July 7: Acts 15:19-21ff

These three daily notes are supplemental to a discussion of the so-called “Jerusalem Council” in Acts 15. Elsewhere, I have discussed the speeches of Peter and James (vv. 6-21), and the narrative as a whole in relation to “The Law in the Luke-Acts”, along with a separate article addressing several key critical questions. Here I will be looking specifically at the so-called Apostolic “Decree” in verses 20-21 (at the conclusion of James’ speech), repeated in the Letter from the Council (v. 29).

In verse 19, along with the citation of Amos 9:11-12 in vv. 16-18, James effectively confirms the words of Peter in the prior speech (vv. 7-11)—

“…And God the heart-knower witnessed (to them), giving them [i.e. Gentiles] the holy Spirit, even as he also (did) to us, and judged/separated nothing through between us and them, cleansing their hearts in trust/faith. Now, therefore, (for) what [i.e. why] do you test God, to set upon the neck of the(se) learners [i.e. disciples/believers] a yoke which neither our fathers nor we had strength to bear?” (vv. 8-10)

Peter here somewhat surprisingly referring to the Law as a yoke which even Jews are unable to bear! (verse 10, along with vv. 11, does have a certain ‘Pauline’ ring to it). James makes a simpler, more direct determination:

“Therefore I judge (that we are) not to crowd in alongside [i.e. to pressure/trouble] the (one)s from the nations turning upon [i.e. turning to] God” (v. 19)

This is stated even more clearly in the letter (addressed to Gentile believers):

“For it seemed (good/proper) to the holy Spirit and to us to set upon you not one burden…” (v. 28)

This decisively refutes the claim made by other Jewish Christians that Gentile converts must be circumcised and observe the Law (Torah) of Moses (v. 1, 5); though neither Peter nor James (nor the letter) specifically mentions circumcision, this is covered by the expression “not one burden” (mhde\nba/ro$)—i.e., not one regulation/restriction from the Jewish Law. So far, so good. This would conform with the “Law-free” Gospel and approach to the Gentiles proclaimed by Paul (and expounded so forcefully in Galatians). The difficulty comes with what follows from James in verse 20:

“…but to set upon them [i.e. send to them] (in writing) to hold (themselves) away from pollutions of images [i.e. idols] and fornication/prostitution [pornei/a] and (anything) choked (to death) [i.e. strangled] and blood”

This list of restrictions is repeated in the letter (v. 29), with the conclusion of verse 28 (picking up from above):

“For it seemed (good/proper) to the holy Spirit and to us to set upon you not one burden more than these (thing)s (which are) e)pa/nagke$…”

The four prohibitions of v. 20, 29 are described as e)pa/nagke$—an adverb which is somewhat difficult to render literally, but it refers to something which proceeds “upon force, compulsion”, typically translated in English as “by necessity, out of necessity”, etc—in other words, these things are necessary or compulsory, not optional. This is sometimes glossed over by commentators in light of v. 29b, where James states “…(these things) from which, thoroughly guarding yourselves, you will practice/perform well”, but is sometimes rendered as though James is simply offering good advice (i.e., “you will do good to avoid these things”). But James does indeed appear to be enjoining Gentile converts strictly to observe specific religious (legal) restrictions—but only these. In attempting to understand the prohibitions of v. 20/29, there are several main questions which tend to overshadow the exegesis:

    1. What is the correct form/version of the text that has come down to us?
    2. How are these prohibitions to be understood in context—both from the stand point of the apostles (James) and the author of Acts?
    3. How do they relate to the broader witness of the New Testament in regard to the Law?

With regard to the first question, the Alexandrian/Majority text of verse 20 reads as indicated above, with a similar set of prohibitions in v. 29:

V. 20: a)pe/xesqai tw=n a)lisghma/twn tw=n ei)dw/lwn kai\ th=$ pornei/a$ kai\ tou= pniktou= kai\ tou= ai%mato$
“…to hold (themselves) away from pollutions of images [i.e. idols] and pornei/a and (anything) choked (to death) [i.e. strangled] and blood”
V. 29: a)pe/xesqai ei)dwloqu/twn kai\ ai%mato$ kai\ pniktw=n kai\ pornei/a$
“…to hold (yourselves) away from (things) slaughtered to images [i.e. sacrificed to idols] and blood and (thing)s choked (to death) [i.e. strangled] and pornei/a

The ‘Western’ text (D lat [d] Irenaeus, also MS 323 945 1739 1891), however, omits tou= pniktou=/pniktw=n (“{thing[s]} choked/strangled”) and reads in its place a negative form of the “golden rule”—”as many (thing)s as you do not wish to come to be unto yourselves, you should not do to others” (or, “and many things as they do not wish…”, using 3rd person pronouns). Several witnesses (including Ë45) retain tou= pniktou=/pniktw=n but leave out the reference to pornei/a. There seem to be two factors at work:

    • The Western text of D etc, finding the prohibitions problematic or difficult to understand, interprets them in a more general ethical sense: “blood” probably was understood as “bloodshed”, resulting in three basic ethical prohibitions—against idolatry, immorality [pornei/a], and murder/violence. The reference to “(thing[s]) strangled” may have been thought to be out of place, and so omitted; or, it may have been subsumed under the idea of “bloodshed/violence”. Exactly how the negative form of the Golden Rule, in particular, was added to this list is anyone’s guess; there may have been an attempt to preserve four items.
    • The omission of kai\ [th=$] pornei/a$ perhaps occurred for the opposite reason: among a list of three ritual/ceremonial prohibitions (see below), the reference to pornei/a (understood generally as fornication or sexual immorality) probably seemed out of place.

There are other minor variants, in the order of the items in the list, and so forth; but scholars are more or less in agreement that the Alexandrian/Majority text, though not without its own difficulties, is the best option. An interesting theory is that originally there were only two prohibitions—against things associated with idols and blood—which came to be expanded (to four) by various ways in the textual tradition. On this theory, and other related matters, see the Metzger/UBS Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd edition), pp. 379-383.

(continued in the next day’s note)

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