Jerusalem Council & James, Bishop of Jerusalem

Jerusalem Council & James, Bishop of Jerusalem January 30, 2024

The Ambivalence and Inconsistencies of Protestant Thought on the Earliest “Monarchical” Bishops

Protestants, especially Presbyterians and Baptists, who hold to a “low church” ecclesiology without bishops, habitually argue that monepiscopacy, or the notion and state of affairs of single “monarchical” bishops holding the leadership of local churches, was a phenomenon that only started to significantly — and to them, unfortunately — occur in the mid-second century or even later than that. This is demonstrably untrue, based on the best historical sources we have for the early Church, as I documented in my recent articles about St. Ignatius of Antioch and Church historian Eusebius and other early Church fathers (before 200 AD).

Nevertheless, despite all of this rather compelling evidence, and granting a certain fluidity and development of Church offices in the New Testament and early Church, as I do, and as Cardinal Newman did in writing about development of doctrine, Protestants argue that the norm in the earliest decades of the Church, and the teaching of the Bible, was government by a group of presbyters or elders in each church or congregation.

On the other hand, there is a certain self-contradiction or tension in this view insofar as the same people concede that St. James was the bishop of Jerusalem at the time of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15; thought to have occurred around 48-51 AD). Despite generally arguing against monepiscopacy in the first two centuries, they somehow manage to make an exception for James in Jerusalem. Why? Well, I submit and speculate that they tend to do that in order to avoid the implication that St. Peter presided over this council, in a position that would correspond to a “bishop of bishops” or the papacy. They don’t like that idea, and so they argue that James presided and was thus “over” Peter. And he did so because he was the bishop of Jerusalem. According to this thinking, there was no higher office in the Church than that.

Renowned 19th century Protestant Church historian Philip Schaff is an interesting case in this regard. He repeatedly asserts in his notes for McGiffert’s translation of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History (the first and most important history of the Christian Church), that monepiscopacy was “projected” back from the second or third centuries or beyond, to the Church of the first century. And so, in his Popular Commentary on the NT, in his Introduction to the book of James, he refers to James as “the so-called bishop of Jerusalem.” But then he also virtually contradicts himself, in writing:

James . . . was a prominent person in the early church. . . . he occupied a distinguished position in the early church. To him Peter sent a message, on his release from imprisonment: ‘Go show these things unto James and the brethren’ (Acts 12:7) [should be 12:17]. He presided at the Council of Jerusalem, and pronounced the decree of the assembled church (Acts 15:19). To him, as the head of the church of Jerusalem, Paul repaired on his last visit to that city (Acts 21:18). . . . and along with Peter and John, he mentions him as one of the three pillars of the church (Galatians 2:9). In the same Epistle we are also informed, that it was the presence of ‘certain who came from James’ which was the cause of Peter’s withdrawing himself from converse with the Gentiles (Galatians 2:21). . . .

If not actually bishop of Jerusalem, it would appear from these scriptural notices that James at least exercised a very important influence in the mother church. He was the recognised head of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. When Christianity was chiefly confined to Jewish converts, his influence must have been almost paramount And after its extension to the Gentiles, the Jewish Christians would esteem him to be peculiarly their apostle, as Paul was the apostle of the Gentiles; his influence would not be confined to Jerusalem, but would extend to all believers among the twelve tribes, wherever scattered.

I don’t see how being the “recognised head” of Christians in Jerusalem and indeed “the head of the church of Jerusalem” and a man who “presided at the Council of Jerusalem” is distinguishable from being a bishop. It’s a distinction without a difference, especially since St. Paul in the Bible wrote about bishops five times (Acts 20:28 [“overseers”]; Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:1-2; Titus 1:7). So Schaff wants to have his cake and eat it, too, or in other words, he is equivocating. James isn’t the bishop of Jerusalem, but he is, but he isn’t, etc.

This is the sort of cognitive dissonance among Protestants, in grappling with “Catholic” elements of Scripture and early Church history, that was the theme of an entire book of mine:  The Catholic Verses: 95 Bible Passages That Confound Protestants (Sophia Institute Press, Aug. 2004). I do love Schaff as a scholar, however, and I’ve cited him hundreds of times because — ultimately — he always tries to be honest, sometimes even despite his strong denominational inclinations. The above is a prime example of this. He doesn’t agree with the idea that James was or could be the bishop of Jerusalem. But the facts are too great to deny it. And so he tries to deny it but in the end, simply can’t.

