I recently finished the book Saint Peter: A Biography by Michael Grant. 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. 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….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
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: conversion requirements for Jews and gentile coverts were different. 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 conformity 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.
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 skepticism) 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.
If you’d like more details on this, see a longer version of this post. So, what do you think about Peter, Paul, and James as “the” early leader of Christianity? Since the LDS believe that Peter, James, and John were the “First Presidency” of the original church, do you see any problems with LDS theology if the real leader of the early Christian movement was in fact James, Jesus’ brother?