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Interpersonal conflict among early church leaders?

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James and Paul: The Politics of Identity at the Turn of the Ages
V. George Shillington
Fortress Press

The work of a thoughtful, experienced teacher, James and Paul leads readers through the pages of the New Testament towards a deeper understanding of the interpersonal relationships and self-understanding of the early community of Christ. V. George Shillington is a careful scholar, balancing informed imagination and solid evidence to answer questions arising from the text and its background.

How did Paul get along with the leaders of Christ’s followers in Jerusalem? Specifically, how did Paul relate to the foremost apostle, the Lord’s brother James? Shillington unpacks Paul’s statements about James, the hints of James’ character and status in Jerusalem from other sources, and the witness of Acts and the New Testament epistle attributed to James.

Shillington is professor emeritus at Canadian Mennonite University (and its predecessor Concord College), where he taught New Testament and theology for three decades. His publications include an introduction to Luke-Acts, 2 Corinthians (Believer’s Church Bible Commentary), and Jesus and Paul before Christianity.

Shillington aims to look at the evidence “without prejudice,” simply letting the facts take the lead in our exploration of the topic.

Who is James?

Part One addresses the evidence regarding the person and role of James, brother of Jesus, head of the church in Jerusalem.

Recognizing that much of our knowledge of James comes from Paul’s persuasive arguments to the Galatians and Corinthians, Shillington judiciously sifts through the rhetoric and distills the information that underlies the texts.

He then examines the evidence from Luke-Acts and the New Testament letter that bears James’ name, which Shillington views as written later in honour of James and the perspective of the Jewish Christ followers he led.

At the end of Part One, many questions remain: “Was Paul [James’s] enemy or partner in mission? Did James acknowledge Paul’s communities of gentile converts to Jesus Christ as equal partners in the eschatological plan of God? What were the points of tension between Paul and James? Are they identifiable in Paul’s letters? Was there a politics of identity afoot as the Jesus movement expanded from Jerusalem to ‘the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8)?

Tension between believers

In Part Two, Shillington explores Paul’s mission and calling in light of his relationship with the core group of believers in Jerusalem, and especially the apostolic leaders, James and Peter.

A critical juncture comes when the expectations of Jewish believers and non-Jewish believers clash in Antioch. When James sends representatives to “check-up” on Paul and Barnabas, Peter and Barnabas begin backpedaling over their table fellowship with Gentile Christ followers.

Shillington uses Acts 6:1–6 to illustrate the tension between the believers in Jesus from Judea and those who came from the Diaspora, bringing with them a more Hellenized attitude.

As leader of the Judean community, centred in Jerusalem, James’ understanding of salvation reflects his community’s ties to the temple – keeping the Law of God as revealed through Moses and having personal faith in Jesus.

Paul was instructed by the Diaspora believers. His understanding of salvation centred on the cross and God’s plan to save all nations by faith in Jesus. The tension between these ways of understanding loyalty to God plays out in the rest of Shillington’s discussion.

James and Paul closes by focusing on Paul’s offering to the poor saints in Jerusalem and its likely reception by the Judean wing of the Christ community. Shillington concludes that Paul’s offering was unacceptable to James and the Jewish community in Jerusalem and that the author of Acts left this out of his narrative to save face for his hero Paul.

Critical issues

Shillington intentionally pushes several theological hot buttons which will make discussion of this work interesting.

He offers some pointed remarks about leadership and power, as well as the boundary markers for full inclusion in the church.

He engages with a wide range of scholarship, addressing issues raised by Boyarin, Chilton, Eisenman, Painter and Tabor.

He steers a moderate path through the various claims and attitudes toward James and Paul which mark these authors.

He acknowledges the significant role that E.P. Sanders, Ben F. Meyer and Martin Hengel have played in his approach to this subject.

In keeping with his stated methodology, Shillington corrects aspects of the author or editor’s work in Luke-Acts (Paul’s Roman citizenship and the role of James) and the Gospel of John (the attitude of Jesus’s brothers) based on conflicting evidence from Matthew-Mark and Paul’s letters.

He also treats the Pastoral Epistles as containing attitudes and statements in contradiction to those of the historical Paul. Later authorship functions significantly in his arguments on the evidence from Luke-Acts and the Pastoral Epistles.

The primary effect of late authorship for the Letter attributed to James is the change of issue from circumcision to compassion; the other information gleaned from the letter seems to fully reflect the historical James as Shillington paints him.

While I differ with some of Shillington’s use of evidence from the biblical text, his book contains much to ponder and some interesting avenues of study. His use of Greek text and some New Testament studies “shop talk” will make this book challenging for those without training in biblical (NT) studies. However, I’d recommend it for anyone interested in the life of Paul or the dynamics of the communities of the early church.

—Rick Schellenberg is a member of Hepburn (Sask.) MB Church.

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