Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: The Letter of James


In examining the eschatology in the letter of James, the extent to which it should be considered representative of the early Christian eschatology, depends on how the letter is dated. There is a considerable range of opinion among scholars on this question, with some dating it extremely early (40s A.D.) and others extremely late (first quarter of the 2nd century A.D.). I would tend toward the earlier side, regarding it as having likely been written sometime before 70 A.D. The apparent lack of a developed Christology in the letter is often taken as a sign of a relatively early date. While the identification of the “James” in 1:1 continues to be debated, there is no real reason to doubt the authenticity of the address—that the letter represents instruction addressed to Jews (i.e. Jewish Christians) throughout the Greco-Roman world (the “scattering throughout”, diaspora/).

In my view, the eschatology of the letter corresponds generally to that of the period c. 50-70 A.D. The expectation of the end (and the return of Jesus) is imminent, with a real sense that the time is quite short. Moreover, this eschatology is couched within a general ethical context that, apparently, has not yet been given a distinctly Christian form, in comparison with similar Jewish instruction. As with the letter as a whole, its eschatological references breathe the style and tone of Jesus’ teaching, especially that preserved in the Sermon on the Mount. At the same time, there are several peculiar details and points of emphasis that are atypical of Paul and other (later) New Testament writings.

Chapters 1-3

James 1:12

The main eschatological section of the letter spans 4:11-5:11 (discussed in detail below); however, there are several earlier references which anticipate this more extended treatment. The first is found in 1:9-16, which begins with a warning on the fate of the rich (and those who devote themselves to worldly riches), with echoes of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:19-20, 25-33. The image of the flower that fades away and perishes (vv. 9-11), symbolizing the brevity of human life with its uncertainty and sudden end, is a general wisdom motif, but it has special significance in an eschatological context. This is alluded to by the beatitude that follows in verse 12:

“Happy (is the) man who remains under [i.e. endures] (in the) testing, (in) that, (hav)ing come to be considered (worthy), he will receive the wreath of life which (God) gave the message upon [i.e. promised to give] to the (one)s loving Him.”

The image of receiving a wreath (ste/fano$) to wear—a traditional sign of honor/dignity, given especially to those who are victorious in battle or a contest—is frequently used in an eschatological sense in the New Testament, reflecting the idea of the heavenly reward that awaits the righteous (believers) at the end-time, following the Judgment. Cf. 1 Thess 2:19; 1 Cor 9:25; 1 Peter 5:4; Revelation 2:10; 3:11; the specific expression “wreath of life” occurs in Rev 2:10.

The theme of enduring testing (peirasmo/$) continues in vv. 13-16. This is often understood (and translated) narrowly in terms of “temptation”, however “testing” is more accurate, and better preserves the eschatological connotations of the word in many instances where it occurs in the New Testament–including Matt 6:13; Mark 14:38 par, as well as the more obvious eschatological references in 1 Pet 4:12; 2 Pet 2:19; Rev 3:10.

James 2:5

There is a similar eschatological context to the rich-vs-poor teaching in 2:1-13 as well. Indeed, the eschatological promise in v. 5 is couched in similar wording to that in 1:12 (cp. above):

“You must hear (this), my (be)loved brothers: has not God gathered out the (one)s (who are) poor in the world (to be one)s rich in trust and (one)s receiving the lot of the Kingdom, about which He (has) given a message (promising it) to the (one)s loving Him?”

The contrast is certainly clear: poor in the world vs. rich in trust of God, i.e. worldly vs. heavenly/divine riches. This again echoes the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:3ff, and note the stronger contrast in the Lukan version of this material, 6:20ff, 24ff). Paul makes a similar sort of comparison in 1 Corinthians 1:26-29. The noun klhrono/mo$ literally refers to one who receives (or is to receive) a share or lot (klh=ro$), often in the sense of an inheritance—i.e. the poor whom God has chosen (to be rich) will inherit His Kingdom. This is precisely the message of Jesus in the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3, 10ff).

The theme of trust (or “faith”, pi/sti$) continues in vv. 14-26, perhaps the best-known portion of the letter, due to the perennial debate over its relationship to the Pauline teaching on “faith and works”. In some ways this misses the point, since through the chapter the emphasis is clearly on “works” as demonstrating love and concern for others (especially the poor)—vv. 1-4, 6, 14-17. Insofar as the “works of the law” (to use the Pauline expression) are concerned, the author of the letter (“James”), despite writing to Jews (Jewish Christians), seems to have much the same view of the relationship between believers and the Torah as Paul does (cp. 2:8ff with Gal 5:14; 6:2, etc), though he expresses it rather differently.

