By the late second century A.D., James’s tomb, at the foot of the Temple Mount Wall, was buried in rubble. But that didn’t stop Christian pilgrims. A tradition soon arose that a much more easily accessible cave across the Kidron Valley was the true location of James’s tomb (the Bene Hezir tomb; photo above). The legend claims that, in the mid-fourth century A.D., James himself appeared in a vision to a poor hermit and pointed out the spot where he had been buried. The fallacious miracle story has legitimized the veneration of this cave as James’s tomb until modern times. From the entrance of the cave, visitors can look back at the Temple Mount wall, from which James was thrown.
The legend is recorded in a tenth-century A.D. Latin manuscript,1 but the story itself is much earlier; the church father Jerome knew of it in the late fourth century A.D. It is translated here for the first time into English by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor:
When Sergius and Nigrinianus were consuls in the reign of the most glorious Roman Emperor Constantius,2 and Cyril was bishop of Jerusalem, there occurred an event at once wonderful and unexpected. Between the Mount of Olives and the Pinnacle of the Temple there is a spacious cave in which a venerable holy man named Epiphanius prayed day and night for the remission of his sins. Never leaving the cave, he fasted and begged God to have pity on him and to grant him interior peace for the rest of his life.
One day he fell asleep and saw the holy man James, who said to him, “Be strong, Epiphanius, and do not fear because you have found grace with God, and your sins have been forgiven. Rise, go into the city, and present yourself in person to the bishop. You will tell him to dig here and to take us up. For such a long time we have been hidden under the earth and forgotten by all. That you may know with whom you are dealing, let me tell you that I am James the brother of the Lord, and the others with me are the priest Simeon and Zechariah.” As James spoke, Epiphanius half asleep asked himself what sort of a vision it was. “It is a great revelation,” he said to himself, “but how am I to take it? Perhaps it is a demon who wants to tempt me to leave my cave, and thus deny me my recompense.” These reflections tried him sorely. “This phantom,” he thought, “may be just a seductive illusion. I a sinner have lived in this cave for many years and Saint James has never appeared to me, and now I have no idea what has happened.” So he stayed quietly in his cave begging God to show him the truth of the revelation.
That night, while Epiphanius slept, James appeared to him again saying, “Epiphanius I told you, and I tell you again, get up, go into the city, find the 041bishop and bring him here to dig and take us out of this place. This is the second time that I appear to you. Do not give in to doubt, nor believe that it is your imagination or the illusions of demons. What I say is the truth whose herald I am.” When he awoke next morning Epiphanius said to himself, “That was not a figment of the imagination, but a divine vision. Saint James has really appeared to me, and I must go immediately to the bishop to tell him of the orders of the man of God.”
He left his cell and found bishop Cyril and told him all that had happened. Confronted with an unknown old man dressed in an ancient cloak and carrying a bag, the bishop took him for an impostor who retailed false visions in the hope of payment. To get rid of him the bishop gave him a small sum, and said “We have never heard it said that James was buried in that place. I do not know what you are trying to tell me, unless you invent such stories as an excuse to leave your cell.” With these words he sent the old man away, who returned to his cave weeping bitterly, so devastated was he at the bishop’s reaction.
Saint James, however, appeared to him again, and said, “Epiphanius, I understand the motives of the bishop who did not believe you. Get up and go to Eleutheropolis, where you will find someone to whom I have spoken about you, namely Paul, the most eminent man in the city. Share with him all the requests that I have made of you.” On waking Epiphanius took his staff and went down to Eleutheropolis. During his sleep Paul, the most eminent man in the city, had a vision of Saint James, who said to him, “Receive into your house the one whom I will show to you, and without delay do all that he tells you.” And he showed him Epiphanius. When Paul awoke, he told his wife everything that had happened. She gave thanks to God, and warned her servants to admit without any announcement the monk whom they would see coming. The servants did as they were told. Guided by Saint James, Epiphanius arrived at Paul’s farm. His servants welcomed him and brought him to their master, who cried out “This is the man I saw last night!”
Paul explained his vision to Epiphanius, who for his part told him of the orders of James. Paul was delighted and provided the monk with every comfort. He gave his steward, Anastasius, a silver vase worth forty pounds, and told him, “Take this and sell it. Use the proceeds to excavate at the spot the old man will tell you, and you will find the bodies of the saints. As soon as you do, send me word that I may come to venerate them.” So saying he sent him off with the old man.
When they arrived in Jerusalem, Epiphanius went straight to the cave and showed Anastasius where he should dig. Employing a number of workers they dug until they found the bodies of James, Zechariah and Simeon. He went to the bishop to tell him of the discovery. The bishop went to the cave and took up the bodies on the first of December. He placed them in a chest which he deposited on Mount Sion. There was an explosion of thunder, bright flashes of lightning and gusts of wind. It was as if the world glorified God for what had happened. Without delay word was sent to Paul at Eleutheropolis. He came to Jerusalem and built a chapel near the cave in which the saints had rested. On 25 May, work on the chapel having terminated, he deposited the bodies of the saints under its altar for the glory of God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.