Paul’s View of the Law: Acts vs. the Letters

The articles in this series of Paul’s View of the Law (part of “The Law and the New Testament”) conclude with a short comparative study of the Pauline letters and the book of Acts. Commentators frequently note a number of differences and/or apparent discrepancies between the narratives (involving Paul) in the book of Acts and what he himself relates in the (undisputed) letters—in matters of chronology, the itinerary of the missionary journeys, and so forth. In such instances, critical scholars tend to give priority to the letters, regarding the information in the book of Acts as less reliable; traditional-conservative commentators, on the other hand, generally consider both Acts and the letters as authentic (and reliable), seeking to harmonize the two as far as possible. Perhaps the most well-known (and often-discussed) historical-critical issue involves the relationship between the so-called Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 and Paul’s narrative in Galatians 2. However, important differences have also been pointed out regarding the portrait of Paul painted in Acts, as compared with what he states himself in the letters, and especially in regard to his view of the Law (the subject of these articles). This may summarized by two related questions:

    1. Did Paul himself continue to observe the Old Testament/Jewish Law following his conversion? and
    2. Did he consider that Jewish believers were still obligated to observe the commands and regulations of the Law?

1. Did Paul continue to observe the Law?

Paul states on several occasions in his letters that, prior to coming to faith in Christ, he was most devout and scrupulous in matters of religion, including strict observance of the (written) Law, the Torah (Gal 1:13-14; Phil 3:4b-6, and Acts 22:3; 26:5). Did he continue to observe it so after his conversion? Many scholars today would say yes, and simply take for granted that he did. However, it must be observed that there is very little actual evidence of this in the letters; in fact, he never makes such a statement about himself, but it could be understood from two passages: 1 Cor 9:20 and Rom 3:31.

    • 1 Cor 9:20—”to the ones under the Law, (I came to be) as one under the Law”. This indicates that Paul voluntarily continued to observe the Law, at least when among his fellow Jews, in order to win them to Christ (cf. below).
    • Rom 3:31—”then do we make inactive/invalid the Law through th(is) trust (in Christ)? May it not come to be (so)! but (rather) we make the Law stand!” Many commentators today read this as if Paul is saying that he and his Jewish Christian co-workers continue to observe the Law. However, there is nothing in the context of the passage to indicate this; the emphasis in Romans 3, especially in vv. 21-31, is the declaration that Jews and Gentiles both are justified through faith, and not by works of the Law (i.e. observing the Law). For more on this passage, see the earlier note and discussion in this series.

By contrast, the following passages indicate that Paul, along with all believers, is free from the Law: 1 Cor 9:20-21; 2 Cor 3:6; Gal 5:11; 6:14; Rom 6:15; 7:6; Phil 3:3, 7-9.

In the book of Acts, there is somewhat more evidence that Paul continued to observe the Law. First, we have his statements generally to this effect, in Acts 24:14, 17-18 and 28:17 (?). We also see:

    • His presence in the Temple (Acts 21:26-27; 22:17-18; 24:17-18); along with other early believers in Jerusalem (Lk 24:53; Acts 2:46; 3:1ff; 5:21ff, 42; 21:22-27), Paul continued to frequent the Temple. However, it is not clear to what extent he participated in the sacrificial ritual; on only one occasion is he seen involved in ritual activity (21:26-27, cf. below).
    • His traveling to Jerusalem for the feasts, at least on several occasions (Acts 18:21 v.l.; 20:16); but note that Acts 20:6 indicates that Passover would have been observed away from Jerusalem.
    • Acts 18:18 refers to a vow (Nazirite?) he had taken, which presumably was done according to the regulations in the Law.

In none of these instances is it recorded that Paul was under obligation, or felt required, to observe the Torah. The most relevant passage is Acts 21:21-26 (cf. below); but even here, his involvement in the Temple ritual was done voluntarily, at the recommendation of James.

2. Did he consider that Jewish believers were still obligated to observe the Law?

Again, a good many commentators today would answer in the affirmative—while Gentiles were not required to observe the Old Testament Law, Jewish believers were still bound to do so. I find not the slightest indication of this in the letters, not even in the most positive references to the Law (Rom 3:1-2; 7:12-14 [cf. also 1 Tim 1:8]; Col 4:11, and, possibly, Rom 4:12; 1 Cor 7:19). As mentioned above, some commentators would read Rom 3:31 as though Paul believed that the Law continued to be binding (for Jewish believers), but I consider this a serious misunderstanding of the passage. The overwhelming number of references, indicating that the Law is no longer in force for believers in Christ, would seem to speak decisively against it—cf. 2 Cor 3:7-18; Gal 2:11-14ff, 19; the illustrations in Gal 3-4 (esp. 3:25, 28; 4:2, 5, 31); 5:1, 6, 13-14, 18; 6:15; Rom 2:28-29; 3:21ff; 6:14-15; 7:1-6; 8:2f; 10:4; Phil 3:3; Col 2:16-17; 3:11; Eph 2:15. There are, however, three passages in the book of Acts, which could suggest that Paul held the Torah to be binding for Jewish believers; each of these will be discussed in turn:

Acts 16:3—Paul had the half-Jewish Timothy circumcised, prior to his joining the mission effort. This has often been seen as contradicting Paul’s own teaching regarding circumcision in the letters (Gal 2:3; 5:2-3, 6, 11; 6:12-15; 1 Cor 7:18-19; Rom 2:28-29, also Phil 3:3; Col 2:11; 3:11; Eph 2:11), causing some critical scholars to question the historicity of the detail in Acts 16:3. Much depends on the reason why Timothy was circumcised; there are several possibilities:

    • Jews, including Jewish believers, were obligated to observe the Law, with circumcision being a central covenant obligation; according to later Jewish tradition (m. Kidd. 3:12), children from mixed marriages were still regarded as Jewish.
    • It was a practical measure, to avoid unnecessary hostility and opposition among Jews to the mission.
    • It is an example (and extension) of Paul’s missionary principle expressed in 1 Cor 9:19-23—of becoming like one under the Law in order to reach those who are under the Law.

There is nothing in the context of 16:1ff itself to indicate that Timothy was circumcised because he was required to do so, as would be suggested in the first view. The only reason given in the passage is that he was circumcised “through [i.e. because of] the Jews that were in those places”, which would seem to fit the second interpretation above. However, it is also possible that Paul was generally following the principle he would later express in 1 Cor 9:19-23; for more on this, see the conclusion below. One would like to think that Timothy willingly (and voluntarily) agreed to circumcision, though this is not indicated in the text.

Acts 16:4—In the next verse, we read that Paul delivered the decisions (do/gmata) from the ‘Jerusalem Council’ (Acts 15:19-31) to the believers in the cities of Pisidia and Lycaonia (i.e. Lystra, Derbe, Iconium, etc) in SE Asia Minor, which had been evangelized during the first Missionary journary (Acts 13-14). The letter from Jerusalem (15:23-29) is addressed to Antioch, Syria and Cilicia; Paul is extending it northward and westward in the region. There are two major critical issues involved here:

    1. Paul’s knowledge (and support) of the Jerusalem decrees. He never once refers to these in his letters, even on occasions when the decisions would have been relevant (1 Cor 8-10; Gal 2:11-14, etc; Rom 14; Col 2:16ff). In particular, the decisions appear to be directly on point with the very question Paul addresses in 1 Cor 8-10; if he knew of the decisions, and considered them to be authoritative (and binding) for Gentiles, it is rather strange that he does not refer to them. Many critical scholars consider the detail of Acts 16:4 to be inaccurate—e.g., note how in Acts 21:25 Paul appears to learn of the decrees then for the first time. More to the point, commentators have argued that the Paul of the letters would not have supported the decrees, especially with regard to the dietary restrictions placed on Gentiles (cf. issue #2).
    2. The relation of the decrees to the Torah. In Acts 15:21, James (the speaker) clearly connects the decisions of the Council with the fact that Moses (i.e. the Old Testament Law) is proclaimed and read in cities throughout the region, and followed by devout Jews (including Jewish believers). I have discussed this aspect of the Jerusalem decrees in some detail in a previous article. It is possible, but by no means certain, that, in observing the decrees, Gentile believers are thereby expected to follow the Torah in a limited sense. The emphasis is squarely on the idolatrous and immoral aspects of the pagan culture in which the Gentiles live—things which would also offend the religious and moral sensibilities of Jewish believers everywhere. I believe that the primary focus of the decrees is twofold: (1) as an authoritative exhortation for Gentiles to abstain from things associated with idolatry, and (2) as a way to ensure fellowship and unity between Jewish and Gentile believers.

The apparent discrepancy between Acts 16:4 and Paul’s failure to mention the Jerusalem decrees even once in the letters, can be explained one of several ways:

    • Paul was not aware of the decrees when he wrote his letters (contrary to Acts 16:4)
    • He did not consider (or would not have considered) the decrees authoritative and/or binding on Gentiles (again contrary to Acts 16:4)
    • The decrees had only a limited (regional) scope—the areas in Syria and Asia Minor surrounding Antioch—and were not considered binding for Gentile believers in territories further away
    • The decrees had only a limited scope, insofar as they related to places with large Jewish populations (such as the regions around Antioch)—in support of healthy relations between Jewish and Gentile believers—but were not necessarily binding on Gentile believers en masse.
    • The decrees were only binding for a time, eventually being abolished or superseded as circumstances dictated, or through “progressive revelation”; at the time of Paul’s writing, the decrees were no longer in force.

