Decree of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) Part 2: The Decree's Purpose

The Four Requirements

The decree told gentile Christians to abstain from four things.15 Minor variations occur in order and number (15:20, 29; 21:25); these variations suggest that order and number are not significant. The four prohibitions:

1) Pollutions of idols (15:20) or things sacrificed to idols (15:29; 21:25). Wilson notes that "pollutions" could have either a religious sense or a reference to morality.16 All four prohibitions may be described as pollutions, as ritual uncleanness.17

2) Blood. This is a prohibition of eating or drinking blood.

3) Strangled things. Perhaps meat from strangled animals was forbidden because blood remained in the meat, but if that is the only reason, it would not seem necessary to mention strangled things in addition to blood. Wilson points out uncertainties in the meaning of strangled things. The verb means "strangle," but the noun may refer to a method of cooking as well as of killing.18 Either way, it is an unusual dietary restriction. Strangled meat played a role in some pagan cults, and may have been mentioned because of that.19

4) Sexual immorality (porneia). Achtemeier notes that some scholars say it means fornication, others that it cannot mean fornication; some say it means incest; others say it cannot; some say adultery, or marriage to an idolater, or ritual prostitution.20 If the writer(s) of the decree wished to be precise, he picked the wrong term. Incest is included in the meaning of the term (1 Cor. 5:1), but other sexual aberrations were, too. The gentile recipients of the decree would probably have understood it as major sexual misconduct or perhaps more specifically as pagan temple prostitution. Wilson says, "The ban on porneia is a standard part of Christian exhortation... [often] in connection with or in the same list as idolatry."21 Seifrid emphasizes the connection between porneia and idolatry: "Although porneia has an ethical dimension, there is good reason to think that all four elements are tied together by a common thread of concern with ritual defilement."22

These four laws, of course, are not the only laws that Christians need. Many other Old Testament laws have greater claim to permanent validity. Why are they not mentioned? Does the decree assume that the gentiles know all the valid laws except these four? Why would it be necessary to list these four laws, but not others? To answer that, scholars have explored some possible literary sources of these prohibitions.

Source of the Rules: Two Common Theories

What was this collection of restrictions based on? Luke does not tell us. Common suggestions are either rabbinic "Noachic" laws, or laws for gentiles living in the land (Lev. 17-18). Most scholars have advocated either one or the other, but there are weaknesses with each.

A Noachic theory neatly explains the prohibition of blood (and, as a corollary, strangled meat, which contains blood), because Gen. 9:4 forbids blood. Since Noah is the ancestor of gentiles as well as Jews, these commands could with reason be applied to gentiles.

The rabbis listed seven Noachic laws: "idolatry, incest/unchastity, shedding blood, profanation of God's name, robbery, injustice, and eating the flesh of a living animal."23 Since the Talmud was written long after the apostolic decree, Sanders suggests that the Acts 15 decree is "an early version of the Noachic laws."24 This might explain the discrepancy in number —- the Talmudic list is an expanded list, or the decree is a selective list. At least the Talmud shows that Jews discussed which laws applied to gentiles who wished to obey God. Dunn notes a variety of rabbinic opinions about which laws were applicable to proselytes, gentile Godfearers and resident aliens.25 It seems that the lists were flexible, not fixed.

However, the Noachic theory has serious shortcomings. In the rabbinic lists, blood is not directly forbidden. Strangled things are not specifically mentioned, either, and it is not clear that the prohibitions about porneia or idol-meat can be traced back to Noah. Wilson, after a thorough analysis (his discussion of the decree is probably the single best treatment), summarizes the weaknesses of the Noachic theory:

Noachic laws are dissimilar in both number and in content.... They do not, for example, forbid the consumption of "things sacrificed to idols," although this might be subsumed under the general prohibition of idolatry, and it is the shedding rather than the consumption of blood which is banned.26

The most common theory is that of a Leviticus source. With a little creativity, Lev. 17-18 can be correlated to all four prohibitions. Lev. 17:2-9 prohibits sacrifices to any god except Yahweh; 17:10 prohibits blood; 17:13-15 might be construed as prohibiting snare-strangled game; and 18:6-26 prohibits incestuous sex, homosexuality and other sexual aberrations. What makes the Leviticus theory especially attractive is that all four prohibitions apply specifically to alien gentiles as well as to Israelites. But the correspondence is not exact, and Wilson lists numerous problems.27 Lev. 17 is a questionable source of a prohibition about strangled meats, and it is unlikely that gentiles would understand the word porneia, by itself, to include the Leviticus incest tabus. As Seifrid says, "It is hard to see how Luke intended the readers of the Decree in the narrative, gentile believers, to discern a narrow Jewish sense."28