The great Protestant Bible scholar F. F. Bruce shows a similar ambivalence. He describes James very much as a bishop would be described, yet doesn’t want to use the word. Writing specifically about him and the early church in Jerusalem, he refers to “the increasingly dominant role which James would fill in Jerusalem” which was “documented by Paul and Luke independently” and his “leading role” and the fact that he was “evidently acknowledged as a leader of that church as a whole.” In the Jerusalem Council, “According to Luke, . . . it was James who summed up the sense of the meeting and expressed his judgment . . . the terms of the so-called Jerusalem decree.” In fact, according to Bruce, that “the Jerusalem church could not have promulgated” this decree “without James’s approval. See: Peter, Stephen. James & John (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1979, 90-91, 93).

The Eerdmans Bible Commentary, at Acts 15:13, states that “James appears by this time to be the acknowledged leader of the Jerusalem church, . . . (p. 992).

The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (“James”) opined:

It was this James who assumed leadership of the church in Jerusalem . . . James dominates the accounts of official actions of the council at Jerusalem; he cast the deciding vote . . . According to Church tradition, James was the first bishop of Jerusalem. (p. 549)

The New Bible Dictionary (“James”) concurs:

Tradition stated that he was appointed first bishop of Jerusalem by the Lord Himself and the apostles (Eus., EH, vii. 19). He presided at the first Council of Jerusalem . . . (p. 597 in the first edition, 1962)

Note how the last two reference sources note that Church “tradition” held that James was the bishop of Jerusalem, without indicating whether they agreed with it or not.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (“James”; 1939) exhibits the usual Protestant reluctance to use the word “bishop”:

By the time of the Jerusalem convention, i.e. about 51 AD (compare Ga 2:1), James had reached the position of first overseer in the church (compare Ac 15:13,19). . . . Once more (58 AD), James was head of the council at Jerusalem when Paul made report of his labors, this time of his 3rd missionary Journey (Ac 21:17 ff).

Acts 21:17 refers to a meeting of the Jerusalem church including Paul. James is clearly the leader, as indicated by the wording: “On the following day Paul went in with us to James; and all the elders were present” (RSV). This is similar to the language Peter used in Acts 12:17, after he was delivered from a Jerusalem prison: “Tell this to James and to the brethren.”

McClintock and Strong Biblical Cyclopedia (“James”; 1880) is more directly skeptical:

Eusebius (Hist. Eccles. 2, 1) says that James, the first bishop of Jerusalem, . . . was surnamed the Just by the ancients on account of his eminent virtue. . . . Eusebius . . . says elsewhere that he was appointed by the apostles (V. Eccl. 2, 23). Clement of Alexandria is the first author who speaks of his episcopate (Hypotyposeis, bk. 6, apud Eusebius, Hist. Ecc. 2, 1), and he alludes to it as a thing of which the chief apostles, Peter, James, and John, might well have been ambitious. . . . According to Hegesippus (a converted Jew of the 2nd century) James, the brother of the Lord, undertook the government of the Church along with the apostles (μετὰ τῶν ἀποστόλων). . . . (ap. Euseb. Hist. Eccles. 2, 23).

St. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150- c. 215), according to Eusebius, wrote: “Peter and James and John after the ascension of our Saviour, as if also preferred by our Lord, strove not after honor, but chose James the Just bishop of Jerusalem.”” (EHBk II, 1, 3). The above source focuses on Peter, James, and John. Nevertheless, it is stated that the three “chose James” as “bishop of Jerusalem.” It doesn’t get any clearer than that. But the Protestant bias shines through again. The obvious facts of the matter as reported have to be undermined somehow, so that episcopal government is not seen to be the norm in the first century Church.

