His surname Baradaeus is derived from the ragged mendicant's garb patched up out of old saddle blankets, in which dress, the better to which disguise his spiritual functions from the eyes of the authorities, he performed his swift and secret journeys over Syria and Mesopotamia.
John of Ephesus reports that Jacobus was born at Tela Mauzalat, otherwise called Constantina, a city of Osrhoéne, 55 miles to the east of Edessa, near the close of the 5th century. His father, Theophilus Bar-Manu, was a priest in Tela Mauzalat. In obedience to his parent's vow, Jacobus, when two years old, was placed the local monastery under the care of abbat Eustathius, and trained in Greek and Syriac literature and in the strictest asceticism. He became remarkable for the severity of his self-discipline. Having on the death of his parents inherited their property, including a couple of slaves, he manumitted them, and made over the house and estate to them, reserving nothing for himself. He eventually became a presbyter. His fame spread, reaching the empress Theodora, who eagerly desired to meet him, as one of the chief figures of the Monophysite party of which she was a zealous partisan. James was with much difficulty convinced to leave his monastery for Constantinople. Arriving at the imperial city, he was received with much honor by Theodora. But the splendor of the court had no attractions for him, and he retired to one of the monasteries of the city, where he lived as a complete recluse.
While he dwelled at Constantinople - 15 years, according to John of Ephesus - the Monophysite body suffered greatly. Justinian had resolved to enforce the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon, and those bishops and clergy who refused to obey these decrees Justinian punished with imprisonment, deprivation, and exile. Whole districts of Syria and the adjacent countries were thus deprived of their pastors, and the Monophysites were threatened with gradual extinction. For ten years many churches had been destitute of sacraments, which they refused to receive from those they considered heretics. The extreme peril of the Monophysites was represented to Theodora by the sheik Harith, and she persuaded Jacobus to leave his cell and accept the hazardous and laborious post of the apostle of Monophysitism in the East. A considerable number of Monophysite bishops from all parts of the East, including Theodosius of Alexandria, Anthimus the deposed patriarch of Constantinople, Constantius of Laodicea, John of Egypt, Peter, and others, who had come to Constantinople in the hope of mitigating the displeasure of the emperor and increasing the sympathies of Theodora, were held by Justinian in one of the imperial fortresses under house arrest. They consecrated Jacobus to the episcopate, nominally as bishop of Edessa but virtually as a metropolitan with ecumenical authority. The date is uncertain, but that given by Assemani (AD 541) is probably correct. The result proved the wisdom of their choice. Of the simplest mode of life, inured to hardship from his earliest years, tolerant of the extremities of hunger and fatigue, "a second Asahel for fleetness of foot" (Abulpharagius), fired with an unquenchable zeal for what he regarded as the true faith, with a dauntless courage that despised all dangers, Jacobus, in his tattered beggar's disguise, traversed on foot the whole of Asia Minor, Syria, Mesopotamia, and the adjacent provinces, even to the borders of Persia, everywhere ordaining bishops and clergy, encouraging his demoralized co-religionists to courageously maintain their faith against the advocates of the two natures, and organizing them into a compact spiritual body. By his indefatigable labors "the expiring faction was revived, and united and perpetuated. . . . The speed of the zealous missionary was promoted by the fleetest dromedaries of a devout chief of the Arabs; the doctrine and discipline of the Jacobites were secretly established in the dominions of Justinian, and each Jacobite was compelled to violate the laws and to hate the Roman legislator" (Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). He is stated to have ordained the incredible number of 80,000 clergy. John of Ephesus says 100,000, including 89 bishops and two patriarchs. His remarkable success in reviving the moribund Monophysite church alarmed the emperor and the Catholic bishops, who offered rewards for his arrest. But, dressed in his beggar's garb, and aided by the friendly Arab tribes as well as the people of Syria and Asia, he eluded all attempts to seize him, living into the reign of Tiberius II Constantine. The longer of the two Lives of Jacobus, by John of Ephesus, recounts the extent and variety of his missionary labors and his miracles.
However, Jacobus failed miserably when he attempted to govern the vast and heterogeneous body he had created and organized. The simplicity and innocence of his character, as chronicled by his contemporary John of Ephesus (H. E. iv. 15), disqualified him for rule, and put him in the power of "crafty and designing men about him, who turned him every way they chose, and used him as a means of establishing their own powers." His troubles with the bishops he had ordained clouded the closing years of Jacobus' long life. John of Ephesus records the blows, fighting, murders, and other deeds "so insensate and unrestrained that Satan and his herds of demons alone could rejoice in them, wrought on both sides by the two factions with which the believers--so unworthy of the name--were rent," provoking "the contempt and ridicule of heathens, Jews, and heretics" (H. E. iv. 30).
One of these factional squabbles was between Jacobus and the bishops Conon and Eugenius, whom he had ordained at Alexandria - the former for the Isaurian Seleucia, the latter for Tarsus - who became the founders of the obscure and short-lived sect of the "Cononites," or, from the monastery at Constantinople to which a section of them belonged, "Condobandites" (John of Ephesus, H. E. 31, v. 1-12). Each anathematized the other, James denouncing Conon and his companion as "Tritheists," and they retaliated by the stigma of "Sabellian."
A still longer and more widespreading difference arose between Jacobus and Paul, whom he had ordained patriarch of Antioch (H. E. i. 41). Paul and the other three leading bishops of the Monophysites had been summoned to Constantinople allegedly to restore unity to the church, but proving obstinate in the adherence to their own creed were thrown into prison for a considerable time and subjected to the harshest treatment. This broke their spirit, and one by one they all yielded, accepting the communion of John Scholasticus, the patriarch of Constantinople, and the "Synodites," as the adherents of the Chalcedonian decrees were contemptuously termed by their opponents, "lapsing miserably into the communion of the two natures" (H. E. i. 41, ii. 1-9, iv. 15). Paul escaped into Arabia, taking refuge with Mondir, son and successor of Harith. On hearing of his defection Jacobus at once excommunicated Paul, but at the end of three years, Jacobus presented Paul's penitence before the synod of the Monophysite church of the East, and he was duly and canonically restored to communion by Jacobus (ib. iv. 15). Paul's rehabilitation caused great indignation among the Monophysites at Alexandria. They clamoured for his deposition, which was carried into effect by Peter, the intruded patriarch, in violation of all canonical order; the patriarch of Antioch (Paul's position in the Monophysite communion) owning no allegiance to the patriarch of Alexandria (ib. iv. 16). Jacobus allowed himself to be persuaded that if he were to visit Alexandria the veneration felt for his age and services would bring to an end the rift between the churches of Syria and Egypt, and though he had denounced Peter, when he arrived in Alexandria he was convinced not only to hold communion with Peter but to draw up papers documenting his formal assent to the deposition of Paul, only stipulating that it should not be accompanied by any excommunication (ib. 17). This compromise was unfavorably received in Syria on Jacobus' return. The schism which resulted between the adherents of James and Paul, AD 576, "spread like an ulcer" through the whole of the East, especially in Constantinople. Both Paul and the sheik Mondir vainly attempted to seek a resolution with Jacobus, but Jacobus shrank from investigation, and refused all overtures of accommodation (ib. 20, 21).
Wearied out at last, and feeling the necessity to end the violence and bloodshed which was raging unchecked, Jacobus suddenly set out for Alexandria, but never reached it. His party reached the monastery of Cassianus or Mar-Romanus on the Egyptian frontier, where a deadly sickness attacked them, and claiming the life of Jacobus, July 30, 578. His episcopate is said to have lasted 37 years, and his life, according to Renaudot (Lit. Or. ii. 342), 73 years.