The 15th chapter of Acts is significant for its description of the first council of the Christian Church, providing insights into the inner workings of the early Church and the relationships among key leaders. The chapter is also notable as a battleground for ongoing, current-day disputes over Church authority. On one side stands the Catholic Church, upholding Peter as the foremost apostle and leader of the universal Church. In opposition, in a diverse array of attitudes, stands a host of scholars and theologians who claim that James, the “brother of Jesus” (Mk 6:3; Gal 1:19), was the leader of the early Church, perhaps even the first pope. This position has roots going back to the Reformation, and many Protestants—whether they be conservative, liberal, or progressive in theological terms—consider James the greatest of the early Church leaders.
James, Greater than Peter?
Since the late 1990s, several books have been written about James, the “brother of Jesus,” most notably Just James: The Brother of Jesus in History and Tradition (Columbia, SC: University of South Caroline Press, 1997), by John Painter; James, Brother of Jesus (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1996), by Pierre-Antoine Bernheim; and James the Brother of Jesus: The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Viking Press, 1997), by Robert Eisenman. All three authors write about the “minimizing” of James by early Church writers and authorities, and either overtly or implicitly claim James was the victim of Church politics aimed at keeping Peter’s pre-eminence intact.
Bernheim, for example, states,
Acts and the Letter to the Galatians attribute considerable authority to James, seemingly greater than that of Peter. Questions of power and authority in the primitive church are of more than academic interest, since the Roman Catholic Church bases the supremacy of the pope, the Bishop of Rome, on the primacy of Peter. According to Catholic doctrine, Peter, who was designated the foundation and the ultimate authority of the apostolic Church (Mt 16:13-20), maintained his primacy throughout his life and transmitted it to his successors as bishops of Rome. (James, Brother of Jesus, 191)
Bernheim is correct to note the importance of Matthew 16 in the matter of Petrine authority. But does Acts 15 contradict the famous “keys of the kingdom” passage and even portray James as a greater authority than Peter? Pentecostal author Rosanna J. Evans makes such a case in her booklet, “Crossing The Threshold of Deception”:
Among the more compelling arguments [for Peter not being pope], is that of the leadership at the Jerusalem Council. . . . What is of interest here, is not necessarily the proclamations made at this council, but the conspicuous position (or lack thereof) Peter held. While he was, without doubt, present at this momentous council, he certainly did not preside over it; this honor went to James, not Peter. Additionally, although Peter had some say in the procession itself, it was James, not Peter, who decided the outcome of the deliberations . . . Without a doubt, the man James was the one who presided over the Jerusalem Council. (18, 19)
In his commentary on Acts, Evangelical scholar I. Howard Marshall presents Peter as a central but still lesser authority than James, a perspective held by numerous Evangelical commentators. While Peter appealed to experience, Marshall states, “The decisive voice in the meeting, however, lay neither with Peter nor with the delegates from Antioch, but with James. This may have been due partly to the position which he increasingly came to hold as the foremost leader in the church (12:17), and partly also to the fact that he was regarded as a champion of a conservative Jewish outlook” (Acts, 249, 251).
Was Peter really inconspicuous at the Jerusalem Council? Did he take a secondary role to James? What does the text really say?
Context and Choices
In the 1973 book Peter in the New Testament, published as a “collaborative assessment by Protestant and Roman Catholic Scholars” and sponsored by the United States Lutheran–Roman Catholic Dialogue as Background for Ecumenical Discussions of the Role of the Papacy in the Universal Church, three basic theories of early Church authority based upon Acts 15 are presented. The three theories of authority are:
1) Peter and the other members of the twelve were concerned with a Christian mission far more extensive than just Jerusalem. They were never really local church leaders, once Jerusalem became big enough to require such caretakers. James was the first leader of the local church at Jerusalem (at least for the Hebrew Christians) and remained there after Peter and the other members of the twelve left the scene, whether through death or on travels. James had authority only in Jerusalem (and its “province”), but his name was known more widely because he was a blood relative of Jesus. Paul’s loyalty was to the “mother church” or community of saints in Jerusalem. His respect for James was a respect for the local leader of that church.
2) Peter was a local leader at Jerusalem (even though he was known more widely because he had been a close follower of Jesus during the ministry). James took Peter’s place as the local Jerusalem leader (when Peter left Jerusalem or even earlier). Neither of them had a role as leader in the Universal Church, for, in fact, there was no single leader in the Universal Church.
3) Peter was a universal leader, operating from Jerusalem as the center of Christianity, and was succeeded by James. In other words, the position of universal influence that Peter had at Jerusalem (except his apostleship) was transferred to James when Peter left Jerusalem or even earlier.
The first theory aligns essentially with the Catholic belief; the second covers a wide range of mainline Protestant perspectives; and the third—the most extreme view—is embraced by more radical, liberal scholars.
