Today is the Feast of St. James the Apostle, one of the three apostles that were closed to Jesus and the first apostle to become a martyr.
James and his brother John were sons of Zebedee and, together with Peter, were among the inner circle of Jesus’ twelve disciples. The family seems to have been of a slightly higher social level than the ordinary fisherman as we are told that Zebedee had hired men to help with the fishing (Mark 1:20). James and John were, with Peter and Andrew, among the first four to be called to follow Jesus.
They also had the special privilege, along with Peter, to be witnesses of the Transfiguration (Matt 17:1ff, Mark 9:2ff, Luke 9:28ff), to be present at the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law (Mark1:29) and the raising of the daughter of Jairus (Mark 5:40, Luke 8:51). After the Last Supper, it was these three who were called to watch and pray with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt 26:37, Mark 14:33).
Jesus on one occasion called James and John Boanerges, “sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17), perhaps indicating they were somewhat headstrong and impulsive. On one occasion, recounted by Luke (9:54ff), when Jesus and his disciples were refused hospitality by Samaritan villagers, James and John suggested Jesus call down fire from heaven on the offenders. On another occasion, they went behind the backs of their companions, and asked for the two best places in the Kingdom. On both occasions, they showed they had yet little real understanding of the Way of Jesus. Moreover, James, along with the rest of the apostles other than John, deserted Jesus during his trial and crucifixion.
All that changed, of course, with the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. James would have been among the disciples when Jesus appeared to them after the resurrection and gave them their mission to continue his work. James would also have been present when the Spirit of Jesus was given to the disciples, after which they set aside all their former fears and boldly proclaimed the Gospel.
About the year 44 AD and at the time of the Passover, the Acts tells us that “King Herod laid hands upon some members of the church to harm them”. He seems to have done this as a sign of support for the Pharisees. One of the first victims was James, the brother of John.
King Herod Agrippa I, was the grandson of Herod the Great, who had tried to kill Jesus after his birth (Matt 2) and a nephew of Herod Antipas, who executed John the Baptist (Mark 6) and spoke with Jesus on Good Friday (Luke 23) and father of Herod Agrippa II, who heard the defence of Paul before Roman Governor Festus (Acts 25).
James was the first of the Twelve to suffer martyrdom and the only one whose death is recorded in the New Testament. By tradition all of the Apostles other than St. John the Evangelist were martyred, but the evidence in many cases is based on legend.
James is often called the Greater, to distinguish him from the other James, son of Alphaeus. He is known as James the Great to distinguish him from James the Less, or James the brother of the Lord (also called by Eusebius James the Just) who became a pillar of the Jerusalem community, and is thought to have been the first bishop of Jerusalem (Galatians 1, 19 and 2, 9). It seems probable that there was a third James, James the son of Alpheus, about whom little more is known.
Little is known about St. James between Jesus’ Resurrection and his martyrdom. One source of legends are the approximately sixteen apocryphal, non-canonical gospels, which have come down to us in more or less fragmentary form. Several of these apocrypha gospels, to give them the appearance of greater authenticity, are attributed to people who appear in the canonical gospels (e.g. Thomas, and Mary of Magdala). Two are attributed to James the Brother of the Lord, but none to James the Great. The only reference to James the Great in the apocryphal gospels comes in the Gospel of the Ebionites (which survives only in fragments quoted by the 4th century writer Epiphanus), where a version of the story of the call beside the lake of Tiberias is given.
James’s absence from the apocryphal gospels is odd, given his pre-eminence in the canonical gospels, but might be explained in part by his early martyrdom, and in part by his departure from Jerusalem: legend has it that when the Apostles divided the known world into missionary zones, the Iberian peninsula fell to James. There is nothing intrinsically implausible about this: Spain was already a well-established part of the Roman world, and Paul, writing in 56 or 57 (Romans 15, 24 & 28), is clear about his own desire to make a missionary journey to Spain. On the other hand, Paul was generally reluctant to visit places that had been evangelized by others, preferring to found churches of his own, so his reference might be taken as evidence against James having preceded him to Spain.
There is a tradition that, after his death, he was buried in Spain at the town of Compostela, in Galicia. (Some say the name is a corruption of ‘apostle’ but for others it comes from campus stellarum, or ‘field of stars’). Compostela became a major place of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages and was a rallying point for Spaniards trying to drive out the Moors who had occupied a large part of the country. “Santiago de Compostela!” was one of their battle cries. (The Spanish form of “James” is “Diego” or “Iago”. ‘James’ and ‘Jacob’ are forms of the same name.) The pilgrimage to the grave of the Saint, known as the “Way of St. James”, has become a highly popular pilgrimage for Western European Catholics from the early Middle Ages onwards, thus making James one of the patron saints of pilgrimage.
The 12th-century Historia Compostellana commissioned by bishop Diego Gelmírez provides a summary of the legend of St James as it was believed at Compostela. Two propositions are central to it: first, that St James preached the gospel in Spain as well as in Palestine, and, second, that after his martyrdom at the hands of Herod Agrippa I his disciples carried his body by sea to Spain, where they landed at Padrón on the coast of Galicia, and took it inland for burial at Santiago de Compostela.
James’s emblem was the scallop shell (or cockle shell), and pilgrims to his shrine often wore it as a symbol on their hats or clothes. The French for a scallop is coquille St. Jacques, which means “cockle (or mollusk) of St James”. The German word for a scallop is Jakobsmuschel, which means “mussel (or clam) of St James”; the Dutch word is Jacobsschelp, meaning “shell of St James”.