Hegesippus [fl. c. 180] was also cited by Eusebius — writing at a time close to that of Clement of Alexandria — as having stated the following: “And after James the Just had suffered martyrdom, . . . Symeon, the son of the Lord’s uncle, Clopas, was appointed the next bishop [of Jerusalem]. All proposed him as second bishop because he was a cousin of the Lord. (EH, IV, 22, 4; my italics). In the same context (IV, 22, 2-3) Hegesippus refers to “Primus . . . bishop in Corinth” and also a succession of bishops in Rome: “Anicetus was succeeded by Soter, and he by Eleutherus. In every succession, and in every city that is held which is preached by the law and the prophets and the Lord.” Plainly, he believe in monepiscopacy, including in Jerusalem. Eusebius also cites Hegesippus as stating:

They came, therefore, and took the lead of every church as witnesses and as relatives of the Lord. And profound peace being established in every church, they remained until the reign of the Emperor Trajan, and until the above-mentioned Symeon, son of Clopas, an uncle of the Lord, was informed against by the heretics, and was himself in like manner accused for the same cause before the governor Atticus. And after being tortured for many days he suffered martyrdom, . . . (EH, BK III, 33, 6; my italics)

Again, clear as day. James was bishop of Jerusalem, and then Symeon succeeded him. In his Bk IV, 5, 2-3, Eusebius names fifteen bishops of Jerusalem, from James to Judas (up to 135 AD). We see not a word there about government by a board of presbyters (not even conjointly with Peter and John). All we see are single bishops, one after another in succession.

McClintock and Strong then try to make an issue of how Hegesippus described James’ appointment as bishop of Jerusalem in another passage. Here are the actual words, as translated by Schaff and Wace: “James, the brother of the Lord, succeeded to the government of the Church in conjunction with the apostles” (EH, II, 23, 4; my italics). They construe the word “with” as signifying government by a group rather than by one man. Eusebius had just written in section 1 of the same passage, about “James, . . . to whom the episcopal seat at Jerusalem had been entrusted by the apostles.”

The Greek word for “with” Hegesippus used, provided by McClintock and Strong themselves, is μετὰ (meta): Strong’s word #3326 (see also a second Strong’s page for it). As a proposition, it can mean several things. It certainly often — even usually — means “with” but it can also mean “after.” The NASB translation renders meta as “after” 82 times (KJV: 95 times). So it comes down to context. I have already provided two cross-reference from Hegesippus himself that contradict the “Protestant” interpretation in this instance (that James was not sole bishop of Jerusalem). As with the Bible, we interpret less clear utterances of the fathers by clearer ones, and we seek to harmonize them. Schaff draws the same “cynical-of-episcopacy” conclusion in his notes (footnote 491) for Eusebius, EH, II, 23, 4:

μετὰ τῶν ἀποστόλων, “with the apostles”; as Rufinus rightly translates, cum apostolis. Jerome, on the contrary, reads post apostolos, “after the apostles,” as if the Greek were μετὰ τοὺς ἀποστόλους. This statement of Hegesippus is correct. James was a leader of the Jerusalem church, in company with Peter and John, as we see from Gal. ii. 9. But that is quite different from saying, as Eusebius does just above, and as Clement (quoted by Eusebius, chap. 1, §3) does, that he was appointed Bishop of Jerusalem by the apostles.

Galatians 2:9 (RSV) reads: “James and Cephas [Peter] and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship.” This happened in Jerusalem, but technically, it’s not about leadership in the church of Jerusalem in particular. It’s about, I submit, leadership in the universal Church, by apostles who were still then living. If this supposedly means that the three conjointly led the Jerusalem congregation, then Schaff and those who think like him have to explain the contextual remark from Paul fourteen and fifteen verses earlier (Gal 1:18-19): “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.”

Very few argue that Peter — or John — was the leader of the Jerusalem congregation, over against James. Whenever anyone states that there is a bishop or “leader” etc., it’s always James. But if this passage were only about the local Jerusalem church, we would have to conclude from how Paul worded it, then Peter was over James. But if Peter is viewed as the leader of the entire Church, and James of the local Jerusalem church, it makes perfect sense. The three “pillars” of Galatians 2:9 are pillars of the universal Church, not just the church in Jerusalem.

