James the Apostle: Profile & Biography

Saint James the Greater by Guido Reni
Saint James the Greater by Guido Reni. Guido Reni [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Who Was James the Apostle?

James, the son of Zebedee, was called along with this brother John to be one of Jesus’s twelve apostles who would accompany him on his ministry. James appears in the lists of apostles in the synoptic gospels as well as Acts. James and his brother John were given the nickname “Boanerges” (sons of thunder) by Jesus; some believe this was a reference to their tempers.


The gospel texts offer no information on how old James might have been when he became one of Jesus’ disciples. According to Acts, James was beheaded by Herod Agrippa I who ruled Palestine from 41 to 44 CE. This is the only biblical account of one of Jesus’s apostles being martyred for his activities.


James, like his brother John, came from a fishing village along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. A reference in Mark to “hired servants” suggests that their family was relatively prosperous. After joining Jesus’s ministry, James likely would have traveled throughout Palestine. A 17th-century tradition says that he visited Spain before his martyrdom and that his body was later brought to Santiago de Compostela, still a shrine and pilgrimage site.


James, along with his brother John, is portrayed in the gospels as perhaps being more important than most of the other apostles. He was present at the resurrection of Jarius’s daughter, at Jesus’s transfiguration, and at the Garden of Gethsemane before Jesus was arrested. Other than a few references to him in the New Testament, however, we have no information about who James was or what he did.


James was one of the apostles who sought power and authority above the others, something that Jesus reproached him for:

"And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, come unto him, saying, Master, we would that thou shouldest do for us whatsoever we shall desire. And he said unto them, What would ye that I should do for you? They said unto him, Grant unto us that we may sit, one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left hand, in thy glory." (Mark 10: 35-40)

Jesus uses this occasion to repeat his lesson about how a person who wants to be “great” in the kingdom of God must learn to be the “least” here on earth, serving all others and putting them ahead of one’s own needs and desires. Not only are James and John rebuked for seeking their own glory, but the rest are rebuked for being jealous of this.

This is one of the few occasions where Jesus is recorded as having much to say about political power. For the most part, he sticks to religious issues. In chapter 8 he spoke against being tempted by the “leaven of the Pharisees...and of the leaven of Herod,” but when it comes to specifics he has always focused on the problems with the Pharisees.

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Cline, Austin. "James the Apostle: Profile & Biography." Learn Religions, Apr. 5, 2023, learnreligions.com/james-the-apostle-profile-and-biography-248809. Cline, Austin. (2023, April 5). James the Apostle: Profile & Biography. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/james-the-apostle-profile-and-biography-248809 Cline, Austin. "James the Apostle: Profile & Biography." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/james-the-apostle-profile-and-biography-248809 (accessed May 29, 2023).