Jewish Christian Literature and Pauline Theology

Another common element in descriptions of Jewish Christian is “anti-Paulinism.” To what extent does a given document disagree with Paul and Pauline theology? There is a wide range of opinion on what Paul’s theology really was, especially in the wake of the New Perspective on Paul. For some writers, James clearly disagrees with Paul, but for others there is no real disagreement between the two on the relationship of faith and works.

Paul and James hug it out

Is there evidence of “differences” in theology between the Jewish-Christian writers and Paul in the New Testament? Acts 21 seems to indicate that at least some in the Jerusalem church were suspicious of Paul’s theology and his understanding of the Law. Whether Acts 21:21 implies that James believed Paul to have “turned away from the customs of Moses” is an open question, but at the very least some in the Jerusalem community were not supporters of Paul! Paul’s conflict with Peter and Barnabas in Galatians 2 may be another example of resistance to Paul’s view of the Law. I personally think that John Mark’s “defection” in Acts 13:13 is a reaction to Paul’s condemnation of Elymas and his contact with the Roman proconsul on Cyprus. It might even be possible to find some evidence of division in Ephesus in the background of 1 Timothy that is “anti-Paul.”

Because most readers of the New Testament do not hear these echoes of division, Hagner’s second point is hardest to test in the biblical material. Perhaps we want to think that the earliest days of the church were theological pure and wholly unified and this skews our reading. But there was some tension between the Jerusalem community and Paul, even if it is only hinted at in the New Testament.

For example, James 2:14-26 is at least potentially “anti-Pauline,” although most commentators on James work hard to show Paul and James are not contradictory. To what extent is James “anti-Paul”? If James was written very early, it is possible that James had never read Paul’s theology (a copy of Galatians or Romans, for example) since Paul has not written anything yet! If so, James may be reacting to Pauline Theology as it has been reported to him, not as it actually was being taught. On the other hand, there is no reason to think that more extreme applications of Paul’s theology did not appear early on. There may very well have been Jews who rejected Law in favor of Paul’s doctrine of Grace and therefore are attacked by James. (I am not against the idea that James is actually arguing against Paul, but that is for another posting.)

It is sometimes hard for people living after the Reformation that anyone rejected Paul’s theology or that there were groups in the early church that considered Paul the heretic. For many people today, Paul’s theology is Christian theology. Imagine writing a book on Salvation without referring to Paul’s letters! Yet there were at least some sub-Christian groups that did reject Paul’s letters as authoritative sources for developing doctrine.  It is still an open question that the seeds of this anti-Pauline theology existed in the Apostolic period.

Is there anything in the Jewish-Christian literature that might help with this question? James 2:14-26 and 2 Peter 3:15-16 are two places where Paul is in the background – are there others? By way of application, to what extent is the modern church pro- or anti- Pauline in their way of doing theology?

22 thoughts on “Jewish Christian Literature and Pauline Theology

  1. For me, at least, where the Paul within Judaism crowd and Second Temple studies are most helpful is in their arguments that Paul had two sets of rules, one for Jews and one for pagans. This explains a great many contradictory statements in Paul’s letters and allows for greater potential harmony (in my mind) between Paul and the author of James. You simply have both: Justification of faith for the pagans, who are not required, or desired, by Paul to “be” Jews, and justification by works for the messianic Jews who remain Jews even after their acceptance of Christ and for whom all the Laws remain. James and Paul do not necessarily have to be in opposition. That may simply be another anachronism projected onto the ancient authors from a time when the opposition existed in the minds of Christian theologians for reasons that did not exist for the first century authors. Of course, it may also be the case that James did in fact disagree with Paul. What? Two first century Jewish thinkers in disagreement with each other? Surely, that’s never happened before!

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  2. I like that you are pointing out what is often missed in theologically-biased readings of the NT and surrounding lit.: That lots of differing views were present, apparently right from the “beginning”. Any supposedly clear and unified dogma via “apostolic authority” is largely a literary fiction with no real historical basis. One of the clues about after-the-fact narratives creating pseudo continuity/unity is the big difference between G of John’s role for John the Bapt. compared to the report of Josephus. In the latter, John would seem to be a more central character than Jesus, and certainly not merely one to introduce Jesus and then fade away so he could “increase”.

