Wednesday, May 2, 2007

St. James the Just: May 3

May 3 is the holiday of Saint James the Just in the Catholic calendar... but shouldn't he be Saint Jacob?

There are several important characters named James (Hebrew Ya'akov) in the early history of Christianity. This James is the one called "James the Just," the brother of Jesus, the first bishop of Jerusalem and traditionally regarded as the author of the Epistle of James which forms part of the New Testament. Here is a lovely Greek icon of James found at wikipedia:



The English name "James" is a real conundrum and shows what dangers await anyone who reads the Bible in English, even in the most simple question of "who is who" and what names are used.

Think about it: you know the name "Jacob" very well from the Bible - it's a perfectly good name to use in a Bible translation, a standard way to represent the Hebrew name Ya'akov. Jacob is one of the most important characters in the Hebrew Bible, a major hero in the book of Genesis.

So... why do we have a book of James in the New Testament, for a man whose name was Ya'akov - like the Jacob of the book of Genesis...? It's definitely something worth thinking about!

I'm in a Greek reading group right now where we are reading the book of James - and no matter how hard I try to tell myself to say "book of Jacob" instead of "book of James," it's almost impossible to do so, given that I have grown up knowing that there is a book of James in the New Testament, not a book of Jacob.

This is not a unique problem, of course. There is Jacob in the book of Genesis, but James in the New Testament. There is Joshua, hero of his own book in the Hebrew Bible... and in the New Testament we find Jesus, not Joshua. Even more than Jacob and James, the story of Joshua and Jesus is an astounding example of the dilemma of names and translations, and how the Hebrew origins of Christianity have been so often obscured in the Christian texts themselves.

I know that not everybody is going to go out and learn Hebrew and Latin and Greek in order to trace the tangled threads that finally lead to what you read when you read the Bible in English. But every time you feel like pulling on one of those threads, just to see what happens, my advice is PULL! You will learn so much just from pursuing the question as far down the thread as you can follow.

So with James, you might even be provoked by a very simple question in English: why is it that the supporters of King James in England were called Jacobites? Well, that is because James is the English version (via French) of the name Iacobus in Latin, hence "Jacobites" who are supporters of King James, the King James Bible being an example of "Jacobean" prose, and so on.

Yet even in the Latin Vulgate Bible, there is a distinction between the Genesis character and the brother of Jesus . In the Vulgate Bible, the Genesis character is Iacob, and the New Testament character is Iacobus, a more fully Latinized form of the name. So just as "James" in the New Testament is opposed to "Jacob" in the Hebrew Bible, there is also a difference between the New Testament "Iacobus" and the "Iacob" of Genesis.

The same, but different. You can definitely say that James is the "same" as Jacob, but you can say just as certainly that they are not the same at all.

So whose day is it on May 3? The day of Saint James? or Saint Jacob? Take your pick... because even just saying whose day is being celebrated on the third of May is not easy to do, even in English!

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