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The son of Zebedee and Salome, James is styled "the Greater" to distinguish him from the Apostle James "the Less", with greater meaning older or taller, rather than more important. James the Great was the brother of John the Apostle.

The Acts of the Apostles records that "Herod the king" (traditionally identified with Herod Agrippa) had James executed by the sword. Nixon suggests that this may have been caused by James's fiery temper, in which he and his brother earned the nickname Boanerges or "Sons of Thunder". F. F. Bruce contrasts this story to that of the Liberation of Saint Peter, and notes that "James should die while Peter should escape" is a "mystery of divine providence".

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