History of St James Day: and the Camino de Santiago

St James Rembrandt

St James, Rembrandt


July 25 is the Feast Day of St James, and Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, and some Protestants accordingly celebrate St James Day. For Orthodox churches that follow the Julian calendar, it’s on April 30.

Each summer, pilgrims walk the Camino de Santiago or the Way of St James that finds its way to the traditional grave of Saint James in Spain.

Who was St James, and what is his relation to this pilgrimage?


Who was St James

There are two St James mentioned in the New Testament. One is the half-brother of Jesus, who wrote the Book of James in the Bible and was the leader of the church in Jerusalem after the departure of St Peter.

But we will discuss the other one, James the Greater, or Great, so designated because he was older or taller, not more important than Jesus’ half-brother.

james-john-iconSt James the Great was one of the Sons of Zebedee along with his brother St. John the Evangelist. Jesus called these two brothers “the Sons of Thunder” or Boanerges (probably from the Hebrew bene reghesh, “sons of the tumult.”)

When Jesus and his disciples were traveling through Samaria, and the inhabitants did not respond to their message, they asked

“Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?”

Another time, they (or their mother Salome) asked Jesus

“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask… Grant us that we may sit, one on your right hand and the other on your left, in your glory.”

These brothers, along with Peter, were some of the earliest whom Jesus called to follow him and were considered his “inner circle.” They saw Jesus’ Transfiguration (Mark 9:2), the raising of Jairus’ daughter from the dead (Mark 5:37 and Luke 8:15), and Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:33 and Matthew 26:37.) James’ brother John was the last to die of all the disciples. But James was the first to be martyred for Jesus.


Ministry of St James

James and his younger brother John had a fishing business in Galilee. John had connections in Jerusalem with the High Priest, as his Gospel tells us much about what happened at Jesus’ trial while their fishing partner Peter remained outside by the fire. While James did not write any books of the New Testament, his brother wrote five books.

Jesus had called the brothers to follow him and become “fishers of men.”



2nd-century circular “fish” symbol with superimposed ΙΧΘΥΣ characters, from Ephesus, Türkiye


While the Book of Acts in the New Testament does not mention James’ ministry with the early church after Easter, tradition holds that he traveled and preached the Gospel in Spain after serving in and around Jerusalem, where he eventually returned.


Death of St James

The Book of Acts, Chapter 12, discusses how James and Peter were imprisoned by “Herod the King.” Biblical and extra-biblical ancient sources (like Josephus, Philo of Alexandria, and the Jewish rabbis) tell us much about Herod Agrippa I.

  • He was the grandson of Herod the Great, who we met in the Christmas narrative.
  • Herod Agrippa had grown up in Rome and tutored Emperor Tiberius‘ grandson, but Tiberius imprisoned him for his reckless comment about the emperor. Following Tiberius’ death, his friend and Tiberius’ successor, Caligula, gave him a chain of gold equal in weight to the iron one that had imprisoned him. Emperor Claudius promoted him to the kingship of Judea and Samaria.

Due to Herod Agrippa I’s influential friendships with the Roman emperors, he pieced together what was essentially his grandfather’s old kingdom plus the region of Abilene to the north. He wielded great power over the whole territory of Palestine and Syria, including Tyre and Sidon, from A.D. 37–44.

Herod Agrippa, the last of the Herodian dynasty, exerted almost autonomous control over much of Palestine. He could arrest and execute with impunity.




He put James to death by the sword and “saw that it pleased the Jews” (Acts 12:3) and intended to do the same with the apostle Peter, but divine intervention released him from prison. James was the first of Jesus’ disciples whose martyrdom is mentioned in the Bible. James died in A.D. 44, at least a decade after Jesus’ crucifixion.


St James in Spanish

Saint James, Latin Sancti Iacobi, became in Spanish, shortened to Diogo/Diego or Tiago in Portuguese. The complete word Santiago means “Saint James.” So Camino de Santiago is the Way of St James. He is the patron saint of Spain.


St James in Spain


A 9th-century Catholic tradition states that James’ disciples carried his remains by sea from Jerusalem to the coast of Spain, where they ventured to Santiago de Compostela. At that time, King Alfonso II decided to walk from Oviedo to Santiago de Compostela to visit James’ grave. It remains the third most popular Christian pilgrimage after Jerusalem and Rome. Other traditions suggest that he was miraculously translated to Spain. Various legends tie the scallop shell to the sea voyage.

The Cross of St James looks like a sword with a scallop shell at the hilt.


Poland St James

The scallop, or “cockle shell,” has become the symbol of St James. You’ll notice it on the shoulder of the painting of St James by Rembrandt (at the top of this article).


It also serves as a marker along the Way of St James pilgrimage.

There are classical as well as modern stylized versions.


Pilgrimage of Camino de Santiago

The Way of St James was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages dating back to the 9th century and a pilgrimage route on which one could earn a plenary indulgence from the Roman Catholic Church.


Way of St James


The pilgrimage starts along many European routes, including France (Chemins de Saint-Jacques), Switzerland, Germany (Jakobuswege), Poland, Italy, and England. Travelers from my hometown in Colorado have walked the Way of St James.

La_cathédrale_de_SantiagoIn modern times 200,000 to 325,000 pilgrims register annually to complete the final 100 kilometers (62 mi) walk to Santiago to qualify for the compostela, the certificate of completion. The last part of the pilgrimage is along the northern part of Spain.

It ends at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. It is near the finis terrae, the “end of the known Earth,” in the northwest of the Iberian Peninsula. Indeed, some pilgrims, after stopping at the cathedral, will extend their journey 82 additional kilometers to Fisterra on the coast of the Atlantic.

fisterra google maps

Fistera, the end of the world, Spain. Image: Google Maps


This is in the community of Galicia in northern Spain, where the reliquary (repository of his bones) of St James is found.


Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian


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About billpetro

Bill Petro writes articles on history, technology, pop culture, and travel. He has been a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.

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