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from issue no. 12 - 2008

The tombs of the apostles

Saint James the Greater

The promptness in accepting the Lord’s call

by Lorenzo Bianchi

Saint James the Greater

Saint James the Greater

James called the Greater, son of Zebedee and brother of John, whom the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles name in second place after Peter, or third, after Andrew or John, is present at the principal miracles of Jesus, at His transfiguration on Mount Tabor and His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the eve of the Passion. Of impetuous character, he and his brother are called by Jesus himself by the nickname of boanergéw (sons of thunder). He was the first of the apostles to suffer martyrdom, in Jerusalem, at a date set between 42 and 44; the news is reported sparsely by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles: “About that time Herod the king laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the Church, and he killed James, the brother of John with the sword” (Acts 12, 1-2). This Herod is Herod Agrippa I, nephew of the tetrarch Herod Antipas the Great and a friend of Caligula, who sent him with the title of king to Palestine, where he ruled from 41 to 44, the year of his death. As Clement of Alexandria added (quoted by Eusebius of Caesarea, Storia Ecclesiastica, II, 9, 2-3), James died beheaded after having converted his accuser: “Of this James, Clement, in the seventh book of Hypotyposes, cites a detail worthy of note, as it had come to him from the tradition of his predecessors, and says that he who had brought him to the tribunal was so moved seeing him give testimony that he also confessed to being a Christian himself”. There is no news of James’s missionary activity from the day of Jesus’ Ascension to that of his martyrdom; it probably took place between Judea and Samaria, although a tradition speaks of a journey of his to Spain, where later, according to yet another tradition, his mortal remains were received. These two traditions are entirely independent of one another.
The tradition of James’ apostolate in Spain appears for the first time in the Latin version of the Byzantine text of the Breviarium Apostolorum. This version dates from the seventh century and was composed outside of Spain: the sentence on the preaching of James in Spain is the translator’s addition which does not appear in the original Greek text. Isidore of Seville relies on this version (On the birth and death of the Fathers, 71), already in the seventh century, but the passage contained in Isidore’s work is also an interpolation, maybe from the end of the eighth century, and therefore goes back to someone who reworked his text. Other texts, also from the Spanish sphere, from the tenth to the thirteenth century reject the tradition of the preaching of James in Spain, which instead gains ground in the next century until it was included in the Roman Martyrology in 1586 by Cardinal Baronio, but to be then rejected by him later.
Facade of the Cathedral dedicated to Saint James, Santiago de Compostela
in Galicia, Spain

Facade of the Cathedral dedicated to Saint James, Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain

The tradition concerning the presence of the body of James in Spain is different and much stronger. Despite the existence of so many and discordant traditions, which, confusing him at times with the apostle of the same name James the Lesser, attribute his relics, to different places in Europe (in Rome, for example, there is an arm attributed to James kept in the church of Saint Chrysogonus in Trastevere within the central altar, where there are also the relics of part of the skull and the body of Saint Chrysogonus), the Spanish tradition is by far the prevailing. It is not known when, or brought by whom, the relics of the apostle arrived in Spain on the north-west coast of the peninsula, in Galicia, in a place called Compostela. The name of the place, that a recurring etymology, linked to the narrative of the discovery, claimed to be derived from campus stellae, is instead probably derived from the expression compostum tellus, that is a necropolis. According to tradition, the tomb containing the remains of James was discovered at the time of Charlemagne, between 812 and 814, by the anchorite named Pelagius in consequence of a vision. Bishop Teodomirus of Iria Flavia, arrived on the spot and on the tomb being opened, found the remains of the apostle inside. Historical research has determined that the discovery of the tomb and its identification as that of James’ did not derive from the tradition of his supposed preaching in Spain. As said, there are two completely independent traditions and in some texts that mention both they are even reported as antithetical to each other. The first text that mentions the tomb in Galicia is the Martyrology of Floro (808-838), on the day of 25 July, taken word for word from that of Adonis (850-860). The first texts that speak of the transfer of James’ body, immediately after his martyrdom, from Jerusalem to Spain date back to the tenth century, while the description of the discovery of the tomb and its precise chronological placement at the time of Bishop Teodomirus of Iria Flavia and King Alfonso II, the Catholic or the Chaste (thus, between 812 and 814, as said) is found even later, in an act of 1077 and then in texts from the end of the eleventh and the beginning of the twelfth century.
At the tomb, which the sources we have quoted describe in an expression corrupt in various fashion but which has been interpreted as in arcis marmoreis (thus referring to a marble tomb), the custom of pilgrimage began almost immediately, and still remains steadfast. On it the first church was built by Alfonso II, enlarged and embellished in 899 by Alfonso III the Great, destroyed in 997 (but without the tomb being touched), and rebuilt by King Veremund. Above this, in 1075 the construction of the magnificent Romanesque Basilica dedicated to James was begun, completed in 1128 and still existing today, with additions made up to the nineteenth century.
If the historical worth of the tradition of the discovery of the relics of James, and especially the later story of their transfer from Jerusalem, have been the subject of considerable criticism (the name of the Abbot Louis Duchesne will suffice for all), archaeological excavations at the tomb (1878-1879 and 1946-1959) have instead confirmed what even the late sources say relative to the description of the tomb. Pope Leo XIII, with the Papal Bull Deus omnipotens of 1 November 1884, solemnly declared the authenticity of the relics preserved in Santiago de Compostela.

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