Peter, James and the Council of Jerusalem

Peter, James and the Council of Jerusalem

Many non-Catholics claim that Peter could not have been the head of the earthly Church or “pope” because they believe that it was James, not Peter, who gave the final decision concerning circumcision of the Gentiles at the Council of Jerusalem recorded in Acts 15. This position indicates a complete misunderstanding of the dynamics of the council. Mark Bonocore, a noted Catholic apologist, addressed this misunderstanding in his debate with Jason Engwer in 1999.

Regarding the Jerusalem council in Acts 15, I pointed out in my [opening statement] how Peter gives the definitive teachings and how, after he speaks, all debate comes to an end. However, Engwer rejects this, citing the amendments given by James, and says how James is the only one to render “judgment.” Well, first of all, it must be noted that James bases his remarks on Peter’s teaching:

[indent]“Brothers, listen to me. Symeon (i.e., Peter) has described how …” (Acts 15:13-14).

Secondly, look at what James actually says in relation to his “judgment”:

“It is my judgment, therefore, that we ought to stop troubling the Gentiles” (Acts 15:19).

Well, who is this “we”? Who was “troubling the Gentiles”? Certainly not Peter (Acts 10:44-49, 11:1-18, 15:7-10). Certainly not Paul or Barnabas. So, who? Acts 15:1 tells us:

“Some who had come down from Judea were instructing the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised …, you cannot be saved.”

It was the Jewish faction under James (bishop of Jerusalem) that was troubling the Gentiles (Acts 15:5, Gal 2:12).

Thus, James is speaking for them, not for the whole council. Indeed, that’s why his remarks are recorded at all—to show that the leader of the Jewish faction subscribed to the decisions of the council, and so silence the Judaizers who Paul will encounter later (Titus 1:10-11).*

*Taken from: Mark Bonocore v. Jason Engwer: Was the Papacy Established by Christ? ([/indent]

In addition to Bonocore’s comments, I would point out that as leader of the church in Jerusalem, James was the head of a congregation which counted among its members many priests and Pharisees who still held to their Jewish roots and believed that Gentiles must become Jews through circumcision in order to become Christians. I refer you to the following:

Acts 4:36-37
36Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), 37sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.

Acts 6:7
7So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.

Some from among this group had gone to Galatia and upset the Gentile believers there.

Galatians 2:11-14
11When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. 12Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group.

From this, we can see that the Council of Jerusalem was divided into two camps: those who believed the Gentile converts should be circumcised and those who did not. Peter addresses the former with these words:

“Now then, why do you [Judaizers] try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are." (Acts 15:10-11)

James addresses them, also:

“Brothers, listen to me. 14Simon (note that James even used Peter’s Hebrew name when speaking to the Judaizers) has described to us (James must be speaking here to the believers from Jerusalem since those from Galatia would already have been familiar with God’s work in that province!) how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself…19"It is my judgment, therefore, that we (the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem) should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20Instead we should write to them…” (Acts 15:13-20)

Thus, after hearing Peter’s doctrinal pronouncement, James rose to speak and addressed those from his own flock whom he knew would have the hardest time accepting Peter’s decision. James accepted Peter’s teaching and added his own pastoral comments for the benefit of the pro-circumcision group present and for those who might be tempted to doubt that the leader of the “Judaizers” really had accepted the decision of the full ecumenical council that circumcision was unnecessary for Gentiles.


John Chrysostom

“James was invested with the chief rule [in Acts 15], and think it no hardship. So clean was their soul from love of glory. ‘And after that they had held their peace, James answered,’ etc. (v. 13.) Peter indeed spoke more strongly, but James here more mildly: for thus it behooves one in high authority, to leave what is unpleasant for others to say, while he himself appears in the milder part.” (Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles, 33)

“And should any one say, ‘Why then did James receive the throne of Jerusalem?’: this is my answer: that He [Jesus] appointed this man (Peter) not teacher of that throne, but of the habitable globe.” (John Chrysostom, A.D. 387, Ib. Hom. lxxxviii. n. 6, p. 600, in Joseph Berrington, John Kirk, eds., and James Waterworth, rev. The Faith of Catholics, vol. 2 (New York: Pustet & Co., 1884), 34.)

James was the head of the church in Jerusalem. Peter was the head of the Church on earth.

Great read Randy. Thanks

Thank you Randy. Very informative post of yours as usual.

God bless.



How about the interpretation of St. Jerome:

We read in Acts 15:2 “…it was decided that Paul, Barnabas… should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and presbyters about this question.” At the Council in Jerusalem it is reported that Acts 15:7 "After much debate had taken place, Peter got up and said to them, ‘My brothers, you are well aware that from early days God made his choice among you that through my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe…’ " Immediately after Peter gives his decision we are told “The whole assembly fell silent…”

Who had more authority in the Council of Jerusalem, Peter or James ? Some say that the reference to James’s “judgment” in Acts 15:13-21 indicated that he had more authority.

