James the Less

James the Less (Greek: Ἰάκωβος ὁ μικρός Iakōbos ho mikros) is a figure of early Christianity, one of the Twelve chosen by Jesus. He is also called "the Minor", "the Little", "the Lesser", or "the Younger", according to translation. He is not to be confused with James, son of Zebedee ("James the Great or Elder"). He is identified by some as James, the Lord's brother, thought of by St. Jerome and those who followed him as really the cousin of Jesus. James the Less was traditionally commemorated with St. Philip either on May 1 or May 3 in the Western Christian calendars.

James the Less
Statue of St. James the Less in the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran by Angelo de Rossi
Venerated inAll Christian denominations

New Testament

In the New Testament, the name "James" identifies multiple men. James the Less is named only in connection with his mother "Mary", who is also the mother of Joseph, who is called Joses by Mark (Joseph and Joses are variants of the same name). There are four mentions:

  • "Mary, the mother of James and Joseph" (Matthew 27:56);
  • "Mary, the mother of James the younger and of Joses" (Mark 15:40) ("James the younger" here has also been translated "James the less");
  • "Mary, the mother of James" (Mark 16:1 and Luke 24:10).

This "Mary" may have been Mary of Clopas, mentioned only in John 19:25. It is unlikely to be Mary the mother of Jesus since she is not identified as Jesus' mother but only called the mother of James the Less and Joseph/Joses. In Matthew 27:56 she is clearly distinguished from the mother of James, son of Zebedee.

Identification as James the brother of Jesus

Saint James the Less, as depicted in the Menologion of Basil II (c. 1000 AD)

James the Less is identified with James the brother of Jesus. Jerome concluded that James "the brother of the Lord" is the same as James the Less. To explain this, Jerome first tells that James the Less must be identified with James, the son of Alphaeus.[1] After that, James the Less being the same as James, the son of Alphaeus, Jerome describes in his work called De Viris Illustribus that James "the brother of the Lord" is the same as James, son of Alphaeus:

James, who is called the brother of the Lord, surnamed the Just, the son of Joseph by another wife, as some think, but, as appears to me, the son of Mary, sister of the mother of our Lord <Mary of Cleophas> of whom John makes mention in his book.(John 19:25)[2]

Thus, Jerome concludes that James the Less, James, son of Alphaeus and James the brother of Jesus are one and the same person.

According to the Golden Legend, which is a collection of hagiographies, compiled by Jacobus de Varagine in the thirteenth century:

James the Apostle is said the Less, how well that was the elder of age than was St. James the More. He was called also the brother of our Lord, because I have resembled much well our Lord in body, in visage, and of manner. He was called James the Just for his right great holiness. He was also called James the son of Alpheus. He sang in Jerusalem the first mass that ever was there, and he was first bishop of Jerusalem.[3]

The same work adds "Simon Cananean and Judas Thaddeus were brethren of James the Less and sons of Mary Cleophas, which was married to Alpheus."[4][5]

Identification as James, the son of Alphaeus

Statue of Saint James the Minor, Apostle, at the church of the Mafra Palace, Portugal

The title, "the Less", is used to differentiate James from other people named James. Since it means that he is either the younger or shorter of two, he seems to be compared to one other James. In the lists of the twelve apostles in the synoptic Gospels, there are two apostles called James, who are differentiated there by their fathers: James, son of Zebedee, and James, son of Alphaeus. Long-standing tradition identifies James, the son of Alphaeus, as James the Less. James, son of Zebedee, is then called "James the Great" (although that designation does not appear in the New Testament). Some propose that Alphaeus was the same man as Cleophas or at least the husband of Mary Clopas.

In this regard, Jerome identified James the Less with James, son of Alpheus writing in his work called The Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary the following:

Do you intend the comparatively unknown James the Less, who is called in Scripture the son of Mary, not however of Mary the mother of our Lord, to be an apostle, or not? If he is an apostle, he must be the son of Alphæus and a believer in Jesus, ‘For neither did his brethren believe in him.’ The only conclusion is that the Mary who is described as the mother of James the Less was the wife of Alphæus and sister of Mary the Lord's mother, the one who is called by John the Evangelist 'Mary of Clopas'.[6]

Papias of Hierapolis, who lived circa 70–163 AD, in the surviving fragments of his work Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord relates that Mary, wife of Alphaeus is mother of James the Less:

Mary, mother of James the Less and Joseph, wife of Alphaeus was the sister of Mary the mother of the Lord, whom John names of Cleophas.[7]

Therefore, James, son of Alphaeus would be the same as James the Less.

In Catholic tradition, James's mother is none other than Mary of Clopas who was among the women at the foot of the Cross of Jesus, weeping. For that reason, and given the fact that the Semitic word for brother is also used for other close relatives, James son of Alpheus is often held as a cousin to Jesus. He is also thought by some to be the brother of Matthew the Apostle, since the father of both was named Alphaeus (compare Mark 2:14 and 3:18).

Modern Biblical scholars are divided on whether this identification is correct. John Paul Meier finds it unlikely.[8] Amongst evangelicals, the New Bible Dictionary supports the traditional identification,[9] while Don Carson[10] and Darrell Bock[11] both regard the identification as possible, but not certain.



  1. The Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary Fragment 15
  2. Jerome. De Viris Illustribus (On Illustrious Men) Chapter 2. newadvent.org. Retrieved 4 September 2015.
  3. Stracke, Richard. Golden Legend: Life of Saint James the Less. Retrieved 29 October 2018.
  4. de Voragine, Jacobus (1275). The Golden Legend or Lives Of The Saints. Retrieved 28 October 2018.
  5. Stracke, Richard. Golden Legend: Life of SS. Simon and Jude. Retrieved 28 October 2018.
  6. Jerome. "Fragment 15". The Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary. New advent. Retrieved 3 September 2015.
  7. Papias. Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord. Fragment X. earlychristianwritings.com. Retrieved 10 September 2015.
  8. John Paul Meier, A Marginal Jew volume 3, p. 201. "There are no grounds for identifying James of Alphaeus - as church tradition has done - with James the Less."
  9. New Bible Dictionary, 2nd Edition (IVP 1982), "James" entry (by P.H.Davids)
  10. "The Expositor's Bible Commentary CDROM, commentary on Matthew (by Don Carson), commentary on Matthew 10:2-4
  11. Luke, by Darrell Bock (Baker 1994), commentary on Luke 6:15


  • Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiae
  • Ronald Brownrigg, Who's Who in The New Testament, Oxford University Press, 1993.
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