James the Elder is worshiped in Santiago de Compostela. Who is the saint to whom people have been pilgrimaging for 1000 years? A Biography of St. James.

The path is the goal. Those who set out for Santiago de Compostela these days are looking for answers to life’s questions, hoping for spiritual experiences, need a break from everyday life, or are looking forward to physical activity. There are as many reasons for a pilgrimage as there are people on the journey, but few seek to venerate the relics of Saint James that are (allegedly) buried under the altar in Santiago Cathedral (See also my text ABC ).

This is in contrast to the Middle Ages, when people only went to Santiago to wait for a miracle near the bones or to have their sins forgiven.

So proximity to the relics was the key. And the more powerful a saint was, the greater his power to work miracles. And who better to do that than a disciple of Jesus?

James was one of the twelve disciples

James the Greater was one of the first disciples called by Jesus according to the New Testament. In Mark 3:16 we read:

And he appointed the twelve: Simon – whom he called the name Peter – and James the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James – whom he called the name Boanerges, which means sons of thunder…

According to the Gospels, James, Simon and John were something like Jesus› “best buddies.” The three were present at crucial moments in Jesus› life such as the Transfiguration (Mt 17.1) and at prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (MK 14.33).

However, the special position seemed to have gone to the brothers› heads. In the Gospel of Mark, James and John demand that they be allowed to sit on the “right and left” of the Son of God after their death in heaven – the rebuff, of course, follows promptly.

St. James died in Jerusalem

Finally, in the Acts of the Apostles, which describes the history of the early church after Jesus› crucifixion, we learn that James was beheaded in the year 43 at the behest of King Herod Agrippa I.

This is where the written traditions of James the Elder end. To what extent the narratives in the New Testament reflect historical facts is, of course, uncertain.

On the other hand, all those stories that tell of James› work as a missionary in Spain belong in the realm of legends. There is no evidence that “Santiago el Mayor” ever set foot on the Iberian Peninsula (see also my text on ABC) – but that does not diminish the fascination of the Camino de Santiago.

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