Most Christians are unaware that two followers of Jesus had sharply opposing views on theology. Many would be even more shocked to discover that, in fact, these two followers have written sections of the New Testament. And even more interesting is that these two often wrote with the purpose of disproving the other. These two followers I speak of are none other than James, the brother of Jesus, and paul of Tarsus.
From the beginning these two men, that is james and Paul, seemed to be complete opposites. Some differences to consider are as follows:
1. james followed Jesus from the beginning, whereas paul started off persecuting Christians and later became one.
2. james walked and talked with Jesus, whereas paul never did.
3. james was a relative of Jesus, and of course, paul was not.
4. james was a not a citizen of Rome and was, like many Jews, Persecuted by Rome, whereas paul was a citizen of Rome (Acts 22:23-29)
It will be attempted here to dissect the disagreement between these two men, to decipher what it was about, and let the reader draw their own conclusions about who was in the right. I will try to remain as neutral as possible.
PRE-CHRISTIAN paul AND HIS CONVERSION
Paul intensely persecuted Christians before his conversion. In Acts 7:61 (or 8:1 according to some translations) he presides over the stoning to death of Stephen, a Christian. According to Acts 8:3 he imprisoned churches and in Acts 9:1 it is said that he was “breathing out murderous threats” against the Disciples of Christ. He had a reputation for being thoroughly “evil and wicked” according to Acts 9:13.
Despite this, he is entranced with a vision of Jesus in Acts 9:7 and converts to Christianity. (It cannot go unmentioned that he gives another account of his conversion in Acts 22:9 which is contradictory in parts to the story given in Acts 9:7) The disciples of Jesus did not believe he was a christian at first, and according to the Life Application Study Bible translation of Acts 9:26
“When Saul (Paul) arrived in Jerusalem he tried to meet with the believers, but they were all afraid of him. They thought he was only pretending to be a believer!”
It is clear that the disciples of Jesus and other Christians felt that paul was an agent provocateur, and with good reason. He had, after all formerly been violently opposed to Christianity, but was suddenly a Christian, gave contradictory reports of his conversion story, and was a Roman citizen. (Rome, at this time was opposed to Christians, because the Christians and Jews at this time were opposed to the Roman occupation of Jerusalem.)
But another christian of some clout, named Barnabas, more or less vouches for paul in Acts 9:27 and all is well for a while. (It is important to note that paul and Barnabas later have a fight and, in the midst of some disagreement part ways in Acts 15:36-40) However, paul does avoid the Disciples of Christ by his own later admission in Galatians 1:17-18 for three years.
During this three-year period, paul is travelling everywhere setting up churches and amassing followers. He has complete flexibility to leave and enter Jerusalem at will because of his Roman citizenship, which the disciples of Jesus, who are opposed to Roman occupation do not have, and therefore are confined to Jerusalem. (This means that James, the brother of Jesus is stuck in Jerusalem, while paul is free to travel abroad at will and teach whatever he chooses without james or other disciples being clear on what it is he is actually teaching.)
JAMES THE JUST
James was the brother of Jesus (Matthew 13:55) and also a follower of Jesus. Early Church teachers such as Clementine and Esebius say that james was the step-brother of Jesus, because Joseph, the elderly husband of Mary had children from a previous marriage. james was a very important figure in early Christianity, and was probably the leader of the christian movement and head of the christian Church in Jerusalem. For example, when Peter, a disciple and fellow christian escapes from prison, he asks that james be notified in Acts 12:17. james is involved in decision making in Acts 15:13, and when paul returns to Jerusalem from a mission trip (which doubled as fund raising) it is to james that he speaks in Acts 21:18.
James was known as “the Just” because of his devotion to religion and his immense service to the poor. St. Jerome, quoting from Hegesippus’ account, describes james the just with the following words:
“After the apostles, james the brother of the Lord surnamed the just was made head of the Church at Jerusalem… This one was holy from his mother’s womb. He drank neither wine nor strong drink, ate no flesh, never shaved or anointed himself with ointment or bathed. He alone had the privilege of entering the Holy of Holies, since indeed he did not use woolen vestments but linen and went alone into the temple and prayed in behalf of the people, insomuch that his knees were reputed to have acquired the hardness of camels’ knees.”
