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Did Peter Get Demoted? Was James the Real Leader of Early Christianity?

I just finished the book Saint Peter: A Biography by Michael Grant.  I think it is misnamed.  I don’t feel like I know Peter any better, but it is a good book for learning about early Christianity.  The author describes how tough it is to really understand Peter both at the beginning, as well as the end.  From the Epilogue, pages 175-6,

Saint Peter still seems enigmatic.  There is a great deal in his career that appears evanescent and obscure, and it was this that tempted me to the subject.  I can only hope that I have helped to clean some of the mysteries up, or at least to present them in the terms that they deserve.

Let me say that I enjoyed the historical parts of the book, but Peter still seems enigmatic to me.  At times, Grant talked more of Jesus and Paul than Peter.  While these two people are important to discuss when talking about Peter, it just seems to me that I still don’t really understand Peter.  Bishop Rick previously made the claim that Paul founded Christianity.  Michael Grant seems to dispute that notion quite clearly.  From the Epilogue, page 176, Grant says

Peter was significant for two reasons, both of which I have discussed in some detail, and both of which remain firmly fixed in the historical picture.  In the first place Jesus chose him as his principal helper; the man who was assigned that remarkable honour and responsibility must have been very far from negligible.  Second, after the appalling event of Jesus’ Crucifixion, it was Peter who collected his disheartened followers together and formed them into a Christian community.  This was a tremendously difficult task, and the person who was able to do it must have exercised an extraordinary influence.  Moreover, unless Peter had done this, Jesus’s endeavors would never have survived.  Paul could not have achieved this without Peter’s work immediately after the Crucifixion; and so, without Peter, there would have been no Christian Church either in the subsequent centuries to today.

I’ve heard a few scholars make the case that James, Jesus brother was the leader of the early Christian church rather than Peter, but I didn’t understand the reasoning behind that.  Grant seems to believe that Peter got demoted following his well-known conflict with Paul regarding whether Gentiles would be circumcised.  Grant says that James came out of Peter and Paul’s dispute the winner.

Before I get into this triangle between Peter, Paul, and James, let me first discuss Grant’s point of view.  Grant died in 2004.  During his life, he was a professor of Humanity at Edinburgh University, and was vice-chancellor at Queen’s University in Belfast and the University of Khartoum.  As a historian, he “must” discount all miracles in the Bible.  On pages 4-5 he discusses miracles as says that,

most students of history, therefore, are not able to take these miraculous happenings into consideration.  They can believe in such stories, if they wish, but they do so as a matter of faith and not as historians.  Or they can disbelieve them, if they prefer.  In either case, it is their duty to attempt to find out what happened, within the realms of historical fact and possibility.  (italics in original)

Biographers of Jesus have sometimes excised this miraculous material from their narrative, in order to make it sound more credible to modern ears.  But any such attempts conflict strongly with the ancient accounts that have come down to us.  In the four Gospels, no fewer than 232 miracles are reported.  Take Mark, for example.  Out of that Gospel’s 661 verses, as many as 209 deal with miraculous doings.  And Matthew and Luke carry the same tendency still further.  Matthew, in particular, emphasizes the theme to an extraordinary extent.  ‘It is hard to find a non-maraculous kernel of the Gospel.’4 And that is why Peter, too, was credited with miracles after Jesus’s death.  He was believed to have been following his great predecessor’s tradition.

So, as a believer and not a historian, it took me a bit of getting used to completely discounting all these miracles.  Chapter 10 is titled “The Clash with Paul.”  Grant talked about problems in chronology, and questions if an Apostolic Council in Jerusalem even occurred.  In Paul’s letter to the Galations, Paul dates this visit to 3 years after his conversion, so some scholars date the event to 35-37 AD (depending on the date of Jesus’ death.)  However, Acts 15 seems to place the event in 48 AD at Passover.  Grant says that “Acts 15 paints a picture of single-minded unanimity (homothumadon)3 — an idealized and inaccurate picture as most now believe.  Admittedly there was quite a long debate.4″ From page 132,

But what actually happened at the Apostolic Council?  We shall assume for a moment that there was one, ignoring, however, the unsatisfactory nature of such a name, which is likely to produce anachronistic ideas.10 The Council has been the subject of a host of varying modern interpretations.  Probably the predominant view, for which there is a lot to be said–and it leaves open, perhaps uncomfortably open, the question of whether the council actually took place–is that Acts created the story from two fundamental traditions or memories which had been handed down to its writer.  The first tradition was that at Jerusalem the Christian leadership, including Paul, Peter, and James the brother of Jesus, came to an agreement that, although Pharisee missionaries to the Gentiles would argue to the contrary, Gentiles could be accepted into the ranks of Christians without having been circumcised.  This was a tradition that seems to be confirmed by Paul.  The second tradition was that nevertheless, in certain communities where Jewish and Gentile Christians were mixed, Gentiles were obliged, in order to maintain this association, to fall with certain other Jewish regulations regarding impurity, and rules relating to food.