    Acts 19 addresses the apparently long and widespread following of John which knew little if any of the NT info about Jesus.

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    • The followers of John the Baptist are always fascinating, although Apollos is an example of one that knew Jesus. I did some work on the Mandeans a few years ago; they are a Christian group which continued to honor John the Baptist (and reject Jesus) for centuries.

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      • Phillip, it’s unfortunate, isn’t it, that there is so little on John’s disciples as largely, if not fully distinct from Jesus’ (except where the groups intersected, as in Acts 19). You probably have noted, but for other readers, note that the John disciples (19:1-7) knew nothing about the Holy Spirit or baptism in the name of Jesus. According to Acts, the coming of the H.S. was a very big deal, just 50 days after the Crucifixion. It could well be said to be the real birth of the Church in the Lukan narrative of Acts. And many years later, though some distance away in Ephesus, one would think John’s followers would know of it if the Gospel’s explanation of the John-Jesus relationship was historically accurate (esp. that of G of John). Or maybe the “day of Pentecost” account is highly stylized to help Luke make his Holy Spirit / Kingdom of God emphasis.

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  3. James 2:14-26 refers says that faith without works is dead, seemingly the opposite of what Paul says in Romans 3:28, “For we hold that one is justified by faith, apart from works of the law.” James 2:24 uses the word justification to say, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. It is interesting to me that they use the same word, justification, as well as the fact that the statement of James seems to attack what Paul says by using the same word usage and the way it is phrased. If James was simply
    clarifying Paul’s thought because of misunderstanding it seems he would have phrased it in a different way, rather than a direct contradiction. I have always assumed that James was expanding on Paul’s thought, but it seems after reading it more carefully there is direct confrontation rather than expounding on what Paul said. What James says in verse 20 is also interesting to me, calling the reader foolish and asking if they need proof that faith without works is dead. The way this is worded to me says that the people he calls foolish had simply misunderstood Paul’s teaching and that it should have been obvious what he meant, almost like he was frustrated they didn’t understand what Paul meant to say, as if it should have been assumed that Paul wasn’t condemning works. In this way it does seem like James is clarifying and maybe the tone is frustration at the people misusing Paul’s theology and taking advantage of it instead of doing what they actually knew Paul meant. I think people play word games frequently. They know what someone meant but find some way to take advantage of the holes in word usage, this may be the problem between Paul and James rather than an actual disagreement on theology.

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  4. Hebrews 1-3 provides an example of encouraging Jewish Christians to not return to identifying with being a Jew in order to escape persecution. I think that when Christians are starting to be distracted from their faith in God in modern day, pastors and leaders in the church start to encourage and persuade them to come back to God by means of practicing more spiritual disciplines and such. This could easily be interpreted as emphasis on good works and disciplines being salvation by one who is not Christian. However, pastors and leaders are just trying to rekindle a fire for God, and could possible be scared that Christians will take being saved by grace the wrong way, and think that they will be fine even if the do draw away from God. This could have been a possibility for disagreement with Paul, or a fight to not under emphasize what our role in our relationship with God is.

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  5. I agree with the fact that especially in James, Pauline theology and Jewish Christian Literature do seem to mash a little. The most obvious depiction of this in James where James counteracts Paul by saying” faith without works is dead” (James 2:26). Paul says the opposite of this, and it seems like the two statements are contradictory of each other. We know that the Bible is the word of God, and all of what it says is true, so this is a serious matter, and choosing sides isn’t an option. In class we were told that James was a big name in the Jewish temple, and thus much of what he says is directed to the Jews. Paul is talking to the Gentiles, and this causes conflict between the two. I don’t think that one or the other is more right than the other, rather, I feel that James is counteracting Paul by saying that there has to be a correlation between the two. Faith is an active relationship with God, and “works” is a way to express the love of that relationship. There must be both, or there is no need for the other. Without a relationship, there is no love, and with no love, there is no relationship. This is what was what needed to be gotten across to the new Christians, not that one was better than the other, but that both things are necessary.