James’ death is the source of much controversy and there are several conflicting accounts. According to one version documented by Josephus he was ordered stoned to death by the High Priest Ananus ben Ananus around 62. (Many Jewish High Priests were employed by Rome to persecute Christians in various ways, one example of this is paul before his conversion.)
According to another version by Eusebius, james was stoned out of the Jerusalem Temple by Pharisees, and then his skull was crushed by a much disputed individual with a club.
JAMES VS. paul -OPPOSING THEOLOGY
The origin of the dispute between james and paul involves theology. In Acts 15:1 some Christians come to teach that circumcision is necessary to “be saved.” Paul’s response is that circumcision is in fact not a necessary prerequisite to be a Christian. This causes an argument between paul and the Jewish Christians, according to Acts 15:2 it is a “sharp dispute.” Because of this, paul and Barnabas are designated (by who it is unclear) to go to Jerusalem and consult the Disciples of Jesus. As the Bible states, “some of the believers who were Jews” I.E. Jewish Christians, also known as Nazarenes, of which james the just was at the forefront of, “stood up and said, ‘The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.’” (Acts 15:5). It seems that the overwhelming opinion is in contrast to Paul, until Peter comes to Paul’s defense by saying the following:
“Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” (Acts 15:7-11)
It is clear that there is a disagreement among the Christians on this point, and it is understandable. Imagine that you hold the true religion, but what is required of this religion is that one first be circumcised… how could you possibly win uncircumcised men over to this religion? This would likely be a huge stumbling block to non-Jews who wanted to convert to Christianity.
But then what of the view of the Nazarene Christians, or Messianic Jews, who strongly disagree with Paul’s belief that circumcision is not necessary for salvation? Circumcision was, after all, a part of the law of Moses, and did Christ himself not say to his followers: “Do not think that I have come to destroy the law…” (Matthew 5:17)? How then can Christians say that a convert to Christianity can escape upholding the law of circumcision? It was an enigma, a serious problem that required wisdom to answer. Enter James.
James, in his calm wisdom, offers a solution. His words are recorded in Acts 15:13-21 in which he says:
“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” (Acts 15:19-21)
His answer is clear. The law is necessary for Christians to keep, but they should not overburden new converts. Therefore, let us, that is, the Christians, inform them of the easy parts of the law, and let the synagogues teach them the rest. After all, as james says, “For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” From there the new uncircumcised converts can move at their own pace. A wise answer from a wise man.
Since he is not abolishing the law of circumcision, it is clear he is in disagreement with paul on the matter. It is also clear that james is shocked at Paul’s lax view of the law, because James, along with other church elders orders paul to return to the churches he set up in Antioch and “correct” Paul’s teachings on the law. james sends a letter with Silas and Judas, and in the letter itself we see why Silas and Judas were to accompany paul and Barnabas. Silas and Judas were there to “confirm by word of mouth what we are writing.” (Acts 15:27) In other words, to make sure that paul actually delivers the decree of james and the Church elders. After Silas and Judas leave Antioch, paul stays there, preaching (Acts 15:30-35). This is understandable, because Antioch is Paul’s stronghold.
THE CONTROVERSY GETS WORSE
Later paul returns to Jerusalem. According to the Bible, james is happy that paul is winning new converts to Christianity, but yet warns him that he is in danger of being killed or handed over to Rome by Nazarene Christians who are upset that paul is still teaching against the law of Moses against James’ earlier direction in Acts 15:19-21. The message is clear, “You are teaching things that neither I nor the Jerusalem church has authorized you to teach. Your life is in danger, our brethren want to kill you.” Consider the words of the Church elders in Acts 21:20-25:
When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow. Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everybody will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law. As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.”
Notice the last sentence of the above quote of the elders to Paul. They are restating to paul the decision that james made in Acts 15:19-21 concerning circumcision. The implication here is that paul paid no attention to James’ decree, and because of this, the Jerusalem Christians are furious.
