Home > Archives > 08 - 2009 > St James the Less
ITINERARIES
from issue no. 08 - 2009

The tombs of the apostles

St James the Less


The letter of St James shows us a very concrete and practical Christianity


by Lorenzo Bianchi


St James the Less

St James the Less

James, the brother of the Apostle Jude, whom the Gospels and the Acts listed among the twelve apostles, calling him the son of Alphaeus, and the James whom elsewhere the same Gospels call “brother” (i.e. cousin, according to the proper interpretation of the Hebrew term) of the Lord, son of Mary, one of the women present at the foot of Jesus’ cross, wife of Cleophas, “sister” (i.e. sister-in-law) of Our Lady, are probably the same person. Cleophas and Alphaeus could be in fact two names for the same person, or rather two forms of the same Aramaic name. The James ‘brother’ of Jesus is named by Paul as one of the “pillars” of the Church, with Peter and John, in Jerusalem, where he was bishop from Peter’s departure for Rome (year 44) until his martyrdom during Easter 62. The Eastern Church still distinguishes the apostle from the bishop of Jerusalem, following a tradition introduced by pseudo-Clementine writings (Hypothyposis, VI) between the late second and early third centuries and followed in particular by Eusebius of Caesarea and John Chrysostom, but not by several other Greek Fathers, while for the Western Church the Council of Trent affirmed the identity of one and the other.
The martyrdom of James, known from Flavius Josephus (Jewish Antiquities, XX, 197. 199-203), at the end of the first century, is described in detail by Eusebius of Caesarea, who refers in particular and at length to the earlier narrative of Hegesippus (Memoirs, 5). Festus, the prefect of Judea, having died and while his designated successor Albinus was still en route from Rome, the high priest Ananos the Younger took advantage of the moment to convene the Sanhedrin and sentence James to be stoned. It was the year 62. James was cast down from the pinnacle of the Temple and, because he was not dead, he was stoned, and because, kneeling up, he prayed for those who were stoning him, “one of them, a fuller, took the club with which he beat the cloth, struck the Just One on the head, who died a martyr in this way. He was then buried on the site, near the Temple, where his monument still stands” (Hegesippus, in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, II, 23, 18). According to the testimony of Jerome his grave marker remained in place until the time of the emperor Hadrian (117-138), then it must have been lost track of since we have the report of the invention (i.e. refinding), towards the mid-fourth century, of the body of James, along with those of the martyrs Simeon and Zachariah, by the hermit Epiphanius. The body of James was temporarily removed to Jerusalem by Bishop Cyril on 1 December 351, then later returned to the church built on the site of the rediscovery. Finally there is report of a translation – again on 1 December – to another church in Jerusalem, built in the reign of the Byzantine emperor Justin II (565-578) and dedicated to James. But at this point it is difficult to collate the various reports. The removal of part of the relics from Jerusalem (or perhaps from Constantinople?) to Rome must be linked with the start on the construction, in the time of Pope Pelagius I (556-561), of a basilica dedicated to the apostles James and Philip, whose liturgical feast in the West occurs on 1 May (now moved to 3 May), a basilica which was completed by Pope John III (561-574), and is currently dedicated to the Twelve Holy Apostles.
In January 1873, as mentioned in speaking of the apostle Philip, a scholarly committee performed a survey under the altar of the church of Santi Apostoli in Rome. The relics belonged to two distinct individuals. The one of more robust build, of whom only scrapings and bone fragments remained, although in large quantities, as well as a femur present from time immemorial in the basilica, was identified with James the Less. In 1879 the relics were placed in a bronze coffer in a marble sarcophagus set in the crypt of the church, beneath the central altar and the place where they had been found, and are still there today. The relic of the femur was instead placed in a specially made reliquary, not currently displayed to the faithful.
The relic of the head of James the Less is venerated in Santiago de Compostela. According to a tradition it was brought to the West by the Bishop of Braga, Mauricio Burdin, who had taken it from Jerusalem during his pilgrimage to Holy Land in 1104. Around 1116 Urraca, Queen of Castile and León, took possession of it and donated it to the church of Santiago, where it is still kept in a bust-reliquary in the chapel dedicated to the apostle. But another skull attributed to James the Less has been known since the Middle Ages in Ancona, now housed in the Diocesan Museum adjacent to the cathedral church of St Cyriac: examined in consequence of the survey of the relics kept in Rome, it proved compatible with them.


Italiano Español Français Deutsch Português