One of the best works, in my opinion, is Pierre-Antoine Bernheim’s James, Brother of Jesus (London, 1997). Bernheim’s book has an excellent analysis of the relationship between Paul and James, the brother of Jesus.
Forget the nonsensical ramblings of the Da Vinci Code: the really fascinating story about early Christianity was how the early Christians and disciples of Jesus were led by James, Jesus’s biological brother, and how James and the original Jewish church had a fundamental clash with Paul of Tarsus (or the apostle Paul), who changed and revolutionised Christianity by opening it up to Greeks and Romans.
In Acts, we are told that early in the history of the Christian community, when the gospel had been preached to non-Jewish people (Gentiles), certain Jewish Christians came from Judaea to Antioch in Syria and told the Gentile Christians that they could not be saved unless they were circumcised and converted to Judaism (Acts 15.1–2).
Christianity started as a Messianic sectarian group within Judaism, and it is no surprise that some Jewish Christians will have demanded that Greeks or non-Jews believing in Jesus should be converted to Judaism to be “proper” Christians. The earliest Jewish Christians were strong adherents of the Mosaic law (or Torah) as Jesus himself presumably was.
Certain diaspora Jewish Christian preachers like Paul may well have believed (as Paul did) that Gentiles could be saved without converting to Judaism. Many have seen Paul as a “second founder” of Christianity, who opened the religion to non-Jewish Greeks and Romans and who radically changed Christianity in the process. I think there is a great deal of evidence for this, and it consists in the quite hostile relations that Paul had with the original Jewish disciples of Jesus, who appear to have opposed Paul on a number of occasions, and, above all, his gospel of salvation by faith alone and the abolition of the Torah.
There was a fundamental split in earliest Christianity between
(1) Paul’s version of Christianity, andAfter the dispute at Antioch arose, the earliest Christian community had a meeting of its leaders at Jerusalem, presided over by James, Jesus’s brother. This result of this conference was the famous “Apostolic decree,” in which James accepted that in theory Gentiles could attain salvation by not fully converting to Judaism, but by following the core principles of the Torah: abstaining from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, the meat of strangled animals and sexual immorality (Acts 15:18-21). These prohibitions were similar to the so-called Noachic commandments (that is, the commandments supposedly given to Noah; Bernheim 1997: 171). Acts makes it clear that these instructions were required if Gentiles wished to be saved (Bernheim 1997: 171).
(2) the original Jewish Christian form accepted by the Jewish disciples of Jesus (whom Paul calls the “Pillars” of the church) and their community in Judaea, led by Jesus’s biological brother James.
An alternative account of this meeting is given by Paul in Galatians 2:1–10, but it appears that Paul may well have suppressed details of what actually happened, in that he never refers to the Noachic commandments. Most recently, William O. Walker has argued that Paul may not have even been granted the status of apostle by the Jerusalem Church at this meeting (see Walker 2004).
But many conservative Christian scholars and theologians have badly misunderstood the purpose and consequences of the Apostolic decree. I briefly outline its purpose, on the basis of the excellent discussion in Pierre-Antoine Bernheim’s James, Brother of Jesus (London, 1997).
The Apostolic decree was not promulgated to allow Jewish Christians to eat with Gentile Christians. The purpose of the Apostolic decree was to declare that Gentiles could be saved without conversion to Judaism, and to set out the minimum requirements that they would have to fulfil (derived from the Noachic commandments) to be saved. The decree did not stop them from converting if they wished, nor did it in any way lessen the obligations of the Mosaic law on Jewish Christians.
Bernheim (1997: 169) speculates that James, John and Peter – the leaders of Jewish Christianity – thought that non-circumcision of Gentiles was tolerable, but that their conversion was actually preferable.
After the council at Jerusalem, there was the incident at Antioch (Gal. 2:11–14). Here Jewish Christians were taking meals with Gentile Christians. Peter had been present at Antioch and had apparently been dining with Gentile Christians. But Peter and the other Jewish Christians stopped table fellowship with Gentile Christians when representatives of James arrived. These representatives criticised the fact that Jewish Christians had been eating with former pagan Gentile Christians (Bernheim 1997: 177). James did not think that pagans who had accepted Yahweh and Jesus as Messiah could be full members of Israel, the chosen people of God, and that Jewish Christians should maintain a ritual separation from Gentile Christians (Bernheim 1997: 180).
Thus, when Paul accused Peter of compelling Gentiles “to Judaise” (Gal. 2:14), this meant that Peter was compelling them to convert to Judaism, if they wished to eat with Jewish Christians (Bernheim 1997: 180–181). In the view of James, the missions to the Gentiles and Jewish people were to be kept separate and, while Gentiles who believed in Jesus would be saved, they would have to be circumcised and converted to the Mosaic law in order to be considered full members of the people of Israel and eat with them (Bernheim 1997: 181).
At Antioch, James and Jewish Christian leaders at Jerusalem won out, and Paul was defeated. Paul then left to carry out his missionary activities in areas well away from Syria, such as Galatia, Asia Minor and Greece.
Later Jewish Christian emissaries from Jerusalem, no doubt with the approval of James, were sent out to some of the communities where Paul had made converts. They opposed Paul’s gospel of freedom from the Mosaic law in a number of ways. The Jewish Christian opponents of Paul in Galatia appear to have demanded circumcision of the Gentile Galatians, but they did think that Gentiles would not be saved without circumcision? Bernheim (1997: 184–185) argues that their position was probably that the Gentiles could in theory be saved without circumcision (as was the position of the Pillars), but in practice it was preferable to be converted to Judaism, and to become a full member of Israel, the people of God.
At 2 Corinthians 11:4, Paul refers to his opponents, who were most probably Jewish Christian missionaries, with the backing of the Jerusalem church, proclaiming “another Jesus” and “another gospel” (much like the Torah observant “another gospel” in Gal. 1:6). The reference to “another Jesus” strongly suggests that the Jerusalem church had Christological differences with Paul as well, most probably rejecting his notion of Jesus’s pre-existence and incarnation.
Hence there was an irreconcilable difference between Paul’s gospel and that of the Jewish Christian disciples of Jesus: Paul came to believe that Jesus’s death on the cross had abolished the Mosaic law, while James and the Jewish disciples of Jesus held that the Mosaic law was completely valid, and could not be violated or abrogated.
When Paul made his final journey to Jerusalem with a collection of money for the community in Judaea, Bernheim (1997: 190) contends that James and the elders rejected Paul’s collection, or at least not before he had taken part in a Nazirite vow.
Bernheim raises the possibility that James was involved, directly or indirectly, with Paul’s arrest in the temple. James and the Pillars were opposed to Paul and (in their view) his dangerous and heretical gospel of abolishing the Mosaic law and justification by faith alone.
Bernheim, Pierre-Antoine. 1997. James, Brother of Jesus, SCM, London.
Chilton, B. and C. A. Evans. (eds.). 1999. James the Just and Christian Origins, Brill, Leiden.
Eisenman, Robert H. 1997. James, The Brother of Jesus: The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls, Penguin Books, London.
Painter, John. 1997. Just James: the Brother of Jesus in History and Tradition, Fortress Press, Minneapolis.
Painter, John. 2004. Just James: The Brother of Jesus in History and Tradition (2nd edn.), University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, S.C.
Walker, William O. 2004. “Galatians 2:8 and the Question of Paul’s Apostleship,” Journal of Biblical Literature 123.2: 323–327.