The Law in Luke-Acts: The Jerusalem Council of Acts 15

As a supplemental study to the article “The Law in the Book of Acts”, part 2 (in the series “The Law and the New Testament”), I will here discuss, in summary fashion, a number of key critical questions surrounding the “Jerusalem Council” narrative in Acts 15. Hundreds of pages could be (and have been) written on these questions; here it will not be possible to treat them thoroughly, but to outline the issues involved and provide some helpful observations for further study. The main questions are:

    1. How does Acts 15 relate to Galatians 2?
    2. Does the Acts 15 narrative reflect separate historical traditions and/or does it record a single historical event?
    3. How does the Letter in vv. 22-29 relate to the episode as a whole?
    4. How accurate is the overall presentation in Acts 15?

1. How does Acts 15 relate to Galatians 2?

This is a longstanding critical and interpretive question, which is connected with the date of Paul’s letter and the general location of the Galatian believers to whom it is addressed. “Galatia” may refer to: (a) the territory of the kingdom of Galatia, (b) the Roman province of Galatia (including portions of Phrygia, Lycaonia and Pisidia to the south), or (c) areas where Galatian (Celtic) language is spoken (including portions of Phrygia & Lycaonia). The older Galatian territory (centered on the cities of Ancyra, Pessinus and Tavium) was considerably north of the sites (in Phrygia, Lycaonia and Pisidia) visited by Paul and Barnabas during the first missionary journey (Acts 13-14). In the second and third journeys, Paul and his companions are said to have traveled “through Phrygia and Galatian territory” (16:6) and “through Galatian territory and Phrygia” (18:23). The reference in 16:6 would imply territory north of the cities visited in Acts 13-14, though there is no indication they went as far east as Ancyra; a northwestern journey, along the Asian-Galatian boundary, is described, ending at Mysia and the NW coastline (Troas). The same general region is presumably meant in 18:23, but here it may include the southern Lycaonian and Phrygian area visited in the earlier journeys.

The main issue is whether “Galatia” in the epistle includes the cities evangelized by Paul and Barnabas during the first missionary journey (South Galatian option), or is limited to territory further north (though likely not as far north as Ancyra). The majority of scholars today (including most critical commentators) favor the North Galatian option. However, the South Galatian option, made popular especially by the archeological work and writings of W. M. Ramsay at the end of the 19th century, continues to be preferred by a good number of more traditional-conservative commentators, as it allows for easier harmonization of the narratives in Acts 15 and Gal 2 (see below). For a good modern defense of this position, see e.g., F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians (NIGTC) (Paternoster Press / Eerdmans, 1982), pp. 3-18, 43-56.

There are important similarities and differences between Acts 15 and Galatians 2. The main similarities:

    • Paul and Barnabas travel to Jerusalem for the express purpose of explaining/defending the missionary approach taken with regard to Gentiles (Acts 15:1-3f, 12; Gal 2:1-2)
    • A key point of contention involves circumcision, and whether Gentile converts should be compelled to be circumcised (Acts 15:1, 5; Gal 2:3)
    • Paul and Barnabas meet with the leaders of the Jerusalem church, including Peter and James (Acts 15:4, 6, 7ff, 13ff; Gal 2:2, 6-9)
    • Other Jewish believers present argue that Gentiles must be circumcised and observe the Law (Acts 15:5; Gal 2:4-5)
    • The leaders of the Jerusalem church accept the missionary approach taken by Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:7ff, 22, 25-26; Gal 2:7-9)

The main differences:

    • In Galatians (2:2), Paul says he went to Jerusalem according to a revelation (kata\ a)poka/luyin), where as in Acts (15:2) Paul and Barnabas were appointed and sent by the church in Antioch
    • There is no mention in Acts of Titus (Gal 2:1, 3)
    • In Galatians (2:2), Paul meets with the Jerusalem leaders privately (kat’ i)di/an), while in Acts the meeting seems to be in front of the full assembly (15:4, 6, 12, 22)
    • In Acts, the basic outcome of the meeting is an authoritative decision on what is (and is not) required by Gentile converts; in Galatians, it has more to do with the missionary status of Paul and Barnabas (2:7-9) (but note also Acts 15:25-26)
    • In the Acts account, Paul and Barnabas, on their return, deliver the decision of the council to Gentile believers, accompanied by rejoicing and the restoration of peace (15:22, 30-31; 16:4); there is no suggestion of any of this in Galatians

