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?
Frankly I don’t see a problem. But I’m not one who will get stuck on a point of matter on which, to this point, little scant evidence exists to verify current thinking on an issue. The current thought is that Peter led the church. Fine by me. If evidence comes out that in fact James led the church, fine by me.
I think the perspective the writer has is warped by the amount of writing he can find. If we went only by books published, everyone would think McConkie was the dominant general authority.
Yet he was not.
Perish the thought
History is written by the victors. We all know there were many writings of the early Christian church. The ones we have were chosen to support the church at the time the NT was assembled (ie. an early version of only telling things that are faith-promoting, not just things that are true).
I do like the dynamism present, however, in this account. Church leaders, while they can be inspired, are also men with their own passions, opinions, etc. I like the idea of choosing the leader who perhaps has the best “skills” to bring the message forward as opposed to some strict hierarchal succession that is based on deaths. I think it would be very interesting if our Church today ran the same way are the church apparently did back in Christ’s time. (Although, I’m sure that if people got to select the next prophet that Uchtdorf would be next, with over 50% of the membership being female and all) 🙂
I also do think it points out that not everything a church president says is “from God”. If God’s will was truly behind all that came from a church leader, we theoretically wouldn’t have disputes like the one above. If God cared one way or the other about circumcision, and if He let His apostles know His will, then there shouldn’t even have been a debate. I think this shows that God works MUCH further behind the scenes than we ascribe and that most of the things we do in the Church are likely the opinions of well-meaning men turned into official practice.
“Since the LDS believe that Peter, James, and John were the “First Presidency” of the original church, do you see any problems…?”
I see major problems with LDS viewing Peter, James, and John as the “First Presidency,” since that requires completely ignoring the D&C and restored Church history.
If someone wants to view Peter, James, and John as very vaguely analogous to the modern First Presidency, then fine, otherwise….
I think the more interesting question is this: “To what extent are we applying our modern conception of what a “church” represents to the cult of Jesus in mid-1st-century AD?” The more I read, the more I feel like perhaps the apostles and early followers of Jesus had no strong religious organization, but that communities of believers created organizations organically according to local circumstances and needs, only later (in 2nd and 3rd centuries) to be stratified into offices such as bishop, deacon, etc. as rules of orthodoxy and orthopraxy were being formulated (and alternative patterns of belief and practice were being suppressed).
What does this mean for Peter, the apostles, and James, brother of Jesus? Certainly each of these men (and women, too, such as Mary Magdalene) had their own interpretation of Jesus’ character, activities, and sense of meaning attached to his death and resurrection. Almost all of these individuals came from Jewish backgrounds, and had to interpret Jesus’ words about the Gospel being preached to all the earth (should it be preached just to Jews all over the known world? or to every person, regardless of religious tradition?). It seems probable based on extant textual sources that the leadership of the community of believers in Jerusalem itself were of the opinion that converts to Jesus’ Gospel (or Way, as it was called) should continue to follow Mosaic Laws, particularly if they had been born Jewish. If they had been born Gentile, they should be circumcised and made Jewish in order to be baptized as a follower of Jesus.
Acts and some of Paul’s letters record some of the contentions among early leaders on these issues, but I don’t read in those sources a strong sense of an organized church with a head leader and others sitting in council, with ranks of subordinate leaders taking direction from the general leadership and preaching and practicing the religion in a uniform way. Such a concept is much too modern an invention for the ancient world, IMO. Using Paul’s letters to various congregations he founded as examples, we see how easily (and quickly?) people’s ideas of correct doctrine and practice can change in this time period, and that epistolary writing really can only do so much to correct the often rapid changes in ideas.
I believe that the apostles were individuals that were eye witnesses to a claim for Jesus’ divinity. They not only knew him in his life (with the exception of Paul?), but saw, felt, or otherwise experienced something extra about Jesus that convinced them that He was more than just a man. Some would claim he was a literal son of the Jewish God; others would claim that the man Jesus and the spirit of God occupied the same space for a while (either from birth, or from Jesus’ baptism, and ending on the cross); still others believed that Jesus was wholly human, but was adopted as God’s Son and became a messenger of a new covenant, a new way. But aside from this special witness and charge to proclaim Jesus’ Gospel, there is very little evidence that from what I’ve read of much doctrinal consensus among the leader of Jesus’ followers in the 1st century. Certainly one would think that the opinions of the apostles carried more weight than the average congregant, but why don’t we have more of them writing about Jesus’ life? Only Matthew seems to have written a biographical account of Jesus (the Gospel According to John was one of the last books of the NT to be written, near the end of the 1st century, by a person identified only as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”). The truth is that most of the core leadership were peasant farmers and fishermen (including Peter, James, and John), who were likely illiterate. Literacy, of course, is not a prerequisite for effective leadership or doctrinal exposition and interpretation, but these were no scholars, political geniuses, or organizational leadership experts.
