In Acts 15, the leadership of the early church met to settle a controversy."Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: 'Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.' This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question" (Acts 15:1, 2*).
Around this time, the issue of circumcising Jews who had become Christians was debated among the Jewish proselytes in the Christian community. Josephus tells of Helena, queen of Adiabene, and of her son Izates, who embraced Judaism under the influence of a Jewish merchant named Ananias. King Izates feared that his subjects would not accept him if he submitted to circumcision. Ananias assured the king that circumcision was not the most important thing: "The king could, he [Ananias] said, worship God even without being circumcised if indeed he had fully decided to be a devoted adherent of Judaism, for it was this that counted more than circumcision. He told him, furthermore, that God Himself would pardon him if, constrained thus by necessity and by fear of his subjects, he failed to perform this rite. And so, for the time, the king was convinced by his arguments. Afterwards, however, since he had not completely given up his desire, another Jew, named Eleazar, who came from Galilee and who had a reputation for being extremely strict when it came to the ancestral laws, urged him to carry out the rite." (Antiquities 20.41-3, Loeb).
Among other things, this history tells us that Jewish agents traveled about the empire, some advocating a lax policy on circumcision, others a strict one. Paul wrestled with a similar situation in some of his churches. So the controversy over Jewish proselytes and circumcision was not limited to Christians.
The Jerusalem council took up the issue around A.D. 45. After much discussion, speeches by Peter and James crystallized the consensus, which was then written down. The Gentiles were commanded "to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality" (Acts 15:29).
Generations of scholars have wondered what reasoning process the apostles followed to arrive at their conclusion. On what did they base their decision?
Under the direction of the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28) the apostles found a passage in the Torah that laid down rules that applied to aliens living among the Jews. Notice how the decree of Acts 15:29 follows Leviticus exactly, in precise textual order. Notice also that each segment of Leviticus repeats that the law applies to non-Jews:
"You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols:" Converts to Christianity must no longer offer any sacrifices to idols; "this is to be a lasting ordinance for them and for the generations to come. Say to them: 'Any Israelite or any alien living among them who offers a burnt offering or sacrifice and does not bring it to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting to sacrifice it to the LORD that man must be cut off from his people'" (Lev. 17:7-9, italics added).
". . . from blood:" "Any Israelite or any alien living among them who eats any blood I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from his people. For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for your selves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one's life. Therefore I say to the Israelites, 'None of you may eat blood, nor may an alien living among you eat blood.' Any Israelite or any alien living among you who hunts any animal or bird that may be eaten must drain out the blood and cover it with earth, because the life of every creature is its blood. That is why I have said to the Israelites, 'You must not eat the blood of any creature, because the life of every creature is its blood; anyone who eats it must be cut off" (Lev. 17:10-14, italics added).
". . . from the meat of strangled animals:"1 "Anyone, whether native-born or alien, who eats anything found dead or torn by wild animals must wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he will be ceremonially unclean till evening; then he will be clean. But if he does not wash his clothes and bathe himself, he will be held responsible" (Lev. 17:15, 16).
". . . and from sexual immorality:" "The Lord said to Moses, 'Speak to the Israelites and say to them: "I am the LORD your God. You must not do as they do in Egypt. . . . No one is to approach any close relative to have sexual relations. I am the LORD. Do not dishonor your father by having sexual relations with your mother.... Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable. Do not have sexual relations with an animal. . . .The native-born and the aliens living among you must not do any of these detestable things'"" (Lev. 18).
Leviticus 17-18 offers a far stronger parallel with Acts 15 than the Noachide covenant of Genesis 9, which forbids only blood but says nothing about food sacrificed to idols, things strangled, or porneia. The Noachide laws may have influenced Leviticus 17-18, but it is Leviticus 17-18 that stands behind Acts 15 (a later passage that mentions approximately the same offenses is Ezekiel 33:25, 26).
The apostolic rationale is obvious: the laws of Leviticus 17 and 18 explicitly refer to Gentile proselytes—the word translated "alien" here is the Greek proselytos in the Septuagint (LXX).
Was the apostolic decree provisional?
Modern expositors often claim that the apostolic decree was merely provisional or temporary. But the source documents suggest otherwise. Allusions to the decree are found in the last book of the Bible: "Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality" (Rev. 2:14).
This is repeated in 2:20. By twice citing the first and last stipulations of the apostolic decree of 15:29, John implies the binding nature of the whole. There is no doubt that the apostolic decree stands behind the text, for Revelation 2:24 alludes to it again ("I will not impose any other burden on you;" cf. Acts 15:28). Evidently some Christians at the end of the first century did not regard the apostolic decree as testing truth, and John, as he wrote the book of Revelation, regarded this group as heretical.
John's position prevailed in the second-century church. The Didache, which may be seen as a species of early Christian "church manual" written around A.D. 100, says "Keep strictly away from meat sacrificed to idols, for it involves the worship of dead gods" (6:3).
