The Camino de Santiago is the Way of St. James. But who is St. James? Discovering the answer is more complicated than you might imagine.
James in the Bible
Just like today, in New Testament (NT) times some names were more popular than others. Hence, there are a lot of Johns, Marys, and as it turns out, a lot of James.
Further complicating things, rather than use last names, people were distinguished by their relationships (“the son of . . .”), geographical ties (“of ____ city), jobs (think “Smith” or “Baker”), or other attributes (“the wise” or “the taller”). Thus, one person could be known by many different descriptions.
There are numerous “labels” connected to various James in the NT, and it seems doubtful that every one would be a different person. If this were the case, there would be a rather large “cast” of characters who end up not mattering very much to the story because each one individually contributes little to it.
The consensus seems to be that there were only two or three principle James:
- James the Greater (one of Jesus’s inner-circle Apostles, aka James son of Zebedee – brother of St. John)
- James the Lesser (one of Jesus’s Apostles, aka son of Alphaeus – son of Mary Clopas)
- James the Just (one of Jesus’s kinsman, the first Bishop of Jerusalem, the author of the NT Epistle of James)
St. James the Lesser and James the Just may actually be the same person. This is the most popular view among Catholic interpreters (see Catholic Encyclopedia), although a difficulty for this view is that Scripture indicates that Jesus’s “brothers” did not believe in Him during His ministry (Jn. 7:5). If this James is one of these “brothers,” then it seems he could not also be an apostle. (On the tradition concerning Jesus’s “brothers,” see HERE).
Whether or not St. James the Lesser is also James the Just, he is definitely not St. James the Greater – and the more important thing for our purposes here is that it is St. James the Greater whose relics reside in Compostela.
St. James the Greater
St. James the Greater was one of the first apostles called by Jesus Christ along with his brother St. John (the “Sons of Thunder” – Mk. 3:17). These brothers made up , along with Peter, Jesus’ “inner circle” of disciples (Mt. 17:1). Following Jesus’s crucifixion, St. James the Greater is said to have brought the Gospel message to the Iberian Peninsula.
Some, however, doubt St. James was a missionary to Spain:
“With regard to the preaching of the Gospel in Spain by St. James the greater, . . . according to the tradition of the early Church, he had not yet left Jerusalem at this time. . . . [Further,] St. Paul in his Epistle to the Romans expressed the intention to visit Spain just after he had mentioned (Rom. 15:20) that he did not ‘build upon another man’s foundation.'” (Catholic Encyclopedia)
In my opinion, these are inconclusive. First, at best it is “tradition vs. tradition,” which seems to be a tie unless one or the other is far better attested. Second, St. Paul travelled from city to city starting churches, the fact that a few (or many) churches had been started in the northern country of Spain does not mean there were not many regions or cities left to evangelize.
We know that St. James the Greater eventually returned to Judea because it was there that he became the first apostle to be martyred. Acts 12:1-2 records that he was beheaded by King Herod Agrippa I (in A.D. 44).
After his death, St. James the Greater’s remains were placed in a ship which wrecked near the northwest sector of Spain. His body was (miraculously?) brought safely to shore covered in scallop shells. It was then buried and later discovered in A.D. 813 in a place called the “field of stars” (Latin: Campus Stellae – hence, Compostela). Around this time several miracles were credited to St. James including a major victory against the Muslim Moors attributed to St. James the Greater.
After confirmation form the local Bishop, King Alphonse II of Asturia journeyed to Compostela to venerate the relics of St. James the Greater. The “way” he traveled became the first Camino – which is why it is now called the Primitivo.