The theme of judgment (kri/si$) is also introduced in vv. 12-13, which will be developed in the subsequent chapters (cf. below); this adds to the eschatological context of the teaching, though this aspect may not be immediately apparent. Both the lex talionis principle, and the reversal-of-fortune theme, are in view here, as we find also in Jesus’ teaching (esp. in the Sermon on the Mount). The one who judges others (on earth), will be judged in turn by God (in heaven), with the emphasis being on the harsh judgment that awaits for those who mistreat or disregard the poor and needy.

James 3:5-6

There would seem to be another eschatological allusion in 3:6. The author (“James”) has shifted the focus from his discussion on the rich and poor, to give a similar kind of ethical instruction on guarding the tongue (i.e. how we speak). The colorful imagery he uses is quite typical of Jewish Wisdom literature (on instruction regarding the “tongue” in Proverbs, cf. 10:20, 31; 12:18-19; 15:2ff; 17:20; 18:21; 21:6; 26:28). In vv. 5-6 the destructive power of the tongue is compared to that of fire (cf. Prov 16:27; 26:21). The imagery is applied in verse 5, and then is built on in v. 6, including, it would seem, a kind of eschatological warning:

“And the tongue (is indeed) a fire—(as) the world th(at is) without justice, (so) the tongue is placed down among our members, the (thing) staining the whole body and setting aflame the (entire) course of th(is) coming to be, even as it is being set aflame under the (fire) of Ge-Hinnom.”

At the very least, v. 6b contains a warning of the end-time Judgment that awaits the wicked. It is a Judgment by fire, using the motif of the Ge-Hinnom (Valley of Hinnom) drawn from Israelite history and Old Testament/Jewish tradition. Jesus uses the idiom with some frequency in his teaching, of the fire that will burn up the wicked and faithless (Mark 9:43ff par; Matt 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Luke 12:5). This is the only occurrence in the New Testament outside of Jesus’ teaching. For the use of fire elsewhere, in an eschatological Judgment setting, cf. Matt 3:10-12 par; 7:19; 13:40; 25:41; Lk 17:29; John 15:6; 1 Cor 3:13ff; 2 Thess 1:8; 1 Pet 1:7; 2 Pet 3:7ff; Jude 7; Rev 8:5ff; 14:10, 18; 18:8; 19:20; 20:9-10, 14-15.

The expression o( troxo\$ th=$ gene/sew$ creates some difficulty. The noun troxo/$ essentially refers to something running or rolling (from the verb tre/xw); it could indicate specifically a “wheel”, or to the “track” or “course” in which something runs/rolls. This is the only occurrence of the noun in the New Testament; in the LXX, it typically refers to a wheel. The other noun in the expression, ge/nesi$, literally means “coming to be”, sometimes specifically in the sense of coming to be born, i.e. “birth”. Thus, in English the expression might be translated “wheel of birth”, “circle of life”, or something similar. Here it is intended as a comprehensive expression, describing all life that comes into existence on earth. Thus the imagery spans the macro and micro—the entire evil and unjust world alongside the little tongue. In many ways the two are the same; here the image is of the tongue, with its evil-speaking, setting fire to the entire body (compare Jesus’ similar use of the eye in Matt 6:22-23), the whole being of the person. At the same time, the person’s existence—indeed, that of the entire world—is set on fire by Ge-Hinnom. This may contain an allusion to the idea of the world being consumed by fire at the end of the Age (2 Pet 3:12). At any rate, as noted above, it is a reference to the eschatological Judgment.

