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). For many centuries he was thought to be the author of the New Testament letter of the same name, but most scholars agree that that letter first appears on the church’s radar screen a lot later than 62 CE, the year 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, a fisherman in Galilee, and Salome, who would later be identified as one of the ‘pious women’ around Jesus. John is the other son, and both he and James are nicknamed “Sons of Thunder.” James is one of the first four disciples Jesus called to follow him.
This James is the James of “Peter, James, and John”–the little trinity of disciples who form Jesus’ inner circle and show up at the big moments, like the T-Fig; they were also the ones Jesus rebuked after they tried to call down fire on a Samaritan town.
When he and his brother went traipsing after Jesus, 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 it if they understood how bitter it would be
In subsequent tradition, James is called James Major, Big James, James the Greater. It his his death (regarded by the ancient church as 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 there, in a field of stars, Compostela. Which is why thousands of pilgrims tramp across Europe every year on one of the many routes known as the “Camino” of Santiago (Iago, Jacob0, James), enduring all sorts of physical indignities to reach his shrine.
The power associated with his relics inspired later Christian efforts to defeat the Muslims in Spain, where during eight hundred years Muslims, Jews and Christians had forged an uneasy, sometimes violent, but sometimes fruitful 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 of forced Christianization that gave rise, eventually, to coerced conversions and, yes, the Spanish Inquisition.
But none of this awful stuff was Big James’ fault. You can’t control what other people do with your brand 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 retain James, but Teresa was named patron of a bunch of national institutions so she wouldn’t be sad at losing.
James is the only Christian saint I know of who is routinely depicted wearing the costume of a pilgrim on the Way to his own shrine–broad brimmed hat, drinking gourd, walking staff and cockle shell.