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  6. In my experience modern church is quite “pro-Paul” as you have said. The reformation shaped our theology in a way that has long been solidified and unquestioned. To some degree it is both healthy, and un-healthy. I think that James does point to a potential argument with Paul, but rather than it being a dichotomy between works and grace, I find it to be the flip sides of one coin. Similarly to faith and doubt, works and grace go hand in hand together. Works appear in James more as an outpouring of faith than a means for salvation and a soteriological claim. However, if one was being overly critical and skeptical, verse 18 does hint at this idea just slightly. Like anything we read today I think that people generally choose to engage the Bible the way they want it to sound to them. This is why Jobes writes that “It is no longer sufficient to simply read the Bible and reflect on what it means “to me,” although the importance of personal spiritual formation should never be abandoned. But full academic rigor is needed for understanding the Bible as the original authors intended, which is implicitly how God intended it.” It is difficult to see Paul as the heretic in a Christian culture, but we have to remember that we are separated by thousand of years of history here. Nothing about these conversations comes easy, or uncontested by an opposing viewpoint of some sort.

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    • Nick, I do fully agree with what you have to say on this topic of grace vs. works. There needs to be a proper understanding of this incorporation into both the way the church is run and for Christian living. It’s easy to make the Bible into whatever you want to make it, however it’s essential that we take what’s said in both James and general Pauline literature and live it out. Because the Bible is the living word of God and everything is profitable for teaching and rebuking (2 Tim. 3:16), all of the material in it is important to learn. I think it is also essential to compare historical and theological backgrounds in the passages, as we have so done in comparing what James has written and why, as well as Paul.

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    • In a church that is “pro-Paul,” how often would you say you heard a sermon of Bible Study from Hebrews – Revelation? Do you think the pastors avoid James because it is so different than Paul?

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      • I don’t often hear Hebrews-Revelation on the pulpit. I think that coming from an Assemblies of God background these texts were darn near foreign to me and our church. My pastor would often cite verses like “he who doubts is as a wave in the sea” or something to that effect because it reinforced Paul’s morality and doctrinal truths that were more foundational to our faith. However, when it came to the more Jewish literature or texts dealing with authors outside of Paul, I often couldn’t interpret them quite as easily. Hebrews was always really difficult for me to read as a teenager, and never explained in full detail. Romans and some of Paul’s other letters, however, were really foundational in my upbringing. Outside of my own upbringing I still do not hear much from Hebrews. The last sermon I heard from Hebrews came from the passage about faith in chapter 11 (which yields a far different interpretation and application when viewed from the lens of Hebrews than the lens of Paul.) That was YEARS ago. James and Revelation I feel are a bit more common, but Hebrews is almost like a ghost town or something. No one goes there in my own experience. (Outside of chapter 11)

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  7. I believe that the Modern Church is heavily Pro-Paul in regards to their theology and inner workings. We are fond of reciting various scriptures about how it is through faith that we are saved and not by works (Romans 3:28) and using the Roman Road evangelical method in order to save the individuals in our life. One of the reasons for this is that Paul writes to a culture that is almost completely dominated by the Greco-Roman culture, a culture that forms the bedrock of modern Western thought. Because he is preaching in a manner that would be compelling to individuals of the Greco-Roman culture the modern western culture also finds him compelling. This is why the Jewish-Christian epistles are so much harder to understand, they were written to a culture that was comprised of individuals who had been subjected to Hellenism but who also had a completely different foundation of thought compared to the Greeks or Romans. The Jews had a tradition of thinking and acting that went back at least 1200 years, if not more, and because of this that way of thinking and acting became firmly rooted in their daily lives and thought processes. James writes to individuals who fall into this category and as such writes in a completely different manner than Paul, a manner that would make sense to individuals of this type of culture but creates a disconnect with those who have modern western thought. While James and Paul might have had disagreements, in fact I think that it is likely they butted heads more than once because of their differing opinions on topics such as food sacrificed to alters and the importance of work in Christian theology (1 Corinthians 8:7-8; Acts 15:19; James 2:17; Ephesians 2:8-9). However, God still used these two men to create a cohesive Christian Theology and form the foundation for the Church that we are a part to this day.