Most of these differences are easy enough to explain as a product of the different (autobiographical and rhetorical) purpose and style of Paul’s account; indeed, most scholars would accept that the two accounts describe the same basic event. More significant, I would say, is the very different tone that characterizes the two accounts—Acts 15 shows a peaceful (and decisive) resolution to the question, accompanied by powerful speeches by Peter and James and an authoritative letter sent from the council to all Gentile believers (willingly delivered by Paul and Barnabas themselves). This harmonious picture contrasts notably with the presentation and argument in Galatians. How could the serious and controversial incident Paul describes in Gal 2:11-14—involving both Barnabas and Peter and “men from James”—have taken place so soon (apparently) after the decisions of the Council in Acts 15? Indeed, how is one to explain the fierce conflict between Paul and other Jewish Christians over the question of the Law and circumcision that pervades throughout Galatians, if things were as harmonious as the conclusion of Acts 15 suggests? A controversy between Paul and Barnabas is recorded in Acts 15:36ff, but it apparently has nothing to do with the Jewish-Gentile question in Gal 2. A solution is at hand in the South Galatian theory (above)—identifying the Galatians of the epistle with the territory (in Phrygia, Pisidia and Lycaonia) evangelized in the first missionary journey (Acts 13-14); this allows for the epistle to have been written prior to the Jerusalem council (the Jerusalem visit of Gal 2:1-10 usually equated with the one mentioned [barely] in 11:30).

While I think that the South Galatian theory is generally plausible, I see no compelling reason to consider Galatians as having been written before the Jerusalem Council. There are enough similarities in content and style between Galatians and Romans & 2 Corinthians, to suggest a comparable time-frame for composition. I find a date sometime during (or after) the second missionary journey as more likely (cf. Acts 16:6). Even so, is it possible that the events narrated in Gal 2:1-14 (if not the letter itself) took place prior to the council? The reference to “certain (men) from James” (v. 12) might correspond with what James indicates in the letter (15:24). Paul offers no indication as to exactly when this all took place; though the context perhaps suggests a time not too far removed from the composition of the letter. This question will be taken up again further below.

2. Does the Acts 15 narrative reflect separate historical traditions and/or does it record a single historical event?

There are four components to the narrative in Acts 15:1-35:

    • The basic narrative surrounding the “Council” (vv. 1-6, 12), centered on the question of whether Gentile converts must be circumcised and required to observe the Law—little if any detail is provided of the actual debates and discussion which took place, but is summarized simply in vv. 6, 12.
    • The speeches of Peter and James (vv. 7-11, 13-21), with the narrative transition/join of verse 12.
    • The Letter from the Council (vv. 22-29)—somewhat surprisingly, circumcision is not specifically addressed; rather, emphasis is placed on four religious restrictions which Gentile believers are required to observe (also stated in vv. 20-21).
    • The narrative summary in vv. 30-35, which only briefly mentions delivery of the letter (vv. 30-31, cf. also 16:4).

A standard critical approach recognizes two historical traditions at work: (1) a tradition of the meeting held in Jerusalem to address the Gentile question (but perhaps with little detail of the meeting itself available to the author), and (2) a letter addressed to Gentile believers (from the ‘Council’). Many scholars would doubt the authenticity of the speeches by Peter and James in vv. 7-21, viewing them (along with the speeches in Acts as a whole) primarily as the work of the author himself (trad. Luke). On the question of the authenticity of the letter and speeches, cf. below.

An interesting theory would separate the traditions of the meeting and the letter, at the historical level, with the letter seen as having been written on a subsequent occasion (and for a somewhat different purpose). The author of Acts has combined/conflated the traditions, making it appear as though they took place at the same time. This critical theory has the advantage also of harmonizing Acts 15 and Gal 2, at least in part; the chronology might be taken as follows:

    • The Jerusalem meeting, on the question of the acceptance of Gentile converts, and whether they must be circumcised (and observe the Law)—Gal 2:1-9; Acts 15:1-6, 12. The missionary approach of Paul and Barnabas was accepted, i.e. Gentile converts were not required to observe the Law of Moses (cf. Acts 15:10-11, 19, 28).
    • The incident at Antioch (Gal 2:11-14) demonstrated the difficulty involved with Jews and Gentiles relating with one another—some Jewish Christians apparently were willing to adopt Gentile customs, others opposed this. Paul attributes the problem to the presence and influence of “men from James” (Gal 2:12, cf. Acts 15:24).
    • Eventually a letter was drawn up—from James and the Jerusalem church—and sent to Gentile believers in the area surrounding Antioch. Gentile Christians are required to observe certain restrictions (related to pagan cultural and religious practice) which would be especially offensive to Jews. On these restrictions, I have devoted a short series of notes to them.

