With some friends I recently traversed the beautiful and famous Camino Trail in Spain. Some of our group walked the shorter stretches of the trail but we mostly travelled in the comfort of our coach.
The journey provided opportunity to visit some amazing Cathedrals. The standout was the Cathedral in Leon whose colour-glazed windows were breathtaking.
Some of the pilgrims were walking to meet the athletic challenge of the Camino. For others it was a spiritual exercise, a time of reflection based on the journey of St James Zebedee all those years ago.
Our guide in Santiago, where the trail ends, told us that James came to the ‘ends of the earth’ as Jesus had instructed the disciples to do. So James came here, preached the Message about Jesus, and then returned to Jerusalem where he was beheaded as a martyr in 41 or 42. James’ body was then taken back to Spain where he was buried in a forest only to be rediscovered 500 years later and relocated in Santiago. (Diego is Spanish for James). His relics are venerated in the cathedral in Santiago.
Few pilgrims seem to question or challenge this account. To be candid, however, there is much to puzzle over. First, there is the issue of the time frame. The resurrection of Jesus occurred in the year 33 and the execution of James at the hands if King Herod Agrippa in 41 or 42 (Acts 12:1-2). This means that James had less than 10 years to travel to Spain preach there and return to Jerusalem. It was a long, expensive and dangerous journey involving numerous changes of ships. Due to stormy weather in the winter the sailing season lasted for only half the year. Then there would have been the issue of language. Would James have had the time to learn a language well enough to preach in Spain?
Secondly, there is the issue of returning James’ body to Spain which, as noted, was a dangerous and expensive journey. Legends of James’ remains floating back to Spain are unlikely to be based in fact.
Thirdly, the assertion that James body was found in the forest then brought to Santiago half a millennium later stretches credibility. How could the skeletal remains be identified?
In other words, the historical basis for James Zebedee coming to western Spain returning to Jerusalem to be killed and for his body to be repatriated there is slight, and to be frank, unlikely.
The Catholic Encyclopaedia (1908) pours cold water on the James tradition stating that the earliest evidence about him coming to Spain dates only from the ninth century with no credible evidence beforehand. Despite that, the Spaniards’ patron saint gave his name to cities in their colonies, Santiago in Chile, for example.
By contrast consider the evidence for Jesus. The letters of Paul, written between 48-64, are close in time to Jesus and bear credible witness to him as the Son of God. Galatians, for example, was written only 15 years after Jesus’ lifespan. The four Gospels were written only thirty to forty years after the resurrection. The non-Christian writer Tacitus, a hostile source, confirms the raw facts of the beginnings of Christianity. The evidence for Jesus is better than for anyone else from that era, emperors included.
The Camino tradition, although a ‘feel good’, is not based in historical evidence but unsubstantiated legend. Nevertheless, more than 300,000 pilgrims on average make the journey each year.
The Gospel of Christ, by contrast, is based in solid evidence. It invites open enquiry and rigorous investigation as the prelude to a considered act of faith commitment to Jesus Christ.