Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Saint James the Great, Apostle

[Saint James the Greater]Article

Saint James, the brother of Saint John Evangelist, son of Zebedee and Salome, and nearly related to Christ, was called the Great to distinguish him from the other apostle of the same name who was bishop of Jerusalem, and is surnamed the Less, perhaps because he was lower in stature, or more probably because he was the younger. Saint James the Great seems to have been born about twelve years before Christ, and was many years older than his brother Saint John. Salome is otherwise called Mary, and was sister to the Blessed Virgin, which some take in the strict sense of the word; others understand by it only cousin-german, according to the Hebrew phrase, and think the Blessed Virgin was an only daughter.

Saint James was by birth a Galilean, and by profession a fisherman with his father and brother, living probably at Bethsaida, where Saint Peter also dwelt at that time. Jesus walking by the lake of Genesareth saw Saint Peter and Saint Andrew fishing, and he called them to come after him, promising to make them fishers of men. Going on a little farther on the shore, he saw two other brothers, James and John, in a ship, with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he also called them; who forthwith left their nets and their father and followed him. Probably by conversing with Saint Peter their townsman, and by other means, they had before this call an entire conviction that Jesus was the Christ; and no sooner did they hear his invitation, and saw the marks of his divine will directing them to what was eminently conducive to his honour, but the same moment they quitted all things to comply with this summons. They held no consultation, made no demur, started no difficulties, thought of no consequences or dangers; and their sacrifice was most perfect and entire. Like Abraham, they preferred obedience to the divine command, before all the endearments of their nearest relations, and forsook all they had, and all their hopes and prospects in the world, to become the disciples of Jesus. Zebedee their father seems to have approved of their resolution, and their mother Salome devoted herself heartily to the service of our Lord, as the gospels frequently mention. All fervent souls ought to be in the like dispositions of perfect sacrifice with these apostles, without the least inordinate attachment to anything on earth, being most ready to renounce every thing if God’s greater glory should require it. With what boundless liberality does the Divine Spirit shower down his choicest treasures upon souls which thus perfectly open themselves to him? This the apostles, of whom we speak, happily experienced in themselves; but they for some time so followed Christ, and listened to his divine instructions, as still to return from time to time to their fishing trade for a maintenance. It was in the same first year of Christ’s preaching that Peter and Andrew, at the command of their divine Master, took a prodigious shoal of fishes by a miraculous draught. James and John were their partners, though in another boat, and were called in to assist in hauling up the nets. Astonished at this manifestation of Christ’s power, they entirely quitted their business, the more perfectly to attach themselves to him.

In the year 31, Saint James was present with his brothers Saint John. and Saint Peter, at the cure of Saint Peter’s mother-in-law, and at the raising of the daughter of Jairus from the dead. This same year Jesus formed the college of his apostles, into which he adopted Saint James and his brother Saint John. He gave these two the surname of Boanerges, or Sons of Thunder, probably to denote their active zeal. When a town of the Samaritans refused to entertain Christ, they suggested that he should call down fire from heaven to consume it; but our Blessed Redeemer gave them to understand that meekness and patience were the arms by which they were to conquer. Christ distinguished Saint Peter, Saint James, and Saint John by many special favours above the rest of the apostles. They alone were admitted to be spectators first of his glorious transfiguration, and afterwards of his agony and bloody sweat in the garden. The instructions and example of the Son of God had not fully enlightened the understandings of these apostles, nor purified their hearts, before the Holy Ghost had shed his beams upon them; and their virtue was still imperfect, as appeared in the following instance:—Mary Salome the mother of James and John, relying upon their merit, and her relation to Christ, and imagining that he was going to erect a temporal monarchy, according to the notion of the carnal Jews concerning the Messias, presented to him a request that her two sons might sit, the one on his right hand and the other on his left, in his kingdom. By this example we are put in mind how often the fondness of parents renders them the spiritual murderers of their own children, and makes them blindly excuse, flatter, and encourage their secret vices and passions. At the same time we are taught how formidable an enemy ambition is, which could find admittance in the breasts of two apostles (though yet novices) before the descent of the Holy Ghost. They, doubtless, disguised their vice under the cloak of a reasonable desire, and a virtuous emulation of preferment, with a design of serving their Master by it. Only the children of light discover the deceit and snare of this enemy; only profound humility discerns and condemns the specious pretences of subtle pride and covetousness. The two sons of Zebedee seem to have spoken by the mouth of their mother; wherefore Christ directed his answer to them, telling them, they knew not what they asked; for in his kingdom preferments are attainable, not by the most forward and ambitious, but by the most humble, the most laborious, and the most patient. He therefore asked them if they were able to drink of his cup of suffering? The two apostles understanding the condition under which Christ offered them his kingdom, and glowing with ardour and courage to suffer, answered peremptorily, they were able to do it. Our Lord told them, they should indeed have their portions of suffering; but for the honours of his kingdom, he could make no other disposal of them than according to his decrees in conjunction with his Father, in proportion to every one’s charity and patience in suffering.