We see similar opinions about James as the leader in Jerusalem (bishop or no) in classic Protestant Bible commentaries (at Acts 15:13):

Ellicott’s Commentary James answered.—The position which James the brother of the Lord . . . occupies in the Council is clearly that of pre-eminence, justifying the title of Bishop of Jerusalem, which later writers give him. No one speaks after him; he sum up the whole debate; he proposes the decree which is to be submitted to the Council for approval.
Barnes’ Notes on the BibleHearken unto me – This whole transaction shows that Peter had no such authority in the church as the papists pretend, for otherwise his opinion would have been followed without debate. James had an authority not less than that of Peter.
This is sheer nonsense. Peter’s statement was indeed “followed without debate.” The actual text states that “after there had been much debate, Peter rose and said to them, . . .” (Acts 15:7), and that after he spoke (his words recorded in 15:7-11), “all the assembly kept silence” (15:12). James — as the local bishop and “master of ceremonies” so to speak — then completely agreed with what Peter had said (“Simeon has related . . .”: 15:14) and simply reiterated his reasoning, which was the essence and ground of the council’s decree, supporting it from the Bible. It was Peter who was given a vision by God about the inclusion of the gentiles, recorded a bit earlier in Acts.  He took the lead in promulgating this “new” teaching, as is appropriate for a pope. Contrary to Barnes’ inane anti-Catholic view, Peter is presented as the leader of the Church in the first half of the book of Acts (before it moves on to describing St. Paul’s life and activities), as He was before Jesus’ death, too:
Peter’s name occurs first in a list of the apostles (Acts 1:13; cf. Mt 10:2; Mk 3:16; Lk 6:14).
Peter is regarded by the Jews (Acts 4:1-13) as the leader and spokesman of Christianity.

Peter is regarded by the common people in the same way (Acts 2:37-41; 5:15).

Peter’s words are the first recorded and most important in the upper room before Pentecost (Acts 1:15-22).

Peter takes the lead in calling for a replacement for Judas (Acts 1:22).

Peter is the first person to speak (and only one recorded) after Pentecost, so he was the first Christian to “preach the gospel” in the Church era (Acts 2:14-36).

Peter works the first miracle of the Church Age, healing a lame man (Acts 3:6-12).

Peter utters the first anathema (Ananias and Sapphira) emphatically affirmed by God (Acts 5:2-11)!

Peter’s shadow works miracles (Acts 5:15).

Peter is the first person after Christ to raise the dead (Acts 9:40).

Cornelius is told by an angel to seek out Peter for instruction in Christianity (Acts 10:1-6).

Peter is the first to receive the Gentiles, after a revelation from God (Acts 10:9-48).

Peter instructs the other apostles on the catholicity (universality) of the Church (Acts 11:5-17).

Peter is the object of the first divine interposition on behalf of an individual in the Church Age (an angel delivers him from prison – Acts 12:1-17).

The whole Church (strongly implied) offers “earnest prayer” for Peter when he is imprisoned (Acts 12:5).

Paul distinguishes the Lord’s post-Resurrection appearances to Peter from those to other apostles (1 Cor 15:4-8).

Peter is often spoken of as distinct among apostles (1 Cor 9:5; cf. Mk 1:36; Lk 9:28,32; Acts 2:37; 5:29).

Peter is the first to recognize and refute heresy, in Simon Magus (Acts 8:14-24).

Peter’s name is mentioned more often than all the other disciples put together: 191 times (162 as Peter or Simon Peter, 23 as Simon, and 6 as Cephas). John is next in frequency with only 48 appearances, and Peter is present 50% of the time we find John in the Bible! Archbishop Fulton Sheen reckoned that all the other disciples combined were mentioned 130 times. If this is correct, Peter is named a remarkable 60% of the time any disciple is referred to! He’s even mentioned more than St. Paul, whose name appears 184 times in the NT (23 of those as Saul).

Peter’s proclamation at Pentecost (Acts 2:14-41) contains a fully authoritative interpretation of Scripture, a doctrinal decision and a disciplinary decree concerning members of the “House of Israel” (2:36) – an example of “binding and loosing.”

Peter was the first “charismatic”, having judged authoritatively the first instance of the gift of tongues as genuine (Acts 2:14-21).

