Feast Day of James, the brother of Jesus

Add comment May 3rd, 2020 Headsman

Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you.

Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten.

Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days.

Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth.

Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton; ye have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter.

Ye have condemned and killed the just; and he doth not resist you.

Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain.

Be ye also patient; stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh.

James 5:1-8

May 3 is the current Catholic feast date of the author of the Epistle of JamesJames, the brother of Jesus, also known as James the Just.

He’s a major leader in the New Testament accounts of the primitive church, closely associated with the traditionalist Jewish side of the movement, wont to give precedence to Mosaic law and ritual — a contrast compared to the Gentile-evangelizer St. Paul. James, however, also appears in Acts of the Apostles as a principal decider of the circa CE 50 Council of Jerusalem edict to the effect that non-Jewish converts to Christianity would not be required to circumcise or observe Jewish dietary strictures.

This James has been debatably conflated at times with the Apostle James, son of Alphaeus and/or James the Less* — as in this passage from the Golden Legend:

James the Apostle is said the Less, how well that was the elder of age than was St. James the More. He was called also the brother of our Lord, because I have resembled much well our Lord in body, in visage, and of manner. He was called James the Just for his right great holiness. He was also called James the son of Alpheus. He sang in Jerusalem the first mass that ever was there, and he was first bishop of Jerusalem.

These associations are all matters of scholarly debate, for the name “James” appears repeatedly in the New Testament, and the contexts do not always make it obvious when one encounters a recurring character. No matter how many other faces we might attribute to him, James the first century Jerusalem patriarch was clearly a figure of great authority among the earliest Christians and a co-leader of the Jerusalem Church. His consanguinity with the Messiah cannot have hurt his cause.

There are various accounts given of his martyrdom in 62 or 69** CE which boil down to falling foul of the Jewish authorities, just like his brother. Importantly, he’s referenced by the ancient historian Josephus in a passage from The Antiquities of the Jews that not only casts light upon his death but provides a contemporary non-Christian source verifying the development of this sect. The setup begins with the ascent of a young and aggressive high priest named Ananus, who

was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority]. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king [Agrippa], desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified; nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrim without his consent. Whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest.

Given his importance, James finds his way into quite a few extra-canonical Christian texts as well; for example, there’s an apocryphal Gospel of James dating to the second century. Of particular interest to we connoisseurs of death are gnostic texts from papyri discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt titled the First and Second Apocalypse of James: the Second Apocalypse has an account of James’s martyrdom, very detailed in spite of the fragmentary text, after his preaching in Jerusalem troubled the Jews:

On that day all the people and the crowd were disturbed, and they showed that they had not been persuaded. And he arose and went forth speaking in this manner. And he entered (again) on that same day and spoke a few hours. And I was with the priests and revealed nothing of the relationship, since all of them were saying with one voice, ‘Come, let us stone the Just One.’ And they arose, saying, ‘Yes, let us kill this man, that he may be taken from our midst. For he will be of no use to us.’

And they were there and found him standing beside the columns of the temple beside the mighty corner stone. And they decided to throw him down from the height, and they cast him down. And they […] they […]. They seized him and struck him as they dragged him upon the ground. They stretched him out and placed a stone on his abdomen. They all placed their feet on him, saying ‘You have erred!’

Again they raised him up, since he was alive, and made him dig a hole. They made him stand in it. After having covered him up to his abdomen, they stoned him in this manner.

And he stretched out his hands and said this prayer – not that (one) which it is his custom to say:

My God and my father,
who saved me from this dead hope,
who made me alive through a mystery of what he wills,

Do not let these days of this world be prolonged for me,
but the day of your light […] remains
in […] salvation.

Deliver me from this place of sojourn!
Do not let your grace be left behind in me,
but may your grace become pure!

Save me from an evil death!
Bring me from a tomb alive, because your grace –
love — is alive in me to accomplish a work of fullness!

Save me from sinful flesh,
because I trusted in you with all my strength,
because you are the life of the life!

Save me from a humiliating enemy!
Do not give me into the hand of a judge who is severe with sin!
Forgive me all my debts of the days (of my life)!

