He was a son of Zebedee and Salome. He is called James the Greater to distinguish him from James, son of Alphaeus, who is known as James the Lesser.
There is some evidence that James was the first cousin of Jesus and had been acquainted with Him from infancy. It is believed that his mother Salome was the sister of Jesus' mother Mary.
James is described as one of the first disciples to join Jesus. The Synoptic Gospels state that James and John were with their father, Zebedee, by the seashore when Jesus called them to follow him. [Matt. 4:21-22][Mk. 1:19-20]
Of the three apostles who comprised the inner circle of Jesus' disciples (Peter, James and John), we know the least about James.
It is believed that James visited the Jewish colonist and slaves in Spain to preach the Gospel. According to ancient local tradition, on 2 January AD 40, the Virgin Mary appeared to James on the bank of the Ebro River at Caesaraugusta, while he was preaching the Gospel in Spain. She appeared upon a pillar, Nuestra Señora del Pilar, and that pillar is conserved and venerated within the present Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar, in Zaragoza (see map).
James is the Patron Saint of Spain. According to legend, his remains are held in Santiago de Compostela (see map).
The traditional pilgrimage to the grave of the saint, known as the "Way of St. James", has been the most popular pilgrimage for Western European Catholics from the early Middle Ages onwards. 125,141 pilgrims registered in 2008 as having completed the final 100 km walk (200 km by bicycle) to Santiago to qualify for a Compostela. When 25 July falls on a Sunday, it is a 'Jubilee' year, and a special east door is opened for entrance into the Santiago Cathedral.
The scallop shell is the traditional emblem of James, and is popular with pilgrims on the Way of St James. Medieval Christians making the pilgrimage to his shrine often wore a scallop shell symbol on their hat or clothes. The pilgrim also carried a scallop shell with him, and would present himself at churches, castles, abbeys etc., where he could expect to be given as much sustenance as he could pick up with one scoop. Probably he would be given oats, barley, and perhaps beer or wine. Thus even the poorest household could give charity without being overburdened. The association of Saint James with the scallop can most likely be traced to the legend that the apostle once rescued a knight covered in scallops. An alternative version of the legend holds that while Saint James' remains were being transported to Galicia (Spain) from Jerusalem, the horse of a knight fell into the water, and emerged covered in the shells.
- The French for a scallop is coquille St. Jacques, which means "cockle (or mollusk) of St. James".
- The German word for a scallop is Jakobsmuschel, which means "mussel (or clam) of St. James";
- The Dutch word is Jacobsschelp, meaning "shell of St. James".
James eventually left Spain and returned to Judea, possibly around AD42. The Acts of the Apostles (12:1) records that King Herod Agrippa I had James executed by sword in 44 AD. He is the only apostle whose martyrdom is recorded in the New Testament. He is, thus, traditionally believed to be the first of the 12 apostles martyred for his faith.
The feast day of St James is celebrated on 25 July on the liturgical calendars of the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and certain Protestant churches. He is commemorated on 30 April in the Orthodox Christian liturgical calendar (for those churches which follow the traditional Julian Calendar, 30 April currently falls on 13 May of the modern Gregorian Calendar).