Scholars often mention incest, because Lev. 18 includes it in great detail, but it is unlikely that the decree had that as its main meaning. Wilson notes, "The common meaning of porneia —- fornication, licentiousness, harlotry —- is far broader than the notion of consanguineous [incestuous] marriages."29 Nor would Jews assume that the sexual behavior of gentiles was acceptable except for their definition of incest. It seems best to understand porneia in a broad sense; the discussion of incest in Lev. 18 is a coincidence rather than the main sexual guidelines needed by gentile Christians.

Another problem with the Leviticus theory is that Luke does not indicate that the decree has a biblical origin. Wilson notes: "Luke presents the decree as apostolic rather than Mosaic in origin...and we might suppose that, with his penchant for quoting the Old Testament to prove a point, he would have referred clearly to Lev. 17-18 [or Gen. 9] if that was the connection he had wished to make."30

Another objection is that other Mosaic laws applying to aliens living in Israel were not included in the decree. The alien (ger in Hebrew proselytos in the Septuagint31) was also required to keep the Sabbath (Ex. 23:12; Deut. 5:14), to keep the annual festivals (Lev. 16:29; Deut. 16:11, 14)), to be cleansed by the ashes of a red heifer (Num. 19:10), to give sacrifices (Num. 15:27-29), and to be circumcised if he wanted to observe the Passover (Ex. 12:48-49).32 Is there any logic for including some alien laws but not others? None is given.

The mention of strangled meat is especially puzzling, for either theory. Is avoiding strangled things just as important as avoiding sexual immorality? Neither the Old Testament nor the New gives strangled things that much importance. The old covenant penalty for eating blood was being "cut off" (Lev. 17:14), but the penalty for eating meat that might have blood in it was only ritual uncleanness (Lev. 15:15). Moreover, Deut. 14:21 allows gentiles to eat animals that die without proper slaughter. So even by Old Testament standards, "strangled things" doesn't seem to be a very important prohibition. The New Testament contains many prohibitions, but "strangled things" is not repeated anywhere else in the New Testament. Neither theory explains why it is in the decree.

Another weakness of both Noachic and Leviticus theories is that, if the list were based on the law of Moses, it would imply that the law of Moses was still in force — four laws for gentiles, and 613 laws for Jews. This would perpetuate Jew-gentile distinctions in contradiction to Peter's statement in 15:9-11 and Paul's in Eph. 2:11-18. It does not make sense to see the council's decree as based on the law of Moses.

Both Noachic and Levitical theories have serious inadequacies. The variety of rabbinic opinions —- long after the date of Acts —- about which laws applied to gentiles33 suggests that there was no list of undisputed authority, whether Noachic or Levitical, that the apostles could have quoted from. More likely, the decree was created specifically for the early Christian church. The four prohibitions do not need to have a common source; one may have come from Gen. 9 or Lev. 17, another from a different scriptural passage; yet another from a cultural custom, etc.

Purpose of the Decree

Many commentators have concluded that the decree was designed to make it possible for Jewish and gentile Christians to fellowship together without requiring the Jewish Christians to compromise their purity customs. Indeed, there is almost a consensus that the decree required gentiles to conform to the most important sensitivities of Jewish Christians. This view is held by Longenecker, Neyrey, Seifrid, Tannehill, and others.34

Some commentators specify that the issue is table-fellowship: eating together. It is true that table-fellowship was an important part of social acceptance, and it is true that three parts of the decree may involve dietary restrictions, but Luke says nothing in this chapter (unlike 11:3) about table-fellowship. Sanders35 correctly notes three problems with the table-fellowship theory:

1) "The four prohibitions in the decree hardly cover the laws of kashrut: one need think only of pork, shellfish, and meat with milk." It is unlikely that gentiles would know all the Jewish table-fellowship rules except for the four mentioned in the decree. Nor does it seem likely that these four are the most important rules. If gentiles kept the decree, they could still be unclean by Pharisee standards (even pious, God-fearing Cornelius was controversial).

2) "The [Jewish] dietary laws do not, in fact, prevent Gentiles and Jews having a common meal —- if the Jews do the cooking." If table-fellowship had been the problem, it could have been solved without a decree. Common sense would have told the gentiles that fellowship could proceed if they followed Pharisee rules.

