Svatojakubská cestaJakobswegWay of St. James

St James the Great

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 ... )