Peter is the first to preach Christian repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38).

Peter (presumably) takes the lead in the first recorded mass baptism (Acts 2:41).

Peter commanded the first Gentile Christians to be baptized (Acts 10:44-48).

Peter was the first traveling missionary, and first exercised what would now be called “visitation of the churches” (Acts 9:32-38,43). Paul preached at Damascus immediately after his conversion (Acts 9:20), but hadn’t traveled there for that purpose (God changed his plans!). His missionary journeys begin in Acts 13:2.

Paul went to Jerusalem specifically to see Peter for fifteen days in the beginning of his ministry (Gal 1:18).

All of this (most of it in the first half of the book of Acts) is in the New Testament, yet Barnes claims that “James had an authority not less than that of Peter?”! It’s utterly ludicrous. But that is what bias does to a mind. And Barnes is very often and excellent, insightful commentator.

Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary:  James . . .  was the acknowledged head of the church at Jerusalem, and . . . president of the assembly, . . .
Matthew Poole’s Commentary: . . . president of this council.
Meyer’s NT Commentary: . . . highly esteemed in Jerusalem as chief leader of the church, . . .
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges: James sums up the discussion, and pronounces the decision of the Church on this controversy . . . bishop of Jerusalem, . . . The president’s summary takes no note of the “much disputing” (Acts 15:7) but points out that a divine revelation had been made to Peter, and that it was accordant with the words of Old Testament prophecy. On these warrants he based his decision.
Pulpit Commentary: James’s place as presiding bishop is here distinctly marked by his summing up the debate. . . . A remarkable testimony against papal supremacy.
John Calvin in his Commentaries helpfully illustrates — with remarkable transparency if not cogency — how bias inclines Protestants (like Barnes and the Pulpit Commentary above) to think that James led the church in Jerusalem, so as to supposedly slight Peter (although it does no such thing), even though otherwise the same people might inconsistently opine that monepiscopacy wasn’t present in the first century:
[W]e shall see afterwards how great his authority was at Jerusalem. The old writers think that this was because he was bishop of the place; but it is not to be thought that the faithful did at their pleasure change the order which Christ had appointed. Wherefore, I do not doubt but that he was son to Alpheus, and Christ’s cousin, in which sense he is also called his brother. Whether he were bishop of Jerusalem or no, I leave it indifferent; neither doth it greatly make for the matter, save only because the impudency of the Pope is hereby refuted, because the decree of the Council is set down rather at the appointment, and according to the authority of James than of Peter. And assuredly Eusebius, in the beginning of his Second Book, is not afraid to call James, whosoever he were, the Bishop of the Apostles. Let the men of Rome go now and boast that their Pope is head of the Universal Church, because he is Peter’s successor, who suffered another to rule him, if we believe Eusebius.
Note, by the way, that Calvin believed that James — someone called “the Lord’s brother” — was literally His “cousin,” and that this is the scriptural “sense” in which “brother” is often used in the NT, thus disagreeing with the vast majority of Protestants today who deny Mary’s perpetual virginity. I have myself documented this several times (Luther and virtually all of the early Protestant leaders believed the same).
I have no idea what Calvin is referring to in claiming that Eusebius wrote that James was “the Bishop of the Apostles.” In Bk II, ch. 1, the word “bishop” occurs twice (in sections 2 and 3): both times referring to James as the bishop of Jerusalem. I searched in vain for the word “bishop” in the next fifteen chapters of Eusebius; so Calvin appears to have been using an edition of Eusebius that is now antiquated and inaccurate. Nice try, though. Calvin also futilely tried to argue — probably because of the same bias — that the epistles of St. Ignatius of Antioch were not authentic.
It’s appropriate and fitting to end with Calvin’s words — so quintessentially and “textbook” low church Protestant — and my reply.
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Photo credit: The original Peter, Paul, & Mary: Madonna and Child with Sts. Peter and Paul (1608-1609), by Giuseppe Cesari (1568-1640) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

Summary: The “anti-Petrine” bias of Protestants leads them to posit that James was bishop of Jerusalem in the 1st century: when single bishops supposedly didn’t exist.

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