Paul vs. James – Schism in the primitive Church?

It seems to have become in vogue in our modern religious and scholarly climate to surmise that there existed in the most primitive days of the Church a rivalry between the Church in Jerusalem (Led by James) and Paul. The suggested theory is that the Church in Jerusalem remained very much “Jewish” and preached a different message of salvation from that we see preached by Paul. In fact some have gone so far as to suggest that there were polemics being launched from one camp to the other. There are several reasons why this conclusion is reached:

1.) In the Paul’s letter to the Galatian Church he mentions a conflict between himself and Peter.

2.) The epistle of James is perceived to contradict the teachings of Paul.

3.) Some pseudo-literature of the late first to second century seems to place a rift between Paul and and the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem.

I would like to address each of these points listed. There could of course be more than these, but these tend to reflect the major points.

1.) In the Paul’s letter to the Galatian Church he mentions a conflict between himself and Peter.

This is perhaps the most substantial of the points made, mainly because it addresses the most solid source of information concerning primitive Christianity – the writings of Paul. Not only are the writings of Paul considered as the most reliable sources in the New Testament by critical scholars, they are also some of the most important sources in Christian history. From the standpoint of the historical method these writings are particularly important, even more important than the accounts in Acts and the writings of Peter and James. The latter being questioned in authenticity by certain scholars, while the Pauline corpus is considered authentic by 90-95% of scholars. While we are not personally inclined to believe that the epistles of Peter and James are pseudography, it should be noted that from a purely historical standpoint what Paul says in his letters should be given serious attention. Of course the historian must take Paul’s account as it is, his own interpretation of events, they still will no doubt shed a great deal of light on what Paul saw as the events of the earliest times in Christian history. Certainly if Paul and James were rivals, as some suggest, we would read it in Paul’s account of things.

Those who feel that there was indeed a rivalry believe that the events described in Galatians are addressing just that. It is in Paul’s epistle to the Galatians that we read of an incident that took place when Peter visited Antioch. According to Paul’s account, Peter had been for some time in Antioch and had been “eating with the Gentiles”, but after a delegation sent by James from Jerusalem visited Antioch, Peter would no longer eat with the Gentiles. According to Paul even his own associate Barnabas became “carried away” with this scenario. Paul says that he confronted Peter publicly about these hypocritical actions.

Now it is important here to set the context of Paul’s relating this story. Paul is concerned that this Church that he has founded has abandoned his teachings and had began to try to adopt elements of the Mosaic Law. (It seems that some individuals in that congregation or perhaps that had come to them from elsewhere had begun to teach Mosaic tradition – especially concerning salvation through circumcision). In fact he opens by stating that even if “we or an Angel from heaven” come preaching another Gospel, let them be considered accursed. This story in Galatians 2 is Paul’s way of showing that he is willing to “put his money where his mouth is.” This account was intended to demonstrate the gravity of the revealed message – it was important enough that Paul would even confront Peter over it. However if Peter, and consequently James, are enemies or rivals of Paul, then what weight does this story carry? Paul says essentially “I even confronted Peter on this when he got out of line.” Which shows that both Paul, and the Galatian Church that he founded, considered Peter an individual of notoriety and respect.

The language that Paul uses concerning Peter, James, John and the Jerusalem Church is not one of disrespect and contempt, rather it is one of respect. Paul says in fact “Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up in response to a revelation. Then I laid before them (though only in a private meeting with the acknowledged leaders) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain.” Now why would Paul meet privately with the leaders in Jerusalem to confirm his ministry if he considered them enemies? In fact Paul says that the “esteemed leaders” in Jerusalem had no need to add anything to his message, but rather acknowledge in him an apostleship to the Gentiles. He says the only thing they asked of him was to remember the poor, which Paul says that he was already doing. We might speculate that those teachers in Galatia who were trying to influence that congregation were appealing to the customs of James and the Elders in Jerusalem. (And there is no doubt that the Jerusalem Church continued to be very “Jewish” in their culture and customs). However Paul stresses that when he went to Jerusalem his message was vindicated, and that when Peter came to Antioch, Paul’s authority was acknowledged – further that the common message carried precedence over all. 

