Gary Greenberg's blog on biblical studies and related matters

Book Review: Paul vs James

Paul vs James by Barrie Wilson ($1.99 from Amazon)

(Note: This is a Kindle book but at last check it didn’t appear to be downloadable to the Kindle device. I used the Apple kindle app to read it. I assume the Android app will also work.)

Paul vs James is an historical novel that explores the conflicts between the apostolic Jerusalem church of Torah-based Christian Jews, originally led by James the Just, brother of Jesus, and the diaspora Pauline church that rejected Torah and promoted unity among Jews and Gentiles. Set shortly after the deaths of the two title characters, as the Romans prepare to march on Jerusalem to put down the Jewish rebellion, the story focuses primarily on Mattai, and his family. Mattai, a Torah-loving rabbi and craftsman who belonged to the Jerusalem church, fears the imminent Roman assault and flees with his family to Antioch, where they establish a new life among other followers of James and the Jerusalem church, and he brings with him a secret document that he kept hidden for over two decades, one which plays an important role later in the story.

As Mattai and the family settle in to the life and rhythms of Antioch, where he and his church members are a distinct minority, the Sabbath service is visited by some followers of Paul’s teachings, among whom are future leaders of the Christian movement, and they came there to recruit members from Mattai’s congregation. This leads to a series of debates and arguments over the correct teachings of Jesus, a debate over whether to follow the teachings of Jesus while he was alive versus the alleged revelations to Paul after the death of Jesus. Wilson imagines that these sort of debates led to the creation of some of the formative documents in early Christianity.

One of the great virtues of this fiction format is that it can transform the trials and tribulations of the characters from sociological abstracts in a lecture to characters enmeshed in society, traditions, worries and concerns. Rather than a dry lecture about how some unknown individual may have written some document, Wilson’s arrangement allows you to see how characters deal with and react to problems as humans, rather than cardboard cutouts. I particularly enjoyed the fleshing out of the story with the frequent insertion of practices, traditions and diversity of thought within the Jewish community that would have no place in a basic lecture about document source criticism.