“James the Greater” or “James the Elder” was the brother of the apostle John and “the son of Zebedee,” as distinct from the other James among the disciples, "James the Lesser," the son of Alphaeus (Mark 15:40). Both men were called Ya'akob in Hebrew/Aramaic (Greek Iakobos), but their names are usually anglicized as James. “James the Greater” was probably so called because he was taller or older than "the lesser James," but he was also a disciple of considerable faith.
James the son of Zebedee was one of Jesus’ first disciples (Matthew 4:21-22), and the Gospels mention that he and John followed Jesus without any hesitation. His family seems to have been fairly prosperous and we are told that Salome, his mother, also afterwards followed Christ and helped to financially support the disciples (Luke 8:3). This family affluence may be part of the reason Jesus, on the cross, committed his mother into the keeping of John, knowing that they could afford to support her.
Perhaps, in addition to a mother’s natural desire to advance her sons, the family’s physical success lay partly behind the famous story in which the mother of James and John asked Jesus if her sons could sit at his left and right hand in the coming kingdom (Matthew 20:20-23). But James is perhaps best known from the nickname he and John were given: Boanerges or “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17) on account of their fiery tempers. The two brothers were rebuked by Jesus for this trait when they wanted to call down fire from heaven on a Samaritan village (Luke 9:51-56), but the later history of James and his brother clearly suggest that this character trait was overcome as time went on.
In fact, James was selected – along with John and Peter – by Christ to be one of the three disciples who were privileged to witness his transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9). When Jesus went to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, to raise his daughter from the dead, he took Peter, and James and John (Mark 5:37); and, at the end of his ministry, on the night of the Last Supper, when Jesus went to pray in the garden of Gethsemane, James, Peter, and John were also the disciples he took with him (Matthew 26:36-37). This position of James in the small group that seems to have been closest to Jesus certainly indicates that he was deeply committed in his discipleship.
Commitment may, in fact, be the hallmark of James’ character as he was executed by Herod Agrippa early in the history of the new Church (c. AD 44) for his unrelenting faith. In fact, he is the only apostle whose martyrdom is recorded in the New Testament, and he is thus believed to be the first of the twelve apostles to be martyred (Acts 12:1-2). Today he is remembered as a leading apostle by believers in all branches of Christianity.
Overall, although we are not given a lot of details regarding the life of James the Greater, it seems clear that despite his natural hot temper he was able to overcome this flaw and function as one of the three most dedicated and faithful apostles – a lesson from which we can all take encouragement.