On a message board where I sometimes interact there has been a discussion regarding the canonical status of the Epistle of James. This lead to the oft debated topic of whether or not there was a rivalry between the Apostle Paul and James the Just, or at least strong disagreement. It has inspired me to put down some of my most basic thoughts on the matter.

Did a rivalry exist between the Apostle Paul and James the Just?

I think “rivalry” is too strong a word, but there does seem to have been some tension. When Paul mentions Peter, John, and James as those “reported to be pillars” in Gal. 2.9 it is possible that they were part of Paul’s struggle with Jerusalem over Gentiles in the church. In v. 12 he doesn’t deny that the men who came from Jerusalem, who scared Peter away from table-fellowship with Gentiles, were actually “from James” (ἀπὸ Ἰακώβου). In fact, he seems to assume that they came with his support.

It is very curious that James would spend so much time arguing that we are not justified by faith alone, but rather by works (2.14-26). It is a very strong statement to emphasize that we are not justified by “faith only” (οὐκ ἐκ πίστεως μόνον), which is why Martin Luther didn’t like this epistle since he interpreted Paul as arguing for salvation by “faith alone”. Likewise, we should note that James is very, very concerned that people may use the concept of “justification by faith” to justify their abuse of the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the misuse of the tongue intrigues me. When Paul tells the Galatians that he received approval from Jerusalem he mentions that they had one major concern: “They only asked us to remember the poor–the very thing I was also eager to do.” (2.10)

Why was this a concern? I think it is possible that people who knew of Paul’s teaching used it to abuse the oppressed. James saw this and he snapped back at a teaching he may have thought was from Paul. Once Paul clarified matters, once he showed he had no intention of avoiding the second commandment of importance to care for one’s neighbor, the Jerusalem church approved him (at that time).

We know that people did misinterpret Paul (2 Pet. 3.14-16). Paul says so himself indicating some people took his message to mean that we should go on sinning. He says that some have “slanderously reported” that Paul taught that we should do evil so good may come from it (Rom. 3.8). If someone took Paul to say this, and then told James that this was Paul’s message, we should expect a reaction like we find in James’ epistle.

Did they disagree over the doctrine of justification by faith?

I don’t see a disagreement between James and Paul on this matter. I see a disagreement between James’ understanding of Paul and James’ own teaching. I am sure there was likely tension between James and Paul because James is known as being a law adhering, temple visiting Jew. When Josephus recounts James’ martyrdom he says that a Sadducee names Ananus had James put to death for being a law breaker, yet many reacted negatively to this since they understood Ananus’ act to be “unjustified” (Antiquities XX.9.1). If James would have been anything like Paul in his relationship to the Law and the temple there would have been a different response (see Acts 21.27-22.30).

I think people who see a “contradiction” between these two read Paul like a misguided Protestant. Paul never said anything against good works. He critiqued works of the Law coming from the flesh, but everywhere he writes imperatives based on the idea that Christians are called to Spirit-inspired works of faith. Likewise, James does not camp out on whether or not Christians should obey the Sabbath, or eat seafood, or wear clothing made of two types of material. Rather, he challenges the idea that anyone can be justified without being obedient toward God and he uses examples such as caring for the poor, the orphan, and the widow, watching one’s tongue, and not causing division. Paul would affirm all these things.

Whether there was a long standing disagreement between Paul and James that was not resolved is beyond the data available. The author of the Book of Acts seems of the persuasion that the two eventually came to see things eye-to-eye (15.13-35). If the event in Gal. 2.11-14 happened after the council it is intentionally ignored.

Thoughts? Do you see a rivalry between Paul and James? If so, how intense and long lasting do you think it was?