Acts 15 can be broken into four basic sections.
1. The first (vs. 1-5) sets the scene and explains the conflict between Gentile and Jewish Christians over the observance of various Mosaic customs and laws.
2. The second (vs. 6-18)—the section that concerns us here—contains the discussion, including debate (v. 7a), Peter’s speech (vs. 7b-11), the witness of Paul and Barnabas (v. 12), and James’ speech (vs. 13-21).
3. The third section (vs. 19-29) explains the decision reached at the council, including the letter to be sent to the churches.
4. The final section (vs. 30-35) presents some of the reaction to the letter.
The council consisted of “the apostles and the elders” who had gathered together to “look into the matter” and come to some sort of solution. The Catholic understanding is that this gathering was a blueprint and prototype for future Church councils. As such, it included the gathering of leaders from the entire Church, not just a particular region; it made decrees binding on all Christians; it addressed matters of faith and morals; and it issued documents recording essential statements, decrees, canons, and so forth. Finally, but certainly not least, it was presided over by the pope (either in person or by representative).
The Jerusalem Council began with a spirited debate (v. 7a). Then Peter spoke, appealing to the “early days” and his experience in bringing the gospel to the household of Cornelius, a Gentile (Acts 10). We are saved by grace, Peter stated, not by works of the Law (v. 11). A marked silence followed his speech (v. 12a). Then Barnabas and Paul testified to God’s work “among the Gentiles” (v. 12b). After they had finished, James gave his speech, pointing to both the words of Peter (“Simeon,” v. 14) and the Prophets (vs. 15-18). He then offered his “judgment”: the Gentiles would not have to observe the ceremonial Law. An authoritative letter was then written, stating “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and us to lay upon you no greater burden” than abstaining from “things sacrificed to idols,” from blood and things strangled, and “from fornication” (vs. 28-29).
As noted already, the Fundamentalist anti-Catholic position is that Peter’s role at the council was so minimal he was essentially persona non grata. Noted anti-Catholic and Presbyterian theologian Loraine Boettner wrote the following in his Roman Catholicism:
At that council not Peter but James presided and announced the decision with the words, “Wherefore my judgement is . . .” (vs. 19). And his judgement was accepted by the apostles and presbyters. Peter was present, but only after there had been “much questioning” (vs. 7) did he even so much as express an opinion. He did not attempt to make any infallible pronouncements although the subject under discussion was a vital matter of faith. In any event it is clear that the unity of the early church was maintained not by the voice of Peter but by the decision of the ecumenical council which was presided over by James, the leader of the Jerusalem church. (116)
Ironically, the Fundamentalist view of Peter and James is very similar to that of the liberal and radical scholars. The same anti-Catholic, anti-authoritarian sentiment runs through their writings. They even use some of the same arguments, particularly an appeal to Galatians 2 as the final say about Peter’s role in the early Church. Martin Hengel, in Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity, clearly thinks James was the leader of the early Church while Peter either faded or fled.
After the withdrawal of the “twelve,” James, at the head of the elders, was able to take over complete control of the Jerusalem community. Given this situation in Jerusalem, the only possibility for Peter . . . was to move out into the Greek-speaking Diapora, where we can see his activity in Antioch and Rome, and at least his influence in Corinth. . . . Nevertheless, the succession of apostles and elders marks inner changes in the Jerusalem community which resulted in James and the elders taking over the leadership, gradually suppressing Peter and the older group of apostles . . . (96-96, 115)
John Painter, the author of Just James, also appeals to Galatians 2 as the final court of appeal regarding Peter and James, saying that “it is likely that James was the first leader of the Jerusalem church” and,
In Acts Luke tries to reconcile conflicts and to reconcile the later tradition of Petrine leadership in the church at large with the tradition of the original leadership of James in Jerusalem. This strategy is possible because of the authority of James over Peter, even exercised at a distance, is demonstrated in Gal[atians] 2:11-14, and there is no reason to think that the situation was different at the beginning of the Jerusalem church. (84)
It is Bernheim, however, who appears most driven to discredit the Catholic Church’s claim to authority by showing Peter’s utter submission before James. James’s “dominant position” is fully realized at the council, he argues. “Regardless of the historicity of Acts 15, James, by speaking last, summing up the discussion and proposing the decision which figures in the Apostolic Decree, appears as the one who presided over the assembly” (193).
Bernheim continually questions the authenticity of Jesus’ words in Matthew 16, but has no problem building the vast majority of his case from the incident in Galatians 2. He arbitrarily makes a convenient distinction between authority among the disciples before and after Christ’s death, claiming that Peter’s leadership dissolved following the death of Jesus and that the early Christians broke into small, competing groups in the aftermath of the Crucifixion. As usual, an assault on the continuity of early Church authority is meant to undermine the papacy and the magisterium today.