Acts 15:13-14, 19-21 “After they had fallen silent, James responded, ‘My brothers, listen to me. Symeon has described how God first concerned himself with acquiring from among the Gentiles a people for his name… 19 It is my judgment, therefore, that we ought to stop troubling the Gentiles who turn to God, but tell them by letter to avoid pollution from idols, unlawful marriage, the meat of strangled animals, and blood. For Moses, for generations now, has had those who proclaim him in every town, as he has been read in the synagogues every sabbath.”

However, it should be noted that James begins his discourse with a specific reference to Peter and his declaration. James assents to what Peter proclaimed, and then he just offers his best pastoral judgment on how to implement Peter’s decision.

Also, Peter’s voice was not just one of many because we are told that he gave his decision “after much debate” which implies that the debate was over when Peter took the floor. Furthermore, Peter doesn’t just voice his decision, we are told that he rose up to do so. By standing Peter adds a certain affirmation and enforcement to what he is about to declare. The fact that the “whole assembly fell silent” after Peter had spoken showed the attitude of the Church after the Rock had issued his judgment. The attitude of the Council might well have been characterized by Saint Augustine’s famous quote “Rome has spoken, the cause is finished.” (Sermo 131, 6:10 in 417 AD.)

Another observation comes to light when we compare the above text of Galatians and Acts 15. It is worth noting that it was the people who " came from James" that had difficulty accepting the Gentiles in Galatians 2: 12. (see above.) Cf. Acts 11:2-4 Since it was the members of James’s own community that had the trouble of accepting the Gentiles, it would have been significant to them that Luke recorded James’s decision to follow Peter. Presumably, James’s community would have been left with no other decision but to get in line behind Peter as well.


This is the THIRD time Peter expresses why Jesus (therefore himself) accepts and cleanses gentiles just as He does each of us.

The glaring question should be, why did Jesus specifically reveal this to Peter first and foremost, while the others had to debate about it?

Paul was specifically inspired too, because he saw the response and faith expressed through the Gentiles.

Peter and the Orthodox: a Reprise
By Fr. Ray Ryland


Take a closer look at the role of James in the council. James’s words (verse 19) “my judgment is” (RSV) translate the Greek verb krino. In Acts 13:46;16:15; 26:8, the verb is used to denote expression of an opinion… Michael Winter says it could better be translated by “in my opinion” or “as for me.” (Michael M. Winter, St. Peter and the Popes (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1979), 32.)

Friedrich Buchsel makes the same point: *krino *as used in Acts 15:19 means “to think” in the sense of hold an opinion. (Friedrich Buchsel, in Gerhard Kittel, editor, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,1993), 923.)

Another Protestant interpreter makes the same point more strongly. In the Greek, the “I” in,"I judge’ or “I think” is emphatic.

"The emphatic ‘I’ must be interpreted in harmony with the rest of the New Testament and the Bible. It is absurd to believe that James at this moment gave his personal opinion as the final word, from which there could be no appeal… The very emphasis on the ‘I’ shows that he was only expressing a personal conviction. (G. Campbell Morgan, The Acts of the Apostles (Tarrytown, New York: Revell, 1924), 362-b3.)

So, what *did *James do? He repeated what Peter had already said. For reasons of his own, he added to the council’s instructions some judaizing elements (requirements about not eating meat sacrificed to idols, not consuming blood). What happened to Peter’s decision? It became the law of the Church. What happened to James’s additions? Scripture never mentions them again. The Church ignored them. In 1 Corinthians 8, written well after the council, Paul taught that whether one eats meat, which has been sacrificed to idols is purely a prudential judgment.

I just discovered this in the* Introduction to the Epistle of James* in the New American Bible:

Of the various personages in the New Testament bearing this name [James], the James mentioned by Paul in Galatians 2:9 as one of the pillars of the church in Palestine well meets the requirements for the authorship of this epistle. He is designated by Paul, not as one of the Twelve, but as the brother of the Lord (Gal. 1:19). The risen Christ made a significant appearance to him (1 Cor. 15:7). **James was the administrator of the Jerusalem community (acts 1217), and for this reason placed a leading role in the apostolic council (Acts 15:13-21). **He was the advisor of Paul on the latter’s arrival in Jerusalem after the third missionary journey (Acts 21:17-25). He is probably to be identified as one of the relatives of Jesus who did not believe in him during the ministry, c.f. Mk 6:13; Jn 7:2-5.

If the James of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) was NOT an apostle, I do not think it very likely that his words at the conclusion of the council represented the final judgment. Rather, James, head of the local community in Jerusalem, acquiesced to the decision already pronounced by Peter, the head of the universal Church, and committed his church to obedience.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit