I sit on a terrace thinking about James. My knees are weary from the splintered shale of Spain's Monte Irago.
A week ago we sifted the the James Gang and identified three different characters who carry that name in the New Testament. We remember them as James the Great, James the Less, and James the Just. For a refresher, you should wander back and read that now (see link here).
Moving forward, we leave James and Less and James the Just behind.
James the Great was one of our Lord's disciples and the only one of the 12 whose martyrdom is recorded in Scripture. His execution is cast as a preface to the events of Acts 12.
"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" (Acts 12:1-3).
Blood is spattered at the start of the chapter to cast the arrest of Peter in the darkest tones imaginable. The reader is led to believe that Peter will be whacked in the same way that James was whacked. This doesn't happen of course--there is a twist in the chapter--but I'll let you discover that on your own (see here).
From a New Testament perspective, this text brings the earthly life of James to an end. He witnessed the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In the same town where Jesus was crucified (Jerusalem), James was executed.
However, outside the New Testament, the story of James the Great lives on. Part of that story is dedicated to a epic journey that the Bible is mum about, and part of that story is dedicated to a post-death appearance by James. Both of these accounts teeter wildly into the area of myth, but never say that to a Spaniard. It may cost you an eye. This is the stuff of national epic. Proceed with caution.
There is roughly a decade and a half between the crucifixion of Jesus (ca. AD 30) and the execution of James (AD 44). This is the margin needed for the story of James's epic journey to develop.
Buried deeply within Christian tradition is the notion that the Apostles divided up the world into personal assignments. Each one took a region as a way to honor the commission of Matthew 28:19 to "make disciples of all nations" (Gk. ethne). These assignments may have been based on the language gift each been given on Pentecost, but that's just a guess.
A cloud drifts through the terrace where I was am sitting. My view is suddenly limited. I hope the rain will pass.
According to the apocryphal Gospel of the Twelve Apostles (see page 28 of the English translation here), James received the gift of Latin on that Pentecost occasion. As Spain was firmly in Roman hands and Latin tongue by this time, you can feel the beginning of a case being made. Sea voyages on the Mediterranean were possible (think Paul), and, we are confident that there were already diaspora Jews in Spain. These may have been the starting point for James's mission.*
Remember this is all conjectural and apocryphal and you certainly shouldn't hold your breath. These wheels turn slowly, at least at first.
In the late 6th century a collected work known as The Breviary of the Apostles appeared. It was a Latin translation of older Greek documents purporting to "fill in the gaps" about the fate of the Twelve. Here we find the first explicit connection between James the Great and "Spain and the western regions."**
But it is in the 7th and 8th centuries that the wheels get traction. A hodgepodge of witnesses speak of James in the West.*** Not surprisingly this momentum is connected with the reconquista, the Christian effort to push the Moors (Muslims) out of the Iberian peninsula. As it turns out, a iconic hero was needed and "Thunderboy" would ride again (I'll take that up on another day).
Speaking of thunder, it is rumbling around me now.
Here's the short end of the tradition. After Pentecost, James traveled from Jerusalem to Spain and labored there as a missionary. His efforts were less than successful. He converted only 9 persons. His message was ignored in places and he was even imprisoned in Grenada. At last, as a result of a vision from Mary, the mother of Jesus who was still alive at the time, he was recalled to Jerusalem.**** There he was beheaded.
It's not exactly a megapastor success story.
James's noggin was buried in Jerusalem, say the Armenians (who point to the spot). But his body had another epic journey ahead. We'll take that up in Part 2 of "James goes West."
*The group known as Sephardic Jews is certainly a later development, but even today the Hebrew term Sefarad refers to Spain.
**See page 41 of John Williams/Alison Stone's Codex Calixtinus and the Shrine of Saint James (1992). Other slightly later evidence is listed as well.
***Chase down references in the writings of Isidore of Seville, Aldhelm of Malmesbury, or Beatus of Liébana. It is not exactly bedtime reading.
****This vision is considered the first visionary appearance of Mary. It supposedly took place in Zaragoza, Spain. Today the site is marked by the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar. Read more about the site here.