James the Great (or Greater), son of Zebedee, was born in approximately 3 AD. He was brother to John, also one of the original Twelve Apostles chosen by Jesus. His father Zebedee, a Galilean fisherman, was a man of means; Salome, James’ mother, was a pious woman who later followed Jesus and used the family’s wealth to help His ministry.
James was a man of “firsts”: one of the first disciples to join Jesus, one of only three chosen to witness Christ’s transfiguration, and believed to be the first apostle martyred for his faith.
He was known to be a man with a fiery temper. He and his brother earned the nickname Boanerges or “Sons of Thunder”. The Bible, in Luke 9:51-56, records the following: As the time approached for Him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome Him, because He was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” But Jesus turned and rebuked them. Then He and His disciples went to another village. How refreshingly human!
Universally, St. James the Great is recognized as the Patron Saint of Pilgrims. Tradition maintains that St. James preached the gospel in the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) as well as the Holy Land. Upon his return to Judea circa 44 AD, he was decapitated by Herod Agrippa, who used his own sword to commit the execution. Legend maintains that disciples of James carried his body by sea back to Iberia, and then took it inland for burial at Santiago de Compostela. A pilgrimage route was established and remains today. Camino de Santiago, or The Way of St. James, is among the most famous of all Christian pilgrimages.
James the Great is often depicted clothed as a pilgrim, with staff in hand, pilgrim hat, and a scallop shell on his shoulder. Scallop shells became a symbol of pilgrimage because of their abundance on the coast of Galicia, near St. James’ tomb. In the Middle Ages, a pilgrimage was often a penance assigned by a priest, and the pilgrim was required to present proof that their journey was complete. A local souvenir, such as a scallop shell, served not only as proof, but could be used as a bowl for food or water along the way.
St. James the Great (or Elder) is honored by tradition and legend and rightfully so. But perhaps his greatest accomplishment is found in Matthew 4, verses 21 and 22: Going on from there, He saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed Him.