Given this perspective, it is hard to say whether James or Peter held ultimate power. But almost certainly, their authority would have been recognized more locally than generally, and their organization(s) much more limited in geographic scope than one might imagine if we believe in “the same organization that existed in the Primitive Church”, which really we somehow seek to project our own concept of ecclesiastical organization on the collection of congregations of believers throughout Italy, Greece, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Asia minor as somehow all tightly united in doctrine, practice, and in recognition of authority. In the first century, at least, it simply wasn’t so.
steve, i’m not following you here. there is scant evidence on james (unlike mcconkie.)
mike, I agree. history is written by the victors, and I agree that God works much further behind the scenes. many inspired writings are from good men doing their best, not necessarily what God directs.
brian, can you explain? i’m not following you.
steve, excellent comments. early christianity was much smaller and more diverse than we think of in sunday school. I also believe the ancient church was much looser in organization than we think. (so is the early mormon church.) your points are well taken.
Does anyone know the first known account of any mention of Peter, James and John by Joseph Smith or anyone in his acquaintance? Certainly he factors into the restoration of the priesthood story, but that is a late recollection, for which we do not even have an exact date. Also, PJ&J factor into the temple ceremony. But when exactly does JS claim they are the leaders of the ancient church? I’m sure he does, but I’m too lazy to try to look up a reference.
But I’m really interested in when PJ&J became the early first presidency or whatever. Catholics believe, of course, that Peter was the first pope, the rock upon which Christ would build His church. And, PJ&J are seen together in the story of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. The three are taken by Jesus as he raises the daughter of Jairus from the dead (c.f. Mark 5, Luke 8). Then, the three with Andrew are taught apocalyptic signs of the times in Mark 13. Finally, PJ&J accompany Jesus to the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14). Also, Paul calls Peter, James, and John “pillars” in Gal. 2:9.
Do all of these special situations, of which other apostles seem to have been excluded, make PJ&J the “leaders” of the apostles? Was this a common perception among all christians through the ages, common to protestants in NY in the early 19th century, or unique to Joseph Smith? Certainly to assign them offices such as “first presidency” is a modern invention for the sake of helping a contemporary of Joseph Smith understand the relationship of PJ&J to the rest of the apostles, and to the other followers of Jesus. But when did Joseph begin teaching about PJ&J thusly?
steve s you raise an interesting question. I think lds typically think of the apostasy as an event, but I think it was a process. we know that gnostic christianity was alive in this early period as well. paul references those that preach another gospel as cursed, and I think he could be referring to gnostics.
but if we look at this circumcision council, perhaps james could be viewed as a sort of apostate with his strong opinion on circumcision. a friend of mine has suggested that pauline christianity is a sort of apostasy with the admitting of gentiles. it’s an interesting idea.
so this question of peter, james, and john is interesting. if james was the leader, perhaps he is the cursed one spoken by paul. however such an interpretation seems wrong. paul seems to begrudgingly accept james as an apostle (not original.)
I very much doubt that Gnostic Christianity existed at all before 100 AD. Paul’s letters were probably written almost half a century before that.
syphax, we had a similar debate at my blog. certainly there are many flavors of gnostics. gnostic judaism dates to at least the century prior to christ. since ancient christianity was considered just another jewish sect, I contend that gnostic judaism intermingled with judaism quite early. of course, scholars debate about this point, but I will try to find some quotes to back me up this evening.
mh, #7: D&C 107 holds some of the answers. But the short answer is that the current First Presidency and overall Church hierarchy differs from what Joseph originally established. The main reason for that, as I see it, is that the establishment of Zion was…hindered and postponed, thereby eliminating the existence of a “standing high council.” Furthermore, the succession crisis following Joseph’s death left the Quorum of the 12—otherwise known as the traveling high council—in charge. This is particularly different than what Joseph had originally envisioned because it seems that the traveling high council was intended to be temporary; i.e., there would be no need for it once Zion was firmly established. It’s also different because the First Presidency under Joseph drafted and set apart the 12 Apostles; now, the 12 Apostles draft and set apart the First Presidency.
At any rate, a really short answer is that the First Presidency has changed so much over the last 180 years that it’s hard to imagine Peter, James, and John forming anything too similar 2000 years ago!
Ok, I found my quote from the Jewish Encyclopedia. As I said before, Gnosticism is a very diverse set of beliefs. I agree with you that the start of Gnosticism is difficult to pin down, but the Jewish Encyclopedia states that
Read more: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=280&letter=G&search=gnosticism#ixzz0s7YSrPiH
The Gospel of John has gnostic elements. The Gospel of Judas and Gospel of Thomas are well-known gnostic Gospels. The Gospel of Thomas pre-dates all of the biblical gospels, and some scholars have wondered if it is the source Q. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all contain identical Greek translations of Jesus’ sayings, and these sayings bear striking resemblances to Thomas.
Brian, thanks for the clarification. The High Council/Apostles issue is very interesting to me. It does appear that Brigham Young eliminated the High Council to consolidate power in the 12 Apostles. I agree that the First Presidency is quite different now than at the time of Joseph’s death.
I very much doubt that some forms of Christian Gnosticism didn’t exist in 1st century AD, although certainly most of the Gnostic writings date from mid 2nd century. Like MH mentioned, some of the issues Paul addresses in his letters may have arisen from Gnostic-flavored doctrine being introduced in his congregations.
