When I was at BYU, I had a professor who taught us that the name James is not truly biblical, and only appears in the Bible because the translators of the 1611 Authorized Version could scarcely dedicate it to King James I if his name did not appear therein. I thought that was a fascinating factoid and I believed it for years. I may have even taught it myself in a lesson or two along the way.
A number of years ago this subject came up in conversation, and someone challenged me on it, so I set about to demonstrate what I thought was this well established fact. And I looked and I looked, and I couldn’t find any actual evidence. Eventually I concluded that it simply isn’t true. The name James was used in the NT not to honor King James, but as the result of a convoluted process of linguistic evolution.
The original name of the Hebrew patriarch whose name was changed to Israel was Ya’akob, which is directly transliterated into English in OT texts as Jacob. In the NT, which was written in Greek, this name was transliterated as IakObos. (Greek lacks a letter Y and uses a iota at the beginning of words to approximate that sound, and the -os at the end is a GR masculine ending.) This was rendered in Latin texts as Iacobus. There eventually was a Late Latin variant, Iacomus, which splintered among the romance languages, giving us Italian Giacomo and Spanish Jaime. Old French gave rise to two variant forms of this name, James and Jacques. English speakers, heavily influenced by Norman French, preferred James, and this name thus came into Middle English. The nail in the coffin was when I checked the Geneva Bible, which predated the KJV (so its translators were obviously not trying to honor the future King James), and that translation uses the name Iames to represent NT persons named Jacob.
Interestingly, JS commented on the unfortunate linguistic distance between the names Jacob and James in the KFD (HC 6:302-17 [my WJS is inaccessible at the moment]):
“I have an old edition of the New Testament in the Latin, Hebrew, German and Greek languages. I have been reading the German, and find it to be the most [nearly] correct translation, and to correspond nearest to the revelations which God has given to me for the last fourteen years. It tells about Jacobus, the son of Zebedee. It means Jacob. In the English New Testament it is translated James. Now, if Jacob had the keys, you might talk about James through all eternity and never get the keys. In the 21st. of the fourth chapter of Matthew, my old German edition gives the word Jacob instead of James.
The doctors (I mean doctors of law, not physic) say, “If you preach anything not according to the Bible, we will cry treason.” How can we escape the damnation of hell, except God be with us and reveal to us? Men bind us with chains. The Latin says Jacobus, which means Jacob; the Hebrew says Jacob, the Greek says Jacob and the German says Jacob, here we have the testimony of four against one. I thank God that I have got this old book; but I thank him more for the gift of the Holy Ghost. (…) I have now preached a little Latin, a little Hebrew, Greek, and German; and I have fulfilled all.”
While there is a certain amount of misunderstanding inherent in this text, it also has a point. Modern English readers are missing something by not being able to see the connections between NT persons with the name James and the great patriarch that gave rise to the House of Israel.