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

[Saint James the Lesser]Article

Saint James, to distinguish him from the other apostle of the same name, the son of Zebedee, was called the Less; which appellation is supposed to have taken its rise, either from his having been called later to the apostleship than the former, or from the lowness of his stature, or from his youth. He is also known by the title of James the Just, a denomination all agree, with Hegesippus and Saint Clement of Alexandria, to have been given on account of his eminent sanctity. He was the son of Alpheus and Mary, the sister of the Blessed Virgin, and seems to have been born some years before our Lord. Jesus came with his brethren, and probably Saint James among the rest, to settle in Capharnaum, at the beginning of his ministry. James and his brother Jude were called to the apostleship in the second year of Christ’s preaching, soon after the Pasch, in the year 31. He was favoured with an extraordinary apparition of his Master after his resurrection. Clement of Alexandria says, that Christ being risen from the dead, communicated the gift of science to Saints James the Just, John, and Peter, and that they imparted it to the other apostles. We are told by Saints Jerom and Epiphanius, that our Lord, at his ascension, recommended his church of Jerusalem to Saint James; in consequence whereof the apostles, before their dispersion, constituted him bishop of that city. It was probably for a mark of his episcopal authority, and as an ensign of his dignity, that he wore on his head a lamina, or plate of gold, as is recounted by Saint Epiphanius. Polycrates, quoted by Eusebius, testifies, that Saint John did the same: others relate the like of Saint Mark. It was probably done in imitation of the Jewish high-priest.

Saint James governed that church in perpetual dangers, from the fury of the people and their violent persecutions; but his singular virtue procured him the veneration of the Jews themselves. As to his sanctity, Eusebius and Saint Jerom give from Hegesippus the following account concerning him: “He was always a virgin, and was a Nazarite, or one consecrated to God. In consequence of which he was never shaved, never cut his hair, never drank any wine or other strong liquor; moreover he never used any bath, or oil to anoint his limbs, and never ate of any living creature except when of precept, as the paschal lamb: he never wore sandals, never used any other clothes than one single linen garment. He prostrated so much in prayer, that the skin of his knees and forehead was hardened like to camel’s hoofs.” Saint Epiphanius says, that, in a great drought, on stretching out his arms to heaven, he by his prayers instantly obtained rain. His eminent sanctity made even the Jews style him the just man: and Origen observes, that Josephus himself gives him that epithet, though it is not to be found now in Josephus’s works. The same reverence for his person procured him the privilege of entering at pleasure into the sanctum or holy place, namely, that part of the temple where none but the priests were allowed by the law to enter. Saint Jerom adds, that the Jews strove, out of respect, who should touch the hem of his garment. In the year 51, he assisted at the council of the apostles, held at Jerusalem, about the observance of circumcision, and the other legal ceremonies of the law of Moses. Here, after having confirmed what Saint Peter said, he devised the sentence which the apostles drew up on that occasion. This apostle being bishop of a church, which then chiefly consisted of Jewish converts, tolerated the use of the legal ceremonies, and, together with others, advised Saint Paul to purify himself and offer sacrifice. He is the author of a canonical epistle which he wrote in Greek. It is at the head of those called catholic or universal, because addressed not to any one particular church, but to the whole body of the converted Jews dispersed throughout the then known world. It was penned some time after those of Saint Paul to the Galatians, in 55, and to the Romans in 58. It could not therefore be written before the year 59, fourteen years after the death of Saint James the greater. The author’s view in this epistle is to refute the false teachers, who, abusing certain expressions in Saint Paul’s writings, pretended that faith alone was sufficient to justification without good works: whereas, without these, he declares our faith is dead. He adds excellent precepts of a holy life, and exhorts the faithful not to neglect the sacrament of extreme unction in sickness.

The oriental liturgy or mass, which bears the name of this apostle, is mentioned by Proclus, patriarch of Constantinople, and by the council in Trullo, and is of venerable antiquity. Saint Basil, indeed, testifies, that the words of the sacred invocation in the consecration of the bread and of the cup, were not committed to writing, but learned and preserved by tradition down to the fourth century, which was done on a motive of respect and veneration: but other parts of the liturgy were written. Perhaps Saint James gave only general directions about this liturgy, upon whose plan it was afterwards drawn up or enlarged. His singular learning in sacred matters is extolled by Saint Clement of Alexandria, and Saint Jerom.

The Jews, being exasperated at the disappointment of their malicious designs against Saint Paul, by his appeal to Cæsar, to whom he was sent by Festus, in the year 60, were resolved to revenge it on Saint James. That governor, dying before the arrival of his successor, Albinus, this vacancy gave them an opportunity of acting more arbitrarily than otherwise they durst have done. Wherefore, during this interval, Ananus, the high-priest, son of the famous Annas mentioned in the gospels, having assembled the Sanhedrim, or great council of the Jews, summoned Saint James and others before it. Josephus, the Jewish historian, says, that Saint James was accused of violating the laws, and delivered to the people to be stoned to death. And Hegesippus adds, that they carried him up to the battlements of the temple, and would have compelled him from thence to make a public renunciation of his faith in Christ, with this further view, thereby to undeceive, as they termed it, those among the people who had embraced Christianity. But Saint James took that opportunity to declare his belief in Jesus Christ after the most solemn and public manner. For he cried out aloud from the battlements, in the hearing of a great multitude, which was then at Jerusalem on account of the passover, that Jesus, the Son of man, was seated at the right hand of the Sovereign Majesty, and would come in the clouds of heaven to judge the world. The Scribes and Pharisees, enraged at this testimony in behalf of Jesus, cried out: “The just man also hath erred.” And going up to the battlements, they threw him headlong down to the ground, saying: “He must be stoned.” Saint James, though very much bruised by his fall, had strength enough to get upon his knees, and in this posture, lifting up his eyes to heaven, he begged of God to pardon his murderers, seeing that they knew not what they did. The rabble below received him with showers of stones, and at last a fuller gave him a blow on the head with his club, such as is used in dressing of cloths, after which he presently expired. This happened on the festival of the Pasch, the 10th of April, in the year of Christ 62, the seventh of Nero. He was buried near the temple, in the place in which he was martyred, where a small column was erected. Such was the reputation of his sanctity, that the Jews attributed to his death the destruction of Jerusalem, as we read in Saint Jerom, Origen, and Eusebius, who assure us that Josephus himself declared it in the genuine editions of his history. Ananus put others to death for the same cause, but was threatened for this very fact by Albinus, and deposed from the high-priesthood by Agrippa. The episcopal throne of Saint James was shown with respect at Jerusalem, in the fourth century. His relics are said to have been brought to Constantinople about the year 572.

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Saint James the Less, Apostle”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. Saints.SQPN.com. 28 April 2013. Web. 21 September 2014. <>