Was James, not Peter, the head of the Church after Jesus?

Was St. James the Just the leader of the early Church--or was St. Peter?
Was St. James the Just the leader of the early Church--or was St. Peter? (photo: Register Files)

Some claim that it was James, not Peter, who was the leader of the early Church after the time of Christ.

What evidence can they provide for this claim?

And what evidence is there against it?


Which James?

"James" was a common name in first century Judea, and there were several men named James who are mentioned in the New Testament.

Unfortunately, precisely how many Jameses there are many is not clear.

They are described different ways, and it is not clear whether a James described in one passage is the same as the James mentioned in another.

The James who assumed a prominent leadership role in the Jerusalem church after the time of Christ is known as “the brother of the Lord.”

This James is sometimes identified with James the son of Alphaeus, who is also identified with James “the Less.”

However, Benedict XVI noted:

Among experts, the question of the identity of these two figures with the same name, James son of Alphaeus and James "the brother of the Lord", is disputed [General Audience, Jun. 28, 2006].

Regardless of how this issue is to be settled, there is one James in the New Testament who is clearly not the one in question—James the son of Zebedee, because he was martyred quickly (Acts 12:1-2).

Advocates of the “James not Peter” viewpoint have two major texts that they can appeal to, and neither is very good.


The Galatians 2 Argument

The first is Galatians 2:11-12, where Paul writes:

But when Cephas came to Antioch I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.

For before certain men came from James, he ate with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.

This has been taken to display a certain deference on Peter’s part to James.

But James isn’t even there. Peter’s not deferring to him but to the sensibilities of men associated with him (“the circumcision party”).

What’s the explanation for this?

The most logical one is not that James is the man in charge but that Peter is simply trying to keep peace between different groups within the Church.

That is, itself, something leaders often have to do.

Furthermore, the fact that, in Galatians, Paul uses Peter as a test case for the authority of his gospel strongly suggests that Peter is the leader.

Paul wants to show that his gospel is above any man, and using the top man as a test case is an excellent way to show that.


The Acts 15 Argument

The second major passage is Acts 15, where the Jerusalem council is held.

This council is presented as having the following stages:

1.     There is “much debate” (v. 7a).

2.     Peter gets up and says, “you know that in the early days God made choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe” (v. 7b). He points out that God accepted the gentiles without the Law of Moses and so it should not be imposed on them now (v. 8-11).

3.     Barnabas and Paul relate the signs and wonders God has been doing through them as they preached to the gentile (vv. 12).

4.     James says, “Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name” (v. 14), he cites a corresponding Old Testament proof text (vv. 15-18), endorses the idea of not imposing the Mosaic Law on the gentiles (v. 19), and goes on to make several proposals to keep Jewish Christians from being scandalized by the behavior of gentiles,  because “from early generations Moses has had in every city those who preach him” (v. 21).

This text does not show that James was more authoritative than Peter, for several reasons:

·      Peter, along with Barnabas, Paul, and James, are viewed together as the debate closers. It is “after much debate” that Peter speaks. He initiates the process of closing the debate and coming to a conclusion.

·      Peter reminds people of his unique role in how the question was originally settled.

·      James also refers to how the question was originally settled through Peter.

·      James makes his comments about not scandalizing Jewish believers as a pastoral way of implementing a decision that he, Peter, and Barnabas and Paul are all in agreement on.

The thing Luke is here concerned to stress for us is that all four of these figures are in agreement. That’s his main message.

Some have tried to claim a special authority for James because, in some translations, he says, in verse 19, “Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God.”

The fact he uses the phrase “my judgment” is taken to imply that he is acting as a judge, as the final authority, but this is far too much to hang on this single word (Greek, krino), which also means, “I think.”

Indeed, even in English, saying, “In my judgment we ought to do this . . .” in no way implies that the one expressing this view is a judge, much less the final authority on the matter.

If these two arguments are weak, what other evidence is there on the question?


James in Acts

Let’s stick with the book of Acts for the moment.

How often is James mentioned by name in it?

Four times max.

He’s unambiguously mentioned in 12:17, 15:13, and 21:18.

If he is to be identified with James the son of Alphaeus then he’s also mentioned in 1:13.

How does that compare to Peter?


Peter in Acts

By comparison, Peter is mentioned by name 55 times under the name “Peter,” four times under the name “Simon,” and once under the name “Simeon.”

What does that suggest about who was the more prominent leader?

There is a plausible objection to this, which is that Paul is mentioned by name in Acts 124 times under the name “Paul,” and he’s mentioned 23 times under the name “Saul.”

Would that mean that Paul as an even more authoritative leader than Peter?

This objection also has a plausible rejoinder. In fact, it has two of them.


The Story of Paul

The first is that Luke is a travelling companion of Paul, and he’s writing substantially about their experiences together.

In particular, he’s writing to explain how Paul got to Rome, where he was under house arrest at the time the book was apparently finished (Acts 28:30-31).

Basically everything from chapter 13 on is the story of Paul, as told by one of his companions.

This means that Paul will have a more prominent role in the book of Acts than he did in the early Christian community as a whole.

