Acts 21, James and the Law

I am still thinking about James, especially as he appears in Acts 21.  While this might seem a bit afield from Acts and Pauline theology, I think that James is a bit of a window into why Paul’s gospel was so radical in the first century, especially his declaration that Gentiles are saved apart from the Law.

James seems to represent a Jewish Christianity which continues to keep the Law in a way that fulfills Matthew 5:20.  If one was to be a part of the kingdom of God, then one kept the whole Law.  The idea that the people of God need to be absolutely Holy when the messiah comes is found at Qumran.  The people who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls seemed to have lived in a state of Temple Purity all of the time, a state which the priest who was serving in the Temple had to maintain.  Even the Pharisees maintained a higher level of purity than was required by the Law, although this may not have been in anticipation of the kingdom.

It is possible that the emphasis on circumcision and food laws which were so troublesome in the Galatian churches is a result of the Second Temple period emphasis on Works of the Law, boundary markers which defined who was a Jew and who was not.

Using the book of Acts and the letter James wrote, we can see that James was associated with the most Jewish form of Christianity which remained based in Jerusalem.  In Acts 15 James leads a church which includes Pharisees and priests (probably the same people, many priests were also Pharisees).  Like Paul, these men came to understand that Jesus was the Messiah and that he would return soon to judge the world and Israel and establish the Kingdom of God in Jerusalem.

There was a broad range of views on the status of the Gentiles in the coming kingdom in the Second Temple period.  For the most part, the gentiles would either be converted and included in that kingdom, or judged and excluded from that kingdom.  Some Jews thought there would be more or less mass conversions, but on the other end of the extreme, few if any gentiles would be converted (and probably most Jews would be excluded!)

When Paul arrives in Jerusalem in Acts 21, the issue James raises has to do with Paul’s keeping of the Law.  Some in Jerusalem think that Paul has left Judaism and no longer keeps the Law.  So even at this late date, James represents a group in Jerusalem who are Christians, but are keeping the Law.

Was Law a requirement for salvation for the Jewish believers in Jesus?  Probably not, although it is inconceivable to this group that there would be Jews who did not want to keep the Law.  Keeping the Law is the only possible response to the grace which God has given – how could you not demonstrate your justification by doing the things which God requires?  By way of analogy, there are many Baptist churches which would agree that baptism is not a requirement for salvation, but it is inconceivable that anyone who was truly a Christian would not get baptized. It is simply the natural thing to do, if you have become a Christian.  So too the Law, if you were a Jewish believer, you simply did the Law because it was the proper response to God’s grace.

Back to Paul.  I think that Paul would agree with James on Jewish use of the Law.  Where he differed (radically) was that Gentiles did not convert to Judaism in order to be “right with God,” and therefore were not required to do the Law.  James, on the other hand, likely though that Gentiles were in fact converting to Judaism, or at the very least ought to be under the sojourner laws while living in The Land (the point of Acts 15).

4 thoughts on “Acts 21, James and the Law

  1. I’m enjoying this series, brother. Keep it up!

    One thing about grace and freedom – it means James and his constituents were absolutely free to be just as legalistic as he wanted. Paul went out of his way to respect that. He only criticized those who tried to force their personal convictions on others. In contrast to Paul, folks who want to homogenize J&P just blow my mind.

    Like

  2. I feel like I am walking a thin line here, separating Paul and James a widely as I can without falling into the views of F.C. Bauer, or (worse?) Bart Erhman. I am very attracted to the view that there were many views on Jesus and the Law, Paul’s view is the one that overcomes the others.

    I wonder, sometimes, if Bauer did not get more right than wrong in his view of the early church.

    Like

  3. For Luke, Paul’s view overcame James’ view. For me, too. But as long as they both directed their lives of faith towards the Lord, with His blessing, what is the problem?

    I think James was a big hairy legalist. And legalism is okay. Just don’t put yours on me.

    Like

  4. Compared to James, I am more on the antinomian side, I suppose.

    But I want to avoid the impression that what I see as legalism today with respect to practice is not quite the same as James. He is a real Legalist in that he would want the Law kept as an indication that one has become a part of new Israel. I assume Pharisees who were Christians would agree.

    This descends pretty quickly into something akin to the “New Perspective on Paul” debate, since we could ask, “Did James think Law (circumcision, sabbath, food law) was required for salvation?” My guess is that the answer would be no, but also that there is no way that someone that was “saved” would not be circumcised, etc. To keep the commands is the only possible response to salvation, while it is not required, it is inconcievable that you would not keep the Law. (Again, I am trying to think like James.)

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.