Peter, Jacob and John

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.


  1. Well, I’ll tell you what. I’m grateful today for Kevin Barney.

    Here are the relevent source materials for Words:

    JS Diary by Willard Richards
    Example of error as yocabem Jacob-the son of Zebedee-& James James the son of Zebedee 12 4 Mat. 21. Greek Hebrew. German. & Latin.

    Wilford Woodruff
    the german is here what does this text say, yoakabeam, the son of Zebedee, the bible says James the son of Zebedee, but this says Jacob son of Zebedee 21 ch 4th ver Matthew The Dr says (I mean Dr of Law not of physic) If you say any thing not according to the Bible we will cry treason, But if ye are not led by revelation how can ye escape the damnation of Hell, here we have the testimony of four I have the oldest Book in the world & the holy Ghost I thank God for the old Book but more for the Holy Ghost.

    Thomas Bullock
    I am going to shew you an error I have an old book in the Latin Greek Hebrew & German & I have been readg. the Germ: I find it to be the most correct that I have found & it corresponds the nearest to the revns. that I have given the last 16 yrs years it tells about Jachabod means Jacob-in the English James-& you may talk about James thro all Eternity in the 21 v. of 4th Mat: where it gives the test. that it is to Jacob & how can we escape the dn. of hell witht. God reveal to us. Latin says that Jackobus means Jacob-Hebrew says means Jacob-Greek says Jacob German says Jacob thank God I have got this book & I thank him more for the gift of the H G. I have all the 4 Test. come here ye learned men & read if you can. I shod. not have brot. up this word unt only to shew that I am right when we beg to learn in this way we beg to learn the only true God & when we be[g]in to know how to come to him

    William Clayton
    He referred to an old book (N.T.) in the Hebrew, Latin, German & Greek-find it to be the most correct-find it to correspond with the revelations I have received. It talks about Yachaubon the son of Zebedee-means Jacob. 109 The N.T. says James-now if Jacob had the keys you might talk about James and never get the keys. Matthew 4-21 verse it gives the word Jacob instead of James How can we escape the damnation of hell unless God be with us-Men bind us with chains-Read from the Hebrew Yingacoub-Jacob. Greek Ichobon-Jacob. German He has got the Oldest book in the world-but he has got the oldest book in his heart. Latin Yacobus-Jacob too-Should not have introduced this testimony were it not to back up the word rosh-the head father of the Gods.

  2. “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.”

    We had exactly that instruction last Sunday about King James from an otherwise well-informed Institute instructor. Thanks to Kevin for doing the research. The name obviously did not originate with the good king, but it still might be that the translators chose to follow the Geneva Bible rather than the others with the king in mind. That is a much less interesting story, however.

  3. I think the fact that they preserved Elias and Esaias and Jeremaias in their NT onomastics suggests that the mighty English monarch had little to do with the decision to use James in English. Thanks for the legwork and reminder, Kevin. You should do a piece on the graduated loves of the Christ:Peter animal husbandry interchange if you haven’t already.

  4. Just tossing this out as a brief thought I had reading this…perhaps in a way the linguistic mistake (or purposeful to the Lord?) at least provides a means of keeping the writings of the men called “James” distinctly in New Testament times and thus related to the new law, than inadvertently tying them to the Old Testament laws through the prophet Jacob?

  5. I appreciate the information, Kevin. “Thank you” seems appropriate today.

  6. Nick Literski says:

    “Now, if Jacob had the keys, you might talk about James through all eternity and never get the keys.”

    Joseph’s theology at this time made a great deal of using certain names, and obtaining particular priesthood keys. He’s not merely making a linguistic quibble here, but making what for him was an important theological point.

  7. Always wondered why the English used James. The Dutch bible i have uses Jacobus which doesn’t really translate well. But then again a lot of names are translated to something that’s pronounceable in a given language. Even names like John and Peter. Only Jesus seems to be fairly constant afaik.

  8. Great post, Kevin.

    The real question, though, is where on earth do the Spaniards get Santiago?? That doesn’t seem to bear any relation to James or Jacob or anything else close.

  9. Saint Iago as a derivative of Saint Iacobus? *grin*

  10. Steve Evans says:

    Mark B., Sant/iago = Saint James. As Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade teaches us, Js in Latin become Is! Iacomus –>Iago—>Jacques…

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    Steve is right. Iago is the Welsh form of James (Iaco –> Iago), so Santiago does indeed mean “Saint James.”

  12. To answer the question about Diego and James (not that the answer is at all clear):

  13. I like this post. :)

  14. beautifully put forth.

  15. Jenny the Lurker says:

    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.

    What about Jesus = Joshua? Do we miss something when we don’t make the connection that Jesus was named after (or just has the same name as) the prophet who succeeds Moses and leads the people out of the wilderness?

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    Yes, Jenny, there’s the same kind of disconnect in the case you posit. The Hebrew name Yehoshua gets transliterated in the OT into English as Joshua, There was a shortened form of this name that was common in Aramaic-speaking Palestine, Yeshua. This gets transliterated into Greek as IEsous (with the same kinds of changes we see from Ya’akob to IakObos–iota in lieu of the Y sound and a name-forming sigma at the end). IEsous comes into English anglicized as Jesus.

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