THE GOSPELS ARE UNANIMOUS in telling us that, out of His twelve chief disciples, the Lord Jesus had a special relationship with Peter, James and John. Along with Andrew, Peter’s brother, they were the first called of the twelve. After calling Peter and Andrew to follow Him, Jesus invited James and his brother John, the sons of Zebedee, to do so as well. Jesus then visited the synagogue in Capernaum and He went to the house of Simon (Peter) and Andrew, taking James and John along with Him (see Mark 1:29-31).
The Gospels record that Jesus singled out Peter, James and John, making them His closest associates and favored companions. When the Lord was called to the house of Jairus, who feared for his daughter’s life, “He permitted no one to follow Him except Peter, James, and John the brother of James” (Mark 5:37).
It was these same three disciples who witnessed the Lord’s transfiguration on the mountain and who were closest to Him at the end of His ministry. “Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked Him privately, “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign when all these things will be fulfilled?”(Mark 13:3, 4) It was the same three who followed Him into the Garden after the Last Supper. “Then they came to a place which was named Gethsemane; and He said to His disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’ And He took Peter, James, and John with Him…” (Mark 14:32, 33).
The Death of James
A few years after the death and resurrection of Christ, there was “a great famine throughout all the world, which happened in the days of Claudius Caesar” (Acts 11:28) who reigned from ad 41 to 54. This famine is mentioned by a number of contemporary writers, both Jewish and pagan, such as Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius, who described the famine as “the result of bad harvests that occurred during a span of several years” (Lives of the Caesars, 18).
“Now about that time [the time of the famine] Herod the king stretched out his hand to harass some from the church. Then he killed James the brother of John with the sword. And because he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to seize Peter also” (Acts 12:1-3). James was thus the first of Christ’s closest followers to die; Peter was freed from prison (see Acts 12:5-11) and went on to strengthen the Churches springing up throughout the Roman Empire.
St Clement of Alexandria, who lived in Jerusalem at the end of the second century, recorded an otherwise unknown anecdote concerning the death of St James. Eusebius included it in his History of the Church. “Concerning this James, Clement, in the seventh book of his Hypotyposes, relates a story which is worthy of mention; telling it as he received it from those who had lived before him. He says that the one who led James to the judgment-seat, when he saw him bearing his testimony, was moved, and confessed that he was himself also a
‘They were both therefore, he says, led away together; and on the way he begged James to forgive him. And he, after considering a little, said, Peace be with you, and kissed
him. And thus they were both beheaded at the same time” (History of the Church, Book II, 9).
The head of St James is reputedly buried in Jerusalem’s Armenian cathedral, which is dedicated to St James the brother of John and also to St James the Just, the Brother of the Lord. In one of its chapels, built in the fifth century, a red marble slab in front of the altar marks the place where St James’ head is buried, on the supposed site of his beheading.
St James in Spain?
According to the tradition of the early Church, St James died without leaving Jerusalem (cf. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata VI; Apollonius, quoted by Eusebius, Church History VI.18). Nonetheless, there is a highly revered tradition in the West that St James had brought the Gospel to Spain and then returned to Jerusalem where he died.
According to this tradition, sometime after Pentecost, Saint Peter cast lots with the Apostles to determine the portions of the world to which each Apostle would bring the Gospel. James was chosen to travel to Iberia. No certain mention of such a tradition is to be found in any early writings nor in the early councils; the first certain mention we find is in a ninth century martyrology by the Swiss Benedictine monk, Notker of St. Gall.
According to another Spanish tradition, on January 2 in ad 40, the Mother of God appeared to St James standing on a column on the bank of the Ebro River, instructing him to build a church there in her honor. This pillar is venerated today in the present Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar, in Zaragoza, central Spain.
Even more revered in Spain is the shrine of Santiago (St James) de Compostela in Spanish Galicia, reputed to be the resting place of St James’ body. According to a tradition recorded in the 12th century Codex Calixtinus, St James’ disciples were able to claim his body after his beheading. It was then supposedly transported miraculously to Galicia where it was buried in Compostela.
It is said that these relics were unearthed in the ninth century by a hermit and they became the focal point of an annual pilgrimage to Compostela, called the Way of St James, which has been held ever since.
In 1879 the saint’s supposed remains at Compostela were unearthed again and in 1884 Pope Leo XIII issued a bull, Omnipotens Deus, declaring “in perpetuum” that these were indeed the remains of St James and his two companions, Athanasius and Theodorus. There is no historical documentation to support this assertion.
Vespers for St James (April 30)
At Lord to You I Call
You drew men up from the depths of vanity with a fisherman’s rod of grace. You obeyed the commands of the Teacher, O worthy James, who enlightened all your thoughts and revealed you as an Apostle and holy preacher, for you expound His incompre-hensible divinity, O most blessed one.
The illumination of the Spirit descended on you in the form of fire and made you a divine vessel, O blessed one, dispelling with power the darkness of godlessness and
enlightening the world with the brightness of your all-wise words, O preacher of mysteries, O leader of the Apostles, James, the eye-witness of Christ.
You illumined those lying in the darkness of ignorance with the lightning flash of your preaching, O glorious James. You revealed them to be sons through faith of the Master and God whose passion and death you imitated with zeal. You became an heir of glory, O wise one, as one speaking from God, and a most faithful disciple.
Come, let us praise James with hymns of psalms: the preacher of heavenly mysteries and expounder of the Gospel; for he was revealed as a river of the mystical Paradise, watering spiritual furrows with heavenly streams, revealing them to bear fruit to Christ God, who, by his prayers, grants cleansing, enlightenment, and great mercy.