The life of Saint James

The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela developed from the rediscovery in 813 of the presumed tomb of Saint James.
But who was Santiago? Here is a short summary of his life, between history and… legend.

The origins

His name was Yaakov or Jacob Bar-Zebdi, but we know him more as James the son of Zebedee, Saint James, James the Greater (to differentiate him from the other apostle James, the son of Alpheus called the Minor) or Santiago in Spain. According to Christian accounts, he was born around 5 BC in Galilee, son of Zebedee and Mary Salome, and was the older brother of John, also an apostle. Mark tells us that his teacher Jesus called the two brothers « boanergués », which means « sons of thunder ». The two brothers were fishermen and it was while they were working on the lake of Gennesaret that they were called by Jesus of Nazareth to follow him. Let us note that they are among the first disciples and the most appreciated by the Master.
Therefore, James was present in the most important episodes narrated by the Gospels. He was one of the three apostles who witnessed the transfiguration (metamorphosis) of Jesus, when he was transformed to show his divine nature between the prophets Elijah and Moses. He also witnessed the prayer in the Garden of Olives with Peter and his brother. After the resurrection, he was in the small group that saw Jesus at Lake Tiberias and participated in the miraculous fishing. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that he received the Holy Spirit in the form of tongues of fire during the Pentecost episode (around the year 33). It is from this moment that he will take his staff, as well as the boat, to travel the roads and evangelize the West.

Santiago in Spain

History has never been able to prove from a rigorous point of view the presence of Saint James in Spain, nor to describe the exact journey he would have followed; we are in the domain of legend, of Christian stories and traditions, some of them very old… The legend of the journey of James to the West dates back to the 6th century and once again, from a historical point of view, the presence of the apostle in Spain is strongly doubted.

According to the legend, James crossed the Mediterranean to preach Christianity in the Roman Hispania, the Iberian Peninsula. Around the year 650, Bishop Isidore of Seville wrote in his De Ortu et Obitu Sanctorum Patrum: « James, son of Zebedee and brother of John […] preached the Gospel in Hispania, in the western regions, and spread the light of his preaching to the ends of the earth. These ends of the earth are Finisterre (Finis Terrae), the westernmost cape of Galicia. There are different accounts of his route. According to some, he crossed the « Columns of Hercules » (renamed by the Arabs as Jebel Tarik or Gibraltar) by boat, to sail along the Portuguese coast and land in Galicia to begin his work. According to other accounts, he arrived in this region by following the Ebro Valley from the Mediterranean and passing at the foot of the current « Picos de Europa ».

Tradition tells that Saint James made seven disciples in Spain who followed him; these disciples traveled to Rome and were ordained bishops by Saint Peter himself, the first pope.
An old legend found in a manuscript of the XIII century tells that James was in Caesaraugusta, the present Zaragoza, quite discouraged by the lack of success he had in the Aragonese lands. The Virgin appeared to him in the flesh on a marble pillar, and so he regained his courage and enthusiasm and began to have converts. He built a chapel around the pillar left by the Virgin, on the banks of the Ebro. This chapel, enlarged throughout history, is the great basilica of the Virgen del Pilar (Virgin of the Pillar) where the supposed pillar is still preserved and venerated. The name of the woman Pilar, very common in Spain, especially in Aragon, comes from this pillar. In connection with this episode, an apocryphal gospel tells that the Virgin Mary, seeing her death coming, receives a visit from her son Jesus; she expresses her wish to see all the apostles again before dying; this is impossible because they are all scattered: the solution is to visit them one by one where they are… This would be the origin of the apparition to James in Saragossa.

The return to Judea and his death

Historically, the presence of the first Christian communities in Spain is dated between the second and third centuries, but some traditions say that the development of Christianity in Spain was very rapid thanks to James the Great. It was then that he decided to return to Jerusalem, leaving his seven disciples to continue the work. His wish would have been to see the Virgin Mary alive one last time.

When he returned to Judea, he continued to preach according to some apocrypha. The Acts of the Apostles (12:1-3) tells us that after preaching, around the year 44, he was arrested by order of Herod Agripa I, king of Judea. Martyred and killed by the sword, he became one of the first Christian martyrs.

Return to Spain

The legend (or rather the myth) does not end there, since his followers would have then embarked his body on a mysterious stone boat, crossed the Mediterranean and arrived at Cape Finisterre, by the Atlantic coast, to bury him in the current Santiago de Compostela.


Article by Gonzalo Lopez

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