3) "The Apostolic Council is not convened to deal with the issue of dining together." The council was about salvation; Acts 11:3 had already addressed the matter of eating together.

4) There is a fourth problem with the fellowship theory: There is no decree to Pharisee Christians that they must accept decree-observant gentiles as clean for fellowship. A decree only to gentiles (whether in the original setting or in Luke's readership) is an inadequate basis for fellowship because the gentiles were given fewer rules than the Pharisees wanted them to have. Also, for this theory, it is odd that porneia would be mentioned but other sins not mentioned.

Other Suggestions

Because the more common theories about purpose are not entirely convincing, other suggestions are worth examining in greater detail. Some have suggested that the decree simply prohibited customs associated with pagan cults.36 This view answers some questions and may be the least unsatisfactory explanation.

All four prohibited things had some connection with pagan customs. Pollutions of idols has an obvious connection with paganism. Porneia can, too, since it can refer to cultic prostitution, or it may be a metaphor for religious disloyalty.37 Blood could also have connections with pagan religion:

That haima [blood] refers to the bloody rites of pagan sacrifices, one of their most prominent features, is certainly feasible.... It was also the custom in some cults to drink the blood of the victim.... It is not difficult, therefore, to see how blood could have been associated in a variety of ways with pagan cults, especially if that association had already been established by other terms of the decree [such as beginning the list with "pollutions of idols"].38

What about strangled things? Origen wrote that blood, including that in strangled meat, was said to be the food of demons: "If we were to eat strangled animals, we might have such spirits feeding along with us."39 Scythians and Indians were known to strangle their animals, but most Greek cults bled the sacrifices, so the "strangled things" prohibition doesn't fit perfectly. But strangling was a pagan custom in Alexandria, and old Macedonian cults killed without bleeding the animals.40 The word was also used for some unusual (pagan?) cooking method.41 Since Antioch in Syria included many ethnic groups from the east, it is possible that strangulation was a cultic custom there.42 Would gentile Christians be tempted to continue or resume such pagan practices? Apparently they were in Corinth; it is plausible that a decree to this effect would be needed. This is possible, but not proven. Perhaps it seems unlikely.

Unfortunately, the word for "strangled things" is so rare that almost any meaning is "unlikely" and "difficult." But in the Acts 15 decree, it is not any more difficult to interpret it as referring to paganism than it is to interpret it in terms of Jewish sensitivities. Since the decree already forbad blood, there would be no need to mention "strangled things" unless they were wrong for additional reasons. At least the pagan-cultic theory of the decree's purpose gives a possible explanation for mentioning strangled things in addition to blood.

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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc.™  Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com

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This article was written by in 1999 and updated in 2012. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved.

However, it may be misleading to expect all four prohibitions to be of the same category. Old Testament laws mixed ritual and moral laws; Jewish vice lists also did, and other Christian lists did, too. The first three items may have been prohibited for cultic associations, and porneia for moral reasons; all were considered equally polluting and ungodly. Since idolatry and sexual immorality were considered chief sins of gentiles, it would be reasonable to address both problems in an early decree.

Conclusion

The best explanation of the decree, if a single explanation must be sought, is that it forbids gentile Christians to participate in four things associated with pagan cults. This conclusion is supported in part by the failure of other theories to explain the decree, and it harmonizes with these facts:

  • Gentiles without synagogue background were coming into the church —- a situation significantly different than that faced in Acts 10. Their single greatest instructional need would be to avoid paganism or syncretism.
  • The decree lists four things demonstrably associated with pagan cults as well as with Jewish sensitivities. The words have other associations, too, but pagan cultic associations are a viable option.
  • The decree is presented as easy to comply with, not a burden, something the gentiles may have already been in compliance with.
  • James says the decree is needed because he did not want to hinder gentile conversions, but he implied that synagogue preaching would. The decree is much less than synagogues taught and much less than Pharisee Christians would observe.
  • The decree is given in answer to people who taught that gentiles had to keep the law of Moses. This implies that the decree is not based on the law of Moses. It does not perpetuate ritualistic laws for either Jews or gentiles.
  • This theory explains why all gentiles needed to comply with the decree, whether they lived near Jews or not, and why there was no decree for Jewish Christians.
  • Endnotes

    15In some Western Greek manuscripts, the decree contains only three ethical admonitions: Avoid idolatry, blood (in the sense of bloodshed) and sexual immorality. This fits in with "the rabbinic tradition which considers the three primary sins of the Gentiles to be precisely idolatry, shedding of blood and immorality" (Stephen G. Wilson. Luke and the Law. [Cambridge: University Press, 1983], p. 80). However, Wilson also observes that "the Western version consists of such widely accepted ethical norms that a decree to this effect would be superfluous" (Stephen G. Wilson. The Gentiles and the Gentile Mission in Luke-Acts. [Cambridge: University Press, 1973], p. 188).

