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Saint of the week

The apostle whom Jesus called ‘a son of thunder’

St James the Great (July 25) was beheaded on the orders of Herod Agrippa at about 44 AD

By on Friday, 23 July 2010

The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

Jesus, having enlisted Simon, Peter and Andrew, “saw James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John; they also were in their boat, repairing their nets. All at once he called them, and they, leaving their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, turned aside after him” (Mark 1:19-20).

Curiously, James is never mentioned by name in the Gospel supposedly written by his brother John. Nor, for that matter, is John himself, save as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”. In addition, there is a single allusion to “the sons of Zebedee” as witnesses to the Resurrection (John 21:2).

The Synoptic Gospels, by contrast, make it abundantly clear that James was an important apostle. Jesus, with a hint of affectionate irony, nicknamed him and his brother Boanerges “the sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17).

John, James and Peter were the apostles chosen to witness the Transfiguration. And the same trio were asked to stay close to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, even if they did fall asleep.

Moreover, the mother of James and John was one of the women who “stood watching from far off” during the Crucifixion. Earlier, she had asked Jesus to give her two sons privileged positions in his kingdom, “the one on thy right hand, and the other on the left” (Matthew 20:21).

In Mark’s account (10:35-37) the same request is made by John and James themselves. In both versions Jesus explains that this privilege is not his to give. It is easy, though, to understand why the other 10 disciples were irritated by the pushiness of Zebedee’s family (Mark 10:41).

James’s life was abruptly truncated around 44 AD, when Herod Agrippa had him beheaded, apparently to the satisfaction of the Jews (Acts 12:2-3).

For more than 1,000 years – especially from the 12th to the 15th century, and in the last 50 years – James has been celebrated in the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain.

Though Tertullian (c 155- c 220) recorded that the Gospel had been preached in Spain, there are no documents earlier than the seventh century to support the claim that James had been there.

Equally, the first reference to the Apostle’s corpse having been translated from Jerusalem to Spain occurs in a ninth-century French manuscript.

There was certainly, however, an early Christian cult of some kind at Compostela. And the church of St Mary at Merida, some 270 miles to the south, seems to have possessed relics of St James in 627.

Perhaps these relics were taken north to Compostela in flight from the Islamic conquest of the early eighth century. Certainly the cult of James was assiduously promoted at Compostela by the Asturian King Alphonso III (866-910).