The main difficulty with such a reconstruction is that it more or less ignores the overall narrative as composed in Acts 15. The substance of the letter is already indicated in James’ speech (vv. 19-21), which, in turn, is presented as taking place at the same time as Peter’s speech during the Jerusalem meeting (cf. the join in v. 12f). Moreover, Acts 15:22, 30-31 shows Paul specifically delivering the letter in Antioch, and even farther afield (16:4). The historicity of this particular detail has been seriously questioned by scholars, since Paul makes no mention at all of the letter (or the Jerusalem decree itself) in any of his epistles, neither in Galatians nor in 1 Corinthians 8-10 (on the issue of food which has been sacrificed to idols). Even in Acts 21:25, James seems to present to Paul the restrictions in the letter as though they would be something new and unfamiliar to him. And yet, if Paul was indeed unfamiliar with the letter, then the notice in 15:30-31 and 16:4 would have to be factually wrong (or at least highly misleading)—other believers may have delivered the letter (to Antioch and elsewhere), but not Paul. On the other hand, if the letter had been made known widely in the area around Antioch, how could Paul have not known about it? More to the point, would the Paul who wrote Galatians and Romans even have accepted the decision with the legal-religious restrictions placed on Gentile believers? If he regarded them as valid and authoritative, why does he not bring them up in 1 Cor 8-10, where they would have been directly on point? There is no easy answer or solution to these difficulties.

3. How does the Letter in vv. 22-29 relate to the episode as a whole?

This has already been discussed in the section prior, but it may be useful to look more closely at how the letter functions within the narrative as we have it. Certain key details should be noted:

    • It follows directly upon the speeches of Peter and James (vv. 7-21), and, as such, provides an authoritative formulation of their decision and resolution of the conflict narrated in vv. 1-6.
    • It is the product of the entire assembly as well as the Holy Spirit (vv. 22-23, 25, 28).
    • It provides sanction for the ministry of Paul and Barnabas—in the wake of the conflict at Antioch regarding Gentile believers and the Law, Paul and Barnabas journey to Jerusalem where they meet with the apostles, elders and the entire assembly; after this, they return to Antioch with an official resolution of the controversy (via the letter) (vv. 22-23, 25-26, 30-31ff).
    • It makes clear that Jewish-Christian opposition to the Pauline approach to the Gentile mission does not come from the official leadership of the Jerusalem church (v. 24, cf. Gal 2:12); rather, Jerusalem is in agreement with Paul and Barnabas.
    • Its requirements for Gentile believers, at the very least, emphasize a respect for the Law and Jewish religious custom (v. 28-29, cf. also vv. 20-21; 21:25). This fundamental sense of harmony between early Christianity and its Jewish heritage is an important theme of Luke-Acts.

Moreover, the letter cannot be separated from the speeches of Peter and James, as the following basic narrative outline indicates:

    • Narrative introduction (vv. 1-5), with the conflict framed in verse 1 and 5
      • Speeches of Peter and James (vv. 6-21)—expressing the authoritative and inspired judgment and interpretation of the Apostles
      • Letter from the Council (vv. 22-29)—expressing the authoritative, inspired judgment of the entire assembly
    • Narrative conclusion (vv. 30-35), with the resolution (at Antioch) framed by verses 30, 35, leading to a resumption of the Antiochene/Pauline mission

I have discussed the speeches of Peter and James in some detail as part of my series on the Speeches of Acts.

4. How accurate is the overall presentation in Acts 15?

Several historical-critical questions related to Acts 15 have been addressed above; here I will briefly treat several specific areas of critical investigation.

The accuracy of the main historical tradition—The tendency among critical scholars is to admit the general accuracy of Paul’s account in Galatians 2 (though shaped by autobiographical, rhetorical, and polemic emphases), but to discredit or disregard the Lukan account in Acts 15 (assuming that they relate to the same underlying event[s]). Traditional-conservative commentators, on the other hand, are much more willing to assume (or require) the historical accuracy of the Acts narrative. It is hard to judge to matter fairly, since neither account (Gal 2 or Acts 15) provides enough specific detail for a proper comparison; especially, we would very much like to know more about the incident at Antioch in Gal 2:11-14, but are left to speculate on the precise circumstances involved. There is nothing implausible about the brief narrative in Acts 15:1-6, though doubtless much historical detail has been left out, glossed over, or otherwise simplified. It may be too that the author of Acts has purposely crafted the narrative to present as harmonious a picture of early Christianity as possible—this seems likely, and I would stress that an idealized portrait is not necessarily mistaken or in error. There must have been fierce debate and disputes over the Gentile question, but this is only hinted at in Acts 15:2, 5-7a, 12; a more realistic, detailed presentation would almost certainly read a bit more like Paul’s rhetorical-polemical approach in Galatians.

