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James and Paul


The relationship between James and Paul was important for the development of early Christianity; it epitomized the need to preserve the movement’s Jewish roots as its membership became predominantly non-Jewish. Though it created tension, the connection with James and Jerusalem was important for Paul; his letters reflect both his theological departure from James and his acceptance of James’s and the Jerusalem community’s authority. For, unlike Paul, James had firsthand encounters with the earthly Jesus, yet Paul’s strong personal experience of the risen Lord shaped his theology and identity as an apostle to the Gentiles.

James is first identified in Mark 6:3 as one of the four brothers of Jesus. After the death of Jesus, it is likely that he was one of the brothers present at prayer with Mary and the Twelve and some other women in Jerusalem (Acts 1:12-14). In the New Testament, James is clearly leader of the Jerusalem church, and both Peter and Paul report to him. In Acts 12:7-17 Peter sends to James news of his release from prison; Paul visits James and the Jerusalem church in Acts 15 and Acts 21. He refers to James as a witness to the risen Jesus (1Cor 15:7) and notes that, when he went up to Jerusalem after his “conversion,” the only apostles he saw were Peter and James (Gal 1:18-19). Paul clearly acknowledges James as the first of the three recognized apostolic pillars of the Jerusalem church (Gal 2:1-10, especially Gal 2:9).

In Acts 15 and Acts 21, the tensions between James and Paul seem to arise from their different perspectives: James as leader of the Jerusalem church and concerned with the mission to his own people, the Jews in Judaea, and Paul as a Diaspora Jewish believer concerned with the mission to the Gentiles. The conflicting priorities that arose from their two missions are made explicit by Paul in Gal 2:1-14, especially Gal 2:11-14. Unfortunately, we have no source that gives clear expression to the views of James or Peter on this matter.

The letter of James was likely written by a diaspora Christian Jew after James’s death and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Its point of view reflects scattered Jewish followers of Jesus in in the Diaspora, not in Jerusalem. Nor does it mention Paul by name: instead, it confronts the challenge he presents—most seriously in his law-free gospel that emphasizes faith in a way that seems to ignore works, hearing, and believing without doing (Jas 1:22-25, Jas 2:14-26).

In the period following the deaths of James and Paul, their traditions seem to have developed somewhat independently of each other. This may be because Paul’s mission to the nations failed to maintain the connection with the Christian Jewish communities associated with James. The second century preserves the memory of James as the first bishop of Jerusalem, but his distinctively Jewish role was obscured because of the destruction of the Jewish Jerusalem church when the Jews were expelled from Jerusalem in 135 C.E. and Christianity was transformed into a predominantly Gentile movement. At the same time, the preserved memory of Paul obscured the sharpness of his emphases on the grace of God, the believer’s relationship to the living Christ, and the character of a living faith in which the believer entrusted his or her life to God in the community of faith and for the life of the world.

The Pseudo-Clementine writings of the late fourth century take up and develop the tensions between James and Paul. These writings appear to be based on sources and traditions derived from Christian Jews from Jerusalem who fled to Pella (a city in the Decapolis on the eastern side of the Jordan River) around the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. After the suppression of the second revolt against Rome in 135 C.E., the Jewish Jerusalem church disbanded, possibly again migrating to Pella. Not surprisingly, the tradition in the Pseudo-Clementines portrays Paul as the enemy of James and Christian Judaism. Historically, however, the evidence suggests that though the relationship involved tensions, the two were not enemies.

  • John Painter

    John Painter is Foundation Professor of Theology at St. Mark’s National Theological Centre, School of Theology, Charles Sturt University, Canberra Campus, Australia. His publications include John Witness and Theologian (SPCK, 1975) and The Quest for the Messiah: The History, Literature and Theology of the Johannine Community (T&T Clark and Abingdon, 1993).