Petrine Primacy in Acts
The Catholic claim that Peter was the first pope is not based on sola scriptura, selective use of Scripture, or just a single passage of Scripture. (See “Beyond Matthew 16:18,” page 30.)
As for Acts 15, a number of factors point to Peter actually being both the leader at the council and the leader of the early Church. First, there is the manner in which his speech begins and ends. By standing up to speak after the debate had subsided, Peter made an emphatic physical gesture affirming his authority and centrality. The silence afterwards indicated the finality of what Peter had just said; no one disputes either his speech or his right to make it. In fact, the witness of Paul and Barnabas, along with James’s speech, only reinforce and agree with what Peter says.
Secondly, few non-Catholic commentators seem to notice the striking wording Peter used in his speech. If he was only a witness, wouldn’t he have appealed only to his experience? But while Peter did focus on his experience, the main object of his speech was God: “God made a choice among you, that by my mouth . . .”; “And God . . . bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit”; “He made no distinction”; and “why therefore do you put God to the test?” (vs. 7-10). It is readily apparent that Peter was quite comfortable in being a spokesman for God. Even James seems to take this for granted by stating, “Simeon has related how God first concerned himself . . .” (v. 14). There is an immediacy to Peter’s relating of God’s work which is noticeably absent from James’s speech.
As mentioned, Paul, Barnabas, and James all reinforced and agreed with Peter’s declaration, albeit in different ways. The first two related “the signs and wonders God” had been working “among the Gentiles” (v. 12). James pointed first to the words of Peter and then to the Prophets (vs. 14-15). Those who claim James’s speech was the definitive one point to the language in verse 19 (“Therefore it is my judgement . . .”) as evidence for James’s primacy. Yet James is simply suggesting a way of implementing what Peter had already definitively expressed. “Peter speaks as the head and spokesman of the apostolic Church,” state Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch in the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, “He formulates a doctrinal judgment about the means of salvation, whereas James takes the floor after him to suggest a pastoral plan for inculturating the gospel in mixed communities where Jewish and Gentile believers live side by side (15:13-21)” (232).
Problems with Authority
One can only conclude that those commentators and scholars who take issue with Peter’s primacy have, for various reasons, taken an anti-Catholic, anti-papal stance. They labor under a skewed understanding of what the papacy is and how the papal office relates to the Church as a whole. As a result, they are prone to interpret Peter’s actions and the history of the early Church incorrectly.
If James was the leader of the early Church, or even the first pope, why aren’t his successors the head of the universal Church? These and related questions are not adequately addressed by those who say James, not Peter, was the leader of the early Church.
Beyond Matthew 16:18
Although Matthew 16 is a central and key passage attesting to Peter’s unique position, the rest of the New Testament provides ample evidence for it. For example:
1. Peter’s name occurs first in all lists of apostles (Mt 10:2, Mk 3:16, Lk 6:14, Acts 1:13), except Galatians 2. Matthew even calls him the “first” (10:2).
2. Peter alone receives a new name, Rock, solemnly conferred (Jn 1:42, Mt 16:18).
3. Peter is regarded by Jesus as the Chief Shepherd after himself (Jn 21:15-17), singularly by name, and over the universal Church, even though others have a similar but subordinate role (Acts 20:28, 1 Pt 5:2).
4. Peter alone among the apostles is mentioned by name as having been prayed for by Jesus Christ in order that his “faith may not fail” (Lk 22:32).
5. Peter alone among the apostles is exhorted by Jesus to “strengthen your brethren” (Lk 22:32).
6. Peter first confesses Christ’s divinity (Mt 16:16).
7. Peter alone is told that he has received divine knowledge by a special revelation (Mt 16:17).
8. Peter is regarded by the Jews (Acts 4:1-13) as the leader and spokesman of Christianity.
9. Peter is regarded by the common people in the same way (Acts 2:37-41; 5:15).
In Acts, Peter gave the sermon at Pentecost (Acts 1:14-36), led the replacing of Judas (1:22), worked the first miracle of the Church age (3:6-12), and condemned Ananias and Sapphira (5:2-11). His mere shadow worked miracles (5:15); he was the first person after Christ to raise the dead (9:40), and he took the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 10). Peter’s name appears at least 54 times in Acts; James appears a total of four times.
- The Acts of the Apostles (Ignatius Catholic Study Bible; Ignatius Press, 2002), with commentary by Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch
- Jesus, Peter & The Keys: A Scriptural Handbook on the Papacy (Queenship, 1996), by Scott Butler, Norman Dahlgren, and David Hess
- Upon This Rock: St. Peter and the Primacy of Rome in Scripture and the Early Church (Ignatius Press, 1999), by Stephen K. Ray
- The Early Papacy: To the Synod of Chalcedon (Ignatius Press, 2008; orig. 1920), by Adrian Fortescue
- Magisterium: Teacher and Guardian of the Faith (Sapientia Press, 2007), by Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J.