Tuesday, 15 November 2011

James and Paul

Here's a little something that Crossan and Reed's Excavating Jesus has got me thinking about.  They open their book with a discussion of an artefact called the "James Ossuary" - a bone box inscribed with the words "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus".  Their analysis of this relic, sold in the antiquities market with no indication of its origin, is fascinating.  Apparently even if the inscription is genuine there is only a one in 20 chance it actually contains the bones of James, the brother of Jesus Christ as worshipped by Christians.  All three names were incredibly common in first century Palestine.

Be that as it may, it leads them into a reflection on the role of James in the early church, and the origin of Christianity as a Jewish reform movement.  Here is my version of it, inspired by theirs but a little different.

James the brother of Jesus (as opposed to James the son of Zebedee, brother of John) is only mentioned once by name in the gospels, a passing reference in Matthew 13:55.  The context is Jesus' visit to his home town of Nazareth, where the locals apparently express the contempt of familiarity.  “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas?"  An earlier story in Matthew 12 appears to suggest Jesus is just as dismissive of his family.

46 While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. 47 Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”  48 He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Be that as it may, James appears to have played a prominent role in the early church, of which we only catch a glimpse in the New Testament through the story recorded in Acts 15 and its alternative telling by Paul in Galatians 2.  The context for this story is the early success of Paul's mission to the Gentiles.  Prior to this mission the church had been almost exclusively Jewish.  How should these Gentile converts be integrated into the Christian community?

Some (identified as Pharisees in Acts) believed they should become fully Jewish.  They should be circumcised and required to submit fully to the law of Moses.  They saw Christianity as a movement within Judaism.  Paul, of course, saw things differently, and was commissioned by his church at Antioch - the first mixed church - to take the question to the apostles in Jerusalem. 

What happened there is something of a surprise.  Throughout the early chapters of Acts, Peter is portrayed as the leader and spokesperson of the apostles in Jerusalem.  He plays a prominent role here too, alluding to his earlier call from God to preach the gospel to the Roman Centurion Corneleius and using this to argue that God accepted Gentiles without any expectation they would follow the law.  However it is James, making his first and only appearance in Acts, who appears firmly in charge and who finally rules on the question.  Luke is silent on this change.  Why is James, and not Peter, chairing this meeting?  And from where does he get the authority to deliver the final ruling?

19 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 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.

This is clearly a compromise. They are not asked to take on the whole Jewish law, but an abbreviated version which includes food laws and sexual morality.

Paul's account in Galatians 2 contains no hint of this compromise.

6 As for those who were held in high esteem—whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism—they added nothing to my message....They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. 10 All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.

He then goes on to record a sequel in which Peter comes to Antioch.

12 ... before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy....

Paul's answer is unequivocal as he publicly rebukes Peter.

21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!

What's going on here?  Three aspects of the law are under discussion - circumcision, food laws and sexual morality.  There seem to be at least four basic positions on this set of issues in the early church.  There is the position of the "pharisees" who believe Gentile Christians should submit to the whole Jewish law, including circumcision.  At the other extreme, although not mentioned in either of these accounts, there appear to be those who believe that none of these laws apply.

Both James and Paul occupy middle positions.  In their writings, both argue against the idea that morality can be dispensed with altogether - James in his sole letter preserved in the New Testament, Paul for example in Romans 6.  Both also agree that laws about sexual morality should apply to Gentile Christians.  What they disagree about is food laws, and even here their disagreement does not appear, in one sense, to be that great.  Paul does not believe in food laws himself, but in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 10 he asks his followers to be considerate of one another in these matters.

Yet behind these details there seems to be something more fundamental which arouses Paul's passions.  Despite the nuance of his position in other places, his stance in Galatians is very black and white.  The "men who came from James" seem to be equated with the "circumcision group", so that Paul seems to understand James's position as advocating circumcision, contrary to Luke's account.  A further implication is that circumcised believers - full Jews, whether by birth or conversion - needed to maintain their purity by seperating themselves from Gentile believers, particularly at meal times which were such important communal events in the early church.  The result is a divided community - a Jewish church, and a Gentile one.  This seems to be what has raised Paul's ire.  His vision is for a united church, as shown in Ephesians 2.

14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.

Crossan and Reed speculate that we are seeing a divide between two churches - an essentially Jewish church based in Jerusalem and led by James; and a mixed church led by Paul and others, made up of Jewish and Gentile converts from outside Judea.  Peter seems to have moved between these two churches, although not without some difficulties as shown in Galatians. 

Although the relationship between the two was obviously a little uneasy they seem to have been able to co-exist, and later in Acts we see Paul making efforts to keep the lines of communication open, visiting Jerusalem and going through certain Jewish rites despite the danger to himself. 

However, the Jewish war of 66-73 CE, as well as putting an end to Jewish temple worship, killed off the Jerusalem Jewish church and limited James' influence on subsequent Christianity.  From here on, Paul's model of church prevailed.  Converted Jews became indistinguishable from converted Gentiles and in time Jews came to be seen not as partners of the church but as its enemies.

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