The son of Zebedee and Salome, James is styled "the Greater" to distinguish him from the Apostle James "the Less". He was the brother of John, the beloved disciple, and probably the elder of the two.
His parents seem to have been people of means. Zebedee, his father, was a fisherman of the Sea of Galilee, who probably lived in or near Bethsaida, present Galilee, Israel, perhaps in Capernaum, and had some boatmen or hired men. Salome, his mother, was one of the pious women who afterwards followed Christ and "ministered unto him of their substance", and his brother John was personally known to the high-priest, and must have had the wherewithal to provide for the Mother of Jesus.
It is probable that his brother had not received the technical training of the rabbinical schools; in this sense they were unlearned and without any official position among the Jews. But, according to the social rank of their parents, they must have been men of ordinary education, in the common walks of Jewish life. James is described as one of the first disciples to join Jesus. The Synoptic Gospels state that James and John were with their father by the seashore when Jesus called them to follow him.[Matt. 4:21-22][Mk. 1:19-20] James was one of only three apostles whom Jesus selected to bear witness to his Transfiguration. James and John (or, in another tradition, their mother) asked Jesus to grant them seats on his right and left in his glory. Jesus rebuked them, and the other ten apostles were annoyed with them. James and his brother wanted to call down fire on a Samaritan town, but were rebuked by Jesus.[Lk 9:51-6] The Acts of the Apostles records that "Herod the king" (traditionally identified with Herod Agrippa) had James executed by the sword. He is the only apostle whose martyrdom is recorded in the New Testament. He is, thus, traditionally believed to be the first of the twelve apostles martyred for his faith.[Acts 12:1-2] Nixon suggests that this may have been caused by James's fiery temper, for which he and his brother earned the nickname Boanerges or "Sons of Thunder".[Mark 3:17] F. F. Bruce contrasts this story to that of the Liberation of Saint Peter, and notes that "James should die while Peter should escape" is a "mystery of divine providence".
The English name "James" comes from Italian "Giacomo", a variant of "Giacobo" derived from Iacobus (Jacob) in Latin, itself from the Greek Ἰάκωβος "Iakōbos", from Hebrew יַעֲקֹב. In French, Jacob evolves into "Jacques". In eastern Spain, Iacobus (Jacobus) became "Jacome" or "Jaime"; in Catalan language, it became "Jaume". Santiago is the local Galician or Spanish (Castilian) evolution of Vulgar Latin Sanctu Iacobu "Saint James". "Tiago" is a popular deglutination native to Portuguese language (santiago > san-tiago = São Tiago); it crossed with old Diago to give "Diego" in Spanish and "Diogo" in Portuguese, which is also the Spanish name of Saint Didacus of Alcalá. For example, Miguel de Cervantes in his famous Don Quixote uses "San Diego" instead of "Santiago".
Saint James is the patron saint of Spain and, according to legend, his remains are held in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. (The name Santiago is the local evolution of Vulgar Latin Sanctu Iacobu, "Saint James".) The traditional pilgrimage to the grave of the saint, known as the "Way of St. James", has been the most popular pilgrimage for Western European Catholics from the Early Middle Ages onwards, although its modern revival and popularity stems from Walter Starkie's 1957 book, The Road to Santiago. The Pilgrims of St. James. Some 237,886 pilgrims registered in 2014 as having completed the final 100 km walk (200 km by bicycle) to Santiago to qualify for a Compostela. When 25 July falls on a Sunday, it is a "Jubilee" year (an Año Santo Jubilar Compostelano or Año Santo Jacobeo) and a special east door is opened for entrance into Santiago Cathedral. Jubilee years fall every 5, 6, and 11 years. In the 2004 Jubilee year, 179,944 pilgrims received a Compostela. In 2010 the number had risen to 275,135.
The feast day of St. James is celebrated on 25 July on the liturgical calendars of the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and certain Protestant churches. He is commemorated on 30 April in the Orthodox Christian liturgical calendar (for those churches which follow the traditional Julian Calendar, 30 April currently falls on 13 May of the modern Gregorian Calendar).
The site of martyrdom is located within the Armenian Apostolic Cathedral of St. James in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem. The Chapel of St. James the Great, located to the left of the sanctuary, is the traditional place where he was martyred when King Agrippas ordered him to be beheaded (Acts 12:1-2). His head is buried under the altar, marked by a piece of red marble and surrounded by six votive lamps.