James the son of Zebedee

The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela developed from the rediscovery in 813 of the presumed tomb of Saint James.

James son of Zebedee

The origins of Jacques, son of Zebedee

His name was Yaakov or Jacob Bar-Zebdi but we know him rather as James the son of Zebedee, Saint James, James the Greater (to differentiate him from the other apostle James, the son of Alphaeus named the Minor) or Santiago in Spain. According to Christian accounts, he was born around the year 5 BC in Galilee, son of Zebedee and Mary Salome and was the elder brother of John, also an apostle.

Mark tells us that his master Jesus nicknamed the two brothers "boanergues", which means the "sons of thunder". The two brothers were fishermen, and it was during their work on Lake Gennesaret that they were called by Jesus of Nazareth to follow him. Note that they are among the first disciples and the most appreciated by the Master.

Therefore, Jacques was present in the most important episodes told 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 catch. The Acts of the Apostles tell that he received the Holy Spirit in the form of tongues of fire during the episode of Pentecost (around the year 33). It is from this moment that he will take his stick, as well as the boat, and travel the paths to evangelize the West.

Santiago in Spain

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

According to legend, then, James crossed the Mediterranean to preach Christianity in Roman Hispania, the Iberian Peninsula. Around the year 650, Bishop Isidore of Seville wrote in his From Ortu and 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 would have crossed the "Pillars of Hercules" by boat (renamed by the Arabs as Djebel Tarik or Gibraltar), to skirt the Portuguese coast and disembark in Galicia to begin his work. According to other accounts, it would have arrived in this region following the Ebro Valley from the Mediterranean and passing at the foot of the current “Picos de Europa”.

Tradition says 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 ancient legend found in a 13th century manuscript tells that James was in Caesaraugusta, present-day Zaragoza, quite discouraged by the lack of success he had in the Aragonese lands. The virgin would have appeared to him in flesh and bone on a marble pillar; he would thus have regained courage and enthusiasm, and would have begun to have converts. He would have had a chapel built around the pillar left by the Virgin, on the banks of the Ebro.

This chapel, enlarged throughout history, corresponds to the great basilica of the “Virgen del Pilar” (the Virgin of the Pillar) where the supposed pillar is still preserved and venerated. The female name 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 arrive, receives a visit from her son Jesus; she expresses to him her wish to see all the apostles before she dies; this is impossible because they are all scattered: the solution, visit them one by one where they are…

This would be at the origin of the appearance to Jacques in Zaragoza.

The return to Judea and his death

Historically, the presence of the first Christian communities in Spain is located between the 2nd and 3rd centuries, but some traditions tell that the development of Christianity in Spain was very rapid thanks to James the Greater. It was then that he would decide to return to Jerusalem, leaving to his seven disciples the task of continuing the work. His wish would have been to see the Virgin Mary still alive one last time.

Back in Judea, he continues to preach according to certain apocrypha. The Acts of the Apostles (12:1-3) recount that after a sermon, 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.

Back to Spain

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