This is somewhat related to another question I've asked.

A common tradition of early Christian literature is that Jesus had a core group of twelve disciples (Mark 3.14-19; Matthew 10.1-4; Luke 6.13-16; John 6.67; Acts 1.13,26; 6.2; First Corinthians 15.5; Revelation 21.14).

The Synoptic Gospels preserve a tradition that Jesus had a sort of 'inner circle' among these twelve, consisting of Simon Peter and the two sons of Zebadiah, James and John (cf. Mark 5.37; Matthew 17.1; Luke 8.51), who Jesus allows to accompany him to otherwise private moments.

Paul and Acts, however, introduce some curious information.

Acts maintains a degree of the unique quality of Peter and John (e.g. Acts 3.1-4,11; Acts 4.13,19; 8.14). However, the first time James the son of Zebadiah is mentioned beyond the list of twelve (Acts 1.13), it is when he is executed by Herod Agrippa (12.2)... and then immediately after this (12.17) a different James is brought into the narrative without introduction, despite apparently being a significant leader in the Jerusalem church (15.13; 21.18).

Paul acknowledges the tradition that Jesus had a core group of twelve disciples (1 Corinthians 15.5), and that Jesus' brother James was a significant leader in the Jerusalem church (1 Corinthians 5.7; Galatians 1.19)... but very curiously associates him with Peter and John (Galatians 2.9).

To summarize my thoughts, it seems a terrific coincidence that the Synoptics, Acts, and Paul each mention a triad of men named Peter, John, and James, and yet 'James' was two completely different men. If a reader conveniently missed the death of one James in Acts 12.2 right before another is mentioned in the same chapter, it would be very natural to conflate the two as one individual (different fathers notwithstanding).

Has there been any scholarly talk over this unusual coincidence? If so, what reactions have there been?

I assume some would suggest we take the accounts at face value, that it really is just a coincidence. But I expect others might have something more to say (e.g. that Acts 12.2,17 is an awkward attempt at stitching together two separate Peter-John-James traditions).

  • 1
    Just a quick comment: the James killed by Jews and mentioned in Acts (as well as Josephus), according to a tradition I heard about, is not at all the son of Zebedee, but a half-brother of Lord (son of Joseph from his previous wife), who was not among the twelve, but became a prominent figure of Jerusalem Church, perhaps even more dominant than Peter himself, for Peter fears his agents in Antioch, for James was kind of Judaizing. He also was fond of geunuflextion and his knees were like camel hooves. Commented Sep 11, 2020 at 18:18

4 Answers 4


The possibility of confusion seems slight. Everywhere that Luke refers to James son of Zebedee he is mentioned alongside his brother John (Luke 5:10, 6:14, 8:51, 8:54; Acts 1:13, 12:2). Richard Pervo (Hermeneia) also notes that: "Traditions about the martyrdom of the sons of Zebedee are relatively early."1 This is seen, for example, in Mark 10:39. By the time Acts was written, it seems likely that James' martyrdom was, therefore, a well-known event.

Moreover, James (the brother of Jesus) is also someone well-known to the community. Not only can Luke introduce him in 12:17 in an almost aside, but Paul can do the same in his letters (cf. 1 Cor. 15:7). Pervo therefore observes, "The implied reader of Acts evidently knows who James is. He is not a character who requires introduction or explanation—with respect to his leadership of the community."

Brief Survey of Scholarship

  • Pervo does not address the similarity of the names; but he does note that James's absence from Paul's list of pillars in Galatians "has fueled speculation about the date of James’s death."

  • None of Fitzymyer (AYBC), Bruce (NICNT), Bock (BECNT), Marshall (TNTC), Witherington (SRC), Schnabel (ZECNT) or Tannehill seem to address the coincidence of the names.

  • However, Keener2, in his recent work, does make a few direct remarks: "That the names "James" (12:17) and "John" (12:12) both quickly recur, for different characters from those mentioned here, is not surprising in view of the commonness of both names in this period." He concludes, "Postulating a deliberate literary connection is thus in this case tenuous."

  • Luke Timothy Johnson3, however, posits: "[Luke] quickly passes over "James" who is killed by Herod (12:2), so the reader can focus on the "James" who with “the brothers” is to be told of Peter’s escape (12:17)." This would seem to indicate that he sees some sort of literary connection, but he does not elaborate there.

  • Unfortunately, I don't have the best access to journals; the ones I do have, however, did not turn up any discussion on the topic.


Given the above, any theory that Luke is attempting to stitch together two traditions seems tenuous at best. There may be some literary connection along the lines that L.T. Johnson proposes; but given how well-known both James the Greater and James the Just were within the community, this seems likely a narrative framing technique based on the happy coincidence of their names rather than a deliberate attempt by Luke to obfuscate the traditions in the hopes that his readers will somehow blend the two men in their minds.

  1. Pervo, R. I. (2009). Acts: A Commentary on the Book of Acts. (H. W. Attridge, Ed.). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

  2. Keener, C. S. (2012–2013). Acts: An Exegetical Commentary & 2: Introduction and 1:1–14:28 (Vol. 1, p. 1871). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

  3. Johnson, L. T. (1992). The Acts of the Apostles. (D. J. Harrington, Ed.) (Vol. 5, p. 217). Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press.


In my books I discuss this matter. Here is a passage that you might find interesting...

