Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Sunday, November 4, 2012

Why is Ἰάκωβος James and not Jacob?

One of my students asked this rather fundamental question last week. Good question, and I hadn’t thought about it before, and I need your help to answer it.

BDAG says that the name Ἰακώβ (יַעֲקֹב) is “the un-Grecized form of the OT, is reserved for formal writing, and esp. for the patriarch. It is also spelled Ἰακούβ.

The Greek lexical form Ἰάκωβος, with an alternate spelling Ἰάκουβος, is the Hellenized form of Ἰακώβ. 

The normal English translation is “Jacob”; “James” does not appear in the OT (of the ESV). “Jacob” occurs in the NT 26x, always of the patriarch except for the two references to Jesus’ paternal grandfather (Matt 1:15f.).

Unfortunately, I do not have access to the resources that answer this question definitively. BDAG says to check the Oxford English Dictionary; if anyone has access to this and can post their discussion, that would be great. I am hesitant to continue without resources, but here is the best I can see.

From what I can tell, the shift from “Jacob” to “James” is more related to changes in spelling through a series of languages:

  • Latin: “Iacobus” (or “Jacobus”)
  • Late Latin: “Iacomus” (the b and the m sounded similarly)
  • My copy of the Vugate has: “Iacob”
  • Middle English: Jacomus

One source I read says the French “Gemmes” is what became “James.” My old Websters Dictionary (I still like paper dictionaries) says that “James” is from the French, which in turn was derived from the Late Latin “Jacobus.”

Wikipedia says, “The development Iacobus > Iacomus is likely a result of nasalization of the o and assimilation to the following b (i.e., intermediate *Iacombus) followed by simplification of the cluster mb through loss of the b.” This seems to hold up from other sources I am reading.

By the time you get to the King James, the name “James” was firmly established (for whatever reason), and they used that instead of “Jacob.”

So I hesitate to publish a blog without a clear answer, but I am curious and invite you to help me solve this riddle.

I have been getting lots of feedback on this one. Interesting. One story that was often repeated was how King James wanted his name in the Bible and so told the translators to change it. I had never heard that, and it is not correct.

The consensus is that the name goes from Hebrew to Greek to Latin to French and finally to English, and it is the succession of changes that account for the changes. One person wrote: Yaʻaqov (Hebrew) → Iacobus (Greek) → Iacomus (Latin) → Jammes (Old French) → James (English).

Someone else posted the OED entry: "Old French James (Gemmes, *Jaimes) = Spanish Jaime, Provençal, Catalan Jaume, Jacme. Italian Giacomo < popular Latin *ˈJacomus, for ˈJacobus, altered from Latin Iaˈcōbus, < Greek Ἰάκωβος, < Hebrew yaʿăqōb Jacob, a frequent Jewish name at all times, and thus the name of two of Christ's disciples (St. James the Greater and St. James the Less); whence a frequent Christian name."


You know what is very interesting about this topic is that it appears English contains this type of multiple names translated from the same Greek name where other languages do not! Russian, for example, has the same name listed for James as for Jacob. Same thing for Jesus and Joshua (interchangable). Just another goofy thing we've inherited :)

The difference between the usage of Jacob and James in the English Bible arouse out of a fresh outbreak of antisemitism in England. The OT person of Jacob was considered by the English to be the most negative character of the Patriarchs. They did not want to have NT saints named after him, so took the ambiguously related name James for the NT and anyone born prior to Christ, including the ancestors in the lineage, retained the name of Jacob. We must reverse this and we have at The Rooted Word. The first book we translated was the Book of Jacob. I hope this helps clear things up.

I'm not yet believing that the name James is a direct subordinate history from the name Jacob in the Bible. Although we can clearly see both the variations of James and variations of Jacob / Yokov / Iocov, the linkage "Iacomus (Latin) → Jammes (Old French)" does not seem to have solid enough evidence to believe. The dropping of a very solid consenant (K), which is more integral to the name than any other of the sounds, is very unlikely, and if this were the case, this would be only among the very few cases of dropping the most dominant sound of a name. This appears to me to me more of an attempt to say James comes down to us from Yakov, when truly "Jammes" doesn't actually directly come from "Iacomus". There are a very large number of words which share some similar sounds, but which are not derived from one another, and this seems to be the case. I believe that a full and proper study of these names may not actually reveal that James is a subordinate translation of Jacob, but two names of despairing history, which came together over time by the needy minds of Bible translators into English, who were looking for acceptance and patronage.

Tyndale Bible of 1500s already has “Iames”

I first discovered that there NO apostles named "James" when I toured Greece on a pilgrimage "In the Footsteps of St. Paul." I was interested in purchasing a true icon of my patron/namesake Saint in the gift store of St. Gregory Palamas Metropolitan Church. The confused clerk told me there was no such icon! I replied: "But there were TWO apostles named James!" Later, my curiosity led me to explore the etymology of my firstname, learning the original Hebrew to Greek was Latinized, then Gallicized, then Anglicized. I confirmed this when visiting the Tomb of the Apostle at Santiago de Compostelo. There is a large arch over the tomb's entrance clearly titled "SAN JACOBUS." Since Jacob can also mean deceiver, this meant some teasing ensued. However, I then pointed out that only one human ever "won" (? stalemate) a wrestling match with God: JACOB = ISRAEL!! {Gen 32: 28-32}

diaconus -> doyen-> dean; paganus -> pion -> pawn; Elision of medial stops was pretty common in the evolution of French, especially before a nasal.