The virtue of the most fervent novices in the service of God is very imperfect, so long as entire self-denial, and a great assiduity and spirit of prayer have not yet prepared their souls for, and called down upon them a plentiful effusion of the Holy Ghost, who fills their understanding with a clear and new heavenly light, and by the ardour of his charity consumes the rust of the affections, and fills them with his fervour. In this state even the moral virtues acquire an heroic and infused degree of perfection. Humility now gives the soul a much more clear and feeling knowledge of her own infirmities, baseness, and imperfections, with much stronger sentiments of a just contempt of herself; and the like is to be said of divine and fraternal charity, and all other virtues; so that she seems to herself translated into a region of new light, in which, by continual heroic acts of these virtues, and especially of prayer and contemplation, she makes daily and wonderful advances. This perfection the apostles received in a more miraculous manner by the descent of the Holy Ghost upon them, when he not only engraved the law of love deeply in their hearts, but also bestowed on them the external graces and gifts of prophecy and miracles, and qualified them for the execution of the great commission they had received from Christ.

How Saint James was employed in preaching and promoting the gospel after Christ’s ascension, we have no account from the writers of the first ages of Christianity. It appears that he left Judæa some time after the persecution that was raised at the martyrdom of Saint Stephen in the year 30, and was returned again ten years after when he suffered martyrdom. The addition to Saint Jerom’s catalogue of illustrious men tells us, that he preached the gospel to the twelve tribes of the Jews, in their dispersion up and down the world. Though the apostles, during the first twelve years preached generally in the neighbourhood of Judæa, yet Saint James might in that interval make a voyage to Spain, and preach some time in that country, as Baronius observes. F. Cuper adds, that his martyrdom happened above a year after the dispersion of the apostles, in which space he had the fairest opportunity of visiting Spain. That he preached there, is constantly affirmed by the tradition of that church, mentioned by Saint Isidore, the Breviary of Toledo, the Arabic books of Anastasius patriarch of Antioch, concerning the Passions of the martyrs and others. Cuper the Bollandist, traces this tradition very high, and confirms it from Saint Jerom, Saint Isidore, the ancient Spanish office, etc., and from many corroborating circumstances. Saint Epiphanius says, that Saint James always lived a bachelor, in much temperance and mortification, never eating flesh nor fish; that he wore only one coat, and a linen cloak, and that he was holy and exemplary in all manner of conversation. He was the first among the apostles who had the honour to follow his divine master by martyrdom, which he suffered at Jerusalem, whither he was returned, in the eleventh year after our Lord’s ascension.

Agrippa, the grandson of Herod, by Aristobulus, was author of this persecution. Being brought up at Rome in the reign of Tiberius, he, basely flattering Caligula in his passions, gained the confidence of that monster, who was no sooner placed on the imperial throne than he gave Agrippa the title of king, with the tetrarchies of Philip and Lysanias, which were then vacant. Claudius, in the year 41, enlarged his dominions, giving him also Jerusalem and all the rest of Judæa, Samaria, and whatever other provinces had been possessed by his grandfather Herod. He gave also to his younger brother Herod the little kingdom of Chalcis in Syria, near mount Libanus. Agrippa reigned with great state and magnificence. Being very fond of pleasing the Jewish nation, when he came from Cæsarea to Jerusalem to keep the Passover in the year 43, he began to persecute the Christians; and the first who fell a victim to his popular zeal was Saint James the Great, whom he caused to be apprehended and beheaded there a little before Easter, in the year 43, about fourteen years after the death of Christ. Clement of Alexandria, and from him Eusebius, relate that his accuser, observing the great courage and constancy of mind wherewith the apostle underwent his trial, was so affected with it, that he repented of what he had done, declared himself publicly a Christian, and was condemned to be beheaded with Saint James. As they were both led together to execution, he begged pardon of the apostle by the way for having apprehended him. Saint James, after pausing a little, turned to him, and embraced him, saying, Peace be with you. He then kissed him, and they were both beheaded together. The body of the apostle was interred at Jerusalem; but not long after carried by his disciples into Spain, and deposited at Iria Flavia, now called El Padron, upon the borders of Gallicia. The sacred relics were discovered there in the beginning of the ninth century, in the reign of Alphonsus the Chaste, king of Leon. By the order of that prince they were translated to Compostella, four miles distant, to which place Pope Leo III., transferred the episcopal see from Iria Flavia. This place was first called Ad. S. Jacobum Apostolum, or Giacomo Postolo, which words have been contracted into the present name, Compostella. It is famous for the extraordinary concourse of pilgrims who resort thither to visit the body of Saint James, which is kept with great respect in the stately cathedral. F. Cuper the Bollandist proves the truth of the tradition of the Spanish church concerning the body of Saint James having been translated to Compostella, and gives authentic histories of many miracles wrought through his intercession, and of several apparitions by which he visibly protected the armies of the Christians against the Moors in that kingdom. The military order of Saint James, surnamed the Noble, was instituted by Ferdinand II, in 1175.

The church, by the martyrdom of Saint James, lost in her infancy one of her main pillars; but God was pleased that his name should be glorified by so illustrious a testimony, and that it should appear he was the immediate supporter and defender of his church. For when it was deprived of its chief members and pastors, it remained no less firm than before; and even grew and gathered strength from the most violent persecutions. The apostle with confidence committed his tender flock to God, and commended to them his own work, whilst he rejoiced to go to his Redeemer, and to give his life for him. We all meet with trials. But can we fear or hesitate to drink a cup presented to us by the hand of God, and which our Lord and Captain, by free choice, and out of pure love, was pleased himself to drink first for our sake? He asks us whether we can drink of his cup? He encourages us by setting before our eyes the glory of heaven, and he invites us by his own divine example. Let us humbly implore his grace, without which we can do nothing, and take with joy this cup of salvation, which he presents us with his divine hand.

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Saint James the Great, Apostle”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. Saints.SQPN.com. 19 October 2013. Web. 17 September 2014. <>