Acts 15 is the center of the book of Acts. In the story-flow of Acts, the Jerusalem council resolves crucial issues and enables the gentile mission to go forward with the approval of the Jerusalem church. The council helps portray the unity of the church and helps explain the church's transformation from being essentially Jewish toward being a predominantly gentile community freed from laws characteristic of Judaism.
The apostolic decree (15:20, 29; 21:25) summarizes the results of the council: an inspired list of requirements for gentile converts. It shows how gentiles fit into the people of God.
Despite the crucial role of the Acts 15 council, despite the crucial role of the council's decree, and despite numerous detailed studies, the council and decree remain controversial in several respects. I will bypass questions about the precise date of the council and differences in the Greek texts.
I will focus on literary context, literary source and purpose of the decree. My theses are: 1) The decree is given not as steps required for salvation, but in context of gentiles already being in the people of God. 2) This list was created at the council, not simply borrowed from rabbinic Noachic law lists or Levitical laws concerning aliens living in Israel. 3)I will argue that 15:21 implies that the decree was given in opposition to synagogue preaching, not in harmony with it. 4) Last, I will give evidence that the four prohibitions of the decree were idolatrous practices that gentiles should avoid.
The apostolic council was called because some Judean Christians were teaching gentile Christians in Antioch that they had to be circumcised or else they could not be saved (15:1). However, Luke's readers already knew that uncircumcised people had been given the Holy Spirit and had been baptized (10:44-48). God had called gentiles to repentance and salvation (11:18), but a formal policy about circumcision had not yet been made.
Many gentiles had come into the church because of the work of Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13-14, especially 14:27), and it became evident that gentiles would become a substantial part of the church. It became necessary to clarify some theological and practical details of gentile membership in the church. Some Pharisees had also become believers (15:5). The council was called to determine how both Pharisees and gentiles could be part of the same community of believers.
Luke was inspired to present the story with a bias that helps his readers be favorable toward the decree. First, Luke's readers already knew that circumcision was not required. Luke is contrasting the decree with an obviously erroneous position. Luke also tells us that Phoenician and Samaritan believers expressed great joy when they learned that gentiles were becoming believers (15:3). Paul and Barnabas were warmly welcomed by the Jerusalem church (15:4) — implying that the circumcision advocates were a minority even within the Jewish church. Both 14:27 and 15:4 remind us that the gentile mission was being done by God — implying that the opponents were opposing God.
Luke emphasizes the error of the Pharisee believers when he says that they taught that gentile believers must be circumcised and obey all the law of Moses to be saved (15:5).1 As more evidence of Luke's bias, we see that he reports arguments against circumcision, but none in favor. And he tells us that the people of Antioch reacted to the decree with joy (15:31).
There was a lengthy discussion, as there had been in Antioch, but without the discord mentioned in 15:2. Luke is moving the discussion from "sharp dispute" toward resolution.
Peter reminded the group of the precedent set by Cornelius: God is the one who chooses to have gentiles hear and believe, and this was done first through Peter (15:7). Paul, probably a target of criticism both in Jerusalem and perhaps among Luke's readers, was not the initiator —- God chose to do it. God knew the heart of the believing gentiles and gave them the Holy Spirit (15:8). Luke says it was a witness to them — to the gentile believers — but it now serves as a witness to the Jews, too. God did not discriminate; he treated gentiles and Jews alike (15:9).
By means of faith, God had purified gentile hearts, or made them ritually clean (cf. 10:15). Ritual purity was a major concern for strict Jews, especially Pharisees. After Peter's involvement with Cornelius, criticism focused not on gentile salvation, but on Jew-gentile fellowship, which had been forbidden as a matter of purity (11:3). In Peter's vision, too, purity was a major concern. In 15:9, Peter is saying that God had made the gentile believers clean in the heart, where it is most important, and acceptable to him even in their uncircumcised state.
Peter criticized the circumcision advocates by asking: "Therefore, why do you test or tempt God?" (15:10). The Cornelius event had happened much earlier, and they all understood it (15:7), so, Peter seems to imply, the question about circumcision shouldn't have even been raised. If gentile believers are acceptable to God, they ought to be acceptable to Jewish believers. The extremists were advocating laws that the Jewish people had never been able to carry successfully (15:10).
Though modern readers may think that "yoke" and "burden" (15:10) are derogatory terms, Peter may not be criticizing the law. "When a Jewish writer spoke of the Law as `the yoke of the kingdom of heaven,' he spoke of an obligation to which one gladly committed himself."2 Peter says that the law is not an effective means of gaining acceptance with God. The Jews, even though they struggled with the yoke, had never achieved the kingdom of God. Law-keeping cannot save. Jews are saved by grace and faith (15:11), just as gentiles are.
