Clint Arnold has a nice sidebar in his commentary on Acts entitled “Jerusalem: Nine Years Before the War.” I have long thought that the political situation in Jerusalem is the key to understanding James and his chilly reception of Paul. James was faced pressure from Jews who were Christians to be spiritual prepared for the coming Messiah and Jews who rejected Jesus as messiah but were every bit as much zealous for the Law. Likely there were many who were unhappy with James’ decision to side with Paul and not require Gentile conversion to Judaism as a requirement of salvation. If the political climate of Jerusalem made James’ position dangerous, it made Paul’s position on Gentiles lethal.
News of Paul’s activities would have been well known in Jerusalem. Paul has been creating islands of Gentile Christianity in the Roman world for years now, and it is undoubtedly true that the Gentiles outnumber the Jews in many of his congregations. Paul has confronted Peter over table fellowship with Gentiles (Gal 2) and made it clear that Gentiles are saved apart from the Law. Perhaps the theology of Romans 9-11 was known in Jerusalem – the Jews have “stumbled” and the Gentiles have been grafted in.
To what extent is James part of the problems which face Paul in Jerusalem? On the one hand, Luke does not explicitly state that James believed these rumors, although he also does not show James as rejecting them either. When Paul arrived, Jerusalem itself was a hotbed of nationalistic fever is a fact, and the Jewish church was very much a part the messianic nationalism which caused the revolt of A.D. 66. Arriving in Jerusalem with an entourage of Gentiles who were not at all converts to Judaism was dangerous at the very least (Dunn, Beginning from Jerusalem, 961-2).
Paul’s arrival in Jerusalem probably was in spring of A.D. 56 or 57 during the procuratorship of Felix. Josephus described this period of the mid-50s as a time of intense Jewish nationalism and political unrest. One insurrection after another rose to challenge the Roman overlords, and Felix brutally suppressed them all. This only increased the Jewish hatred for Rome and inflamed anti-Gentile sentiments. It was a time when pro-Jewish sentiment was at its height, and friendliness with outsiders was viewed askance. Considering public relations, Paul’s mission to the Gentiles would not have been well received. (Polhill, Acts, 447).
For fifteen years prior to the war, Judea was ruled by mediocre Roman governors who managed Jewish affairs poorly, exacerbating the problems which eventually led to the revolt. Judea was not a particularly important to Rome, and as a result they sent some particularly poor officials to govern the region. Felix, for example, is described by Tacitucs as “wielding royal power with the instincts of a slave” (Hist 5.9). Felix was recalled by Nero in A.D. 60, and while Festus was an improvement, he died in office . Schürer described the Roman government as having “deliberately set out to drive the people to revolt” (Schürer, History of the Jewish People, 1.455). Josephus covers the chaos of this period in Antiq. 20.16–172 and JW 2.254-265.
It is of course impossible to know the mind of James, but it appears he is trying very hard to keep the more conservative elements of his church in fellowship with the less conservative elements – but from Paul’s perspective, the Jerusalem church was entirely conservative. By coming to Jerusalem Paul was stepping into a situation which can only end badly for him.