Twelve: Peter and Andrew, and James and John, the sons of Zebedee. And the Bible treats these pairs of brothers differently than Matthew and James.
In every list of the disciples, James son of Alphaeus and Matthew, son of Alphaeus are never grouped together like the other brothers. James is always listed as “son of Alphaeus,” but Matthew never is. And if that weren’t enough: the lists of disciples explicitly call Simon Peter and Andrew brothers, and James and John brothers, but they make no mention of any association between Matthew and James son of Alphaeus.
And unfortunately, no one named Alphaeus is ever mentioned again, so there’s no way to tell if these are two different Alphaeuses.
If Matthew and James were brothers, and James son of Alphaeus was also James, brother of Jesus, then would that make Matthew the brother of Jesus, too? Yikes.
Most scholars don’t take this possibility very seriously.
All of the apostles were sent to be missionaries somewhere. But since the church has often assumed that James son of Alphaeus, James the Less, and James, brother of Jesus were all the same people, where James son of Alphaeus went gets a little fuzzy.
If he is Jesus’ brother, then he was “sent” to Jerusalem, where he led the church.
But the Orthodox chronicler Nikephoros suggests James son of Alphaeus wound up in Egypt, in the ancient city of Ostrakine (Historia Ecclesiastica II:40).
There’s no way to be sure where he went. But we can be confident he was sent to spread the gospel somewhere.
How did James son of Alphaeus die?
If we connect James son of Alphaeus with James the Just (the brother of Jesus), then tradition tells us that he was pushed from the pinnacle of a temple, where he was preaching, and then beaten with a fuller’s club and stoned to death. In art, James son of Alphaeus is typically portrayed with a fuller’s club, reflecting the church’s assumption that he was the same person as James the Just.
However, the tradition which claims James son of Alphaeus preached in Egypt says he was crucified in the city of Ostrakine.
Hippolytus, a theologian who lived in the second and third centuries, allegedly recorded James’ death in On the Twelve Apostles of Christ:
“And James the son of Alphaeus, when preaching in Jerusalem was stoned to death by the Jews, and was buried there beside the temple.
This is the same death tradition ascribes to James, brother of Jesus, but scholars have little reason to trust On the Twelve Apostles of Christ. The text wasn’t discovered until the nineteenth century, and most believe it’s pseudepigrapha (writing that falsely claims to be written by someone).
So unfortunately, the ambiguities and unknowns surrounding James son of Alphaeus prevent us from being certain how or where he died. However, most members of the Twelve were martyred, so it would be surprising if one of the least known disciples simply died of old age, like John.
One of the most obscure apostles
There’s really not much we can say about James son of Alphaeus without assuming he was also the brother of Jesus. But the Bible doesn’t tell us he was. It doesn’t tell us anything about him as an individual.
What we do know is this: as one of the Twelve, James son of Alphaeus certainly held an important role in the early church, and he likely played a key part in spreading the gospel somewhere in ancient Eurasia. Or Africa.
Other than the name of his father, the only concrete fact of his life that remains is his close association with Jesus Christ. And in the end, maybe that’s all that matters.