The relationship of James and Paul has generated a great deal of literature since Martin Luther made his famous declaration that the letter of James as an “epistle of straw.” Luther’s objection to James was his belief that Paul’s doctrine of “justification by faith” was in opposition to the “dead legalism” of the Pharisees. For Luther, James represents Judaism, Paul “real Christianity.” As is well-known in the post-New Perspective world, Luther read Paul in the light of his own struggle against the Catholic theology and to a large extent understood the legalists and Pharisees as Proto-Pelagians, and Paul was a good Protestant against that legalism.
There are a number of problems with this, not the least of which is that Luther misunderstood the Judaism of the first century as a “works for salvation” religion. It is not that Luther was misguided, but the study of the Second Temple period only developed in the second half of the twentieth century. The discovery of the DSS and the collection of Second Temple period documents into convenient collections made access to this vast literature possible for New Testament scholars.
Luther’s view was strengthened by protestant liberal readings of Paul in the nineteenth century. F. C. Bauer understood the early church as a division between a Pauline (Gentile) Christianity and Peterine (Jewish) Christianity. Bauer only accepted Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Galatians as authentically Pauline, skewing Paul’s theology and over-emphasizing the problem of Gentile salvation. He also dismissed Acts as an accurate source for history, considering it to be written quite late, yet accepting the Pseudo-Clementines as having considerable value. This served to make the divide between Paul and James even greater, since the Pseudo-Clementines record a violent disagreement between the two men which is not recorded in Acts. For Bauer, James is a late pseudonymous letter attempting to find common ground between Paul Gentile Christianity and Peter’s Jewish wing of the church. It is almost axiomatic that Bauer’s views were extreme and are almost universally rejected in modern New Testament studies.
“Loosening the Pauline Connection.” Perhaps Luke Timothy Johnson is correct in his Anchor Bible Commentary on James, where he recommends scholars “loosen the Pauline connection.” He points out that only 12 of the 108 verse in James have anything to do with Paul. By over exaggerating the importance of those verses, both James and Paul are distorted.
The reason for this is the natural attraction of simplicity – two theologies in dialogue are much easier to integrate into a systematic theology than the broader, wide ranging early church and the many varieties of Second Temple Judaism. Christian theology has developed almost entirely as a result of the study of Paul’s writings. Johnson argues that we ought to therefore take the Pauline debate out of our discussion of James and let James stand on his own as a representative of Jewish Christianity which may (or may not) be in dialogue with Paul. “What is it that James says?” should be the question.
Johnson also argues that “conflict models” need to be rejected. This begins by recognizing that the legendary elements which are found in the Pseudo-Clemetines are in fact legendary and have no basis in fact. Johnson also advocates a more realistic assessment of the book of Acts, regarding it as generally historical in most details.
Once these two basic decisions are made, then Galatians, Acts and James are not to be seen in great conflict with one another, but generally in agreement. The Jerusalem church (as represented by James) agrees with Paul’s theology of “no law for the gentile.” There is no reason to assume a violent conflict between the two. Diversity does not require conflict – although this too needs to be tempered since there is eventually a degree to which diversity can no longer be tolerated. Within the New Testament, no writer goes beyond what is required to be faithful.
Johnson is correct that we must avoid “anachronistic readings” of James and Paul based on later theological structures. Keep Calvinism out of the discussion and present James, Paul and the Pharisees along a continuum of Second Temple period Judaism!