As to circumcision, even Acts, determined though its writer is to record harmony, admits that there had been ‘fierce dissension’ on the subject,11 which it probably does not differentiate sufficiently from the food problems.  The book does record what looks like a compromise between Paul and Barnabus, on the one hand, who were against imposing Jewish restrictions on Gentile converts, and Christians such as James who espoused orthodox Jewish practices.  In due course this decision was incorporated, we are told, in what is known as the Apostolic Decree, issued allegedly to ‘our brothers of Gentile origin’ in Antioch, the rest of Syria, and Cilicia.12

…page 134

Others try to get away from the problem by suggesting that Acts 15 is a conflation of two Jerusalem meetings.  The first of these peacefully aligned Peter with Paul, whose insistence on the Gentiles’ freedom from circumcision prevailed, whereas the second confirmed the Four Regulations (which may be fictitious) in the absence of Paul.  According to this second hypothesis, Paul never enforced the Decree, either because he did not know about it or because the churches in the other provinces were, or could be assumed as being, outside the area to which the Decree was meant to apply.  That is possible.  But in any case, even if the Apostolic Council did take place, which is more than doubtful, its decisions failed to have any effect, as will shortly become clear.

Grant discusses further details on whether the meeting may have occurred (and concludes it either didn’t occur, or was a small, private meeting between Peter, Paul, and James).  He then notes something of a schism.  From pages 136-7,

Two separate Christian missionary areas were now in existence (although Acts does not seem willing to accept the division), one for Jews and one for Christians.  The former was in the hands of Peter, which again casts doubt on his alleged activity among the Gentiles.  But this division, and the agreement to maintain it, was not likely to be workable in practice because of the inevitable clash of personalities, and, in addition because in most places the population was mixed, consisting of both Jews and of Gentiles, so that any clear-cut division into two  missionary areas was unattainable.

Furthermore, on page 140, Grant says that “there were at least two rival groups, or possibly four”.29 He references Paul’s letter,

I have been told, my brothers, by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you.  What I mean is this: each of you is saying, “I am Paul’s man,’ or “I am for Apollos’; ‘I follow Cephas [Peter],’ or ‘I am Christ’s.’

Surely Christ has not been divided among you!

Grant discusses Paul chastising Peter in Antioch in Galations, attributing the event to 49 AD.  On page 138,

It is manifest that the period immediately after the Crucifixion of Jesus did not witness the harmony among his followers in which Acts has tried to induce us to believe, but was instead characterized by sharp rivalry between two mutually hostile groups.  One of the groups was that of James the brother of Jesus and his fellow-Jews born in Palestine, who believed in Jesus but were also convinced that this belief entailed all the maintenance of traditional Jewish institutions such as circumcision.  The other group was led by Paul, and consisted of men whose education had been partly Greek and who were of Gentile origin.  They, too, believed in Jesus, and although they may well have respected confirmity with many aspects of Jewish Law, they were certain this this faith in him, with all its power and intensity, completely superseded some of the other old regulations of Judaism.

There us little doubt about what happened.  James, leader of the faction which believed that Gentile Christians must obey Jewish customs, had not, after all, been prepared to abide by the Jerusalem agreement–if there was one–and had sent men, or a man, to persuade or compel Peter to cease from having meals with Gentile Christians.  Peter might have felt relatively liberal about this before–although, as we have seen, his actual conversion of Gentiles is doubtful–but now he gave in to James because, Paul said, he was ‘afraid’.  This is perhaps an unduly harsh condemnation of the dilemma in which Peter found himself, since what he was really trying to do was to mediate between two extreme positions.  And so he paid the penalty which flexible, diplomatic, careful, moderate mediators, compromisers and bridge-men pay.  He was said to be frightened (perhaps for the future of his own mission, but not, surely, of freedom fighters, as has been suggested.)25 Can he be accused of wavering?  Yes, he certainly abandoned a position he believed in, but no doubt because he hoped to bridge the gap which had widened between James and Paul.

