St. James the Great is one of two Apostles named James: one is the son of Zebedee and the other is the son of Alphaeus (or Cleophas). To distinguish between the two, the son of Zebedee is usually referred to as James the Great(er) while the son of Alphaeus is known as James the Less(er). This may have been because James the Great was older or bigger than James the Less, but it is more likely simply because there is more information available about James the Great, and thus he was considered to be more important.
"Fishers of Men" and Sons of Thunder
James was a fisherman who worked, along with his brother John, on the Sea of Galilee for their father Zebedee. They were partners with Simon Peter and his brother Andrew. It is likely that John and Andrew were disciples of John the Baptist but their older brothers were not. While Andrew brought his brother Simon to meet Christ, after John the Baptist pointed Him out as the Lamb of God, there is no indication that John did the same. Thus, unlike the other three fishermen, James probably never meet Jesus before He called all of them to be “fishers of men.” Nevertheless, he followed Our Lord, apparently without hesitation.
The Gospels explicitly point out that James and John left their father. This must have upset Zebedee greatly, at least initially. Yet, this did not stop his wife Salome, the mother of James and John, from following Christ as well. Salome actually asked Christ if He would promise that her sons would sit at His right and left when He came into His kingdom. She, like most of Christ’s followers, expected Him to be an earthly ruler of a restored kingdom of Israel, and like any good mother, she wanted to make sure that her sons had positions prominence as advisors to the king. Christ’s response to James and John is to ask them if they can “drink of the chalice” He is drink and “baptized in the baptism” into which He is to be baptized. As becomes apparent in the Garden of Gethsemane, both the chalice and baptism are reference to Christ’s Passion and where He is asking James and John if they are willing to share in it. They respond that they can and Christ tells them that they “surely will.” The request to sit at Christ's hand is interesting because it was fulfilled in a way. James was the first of the Apostles to die and John was the last.
James was a bit of a hothead and it ran in the family. After a Samaritan village refused to allow Jesus and His Apostles to stay there because they were travelling to Jerusalem, James and John asked Jesus is He would give them the power to call down fire from heaven to consume the town. Jesus rebuked them and because of the incident, gave them the nickname Boanerges which means “Sons of Thunder.”
The Big Three
James, along with his brother John and Peter, were the “Big Three”: Christ’s most trusted inner circle of Apostles. The inclusion of John, because he was the Beloved Disciple with whom Jesus had a very close relationship, and Peter, who would become the leader of the Apostles and first pope, in the Big Three makes sense but the inclusion of James is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps it was because Christ knew that James would be the first Apostle to suffer martyrdom and ensured he received extra graces to endure itThey alone were privileged to witness the rising of the daughter of Jairus and Christ’s Transfiguration on Mount Tabor. Additionally, they accompanied Christ into the Garden of Gethsemane and were present for his agony. Although the Gospel states that they fell asleep, it is certainly possible that in a wakeful moment, they might have heard Christ praying that “this chalice might pass” from Him. What might they have thought, remembering their confident statement that they could drink of the chalice He was to drink?
All the Apostles fled from Gethsemane, but the Gospels state that Peter and John followed Christ to the house of the High Priest and were present for Christ’s trial there. There is no mention of James. He was one of seven apostles present at the Resurrection appearance by the Sea of Tiberias (a.k.a. Galilee). This is the first time he is mentioned by name after Christ’s arrest and Passion, although he was certainly present with the rest of the Eleven (minus Thomas) in the Upper Room on Easter Sunday evening and the next Sunday. Similarly, although he is not mentioned by name, James was present at all the events in which the Acts of the Apostles states that all the Apostles were present. These include the Ascension of Jesus, the election of Matthias to replace Judas Iscariot and Pentecost. James was also arrested, released by an angel, arrested again, put on trial before the Sanhedrin and flogged, along with the rest of the Apostles.
First Apostle to be Martyred
Because James was the first, he is only Apostle whose martyrdom is explicitly recorded in Scripture (Peter’s is alluded to in the Gospel according to St. John). The first two verses of the twelfth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles state simply, “About that time Herod the king laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword.: The King Herod mentioned here is not Herod the “Great,” who ordered the massacre of the Innocents in an attempt to kill the infant Jesus nor is it his son Herod Antipas who executed John the Baptist but the former’s grandson (by his son Aristobulus, whom he had murdered, not Antipas). Herod the “Great” was actually an Idumean (Edomite), a descendant of Esau instead of Jacob (Israel). This, and the support of Rome, made his anxious to prove that he was “Jewish enough” which he attempted to do by elaborately refurnishing and expanding the Temple in Jerusalem to the point that it was known as Herod’s Temple (as the first had been known as the Temple of Solomon). Agrippa was at an even greater disadvantage because his family had been thoroughly Romanized. His full name was actually Marcus Julius Agrippa, after the close friend and ally of Caesar Augustus, under whose auspices the Pantheon was built. Following the execution of Aristobulus, Herod sent Agrippa to Rome, where he became a close friend and confidante of the future emperor Gaius, better known as Caligula.
Despite his obvious affinity for Roman culture, the historian Josephus describes as Agrippa was much more thoroughly Jewish than his grandfather or uncle were. It was Agrippa who convinced Caligula to abandon his plan to install statue of himself as Jupiter in the Temple in Jerusalem. After Caligula’s assassination, his uncle and successor Claudius appointed Agrippa to govern Iudaea and granted him the title of “king.” Thus, in his zeal to prove his Jewishness to the people of Jerusalem, Agrippa attempted to root the nascent Christian movement, which he considered blasphemous because they preached that Jesus was the Son of God. He started by executing James and imprisoning Peter (who was later freed by an angel). Agrippa died in A.D. 44 so this is the latest possible date for James' martyrdom.