The son of Zebedee and Salome (Matthew 27:56; Mark 15:40; Mark 16:1). Zahn1 asserts that Salome was the daughter of a priest. James
is styled "the Greater" to distinguish him from the Apostle James "the Less", who
was probably shorter of stature. We know nothing of St. James's early life. He was
the brother of John, the beloved disciple, and probably the elder of the two.
His parents seem to have been people of means as appears from the following facts:
- Zebedee was a fisherman of the Lake of Galilee, who probably lived in or near Bethsaida
(John 1:44), perhaps in Capharnaum; and had some boatmen or hired men as his usual
attendants (Mark 1:20).
- Salome was one of the pious women who afterwards followed Christ and "ministered
unto him of their substance" (Matthew 27:55, Mark 15:40; Mark 16:1; Luke 8:2
- St. John was personally known to the high-priest (John 18:16); and must have had
wherewithal to provide for the Mother of Jesus (John 19:27).
It is probable, according to Acts 4:13, that John (and consequently his brother
James) had not received the technical training of the rabbinical schools; in this
sense they were unlearned and without any official position among the Jews. But,
according to the social rank of their parents, they must have been men of ordinary
education, in the common walks of Jewish life. They had frequent opportunity of
coming in contact with Greek life and language, which were already widely spread
along the shores of the Galilean Sea.
The Galilean origin of St. James in some degree explains the energy of temper and
the vehemence of character which earned for him and St. John the name of Boanerges,
"sons of thunder" (Mark 3:17); the Galilean race was religious, hardy, industrious,
brave, and the strongest defender of the Jewish nation.
When John the Baptist proclaimed the kingdom of the Messias, St. John became a disciple
(John 1:35); he was directed to "the Lamb of God" and afterwards brought his brother
James to the Messias; the obvious meaning of John 1:41, is that St. Andrew finds
his brother (St. Peter) first and that afterwards St. John (who does not name himself,
according to his habitual and characteristic reserve and silence about himself)
finds his brother (St. James). The call of St. James to the discipleship of the
Messias is reported in a parallel or identical narration by Matthew 4:18-22; Mark
1:19 sq.; and Luke 5:1-11. The two sons of Zebedee, as well as Simon (Peter) and
his brother Andrew with whom they were in partnership (Luke 5:10), were called by
the Lord upon the Sea of Galilee, where all four with Zebedee and his hired servants
were engaged in their ordinary occupation of fishing. The sons of Zebedee "forthwith
left their nets and father, and followed him" (Matthew 4:22), and became "fishers
St. James was afterwards with the other eleven called to the Apostleship (Matthew
10:1-4; Mark 3:13-19; Luke 6:12-16; Acts 1:13). In all four lists the names of Peter
and Andrew, James and John form the first group, a prominent and chosen group (Mark
13:3); especially Peter, James, and John. These three Apostles alone were admitted
to be present at the miracle of the raising of Jairus' daughter (Mark 5:37; Luke
8:51), at the Transfiguration (Mark 9:1; Matthew 17:1; Luke 9:28), and the Agony
in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:37; Mark 14:33). The fact that the name of James occurs
always (except in Luke 8:51; 9:28; Acts 1:13 — Greek Text) before that of his brother
seems to imply that James was the elder of the two. It is worthy of notice that
James is never mentioned in the Gospel of St. John; this author observes a humble
reserve not only with regard to himself, but also about the members of his family.
Several incidents scattered through the first three Gospels suggest that James and
John had that particular character indicated by the name "Boanerges," sons of thunder,
given to them by the Lord (Mark 3:17); they were burning and impetuous in their
evangelical zeal and severe in temper. The two brothers showed their fiery temperament
against "a certain man casting out devils" in the name of the Christ; John, answering,
said: "We [James is probably meant] forbade him, because he followeth not with us"
(Luke 9:49). When the Samaritans refused to receive Christ, James and John said:
"Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them?"
On the last journey to Jerusalem, their mother Salome came to the Lord and said
to Him: "Say that these my two sons may sit, the one on thy right hand and the other
on thy left, in thy kingdom" (Matthew 20:21). And the two brothers, still ignorant
of the spiritual nature of the Messianic Kingdom, joined with their mother in this
eager ambition (Mark 10:37). And on their assertion that they are willing to drink
the chalice that He drinks of, and to be baptized with the baptism of His sufferings,
Jesus assured them that they will share His sufferings (Mark 5:38-39).
