Paul's Opponents

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Early Christianity

  • Historically, most people thought that Paul’s opponents were basically Jewish Christians.
  • The Jerusalem Church, it was believed, was comprised of two groups – Hellenists and Hebrews, and the two did not see eye-to-eye.
  • Many of their differences arose from their distinct cultures and preferred use of language. The Hellenists spoke Greek; the Hebrews spoke Hebrew.
  • The Hebrews would have given weight to the old Mosaic traditions and a strict interpretation of its requirements.
  • The Hellenists would have been more progressive, open to new interpretations. (They didn’t require circumcision, following of strict dietary laws, observance of the Sabbath.)
  • It’s not hard to see why they might have had problems, but now scholars think those categories are way too simplistic and limited.
  • While these might have been the major divisions, it is more likely that within each group were additional segments.
  • There might have been some overlap, but mostly they had different visions and different approaches to fulfilling those visions. In short, they didn’t get along with each other. Each believed, of course, that they were in the right and had the right message.
  • The first major category would have been the “Circumcision Mission.” These folks were primarily concerned with maintaining Jewish identity and reaching out to the Jewish people.
  • The other obvious category would be the “Uncircumcision Mission.” These would have been individuals who were primarily concerned with reaching out to Gentiles.
  • The conservative element of the former group states its case most succinctly at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:1ff). They strongly believed that all believers (Jews and Gentiles) had to be circumcised. No one could be saved without full observance of the law. It is not known who were the leaders of this group.
  • The moderate element of the former group believed in both missions, but was primarily committed to reaching out to Jews, especially those living in Palestine. It is believed that James, the brother of Jesus, was the leader of this group. Gentiles were tolerated but not sought out.
  • If members of this group went outside Palestine, they were expected to be completely observant of Jewish practices. It is likely that this is where Peter ran into trouble in Antioch, when messengers from James came to town (See Gal 2:12).
  • In the eyes of this moderate group, both missions were completely independent. But if they did intersect, the Gentiles were to abstain from four elements that were particularly offensive to Jews as decreed by the Jerusalem Council.
  • It is thought that this group disappeared with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70CE.
  • The more liberal element of the former group reached out to Jews both within and beyond Palestine. They believed in two missions and felt one simply led to the other. Gentiles were free from the demands of the Mosaic Law, as well as circumcision. It is thought that Peter might have been the leader of this group, and that he had traveled extensively throughout the region, ending with Rome.
  • This more liberal element of the Circumcision Mission might have felt that the traditions and rules from Jerusalem only applied if other Jews were present. When they were in the company of Gentiles, they were free to have full fellowship with them. This would be why Peter ate freely with Gentiles until messengers from James came to Antioch.
  • It is likely that members of this group still believed that circumcision and observance of the law was the better way but not necessary to enter the kingdom.
  • The conservative faction of the Uncircumcision Mission was very similar to the liberal group of the Circumcision Mission. The major difference was that their primary interest was in reaching out to Gentiles. Barnabas might have been the leader of this group.
  • Their Jewish history might have made them somewhat sensitive to influences from James, but their primary interest was Gentiles. Needless to say, Gentiles were allowed to remain free from the law and circumcision – as were they, until messengers from James came to town.
  • The moderate group of the Uncircumcision Mission is best described by Paul’s efforts. He wanted to include both Jews and Gentiles, always saying “to the Jews first.” Paul was clear that Christianity grew out of Judaism.
  • Paul believed strongly that Gentiles were free from the burdens of the law, including circumcision. And he went so far as to say that because of this, the Gentiles had the true understanding of the gospel.
  • When these Jews were in Jerusalem, they needed to be observant, but outside the area, they were free to have full fellowship with Gentiles.
  • Paul probably knew that his mission to the Gentiles would ultimately be the undoing of the Jewish mission, but he was so impelled to do the work that he couldn’t wait.
  • The most liberal element of the Uncircumcision Mission is hinted at in the Corinthian correspondence. There, a group of people aspired to be free of all law, including ritual and moral. This radical group rejected any Jewish identity within the Christian movement. It is not known who its leaders were.
  • In short, James was the leader of the moderate group reaching out to Jews; Paul was the leader of the moderate group reaching out to Gentiles. In between were Peter and Barnabas, both leading factions to the left and right of the center and perhaps playing a significant role as mediators between the two main characters.
  • Even this, however, might be an oversimplification of the situation. It helps to think of the early church as “messy” with many factions, each believing they embodied the correct message.
  • The notion that members of the early church were all of “one mind” is pure fiction. There were many competing minds with competing visions. The Circumcision Mission pretty much ended with the destruction of Jerusalem.
  • Paul carried on the Uncircumcised mission throughout the region and it is his legacy that we celebrate.


Painter, John. Just James, The Brother of Jesus in History and Tradition. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press. 1999.

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