And he believed in the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness.Genesis 15:6 (KJV)
Believed – What happens when two Biblical authors use the same verse from Genesis to support two contradictory messages? For the most of us, we just brush it under the rug or fiddle with the wording until it fits better. Both Paul and James, Rabbis of their time, use this verse about Abraham believing to support their message about faith and works.
James writes in his letter to the 12 tribes:
Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.James 2:24
Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, writes this:
Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.Galatians 2:16
So how does the student of Scripture resolve these apparent contradictions? First, we need to examine the text.
- Is contradictory interpretation common among Jewish history?
- What are the words James and Paul are actually using in Greek?
- Who are James and Paul writing to?
- Why are they writing this?
- What is the their goal?
Jewish history is filled with debate, contradictory interpretations, and various forms of commentary. If we understand both James and Paul as products of their time and culture, we see that they too fit this mold. From our Greek worldviews it is difficult for us to accept opposing views on Biblical subjects. Everything in the Bible has to be an absolute truth because we need to know how to believe. But looking at this from a Hebrew worldview, it is perfectly viable for two Rabbis to interpret and teach contradictory statements, especially to support their particular goal.
The Greek word
I’ve noticed that some Bibles will change the words in one of these verses so they do not contradict each other in English so blatantly. But investigation reveals these words are the same. It is dikaioō in Greek which means “to render as righteous.” Both verses use the same word. So we can conclude this is not a problem with the translation.
Who are they writing to, and why? What are their goals?
James is writing to the 12 tribes together – the reunited kingdom of God. There is the house of Judah who remained as God’s people, know the order of service, and are oppressing the newly grafted in house of Israel with more demands. The house of Judah are rich and dominate the synagogues. The house of Israel is coming into the fold once again, but have lost a lot of understanding. They are the poor and struggling. James is writing to the upper-class Jews with instruction that they teach one thing, but do not themselves do what they teach. This was the same message Yeshua had in Matthew 23:1-3. So James is pressing the upper-class house of Judah to not only rely on their faith, but to actually do what the Torah says to. Open the synagogues and accept these returning tribes of Israel.
Paul is also writing to the same group of individuals – the upper-class Jewish Pharisees regarding the same people who are newly grafted in. But instead of instructing the house of Judah as James does, Paul gives a different perspective. Paul suggests that the newly grafted in house of Israel can join purely by faith. They believe as Abraham believed. Let these poor and struggling people attend the services and they will learn as they go. Their works will become known. This was the message provided by both James and Paul in Acts 15:20-21.
The goals of James and Paul are the same. They are just focusing on two different sides of the same coin. This is important for us to recognize.
Scripture, especially the writings of the Apostles, are not absolute truths that must be adhered to. They are not new laws dictated from God. The letters are attempts to help specific groups deal with specific issues in their communities. We can learn from them and use the teachings to uplift our own communities, but let us not implement doctrine without the proper worldview and understanding. This means we need to study more.