A Biblical Dive into the Meaning of the Name James

I wrote a long post about the biblical meaning behind the name Hazel and while writing James’ birth story, I only wrote a short paragraph about his name. But I have much more to say about it that deserves its own whole post.

James is a very common name, I’m sure you know a few yourself. But the more I dove into the different meanings behind this name, the more I fell in love with it and think every James should feel the power behind this wonderful name!

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I want my kids to know that, just like it is known in Biblical times, choosing a name is a very sacred responsibility that I do not take lightly. I want my children to glean lessons and gain confidence because of the name they were given during their earthly life.

The Different Meanings of James

Once we found out we were pregnant with a son, we knew fairly quickly that we would name him James. Like all names I am interested in, I do a deep dive into the meaning of that name.

The Hebrew meaning for the name James is supplanter or replacer. Supplanter is interpreted as someone who seizes, circumvents, or usurps. Of course, I don’t really like this definition for James and like Hazel, after some deeper digging, I found much more information about the name of James to share with our sweet son.

Deeper searching took me to where James derives from. The English name “James” comes from the same root as the name “Jacob”: the Hebrew name “Ya’akov” (יעקב). Ya’akov was first translated into Greek as “Ιakobos” (Iάκωβος), then Latinized as “Jacobus,” which became Jacomus, and later James.

James = Closely Follow at the Heel of God

The Latin name Jacomus means “may God protect“. James comes from the Hebrew verb עקב (aqab), which means “to follow, to be behind“, “holder of the heel“, or “he who closely follows“. I love these phrases and I hope I can teach James to closely follow at the heel of God and be a great disciple of Jesus. If my James were to let God lead his life, that is the best thing I could ever ask for.

Unlike Hazel’s name, we can find actual people in the Bible named James and learn lessons from their life as well. There are two disciples named James: James the son of Zebedee and James the son of Alphaeus. Another James, the half-brother of Jesus, was not a twelve disciple but was a leader in the early church of Jerusalem and most likely the one to write the epistle of James.

Lessons Learned from the 3 James’ in the Bible

James, the son of Alphaeus — James the Younger

There are two James who Jesus called to be a part of his twelve disciples. They were known to be James the Lesser (the Younger) and James the Greater (the Older). James the son of Alphaeus is the younger of the two. He probably wasn’t that much younger than the other James or disciples, but there is a lesson to reap from this nickname. Just because this James was “lesser” does not mean he was not worthy of being a faithful and devout disciple to Jesus during his ministry.

We can all relate to this idea in some way: maybe you feel lesser than the other Christians or people around you. Maybe you are soft-spoken, not as talented, introverted, easily intimidated, shorter than average, or younger than your peers, or have a type of disability. Jesus does not care—He takes our lesser and makes it greater. The majority of us won’t ever be considered as one of “the greats”, and yet we can do some great things because we have Jesus by our side.

James, the son of Zebedee — James the Son of Thunder

The James with the most information we have, James the son of Zebedee, is a really great man to be an exemplar to my own James.

Not only was James one of the disciples, he was one of Jesus’ “inner circle”. Peter, James, and John are frequently mentioned together and seem to have a lot more time alone with Jesus. They are the only witnesses to some of Jesus’ miracles (ex. the raising Jairus’s daughter from the dead — Mark 5). These three are the only ones who saw Jesus’ transfiguration, received certain prophetic words from Jesus, and greatly desired to understand His words better. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I know that these three disciples (you could even consider them the First Presidency of the early church) appeared to Joseph Smith and conferred upon him and Oliver Cowdry the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood. This gave “the authority of laying on the hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost”. These three were very important in continuing God’s priesthood to the modern world and I hope my James will feel honored to have a name of one of these important men.

This biblical James (and his brother John) were given a nickname by Jesus — Boanerges which means “sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17). Jesus must have had a good reason for giving the brothers this name. He knew the men’s nature when He first met them and chose “Boanerges” as a fitting nickname. This name gives us a clue to what James’ personality would have been like. Both he and John were bold, full of zeal, passion, and ambition. In Luke 9:54, we get a small idea of this thunderous fervency and anger they are prone to (they tell Jesus to bring down fire to consume the Samaritans who deny to host their company). Jesus rebukes them and reminds them that “the Son of man is not to destroy men’s lives, but to save them“. Given this example and the nickname, James must have been outspoken by nature and a bold witness for the Lord that led many to faith. And probably because of this said outspokenness, James experienced persecution soon after the church began and he was killed. He became the first apostle to be martyred (Acts 12:2).

