James the son of Zebedee and his younger brother John, were among the first disciples to be called by Jesus on the shore of Lake Galilee (Mk 1.19-20). He was later known as James the Greater and Saint James. John tends to have a higher profile, mainly due to his extensive writings in the NT (at the least works attributed to him).
James derives from Gk Iakobus (Heb. Jacob). There are other men named James mentioned in the NT, including James the younger and James the Lord’s brother. It is not always easy to tell which one is which. In the Catholic tradition, James is the patron saint of hat-makers.
James and John with their father Zebedee lived in Capernaum. They were fishermen, business partners with Simon and Andrew and prosperous enough to have hired servants. Jesus called them Boanerges, Aramaic for ‘the sons of thunder’ (Mk 3.17), probably referring to their hot temper and forthright, sometimes rash natures. With their mum, Salome (Mk 15.40 cf. Mt 27.56) they asked Jesus to give them the best seats in the house (Mk 10.35-38; Mt. 20.20-23). Jesus warned them that they must first drink the cup of his sufferings. He came to serve and to lay down his life.
James was the first to do so, as we will see shortly. John, according to legend, was the only one of the Twelve to escape martyrdom, living almost to the end of the first century.
James and John tried to call down fire from heaven to destroy a Samaritan village that refused to accept Jesus (Lk 9.52-56). Although this shows impressive faith, it also displays a serious misunderstanding of the nature of Jesus’ mission.
It is possible that Salome was the sister of Mary the mother of Jesus, in which case, James and John were Jesus’ cousins (Jn 19.25). There is no way to be certain of this.
Peter, James and John formed Jesus’ inner circle, who were present at several key events, notably the healings of Peter’s mother-in-law and Jairus’ daughter and the Transfiguration. They also had a snooze while Jesus was in Gethsemane.
We don’t know much about John from the gospels and Acts where he is always mentioned in the company of someone else, usually either James or Peter. Though he was there for the sermons, the miracles, the arrests and beatings, he doesn’t say much. He was at the cross where Jesus asked him to look after his mum, Mary.
Some commentators believe that John was the baby of the Twelve. He rose to prominence in the early church as the last surviving member of the Twelve. He is also attributed a big chunk of the NT—the gospel of John, three letters and the Apocalypse. He appears to have been called ‘the Elder’, though it is possible that this was another John.
The events of Acts 12 probably precede most of 9.32-11.26, taking place while Barnabas and Saul were at Antioch. Luke groups his story of the birth of the Antioch church topically, rather than chronologically. The contrasting stories of James and Peter in Acts 12 bring to an end his account of the mission to Israel.
Herod Agrippa I (b. 10 BCE) was the grandson of Herod the Great who sought to kill the infant Jesus (Mt. 2). Herod Antipas, who executed John the Baptist and interrogated Jesus, was his uncle (Mk 6; Lk 23). After his father’s execution in 7 BCE, Agrippa moved to Rome with his mother Bernice, living a privileged childhood closely connected to the Imperial family. When Caligula succeeded Tiberius in 37 CE, Agrippa took over from Philip and Lysanius as tetrarch of the northern parts of Palestine (Lk 3.1). In 41 CE, his childhood friend Claudius became emperor and added Judea and Samaria to his realm along with the title King. Agrippa I thus ruled over all of his grandfather’s territory.
In spite of this favoured position, the Jewish populace hated the Herods, who were Idumean (descended from Edomites) rather than Jewish. Craving their affection, Agrippa did everything he could to please the people, even pretending to be an observant Jew (at least while Jerusalem was watching).
In AD 44, Herod Agrippa I arrested James, who was put to death by the sword (Ac 12.2). In the Mishnah, beheading was the appropriate sentence for apostasy. No doubt Herod saw the followers of Jesus as a divisive minority, threatening the peace. He planned to suppress the cult by executing its leaders.
Christian tradition says that as James was being led to his death, he healed a man who was crippled with arthritis. This anecdote didn’t make it into Luke’s notes. Clemens Alexandrinus wrote that at his death, James called out his main accuser, who then fell at his feet professing faith and pleading for forgiveness. He was executed alongside James for his troubles.
Peter’s story has a very different outcome. Imprisoned in the Antonia fortress, chained between two Roman soldiers, guarded by another two, Peter is awakened by the angel of the Lord (in the OT this is God himself, e.g. Ex 3.2, 4, 7). The chains fell from his wrists; they walk past the two guards; the prison doors spring open (Gk. automate) and Peter finds himself alone on the street and free. He thought he was dreaming.
Realising his imminent danger, Peter goes to the house of Mary, John Mark’s mother, where the church is gathered in prayer. After some trouble convincing Rhoda the servant girl that it is really him, Peter speaks with the astonished gathering and then leaves ‘for another place’, saying ‘Tell James and the brothers’.
It was a bad day for the four soldiers.
From this point, with the apostles on mission elsewhere, it appears that James the Lord’s brother became the leader of the church at Jerusalem. We will tell his story another day.
The mention of Rhoda’s name is probably Luke’s way of citing his source. He heard the story from Rhoda herself.
‘Another place’ has sparked much speculation. Catholic scholars used to say that Peter went to Rome where he lived for 25 years as the founder of the church at Rome. This is very unlikely. What is more likely is that Peter found his way to Antioch, beyond the reach of Herod Agrippa I.
The death of James contrasts with the remarkable angelic deliverance of Peter from prison. Are we to believe that the church prayed harder for Peter than they did for James? How is it that one has a miraculous escape while the other is parted from his head?
Acts 12 puts the lie to all forms of Christian triumphalism and so-called dominion theology. The church is not meant to rule in this age. We are called to drink the cup of his sufferings, to walk the veil of tears. Isaiah described Jesus as
“despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace and with his wounds we are healed.” (Isa 53.3)
Only wealthy white Christians who have access to money, power and privilege (and those they have deceived) believe that Jesus’ purpose in coming to earth was to give you a comfortable prosperous life. At times God intervenes miraculously to deliver one of his servants. More often than not, though, their blood is spilled by those who hate or fear them.
More Christians have died for their faith in the last hundred years than in all previous Christian centuries.
Paul writes, that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection of the dead. (Phil 3.10).
We are not called to earthly riches, nor are we to seek political power and control.
We are called to a cruciform life.
We are to follow the way of the cross.