Today is the feast of St. James the Greater — the son of Zebedee and Salome, the brother of John, and an apostle of Jesus Christ. James is called “the Greater” to distinguish him from the a second apostle named James, who may have been shorter or younger or just less accomplished than the James whose feast we mark today. St. James was a member of the “inner circle” of the apostles. A fuller biography is available, of course, in the online Catholic Encyclopedia. Here are some highlights.
The two sons of Zebedee, as well as Simon (Peter) and his brother Andrew with whom they were in partnership (Luke 5:10), were called by the Lord upon the Sea of Galilee, where all four with Zebedee and his hired servants were engaged in their ordinary occupation of fishing. The sons of Zebedee “forthwith left their nets and father, and followed him” (Matthew 4:22), and became “fishers of men”. St. James was afterwards with the other eleven called to the Apostleship (Matthew 10:1-4; Mark 3:13-19; Luke 6:12-16; Acts 1:13). In all four lists the names of Peter and Andrew, James and John form the first group, a prominent and chosen group (cf. Mark 13:3); especially Peter, James, and John. These three Apostles alone were admitted to be present at the miracle of the raising of Jairus’s daughter (Mark 5:37; Luke 8:51), at the Transfiguration (Mark 9:1; Matthew 17:1; Luke 9:28), and the Agony in Gethsemani (Matthew 26:37; Mark 14:33)…
Several incidents scattered through the Synoptics suggest that James and John had that particular character indicated by the name “Boanerges,” sons of thunder, given to them by the Lord (Mark 3:17) … The two brothers showed their fiery temperament against “a certain man casting out devils” in the name of the Christ; John, answering, said: “We [James is probably meant] forbade him, because he followeth not with us” (Luke 9:49). When the Samaritans refused to receive Christ, James and John said: “Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them?” (Luke 9:54; cf. 9:49).
On the last journey to Jerusalem, their mother Salome came to the Lord and said to Him: “Say that these my two sons may sit, the one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left, in thy kingdom” (Matthew 20:21). And the two brothers, still ignorant of the spiritual nature of the Messianic Kingdom, joined with their mother in this eager ambition (Mark 10:37). And on their assertion that they are willing to drink the chalice that He drinks of, and to be baptized with the baptism of His sufferings, Jesus assured them that they will share His sufferings (Mark 5:38-39).
James won the crown of martyrdom fourteen years after this prophecy, A.D. 44 [as the first victim of Herod Agrippa’s persecution; see Acts 12:1-2].
Eusebius and Clement of Alexandria give additional details about the traditions of James’s martyrdom.
According to tradition (well established by 700 A.D.), St. James preached Christianity in Spain before returning to Judea to die; upon his death, according to this account, his body was miraculously transported back to Spain. Critics battle back and forth about the plausibility of James’s Spanish apostolate; some say that his body made the trip, but only long after his death. Compostela, the traditional resting place of his relics, became one of the most famous places of pilgrimage in the world.