James 4:11-5:11

The main eschatological portion of the letter of James begins at 4:11 and extends through 5:11, spanning two parallel sections which may be outlined as follows:

    • 4:11-12—A warning against speaking evil
      • 4:13-17—Warning against the shortness and uncertainty of life
    • 5:1-6—A warning against trust in worldly riches
      • 5:7-11—Warning of the nearness of the end (and the Judgment)

The two areas addressed—speaking evil and worldly riches—have been themes throughout the letter (cf. above). The warning against them has the end-time Judgment in mind. This is clear enough in 4:12, where God is identified as the one who will act as Judge over all humankind. The one who judges others, speaking evil of them (or against them), will be judged in turn by God at the end-time. The condemnation of those who devote themselves to worldly wealth and riches, in 5:1-6, is even harsher. Given the uncertainty and shortness of life (4:13-17), piling up earthly treasure is, in general, foolish and inappropriate. How much more foolish is it when one realizes that the end of the Age is near— “You have gathered treasure (here) in the last days!” (v. 3b) And, since much, if not most, earthly wealth is obtained, at least in part, through the exploitation and oppression of others (including the poor), those who are rich will face God’s Judgment, which is coming soon enough:

“…the cries of the (one)s (hav)ing harvested [i.e. workers/laborers] have come into the ears of the Lord Sabaoth! You destroyed yourself (with pleasure) upon the earth and (liv)ed in luxury, you nourished your heart on a day of slaughter!…” (vv. 4b-5a)

In verse 7, the author turns to address those who are poor and oppressed; at the same time, he speaks to believers, who, in large part, would fit this category. So too, in Jesus’ teaching, he assumes that his disciples will be among the poor and meek, those who mourn and are persecuted, etc (see esp. the Beatitudes, Matt 5:3-12 par). The exhortation here assumes that the end-time Judgment, when the wrongs (on earth) will be righted by God, and the righteous will receive their true wage (reward), is coming very soon. Harvest imagery is employed, regularly used as part of eschatological instruction in the New Testament:

“So (then), brothers, you must be long of impulse, until the Lord’s (com)ing to be alongside (us) [parousi/a]. See! the worker of the earth [i.e. land] looks to receive out of (it) the valuable fruit of the earth, having a long impulse upon it, until he should receive (that which comes) before and (that which comes) later. (So) also you must be long of impulse, setting your hearts firm, (in) that [i.e. because] the Lord’s being alongside (us) [parousi/a] has come near!” (vv. 7-8)

The verb makroqume/w is difficult to translate; it means to be makroqumw/$ (“long of impulse”), that is, possessing a long and enduring impulse (qumo/$), or desire, such as for a specific goal or purpose. It can connote specifically the idea of endurance or being patient; however, here it is better understood in tandem with the verb sthri/zw (“set firm”), indicating a strength and firmness of purpose, willing to endure any suffering or hardship. Translating the verb makroqume/w as “be patient” could give the misleading impression that the Lord’s appearance and the end-time Judgment may not occur for quite some time. This is flatly contradicted by the clear statements expressing imminence—i.e., that the end will come very soon, possibly at any moment:

“the Lord’s being alongside us has come near” (v. 8b)
h( parousi/a tou= kuri/ou h&ggiken
“see! the Judge has taken (his) stand before the door” (v. 9)
i)dou\ o( krith\$ pro\ tw=n qurw=n e%sthken

So, too, in the example of Job, etc, in vv. 10-11, it is not the “patience” of Job that is being emphasized, so much as his firm resolve (we might also say his faith) while enduring suffering and hardship.

Twice in vv. 7-8, the noun parousi/a is used. It is a rather ordinary word, referring to a person “(com)ing to be alongside”; however, very early on, it came to serve as a technical term among Christians for the end-time appearance (return) of Jesus (the “parousia”)–cf. Matt 24:3, 27, 37, 39; 1 Thess 2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:23; 2 Thess 2:1, 8; 1 Cor 15:23; 2 Pet 1:16; 3:4, 12; 1 John 2:28. In a Jewish setting, the expression “the Lord’s (com)ing to be alongside” (h( parousi/a tou= kur/iou) would have referred to the appearance of God, coming to bring Judgment and to deliver His people; however, for early Christians the title ku/rio$ could be used interchangeably for God the Father (YHWH) and Jesus. Moreover, even in Jewish eschatological tradition, God’s end-time appearance would take place through His appointed representative, a heavenly/divine being or Messianic figure. Paul uses the same expression (of Jesus) in 1 Thess 4:15 and 2 Thess 2:1, filling it out “the parousi/a of our Lord” (cf. also 1 Thess 2:19; 3:13; 5:23, “…of our Lord Yeshua”).

On the use of the verb e)ggi/zw (“come near”), and other terminology to express the imminent expectation of the end among early Christians, see my separate article on the subject.