The principle of salvation for those born Jews is measured by that for Gentiles, in a complete reversal of the expected order. God uses the salvation of the Gentiles to reveal to the Jewish believers the true ground of their own salvation. Peter's statement stands as a direct rebuttal to the opening attack, "if you are not circumcised, you cannot be saved" (15:1).3
The question about salvation has already been answered: Gentiles do not need to be circumcised. They do not have to become Jewish by becoming proselytes. The assembly was silent (15:12), apparently in agreement, and they then heard about the miracles God had done in the gentile mission through Barnabas and Paul — the only reported contribution of Paul to the public debate!
James then spoke. Galatians presents him as a strict conservative, but Luke tells us little about him. He is a leader of the Jerusalem church (12:17). He speaks with authority (15:19); he and the elders tell Paul what to do (21:18, 23). He is presumably accepted by the readers as authoritative. "He is the only character in Acts whose authority no one questions."4
James does not directly address the question of salvation or of circumcision, but his topic is related: the gentiles' place in the church, the people of God. "Peter's discourse tackles the issue of the salvation of the Gentiles in fundamental terms, while the discourse of James wrestles with this problem from the perspective of the Gentiles' relationship to Israel."5
James starts with God as the initiator, saying that God is taking a people out of the gentiles, a people for his name (15:14). Just as God was taking Jews to be his special people, he was also taking gentiles. "The Gentiles now turning to God are God's people in the full sense that Israel is."6 And since both gentiles and Jews are saved in the same way, the implication is that they are the same people of God. Nevertheless, gentiles can be saved without circumcision.
In 15:15-17, James said that the prophets (the Septuagint version of Amos 9:12) agreed with what God was doing. "Luke does not have James declare that `this thing'...agrees...with the prophets, so that the scripture text is the measure of how God can work, but the opposite: the working of God precedes the perception of the text's agreement."7 God will rebuild David's fallen tent —- a reference to Christ and/or his kingdom —- so the remnant of men, including gentiles who have God's name, may seek him. This quote from Amos helps "bring out more clearly the way in which the progress of the church is in accordance with the Old Testament prophecies."8
By quoting Amos, James puts the gentile mission into a new age. As Marshall says, "God is doing something new in raising up the church; it is an event of the last days, and therefore the old rules of the Jewish religion no longer apply."9 This prophecy had been known for ages, James said (15:18), so gentile converts should be no surprise nor cause for controversy.
Therefore, said James, I decide not to harass the gentiles (15:19). "James characterizes the Pharisees' demands as a form of harassment of the Gentiles that he wants stopped."10 Because God is doing this, James said, we should not put obstacles in the way of the gentiles who are turning to God.
In contrast to harassment, James decided to tell the gentiles to abstain from four things (to be discussed in detail below). The four restrictions are presented as minimal requests, as small, easy-to-comply-with requirements —- perhaps things the gentiles in Antioch were already doing. As Johnson says, "According to Luke's presentation...the prohibitions are neither new to these Gentile converts nor a burden to them. This implies that they...would have already been observing them."11 As Dunn notes in a similar setting, "Many of these Gentiles were sufficiently ready to conform to Jewish practices as to make possible regular social intercourse, including at least guest friendship and table-fellowship."12
Moses preached in synagogues
Why these four restrictions? Because Moses is preached in every city (15:21). However, that's not the only reason for the decree. The "therefore" at the beginning of 15:19 indicates that 15:14-18 is also a reason for the decree. The logical sequence is this: "A; therefore B, because of C." C (15:21) is relevant because it explains how B (15:19-20) should be a consequence of A (15:14-18).
A: God is doing this work. B: Therefore we need a decree. C: Because Moses is preached in synagogues. The decree is needed not only because God is calling gentiles but also because Moses is being preached in synagogues. The sequence implies a contrast between the decree and the preaching of Moses, as has already been implied in 15:5.
The thought is this: Because God is doing this work (15:14-17), and because we do not want to hinder his work (15:19), we should therefore give gentile converts this decree (15:20) because much stricter rules are being preached in the synagogues (15:21). Pharisaic rules are too strict for gentile Christians, but because those rules are being taught in every city, we need to write a decree to let all gentiles believers know that they don't have to keep the laws of Moses. James is advocating a contrast, not just a pared-down version of synagogue rules.
The "instead" that begins 15:20 also supports this. We do not want to harass the gentiles, James said. Instead, we should write an easy decree, because Moses is widely preached. This implies that synagogue preaching (the laws of Moses as interpreted by Pharisees) was a harassment for gentile Christians. The decree was needed because there was a conflict between God's work and Pharisaic teaching. The decree is needed to counteract the harassing rules of the Pharisees.
