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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.

01 June 2006

Distinguishing Among the Disciples

Q: Was James the son of Alphaeus a biological half-brother to Jesus? Was he a brother of the apostles Matthew or Jude (Thaddaeus)? Were Jude, Matthew, and Jesus related? I want to know because while looking around online for information on the apostles I found different sites saying they may have been.

A: The Church divides itself in understanding whether the (so-called) siblings of our Savior were Joseph’s children with Mary after Jesus’ birth, Joseph’s from a previous marriage, or cousins (often during the period of the New Testament, cousins bore this title). The one called “the Lord’s brother” in Galatians 1:19, also known as “James the Just,” wasn’t among the Twelve. Earlier in his life, he may have been in that group of family members who heard how Jesus was speaking to the crowds and “went out to seize him, for they were saying, ‘He is out of his mind.’ (Mark 3:21)” Obviously, his life changed dramatically — Scripture tells us that James later became leader of the Jerusalem congregation.

James the LessThe son of Alphaeus was one of the Twelve, also known as “James the Less,” distinguishing him from “James the Greater,” son of Zebedee and brother of John. These latter two Jesus nicknamed “Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder. (Mark 3:17)” James the Less got no such fancy name, nor any New Testament mention save for the lists of the disciples. Even later accounts, often filled with speculative stories about the lives of early Christians, say little about him.

James was a popular name in Israel. We shouldn’t wonder, since it is derived from Jacob — the patriarch renamed Israel, the father of the twelve tribes. Meanwhile, Jude also had a fairly common name, stemming from Judah, Jacob’s fourth son and scion of the Messiah’s tribe.

JudeLike James, we have multiple “Judahs” in the New Testament. Judah in Greek is “Judas,” so the disciple Jude (or Judas) shared a name with the one who betrayed the Lord. This latter was known as “Iscariot,” likely reflecting his place of birth, a region named Kerioth. During Christ’s life, people would have needed to distinguish between the two. Afterwards, the Church — and especially the surviving Judas — certainly wouldn’t want the one called “Thaddaeus” or “Lebbaeus” confused with the Lord’s betrayer. Later translators and theologians began the Judas-Jude distinction.

This Jude may or may not have been the one who wrote the epistle. Its author calls himself, “Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James. (Jude 1)” If this “James” was “the Just,” he would be the one you might also call “the Lord’s brother.”

The Greek text of Acts 1:13 speaks of “Judas of James.” This normally means “son of,” as rendered most modern translations. The ESV says, “They went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James.” However, some older versions use “brother of James” in translating this verse. If Jude the Apostle were “son of James” and Jude the epistle writer “brother of James,” then we probably have at least three Judases or Judes in the New Testament.

Stirring things up more, some early writings introduce still another Judas into the mix. They refer to the one we know as “Thomas” as Judas or Jude. While we don’t know with certainty his actual name, it quite possibly wasn’t Thomas — like “Didymus,” the name Thomas means “twin” (see John 11:16 and 20:24). So unless his parents named him “Twin,” he likely bore another name — perhaps even “Jude,” as these non-biblical accounts suggest.

MatthewFinally, we come to Matthew. The Gospel bearing his name uses “Matthew” in the account of his call (Matthew 9:9-13) while Mark 2:13-17 and Luke 5:27-32 both speak of “Levi.” This could be because he (or Jesus) changed his name after his call (Matthew means “gift of the Lord”). It could also be that he was of the tribe of Levi. He may also havepicked up the name elsewhere; perhaps it was given by a doting parent or grandparent. Matthew and James the Less each was a “son of Alphaeus” (Mark 2:14 and 3:18). Whether or not the same Alphaeus, neither could be a son of Joseph, the stepfather of Jesus. Although not likely, if Alphaeus and Joseph or Mary were related, their children were cousins, which, as I noted, were sometimes called brothers in Jesus’ time.

Small wonder you found so many confusing resources. Shared names provide enough challenge. Add in the way they’re translated into English, the places they occur in Scripture, the styles in which the different Bible authors wrote, and the difficulties compound rapidly.

An old sports adage says, “You can’t tell the players without a scorecard.” We don’t have a complete “scorecard” for the followers of Christ — Scripture is silent about much of their lives. Barring some spectacular discovery, we’ll never learn more about them. However, I hope I’ve helped clear at least some of the fog and been at least a bit helpful to you in your desire to better understand God’s Word.

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.

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