James is the English version of the Hebrew name Ya’aqov (or Jacob), which may mean ‘may God protect’ or ‘the one who supplants’. James, son of Zebedee, is called James the Greater to distinguish him from James the younger (another apostle, thought to be a relative of Jesus and later the first bishop of Jerusalem). James the greater was the son of Zebedee and the brother of John. They were fishermen and partners with Peter. When Peter and Andrew were out fishing and caught a huge haul of fish, James and John joined them, and the four set off as the first followers of Jesus. Later, when Jesus went up the mountain to pray, he took James and John and Peter with him. And, just as Peter was given the nickname ‘Rock’, so also James and John were called ‘Sons of Thunder’. These were the only three apostles to have nicknames.
While they were obviously close to the Lord, they also took a long time to understand his message: James and John turned away the Samaritan woman, and they wanted places at the right and left hand side of Jesus when he came into power. When Jesus chose Peter, James and John to be join him in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, they fell asleep.
Like Peter, James came to love Jesus absolutely. Soon enough James he drank of the cup of suffering that Jesus promised. He became one of the first martyrs of the Church when King Herod Agrippa I killed him with a sword in an early persecution around the year 44 (Acts 12:1). There is a story that the man who arrested James became a convert after hearing James speak at his trial, and was then executed with him. James is the only apostle whose martyrdom is recorded in the New Testament. He is, thus, traditionally believed to be the first of the 12 apostles martyred for his faith.
Legends have sprung up that James evangelized Spain before he died, or that his remains were taken to Spain after his death. These became the basis for the many pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela (St Iago = St James). James’ emblem was the scallop shell (or ‘cockle shell’), and pilgrims to his shrine wear the scallop shell on their hats or clothes.