Justin Martyr claimed that Christians "abide every torture and vengeance even to the extremity of death, rather than worship idols, or eat meat offered to idols" (Trypho 34). Eusebius regarded the teaching that there was no harm in eating things sacrificed to idols as a heresy of Basilides (Hist. 4.7.7).
In the second half of the second century, Christians were still not allowed to eat the blood of animals (Hist. 5.1.26). Finally, all bishops of the Christian church, up until the capture of Jerusalem by Hadrian around A.D.
135, were Jewish (Hist. 4.5), not Gentile, and so were expected to enforce the apostolic decree. Evidence suggests that the apostolic decree was still considered normative well after the New Testament was completed.
Did the Apostolic Council set aside the Torah?
It is impossible to maintain that the church leadership in Acts 15 intended to set aside the Torah when their decision was based upon the Torah. It is important to remember that the apostolic decree exempted only Gentile believers from circumcision; Jewish believers were still expected to observe it. This is implied not only in Acts 15 itself but also in an interesting conversation between James and Paul recorded in Acts 21:20-25. It may help to read the passage aloud, emphasizing the words in italics:
"Then they Dames and the elders] said to Paul: 'You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. ... As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.'"
In other words, James and the elders were apparently chiding Paul for allegedly teaching Jewish Christians that they were no longer bound by the law (21:21), in violation of the agreement of 15:19, which exempted only Gentile Christians (21:25). This explains the elders' request to Paul in 21:23-27 to sponsor four Jewish brothers in observing a vow (probably the Nazirite, see Num. 6) to reassure the critics that Paul, a Jew, was "living in obedience to the law" (Acts 21:24).
It is unclear whether Paul agreed with James that Jewish believers should be circumcised. In 1 Corinthians 7:19 Paul writes, "Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God's commands is what counts," but he makes no distinction between Gentile and Jewish believers.
The issue would arise, however, only in the context of Gentile converts, though it is unlikely that Paul would have objected to Jewish believers circumcising their own children.
At any rate, his acquiescence to the elders here (Acts 21:26) and his earlier circumcision of Timothy (16:3) show, at the very least, submission to church leadership.
Even later Paul made sure he was ceremonially pure before he entered the temple (Acts 24:18). So Paul him self observed parts of the ritual law ("to the Jews I became like a Jew," 1 Cor. 9:20). He even seems to have supported in principle the prohibition against meat offered to idols (1 Cor. 10:14-21), although he created a major loophole where the origin of the meat was uncertain (10:25-28).
Unresolved differences among New Testament leaders
The New Testament debate over the law is easier to understand if we allow for the possibility that Paul and the Twelve had unresolved differences of opinion on the matter.2 Galatians 2:12 seems to suggest that Paul's theological opponents in Acts 15:1, 5 were allied in some way with James.
This much, however, is clear: the Jewish founders of Christianity did not expect Jews to abandon their heritage when they accepted Jesus. Indeed, the earliest Christians considered themselves not as a separate religion but as a sect of the Jews known as "the Way."3
Paul regarded Christianity as fulfilled Judaism, and Gentile Christians as true Jews: "It is we who are the circumcision" (Phil. 3:3). "A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code" (Rom. 2:28, 29). "It is not the natural children who are God's children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham's offspring" (Rom. 9:8). "Those who believe are children of Abraham" (Gal. 3:7). "If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (verse 29).
By the end of the first century John even refused to allow ethnic Jews the right to any longer claim the title "Jew."4 The church called itself "Israel"5 and assumed Israel's canon. The apostles saw the church as the legitimate continuation of God's covenant people.6 They believed they were authentic Jews, so they did not simply discard the Jewish Scriptures and start from scratch. Rather, they selectively discarded certain "external regulations applying until the time of the new order" (Heb. 9:10).
It is essential to remember that early Christianity was derived from the Old Testament. Christian evangelists did not preach from Christian texts before the destruction of Jerusalem at the earliest, and prob ably not until the second century. Their preaching was based on the canon of their parent community, Judaism—in the same way that con temporary Adventist evangelistic preaching appeals only to the traditional Christian canon, ignoring any later authoritative writings.
The apostles would have been astonished by the modern evangelical notion that nothing in the Old Testament is binding except that which is repeated in the New. Paul believed that "all [Old Testament] Scripture ... is useful for teaching" (2 Tim. 3:16). "Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith?" he asks. "Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law" (Rom. 3:31).
Luke, Paul's disciple, records the words of Jesus: "It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law" (Luke 16:17). He also records Paul's testimony in a Roman court of law, "I believe everything that agrees with the Law and that is written in the Prophets" (Acts 24:14).
If the apostles did not simply dis card the Torah, how could they set aside circumcision for Gentiles? Notice that the covenant God made with Abraham in Genesis 17:10-14, where circumcision is commanded, is said to apply only to the descendants of Abraham and their slaves—not to the aliens living among them. Exodus 12:43-48 implies that aliens living among the Jews were not normally circumcised unless they wanted to partake of the Passover.