The triad "Peter, James, and John" is mentioned often in the non-Johannine writings. In some instances (e.g., Mark 5:37, Matthew 17:1, Luke 8:51) this means Simon Peter and the two sons of Zebedee. But the brothers were executed early on (James's death is mentioned in Acts 12:2 and Papias confirms that both James and John, the Zebedee sons, ὑπὸ Ἰουδαίων ἀνῃρέθησαν (“were killed by the Jewish authorities”) quite early.

Paul's writings, written before the Synoptic gospels, refer to another Peter, James, and John, in which the latter two are not the Zebedee sons but James the Just, Jesus's brother, and John the Presbyter, the former Temple priest, at Galatians 2:9, but in this order: James, Peter, and John. The Paul-friendly Acts of the Apostles also refers in passing to these particular three in chapters 15 and 21, but though John is not dignified in either chapter with a mention by name but disparagingly as "of the sect of the Pharisees" (15:5). John (the Presbyter) is significantly mentioned by name only in Acts 3.

Many years after Paul, as the Synoptic gospels were being written, the then-typical confusion of names in which different people sharing the same name were conflated by later generations into the same person, the Synoptic gospel writers fostered a tradition of these three names named in that order, Peter, James, and John. But, because Jesus's brother, James the Just, and the former Temple priest, John the Presbyter, were not yet part of the disciple community, they identified the latter two as the sons of Zebedee.

What we should note is that in this formulaic list, John is always mentioned last. The usual assumption is that these three, as leaders of the early Jesus movement, are listed in order of their seniority power: in the Synoptics Peter as the leader seconded by James, in Paul James first seconded by Peter, and in both traditions John as least authoritative. I think the ordering here serves another purpose: the Jesus movement, originally Jewish, coalesced into a new gentile religion, Christianity, in which this triad of leaders became dogmatic. And I believe the listing is not in terms of the seniority power they held, but in their perceived supportiveness to the then-nascent but growing Pauline repackaging of Jesus as not a Jewish reformer messiah but as a gentile deity incarnate. John was lifelong not just utterly unreceptive to this doctrine, but constantly writing and preaching against it, as I discuss [[page references redacted]]. And so he is listed last. Peter, as the eyewitness source for the Gospel of Mark, is listed first therein and Matthew and Luke follow suit. But Paul remembered him as the one who brokered a compromise in Acts 15, and Peter as sometimes amiable with Paul and sometimes not (Galatians 2), so for Paul Peter was less Paul-friendly than James - and John, as their heated letter-exchanges make clear [[page references redacted]], was easily the most antagonistic toward Paul, and hence was listed last.

This thinking is also behind the fact that John's gospel is located behind the three Synoptic gospels, which were perceived as much more supportive of Paul and his heresy of deity incarnated who died to rid humanity of its sins. The Gospel of John had relatively little support for its inclusion in the canon, and was at the time considered the least instructive (of the dogmas that the growing orthodoxy wished to coalesce), and so it was put behind the other three so the latter would be read first by new or potential converts to the Christian religion.


Rather than taking the apparent coincidences at face value, I will try to put together the views of some critical scholars, along with my own conclusions. Scholars have long recognised that Paul wrote his epistles long before the first New Testament gospel (Mark) was written, so we should not think in terms of Paul acknowledging a gospel tradition about a group of twelve but introducing this tradition for the first time.

Raymond E. Brown says in An Introduction to the New Testament, page 162, parallels have been detected between Mark and Paul's letter to the Romans. I would go further and say that, for example, Mark 14:22-24 was also based on 1 Corinthians 11:24-25, showing that the author of Mark also knew of First Corinthians.

In Paul's epistles, Peter, James and John were "pillars of the church" at Jerusalem so if Mark does, as some scholars suggest, rely to some extent on Paul's epistles, then it is natural that Peter, James and John would be the chief apostles portrayed in Mark. In Who Wrote the New Testament, page 200, Burton L. Mack mentions the difficulty the author of Mark faced in harmonising Paul's three 'pillars' with the twelve. Note that Mark does mention James as a brother of Jesus, but this James does not seem destined for the role that Paul describes. We need not look further at the other synoptic gospels, as the overwhelming consensus of scholars is that Matthew and Luke were substantially based on Mark (See for example John Dominic Crossan, The Birth of Christianity, page 109).

Uta Ranke-Heinemann speaks for many New Testament scholars when she says (Putting Away Childish Things, page 167) the whole book of Acts is a work of propaganda. She says (page 171) Acts follows a clear didactic line and for this reason energetically cultivates the creation of legends and reshapes persons and events according to its own standards. And part of this didactic line was to make Peter the pre-eminent apostle in orthodox Christian belief. We know the author of Acts had access to Mark's Gospel, and it seems clear that he also had access to 1 Corinthians and other Pauline epistles. It is therefore no coincidence that Acts has the same names among its apostles. Whether or not we regard Acts chapter 12 as historical, Mark does have two disciples called James: James son of Zebedee and James son of Alphaeus.


This app erased my well-typed answer, so here's a short version. See Dennis R. MacDonald to see the identities of James and John as the Dioscuri, sons of Jupiter=Zebedee. James is P.I.E. Yemo, twin or second man, John (especially the baptist) is Manu, first man. Jupiter is of course Dias Pitar, third man and third pillar, Peter. the Bible and the greater mythology it was drawn from have many Christs. The idea of a single Christ was a mystery for outsiders to the mystery religion. Cassandra was the Christ of Troy (Iliad), for instance. See The Mystery Of Eden, Magic Jesus channel youtube. Adam and Eve as fig wasps.

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