Genesis 15:6 in Galatians and James

The famous contrast between the discussion of “faith and works” in the Epistle of James and by Paul in Romans/Galatians finds its greatest point of difference/disagreement in the use of Genesis 15:6

  )Abraa\m e)pi/steusen tw=| qew=| kai\ e)logi/sqh au)tw=| ei)$ dikaiosu/nhn
“Abraham trusted (in) God and it was counted to/for him unto justice/righteousness”

as rendered in Greek by the LXX and in the New Testament. Paul expounds this verse in the fourth chapter of Romans (Rom 4), but this treatment largely follows that in Galatians 3-4 (Galatians usually admitted as being written some time before Romans). It is also in Galatians that Paul presents a more forceful rhetorical and theological argument against “works of the Law”, as contrasted with trust/faith in Christ; therefore, it is more appropriate to use Galatians as the primary basis of comparison with the epistle of James (Jas 2:14-26).

In Galatians, Paul cites Gen 15:6 (in Gal 3:6) just prior to the Scriptural arguments, centered on Abraham, in Gal 3:7-29; cf. the articles on Paul’s View of the Law in Galatians These two arguments involve the blessing (3:7-14) and promise (3:15-29) to Abraham, emphasizing that the blessing comes by faith (not the Law) and that the promise comes to believers through Jesus Christ (not by observing the Law). Romans 4:4-25 provides a similar discussion.

In the letter of James, the citation of Gen 15:6 (in Jas 2:23) comes at a climactic point toward the end of the (ethical) instruction in 2:14-26. The central proposition (and declaration) is that faith “apart from works” is dead and cannot save a person (2:14-17). There would seem, on the surface at least, to be several significant differences between the claims made by Paul and the author of James (trad. James, the brother of Jesus), which were often emphasized in prior commentaries and works on New Testament theology. However, today scholars and commentators (of all stripes) tend to downplay or dismiss the idea of any real (direct) conflict between these passages, though often for different reasons:

    • Traditional-conservative commentators have generally sought to harmonize Paul and James, under the basic doctrinal assumption that the inspired Writings would not (or could not) be in disagreement
    • For critical scholars, on the other hand, among the more important factors are:
      (1) A tendency to look at individual New Testament writings, without feeling the need to compare/harmonize with others, and to focus more precisely on the specific context in each book
      (2) A tendency to soften or qualify Paul’s arguments in Galatians regarding the Law, limiting their rhetorical and theological scope, in light of what is (often) assumed as Paul’s more positive view of Judaism and the Law elsewhere in his life and writings

I am less willing than many to dismiss all conflict between the interpretive approaches of Paul and ‘James’ on this question of “faith and works”, as there do seem to be several substantive differences. In order to highlight these, it will be necessary to look briefly at the salient points of comparison:

e&rga “works”—It is sometimes said that James and Paul are using the term “works” (e&rga) in a fundamentally different sense, and, as such, are not really talking about the same things. This is not quite accurate; rather, it would seem that James is using the term in a general way, as “action”, while Paul is referring to specific types of religious action. The examples James offers are reflective of (a) charitable giving (esp. to the poor and needy) and/or (b) sacrificial giving (offering from oneself), but otherwise describe various sorts of action. Paul uses the expression “works of (the) Law” (e&rga no/mou) to refer specifically to the performance/observance of the commands and regulations in the Law (Torah), especially that of circumcision. Based on 2:8-13, James would presumably include “works of the Law”—at least the ethical aspects of the Law, as interpreted by Jesus (as in the Sermon on the Mount)—among the “works” described in vv. 14-26. There is no definite indication, anywhere in the letter, that James would include the ritual/ceremonial aspects of the Law (such as circumcision); in that respect, James and Paul are probably in agreement.

pi/sti$ “trust/faith”—Again, it would appear that James uses the word pi/sti$ in a more general sense than Paul does in Galatians, etc. It is likely that, despite the reference in 2:1, pi/sti$ in vv. 14-26 means “belief” without a specific object of belief necessarily being indicated (in v. 19 it is belief in God, generally). On the other hand, in Galatians, Paul typically, when contrasting “faith” with “works”, refers specifically to faith in Jesus Christ (Gal 2:16) or, more precisely, faith in response to hearing the Gospel message (Gal 3:2, 5).

