James and Paul

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Paul, Paul


Was James, the brother of Jesus, responsible for Paul's arrest at the end of his ministry?


"Responsible" might be too strong a word. In the past few years, scholars have taken a second look at James' career and have gained many new insights into his role as leader of the Jerusalem Church. All of our information comes from Acts or Paul's letters. James did not talk about Paul in his writings.

Traditionally, scholars have always believed that James was not interested in Jesus' mission until after his resurrection. Scholars now question that assumption and speculate that he might have been involved with Jesus long before his death and resurrection. Their reasoning stems from the fact that Paul states in Gal 1:18-19: "Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Peter, and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord's brother." This encounter with James and Peter occurred just a few years after the resurrection. James is already on the scene in Jerusalem and influential enough for Paul to want to see him. There is, of course, no proof that he had been there all along, but to achieve that high standing within a few short years would be nothing short of a meteoric rise to the top. And since it took so long for the apostles to accept Paul, it seems illogical that they would have embraced James if he had opposed Jesus' mission throughout his lifetime. Indeed, Paul calls him an apostle – "I saw none of the other apostles, except for James." The earliest definition of an apostle was given by Peter when they were in the process of replacing Judas. He states in Acts, "It is necessary to choose one of the men that have been with us the whole time, that Jesus went in and out among us. Beginning from John's baptism through the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection" (1:21-22). Remember how Paul had to defend his apostleship because he had only seen the Lord afterwards? If James had not been a follower of Jesus before his death, where is his defense?

Fourteen years later, when Paul and Barnabas went up to Jerusalem to settle the issue of circumcision regarding Gentiles, James was clearly the man in charge. After all the speeches had been made, it was James who argued that scripture provided the warrant for them to know that "from that day forward, God's people would include those taken from among the Gentiles." The importance of this step cannot be overemphasized. This is to be seen as an expansion of the Jewish nation. After mentioning some of those scriptural passages, he says that the church will be the means by which the Gentiles come to God. God had already decreed this. The people were finally catching up to what God had decided long ago. Then his final word was to "not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God." That's the decision.

At the end of his ministry, when Paul came to Jerusalem, he went to "visit James; and all the elders were present." After listening to his wonderful report on the Gentiles, this group decided that Paul needed to go through the Levitical rite of purification. In addition, he would sponsor four men who were taking the Nazirite vow. Paul agreed to this and made the arrangements.

Afterwards, it says, "Paul went to the temple to give notice of the day when the days of purification would end and the offering that would be made for each of them." It's the day when they plan to wrap everything up – the day when they'll be completing the sacrifices. Maybe he had to reserve the space, or order the animals. We don't know what it was. But he gave the temple people notice.

Acts 21:27ff recounts what happened next. "Some Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul at the temple…. they seized him, shouting, 'Men of Israel, help us! This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against our people and our law and this place.'" That would be bad enough, but then the real issue emerges, when they say, "He has brought Greeks into the temple area and has defiled this holy place." Well, news of this flew through the city like lightening. "The temple has been defiled. The temple has been defiled." "People came running from all directions." They seized Paul and "dragged him out of there. And immediately all the gates were shut." Within nano-seconds the Romans were on the scene, fearing a riot. They took Paul into custody to keep him safe from the riotous crowd. When Paul was on trial, there were no Jews anywhere in sight who were willing to step forward to defend either him or his ministry. Arguments from silence are never compelling, but this silence is deafening. Where are his supporters? Where are those Hellenized Christian Jews who praised God for the work He had done through Paul? Where are they now? Maybe the climate had changed so quickly that all his support simply dissipated. Some scholars go even further in speculating that James and the elders might have set him up. After all, the temple doors were quickly shut against him. Isn't this an indication that the Jewish Christians probably despised Paul? We don't like to think of that, nor does Luke in Acts breathe a word of it. But the facts speak for themselves and raise many ugly and unanswerable questions. What we know is that James and the elders suggested this idea, then faded away when things went badly for Paul, and never appeared on his behalf again.

If you have any questions related to the Bible, please feel free to email us.