The name Jacob is an important one in the Old Testament, as Jacob was one of the patriarchs of the Israelites. However, in the New Testament, the name Jacob seems to shift to James. This can cause confusion for Bible readers wondering how these two names are connected.
In Hebrew, the name Jacob is Ya’akov. This name means “one who grasps the heel” or “supplanter” (Genesis 25:26). Jacob was given this name because he was born grasping the heel of his twin brother Esau. Jacob lived up to his name, as he later acquired his brother’s birthright and blessing through trickery (Genesis 27).
Jacob is a key figure in the Old Testament narrative. God renames him Israel, and his 12 sons become the 12 tribes of Israel. Jacob’s story takes up substantial portions of Genesis, establishing the foundation of the nation of Israel.
In the Greek New Testament, the name Jacob is written as Iakob or Iakobos. During the Intertestamental Period between the Old and New Testaments, Iakobos began being translated into Greek as Iakobos. Later, it was translated into Latin as Iacomus.
Over time, Iacomus underwent further changes into various forms like Jacomus, Jamus, and Jaymus. Eventually it arrived at the English “James.” So while our English Bibles contain the name James, the Greek manuscripts contain Iakobos, a Greek form of the Hebrew Ya’akov or Jacob.
James first appears in the New Testament in Matthew 4:21 referring to the apostle James son of Zebedee. From that point on, the English name James is used consistently for several different people:
- James son of Zebedee, one of Jesus’ 12 apostles (Matthew 4:21)
- James son of Alphaeus, another of the 12 apostles (Matthew 10:3)
- James the younger, son of Mary and brother of Jesus (Matthew 13:55)
- James the brother of the Lord, leader of the Jerusalem church (Acts 15:13)
- James the Less, son of Mary and possible cousin or brother of Jesus (Mark 15:40)
In every case, the Greek New Testament uses Iakobos, not Jacob. The name change from Jacob to James occurred during the transmission from Hebrew to Greek to Latin to English.
Beyond individuals named James, the New Testament book of James is also derived from Iakobos. The Greek name of the book is Iakobou, meaning “of James.” In English this became the book of James.
So in summary, Jacob and James are variants of the same name that underwent changes between languages. The Hebrew Ya’akov became Iakobos in Greek, then Iacomus in Latin, and ultimately James in English. The key individuals and letter bearing this name in the New Testament have a Hebrew and Old Testament origin of Jacob.
Biblical figures named Jacob/James
Jacob in the Old Testament
Jacob is introduced in Genesis 25 as the second born twin son of Isaac and Rebekah. He was born grabbing the heel of his older brother Esau, resulting in his name Ya’akov meaning “one who grasps the heel” or “supplanter” (Genesis 25:26). Jacob lived up to this meaning by later taking Esau’s birthright and blessing through deception (Genesis 27).
After tricking his brother, Jacob fled from Esau’s anger to live with his uncle Laban. He married Laban’s daughters Leah and Rachel, fathering 12 sons who would become the 12 tribes of Israel (Genesis 29-30). After reconciling with Esau, Jacob returned to Canaan and settled in the land of his fathers (Genesis 33).
In a key moment, God appeared to Jacob and changed his name to Israel, saying “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:28). The name Israel means “God contends.”
Jacob’s new name was passed on to his descendants. His 12 sons and their families became the 12 tribes of Israel. To this day, Jacob’s name change to Israel reflects the emergence of the nation of Israel.
Jacob died in Egypt after relocating there during a famine. His family settled in Goshen and eventually grew into a great nation under Joseph’s leadership in Egypt (Genesis 47). The book of Genesis concludes with Jacob’s death and the prosperity of his descendants in Egypt.
James in the Gospels and Acts
In the New Testament Gospels, the name Jacob is translated from Greek as James. The first James mentioned is James son of Zebedee and brother of John (Matthew 4:21). He was one of the first disciples called by Jesus and one of the Twelve Apostles.
Along with Peter and John, James belonged to Jesus’ inner circle and was present during key events like the Transfiguration and the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:37). James and John were nicknamed the “Sons of Thunder” by Jesus, presumably for their zealous personalities (Mark 3:17). James was martyred relatively early in the book of Acts when King Herod Agrippa killed him with the sword (Acts 12:2).
The next James is referred to as “James the son of Alphaeus” (Matthew 10:3). He was another of the 12 disciples, although little is known about him aside from his name being listed among the apostles.
The Gospels also mention a James who was the younger brother of Jesus (Matthew 13:55). Along with other brothers like Joseph, Simon, and Judas, James was originally skeptical of Jesus’ ministry (John 7:5). However, after the resurrection, James believed in his brother and became a leader in the early church. Paul refers to him as “James the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:19). James led the Jerusalem church and spoke at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15.
Finally, the Gospel of Mark describes a “James the Less” or “James the Younger” as being present at the crucifixion (Mark 15:40). It is unclear if this James was the brother of Jesus or a different younger James, perhaps a cousin or other relative of Jesus.
