Dr IAN ELMER…
Dr Elmer introduces his commentary today with these words: "Much talk in the Church during recent decades has centred on the rise of Catholic fundamentalism or neo-conservatism. The heady days of Vatican II seemed to have slowed as conservative forces within the Church have sought to slow change and progress. Once again, events surrounding Paul's early commerce with the Jerusalem apostles remind us of these events and provide insight into the social dynamics at work in times of change. In particular, we explore this week the rise of the conservative James in the wake of the Hellenists' mission in Antioch."
The successor to Peter…
Galatians implies that between Paul's first visit to Cephas in Jerusalem and his second visit to attend the Council, James displaced Peter as head of the community in Jerusalem. Both Paul and Luke bear testimony to this transition.
We saw in an earlier commentary that Acts (1-5) clearly presents Peter and the Twelve as the initial leadership of the Jerusalem church. The priority of Peter is confirmed by Paul in Galatians (1:18), which suggests that when Paul first travelled to Jerusalem three years after his conversion Peter was still recognised as the leading authority at Jerusalem. By the time of his second visit for the Jerusalem Council the situation seems more certain.
In Paul's account of this conference there is no mention of the apostolic circle. Paul and Barnabas meet with a group Paul calls the "Pillars" — James, Cephas, and John (Gal 2:9). It is probably significant that here that James is named first. This may indicate that by the time of the Council James was considered the pre-eminent leader of the Jerusalem church (Lüdemann, 1989: 41; Schmithals, 1965: 81-83).
Similarly, in the Lukan account of the Council both James and Peter contribute to the proceedings, but it is James who resolves the impasse and suggests the content of the decree sent forth to the Antiochene church (Acts 15:13-29).
It is not entirely clear when this transition of power from Peter to James occurred. However, Luke does offer a possible explanation in Acts (12:1-19).
In this pericope Luke relates that during the reign of Herod Agrippa I (37-44 C.E.) a persecution of the Jerusalem church was initiated by the king in which James, the brother of John, was martyred and Peter was arrested and imprisoned. After a miraculous breakout (12:7-11) Peter, pausing only to send word of his escape to "James and the brothers", fled Jerusalem to an undesignated locale (12:17).
This account makes it clear that the James referred to is the same James, the brother of the Lord, who figures in Galatians (1:19; 2:9, 12) and later in Acts (15:13-21; 21:18). This is confirmed by the elimination of the only other conspicuous James, the brother of John, via the latter's execution.
We might assume that the term "brothers" refers to the constituents of the Jerusalem church as a whole. However, the close association of these brothers with James raises the possibility that Luke is referring to Jesus' brothers as a group (cf. Acts 21:17; Jn 2:12; 7:3, 5, 10). James, by virtue of being the eldest (Mk 6:3) and a recipient of a post-resurrection christophany (1 Cor 15:7), was clearly the principal figure in the circle of Jesus' brothers (Painter, 1997: 43).
If Luke is here drawing on reliable information then it seems that the family of Jesus, led by James, assumed the administration of the church in the wake of Peter's departure. Further, the evidence of both Acts and Galatians suggests that James maintained his authoritative role even when Peter returned, which probably occurred at some stage after the death of Herod (44 C.E.) as related in Acts (12:19b-23) (Lüdemann, 1989: 44-52).
The execution of James…
R. R. Hann (1987) has suggested that James' rise to power was probably engineered with the support of the priestly (Acts 6:7) and Pharisaic (Acts 15:5) members of the Jerusalem community. Hann's view is supported by the accounts of the martyrdom of James (c. 62 C.E.). There are a number of problems associated with some of the records of James' death (e.g. Eusebius, H.E. 2:23), which are late, idealised, and in part historically incredible (Painter, 1997: 118-142).
A more objective account, however, is provided by Josephus (Ant. 20:197-203). According to Josephus' information, which is common to all other reports of the incident, James was tried and stoned at the sole instigation of the High Priest Ananus the Younger, whom Josephus (Ant. 20:199) describes as "rash and daring" and a sympathiser with the Sadducees. Accordingly, Ananus' execution of James was opposed by many of those citizens of Jerusalem who were "faithful to the Law and highly respected" (Ant. 20:201) — a description which many scholars believe best fits the Pharisees, the traditional political opponents of the High Priestly family and its Sadducean supporters (Painter, 1997:138-141; Lüdemann, 1989: 44).
Connections between the Pharisees and the earliest Jerusalem church have been noted. Acts 15:5 suggests that from its earliest years the Jerusalem church proved attractive to many Pharisees. By the time of the Jerusalem Council their numbers had increased to the point where they constituted a distinct sub-grouping within the fledgling Jesus movement at Jerusalem.
In Acts (15:5), it is the Pharisaic membership of the Jerusalem church who are credited with leading the opposition against the delegates of the Gentile mission at the Council. Given the role played by the Pharisees in Acts, it would seem a priori that the Pharisees were the most likely group in Jewish society to have later denounced Ananus' punitive action against James.
James, the conservative…
These links forged between James and the Pharisees in Acts and Josephus add further weight to Hann's argument that James' ascendancy was partly engineered by members of the Jerusalem community who desired to enforce strict adherence to the Jewish Law upon all members of the Jesus movement.
The notion that James may have been supported by members of the Jesus movement who favoured strict Law-observance is confirmed by Luke's account of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:1-35) and Paul's report of the subsequent dispute at Antioch (Gal 2:11-14). In these episodes, Luke implies that the Law-observant agitators who initiated the controversy in Antioch that led to the conference in Jerusalem originated from Jerusalem (Acts 15:24). Similarly, Paul explicitly links James to the pro-circumcision putsch, which derived from Jerusalem and subsequently brought further problems to the Gentile mission at Antioch (Gal 2:12).
The picture of James that emerges from all of these sources is that of an able politician and a strict adherent of the Mosaic Law, who having consolidated his authority over the Law-observant, Christian-Jewish church in Jerusalem would have been keen to extend both his authority and his Law-observant policy over the Christian communities in the Diaspora.
We might even speculate that one of the reasons for James' initial claim to leadership at the expense of Peter was that Peter had in the past failed to resolve the ongoing problem of the Law-free mission of the Hellenists at Antioch (Sim, 1989: 82).
Whatever the value of such speculation, it seems clear that James played a central role in attempting to force Law-observance on the Law-free Antiochene community. Therefore, his rise to power at Jerusalem was an important contributing factor in the advent and progress of the controversies that developed prior to, and continued during, the Council and the later Antiochene conflict.
Tradition holds Peter to be the first Pope, and James the first bishop of Jerusalem (Painter, 1997). But it was James who first claimed a monarchical authority over all the emerging Christian communities; in effect, wielding the power and authority that latter successors of Peter would arrogate to their office. The irony was that not even his more "heavy-handed" approach would stem the tide of schism and division. Indeed, it served only to exacerbate further controversy.
Bibliography and Further Reading:
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2008 Ian Elmer