And one thing is clear.  First we had heard of Peter as the Christian leader.  Then we heard of a joint leadership of Peter, James, and John.  Now we learn that Peter has bowed to the wished of James.  The man who will henceforward take the lead among Jewish Christians of Jerusalem is not Peter; it is James.  The leadership of Christianity in its central Palestinian city has passed back to the family of Jesus himself, with whom it will remain for a  good many years.  That is another penalty that mediators and compromisers pay.  They do not manage to retain leadership.

There are several James’s mentioned in the New Testament, and James “the brother of Jesus” is not one of the original 12 Apostles.  There is James the Just, James the Great, and James the Less.  Grant describes these 3 James’s on page 150.

Although inadequately described in the New Testament, and accorded especially little justice in Acts, James is of importance in this story, because it was he who supplanted Peter as the leader of the Christians after the Crucifixion of Jesus.

The James (Jacob) to whom reference is made, neither the son of Zebedee (James ‘the Great’, executed by King Agrippa I) nor the son of Alphaeus (James ‘the Less’), was ‘the Lord’s brother’ according to Paul in his Letter to the Galatians.12 The Gospels record brothers of Jesus, including James, and the contexts seem to show that these writers have a blood relationship between Jesus and his brothers in mind.  Tertullian (c.AD 160-240) and Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-211/216), too, confirm that this was what was believed in the first two centuries AD.  Origen (c. 184/6-254/5) and others, however, bearing in mind that ‘brother’ (adelphos) can cover a wider range of meanings, suggested that James was a stepbrother of Jesus: in other words, that Joseph had been married to another wife before he was married to Mary.  A rival theory, sponsored by Jerome (c. 348-420), held that Jesus and James were really cousins.14 These views, contradicting the simple brotherly relationship, came into being because it was increasingly stressed, from the second century onwards, that Mary, the wife of Joseph, was not only a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus, but remained a virgin all her life.

James, it appears, was not very keen on the preaching of Jesus, and may indeed have been positively opposed to it, as long as Jesus was alive.15 After the Crucifixion, however, he became converted.  This according to Paul, was because he was vouchsafed an Appearance of the risen Christ.16 Probably this Appearance was needed, and invented, by the tradition, because James’s kinship with Jesus (accompanied, as it had been, but a measure of scepticism) was not help to be sufficient to justify the prominent position which James now came to occupy.

For within a short time after Paul’s conversion James was a significant leader in the Christian Church, and he became even more important after Agrippa I had the apostle James ‘the Great’ (the son of Zebedee) executed in AD 44 and Peter fled from Jerusalem.  It was then that James ‘the brother of Jesus’ came to power in Peter’s place.  He had not been one of the original Twelve, but Paul seems to have regarded him as an apostle all the same.17

Although Acts does not, on the whole, do justice to James, the book does make him the chief spokesman for the Jerusalem church at the probably non-existent Apostolic Council, in which he was alleged to have intervened in favour of a measure of Jewish orthodoxy, indicating that Gentile converts should comply with the Four Regulations.18

Later tradition maintained that James was called ‘the Just’ (Zaddik, like the Qumran Teacher of Righteousness), and was noted for his pious fulfillment of Jewish Law.  He may have possessed priestly privileges, and it was perhaps because of his influence that he Pharisee Gamaliel urged leniency to Peter and the Christians.19

Grant says there are many mysteries surrounding James.  From page 153,

why are we given so little information about him?  Why has he been pushed into the position of a shadowy, background figure?21 The answer seems to be this.  Whether he was Jesus brother or not, James had known him personally, and had been close to him, in a way with which Paul could not hope to compete.  This meant that James was nearer to the source of the faith than Paul could ever expect to be.  Moreover, James’s aims and interests were by no means those of Paul.  On occasion, indeed, they held exactly opposite views.

For Paul, then, James must have been a continual source of disapproval and irritation.  And with the subsequent triumph of Pauline Christianity, his significance, even if it could not be expunged from the record completely, was at any rate retroactively lessened.  This made James an ambiguous figure, about whom Acts, in consequence, is curiously reticent.  In fact, however, James had been someone who could even overrule Peter.  Some have gone further still and have asserted that, despite the popular position that Peter was the first head of the Church, the neglected James had really been its first leader.  This seems to go too far.  Peter was the first leader of the Christians after Jesus’s death.  But the fact that he was later superseded by James is indicative of the significant setback his career had suffered.

So, what do you think about Peter, Paul, and James as “the” early leader of Christianity?

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