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Little James in The Chosen & Scripture (Adapting Biblical Characters)

Updated: Jan 16

Up until his big moment in Episode 2 of The Chosen Season 3, Little James has played an appropriately small role in The Chosen. With only a handful of lines in The Chosen Season 1, most viewers barely even took notice of him. In Season 2, The Chosen finally started giving James a little more depth through his interactions with the other disciples. With the premiere of Season 3, however, Little James has finally been given a moment to shine.


I'm looking forward to exploring James' big moment. But in order to truly appreciate that moment, we need to take a step back and consider the challenges to adapting the Bible's depiction of "Little James" (aka James the Lesser or James the Younger). Because the Bible describes a number of figures named "James," the creators of The Chosen had to navigate some complicated interpretive questions in order to decide who exactly they were portraying. After they determined the identity of Little James, the creators also had to find a way to give him a distinct personality and function in their story - a tricky task, given how little the Bible says about him. We'll explore both of these challenges below.


Jordan Walker Ross as Little James in The Chosen Season 3
Jordan Walker Ross as Little James in The Chosen Season 3
 

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Little James: Brother of Jesus? Cousin of Jesus? Or Someone Else?

The name "Little James" is derived from a single reference. During Jesus' crucifixion, Mark offers this description:

There were also women looking on from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. (Mark 15:40, ESV)

The description "younger" has been understood by many as a reference to physical or spiritual stature instead of age. As a result, it's been alternatively translated as "James the Lesser" or "Little James."


Most biblical scholars distinguish this James from James the son of Zebedee and brother of John. Indeed, James the Lesser is most likely "lesser" in comparison to James the son of Zebedee. The comparison may be due to a difference in height or it may also be a reference to how the son of Zebedee was member of Jesus' inner circle and was considered a greater figure in the early church.


Scholars disagree over whether we should distinguish Little James from Jesus' brother. Paul mentions that Jesus had a brother named James while describing his own biography, noting:

Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord's brother. (Galatians 1:18-19, ESV)

On a surface level, this seems to suggest that Jesus had a brother named James. However, since the time of Jerome, one of the early church fathers, many Catholics have believed that Paul used the word "brother" in a looser sense and that it could actually be translated "cousin." Jerome reached this conclusion by comparing the passage above that describes how Mary, the mother of Little James, was at the crucifixion with a similar passage in the Gospel of John:

...but standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. (John 19:25, ESV)

By comparing these two passages, Jerome concluded that Mary, mother of Little James described in Mark 15:40 must have been the same Mary who is described as the sister of Jesus' mother in John 19:25. If Mary, mother of Little James, was indeed the same person as Mary, Jesus' aunt, that would make Jesus and Little James cousins. Of course, there are couple other possibilities:

  • There could be 4 Marys at the cross: Mary (mother of Jesus), Mary (mother of James), Mary (aunt of Jesus), and Mary Magdalene

  • If there are only 3 Marys (the mother of Jesus, the aunt of Jesus/mother of James, and Mary Magdalene), Jesus could have a cousin named James and a brother named James

Interpreters also have to figure out how Little James and James the brother/cousin of Jesus are related to:

  • James, the son of Alphaeus, who is listed among the 12 apostles (Matthew 10:1-4)

  • James the Just, who plays an important role in the early church (e.g., Acts 15), and

  • James, the servant of Jesus, the writer of the Epistle of James (James 1:1)

The traditional Catholic view identifies all of these figures as a single person (i.e., Little James = James, cousin of Jesus = James, the son of Alphaeus = James the Just, bishop of Jerusalem = the author of the Epistle of James), while still distinguishing that person from James the son of Zebedee. There are a variety of other views among Protestants (and some Catholics), but it's common to distinguish between 3 different people named James:

  • James the son of Zebedee

  • James the Just, the half-blood brother of Jesus, key leader in the early church & write of the Epistle of James

  • Little James, the son of Alphaeus and one of the Twelve Apostles

So far, it seems like this is the direction The Chosen is going. We haven't seen any sign that Jesus and Little James are related, either as brothers or cousins. If they were related, we would expect Jesus to mention it, especially given how he often mentions that John the Baptist is his cousin. Episode 2 hinted that Jesus is going to Nazareth soon, so we'll probably get a clearer picture of his family situation in the near future.



Little James, Disability, & the Power of Weakness

The problem with distinguishing Little James from James, the brother of Jesus, is that it leaves us with very little biblical information about who Little James was or what he accomplished. All we can say, based on Scripture, is that Little James was an Apostle and that he was younger or of less stature than James the son of Zebedee.


This is a problem from the perspective of adaptation. In a literary biography like the Gospels, it's easy enough to mention James briefly in a list of the Apostles without giving us any other details about who he was or what he did. But in an ongoing television series, viewers expect recurring characters to have a distinct personality and serve a clear function. So how do you adapt a character who is a total cypher in the original source material?


Instead of treating the lack of biblical information about Little James as a problem, The Chosen takes this as a cue for understanding his personality. In The Chosen, Little James is meek and soft-spoken - the kind of person who doesn't draw a lot of attention to himself. This fits perfectly with how little attention is drawn to him in Scripture. If the historical Little James was anything like the character who is portrayed in The Chosen, it's not hard to understand why he wouldn't show up very often in biblical stories. Even if he was present at important moments or if he performed powerful miracles, he doesn't seem like the kind of person who would make a big deal about it. He'd be content to minister faithfully in obscurity.