The authenticity of the speeches—I have mentioned previously the basic critical approach to the speeches in Acts, which would hold that they are primarily the product of the author (trad. Luke), rather than reflecting the actual words of the purported speakers. The basis for this view is generally two-fold: (a) what is known of the way ancient historians (such as Thucydides, et al) included and made use of speeches, and (b) certain relatively common and uniform stylistic characteristics and details throughout all the speeches in Acts (regardless of speaker, etc). Traditional-conservative scholars, mainly for dogmatic reasons, tend to regard the speeches as more or less accurate records of the speaker’s genuine words (though with at least some degree of editing/modification). In my studies on the Speeches of Acts, I have assumed a more moderate position overall—the speeches reflect authentic tradition, but likely have been adapted (to a greater or lesser extent) by the author, in the narrative context, to create and contribute to a literary work of art. This appears especially to be the case with regard to the use of Scriptural citations within the speeches (cf. below). For the speeches of Peter and James in Acts 15, the following, in particular, have been noted by critical scholars and commentators:

  • The use of the Cornelius episode in vv. 7-9, 14—It has been argued that reference to the Cornelius episode here is literary rather than historical, that is, its significance is based on what hearer/reader of Acts is familiar with (from the prominent narrative of chs. 10-11), more than its relevance to the (historical) Jewish believers in Jerusalem at the moment. A certain narrative tension is implied—what the reader knows (from chs. 10-11) vs. what the Jerusalem Christians have apparently forgotten. There are indeed, certain curious details—for example, Peter’s description of the episode as having taken place “in the beginning/bygone days” (v. 7, cf. also v. 14), though in the narrative context it could not have occurred all that long ago. More to the point, if the event had the importance/significance attached to it in the book of Acts, how could the Christians of Judea/Jerusalem have so (quickly) neglected or forgotten it?
  • Peter’s characterization of the Law in vv. 10-11—Many commentators find it unlikely that the presumably devout Jewish Christian Peter (cf. 10:9-16) would have referred to the Law this way: as a burdensome “yoke” that even Jews could not bear. Paul does once refer to the Law as a “yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1), but in Jewish tradition, it is typically described as a “yoke” in a positive sense (see m. Abot 3:5). Verse 10, combined with the emphasis on the favor/grace of God received by faith/trust, certainly does seem to have a ‘Pauline’ sound to it; but it is not clear that this precludes it has having come from Peter.
  • The citation of Amos 9:11-12 in vv. 16-18—It is significant that James, though presumably addressing the assembly in Aramaic (see his use of Shim’ôn/Simeon in v. 14), quotes a version of Amos 9:11-12 that generally corresponds to the Greek LXX, which includes two important textual variants apparently resulting from a misreading of the Hebrew text. For the form of this citation, see my discussion in the series on the Speeches of Acts. Traditional-conservative commentators, eager to defend/preserve a certain idea of inspiration (and/or inerrancy), are generally left with two options: (a) James cites the correct (Hebrew) text and it is the received MT that is corrupt, or (b) he is making (inspired) creative use/application of the variant Greek text. The first option I take as highly unlikely, the second is far more plausible.
  • The restrictions/requirements (from the letter) in vv. 19-21—There is only a problem here if one views the letter as a separate tradition combined/attached by the author in shaping the current narrative. By such a theory, the reference to the requirements of the letter in v. 20 is virtually precluded as being authentic. On its own merits, the idea that the author has combined or conflated separate traditions is interesting and somewhat attractive, but many questions and difficulties are involved with this approach as well (see above).

The authenticity of the letter—This question is extremely difficult to judge, though in general (on objective grounds), I find it much less likely that the author has composed a letter than that he may have done so for the speeches. One strong argument in favor of authenticity, it seems, is the limitation in the letter’s address to Gentile believers “in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia”, i.e. the center of the historical conflict (cf. Acts 15:1-5; Gal 2). A pseudonymous letter would probably have been addressed to a wider or more general audience. Also, if the author has added any details to the narrative, it is far more plausible that, finding the four prohibitions in the letter, he included them in James’ address (in 15:20; 21:25), rather than adding them into a (fictional) letter. The textual and interpretive difficulties surrounding these four items make it virtually certain that they are authentic historical details—the tendency among scribes and authors is to clarify and smooth over difficulties, not to create them.

On the reception of the letter—It is here that the most serious historical questions are to be found, which I have already touched on above. The fact that Paul never mentions the letter (with its requirements) in any of his epistles, even where it would directly apply (in Galatians or 1 Corinthians 8-10), is noteworthy. Either Paul was (1) unaware of the decree, or (2) did not cite or use it because: (a) he disagreed with it, (b) did not regard it as authoritative, or (c) did not feel it appropriate in the context and circumstances of his writing. In Acts 21:25 James appears to bring up the decree (and the four requirements) with Paul as though it would be something new or unfamiliar to him. All of this could be viewed as somewhat at odds with the picture in Acts 15:30-31; 16:4, where it is indicated that Paul delivered the letter and transmitted the requirements of the decree. Consider also the overall tone in Galatians, the argument in 2:14ff, and the specific notice in 2:6.

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