The James whose shrine is at Santiago de Compostela, in north-west Spain, was the brother of John (possibly the Evangelist). The Gospels (Matthew 4, 21-22; Mark 1, 19-20; Luke 5, 10-11) record that they were fishermen, the sons of Zebedee, partners with Simon Peter, and called by Jesus from mending their nets beside the sea of Galilee at the beginning of his ministry. The Gospel lists of the Twelve (Matthew 10, 2-4; Mark 3, 14-19; Luke 6, 13-16) all include James and John among the first four, and from one of them (Mark 3,17) we learn that Jesus nicknamed them ‘the sons of thunder’ – perhaps justified by the story (Luke 9, 51-56) that they once wished to call down fire from heaven to destroy a village which had refused them hospitality.
James and John were present at the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law (Mark1, 29), and at the raising of Jairus’s daughter (Mark 5, 37; Luke 8, 51). They are described in private conversation with Jesus on the mount of Olives (Mark 13, 3). They were also present, with Peter (but not Andrew), at the Transfiguration, a key event in Jesus’s life (Matthew 17, 1-13; Mark 9, 2-8; Luke 9, 28-36), and again, the same three disciples are called apart from the others in Gethsemane (Matthew 26, 37; Mark 14, 33).
Their mother Salome – or they themselves – asked Jesus to accord them places on his right and his left when he came into his kingdom (Matthew 20, 20-28; Mark 10, 35-45), when they also declared themselves ready to drink from the same cup as Jesus – i.e. to accept martyrdom. Finally, the sons of Zebedee are specifically mentioned as present at one of the post-resurrection appearances (John 21, 2), on the lakeshore of Tiberias; and among those gathered in the upper room after the ascension (Acts 1, 13). The only certain fact recorded of James afterwards is his martyrdom (Acts 12, 1-2) at the hands of Herod Agrippa I (r. 41-44 A.D.).
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.
With Peter and John, James was clearly one of Jesus’s closest friends during his ministry, and as such, it is instructive to look for traces of him outside the canonical gospels. Of the 16-odd apocryphal gospels, which have come down to us in more or less fragmentary form, and several of which, to give them the appearance of greater authenticity, are attributed to people who appear in the canonical gospels (eg 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 evangelised by others, preferring to found churches of his own, so his reference might be taken as evidence against James having preceded him to Spain … )
Walking the Via de la Plata (which follows the Roman road north from Seville) today gives you a vivid impression of the Spain James (or Paul) would have known.
7th and 8th century documents (i.e. prior to the discovery of the tomb) refer to the belief that James spent a number of years preaching in Spain before returning to Jerusalem, and martyrdom. His followers are believed to have carried his body down to the coast and put it into a stone boat, which was carried by angels and the wind beyond the Pillars of Hercules (the straits of Gibraltar), to land near Finisterre, at Padrón, on the Atlantic coast of northern Spain. The local Queen, Lupa, provided the team of oxen used to draw the body from Padrón to the site of the marble tomb (Arca Marmorica), a little way inland, which she had also provided. The saint was believed to have been buried with two of his own disciples, Athanasius and Theodore. The site of his tomb was forgotten for some 800 years.
Click here for a fuller account of the literary tradition that grew up around St James.
Early in the 9th century a hermit, Pelayo, was led by a vision to the spot. The tomb was rediscovered, and the relics authenticated as those of St James by the local bishop. Spain at this period sorely needed a new champion or focus to inspire Christians against the invading Moors. The rediscovery came therefore at a most propitious moment. And the pilgrimage began …
See the Catholic Encyclopedia entry for Saint James the Greater.
Churches in England and Wales dedicated to St James
The Church of England website includes a searchable list of parishes, so you can select all those dedicated to St James. Go to http://www.cofe.anglican.org/about/diocesesparishes/infosheets/ and enter “James” at “Search parishes by phrase”. This will of course also find dedications to James the Less.
The Church in Wales has a similar search function at www.churchinwales.org.uk
The Confraternity is also compiling online information about churches of Saint James in the British Isles and about ports, routes and other pilgrimage/Saint James-related items. Please see Discover Saint James in the British Isles for more information.
St James Novena
We are pleased to publish on this site an English translation of A Novena in Honour of St James the Apostle, by José Fernández Lago, a Canon of Santiago Cathedral, with an extended introduction by Sir Donn James Tilson.
A novena is a nine-day cycle of prayer, reading and reflection in preparation for a feast of the church.
Sir Donn’s Introduction covers the life and legend of St James, and includes a Bibliography.