    All major English translations, including the King James and the NIV, use a Greek text with four prohibitions. The textual questions are discussed in detail in Bruce Metzger. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. (New York: United Bible Societies, 1971), pp. 429-433.

    16Wilson, Luke, p. 82.

    17Seifrid, p. 48

    18Wilson, Luke, pp. 88-91.

    19Hans Bietenhard. "Pnigo, apopnigo, sympnigo, pniktos." Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Ed. Gerhard Friedrich, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), vol. 6, pp. 455-8, citing Philo).

    20Paul J. Achtemeier. The Quest for Unity in the New Testament Church: A Study in Paul and Acts. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), p. 84.

    21Wilson, Luke, p. 93.

    22Seifrid, p. 48.

    23Wilson, Luke, p. 86, citing Sanhedrin 56b and Sibylline Oracles 4:28-29. Dunn (p. 144) cites Aboda Zara 64b and Sanhedrin 56a. Maxwell cites Midrash Genesis Rabbah 16:6 (Soncino ed., p. 131), Midrash Song of Songs Rabbah 1:2(5) (Soncino ed.. pp. 26-7), and Midrash Deuteronomy Rabbah 1:21 (Soncino ed., pp. 23-4) (C. Mervyn Maxwell and P. Gerard Damsteegt, eds., Source Book for the History of Sabbath and Sunday. [Berrien Springs, Mich.: Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, 1992], pp. 74-75).

    24Jack T. Sanders. The Jews in Luke-Acts. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), pp. 121-2.

    25Dunn, pp. 142-147.

    26Wilson, Luke, p. 74.

    27Wilson, Luke, pp. 84-94.

    28Seifrid, p. 48.

    29Wilson, Luke, p. 88.

    30Wilson, Luke, p. 85.

    31The Septuagint version of Lev. 17-18 has the restrictions apply to the proselytos. But a major conclusion of the Acts 15 council was that gentiles did not have to become proselytes, so it would be confusing for the decree to quote, without clarification, proselytos laws.

    32If the council were discussing alien laws and chose only four, the Sabbath and annual festivals were specifically excluded — not required for gentiles. We might be tempted to argue this, but it does not seem exegetically sound, since the decree probably was not based on the alien laws. Rather, the council concluded that gentiles did not have to look to the law of Moses for a description of Christian conduct.

    33Dunn, pp. 142-7.

    34Richard N. Longenecker. "The Acts of the Apostles." The Expositor's Bible Commentary. Ed. Frank E. Gaebelein. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), p. 448; Jerome H. Neyrey. "Ceremonies in Luke-Acts: The Case of Meals and Table-Fellowship." The Social World of Luke-Acts: Models for Interpretation. Ed. Jerome H. Neyrey. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1991), pp. 380-382.; Seifrid, p. 47; and Tannehill, p. 191.

    35Sanders, p. 120.

    36Wilson, although not dogmatic, seems to favor this cultic theory (Luke, pp. 94-99, citing Lake and Kümmel as scholars who also supported this view).

    37Lake points out "a serious difficulty" in understanding porneia as a reference to cultic prostitution: "none of the early Christian writers interpreted the decree in this way" (Kirsopp Lake. "The Apostolic Council of Jerusalem." The Beginnings of Christianity. Ed. Frederick J. Foakes-Jackson and Kirsopp Lake. Part I, The Acts of the Apostles, vol. 5. [London: MacMillan, 1933], pp. 195-212; quote from p. 207).

    38Wilson, Luke, pp. 97-8.

    39Ibid., pp. 96-7, citing Contra Celsum 8.30.

    40Bietenhard, pp. 457-8.

    41Wilson, Luke, pp. 89-91.

    42Christians in the West would be less likely to know that strangled things were associated with pagan customs. Perhaps this explains why the word was omitted in the Western text.

    **After writing this paper, I became aware of two more studies about the decree: Terrance Callan, "The Background of the Apostolic Decree (Acts 15:20,29; 21:25)" Catholic Biblical Quarterly 55 (1993) 284-97, and A.J.M. Wedderburn, "The `Apostolic Decree’: Tradition and Redaction" Novum Testamentum 35, 4 (1993) 362-89.

    Michael Morrison

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