Theology in 3D

The New Testament Epistle of Jacob

Greg Stiekes | November 30, 2018
New Testament

Full confession up front. This is one of those nerdy posts that only linguists or people who are OCD about NT minutia will find interesting. The first General Epistle in the New Testament (I’m grouping Hebrews with the Paulines) is written by the half-brother of Jesus, who calls himself “Iakōbos.” That is, Jacob. So, why in the English New Testament do we translate his name as “James”?

The answer seemed to me mere trivia, until earlier this year when I corresponded with a man who believes that the book is named “James” and not Iakōbos because the translators were anti-Semites trying to rob the New Testament of its Jewishness. (The same man also refers to Dispensationalists as neo-Marcionites, but that’s an issue for another time.) I tried to explain to him how I did not think that anyone was trying to diminish the Jewishness from the New Testament by using “James” instead of “Jacob.” In fact, if anything, scholars since about a decade after WWII began to make a conscientious effort to interpret the life of Jesus and his teaching in its full Jewish setting.

I do not know if my explanation made much of an impact on this man, but here is how I explained the name “James.”

Language is always moving and changing spontaneously, in particular because of the way it is spoken. Thus, to find out why words morph into other pronunciations we have to examine articulatory placement. In the older Latin, the name IAKOBUS eventually became the newer Latin IAKOMUS. Why did this shift happen? Well, try making a “b” sound and an “m” sound. The letters “b” and “m” are both bilabial, or two-lipped. In other words, you have to use both lips to make the sound. Also, you notice that both “b” and “m” are voiced consonants, meaning you make sound with your vocal folds when you pronounce them. (Compare an “s” sound to a “z” sound, for instance. Both sounds use the same articulatory placement, known as linguadental, but the “s” is unvoiced, while the “z” is voiced.)

What forced the change, then, is that, as the language became more nasal, “b” and “m” were confused and Iakabus gave way to Iakamus. In fact, probably the name was pronounced YAHK-mus, and later the hard “k” was swallowed up and the name was eventually pronounced “YAH-mus,” or, in English letters, “Ja-mes.” But now we pronounce the word using one syllable, “James.”

If you think that this explanation is grasping at straws, I assure you it is not. Consonants have a way of disappearing. For instance, I rarely hear anyone say, “little,” but instead, “liddle.” There is an example I used to use with speech students, asking them to read the following: “Jeet? No, Jew? Yeah. Wajahav? Jisamberger.” That is what two people actually say to one another, at least in the U.S., where we are often sloppy with our diction. What they mean is, “Did you eat? No, did you? Yeah. What did you have? Just a hamburger.”

There are even dozens of examples in comparing New Testament manuscripts where we find an alteration in the text based on faulty hearing. For example, in Romans 5:1, some manuscripts read, “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” while others read, “May we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The difference between the two words is merely the difference between echomen and echōmen.”

When you bear this language dynamic in mind and then consider that language developed for hundreds of years among people of a low literacy rate, so they only heard the words but never read them, it’s a lot easier to see why “Jacob” became “James” in English language history. And once the tradition sticks, it stays. Today if an English translation tried to translate James 1:1, “Jacob, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,” everyone would wonder who Jacob is.

So, do other languages have this issue with the name “Jacob”? Let’s look at a few. In German, the first General Epistle is written by “Jakobus,” so German retains the Greek transliteration. Likewise, Dutch (“Jakobus”), Danish (“Jakob”), Polish (“Jakuba”), and Hungarian (“Jakab”). The French spelling is “Jacques,” but that’s still pretty close to Jacob. You can also still see “Jacob” in the Italian translation, “Giacomo.” But here is an interesting one: “Santiago.” What? You can mull over that one for a long time until you suddenly realize, as I did, that in English this reads, “Saint Iago.” In Spanish, therefore, “Iago” is “Jacob.” The hard “c” sound was replaced with a “g.” If you make the “g” and hard “c” sounds one after the other and focus on what the inside of your mouth is doing, you will see that these letters share the same articulatory placement (known as a lingua-velar, by the way). The only difference between them is that one is voiced (the “g” sound) and the other is unvoiced. Interestingly enough, in Portuguese James is “Tiago.” I’m guessing the “T” is short for “Saint.”

By the way, you may know that Jesus’s other half-brother, who wrote a much shorter epistle than James is actually “Judas.” And Jesus is, of course, “Joshua.”

What is far more significant than the spelling and pronunciations of these names, however, is the fact that Jesus appeared to these half-brothers after his resurrection. Paul even recounts the fact that Jesus appeared to James in particular (1 Cor 15:7). These brothers had refused to believe that Jesus, their (half) brother, was the Messiah (John 7:5) until after the resurrection. But the transformation in their lives when they embraced Jesus as their Savior is noted in no greater way than the fact that they contributed two of the documents that comprise our God-breathed New Testament. And when they wrote those documents, they would not even mention, “By the way, Jesus is my brother.” James instead writes, merely, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1). And Jude opens with, “Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James” (Jude 1:1). Those very introductions speak volumes about their humility and their devotion to the Lord, no matter how their names are spelled.


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