One common take on Christian origins pits James the brother of Jesus against the Apostle Paul. We find this view in Reza Aslan’s bestselling Zealot, which has led to my fielding a couple of questions from friends. According to this view James led the very Jewish Jesus movement in Jerusalem, while Paul developed a radically divergent form of Jesus devotion among Gentiles that spread all over the Mediterranean. Paul’s Gentile Christianity came to so outnumber law-observant Jewish devotion to Jesus that James’ point of view has almost disappeared from history. But while James and Paul were living, James strongly resisted Paul’s law-free version of the gospel. As Aslan puts it, James “excoriated the heretic Paul for abandoning the Torah” (p. 197). This view goes back at least to Ferdinand Christian Baur in the early nineteenth century.
Is the James versus Paul theory historically accurate? Well, it’s complicated.
There’s no doubt that James emerged as the Jerusalem church’s leader. Although many people assume that Peter was more prominent, a close reading of Acts demonstrates James’ authority. Roughly speaking, Peter is the most prominent figure in the first half of Acts, while Paul dominates the second. But read more closely, and you notice that James has the last word when a major decision is being reached (Acts 15:13-21) and that Paul makes a special point to meet with James (21:18). At one point even Peter acknowledges James’ authority: miraculously delivered from prison, Peter says, “Report these things to James and the brothers” (Acts 12:17). Paul’s own letters also point to James’ leadership (1 Corinthians 15:7; Galatians 1:19; 2:9, 12).
There’s also no doubt that James and Paul had issues to resolve. James led the Jewish community of Jesus followers in Jerusalem, who understood following Jesus as a very Jewish thing and who continued to observe the Torah. Paul, on the other hand, exercised his leadership among Gentiles, and he never required them to convert to Judaism by observing the Torah. Both Acts 15 and Galatians 2 reflect that James and Paul had to sort these issues out. It would be no surprise if the actual conversation was more difficult, perhaps adversarial, than Acts and Paul suggest. Indeed, Paul’s visit to James in Acts 21 suggests that many in Jerusalem remained unconvinced that Paul was living up to their agreement (21:17-26). Beyond Galatians, Paul’s letters, particularly Romans and Philippians, reflect ongoing tension regarding the circumcision of Gentile converts.
But how great was the tension, and did Paul essentially develop a new, “heretical” form of Christianity? Here matters grow more complicated.
Some interpreters, including Aslan, regard the epistle of James to be a sharp critique of Pauline theology. Where Paul says believers are justified by faith rather than by works of the law, the epistle of James replies that “faith, apart from works, is dead” (2:17). Where Paul uses Abraham as an example of justification by faith (Romans 4:1-16; Galatians 3:6-9), the epistle of James counters that Abraham’s faith was demonstrated in his works (2:21-24). It surely looks like James is responding to Paul’s argument.
But it’s complicated. Perhaps the letter of James reflects not James’ own critique of Paul’s gospel but a later rejection of a gospel that Paul did not actually preach. I’m guessing that this claim needs a little unpacking; it involves the historical assessment of whether some letters in the New Testament were actually written by James and Paul.
First, we’re not sure whether James – that James, the brother of Jesus – actually wrote the epistle that bears his name. The letter of James uses some pretty spiffy Greek rhetoric, and it seems as much at home in the world of Greco-Roman moral philosophy as it does in Jewish wisdom.
Second, the letter of James is attacking an argument that the historical Paul probably did not make. James attacks the idea that one can be justified by faith apart from “works.” But what kind of works? Paul maintained that justification did not come from works of the law; that is, by observing the Torah. His concern involved Gentiles who might think they needed to convert to Judaism in order to follow Jesus. Paul never tells people to avoid good “works” in general, like looking after the poor and the vulnerable.
Instead, most scholars find that argument in a letter Paul did not write, the letter to the Ephesians. Space won’t allow a full discussion of Ephesians’ authorship, but Ephesians maintains that believers are saved by grace through faith and not by “works” (2:8-10). In other words, Paul contrasts faith to “works of the law” as an entrance requirement for Gentiles. A later follower of Paul contrasts faith to good “works” in general.
The epistle of James, written by someone other than James, was written to counter the kind of teaching we find in Ephesians, which was written by someone other than Paul.
Ephesians and the Epistle of James share an odd feature: it’s not clear that either document was addressed to a particular audience or situation. Our best manuscripts of Ephesians do not include the phrase “in Ephesus” in the greeting (consult any modern translation of Ephesians 1:1), and James addresses itself to the “twelve tribes in the diaspora” (1:1) an audience no messenger could hope to locate. It seems that both Ephesians and James reflect someone’s attempt to communicate the legacies of their heroes, Paul and James, for a later day.
How things really stood between Paul and James, we cannot know. But we can say with confidence that Paul did not “invent” Christian adoration of Jesus, as some claim. How do we know this? Paul’s ministry began only a couple of years after Jesus’ death. Paul based his ministry from several churches located in prominent cities. The first was in Damascus, a city in southern Syria: the church there existed prior to Paul’s arrival. We later learn that Paul worked from Antioch, a city in Northern Syria: the church in Antioch included Gentiles before Paul’s arrival (Acts 11:20-22). Later, Paul moves from Ephesus, the greatest city in what we would now call Turkey: again, it seems the church there had been established by others (Acts 18:21-19:10). Finally, Paul seeks to use Rome as a center for his work (Romans 15:28): but Paul has never visited Rome, where the church already includes both Jews and Gentiles. In short, Paul did not invent Christianity – or even Gentile Christianity. Instead, he played an important role in a movement that was radically decentralized.
We don’t know for sure whether James and Paul were adversaries or whether they worked together to solve problems of mutual concern. We do know that Paul invented neither “Christianity” nor the mission to Gentiles.