Luke is leaving out virtually any discussion of the other apostles—with the exception of Peter.

So why is Peter the exception?


The Role of Peter

The second rejoinder is that it’s not simply a matter of numbers. You also have to look at Peter’s role in the stories where he appears.

At best, you have a single story lending weak support for the idea that James held the more prominent role.

But we have multiple stories unmistakably showing Peter’s leadership role.

These occur in the first 12 chapters of the book, before the Paul narrative begins.

  • Peter is the one who calls for Judas Iscariot to be replaced, leading to the election of the Apostle Matthias (Acts 1:15-26).
  • Peter is the one who preaches the sermon on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-40).
  • Peter is the one who heals a lame man and, when this attracts the attention of the crowd, he is the one who preaches to them (Acts 3:1-26).
  • When they are called before the Jewish authorities, Peter is the one who gives the speech in their defense (Acts 4:8-12).
  • Peter is the one who confronts Annanias and Sapphira about their lie (Acts 5:3-9).
  • The people of Jerusalem place the sick in the streets so that Peter's shadow might fall on them (Acts 5:15).
  • When the apostles are imprisoned as a group, miraculously freed, and then appear before the authorities, Peter speaks for them, saying that they must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29-32).
  • Peter confronts Simon Magus (Acts 8:20-23).
  • Peter heals the paralyzed Aeneas (Acts 9:32-34).
  • Peter raises Dorcas from the dead (Acts 9:37-41).
  • At God’s behest, Peter admits the first gentiles to the Church (Acts 10-11).
  • And Peter (unlike James son of Zebedee) is miraculously delivered from prison and martyrdom (Acts 12:1-18).

In some of these events, Peter’s leadership role is shown when he speaks on behalf of the apostles--or for the Christian community in general. This happens when he gives the sermon on Pentecost or when he represents the apostles before the authorities.

This unique leadership role is also shown when he calls for Judas's replacement.

Outsiders recognize Peter’s unique role, and they place the sick on the streets so that Peter's shadow might fall on them.

Some of these events are miracles that could have been performed by other apostles, but the concentration of them here reveals Peter's special prominence.

Throughout Acts, the other members of the Twelve are barely mentioned.

A few people who were not members of the Twelve, like Stephen and Philip, have stories devoted to them, but none of the other members of the Twelve have their own stories. They’re only mentioned in passing.

Peter is clearly the focus.

If the book stopped here, and did not include the extended travel narratives of St. Paul, it might have been called the Acts of Peter rather than the Acts of the Apostles.


What Role Did James Have?

In saying this, we are not claiming that James did not have a prominent role in the early Church.

Indeed, he did! But what role was it?

The early Church Fathers speak of him as having been the first bishop of Jerusalem.

Thus Eusebius records:

Then James, whom the ancients surnamed the Just on account of the excellence of his virtue, is recorded to have been the first to be made bishop of the church of Jerusalem [Ecclesiastical History II:1:2].

There is no reason to doubt that James functioned as bishop of Jerusalem.

Was James also an apostle?


James the Apostle?

It’s possible that he was. In Galatians, Paul writes:

Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother [1:18-19].

In this passage, St. Paul appears to rank our James alongside the other apostles.

This would certainly be the case if James “the brother of the Lord” is to be identified with James the son of Alphaeus, who is clearly an apostle, being found in the lists of the twelve apostles in the Gospels and Acts.

Even if James was not among the Twelve, this would not mean that he didn’t function as an apostle, for there were apostles who were not members of the Twelve—such as Barnabas and St. Paul himself (Acts 14:14).

It thus seems clear that James functioned both as an apostle (if not a member of the Twelve) and as bishop of Jerusalem.

He also appears to have been an especially influential individual, as Jewish Christians used him as a point of reference for centuries.

But did that make him head of the universal Church in Jesus’ absence?



It does not.

The Gospels suggest that “the brothers of the Lord” were not believers in him during his life (Mark 3:21), and that would seem to include our James, if he is not to be identified with James son of Alphaeus.

If he is to be identified with James son of Alphaeus, then he is clearly a “third-rank” apostle.

If you study the lists of the apostles found in the Gospels and Acts, they are all divided into three groups of four names.

Peter heads the first list in every case, and James the son of Alphaeus heads the third list in every case.

This establishes Peter as a first rank apostle and James son of Alphaeus as a third rank apostle.

Thus, however one reads the data, Peter has a more prominent rank than James.

After all, it was to Peter that Jesus said:

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it [Mt. 16:18].

He did not say this to James.


What Now?

If you like the information I've presented here, you should join my Secret Information Club.

If you're not familiar with it, the Secret Information Club is a free service that I operate by email.

I send out information on a variety of fascinating topics connected with the Catholic faith.

In fact, the very first thing you’ll get if you sign up is information about what Pope Benedict said about the book of Revelation.

He has a lot of interesting things to say!

If you’d like to find out what they are, just sign up at www.SecretInfoClub.com or use this handy sign-up form:

Just email me at [email protected] if you have any difficulty.

In the meantime, what do you think?