Because I am alive in you, your grace is alive in me.
I have renounced everyone, but you I have confessed.
Save me from evil affliction!

But now is the time and the hour.
O Holy Spirit, send me salvation […] the light […]
the light […] in a power […].’

After he spoke, he fell silent … [text ends]

* Saint James the Great was definitely a different fellow.

** The proximity of this martyrdom to the Jewish-Roman War (66-73 CE) led some subsequent ancient writers — not Josephus himself — to cite it as a cause of the great Roman Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE, which famously destroyed the Second Temple.

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Feast Day of St. James the Greater

2 comments July 25th, 2013 Headsman

It’s a big day today in the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela, because the twenty-fifth of July is the feast of its patron and namesake* St. James the Great.

One of the original Apostles (literally, he and his brother John are the first two whom Jesus calls in the Gospels), James also had the distinction of apparently being the first Apostle to die for Christ.** His execution at the hands of Herod Agrippa† is reported in Acts 12:2;‡ it’s the only apostolic execution in the New Testament.

This, of course, occurred on the southeastern fringe of the Mediterranean, so it’s a wonder that James’s bones came to repose at a Spanish city literally situated on Finisterre, the far western edge of the world as far as Europeans saw it. The Lord works in mysterious ways.

It’s certainly plausible — though impossible to substantiate — that James evangelized in Spain prior to his execution. The whole Mediterranean was a Roman lake. More towards the outlandish is the patriotic story (pdf) that James’s relics were miraculously discovered there in 813 at the moment when Muslim expansion into Iberia gave the hard-pressed Christian kingdoms the greatest possible need for a morale boost.§

James became for those souls Saint James Matamoros, Moor-slayer, and started turning the tide of fictional battles and blessing his own very real chivalric order.


Saint James gets his Moor-slaying on.

“A knight of Christ’s squadrons,” Cervantes wrote. “St. James the moorslayer, one of the most valiant saints and knights the world ever had, and that now the heavens have … this great knight with the vermilion cross has been given by God to Spain for its patron and protection.”

James’s martial prowess is entirely posthumous: when the Son of God recruits him, he’s a humble piscator at labor mending his nets (there are some less-bellicose present-day churches going under the name “Saint James the Fisherman”). Gibbon could not but marvel at the “stupendous metamorphosis [that] was performed in the ninth century, when from a peaceful fisherman of the Lake of Gennesareth, the apostle James was transformed into a valorous knight, who charged at the head of Spanish chivalry in battles against the Moors. The gravest historians have celebrated his exploits; the miraculous shrine of Compostella displayed his power; and the sword of a military order, assisted by the terrors of the inquisition, was sufficient to remove every objection of profane criticism.”

But mythmaking exercises a historicity all its own, and the James legends offered a rallying-point for Spain’s Christians. He stands to this day the patron of Spain as well as a number of places colonized by Spain.

Pilgrims have ever since that stupendous metamorphosis of the 9th century made the journey to the apostle’s purported resting-place; this Way of St. James, actually comprising several different possible routes covering hundreds of kilometers on foot, has in recent years emerged as a major tourist draw. The Way terminates, of course, at Santiago de Compostela and the enormous cathedral there where repose James’s relics.

Saint James’s Day, 25 July, is its celebratory culmination.

James so overawes July 25 on the liturgical calendar that it’s a mere footnote to add that this same day also pays homage to Saint Christopher, a historically dubious Christian martyr from the third or early fourth century Roman Empire.

Christopher is rather nifty, because he’s sometimes depicted in iconography as cynocephalic — that is, having the head of a dog. At least the rest of him is human, unlike Saint Guinefort the Greyhound. (No lie. It’s a doggie saint, albeit of the distinctly unofficial variety. To stamp out folk veneration, an incensed preacherhad the dead dog disinterred, and the sacred wood [where it received offerings] cut down and burnt, along with the remains of the dog.”)


(Via)

* The name “Santiago” derives from our saint’s name in Latin, Sanctu Iacobu. This is also the source, and James the intended honorary, for other places on the map named Santiago, such as Santiago, Chile.

