A Question I Was Asked:

'Was James a "Supplanter" at Jerusalem? Whatever Happened to Peter?'



Here is more of this question (still partly edited):

"...Surely Peter should have been head at Jerusalem (Matthew 16:18-19; Galatians 2:7), yet within a few years we find that James, the brother of Jesus, is the leader there. He speaks authoritatively in his epistle, and there is no mention of Peter at all, or even of 'Cephas' (an alternative name for Peter). Was Peter already dead when James wrote? Could James even have been a supplanter as a few suggest?"

My Reply:

First of all, James seems to have been written in the early 60s AD, although it is not impossible that it could have been written even earlier (perhaps late 50s). We can be fairly sure that Peter did not undergo martyrdom until about AD 68 or 69; this means that Peter was certainly active when the epistle of James was written. However, you must remember that Peter was an apostle/evangelist and he would have certainly travelled extensively. James, on the other hand, was certainly overall leader at Jerusalem but probably fulfilled the role of Senior Elder. Without question, he saw himself as running the Jerusalem congregation, on behalf of, and under Peter's overall authority. However, I have to admit that it does seem somewhat strange that James does not mention Peter even once. In fact, without doubt, James is probably one of the most controversial books in the entire New Testament; Martin Luther famously called it "an epistle of straw" and there seems to be evidence of some theological naivety compared to the much more mature writings of Paul and John.

Another odd thing is that the book is wrongly named in the English translations: this brother of Jesus was Jacob, not James at all (many of us did not know this until we obtained our first Greek Bibles!). So some have not been slow to point out that the meaning of 'James' is 'supplanter.' According to a few (I believe that Gary Amirault, for example, teaches this), James did indeed supplant Peter, he is therefore called James - 'supplanter' - but his book is still correctly included in Scripture - largely (although not entirely) as a warning!

Certain writers (again, I think that Amirault is typical of these), point to Galatians 2:7 as evidence of their claim that God allowed two differing gospels: one for the Jews, the other for the Gentiles, but the Jewish version only had authority for a generation (AD30-70). Once the temple was destroyed in AD70 there was no further possibility of the Jews going a somewhat separate way. God - according to this view - gave them a generation to understand that the law, and temple-based legalistic ritualistic observations, had no further place in the worship of God; until that time they did indeed have Christ, but they seemed to worship Jesus in a more fleshly way; God was prepared to 'wink' at this for a generation, but the greater spiritual truth was certainly within the Gospel for the Gentiles which was delivered to Paul and which was intended to be preached everywhere after AD70. Therefore, we should not be entirely surprised that the epistle of James, a product of the elder of the Jerusalem congregation, does not contain the 'spiritual meat' of Paul, John and the writer of Hebrews. A few have even extended this to Matthew's Gospel; that Gospel was originally written expressly to Greek-speaking Jews around AD50; the writing within Matthew is certainly highly-informative, confirming what Greek-speaking Jews most needed to understand, yet it is possibly not always spiritually-deep.

For my own part, I do not accept that James was a supplanter who took over Peter's authority (the evidence is far too thin for such a sweeping conclusion), however, I think that the 'two early gospels view' is pretty hard to refute, this would certainly explain certain somewhat puzzling things within Acts (Acts 21:17-26, for instance). I suppose that the theory's major weakness is the fact that Jesus did not clearly point this out to the first apostles in the Great Commission, Matthew 28:18-20 for instance; but, there again, He might not have considered it necessary to do so. Regarding the name of 'James' (rather than Jacob), it is true that the Greco-Roman world would sometimes render Jacob in this way but this does not necessarily answer all the questions on this. It also remains somewhat odd, perhaps, that James does not refer to Peter at any point in his epistle. Nevertheless, we must conclude that James is indeed a part of inspired Scripture which our Lord wanted included in Holy Writ. I would simply offer one piece of advice: in my opinion, James should not be studied in isolation from the rest of the New Testament, especially from the maybe more mature writings of Paul.

I don't think the questions on the epistle of James from deeper students of the Bible will go away any time soon but the epistle is authoritative Holy Scripture and perhaps that is all we need to know.

Robin A. Brace, 2008.

UK APOLOGETICS HOME