James won the crown of martyrdom fourteen years after this prophecy, A.D. 44. Herod
Agrippa I, son of Aristobulus and grandson of Herod the Great, reigned at that time
as "king" over a wider dominion than that of his grandfather. His great object was
to please the Jews in every way, and he showed great regard for the Mosaic Law and
Jewish customs. In pursuance of this policy, on the occasion of the Passover of
A.D. 44, he perpetrated cruelties upon the Church, whose rapid growth incensed the
Arrests, beatings and intimidation had become common. A group of believers were
randomly rounded up and carted off to Herod’s dungeon. Among them happened to be
one of the apostles – James. The event seemed little more than the usual inconvenient
harassment that the Roman leaders felt obligated to perform at the insistence of
certain Jewish leaders, who seemed obsessed with the followers of Jesus. But things
took a sudden turn when James was hauled out without fanfare and summarily executed
by the sword. The church in Jerusalem was stunned; their opponents were elated (Acts
The zealous temper of James and his leading part in the Jewish Christian communities
probably led Agrippa to choose him as the first victim. "He killed James, the brother
of John, with the sword." (Acts 12:1-2).
According to a tradition, which, as we learn from Eusebius2
(Church History II.9.2-3), was received from Clement of Alexandria3
(in the seventh book of his lost "Hypotyposes"), the accuser who led the Apostle
to judgment, moved by his confession, became himself a Christian, and they were
beheaded together. As Clement testifies expressly that the account was given him
"by those who were before him," this tradition has a better foundation than many
other traditions and legends respecting the Apostolic labors and death of St. James,
which are related in the Latin "Passio Jacobi Majoris", the Ethiopic "Acts of James",
and so on.
According to tradition, St. James the Greater, having preached Christianity in Spain,
returned to Judea and was put to death by order of Herod; his body was miraculously
translated to Iria Flavia in the northwest of Spain, and later to Compostela.
In the context of history, fourteen years doesn’t represent a large time span. But
Jesus’ active ministry only covered three years. The question becomes, then, what
were James and the other apostles doing during those first fourteen years before
James was martyred at the hands of Herod’s soldiers?
During the years following Jesus’ ascension, an uneasy relationship developed between
the growing movement of Christians in Jerusalem, those Jewish leaders who had rejected
Christ’s claims and helped to have Him killed, and the Roman authorities who were
charged with keeping the peace. Order was often maintained by the use of threats
and torture. The early chapters of the book of Acts provide glimpses of the ebb
and flow of the persecution of believers, But Luke records a significant moment
involving Gamaliel, the rabbi who was Saul’s mentor. He wasn’t opposed to the persecution
of believers, but he cautioned his fellow members of the Sanhedrin against killing
Christians. He understood the power of martyrdom. Gamaliel said, “And now I say
to you, keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this work
is of men, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it
– least you even be found to fight against God.” (Acts 5:38-39). This tactic of
toleration may have kept many believers in Jerusalem and thus slowed down the process
of taking the gospel to the world. Stephen’s and James’ deaths eventually changed
all of that. The fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 severed to scatter the church to the
Each of us has our own uniqueness and contribution to offer Jesus. But unlike James
our faith has not been shaped by actually seeing the miracles of Jesus, or being
there for His Transfiguration. We didn’t get to spend three years travelling with
Him during His ministry. James’ strength came from being a part of Jesus’ ministry
and knowing God’s Word. Like James you and I must stand against the forces of evil
that would attempt to still the Word of God. We must share the Word regardless of
the ridicule directed at us.
James stood up and James stood out and James stood by Jesus even as Agrippa put
the sword to his neck. For all the martyrs, for Jesus Christ and for our own peace
of mind we must live, breathe and share the Love of Jesus Christ always.
Theodore Zahn (1838-1933) German Lutheran theologian,
patristic scholar (study of early church fathers) and New Testament exegete was
born in Mors, Rhenish Prussia. He taught at the universities of Goettingen (1865-1877),
Kiel (1877-1878), Erlangen (1878-1888 and 1892-1909) and Leipzig (1888-1892). He
was the author of many important monographs and commentaries. Nevertheless, his
influence was underrated because he defended the conservatives in New Testament
studies, opposing the radical critics of the Bible. Among his leading works was
his three-volume Introduction to the New Testament (1897-1899; English translation
Eusebius of Caesarea was the bishop of Caesarea
in Palestine during the early fourth century. He was a prominent personality during
the period when Christianity was recognized by Constantine the Great, ending the
persecutions, and he participated in the First Council of Nicea. He is famous for
his writings, particularly his Church History or Ecclesiastical History (Historia
Ecclesiastica). He is often referred to as Eusebius Pamphili because of his close
friendship with Pamphilius, the founder of the major library in Caesarea.
Clement of Alexandria (Titus Flavius Clemens),
was the first well-known theologian of the Church of Alexandria. He was born about
the middle of the 2nd century, and died between 211 and 216.