xwri/$ “apart from”—Several times (in 2:18, 20, 26), James uses the expression “faith separate/apart from [xwri/$] works”, to emphasize the importance of faith/belief being expressed in action—the two (faith and action) go together, and cannot be separated. Paul never uses xwri/$ in Galatians, but does so notably in Romans, emphasizing that:

    • The justice/righteousness of God has been manifest [lit. has shone forth] “apart from [xwri\$] the Law” (3:21)
    • A man is made just/righteous by faith/trust “apart from [xwri\$] works of (the) Law” (3:28)
    • (Ps 32:2) Happy is the man for whom God counts justice/righteousness “apart from [xwri\$] works” (4:6)

The last reference matches the expression in James, and also shares the context of quotation from Gen 15:6 (cf. below). However, Paul’s use of “apart from works” could not be more different from that of James; indeed, he makes virtually the opposite point—faith (in Christ) is separate/apart from works! This, of course, is precisely the argument Paul makes in Galatians 2:15-21 and throughout chapters 3-4, and is the very context in which Gen 15:6 is cited.

dikaio/w “made/declared just”—Here, too, James (in 2:21, 24) seems to be saying the opposite of Paul, that Abraham was made/declared just (or righteous) “out of works” (i.e., by or because of his actions), rather than by/through faith (Rom 3:28; 5:1; Gal 2:16; 3:11, 24). But are James and Paul using the verb dikaio/w in the same way? This is an important question, and on it hinges the possibility of conflict between the two viewpoints. The verb does not appear in James apart from this section (2:21, 24-25), but the adjective di/kaio$ (“just/righteous”) is used in 5:6, 16, and the noun dikaiosu/nh (“justice/righteousness”) in 3:18 (apart from the citation of Gen 15:6 in 2:23). These instances suggest that James is using the words in their traditional/Jewish sense, of religious and ethical/moral behavior which is according to the will of God (and which will be rewarded by Him), much as they are used in the teaching of Jesus (cf. Matt 5:45; 9:13; 10:41, et al). Paul, on the other hand, developed a distinct theological (and soteriological) technical meaning and connotation for the word-group which would appear to be foreign to the epistle of James (especially if the early date often given for the letter is correct). Would James (that is, the author of the letter) have agreed with Paul’s usage? On objective grounds, this is difficult to say. Much depends on the interpretation of his use of Gen 15:6.

Genesis 15:6—The citation in James 2:23 occurs toward the end of the ethical instruction of 2:14-26, with an emphasis on the importance of religious faith (in God and/or Christ) being expressed in action, especially in charitable/sacrificial giving (to the poor and needy, vv. 15-16) and in obedience to the will of God. In respect to the latter, the example of Abraham is given, particularly of his willingness to sacrifice Isaac at God’s command (Gen 22). It is Abraham’s trust, expressed in action—a most momentous action—which is emphasized; Gen 15:6 is cited as though God’s declaration followed this action. Paul (in Gal 3:6, also Rom 4:3ff) treats it more properly in its Scriptural context (Gen 15:1-5); note the comparison:

Both contextual situations relate to God’s promise to Abraham of many descendants (through Isaac), but—

Paul refers to the original promise (Gen 15:1-5) of a son,
prior to any proving/testing of Abraham’s faith in action
James effectively refers to God’s confirmation of the promise (by the Messenger of YHWH, Gen 22:15-18),
subsequent to (and as a result of [cf. verse 16]) the testing/proving of Abraham’s faith in action

However, it could be argued that the use of Gen 15:6 in the context of Gen 22 is misplaced; certainly, for Paul, the promise is related entirely to faith/trust in Jesus Christ. The only sacrificial action or efficacious “work” he mentions in Galatians is that of Jesus (Gal 1:4; 2:19-20; 3:13; 4:5). To a lesser extent, he also refers to his own labors (as apostle/missionary of Jesus, 4:12-20); but, overall, praxis is minimal in his ethical teaching (6:1-2, 9-10), with more focus given on the Spirit as the guiding force for believers (5:17-26; 6:6-10). James gives much greater emphasis to specific behavior (Jas 1:19-21, 26-27; 2:1-7, 9-11, 15-16, etc).