He says in Acts 21:12-13 “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” The implication here is that paul so firmly believes in his mission and message that he is a willing martyr. However when he is arrested, he changes tone, confesses that he is a Roman citizen and no further harm comes to him. (Acts 22:23-29) Not only that, but the suggestion of the Church elders (And James) that paul live “in obedience to the law” in Acts 21:24, is agreed to. So Paul, who was ready to die in Acts 21:12-13 to defend his belief that Christs’ blood nullifies the law, actually agrees to live in submission to the law. And as an outward sign of repentance, goes through the Jewish act of repentance which include shaving his head, (which he does in Acts 21:26) and making a sin offering of repentance (which he also does.)
In other words, paul agrees that he was teaching things that james and other Jerusalem Christians did not authorize him to teach, things which james and other Christians found not to be in accordance with the teachings of Christ.
While paul is in the temple in Acts 21:27-31 making his repentance for his anti-Mosaic law teachings, the Jewish Christians see him and are unable to control their rage (as they see him as a blasphemer against Jesus.) The Romans see the uproar and arrest paul (actually they save him whether knowingly or unknowingly) according to Acts 21:31-32. The intention appears to be to question him. paul requests that the soldiers escort him to the crowd so that he can explain to them his conversion story, which he does in Acts 22:1-21. Now this is important. If the angry mob were simply Jews angry at his teachings of the law there would be no reason for paul to reiterate the story of his conversion from Judaism to Christianity. After all, would he really think this would appease the raging crowd if they were entirely Jews? He had to know it would enrage them further. Therefore, it is doubtful that the mob was Jewish as Acts 21:27 states. It is more likely that they were Jewish Christians, and the reason for paul recounting his conversion for them was to placate their rage and ensure them that he was their brother, and not a blasphemer of Christ.
However, his conversion story does not please the crowd, and the Romans take him to the barracks. There he is questioned, but refuses to answer any questions, and is flogged (Acts 22:24). –However paul is able to conveniently escape further persecution by informing them he is a Roman citizen. (Under Roman law, a Roman citizen couldn’t be flogged.) Thus he is released. After a number of imprisonments, plots to kill him, and trials, paul is finally sent to the Roman governor Agrippa, and ordered to be released, and upon release paul sails to the churches he established outside of Jerusalem.
PAUL’S PROBLEMS AT HOME
Paul returns home to a less than warm welcome. Due to all the problems, his followers begin to question his discipleship and become apostates. paul addresses these apostates directly in Galatians 1:6. Therefore paul writes the book of Galatians in the hopes of keeping followers and winning back his lost sheep. He says that the apostates of his version of Christianity have followed a “different gospel” (in other words, the gospel that does not invalidate the Mosaic law, the version of Christianity to which james and Peter ascribed.) He calls these teachings (the teachings of James) “no gospel at all” in Galatians 1:7 and accuses james and the Jerusalem Christians of “perverting the gospel of Christ.”
In order to give assurance to his followers, he assures them that his message is more truthful than one an angel could produce (Galatians 1:8). He says that anyone who preaches a message other than his should be eternally condemned (Galatians 1:9) and says any other gospel is “made up.” (Galatians 1:11)
He refers to the Jerusalem christian leaders (this would include james and Peter) as those who “seem to be leaders…” (Galatians 2:2) He begins making arguments against James’ verdict on the circumcision controversy, saying that their arguments were so weak that the uncircumcised felt no need to circumcise themselves, citing his servant Timothy as an example (Galatians 2:3). He refers to the Christians in Jerusalem as “False brothers” and “infiltrators” who “spy” on them because of “the freedom” they have “in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 2:4). This is an obvious allusion to the fact that James, who has no Roman citizenship is confined to Jerusalem unlike Paul. paul claims to his followers that he “did not give in to them for a moment.” (Galatians 2:5) which is not true, because he did give in to them by going through the forced repentance that they demanded in Acts 21:26.
He calls out James, Peter, and John by name, and says that they are “those who seemed to be important” and that they “added nothing to” his “message.” (Galatians 2:6) He also says they are “reputed to be pillars.” (Galatians 2:9). He also says that all they asked of the Gentiles (non Jewish Christians) was that they “continue to remember the poor” (Galatians 2:10) which is not true, because james demanded that the Gentile Christians start keeping the law (recall Acts 15:13-21).
