At first when Paul tells us that men from James arrived in Antioch and drew Peter and Barnabas away from the table fellowship of Jewish and Gentile believers (Galatians 2:11-13), one thinks that James actually sent these men, but it is something he specifically denied in Acts 15. I think we should probably understand the phrase as being equal to “…men from the Jerusalem church.” James seems to have been the acknowledged leader of the Jerusalem community of believers by this time, which was after the expulsion of the Apostles under the Agrippa persecution of the early 40s CE (Acts 12).
If the men from James were not actually sent by him, who were they, and why does Paul phrase it this way in Galatians? I believe the answer lies in one of two possible premises, once we agree they were not actually sent by James, the leader of the Jerusalem body of believers. I think we must consider it is possible that the group was made up of Pharisaical believers. We know the Pharisees who believed were caught up in a lot of ceremony—washings, ceremonial practices meant for the priests that were also adopted by the rank and file etc. In short they were the real fundamentalists of their day. This is not to put them down, but I do mean to say that it was difficult for them to accept the more liberal practices of the Jewish Hellenist believers of the Diaspora. Acts 6 implies they wouldn’t fellowship with the Apostles until the more liberal Grecian believers of the Diaspora left (Acts 6:1-7). At times we seem to think the liberal, conservative and moderate approaches to Christianity are a modern phenomenon, but in all actuality it was very much a part of the earliest group of believers in the Jesus Movement. In fact, Paul mentions in Romans that care must be taken to accept one another and not let the differing methods of our worship determine how we feel towards our brethren in Christ (Romans 14).
We need to recall how “those of the circumcision” were the first to call Peter into question concerning his table fellowship with Cornelius (Acts 11:1-3). We all know that Peter received a vision. We have the benefit of reading God’s word, but when all this took place, the New Testament wasn’t complete, Some things were written down, but certainly not all, especially the Book of Acts, which records the account. The Scriptures that were considered inspired included the Hebrew Scriptures only. Peter had to tell his skeptical brethren about his vision of Christ and the table of unclean food. Then he related the vision to his meeting with Cornelius and the other gentiles with him and the subsequent falling of the Holy Spirit upon all uncircumcised gentiles in the house, while they listened to and believed the Gospel Peter preached to them. Peter also brought six witnesses with him to verify his words (Acts 11:12). Their acceptance may have been reluctant, but what could one say to contradict a vision from God or the falling down of the Holy Spirit upon uncircumcised gentile believers?
Perhaps this group was having second thoughts and believed Paul was going too far in his approach to the Gospel. It is not the position I subscribe to, but it is a possibility.
What I actually believe about this whole affair involves much more intrigue and subtlety. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul mentions the presence of false brethren (Galatians 2:4). The implication is, as I understand it, that the “men from James” were actually spies, masquerading as believers and sent in to bring believers into subjection of Judaism or more specifically into subjection of the ruling class of Judaism—the Sadducees.
From the very beginning it was this ruling class, specifically Annas and his family, who had threatened Peter and the other apostles, seeking to bring them under their power. When it became evident that the Apostles would not obey the words of the high priest (Acts 4:19; 5:28-29), it seems Annas conspired to send in spies loyal to him in order to understand the inner teaching of the growing body of believers and to seek to influence them to the degree that the new movement would fall under the power and authority of the high priest.
This seems to be a very logical conclusion when we compare Paul’s remarks about false brethren and Acts 5, which records the tale of Ananias and Sapphira. A quick read would lead one to believe the account is nothing more than a record of the judgment of an erring believer, but this is not the case. First of all, where is the grace in the Lord’s treatment of two of his erring children? The account is more like the Lord exposing the danger of an attempt to hurt the Jesus Movement. Notice that after Ananias and Sapphira were judged and buried that the text mentions the rest were afraid to join themselves with the Apostles (Acts 5:13)! Who are the rest? It certainly couldn’t mean believers, because believers were expected to “join themselves” with the Apostles and the rest of the Body of Christ. No, something more seems to be the case here. The rest seems to refer to a particular group—how many is not clear, but the group does not seem to be believers at all. They are most likely false brethren planted by the ruling class in Jerusalem in an effort to stop the spreading of the Gospel, and either destroy the movement or bring it under the influence and rulership of the high priest.
Therefore, once we agree that James is telling the truth in Acts 15 when he denies the men who caused the trouble in Antioch were sent by him or the elders of the Jerusalem church, it leaves us with only two working possibilities. I believe that any serious believer who recognizes the movement of God would not later question that movement, especially when miracles were involved to express his signature upon the new understanding. While it is one thing to feel uncomfortable to fully embrace the movement, it would be quite another to try to stop it. Therefore, I don’t seriously consider the possibility of believing Pharisees as a valid explanation of the identity the men from James. This leaves me with false brethren as my only alternative, but I do recognize this is not something set in cement. There may be something I have overlooked. There may even be more than two possible explanations, but these two are the possibilities I am able to recognize. Are there others?