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  8. I think that becoming wrapped up in Paulinism is foolish because Jesus is our God. Whether or not I believe in Paul’s words is irrelevant because we both worship the same God. I do believe that both Paul and James’ humanity is relevant here because it is possible for them to make mistakes. Discarding the law completely is wrong but assuming God as an evergracious god is also wrong. These opposite dialects are taking aspects of God’s character instead of taking his entity as is. God is both a god of grace and justice. Faith without works is dead. This verse from James is obviously conflicting with Romans 3:28. I think that Galatians provides a lot of insight to your question. I know that God is that of peace and there is no peace with dialectical opposition. Verses in Galatians that help to understand Paul’s beliefs include Galatians 2:21; 3:5-6 and 3:24. Paul says that because Jesus died for our sins, we may believe in him and go to heaven (Gal. 3:22). The law is still essential and guides us to Jesus (Gal. 3:24) but faith ultimately is our greatest connection to God. Lastly, according to the Jewish Christian Literature notebook, the author of Hebrews claims that the law is most fully understood in the light of Jesus and his sacrifice (Page 13). I do not think Paul rejected the law as much as I do not think James rejected faith.

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    • I agree with getting wrapped up in this is foolish. As you said Jesus is God, and we are all worshiping the same God that is the underlying importance. Also everything is inspired by God as stated in 2 Timothy 3:16, so there is some purpose for the things stated in Paul that would get the other people against him. At the same time everyone is human, so it is not perfect. Jesus did not come and write the Bible, but rather it was man inspired by God and witness God that wrote the Bible, so there is not going to be this perfect acceptance of everything written. As you mentioned we cannot get rid of one or the other. I feel like the major key is that things are not black and white, it is not simple, yet there needs to be balance or mixture. We need the structure that the law gives, or else it is easy to fall in temptation, and as you mentioned it is a guide that leads us to Jesus. Looking at Galatians 3:24, he is not saying that the law has no purpose anymore. The law is like when you first learn how to ride a bike, we have training wheels. That is suppose to help us. It comes a time were we must grow confidently in faith and take the wheels off. We need both laws and faith when we grow, so I do not think we should reject Paul for stepping away from the law. I think Paul is taking the next step in a relationship with God. We must go from ought to do something to wanting to by our own choice. Most churches now a days focus on Paul’s theology rather than the others. I think we should still keep in mind the laws at the same time because it sets us apart and is our compass when we are in need of direction, but at the same time live by faith.

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  9. I think that becoming wrapped up in Paulinism is foolish because Jesus is our God. Whether or not I believe in Paul’s words is irrelevant because we both worship the same God. I do believe that both Paul and James’ humanity is relevant here because it is possible for them to make mistakes. Discarding the law completely is wrong but assuming God as an ever-gracious god is also wrong. These opposite dialects are taking aspects of God’s character instead of taking his entity as is. God is both a god of grace and justice. Faith without works is dead. This verse from James is obviously conflicting with Romans 3:28. I think that Galatians provides a lot of insight to your question. I know that God is that of peace and there is no peace with dialectical opposition. Verses in Galatians that help to understand Paul’s beliefs include Galatians 2:21; 3:5-6 and 3:24. Paul says that because Jesus died for our sins, we may believe in him and go to heaven (Gal. 3:22). The law is still essential and guides us to Jesus (Gal. 3:24) but faith ultimately is our greatest connection to God. Lastly, according to the Jewish Christian Literature notebook, the author of Hebrews claims that the law is most fully understood in the light of Jesus and his sacrifice (Page 13). I do not think Paul rejected the law as much as I do not think James rejected faith.

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  10. In attempting to find further Jewish-Christian literature that may help with this question, I could personally find little. However, the book of Hebrews as a whole speaks specifically to the Jews who were desiring to venture back into the Old Testament way of living only by the Law.
    Although Hebrews does not speak specifically of Paul, it has the backbone of Pauline theology. As far as Pauline theology being integrated in modern church, I do believe that it is exceedingly prevalent in this current system. Although there is some segregation within the church between practice and grace, I do believe that Paul’s theological preferences are consistently incorporated.
    In direct reference to when James references in James 2:26, “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26), I believe that it’s important to have a balance of both “faith” and “works” in Christian living. There can’t be one without the other in reality, well at least in any authentic form. Therefore, although there seems to be consistent push back against Paul’s theology in the early Church, I believe in modern times it’s important to be aware of both aspects in Christian living.