Paul goes on to say that when Peter came for a visit, paul “withstood him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong.” (Galatians 2:11) Paul’s complaint is that Peter catered to james and adhered to his version of Christianity (Galatians 2:12). He says that those who followed james and Peter’s example were “led astray” citing his former disciple Barnabas as an example in Galatians 2:13. (Recall that Barnabas was the one who vouched for paul when all of the other disciples considered him a secret agent for the Pharisees and/or Romans –Acts 9:27. The argument between Barnabas and paul is expounded upon in Acts 15:36-40, because Barnabas was a friend of John, who was a follower of James).
Oddly enough, paul seemingly feels the need to defend his view that Christ was crucified (Galatians 3:1). This would make it seem as though james and the other disciples held the belief of other early Christians, such as the Basilidians and the Carpocrations. The belief that Christ escaped the crucifixion and ascended to heaven whilst another was crucified in his place, thus being a divine miracle that fooled the Jews into thinking that Christ was dead. paul also is emphasizing his view that faith is more important that works in Galatians 3:6-9 (Which james later rebuts.)
Paul condemns observance of the Mosaic law (3:2) and says those who follow it are cursed (3:10). He criticizes his followers who, under the direction of James, uphold the law (4:9-11) and says he “wasted his efforts” on them. Referring to James, Peter and John he warns his congregation: “These people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may be zealous for them.” (Galatians 4:17). He then harshly condemns the circumcised (5:2-3) and says followers of the law are “alienated from Christ.” (5:4). He seems to threaten the one teaching this (James) in Galatians 5:10 and again, referring to James, John and Peter he says, “As for those agitators…I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” (Galatians 5:12). He also accuses them of preaching the Mosaic law to “make a good impression outwardly” and to “avoid persecution” by the Romans. (Galatians 6:12)
JAMES RESPONDS TO PAULS LETTER TO THE GALATIANS
Recall that james cannot leave Jerusalem, because, as a non-citizen of Rome he cannot travel freely throughout the empire. Therefore he is left with a problem… how to respond to Paul’s claims against him, and Paul’s theology which he views as incorrect. In fact james does all that he can do. He writes a letter. It is now known as the book of James, and it is a direct response to Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Consider the following points.
While james never mentions the name of paul in his letter, it is clear he is referring to paul because there are so many counter-points to the book of Galatians. (It must be noted that paul did mention the name of james in Galatians 2:6) Consider what paul wrote in Galatians 3:6-9:
Consider Abraham: “He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
Here paul was emphasizing his belief that Faith is more important than works, and he cites the example of Abraham believing in God and it thus is credited to him as righteousness. Now consider James’ rebuttal found in james 2:20-24:
You foolish man! Do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.
It is also clear that james is addressing a specific individual, because in james 2:20 he addresses a “foolish man.” One can assume with much confidence that this “foolish man” is none other than Paul. james further criticizes Paul’s concept of faith over works in james 2:18-19:
“But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.”
The cynical tone cannot go unnoticed. It is a direct condemnation of Paul’s philosophy.
James further rebuts Paul’s letter to Galatians. Consider what paul wrote in Galatians 5:14
The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
And consider James’ rebuttal found in james 2:8-10:
If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.
It seems here that james sees Paul’s quoting of “love your neighbor as yourself” as hypocritical considering his favoritism to the Gentiles and his speaking harshly against the Disciples of Christ in Galatians 2:6.
In james 3:1 james issues an indirect warning to Paul, saying “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” He goes on to condemn boasting in james 3:5, saying “Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.” This is probably in reference to Paul’s boasting in Galatians 2:6 that he “withstood” Peter “to his face.” It could also be a condemnation of Paul’s boasting in general, because paul freely admits his boasting in 1 Corinthians 15:9-10, 2 Corinthians 11:5, 2 Corinthians 11:16-12:1 (He admits in 21:1 that he is boasting for no reason) 2 Corinthians 2:11, and Galatians 1:15.
Paul is considered by james to be “corrupt and evil” in james 3:6 because of his “tongue” of “fire.” paul is further criticized for criticizing his christian brethren in james 3:9-10, which is in response to what paul wrote in Galatians 1:9. Consider Paul’s statement:
As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally cursed!
And consider James’ response:
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.