In what sense, for James, was Abraham (or Rahab, 2:25) made/declared just through works? Verse 22 gives the answer by the use of two verbs:

    • sunerge/w (“work [together] with”)—”trust/faith worked together [sunh/rgei] with his works”
    • teleio/w (“complete, finish”)—”(his) trust/faith was completed [e)teleiw/qh] out of [i.e. from, by] (his) works”

In the first, proper religious/ethical action is the natural (and necessary) complement of faith; in the second, such action also completes one’s faith. This brings us to the last point of comparison:

teleio/w “complete, finish”—Interestingly, Paul uses an intensive (compound) form of this same verb in the context of his citation of Gen 15:6 (in the section Gal 3:1-6, v. 3), where he asks the Galatians:

“having begun in the Spirit, are you now being completed [e)pitelei=sqe] in/by (the) flesh?”

This contrasting juxtaposition is parallel to that between faith and (works of) the Law. Paul warns the (Gentile, non-Jewish) Galatians against adopting circumcision and observance of the Jewish Law (Torah), effectively arguing that their faith should not be “completed by works”. It is here that we perhaps encounter the greatest (substantial) difference between James and Paul. Consider how the logic in the letter of James essentially proceeds:

Abraham’s faith/trust in God was expressed (and confirmed/completed) by his action in sacrificing Isaac…
…therefore we, as believers, ought to express our faith (in Christ) through (sacrificial) action in love and obedience to the word of God

However, circumcision was another way in which Abraham demonstrated his obedience to God (also involving a kind of sacrifice of his son), cf. Gen 17:9-14; 21:4. Might not Paul’s Jewish-Christian ‘opponents’ argue in a similar way:

Abraham’s faith/trust in God was expressed (and confirmed/completed) by his action in circumcising Isaac…
…therefore we, as believers, ought to express our faith (in Christ) through action (circumcision and observing the Torah) in love and obedience to the word of God

While Paul certainly would have agreed with the importance of moral/ethical behavior (cf. Gal 5:16-25) and for believers to support one another (6:1-2), I doubt very much that he would speak of works (of any sort) completing our faith in Christ. Note how in Gal 5:16-26, the negative “works of the flesh” refer to specific sorts of actions, while the contrasting “fruit of the Spirit” are more general characteristics. The closest he comes in Galatians to a specific instruction regarding action for the believer is in the basic exhortation to “walk by the Spirit” (5:16, 25). Such practical instruction is relatively rare in the other epistles as well, being most prominent in 1 Corinthians, where the instruction is often prompted as the result of questions to him by the Corinthian congregations.

Paul’s emphasis on the (Holy) Spirit brings up another major difference with James—the two instances of the word pneu=ma in the letter (Jas 2:26; 4:5) both refer to the ordinary (natural) human spirit/soul/life, and not to the Holy Spirit. The lack of any reference to the Spirit in James is most striking, and is one of the reasons that some commentators consider the letter to be primarily a Jewish (and only nominally Christian) work. Indeed, much of the language, style and content of James follows traditional Jewish instruction, and is closer (in tone and emphasis) to the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount than to Paul’s epistles. These differences can be partially explained if one accepts the early date often ascribed to the letter of James (c. 35-40 A.D.). According to this view, James might have been written anywhere between 10 and 20 years earlier than Galatians and Romans, etc. Paul, in his letters, would, by this time, have established a more precise terminology and developed theology, especially with regard to the Jewish-Gentile question, the relation of believers to the Law, sin and salvation, the nature of the Gospel and Christian identity, and so forth—all areas of discussion which are virtually absent from James.

June 29: Galatians 2, etc

June 29 is the traditional date celebrating the apostles Peter and Paul, a feast observed in both Eastern and Western tradition since the mid-4th century; it is associated with their martyrdom (in Rome), and may have been connected with the deposition of their remains (bones/relics) during the 3rd century. In commemoration of this date, over these three days (June 29, 30, and July 1), I will be presenting short notes on several aspects of the traditional relationship between Peter and Paul, as follows:

  • Opposition between Peter and Paul in Christian tradition
  • Peter and Paul as a symbol of Church Unity
  • An exegetical outline and summary of the famous passage in Galatians 2:11ff

Today’s note will look at the first of these:

Opposition between Peter and Paul in Christian tradition

There is only one passage in the New Testament which refers to any opposition between Peter and Paul—this is the second chapter of Galatians (Gal 2). The historical-critical questions surrounding the episode[s] in this chapter (in relation to those of Acts 15) are well-known and continue to be debated by scholars and commentators today; it will not be possible (nor advisable) to try to address them here. Rather, I will simply let Galatians speak for itself:

