Saturday, June 2, 2012

James the Brother of Jesus, the Apostle Paul and the Apostolic Council

There has been a considerable amount of work on James, the brother of Jesus, in recent years, with important studies by Eisenman (1997), Bernheim (1997), Chilton and Evans (1999), and Painter (1997, with an expanded edition in 2004).

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, and
(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.
After 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).

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.


  1. One interesting element of this story was that Paul was nearly defeated, but won the long term religious legitimacy.

    1. That is certainly true.

      But I suspect one reason was that the Jewish Christianity was severely weakened by the war of the 60s AD when the Roman army defeated the general rebellion in Judaea and destroyed the temple and sacked Jerusalem. This was a catastrophe.

  2. The part about Judaising is still unclear to me. Isn't being a member of the tribe of Israel generally an inherited and not an acquired privilege?

    The Old Testament hints that the God they believe in punishes entire bloodlines, and has people pay for the sins of their ancestors. Even if a gentile were to adopt the practices of God's chosen people, he'd still be less favoured for what his parents or grandparents or great grandparents did. Right?

    1. Of course, most people were born into it, but Gentiles could convert to Judaism and become members of Israel. Gentiles who abandoned paganism and accepted Jewish monotheism were called proselytes, and were often attached to synagogues. This is probably were the first Gentile Christians came from: converted proselytes.

      The point is that the first Christians were a Jewish Messianic sect: it is not surprising that they thought that it was preferable for Gentile Christians to be converted to Judaism.

      I don't think notions of the "sins of their ancestors" really applies here.

  3. If you ever had the time, interest, or inclination, I was eagerly hoping to ask your opinion on the very long list of Jewish Messiah claimants.

    Outside of Jesus and Sabbatai Zevi, whom do you think was the most interesting Messiah figure of his time and what made certain Messiahs more successful than others?

    I mean, there have been dozens upon dozens of such people, but Sabbatai Zevi and Jesus had more success than others. I really wonder what was the magic spark that distinguished some from others.

    1. There is an interesting list here:

      Jesus and Sabbatai Zevi still stand out as the most interesting, to my mind, although Simon bar Kokhba, who led a revolt against the Roman emperor Hadrian, has some historical interest too.

      As to what made some successful and others not, that seems like a very difficult question.

      In the case of Jesus, I think it was just a set of extraordinary but contingent historical events:

      (1) role of St Paul in opening the religion up
      (2) severe blow to the original Jewish Christian community in the 60s AD
      (3) the historical accident that Constantine favoured Christianity
      (4) that quite obvious fact that Christianity was imposed on the Roman empire by force, violence and government coercion by later Roman emperors like Theodosius.

      Really, one has to say that factors (3) and (4) were really the decisive ones.

      If, for example, Constantine had adopted Isis worship or the cult of Mithras, the history of Western civilization would have been quite different.

      An alternative historical scenario that has always given me food for thought is this: what if Constantine had adopted a materialistic, scientific philosophy like Epicureanism, instead of religion, and imposed that on the Roman empire?

      Europe might have had its great scientific revolution in the Middle Ages, and human civilization would have been far more advanced now than it in fact is.

  4. Lord Keynes, could you evaluate the thesis expressed by this apologist in the first few minutes of this video?

    1. This apologist's arguments are not convincing at all.

      Some points:

      (1) The resurrection of Jesus is not by any means grounded in "historical fact".

      First, the bodily resurrection of Jesus in Luke and John is clearly an embellishment on earlier traditions: the earliest account of what Christians believed about Jesus' resurrection is in 1 Corinthians 15: Jesus was resurrected with a "soma pneumatikos" (penumatic body) - not a body of flesh and blood.

      (2) Most probably, the earliest Christians thought Jesus was resurrected straight from the grave to heaven in a "soma pneumatikos", and all subsequent "appearances" were just visions, dreams, ecstatic experiences.

      In the superstitious and ignorant world of the 1st century AD, people really thought that dreams and delusional hallucinations caused by mental illness
      were "visions" from divine beings. So, say, when Peter or some other disciple had a vivid hallucination or dream in which Jesus appeared to them to be alive, this will have been a real and convincing "proof" for superstitious minds in that time - but we know better. Dreams have a scientific explanation. So do hallucinations.

      (3) Also, St Paul's interpretation of Jesus's death as being under a curse (which the apologist mentions from 6.53) because he was crucified was arguably only one view in the Judaism of the first century AD, possibly a minority view (O’Brien 2006), and in the form in which we have it in the New Testament in Galatians 3:13 is a particular exegesis of Paul himself, probably based on that minority view, to defend his gospel of the abolition of the Mosaic law.

      Many patriotic Jewish people in Jesus’s time may not have thought that Jesus was the Messiah, but also thought that he had died unjustly, killed by the hated Romans.

      Despite what this apologist says, Jesus's crucifixion would not have revolted everyone in the Jewish society of that era: his death this way will have convinced many that he wasn't the Messiah, but they may well have still have felt pity for him.

      See K. S. O’Brien 2006. “The Curse of the Law (Galatians 3.13): Crucifixion, Persecution, and Deuteronomy 21.22-23,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 29: 55-76.