** Assuming you don’t count Judas Iscariot, of course.

† Herod Agrippa is not to be confused with his grandfather Herod the Great — the Biblical Massacre of the Innocents guy — nor with his uncle Herod Antipas — the guy who punted Jesus’s prosecution back to Pontius Pilate. Three different Herods; three different New Testament heavies.

‡ James’s death in Acts 12 is followed immediately by Saint Peter staging a supernatural jailbreak out of the same prison. The latter goes on to evangelize for another 20-odd years.

§ The holy remains reached that resting point, goes the legend, only by perilously navigating a path of dragons, pagans, and wagons.

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Feast Day of Saint Peter and Saint Paul

12 comments June 29th, 2009 Headsman

June 29 is the shared feast day (in both the Latin and Greek rites) of the two biggest wheels in first century Christianity, Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

Tradition holds that both men were martyred in Rome during the persecutions of Emperor Nero after Rome burned: Paul beheaded, Peter crucified upside-down at his own request not to die in the manner of his lord.* Some traditions have both being put to death on the same day; others do not.

Concrete dates** are going to be hard to come by, of course, and the purported historical doings of New Testament Christians are inextricably conjoined to theological ox-goring.

But it is their lives and not their deaths that make them memorable, and to judge by the conquest of the faith they propounded, their feast day honors are richly deserved. Some scholars with no fear for their soul will tell you that Paul in particular can be rated a more consequential historical person than the Nazarene himself, having formulated the doctrine and conducted the ministry needed to turn a dead-end Jewish sect or inchoate reform movement into a surging universal religion that would play to Praetorians.

[flv:http://www-tc.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/video/flv/1610/jc7.flv 440 330]

More from this program — and other resources on early Christianity — at this Frontline page.

While linked on this day, Peter and Paul appear in the Bible as sometime rivals. One might well speculate at the dynamics between them: Peter, after all, got his commission straight from the Savior himself; the upstart Saul of Tarsus, late of the Jewish establishment, arrived fired with the zeal of the converted and went from persecuting Christians to appropriating their doctrine, even calling Peter out publicly.

However they sublimated that awkwardness, their respective offices as Apostle to the Jews (Peter) and Apostle to the Gentiles (Paul) allude to an oft-explored problem whose resolution would prove decisive for the nascent faith: did Christianity require adherence to the strict Mosaic law?

The stakes: would anyone outside of already-existing Jews actually want to convert?

Paul looks like the firebrand, boldly and tirelessly enacting his revolutionary faith-alone revelation (so central to the Protestant Reformation 15 centuries later) on the pacified highways and sea lanes of the Pax Romana; Peter seems the compromiser (or a vacillator), instinctively granting precedence to the Jewish tradition but being carried along by events towards Paul.

Peter is seen in the Bible acceding to Paul’s opposition to making Greeks eat kosher and circumcise, and even persuading the most august Judaizer and leader of the Jewish Christians at Jerusalem, Saint James.

Amongst these illustrious names, we may perceive or imagine — “through a glass darkly”, as it were — what must have been a blossoming multitude of contending beliefs and practices.

Paul made Christian doctrine amenable† to the practices that would make it a phenomenal evangelical success (and separate it from the faith of Abraham), but on that same winners-write-history basis one is entitled to wonder whether the authority of Peter and James have been appropriated ex post facto by the Biblical writers of the Pauline party. If so, you wouldn’t say his reputation has suffered for it: the pope still claims to speak as “the unworthy heir of St. Peter” … and in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Whatever the faithful and the merely interested may speculate about their historicity, their names are on the founding charter of Christianity.

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day … (St. Paul, 2 Timothy 4:7-8)

A very few of the very many books about Peter and Paul and their times

* See the apocryphal Acts of Peter.

** Italian archaeologist Margherita Guarducci, however, argued that Peter’s death could be assigned to a precise date: October 13, 64. We can pose against this skepticism that Peter ever went to Rome at all, a sometime Protestant hobby-horse supposed to undermine the primacy of the Holy See.

† But not so decisively that he wasn’t soon at loggerheads with the Jerusalem Jewish Christians again.


Update: Just as this post was getting set to publish, the Vatican announced the discovery of what it claims may be the oldest image of St. Paul, a 4th century fresco uncovered in a Roman catacomb.

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