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  11. Honestly, I did not really hear of “Pauline theology” until this year. So, with my amateur biblical lenses, I see that the modern church is probably pro-Paul if it lies faithful to Paul’s enthusiasm about lots of grace. I have gone over James 2:14-26 and nothing jumped out at me to be obviously contradicting to some of Paul’s writing. I looked at other Jewish-Christian literature such as Hebrews and saw similar writing that to Paul’s. I can glean some understanding on why James might be anti-Paul. If James’ agenda were to shepherd the Jewish-Christians by faith and following law then Paul’s writings in Galatians would be of some connection to James’ anti-Paul attitude. Personally, I think that Jewish-Christian writings and “Paul’s theology” complement each other nicely in discerning how God wants us to serve him. I am a reader of the New Testament that does not hear the echo of division; God uses James’ theology even if he was anti-Paul and vice versa.

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  12. When it comes to writing about Pauline theology and the James and Paul contradictions I know some of their teachings but not all. So, I am not as well versed in their works as others might be. However, I believe the Church to very pro-Paul because going to Church ever since I was young my pastor always spoke about how one is saved through our faith rather than just by works. I know that all Churches may not teach it this way but it is just something that stuck out to me while reading. Romans 4:5, talks about how a person does not do works but believes is justified and his faith is received as righteousness. This is as you said in your post contradictory to James’ works, as he believes “faith without works is dead.” It can be seen that these two have butted heads more than once. As I was reading your post I got to thinking if James was just building on what Paul has stated in his works. Because you can read in James’ work that he seems to know a great deal of what Paul has done in his work. He just does not seem to agree with it. According to our notebook, Acts 21 talks about how some people in the Jerusalem Church were skeptic of Paul’s theology (Pg. 14). This might be the reason why many believed him to be a heretic rather than someone speaking from God. To me, I believe that we are saved through our faith and that works is something that is done through our faith. What I mean is that since we are already saved by our faith, works is something that should be a part of our faith and should be done. Overall, God worked through these two individuals and we should take what they both said into account to understand the truths we have been provided with.

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  13. Adam,

    I was intrigued by your comment to the initial post. I am in the same boat as you when it comes to understand this topic. I cannot say that i am an expert, and i cannot say i am fully unaware. Nevertheless; one thing is certain, Paul and James do have contradicting statements in their reasoning. The verses you mentioned (Rom. 4:5) fitted well with your thoughts. Looking further into that verse I think it is interesting to see that Romans 5:5 states, “To the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness”. Here again we can see Paul testifying that faith alone is righteous. On the other side, nothing is more blunt by James than his well known, “faith without work is dead”. Overall, i too agree with you Adam, and i have heard in my church and from my family members that faith alone is enough. Actually, before closing every sermon our pastor at my church does a simply prayer. In his beginning words he says, if you believe with your heart that Jesus Christ is your savior you will be saved. Ergo, great post Adam i enjoyed reading it.

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    • When hearing the term “anti-Pauline theology” I am a little confused. For me personally I disagree with division in the church especially when it comes to arguing points like James or Paul. We see throughout scripture Paul preaching faith is enough, and we know James saying in verse 2:26 “As the body without the spirit is dead, faith without deeds is dead.” For Paul living a life that is obedient to Christ is faith. We see Paul throughout his walk being persecuted and living in jail for his faith. These are deeds in and of themselves. Maybe it is not about one or the other, but it is about these different points complimenting each other in a way that helps Christians to grow as close to Christ as possible. If all scripture is God-breathed which it is then there is no way it can be one or the other. There cannot in a perfect world be “anti-Pauline theology.” The problem is the world is not perfect. It is full of subjective opinion found in different denominations found in the church body. Would this question be applicable if we accepted both statements as God’s truth? The answer is no. Looking past the James or Paul we can see that in our own personal walks that faith is complimented by living out or walking out our faith as Jesus himself lived. We see Paul agreed with this by how he lived. In other words Paul did not have to say you need works because he lived his works through his faith.

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      • “I disagree with division in the church” – I think this is OK, but there seems to have been serious differences between Paul and James, read Galatians 2 or Acts 15, for example. We will return to this a bit when we study the Letter of James later (and you cite the main text), but it is a historical fact that some Jewish Christians did not like Paul and thought he was wrong in his views of the Law and Salvation for Gentiles. My point above is that if an ancient document can be demonstrated as “anti-Pauline,” it is more likely to be a Jewish Christian letter.

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