Were Paul and James Enemies?

PaulIt has been common from time to time to suggest a strong conflict between James and Paul in the early church. This was especially true during the time of Adolf von Harnack, who relying Hegelian philosophy, saw Judaism as the thesis (represented by James) and Hellenism as the antithesis (represented by Paul), resulting in a synthesis.

Even without borrowing from Hegel, there are some hints of conflict. It is true that James and Paul were both important figures. James was the half-brother of Jesus and was the head of the Jerusalem church. Paul was a powerful church planter and theologian who left his stamp on the Gentile church, which would ultimately become the majority of the church.

Paul did have conflict with some Jewish Christians. Despite what the Jerusalem council concluded, there were still some Jewish Christians who insisted that Gentiles convert to Judaism before becoming followers of Jesus.

It is also true that James and Paul had different emphases. Paul’s purpose was to bring as many Gentiles into the church as possible. James’ goal was to hold together both the growing Gentile element and the traditional Jewish core. A modern example would be the goals of a denominational leader and a missionary in another country. They would pursue their roles differently, even though they both wanted people to become followers of Jesus.

Some point to how Paul uses the example of Abraham in Galatians/Romans to demonstrate faith without works while James uses the same passage to demonstrate faith with works. Is this James attempting to contradict Paul? When we look closer, we see that Paul and James are talking about two different things. Paul is speaking about salvation, while James is talking about the nature of the Christian life.

What would it look like if Paul and James met? We don’t have to guess. Paul describes such a meeting.

Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and get information from him, and I stayed with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. I assure you that, before God, I am not lying about what I am writing to you! Afterward I went to the regions of Syria and Cilicia. But I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They were only hearing, “The one who once persecuted us is now proclaiming the good news of the faith he once tried to destroy.” So they glorified God because of me. (Galatians 1:18-24)

Did Paul and James always see eye-to-eye? Probably not. They were human after all. But to see them as enemies or as proclaiming contradictory and conflicting forms of Christianity is an overstatement.

Liked it? Take a second to support Stephen Bedard on Patreon!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *