About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. (Act 12:1-3)
James is the only apostle whose death is recorded in the Scriptures. While many are familiar with the death of Paul who was beheaded in Rome and Peter who was crucified upside down outside of Rome, both are attributed to traditional material, the Early Church Fathers and so on. Only James’ death, of all of the original 12 apostles (with the exception of Judas) is recorded within its pages.
Outside of what we find in the gospels, James (or Jacob)’s ministry is virtually unknown. Thus it is a great mystery why he was selected for this act of persecution by Herod Agrippa I. We know James was one of the inner circle of disciples, along with his brother John and business partner Peter. He and his brother are noted for their desire for special privilege in the coming Kingdom by asking to sit at the right and left hands of Jesus (Mark 10:35). They were given the special nickname “sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17) and were especially incensed by the reaction of the Samaritans to Jesus, asking that Jesus lay waste to their cities with fire (Luke 9:54). We might gather that before the resurrection, James was a hot-tempered individual, but these few examples may merely point to a greater degree of zeal on his part. Their family was aligned with the house of the high priest, and may have had frequent business dealings there (John 18:15). It seems that James and John, whose mother was Salome (Mark 15:40; 16:1) and father Zebedee may have been related to Mary and Joseph as Mary’s sister, but this isn’t conclusive. Even so, it is Salome who approached Jesus (along with her sons) to ask for the right and left hands, something Jesus’ aunt might have felt entitled to, as Jesus’ own brothers didn’t believe in Him.
As the other disciples, James saw the risen Lord, and heard the commission to go into all the world. According to tradition, James obeyed the commission and went to the Iberian peninsula (Spain) and the origin of the word “Santiago” or Saint Iago ,means “Saint James”. After his death, his remains were allegedly taken to Spain and are in the Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain.
However, some early church sources refute this claim, Clement of Alexandria and Apollonius (See Eusebius Eccl. Hist. VI.18) saying that James never left Jerusalem before he was martyred in AD 44. Paul in Romans 15:20 and 24 intended to go to Spain, but did not desire to build upon another man’s foundation. Wouldn’t Paul have known if James had gone to Spain? Wouldn’t that have been a noteworthy trip for even Luke to make a note of before James was martyred? Strangely, James’ travels are more famous after he died.
Iberia is in Biblical terms the ends of the earth. Jonah desired to escape to Tarshish, as far as he could get from Nineveh. Paul desired to go to Spain (to satisfy his apostolic commission). Perhaps the truth is somewhere in there. Perhaps James, as the fathers said, never left Judea because the church up to that point was still wrestling about extending the gospel to Gentiles. It wasn’t James who first made that invitation, but Peter. We should not be surprised that James was still under the impression “to the Jew first” for most of his ministry, for Jesus said, “You will not finish going through the towns in Judea before I come.” (See Matthew 10:23) Ironically, if tradition is at least partly correct, James went on to evangelize Spain after his death, a martyr to the message of Jesus to an extent far more notable in death than during his life.