Apostles James & James

Apostles James & James

  • Rembrandt - The Apostle James the Less

Apostles James & James

by Lois Donahue

In the opening of this series about the Apostles – “Our Church’s Baker’s Dozen”, I mentioned the fact that two of them were named James and it didn’t take me long to discover how complicated it must have been for historians seeking the true identity of each. In an effort to ‘introduce’ them to you, from my own very limited and perhaps even sometimes emotionally prejudiced perspective, here is —


While, as is the case with most of the apostles, a great deal of the information we have about this James comes from legend and tradition, still we are blessed with a good many references to him in the Bible. To be expected, his name is found in the listing of the Twelve where we also learn that his father’s name was Zebedee. (His mother’s name supposedly being Salome.) Additional Biblical information tells us he was a fisherman and that Jesus ‘called him’ and his brother, John, as they were mending nets on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. (Matt 4:21 Mk l:l9) He, with his brother and Peter were privileged to be the only ones with Jesus when He raised Jarius’ daughter to life (Mk 5:37 Lk 8:51).

The three were also present at His Transfiguration (Matt 17:1 Mk 9:2) and with Him during His agony in the Garden of Gethsemani (Matt 26:37 Mk 14:33). He, along with his brother John, were “named Boanerges, that is, sons of thunder” by Jesus (Mk 3:17)—probably due to an incident when they wanted to call down fire from heaven on a Samaritan village which would not welcome Jesus.. (Lk 9:54) Although another source claims the name was given them not only because of their ‘ardent temper’ but also because of their ‘great strength and vehemence of character’.

The Bible also tells of his mother’s request that he and his brother sit on either side of Jesus in His kingdom, and then Jesus asked of each boy, “Can you drink the cup of suffering that I am about to drink?” and their reply, “We can.” (Matt20:20-28). (Personally when I read the included line, “When the ten heard this, they became indignant at the two brothers”, I am inclined to think James and his brother might have felt a little embarrassed.) After that, we do not hear of James in Scripture again until we read of his death, ordered by King Herod, in Acts 12:1-2. (Just a bitof trivia information – only the deaths of two of the original twelve apostles were recorded in the Bible – his and that of Judas Iscariot.)

Now to the less than completely reliable, at least in part, things we are told about James. It is said that the early church referred to him as “James the Great” or “Big Jim” to distinguish him from the other Apostle by the same name. It is imagined that he would have been a large, heavy set, fully-bearded man with piercing dark eyes and a strong, authoritative presence. There seems little doubt that he traveled spreading the teaching of Jesus.

Some question that he did great missionary work in Spain before returning to Jerusalem. However, in Spain, a country naming James as its Patron, a tradition of his presence there is “assiduously defended”. In addition it is said that the Virgin Mary appeared and told him to build a chapel in her honor in that country and the legend goes on to say the chapel he built was the origin of a great Spanish Basilica. As was said, James returned to Jerusalem where, as we learned, Herod had him killed. It is interesting to read the legend that when the man who testified at the trial heard the Apostle’s testimony he confessed that he, too, was a Christian, pleaded for James’ forgiveness and was beheaded with the soon-to-be Saint.

Three symbols shown in pictures of St. James in Christian Art are a pilgrim hat or pilgrim’s bell denoting his missionary travels or scallop shells purportedly shown because in his time Spain was one of the few places where scallops were found and James, as was the custom among fishermen, may have brought some back as proof of the pilgrimages he made for his master.

My final thought about James the Greater is that he should certainly be remembered and admired as a ‘man of his word’. Bravely and without hesitation he willingly suffered a martyr’s death thus proving he not only could, but did, “drink the cup” about which Jesus questioned him.


Probably within the first few paragraphs of most all the sources I have telling me about James, the Son of Alphaeus, I would read words like “comparatively little is known about…” – “we know very little about…” – “few facts beyond scripture are known about…” and the Jerome Commentary says flat out “of whom we know nothing”. It took me much time and many pages of disagreement, contradiction and questions to realize there was a great deal of truth in those words. 

However,the Bible does tell us Jesus picked him as one of the Twelve, that his father’s name was Alphaeus and his mother’s name was Mary (which Mary presents a problem). Beyond that, and other than he was a martyr and on the Roman Catholic Calendar shares the Feast Day of May 3rd, I can only tell you some of the legends, traditions and speculation wrapped around this James; all of which I would ask you not to toss out as mere ‘fairytales’ but instead, as I did, let them shape a man you are comfortable knowing is a Saint in heaven and will undoubtedly surpass all our expectations once we actually meet him.

This James was known as “James the Less” and it is repeatedly emphasized this simply meant he was shorter or younger than the other Apostle James and in no way inferior as either a man or an apostle. The assumption is that he was born in Capernaum but there seems to be no information as to where he first met Jesus. As you have guessed by now, we have entered the ‘questionable/tradition’ zone and here, posed as questions are a few of the dead-ends we bump into.

Was he a brother of Mathew? Was he a tax collector? Was he a Zealot? Was he a brother of the Lord’? Was he author of the apocryphal Protogospel wherein we find the story of Anne and Joachim? Was he stoned to death by irate Jews? Was he thrown down from the top of the temple, remained alive and so clubbed to death? Was his body brought to Rome in the sixth century and interred in a church then known as “Church of Apostles, Philip andJames the Less”?

Now that I have you as confused as I was, let me close with two thoughts about this James,– the first, a quote from a Rev. H. S. Vigeveno who called him the saint of the “nameless ones—named by the Savior and known by name to God..” — the second, personal. I will never again think of him as “James the Less” remembering that, in an effort to gather and sort information, I probably spent more time with him than with any of the other Apostles and regretting I had to leave him convinced, but unable to prove, that recorded history leaves him greatly underrated.

Just a bit of added information to let you know about one of the reasons for uncertainty regarding both of the above Jameses. There was a third James said to have been known as James the Righteous or James the Just and quite possibly the best known, at least historically, of the three. HE WHO WAS NOT AN APOSTLE, apparently authored the New Testament Epistle bearing his name, and headed the Church of Jerusalem.