James in the Epistles
The New Testament epistle of James is attributed to “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1). Most scholars identify this James as the brother of Jesus due to parallels with the leadership role he played in Acts and Paul’s letters. Thus, the book of James derives originally from the Hebrew name Ya’akov, translated into the Greek Iakobos.
James wrote his epistle to counsel Jewish Christians facing persecution and false teachers. He focuses heavily on righteous living and faith demonstrated through works. Martin Luther criticized James for promoting “works righteousness,” although modern scholars understand James and Paul’s teachings to be complementary perspectives.
In the salutation of his epistle, James calls himself a “bondservant” or “slave” of Jesus, displaying his humble leadership approach. As the brother of Jesus, James would have been regarded highly in the early church. Yet he chose not to demand honor or authority, instead serving others and modeling the teachings of his brother.
Aside from the epistle author, James the brother of John is mentioned as being martyred in Acts 12:2. The epistle of Jude also refers to “Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James” (Jude 1:1). Scholars believe this likely refers to the brother of Jesus since Jude was also a physical brother. Thus, Jude is another New Testament book originating with the Hebrew name Jacob.
Linguistic development from Jacob to James
In understanding how Jacob became James between the Old and New Testaments, it is helpful to trace how the name developed linguistically.
In Hebrew, Jacob is written as Ya’akov (or Yaakov). It is derived from the word akev, meaning “heel.” Thus, Jacob means “he grasps the heel” or “supplanter” (Genesis 25:26).
When the Old Testament was translated into Greek (the Septuagint), Jacob was rendered as Iakob or Iakobos. This Greek name is the basis for the Jacob references in the New Testament, which was written in Koine Greek.
From Greek, Iakobos was translated to Latin as Iacomus. Variations like Jacomus began emerging. Through further changes to Jacomus, Jaymus, Jamus, and other forms, it eventually became James in English translations.
So in summary:
- Hebrew Ya’akov or Jacob
- Greek Iakob or Iakobos
- Latin Iacomus
- Variations like Jacomus, Jamus, Jaymus
- English James
This explains how the names Jacob and James have the same origin, despite being used in different biblical contexts. Jacob is used in the Old Testament, originating the Hebrew. Iakobos is used in the Greek New Testament. And James emerges in English translations.
While Jacob and James have linguistic similarities, the usage of these names also carries theological significance. The progression from Jacob to James symbolizes some important transitions that occurred between the Old Testament and New Testament people of God.
First, Jacob receiving the name Israel marked the emergence of the nation of Israel from his descendants. While God initially made a covenant with Abraham, it was solidified and expanded with Jacob becoming Israel. This covenant people Israel formed the faith context of the Old Testament.
The New Testament era brought Jews and gentiles together in a new covenant under Christ. Thus, while the initial believers were Jewish and inherited the covenant with Israel, the gospel ultimately expanded beyond Israel. James and other New Testament figures symbolized this transition.
Though the early church leaders like James were Jewish, the book of James and other epistles were written to a universal audience including Jewish and gentile Christians. The transition from Israel to global Christianity was now occurring through figures like James.
Furthermore, James’ life and epistle demonstrate righteousness through faith and works, not merely inheritance from Israel’s covenant. James contrasts Abraham’s faith being demonstrated by works versus dead faith without works (James 2:14-26). Though James was Jewish, his teachings applied to all believers.
In this way, James forms a transitionary figure and name between old and new covenants. The name has linguistic connections to Jacob, representing continuity with Israel. Yet James points toward a new, fulfilled covenant under Christ available to all people.
The name change also reflects a move from national Israel’s covenant to a New Testament covenant based on spiritual rebirth in Christ. James is the evidence of an emerging Christianity from Judaism that maintains its roots yet becomes open to the world.
Associating Jacob and James
For modern Bible readers, the linguistic shift from Jacob to James can be confusing. When studying the Bible, it is important to recognize that these names refer to the same Hebrew origin.
Jacob in the Old Testament becomes Iakobos in Greek. Iakobos is then translated to James in English. The key to connecting them is recognizing their common Hebrew ancestry in Ya’akov.
To avoid confusion when studying Jacob and James, remember:
- Jacob is the Hebrew patriarch in Genesis who fathers the 12 tribes
- Iakobos is the Greek form of Jacob used in the New Testament
- James is the English rendering of Iakobos, referring to several early church figures
James is not an entirely different name. Rather, it evolved from the Greek Iakobos, which in turn came from Hebrew Ya’akov. The names describe the same person, Jacob.
Understanding this connection also explains references to figures like “James the brother of Jesus.” Jesus’ brother shared the popular Jewish name Ya’akov. In Greek this became Iakobos, translated James in English. Recognizing this transition clarifies these name changes.
Additionally, the linguistic shift represents the theological transition occurring from old covenant to new. Israel became spiritually renewed in Christ through figures like James. While their contexts differed, the names accurately reflect the historical and covenant connections.
So in summary, Jacob and James have a clear relationship through their shared linguistic origins. They also represent an important transition between the Old Testament people of Israel and the emerging New Testament church expanding to all nations. Their similar names reveal continuity, progression, and renewal.