1 Wild animals often kill by strangling their prey, so "torn by wild animals" suggests strangulation.
2 Some of the theological differences between Jewish and Hellenistic Christianity surface in the epistles of Romans and James. James' polemic against "faith alone" in chapter 2 of his epistle provides a provocative counterpoint to Paul's exposition of righteousness by faith in Romans 3 and 4. Both writers use the very same text about Abraham believing God (Gen. 15:6) to arrive at differing conclusions (contrast James 2:21-23 with Rom. 4:1-5). Paul's fundamental thesis is stated in Romans 3:28, "We maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law " Contrast this with James 2:24, "You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone" (NASB). Here the formula "faith alone," in its only occurrence in the Greek New Testament, is rejected as error. To harmonize Paul and James, one may distinguish works of law from works of faith. Works of law are bad (Rom. 3:20, 27, 28; Gal. 2:16, 3:2; 5, 10), while works of faith are good (Rom
13:12; 2 Cor. 12:12; Gal. 5:6, 18-23; 1 Tim. 2-10; 5:10, 25; 6:18, 19; Titus 2:7, 14; 3:8, 14). Even works of faith are worthless as a ground or basis of salvation but are essential as a fruit or result. Fruitless trees/vines are cut down/off (Matt. 3:10; 7:19; Luke 13.7, John 15:2; Heb. 6.7, 8; Jude 12), because the lack of fruit indicates that the tree is dead. Hence "faith [i.e., mere mental assent] without works is dead" (James 2:17, 26). Even Paul preached that his hearers "should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds" (Acts 26:20; cf. Luke 3:8). Our best efforts at harmonization aside, the aposties still found that Paul's writings contained material that was "hard to understand" (2 Peter 3:16)—and it seems significant that, immediately following this statement, Peter warns against antinomianism (3:17).
3 Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23, 22:4, 24:5, 14, 22; 28:22. "The Way" is already a technical term among the Essenes at Qumran- 1QS 9:17-21 states that the instructor is not to argue theology with outsiders, but is to save his reproof for "those who have chosen the Way, treating each as his spiritual qualities and the precepts of the era require. He shall ground them in knowledge, thereby instructing them in truly wondrous mysteries, if
then the secret Way is perfected among men of the Yahad (community), each will walk blamelessly with his fellow, guided by what has been revealed to them. That will be the time of 'preparing the way in the desert' (Isa. 40:3). He shall instruct them in every legal finding that is to regulate their works in that time, and teach them to separate from every man who fails to keep himself from perversity. These are the precepts of the Way for the Instructor in these times." 1QS 10:21 mentions "any who rebel against the Way." 4Q400 frag. 1, col. 1:14-16 mentions those "who transgress the true Way." 4Q405 frag. 23, col. 1, says of the angels: "None of them omits a precept or fails to acknowledge anything the King says. They neither run from the Way nor reverence anything not a part of it." See Michael Wise, Martin Abegg, Jr., and Edward Cook, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 140, 141, 367, 376.The term also occurs m Jubilees 23.20, 21; Odes of Solomon 11-3; 17-9; 39:7,13. Elsewhere in the New Testament, see Mark
l:3//Luke 3:4//John 1.23; Mark 12:14//Matt- 22.16//Luke 20:21; Matt 7:14, 21-32; Luke 1-79; John 14:6; Rom 3:17; Heb 10:20; 2 Peter 2:2, 21. The source of "the way" may be Isa 35-8, LXX: "There shall be a pure way, and it shall be called a holy way, and there shall not pass by there any unclean person, neither shall there be there an unclean way; but the dispersed shall walk on it, and they shall not go astray."
4 Rev 2.9,3.9 John's invective against the Jews here was written by a fellow Jew and cannot be called anti-semitic; it is no worse than similar aspersions in the Old Testament: see Isa. 1:4, 23, 57.3, 4; Jer. 6:28; 23:14; Ezek. 16; 23. The comment of K. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 447, is relevant here: "Even today, not least in Jerusalem, one may see posters and placards in which one
group denounces another (often remarkably similar) group as being diabolically inspired."
5 Gal. 6:14-16; cf. Rom. 9:6- Notice the census from the tribes of "Israel" in Revelation 7.
6 According to Brent Kinman, "Lucan Eschatology and the Missing Fig Tree," /BL 113, no. 4 (1994): 675n23, in recent scholarship on Luke/Acts the essential unity of Israel and the church has been emphasized by defining Israel as an entity consisting of those Jews and Gentiles who believed Jesus to be the Messiah. Israel has been redefined so as both to incorporate believing Gentiles and to exclude ethnic Jews who do not
believe. See J. Jervell, Luke and the People of God. A New Look at Luke/Acts (Minneapolis. Augsburg, 1972), 41-74; E. Franklin, Christ the Lord: A Study in the Purpose and Theology of Luke-Acts (London: SPCK, 1975), 77-115; D. L. Tiede, Prophecy and History in Luke-Acts (Philadelphia- Fortress, 1980), 9-11; idem, "The Exaltation of Jesus and the Restoration of Israel in Acts 1," HTR 79 (1986): 278-286; Fitzmyer, 59; J T. Carroll, Response to the End of History: Eschatology and Situation in Luke-Acts, Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series 92 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988).