In verses 1-3, Paul refers to a session held during a visit to Jerusalem, where he and Barnabas (along with Titus, a Greek) met (privately kat’ i)di/an) with those considered (or seeming/appearing, dokou=sin) to be leaders (among the Jerusalem Christians). Though not stated here, these ‘leaders’ must have included James, Peter, and John (v. 9). According to v. 2, Paul went to Jerusalem according to a revelation (kata\ a)poka/luyin), his main concern being to set before them the “good news” (Gospel) that he had been proclaiming among the Gentiles. While he does not clearly explain the reason for doing this, he certainly was aware that his missionary approach—emphasizing that non-Jews could come to Christ and join the wider Christian Community without observing the traditional requirements of the Old Testament Law—was liable to be misunderstood (and misrepresented) even among Jewish Christians. He no doubt wished to maintain strong relations with the Jerusalem community, and to see his missionary work confirmed by them. He goes out of his way to point this out in verses 7-9.

In vv. 4-5, Paul suddenly mentions “false brothers” who were “brought in” (lit. “led along in[side]”) and “came in alongside” to “look down (at)” (i.e. inspect, ‘spy’)—it is not specified just who these people are or how they came to be a part of the proceedings, they may simply have been associates of the leaders (James-Peter-John). Here Paul introduces the freedom vs. bondage theme that will carry through the rest of the letter. The implication is that these “false brothers” wished to impose religious-legal requirements—circumcision, at least—on Gentile converts such as Titus (on the curious language in verse 6, see below). Paul concludes his narrative in vv. 7-10 by emphasizing that the meeting ended with a basic agreement—Paul was indeed recognized as an apostle to the Gentiles, just as Peter was for the Jews [the circumcised]. However, while this distinction could be harmonious, it could also serve as the basis for division. A hint of opposition between Paul and the Jerusalem leaders runs through vv. 1-10, by his repeated use of a curious expression, using the verb doke/w:

    • “the ones thought/considered (to be…)”, v. 2
    • “the ones thought/considered to be some(thing)”, v. 6 (partially repeated)
    • “the ones thought/considered to be pillars”, v. 9

Note the way this narrows and becomes more specific: in verse 9 the expression is identified with James, Peter and John. It is possible that the earlier references could apply to a larger group of church leaders. Some commentators have argued that there is nothing derogatory or negative about the expression “the ones thought/considered to be…”, but Paul’s repeated use of it here suggests otherwise, especially when we consider what he adds in verse 6: “whatever they were carries through [i.e. matters] nothing to me, (for) God does not receive the face of man [i.e. does not take a person at face value, according to appearance].”

However, it is clear that actual opposition does not break through until verse 11-14, a separate (later) incident, narrated by Paul, which took place in Antioch. Paul states that he “stood against (Peter) according to (his) face” (in English we might say “opposed him face to face”, or colloquially, “got right in his face”). The concluding expression of v. 11 (o%ti kategnwsme/no$ h@n) is a bit difficult to translate, but could be rendered “in that [i.e. because] he [Peter] was known/recognized (to be in error) regarding (this)”. I will discuss this passage in more detail in a later note, but the gist of it seems to be that, for a time, Peter was willing to forego the dietary laws (and/or other religious scruples) to observe Christian fellowship with the Gentile believers of Antioch; but, when prominent representatives of the Jerusalem church (“men from James”) arrived, he withdrew and was reluctant to associate publicly in the same way. Paul uses this as the springboard into the main argument of Galatians (summarized powerfully in verses 15-21).

There is only one other passage in the New Testament which could reflect some sort of opposition between Peter and Paul; this is 1 Corinthians 1:12, part of a discussion on divisions among believers in Corinth:

“each one of you says: ‘I am of Paulus’, and ‘I (am) of Apollos’, and ‘I (am) of Kefa [i.e. Peter]’, and ‘I (am) of (the) Anointed [i.e. of Christ]’—has the Anointed (One) been divided (into parts)?…”

