Last Sunday I watched, on the CBS television program 60 Minutes, a report on the James Ossuary. A voiceover intoned “James, son of Joseph…” while the camera panned over the Aramaic inscription, which I was able to read, since the script is quite similar to that of modern Hebrew. It (or at least a part of it) is יעקוב בר יוסף, whose standard transliteration is y’qwb br ywsp and which I will represent by the vocalized transcription Ya’aqob bar Yoseph.
The importance of the artifact lies, of course, in the seemingly fraudulent (as I had suspected from the outset) reference to Jesus. Since this has no relevance to my post, I will omit it.
It so happens that Ya’aqob (or rather, in a transcription closer to modern Hebrew, Ya’akov) is my Jewish given name. My legal name is the one that my ancestral namesake bears in English versions of the Old Testament: Jacob. Why is it, then, that Jews named Ya’aqob who appear in the New Testament are called James, a word that has not a single sound in common with Ya’aqob?
The answer has three parts. The first part is Hellenism, which can be defined as the adoption of Greek culture (or some of its aspects) by the populations of the lands conquered by Alexander the Great during the centuries following the conquest. Among the Jews, a good part of the upper class became Greek-speaking (they were called Hellenists, ελληνισται in Greek, and it is to them that the King James Version of the New Testament refers as Grecians). And it became customary for them to take Greek-sounding names — either actual Greek names (such as Aristoboulos, Kalonymos or Tryphon) or Jewish names with Greek endings. For example, the famous general-turned-historian named Yoseph, a member of the royal family, identified himself as Iōsēpos (Ιωσηπος) and is known by its Latinized form Josephus, while the Joseph who was the legal father of Jesus — a mere woodworker — is called Iōsēph (Ιωσηφ) in the New Testament, just like his Old Testament namesake.
The New Testament personages named Ya’aqob, on the other hand, were apparently considered important enough to be called not Iakōb (Ιακωβ) like the Old Testament patriarch but Iakōbos (Ιακωβος), with the stress on the first syllable (Ιάκωβος in Modern Greek). Western Christians who adopted the name Latinized it, naturally enough, as Iacobus, with the same stress.
The second part of the answer has to do with the formation of Romance out of Latin. A feature common to all forms of Vulgar Latin was the change of the pronunciation of initial Ia- from /ja/ to /ʤa/. In Gaul, moreover, unstressed vowels tended to be neutralized, and so Iacobus came to be pronounced /’ʤakǝbǝs/. Eventually the first schwa was muted altogether, but since that led to the uncomfortable consonant cluster /kb/, the /b/ was replaced by /m/, and so the oldest form of the name in Old French is Jacmes, /’ʤakmǝs/. (Jacme is still found in Occitan.)
Eventually French people tired of pronouncing the cluster /km/ as well, and so two ways of simplifying the pronunciation arose. One way, which prevailed in most of Northern France, was to get rid of the /m/, resulting in /’ʤakǝs/, spelled Jacques, with the pronunciation ultimately evolving to /ʒɑk/. The other way, which the Normans tried (before eventually accepting the alternative) and which they brought to England with them, was to get rid of the /k/, leading to /’ʤamǝs/, spelled James.
The third and final part of the answer lies in the evolution of English sounds. Just as names changed from Chaucer’s /’namǝs/ to the present /nemz/, so did James become /ʤemz/.