Another story that is associated with this is the conference held by the Church in Acts 15. According to some this shows a supposed debate between James and Paul. In fact some superimpose these two accounts as being one event. However the council meeting in Acts 15 and the conflict at Antioch are clearly two separate occasions. Now it is possible that the event that prompted the council is being described in Galatians, however Paul’s confronting Peter and the council in Jerusalem are not the same event. We then do not have Paul going to Jerusalem to debate the Elders, but rather we have Paul being sent from Antioch as a delegate. Further the Acts account has Peter testifying on Paul’s behalf. So whatever may have prompted Peter to act as he did in Galatians, he has had a change of heart when he returns to Jerusalem. Further it is clear that all those present give credence to the prescription of James. Further the Jerusalem church sent delegates with the delegates from Antioch – this to show the solidarity of the decision. Much more could be said here, but the point here is established that there is no schism and rivalry being pictured in Acts and Galatians. And if the Petrine epistles are taken into account we have the vindication of Paul’s writing as coming from Divine wisdom. The conclusion being that there is nothing substantial that indicates a rift in what we have in the New Testament writing. In fact in all of Paul’s writing he places himself among the Apostles and appeals to their collegiate authority; declaring himself the “least among the Apostles.” If we are going then to find this supposed schism, then we will need to look elsewhere, we do not find it in Paul’s writings.

2.) The epistle of James is perceived to contradict the teachings of Paul.

The second tier of the supposed Schismatic theory is to show that the teachings of James and Paul are contradictory to one another. The major point of the supposed contention is the two passages:

Rom. 3:28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.

James 2:24 You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.

These two statements in fact do seem to be at odds with one another. However it should be noted that if this is the case, then Paul is also at odds with himself.

Rom 1:For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.

In fact when we look at what James wrote we see that James never denies justification by faith, but essentially asks “what kind of faith?” In fact both Paul and James use the same passage. Further James is not suggesting that keeping the Mosaic Law justifies a person, but rather that a person who claims faith but will not feed the hungry really has no faith at all. This is an important distinction. Paul himself claims that:

1 Timothy 1:8 And whoever does not provide for relatives, and especially for family members, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

So how far away really are James and Paul in how they define faith? This matter has been discussed for many years by many bright individuals, and we do not have the time to exhaust it here. The point is however, that we are not seeing in the teachings of James and Paul rival messages. Therefore we still have no evidence of their supposed schism.

3.) Some pseudo-literature of the late first to second century seems to place a rift between Paul and and the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem.

The parts of the claim that we address here are in fact where most of the propositions arrive at their conclusions. However it should be noted that most of these sources, the Clementine homilies for instance, reflect more the thought of the second and third centuries than they do the situation of the apostolic era Church. And of course by this time there are indeed many rival schools of thought. The practice of the day then was to take a venerated individual, such as Peter or Paul, and make them the voice of your interpretation of theology. It is however a mistake to presume that these pseudo-writing have any real substance as to rivalries among the individuals whose name they seek to borrow. We certainly can use them to see how some in the second and third century were attempting to interpret Christianity, we should not however rely on them to project a subplot into the primary sources we have in the New Testament.

There seems to be little substantial evidence to support any rift between Paul and the Church in Jerusalem. From all of the historical data that we have it seems rather that Paul, while an innovator and perhaps even a radical, worked in conjunction with the headquarters Church and was acknowledged by them as a confirmed leader and missionary to the Gentiles. Whatever changes may, or may not, have taken place in the Christian religion, they cannot be attributed to one individual. They should rather be viewed as a more organic process. What we do see in the New Testament is two different cultures and this dividing line was not just between Jews and Gentiles. It was between traditional Jews in Jerusalem and the Hellenized Jews, and eventually Gentiles, that existed in the Roman provinces. This division was not one caused by Paul, but one we see already developing in the Jerusalem Church. For instance we see a dispute among the “Hellenists” and the “Hebrews” because of the distribution of food in Acts 6. This was essentially a cultural division. We can almost perceive a relief among the Apostles in Jerusalem when they see that Paul is motivated to reach the Gentile world – a mission he was very much qualified for. What we see in the New Testament is growing pains as a small messianic group expands rapidly and becomes a world religion. These are tensions that James and Paul work to resolve from both sides of the spectrum. We see two different styles which come from preaching to two different cultures, rather than two competing Apostles. There was no James vs. Paul.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s