The Death of James
James is specifically mentioned just three times after the resurrection of Jesus. He’s among the apostles who spent all night fishing, catching nothing until Jesus (the next morning) told them to let the net down on the right side of the ship. Then they caught so many fish, they couldn’t bring the net into the boat. James was one of the apostles who helped bring the boat to shore, dragging this massive catch with them. Then Jesus invited James and the others to “come and dine,” which they did.1
Just a matter of days later, James watched as Jesus ascended into heaven after telling all the apostles to stay in Jerusalem until they received the Holy Spirit. He went into an upper room with his fellow-apostles and other disciples where a replacement was chosen for Judas. Then, on the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came upon James and the other apostles, and they all began to preach the word of God in different languages. No doubt, James spent a large part of that day happily baptizing some of the 3,000 who gladly received the word of God.2
But things didn’t continue on their positive streak. Saul of Tarsus and the Jewish leaders stirred up the people in antagonism against the church. Herod the king, who wanted the Jews to like him, began to persecute the church.3 Some of them he arrested,4 and James was among them. Since James was a leader of the church, Herod had him killed with the sword.5
So ends the life of a man who was Jesus’ cousin, Jesus’ disciple, and Jesus’ friend.
Traditions About James
Since his life ended in AD 42-44, and the Bible records it, there’s not much in the line of traditions about this member of the “inner circle.” One writing says that “Zebedee was of the house of Levi, and his wife of the house of Judah. Now, because the father of James loved him greatly, he counted him among the family of his father Levi, and similarly, because the mother of John loved him greatly, she counted him among the family of her father Judah. And they were surnamed ‘Children of Thunder,’ for they were of both the priestly house and the royal house.”6
A writing that claims to be written by Clement (the man mentioned in Philippians 4:3) records this incident:
But a certain Samaritan, speaking against the people and against God, and asserting that neither are the dead to rise, nor is that worship of God to be maintained which is in Jerusalem, but that Mount Gerizim is to be reverenced, added also this in opposition to us, that our Jesus was not He whom Moses foretold as a Prophet to come into the world. Against him, and another who supported him in what he said, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, strove vigorously; and although they had a command not to enter into their cities, nor to bring the word of preaching to them, yet, lest their discourse, unless it were confined, should hurt the faith of others, they replied so prudently and so powerfully, that they put them to perpetual silence. For James made an oration concerning the resurrection of the dead, with the approbation of all the people; while John showed that if they would abandon the error of Mount Gerizim, they should consequently acknowledge that Jesus was indeed He who, according to the prophecy of Moses, was expected to come; since, indeed, as Moses wrought signs and miracles, so also did Jesus. And there is no doubt but that the likeness of the signs proves Him to be that prophet of whom he said that He should come, ‘like himself.’ Having declared these things, and more to the same effect, they ceased.7
The Acts of James in India says that James and Peter went to preach to the Jews in India, where they healed a blind man, were imprisoned, were released, and converted the people.8
The Martyrdom of James says that the son of Zebedee preached to the diaspora, the twelve tribes who lived outside the Promised Land, convincing them to give their “first-fruits” to the church as opposed to Herod, which then led to the murder of James by Herod.9
-Bradley S. Cobb
1 This incident is recorded in John 21:1-14.
2 These events are recorded in Acts 1 and 2.
3 Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 18-19, says that this Herod (Herod Agrippa I) was zealous for the Jewish law. He, like his grandfather, Herod the Great, wanted the Jews to like him. This is why he persecuted the church, and why he continued when he saw that killing James please the Jews. See Chuck Northrop’s comments on Acts 12:1-2 in Preaching School Notes (Bible Institute of Missouri) for e-Sword. Available at TheCobbSix.com.
4 See The NET Bible footnotes on Acts 12:1.
5 Most likely, this means that he was beheaded.
6 See The Genealogies of the Twelve Apostles in Budge, Contendings of the Apostles, Vol. 2, page 49.
7 The Recognitions of Clement, Book 1, chapter 57. This writing is classed among the pseudo-Clementine literature, because its authenticity is rejected by almost all scholars. It can be found in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 8, page 92.
8 See The Acts of James in India, in Budge, Contendings of the Apostles, Vol. 2, pages 295-303. This work, among other things, seeks to elevate the status of Peter, having James call him “my father” multiple times.
9 See Budge, Contendings of the Apostles, Vol. 2, pages 304-308. This writing is shown to be a forgery because it is historically inaccurate. James was killed between AD 42-44, yet The Martyrdom of James claims that James was teaching people not to serve Nero—who was at that point no more than seven years old, and who wouldn’t become emperor for at least another ten years. See also International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, “James.”