I think Paul’s main beef was with Jewish Christians who believed in upholding the law of Moses, especially circumcision, and he says that repeatedly in his epistles (and his involvement in that conflict is also recorded in Acts). If you want to argue that Gnostic Christianity had developed enough by the ’50s or ’60s when Paul wrote his letters enough for Paul to see them as a threat, I’d need a lot more evidence than that to believe it. Gnostic Christianity is a very particular set of beliefs about cosmology, Jesus, God, and the God of the Old Testament, and the bulk of evidence is that it was fully developed by the mid-2nd century.
From what I’ve read of Mormon armchair historians, due to their love of the Nag Hammadi library, it seems like everything that took a mystical approach or used the word “knowledge” is labeled “Gnostic” or “Gnostic-flavored.” If you defined “Gnosticism” broadly enough, it can fit whatever you’d like, but then you might as well call Sufism or Zen Buddhism or the Urantia Book “Gnostic.” I’m not even convinced that the Gospel of Thomas is Gnostic, and I certainly wouldn’t call it a great candidate for Q, which we’re not even sure existed.
The other trend I’ve noticed in some of these blogs is that people love to take the earliest possible date of something as the date of origin. I have never seen a good argument for Thomas pre-dating the other Gospels. Some of the sayings certainly might have predated the Synoptics.
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” I say.
Apologies that the following response is slightly off-topic.
Syphax: I can only speak for myself, but based on the stuff I’ve read written by MH, neither one of us are “in love” with the Nag Hammadi library, or trying to look at 1st century religious history through gnostic-colored glasses.
I take issue with your claim that “Gnostic Christianity is a very particular set of beliefs about cosmology, Jesus, God, and the God of the Old Testament.” I’m the first to admit that I’m not a professional scholar of ancient religion, but all I’ve ever read about Gnosticism claims that Gnosticism had many different flavors, competing doctrines and cosmologies, and didn’t necessarily develop from one source in one location. Certainly by 2nd century AD Gnostic texts were being written and circulated, but I see no reason to believe that Gnostic ideas didn’t exist previous to their being written down–it took the authors of the Gospels 30-70 years to write down their version of Jesus’ life.
I understand what you’re saying about extraordinary claims, but perhaps our definitions of “extraordinary” are different, and based on our personal frames of reference.
“Extraordinary” to me just means something that would hold up in a peer-reviewed publication. There are certainly lots of flavors of Gnosticism but in order for the term to be meaningful, there are global characteristics that are particular to Gnosticism, and especially Gnostic Christianity. The most identifiable would probably be its Cosmology (a good creator God and an imperfect lesser demiurge). If just saying “knowledge” or emphasizing a mystical connection is Gnostic, then I don’t see why Paul would even have a problem with that. If it was an organized system that called Jehovah an evil demiurge, then I do see why Paul would have a problem with that. We just don’t have any evidence of that kind of thought in Christianity until Marcion maybe?
I’d say more but I don’t think we really disagree all that much and I’m not emotionally invested enough in this topic to completely derail the conversation (more).
Oops, in Gnosticism there is an ultimately good God out of which everything flows, and the local creator of this world is a demiurge. I don’t think I made that very clear.
Syphax, would Richard Valanasis count as one of “peer review” status?
Richard Valantasis writes:
” Assigning a date to the Gospel of Thomas is very complex because it is difficult to know precisely to what a date is being assigned. Scholars have proposed a date as early as AD 60 or as late as AD 140, depending upon whether the Gospel of Thomas is identified with the original core of sayings, or with the author’s published text, or with the Greek or Coptic texts, or with parallels in other literature.”
I realize Wikipedia is not peer review, but it does highlight some peer review authors. It discusses the dating of the Gospel of Thomas discussing pros and cons of early/late dates. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_thomas
Right, so if a possible date is 140 AD, then we’re probably not justified in saying “The Gospel of Thomas predates all the other Gospels”. You could say “The Gospel of Thomas POSSIBLY predated the other Gospels, if we ASSUME an early date for Thomas and also ASSUME a later date for the other Gospels.” But you have to also humbly admit that you’re combining two assumptions and adding another assumption. My real objection is when people pick the earliest possible date for something only when it is convenient to their argument. Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to assume a date right in the middle of the earliest and latest estimates? That would put it around 100 AD. And if scholars are divided as to whether it even qualifies as Gnostic, then I don’t think we’re justified in identifying it as a “well-known Gnostic text.”
The strength of peer-reviewed literature (as opposed to popular literature) is that they have to admit when certainty is low, state the assumptions that they build their arguments on, back up claims with evidence, and have their peers work their arguments over to make sure they make sense. Starting with an assumption (the Gospel of Thomas is a gnostic text that predated the other Gospels) and working backwards leads to people redefining terms like Gnostic broadly enough, and dating texts early enough, to justify their conclusion. Like I said before, I’m not just being a contrary jerk for its own sake, I just feel like this post, and quite a bit of your speculative historical posts, could do with one less scoop of jumping to conclusions and one more scoop of the admission that you sometimes really have to “massage” the data to reach those conclusions. With sprinkles on top.