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Fall 2018 · Vol. 47 No. 2 · pp. 274–276 

Book Review

James and Paul: The Politics of Identity at the Turn of the Ages

V. George Shillington. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015. 345 pages.

Reviewed by Sheila Klassen-Wiebe

V. George Shillington, professor emeritus at Canadian Mennonite University, has spent a lifetime reading ancient texts and exegeting Scripture for the church. In James and Paul he brings his considerable skill to the task of historical reconstruction. Specifically, the book tries to tease out the origins and dynamics of the tension between Paul, apostle to the gentiles, and James, leader of the Jewish messianic community in Jerusalem. At the heart of the conflict between these two giants of the early church was what Shillington calls a “politics of identity.” Issues of ethnicity, culture, and religion, so intrinsic to identity, influenced the development of faith communities in the first century as they worked at the intensely political question of how non-Jews would be incorporated into the Jewish community of Jesus Messiah.

In the prologue, Shillington sketches the aims of the book and helpfully establishes his terms of reference. For example, because he aims to use language appropriate to the “social, cultural, and linguistic realties of the time” (xviii), he avoids anachronistic terms such as “Christianity” and “church.” He briefly outlines factors that shaped identity in the first century and impacted the relationship between James and Paul. In chapter 1, he lays out two principles of historical investigation that undergird the book: (a) testimony from people personally involved takes precedence over secondary witnesses, and (b) “evidence closest to the time, place, and subject outweighs later retrospective material” (3).

The first half of the book focuses on James and the second half, on Paul in view of his relationship with James. Shillington first offers five “literary snapshots” of James, based on Galatians and 1 Corinthians. He then moves to the portrait of James that emerges in Luke-Acts, followed by the testimony of the epistle of James and a chapter on the Gospel of John. Historical and legendary contributions of noncanonical writings conclude part 1. Some key insights that emerge from these chapters are as follows. James was the biological brother of Jesus and a strong supporter of Jesus throughout his life. In fact, argues Shillington, James was probably the anonymous “disciple whom Jesus loved” in the Gospel of John. Intimations of hostility between Jesus and his family were thus either created by the Gospel writers (Mark 6:1–6) or a later interpolation (John 7:5). James was the authoritative leader of the faith community in Jerusalem. The relative silence about James in Luke-Acts is due to the writer’s desire to emphasize the success of the Christian movement and Paul’s role in that success. Shillington does not think the epistle of James was written by the brother of Jesus; rather, “the epistle was originally a {275} Jewish wisdom document and later edited only slightly by a Christian scribe [who admired the historical James and knew something about his religious convictions] for use in exhorting Christian assemblies” (95). The letter reflects rightly the historical James’s unwavering commitment to righteous living as commanded in the Torah.

Although Paul’s relationship to Messiah Jesus was different than James’s and although the sociocultural locations of the two leaders differed, they shared a common core of faith in the crucified and risen Jesus. Shillington is adamant that Paul, like James, remained thoroughly Jewish. Central to Paul’s understanding of the gospel at the “juncture of two ages” was the invitation to all nations to become part of the new community of faith in Christ without first taking on the marks of Jewish identity. Paul had close ties with the Hellenistic Jewish community outside Jerusalem, from whom he received confessional traditions that he incorporated into his letters (e.g., 1 Cor 11:23–27; 15:3–5). Shillington examines the conflict that resulted when James commissioned people to investigate the Christ-loyalists in Antioch, causing Peter to withdraw from Eucharistic fellowship with gentile believers there (Gal 2). Essentially, James went back on the agreement of the Jerusalem Council (assuming the equivalence of the Acts 15 and Galatians 2 visits) that gentiles did not have to be circumcised to be accepted as equals in the new messianic communities. This set Peter between James and Paul in the Antioch conflict and irreparably damaged the relationship between James and Paul. James also would not have approved of Paul’s vision of an inclusive and diverse new humanity in Galatians 3:26–29.

In the final chapter of the book, Shillington proposes that James, together with other Christ-followers in Jerusalem, took a vow of poverty and that Paul devoted himself to collecting money from the gentile loyalists for these “poor saints” in Jerusalem in order to “repair the breach between himself and the pillars” (327). Since the New Testament is silent about the results of Paul’s efforts, Shillington concludes that Paul’s offering was rejected by James and the law-abiding Jewish loyalists in Jerusalem who abandoned Paul during his trials and imprisonment. The ending is not a happy one: Paul’s gentile congregations were never accepted as equals with James’s faith community in Jerusalem; James was killed; and the Jewish messianic community around him disappeared after 70 CE.

Shillington’s book offers a fascinating glimpse into the sometimes conflicted dynamics of the nascent communities of Messiah loyalists in the first century. On the basis of careful investigation of primary and secondary evidence, he constructs a plausible historical narrative, filling in gaps with well-argued hypotheses. Throughout the book he engages in {276} vigorous debate with other scholars, never leaving readers in doubt as to his opinion of their work. But although his proposals are intriguing, they are also at times speculative and will not convince all readers. For example, the idea that James was the Beloved Disciple or that James took a vow of poverty lacks persuasive evidence. He also makes some interpretive choices that will surprise readers familiar with mainstream New Testament scholarship, such as the assertion that the author of John’s Gospel likely edited the Synoptic tradition. On a technical note, it is unfortunate that the book lacks a bibliography, that footnote citations are inconsistent, and that it contains numerous typographical errors. Still, Shillington’s attempt to offer an even-handed and sympathetic reading of the contributions of both James and Paul to the early church is commendable, as is his insistence that their relationship must be understood in light of different cultural and social locations. Scholars and educated lay people alike will come away from this book with a deeper understanding of important early developments in the movement that claimed Jesus as its Messiah.

Sheila Klassen-Wiebe
Associate Professor of New Testament
Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, MB

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