Today is St James’ Day. I meant to post this a lot earlier in the day by way of personal commemoration of the Apostle, but the train wreck outside Santiago de Compostela has been, to say the least, distracting. There would have been huge celebrations in that city today in honor of James, whose bones are reputed to be buried in Santiago (Sant Iago, San Jacobo, Saint James), but they have been cancelled, of course, until a less sorrowful time.
The New Testament has many Jameses, so for those who are not up on their saints, or even very much into them, I thought it would be helpful to sort them out.
First, there’s James, called “the Just,” who is Jesus’ brother. We read about him in the Acts of the Apostles. He appears to be the overseer of the original church in Jerusalem. When a bitter controversy about circumcision for Gentile converts arose, he eventually endorsed Paul’s “uncut version” of the gospel (ahem). Thanks to his diplomacy at the meeting held in Jerusalem to thrash the matter out, “no irksome restrictions” were imposed on new converts. For many centuries he was thought to be the author of the New Testament letter of the same name, but most schoalrs agree that that letter first appears on the church’s radar screen a lot later than 62 CE, when James the Just was martyred, so he couldn’t have been its author.
Next, there’s James, son of Alpheus. We traditionally call him James Minor, Little James, James the Lesser, and maybe that’s because we know only that much about him—very little, far less than we know about any other James. He is remembered in the calendar of saints on May 1, May Day, together with the apostle Philip and the proletariat revolution (which Jesus began and we have yet to finish).
Finally, we come to James the Apostle. In the gospels he is introduced as one of the two male children of Zebedee. John is the other one, and both are nicknamed “Sons of Thunder.” He is one of the first four disciples Jesus called. When he and his brother went traipsing after the Teacher, it appears they may have taken their mom with them. At least she was with them as they all went up to Jerusalem for the last time. She asked for special places for her two boys in Jesus’ kingdom, and Jesus asked them in return if they could drink his cup. They said, “Yes, we can,” but they forgot to ask what was going to be in it. It’s hard to know if they would have been so eager to drink if they understood how bitter it would be
In subsequent tradition, this James is called James Major, Big James, James the Greater. It his his death (and thus his birth), we commemorate today. In addition to what we learn about him in the New Testament, sometime in the 9th century, a pious Christian legend grew up about his having gone off to Spain to preach the gospel and, after his martyrdom in Jerusalem, somehow ending up buried back in Spain, in Compostela.
The power associated with his relics inspired later Christian efforts to banish the Muslims from Spain, where during eight hundred years Muslims, Jews and Christians had forged a relatively tolerant civilization (for the era, that is; believe me, they weren’t having interfaith dinners or anything). ‘Santiago Matamoros,’ his devotees called him—James the Moorslayer—turning him into the mascot of a royal policy that issued eventually in the Spanish Inquisition. But none of this awful stuff was Big James’ fault. You can’t control what other people do with your relics long after you’re gone, so this ought not be held against him.
After St. Teresa of Avila died in the 16th century, her enthusiastic devotees wanted to make her Spain’s patron saint, but there was a small hindrance—Spain already had one. St James. For quite a while an unseemly ecclesiastical tussle about patronal primacy ensued. In the end, it was decided to compromise and give Spain two patron saints. Neither James not Teresa was consulted.
Happy (belated) Feast Day, James, Son of Thunder.