This interpretation is further supported when we analyze the audience of the synagogue preaching. Some commentators have assumed (without analysis) that James is referring to preaching that gentiles were hearing in the synagogues. But gentiles who attended synagogues had already changed their behavior to be acceptable to Jews; they had little or no need for a decree. Moreover, gentiles were coming into the church who did not have a background in the synagogue (11:20). There was a synagogue in Iconium (14:1), but none is mentioned for Lystra or Derbe, but there were disciples in each city, presumably from pagan backgrounds (14:8-22). James' comment in 15:21, if it referred to gentiles who attended synagogues, would fail to address the situation the church was facing. The decree was needed even by gentiles who did not have a background in Judaism —- even by those who lived in cities that may not have had a synagogue (16:1-4).
The thought in 15:21 seems to be that in every city there are Jews who are being instructed in the laws of Moses.13 James was not encouraging gentiles to go to the synagogues to hear Moses be preached. Throughout the book of Acts, Christ is the one who is preached. It was the Pharisees who preached the law of Moses, and the decree was given in opposition to Mosaic law, not as a supplement to it. The decree was needed because of the discrepancy between synagogue preaching and God's purpose.
The council's letter
The Jerusalem sent two men with Paul and Barnabas to Antioch (15:22) to testify to the truth of the decree (15:27). These men strengthened the Antioch church (15:32) and contributed to the sense of unity.
The decree was addressed only to gentiles (15:23), since the four requirements were not designed for Jewish believers (who presumably kept a stricter code). The letter acknowledged the problem (admitting that the troublemakers had been part of the Jerusalem church), praised Barnabas and Paul, and introduced the delegates from Jerusalem (15:24-27). The decision was presented as inspired by the Holy Spirit.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
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This article was written by Michael Morrison in 1999 and updated in 2012. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved.
The four requirements were necessary, but not burdensome (15:28). The decree was not a heavy-handed demand for obedience; there was no reference to salvation and no mention of penalties for infraction. Rather, the letter ends with the mild words: "You will do well to avoid these things." Seifrid gives ample evidence for the rendering "you will prosper" or "do well."14
1A few people have said that the Pharisee claim was not that gentiles had to be circumcised and to obey the law of Moses, but to be circumcised in order to obey the law of Moses. The people then argue that the council rejected only circumcision and not the need to obey the law of Moses — that is, that the council merely concluded that gentiles do not have to be circumcised in order to obey the law of Moses (as if everyone agreed that the law of Moses should be obeyed; only that it did not require gentiles to be circumcised).
This interpretation would make the decree completely unnecessary. Moreover, the Greek words simply do not support this translation, and I am not aware of any published translation that conveys this idea. Moreover, Acts 21:20-25 shows that gentiles do not have to obey the law of Moses. Also, John 7:22-23 shows that circumcision is part of the law of Moses. Last, Gal. 5:3 shows that circumcision cannot be separated from the law as a whole; they are part of the same package. The Pharisees were claiming that gentiles had to obey the whole package of old covenant law.
2Royce Dickinson Jr. "The Theology of the Jerusalem Conference, Acts 15:1-35." Restoration Quarterly 29 (1987) 65-83, p. 70, citing an article by John Nolland.
3Luke Timothy Johnson. The Acts of the Apostles. Sacra Pagina Series, vol. 5. (Collegeville, Minn.: Michael Glazier/Liturgical Press, 1992), p. 263.
4Jacob Jervell. Luke and the People of God: A New Look at Luke-Acts. (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1972), pp. 185-6.
5Dickinson. p. 68.
6Robert C. Tannehill. The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A Literary Interpretation. Volume 2: The Acts of the Apostles. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), p. 187.
7Johnson, p. 264.
8Ian Howard Marshall. The Acts of the Apostles. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), p. 253.
10Johnson, p. 266.
11Johnson, p. 273.
12James D.G. Dunn. Jesus, Paul, and the Law. (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox, 1990), p. 150, citing Josephus, Jewish War 7.3.3.
13Luke is favorable to Mosaic law — for Jews. He points out the circumcision of Jesus, for example, and the circumcision of Timothy, whose mother was Jewish (16:1-3). Luke defends Paul from the accusation that he encouraged Jews to abandon the law of Moses. But Luke has a different approach when discussing the role of Mosaic law for gentiles.
14M.A. Seifrid. "Jesus and the Law in Acts." Journal for the Study of the New Testament. 30 (1987) 39-57, p. 56, note 41.