The meekness and humility of Little James is embodied concretely in his physical disability. People with disabilities have always had a difficult life. Even today, after years of advocacy, it's still easy for members of the disabled community to be overlooked and underestimated. In Jesus' day, people with disabilities got even less attention and respect, often being relegated to a life of begging and exclusion. Even in Scripture itself, people with disabilities are expressly forbidden from serving in certain capacities (e.g., Leviticus 21:16-21). We don't get to spend a lot of screen time with Little James, but it's not hard for us to imagine how his status as a marginalized member of society would make him less outspoken and confident than one of the other apostles like Simon or John.


Too often churches equate leadership with strength, extraversion, charisma, and social dominance. As a result, Christians who are meek and soft-spoken can feel like they are unable to contribute to God's work in a meaningful way. The character of Little James functions as a stand in for all those among us who are overlooked and under-appreciated because of these dynamics. During their conversation in Episode 2 of The Chosen Season 3, Jesus lets Little James (and those of us who are like him) know that he is seen and appreciated by God - even if he lacks the qualities that are most easily seen and appreciated among men. More importantly, Jesus helps James see how his weakness in the eyes of the world can actually end up magnifying God's goodness. It's easy to say God is good when he heals us. To be able to say that God is good, even when he doesn't heal us, is an even more powerful testimony.


[Side Note: For the most part, in this post I'm focused on how the character of Little James functions in The Chosen as a finished show. I'm more interested in questions like: "What purpose does Little James serve in the show?" and "How does the disability of Little James affect the meaning/significance of his character?" and so I haven't really delved into the background of Jordan Walker Ross, the actor who portrays Little James, and the part that he played in shaping the character. However, it is worth noting that Jordan Walker Ross has a disability in real life. In fact, based on interviews that Jordan has given, it appears that the creators of the show originally didn't conceive of the character of Little James as a person with a disability. After Jordan was cast and it became apparent that hiding his disability wasn't a viable option, the creators of the show decided to incorporate his disability into the character of Little James. It's an interesting example of how an adaptation is not the product of a single mind (e.g., Dallas Jenkins) but is instead shaped by a number of collaborators and influences. Jordan's story is really worth listening to and I encourage you to check out some of the interviews he's given about the show, like the one below.]


Several people have asked me whether the scene between Little James and Jesus is in the Bible. As I've already noted, the Bible tells us hardly anything about Little James, and it certainly doesn't give us anything like this scene. That being said, there are biblical parallels for this scene that I suspect the creators of The Chosen were drawing on. In particular, I'm thinking of the famous passage Paul writes about his own weakness:

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10, ESV)

God's strength isn't perfected in the power and ability of those who are esteemed in the eyes of the world. Rather, it is most clearly and completely on display in those who, like Little James and the Apostle Paul, are weak, marginalized, and looked down on by the world but who nevertheless can proclaim the goodness of God's grace. That's a powerful message - and one that I hope Little James, in his small but significant role in The Chosen, will be able to communicate to thousands of meek and marginalized viewers who struggle to understand the purpose behind why they suffer or are overlooked by others.


I don't struggle with a disability like Little James, but I do tend to be quieter and less outgoing than others, which can feel like a serious weakness when serving in the church, and so James' scene still connected with me in a meaningful way. Since many of you also seem to have connected with this moment, please consider sharing how it spoke to you in the comments below!


Little James in The Chosen & Scripture FAQ

Does Little James have a disability in the Bible?

In the Bible, there is no indication that Little James had a disability.


In The Chosen, Little James is portrayed as a person with a disability to enable the show to explore important themes and ideas (see more above).


Is the conversation between Little James and Jesus in The Chosen Season 3 Episode 2 in the Bible?

In The Chosen, during Season 3, Episode 2, Little James asks Jesus why Jesus hasn't healed him. Jesus explains that Little James is able to give a unique and special testimony as someone who believes even though he hasn't been healed. This scene is not described in the Bible, but it has echoes of Paul's conversation with God in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10.


Are Little James and Jesus related?

It is debated whether Little James and Jesus were related. Some Christians believe they were cousins but the biblical evidence to support this position is limited. The Bible does say that Jesus had a "brother" named James, but it's debated who this brother was and what "brother" means (see more above).


So far, it seems like The Chosen is not portraying Little James and Jesus as cousins.


Who plays Little James in The Chosen?

In The Chosen, Little James is portrayed by Jordan Walker Ross. Like the character he portrays, Jordan Walker Ross has a disability.


 

Further Reading

Tim Keller is best known for his ability to communicate the Christian faith to secular people in a winsome and intellectually-satisfying fashion, but, as person who has struggled with bouts of cancer, he's also has a lot wisdom about how to process difficult experiences like sickness and disability. Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering distills a lot of key biblical insights for those who are struggling or who will struggle at some point in this life (i.e., all of us).

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If you liked this post, you might want to check out some of my other posts on The Chosen and Bible adaptation. I have Bible studies/discussion guides for each episode of The Chosen Seasons 1-3, blogs exploring how The Chosen adapts key biblical figures, and articles exploring the controversial nature of adaptation. I hope you enjoy them!


The Chosen Season 3

Adapting Biblical Characters Series

Exploring The Chosen with Youth or Small Group [Discussion Guides]


Season 3

Season 2

Season 1

Specials

The Chosen Controversies Series

Beyond The Chosen



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