Kefa (the original Aramaic of Pe/tro$/Peter, “Rock”) is mentioned again in 1 Cor 3:22 and 9:5. The reference in 1 Cor 1:12 (and perhaps also 3:22) would not be a direct personal opposition, but could imply emphasis on a more “Jewish” style of Christianity associated with Peter. That such a distinction of “Jewish” vs. “Gentile” Christianity, represented by Peter and Paul, persisted in Christian tradition, may perhaps be indicated by the so-called Pseudo-Clementine Literature (the Homilies and Recognitions). These works, typically dated to the early-3d century, are pseudepigraphic (see on Pseudonymity and Pseudepigraphy), associated with Clement, a prominent figure of the early sub-apostolic period, and traditionally one of the first bishops of Rome. The Homilies are prefaced by (pseudonymous) correspondence between Peter and James, in which Peter presents books of his preaching (the Homilies) and gives instruction regarding their use and distribution. In the letter to James (2:3-4), Peter complains (and warns) that:

“some among the Gentiles have rejected my lawful preaching and have preferred a lawless and absurd doctrine of the man who is my enemy. And indeed some have attempted, while I am still alive, to distort my words by interpretations of many sorts, as if I taught the dissolution of the law and, although I was of this opinion, did not express it openly. But that may God forbid!” (transl. Johannes Irmscher and George Strecker in Hennecke-Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha, vol.2 ).

According to the books of Homilies which follow, the “lawless” “enemy” is Simon Magus; however, many critical scholars hold that Simon is actually a kind of code (or cipher) for Paul and his teachings. In Hom. II.17.3-5, Simon is described specifically as one who went (ahead of Peter) to the Gentiles and proclaimed “a false gospel”. The narrative of the Homilies works on two levels: (1) Peter pursues Simon and challenges/opposes him as a false teacher and wicked magician, much in the manner of other legendary, extra-canonical “Acts” of the Apostles; and (2) Peter pursues and corrects a specific sort of false teaching that has been spread out into the Gentile world.

The theological outlook of the Homilies is strongly Jewish Christian, having much in common with the language and thought-world of the Sermon on the Mount; indeed, it draws heavily on the “Two Ways” motif (see also Didache 1-5; Barnabas 18-20), which was itself no doubt influenced by sayings of Jesus such as in Matt 7:13-14ff. The “easy way” that leads to destruction involves ignoring or disregarding the Law of Moses and/or the corresponding commands of Jesus (Hom. VII.7.1-2ff; VIII.5-7, etc). The dualism of the Homilies is even more pronounced, as we see in book 2, culminating in the juxtaposition of Simon and Peter—Simon with the false Gospel comes first, then follows Peter with the true Gospel—an inversion/perversion of the proper order of God (and Creation) which the true Gospel is meant to correct. However, the Homilies (as reflecting the purported teaching of Peter) do not simply require Gentiles to obey the Law of Moses; rather, its theological outlook is expressed well in book 8, where in chapters 4ff an argument is laid out akin to the modern-day “Two Covenants” theory—Jews who faithfully observed the Law of Moses will not be condemned, even apart from Jesus, and (Gentile) Christians who faithfully observe Jesus’ commandments (as in the Sermon on the Mount) too will be accepted, even apart from the Law. It is the “lawless” pseudo-Christians (i.e. followers of “Simon”) who certainly will be condemned.

There are rough similarities to the Homilies in the epistle of James, a much earlier compendium of Jewish-Christian instruction which has also been greatly influenced by the Sermon on the Mount. In James 2:14-26, there is the famous passage on “faith and works”, often thought by many commentators to have been written in response to Paul’s teaching. Of course, much depends on the date of composition and authorship of the letter (perhaps better described as a sermon-tract). Dating varies considerably, from early (40s) to late (90-100); I am more inclined to accept an earlier dating, at least prior to the Jewish War of 66-70. Did ‘James’ know Paul’s teaching on “faith and works” such as we see in Galatians, and is he writing to contradict it? At least one statement (verse 24) almost seems to be an explicit contradiction, as does the very different use of Genesis 15:6 in vv. 21-23 (cf. Gal 3:6; Rom 4:3). On the other hand, it can be argued (rather convincingly) that James and Paul use e&rga (“works”), pi/sti$ (“trust/faith”) and even dikai/w/dikaiosu/nh (“justify”, “justice/righteousness”) somewhat differently; certainly the context is different—in James 2 the main issue is the importance of “good works” (acts of mercy) to the poor and needy, whereas in Galatians Paul is addressing the question of whether Gentiles (and believers in general) are still required to observe the Old Testament Law.