James son of Zebedee is one of at least three important New Testament figures named James. In fact, there’s even another disciple named James. (It was a pretty common name.) This, plus the fact that the Bible tells us so little about any of these Jameses, has led to a lot of confusion about their identities over the centuries.
This James is often referred to as James the Greater to distinguish him from James son of Alphaeus, James the Less (who may be the same person as James son of Alphaeus), and James the brother of Jesus. “Greater” here could refer to height, age, or importance.
James in the Bible
Mark tells us that Jesus nicknamed James and John “sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17). Unfortunately, he doesn’t tell us what the nickname means or where it comes from. This has led many to assume it referred to their speech, temperaments, or ambition.
In the Bible, James son of Zebedee is most known for:
- Asked Jesus if he and John should call down fire from heaven to destroy a village which failed to show them hospitality (Luke 9:54)
- Asked Jesus if he and John can sit on either side of Jesus’ throne in heaven, and unwittingly promised to follow Jesus into martyrdom (Mark 10:35–40)
- Being martyred by Herod in Acts 12:2
How did James die?
James is the only disciple whose martyrdom is recorded in the Bible (Acts 12:2). Herod had him killed by the sword, and he was likely beheaded. (Judas Iscariot’s death is recorded as well, but it was under very different circumstances.)
Camino de Santiago
Tradition claims James son of Zebedee was a missionary to Spain and that his body was buried there, but since his death took place in Jerusalem very early in the history of the church, there are numerous challenges with this tradition. Nonetheless, the Camino de Santiago—a pilgrimage to the church where James is allegedly buried—was one of the most popular Christian pilgrimages for centuries, and Santiago de Compostela (the shrine dedicated to Saint James) is still a destination for more than 300,000 people every year.