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The real James - What we know about the apostle James

What do we know about the apostle James? Is his tomb really in Santiago de Compostela? Do his bones really rest in the case under the statue of St James that we pilgrims embrace in the cathedral?

The James of the Bible

James the Elder was the son of Zebedee the fisherman and Salome, and the elder brother of the disciple John. The name "Jacob" means "God protects". Like his father and his brother John, he was a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee. He worked together with Andrew and Simon Peter (Mt 4:21 and Lk 5:10). Jesus gave the two brothers John and James the nickname "Boanerges", ("sons of thunder", Mk 3,17) because of their zeal. James, along with his brother and Peter, were among the three privileged disciples who were present at Jesus' transfiguration and in his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. After the resurrection, James is in Jerusalem with the other apostles (Acts 1:13). According to tradition, he preached the Gospel in the area of Samaria and Jerusalem after Pentecost, before he was beheaded by King Herod Agrippa I of Judea around the year 44. James is considered the first martyr among the apostles (Acts 12:1-2).

Jerusalem lore

In Jerusalem, the Church of St James is said to stand on the site of his martyrdom. In the year 70, his bones were brought to the Monastery of St. James in Sinai, today's St. Catherine's Monastery. Fearing Islam, monks are said to have transferred the bones to Spain, where they were kept in the church of Santa Maria in Merida. When the Muslims overran Spain in 711, the body is said to have been buried where the cathedral in Santiago stands today.

Spanish lore

In the 9th century, the first legends of James appeared on the Iberian Peninsula, according to which James preached in Spain. In the year 43 he returned to Jerusalem. However, nothing of this can be found in Spanish chronicles until 800. James is not mentioned anywhere.

According to legend, the tomb of St. James was "discovered" in Galicia around the year 830. So an explanation was needed as to how the body got to Spain. There are various versions of the so-called Translatio legend, all of which are based on a miracle.

The account of the Translatio (transfer of the body) developed from various elements in the course of the 11th century. The tradition was incorporated into the Liber Sancti Jacobi (written between 1139 and 1173), into the Historia Compostelana (completed in 1139) and then into collections of legends, such as the Legenda Aurea (written around 1263).

By the time the European pilgrimage movement to Santiago began in the 10th century, the essential components of Spanish lore had been formed. Via the martyrologies (calendars of saints) and other liturgical writings, they spread - as they did later via the Liber Sancti Jacobi and the collections of legends - throughout western Europe. They gave news of the rediscovered tomb of St. James, which, thanks to favourable circumstances, soon attracted pilgrims from all walks of life to Santiago in droves.

Archaeological findings

In 1878-79, excavations were carried out under the choir of the Romanesque church. They were concerned with the lost bones of St. James. Burial chambers were discovered. These contained the bones of three bodies. There is neither evidence for nor against the assumption that these could be the bones of the apostle James and two of his disciples (Athanasius and Theodore). They are bones that were probably hidden in the 17th century - to protect them - and later forgotten.

Recent research gives the following picture: the Romanesque cathedral stands exactly over two necropolises, one from the 5th-7th century and one from the 9th-12th century. The most important find is the remains of a so-called Jacob's mausoleum, but it probably dates from the Asturian period around 900. In any case, a monumental Roman mausoleum building with the marble stones mentioned in the legends could not be proven.

Other Legends of James

After the core of the Translatio legend of the transfer of the body to Spain had been completed, other legends arose around James: legends that predominantly deal with his work during his lifetime. A well-known example is the legend of the sorcerer Hermogenes, whom James overcame, freed from demons and whose magic books he had thrown into the sea. Another legend is about the martyrdom of James: on his way to the place of execution, James is said to have healed a lame man. Josias, a scribe, who led James to the place of execution on behalf of the high priest Abiathar and put the rope around his neck, also wanted to become a Christian, having been converted by the healing of the lame man. At the place of execution, James is said to have asked the executioner for a bottle of water with the intention of baptising Josiah. Enraged by this, Abiathar had Josiah beheaded together with James.

Another legend reports that the rock on the shore, where the boat with the body of the apostle had run aground, closed over him of its own accord and thus became a natural sarcophagus for the saint. According to another legend, wild cattle suddenly calmed down when they were forced to pull the cart with the sarcophagus of James. According to the same legend, the cattle with the cart stopped at the place where the pilgrimage church in Compostela was later built.

There is also a widespread tradition that James went to Spain after the feast of Pentecost, preached there, recruited disciples and prophesied that he would convert countless people after his death. However, he had so little success that one day he sat despondent and in despair on the banks of the Ebro in what is now Zaragoza. When he decided to abandon the mission, the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to him on a column and assured him of her support. This column still exists today in the Basilica del Pilar in Zaragoza.

Saragossa, Basilika

His grave is said to have been forgotten after his death until James revealed himself to the hermit Pelagius. His "discovery" on the so-called "Field of Stars" ("Compostela") took place at a time when the Asturian Church with its bishop Theodemir was trying to distinguish itself against the Visigothic Church of Toledo. Theodemir laid the foundation stone for the Church of Santiago. The city of Santiago de Compostela developed around this site and soon became a cornerstone of Europe in the Middle Ages. In the course of the reconquest of Spain from the Arab occupiers, a new role fell to James: he was now regarded as Santiago "Matamoros", a mounted battle helper and "Moorish slayer". In the Battle of Clavijo (844), James charged ahead of the army against the Moors on horseback..

Leonardo da Vinci: Jakobus

The Spirit of James

There is no scientific evidence of James in Santiago. Nevertheless, thousands and thousands make the pilgrimage to the alleged tomb of the apostle every year. A contradiction?

In the Middle Ages, faith was more strongly associated with magical ideas than it is today. People wanted to be close to the relics of the saints, to see them, to touch them. Relics were important; the faithful venerated them without asking about their authenticity.

For us pilgrims today, it is not decisive whether the remains of the apostle really rest in "James tomb". Regardless of the truth of the legends, pilgrims throughout the centuries have projected the Apostle James to Santiago. There he is present for us. It is his spirit that we feel along the way and especially in Santiago. James is for us, as it were, the bridge to the encounter with God.

Gerhard Eichinger