The main question surrounding James’ son of Alphaeus is can we assume he is the same person as one or two of the other Jameses in the New Testament?
He’s obviously not the same person as James son of Zebedee (also known as James the Greater). Their names appear in the same lists and they have different fathers. But there are two other Jameses mentioned in the New Testament:
- James the Less (Matthew 27:56, Mark 15:40, Mark 16:1, Luke 24:10)
- James, brother of Jesus (Galatians 1:19, Galatians 2:9, Acts 15:13)
The early church (most notably, Jerome) assumed both of these Jameses were all the same person as James son of Alphaeus. The strongest link is arguably between James the Less and James, brother of Jesus, so if James son of Alphaeus could be linked to one or the other, it would be reasonable to associate all three.
We know from the gospels that Jesus had at least four brothers: James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas (Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3). And we know that James the Less has at least one brother named Joseph (Matthew 27:56, Mark 15:40).
Some argue that Mark’s attempt to distinguish James the Less suggests there was only one other James to distinguish him from. The word translated as “the Less” or “the younger” could refer to height, age, or importance, but this kind of contrast makes the most sense if there are two people the audience would associate with the name James, not three or four.
If it turned out that James son of Alphaeus was the same person as James the brother of Jesus, that would make him one of the most important leaders of the early church (Galatians 2:9). But many modern scholars take a more cautious position: it’s possible that they’re the same person, but it’s also possible that they’re not.
And it’s always safer not to make assumptions.
One more thing about James son of Alphaeus. There’s another son of Alphaeus mentioned in the New Testament: Levi the tax collector (Mark 2:14). This has led some to assume Matthew and James are brothers.
But the Bible doesn’t say this, and while the lists of apostles make it clear James and John are brothers, and Peter and Andrew are brothers, there’s no mention of a relationship between James and Matthew. In fact, in two of the lists, their names aren’t even next to each other (Mark 3:16-19 and Luke 6:13-16).
So they’re probably not related.
How did James son of Alphaeus die?
Since the early church often assumed James son of Alphaeus was the same person as Jesus’ brother James and James the Less, the details of his death and ministry are impossible to separate from the other Jameses.
Tradition says James the Just (Jesus’ brother) was shoved from the pinnacle of a temple, beaten with a fuller’s club, and then stoned to death.
Another tradition says James son of Alphaeus was crucified in Egypt, where he was preaching. Another just says he was stoned to death in Jerusalem.
However he died, odds are pretty good he was martyred.