Bible Mythbusters: The Origin of “James” in English Bibles

Fact: The New Testament name Ἰάκωβος (“James”) is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew name  יַעֲקֹב  (“Jacob”) in the Old Testament. English Bible translations render the Greek word Ἰάκωβος as “James” in every NT occurrence. When this word occurs in the slightly different form Ιακώβ, it is translated “Jacob” in reference to the OT Bible character.

Myth: A popular story floats around seminaries about the origin of this quirky translation in English Bibles. The story goes that King James wanted to have a biblical name. Since he was funding the KJV, the 1611 translators felt obliged to honor his request.

Experiment: If the this translation originated with the 1611 KJV, then prior English Bibles would translate Ἰάκωβος as “Jacob” rather than “James.” While I was at the UMI library a couple weeks ago, I tested this myth by checking a 1541 Great Bible.

Busted! The Great Bible translates Ἰάκωβος as “James.” This practice is probably just an attempt to draw out the slightly more Hellenized flavor of Ἰάκωβος over Ιακώβ. However, it is still helpful to note the close connection between the names “James” and “Jacob” for English speakers, who can easily miss this relationship.

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