Just like this James, God and Jesus know our nature. He patiently works with us to conform us to His will, just as He did James. When we are are bold and courageous in his service to Christ, we can be a valuable asset in spreading the gospel — although it can also make us a target of persecution. If we temper our zeal with love and grace and have a steady commitment to the will of God, our weakness becomes our strength and we can push forward the mission of God.

James, the brother of Jesus — James the Just

We have the least amount of information about James, the brother of Jesus. All we know is that he wrote the epistles of James and was also martyred. Most of what we know or speculate comes from Epiphanius who lived in around 300 AD. He believes that James took the Nazarite vows, which is why he is given the “James the Just” title since the vow involves self-disciple, veneration, and reverance. It is obvious that this man had a lot of faith and deep love for the Messiah, just as the other two James’ did. It is written that the people of old that he was a man of outstanding virtue and was the first to be elected to the episcopal throne of the Jerusalem church by Peter, James (the Great), and John.

Whether he was Mary’s son or a potentially a son from Joseph’s first wife (details argued by theologians for ages) doesn’t really matter. We all have the privilege of having relation to Jesus and if my James can be known for his outstanding virtue, I will be a proud mother. Similarly, whether he was a Nazarite or not, I think this idea of setting ourselves apart and consecrating our lives to God is something my boy James will relate to as he grows up as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ (the word consecration is mentioned 8 times in the Numbers 6 where the law of the Nazarite is explained!). What a wonderful man to look up to as he learns to consecrate his own life to God.

The mothers of James

The last group of people I wanted to focus on for the name of James are actually not named James at all. It is their mothers. In Matthew 27:56, three women are mentioned to be at the feet of Jesus’ crucifixion: Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James (the Younger) and Joses (Joseph), and the mother of Zebedee’s children (John 19:25 is where Mary the mother of Jesus is mentioned to be at the crucifixion). These two verses combined have all three mothers of the three James above. Mary the mother of “little” James, the mother of Zebedee’s children, which includes “big” James, and Mary the mother of Jesus, who also mothered James the brother of Jesus (sidenote: theologians argue about whether Mary the mother of James and Joses is which Mary but for this point, we will agree with those that believe it is the mother of James the Younger). What is so incredible about this sentiment is that all three mothers of these James’ followed Jesus to the end. They were willing to risk the danger of being known as a follower in the middle of a very dark time where almost every disciple had betrayed or fled the scene. That says so much about each of these 3 women and how devoted they are to God.

I earnestly hope to be like these three mothers of James. I want to be a steady, strong force that keeps my focus on Jesus, during good times and the most terrible. During the darkest times of my life: leaning at His feet and worshipping Him at every cost. It’s obvious that these 3 great men had amazing mothers to look up to growing up and I can only pray I can be the same to my own little Jimmy boy.

I love our son so much and I cannot wait to see what kind of beautiful soul he will come to be!

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7 thoughts on “A Biblical Dive into the Meaning of the Name James

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  1. Interesting article, but your transliteration “abaq”….should be “AQAB”’!!! This correction is kind of important, because the way I arrived at your article was through a Google search for:. “What is James in Hebrew“! So people are using YOU as an information source…let’s give people accurate information! GRACE AND PEACE, Pastor Fred

    1. Thank you for taking the time to let me know of the correct translation! I took a short Hebrew class and I should have noticed that I had it incorrectly. Thank you, God bless.

  2. Such a beautiful article! As the grandmother of another James, I swelled with emotions over thoughts of the choices & blessings that he will encounter. There are so many righteous examples throughout the scriptures. It’s my prayer that we all provide strong examples to these little ones, and hear their pleas to ‘Lead me. Guide me. Walk beside me. Help me find the way….’

  3. Hi dear, I love your research and the fact that you shared it with us. For encouraging you, I am invisible Stigmatic, it means that I have in my body the wounds of the risen Christ. Train your son in the things of God from now and he will never depart from it. Bless 🤗 up.

  4. This piece gave me peace the issue of being a supplater was weighing heavy in my heart and I wondered why God would change Jacob’s name and not the name of Jesus but now I know why

  5. Thank you for your helpful information about the meaning of the name James. I realize choosing a name was an important decision in Jewish tradition for different reasons than the American culture. Here, it seems we don’t pay attention to the meaning of a name just if we like it or not. I’m finding more and more how much I can learn from the Jewish roots. I particularly love the blessing of the children.
    Thank you again.

    1. Yes, I also love that it was such an important part of Jewish tradition to name a child with deep related meaning and so I have enjoyed researching the names I have a connection to that connects me even more to them and inspires me to teach them principles and lessons from because of it. Thanks for your comment!