Pursuing James is a popular thing to do in the pages of the Old Testament. Laban pursued him, as did Esau and a few others. There was good reason: Yaʻaqov, or Jacob, as he was called in the Hebrew language, was a rascal. His name means "heel-grabber" and he seemed to be the kind of punk who would trip you in the school hallway and giggle when you stumbled. He also sired a famous family and was the father of the 12 Israelite tribes (or 13 or 14, but who's counting?).
I assume it is because of this latter claim to fame (and not the former) that mothers of old thought this would be a good name to hang on their boys. By the New Testament era Ya'aqov had become 'Iacobus. With a few more linguistic gyrations, 'Iacobus became the James that we know today.
Which brings us to the starting line.
Pursuing James in the text of the New Testament is a difficult task. One reason is because James appears more than 60 times on the short side of the biblical canon. What makes it tricky is that not all of these appearances refer to the same person.
(In a parallel exercise, count all of the hairs that have been pulled while sorting out multiple references to "Mary" or "Herod").
NT scholars have gone bald in the effort to identify eight different persons in the James Gang. Since I am losing hairs for other reasons, I'll let others tease out the details. Our focus for the moment is simply to identify the three "biggies."
1. James the Great
This son of Zebedee is often paired with his brother John (cf. Mt 10:2) and shared with him the nickname “thunderboy." One doesn't get a name like that without reason (Mk 3:17).
He seems to have followed Jesus early (Mt 4:18-22) and became a member of the innermost circle of the disciples of Christ (i.e., Mt 17:1, Mk 5:37; 14:33).
Tradition describes him as James "the Great" to distinguish him from the next character in our list.
2. James the Less
This James was also one of the 12 and is described as the “son of Alphaeus” (Matt 10:3). Just to keep this spicy, his mother was possibly named Mary (see Mk 16:1).
We know that James the Less was with the boys in the "upper room" at the start of the book of Acts (1:13).
Apart from these and other sparse comments, we know nothing more about James “the Less.”
3. James the Just
This James seems to be of Jesus’s own natural family. He appears in Mt 13:54-55 as coming from Nazareth with his mother Mary. The presence of James and his brothers may also be why Jesus was identified as Mary’s “firsborn son” (Mt 1:25). This James may have been her second.
He may have not become a believer until after the resurrection (Mk 6:1-6). But afterwards he became a leader in the Jerusalem church. Consider how at the beginning of Acts 12, James “the Great” is martyred (Acts 12:2), but by the end of the same chapter, news of the miraculous release of Peter is sent to a different James, a leader in the movement (Acts 12:17).
It is this James who met Paul and appears in Paul’s letters (e.g. Gal 1:18-19).
James "the Just" is also the consensus candidate for the author of the NT book by his name.
Pursuing the James Gang is hard work. But these are the biggies: James the Great, James the Less, and James the Just. Future posts will be devoted to the story and traditions associated with James the Great.