From here, the letter of james takes a different tone, one of preaching, perhaps to Paul, in the hopes that maybe paul would see the error of his ways. It is somewhat of a call for reform and of course, pointing out the negative behavior james sees in paul that must be corrected. For example, james criticizes those who harbor bitter envy and selfish ambitions and who boast about it in james 3:17, which is an obvious attempt to preach to Paul. james 3:17 also condemns fighting and quarreling and james 3:16-17 discourages disorder, while encouraging peace, being submissive, mercy, impartiality, and sincerity. james quotes proverbs 3:34 in james 4:1 to prove from the Old Testament that Paul’s boasting and pride is unacceptable.
James reiterates practicing the Mosaic law in james 4:8 by saying “Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” The washing of ones hands is of course a known part of Jewish ritualistic law to this very day.
Perhaps the most outward condemnation of Paul’s theology is found in james 4:11 which states:
Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it.
First it must be noticed that speaking against ones christian brethren is a focal point. But yet so is the fact that it violates Mosaic Law. james therefore did not consider the law invalid, as paul did, but in fact warns paul against disobeying it. He further criticizes paul for judging the Mosaic law as paul did on several occasions, such as in Galatians 3:2, 3:10, Galatians 4:9-11, and Galatians 5:2-4.
The closing chapter of James’ letter is one that speaks of being compassionate and lenient towards christian brethren, and can be seen as a further attempt to preach to Paul. For example, james writes in chapter 5 verse 9, “Do not grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged.” He sums up his letter by revealing his intentions to help paul via preaching in james 5:20 saying, “Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.”
Who was right and who was wrong shall be left up to the reader to decide. However, one cannot ignore the fact that a large portion of the New Testament is written by Paul. Almost all of the Epistles bear his name, and Paul’s theology has won over Christendom. Martin Luther, when referring to the book of james called it “an epistle of straw” for no other reason than it contradicted Paul’s teachings on the Mosaic Law. Christians have defended paul for centuries, considering his views and the views of Christ one and the same. This author is simply trying to show that the first centuries of Christianity are so conflicting, with various beliefs of various sects that it is not sufficient to say “so and so said it so this is the truth.”
The reason such an argument is not sufficient is because, as seen above, even the Disciples of Christ did not operate in this manner. If they felt someone was wrong or incorrect, they said so, even if it were someone who was founding Churches and bringing people to Christ. It is clear that james and other Disciples, including hoards of Jewish Christians in Jerusalem felt paul was a blasphemer of Christ, and indeed some of them even sought to kill him due to their rage at what they considered his ‘innovations’ and, what they considered ‘false teachings.’ These teachings seem to include the idea of Christ’s ‘dying for the sins of mankind, propagated by paul and not James, the idea that Christ’s blood nullifies the law, again propagated by paul and not James, and it is even possible that they did not believe Christ was actually crucified, which paul did, and felt the need to defend to james in Galatians 3:1.
No doubt some Muslims may hail this as a victory for Islamic theology, and to them I would challenge them to read the book of james and try to find a single verse that contradicts the teachings of Islam. I tried and did not find a single one. I have deduced that james the just was a true disciple of Christ and a Muslim in everything but name. I would go so far as to say radiallahu ahnhu after the mention of his name, because I feel (Again, my opinion only) that he is just as much a Sahaba to Isa (Jesus, alehisalaam) as Abu Bakr (raa) was to our Prophet Muhammad (saas). But it is not my intention to prove that by writing this. My intention was simply to present the facts of what happened as non-biased as possible and, as stated twice already, let the reader draw their own conclusions, be they Muslim, Christian, or even Jew.
One final thought for Muslims is that as Muslims I feel we should be disheartened. Disheartened that we don’t see more letters of james in the Bible, and saddened that the book of james is given such little worth by many Christians, as seen by the statements of Martin Luther (and others.) This, however, is not a surprise considering the circumstances of the life of James. Paul, after all, had the freedom to travel the world and preach his message because of his Roman citizenship. james did not have this freedom. Furthermore, james was martyred as early as 62 A.D. –Just 20 or so years after the ascension of Jesus (saas). I cannot speak for all Muslims, but I will make Dua for james the Just, that Allah (swt) accept his deeds and reward him as martyr.