According to a strict, traditional-conservative (harmonistic) reading of the New Testament, only the 3rd and 4th interpretations above are viable options. A consistent and thorough analysis of Paul’s letters, taken by themselves, would, I think, lead one to adopt the 2nd interpretation. Overall, the last view is perhaps the simplest and most practical solution, but it is nowhere so stated in the New Testament, and would have to be assumed.

Acts 21:21-26—This is almost certainly the most direct (and controversial) passage in Acts related to Paul’s view of the Law. It must be examined in some detail:

  • The Context—At the conclusion of his (third) major missionary journey (18:23-21:16), Paul travels to Jerusalem, and is greeted by the believers there (vv. 17-19), including James and other leaders (elders) in the Church. Presumably he presented the collection of funds for the needy in the Jerusalem Church, which he had laboriously organized and gathered from the congregations in Greece and Macedonia (1 Cor 16:1-4; 2 Cor 8-9; Rom 15:25-28), and which is mentioned (it would seem) in Acts 24:17, but not here in chap. 21.
  • The Issue—James’ address to Paul is recorded in vv. 20b-25, in which the following points are made:
    • In Jerusalem there are many Jewish believers, who continue to be zealous in observing the Torah (v. 20b)
    • It is reported that Paul instructs Jews to forsake the Torah, and not to be circumcised, etc (v. 21)
    • It is assumed that: (a) this cannot be true, and (b) Paul himself continues to observe the Torah (v. 24b)
    • To prove this, James recommends that Paul take part in a purification ceremony (in the Temple) (v. 23-24a)
    • The Jerusalem decrees are also mentioned, indicating, at the very least, that Gentile believers honor and respect the customs of (observant) Jewish believers (v. 25)
  • Summary exposition—James effectively summarizes the controversies between Paul and Jewish believers, regarding his view of the Old Testament Law (as expressed in Galatians and Romans). Admittedly, nowhere in the letters does Paul say anything quite like the claim in verse 21, though the teaching that believers in Christ (Jew and Gentile alike) are “free” from the Law (cf. above) certainly could be characterized this way. It is perhaps such a (mis)representation that Paul combats, or attempts to avoid, in passages such as Gal 3:21ff; Rom 3:31; 7:7ff. Above, I have examined evidence regarding the extent to which Paul continued to observe the Law himself after coming to faith in Christ, such as James assumes here in v. 24b; the evidence is hardly conclusive, as I shall discuss again below. However, Paul does go along with James’ recommendation and participates in the purification ritual (vv. 26-27), at considerable personal expense it would seem, giving at least a general affirmation of his support for the position of observant Jewish believers. But based on what we have studied thus far in the letters, can we truly say, with James, that “all that of which was sounded down [i.e. reported] to them about you [i.e. Paul] is nothing”? What of the many potentially controversial passages regarding the Law, such as 2 Cor 3:7-18; Gal 2:11-14ff, 19; 3:25, 28; 4:2, 5, 31; 5:1, 6, 13-14, 18; 6:15; Rom 2:28-29; 3:21ff; 6:14-15; 7:1-6; 8:2f; 10:4; Phil 3:3; Col 2:16-17; 3:11, et al.?

Conclusion

A fair and unbiased view of the evidence, from both the letters and Acts, would have to affirm that Paul did continue to observe the Law, but only in a special and qualified sense. Ultimately, the clearest declaration of his own view of the matter comes from 1 Cor 9:20:

“And I came to be to the Jews as a Jew, (so) that I might gain Jews (for Christ), to the (one)s under (the) Law as (one) under (the) Law—not being under (the) Law (my)self—(so) that I might gain the (one)s under (the) Law (for Christ)”

Here he clearly states that:

    1. He observes the Law (i.e. is “under the Law”, u(po\ no/mon) for the purpose of winning Jews to Christ, and not because he is still obligated to observe it—indeed:
    2. He himself is not under the Law. It should be noted, that some manuscripts omit the phrase mh\ w*n au)to\$ u(po\ no/mon (“not being under the Law myself”), but it is present in a wide range of witnesses (including many of the “earliest and best” MSS), and is almost certainly original. While some commentators might dispute it, I regard this as a decisive statement that, along with all other believers in Christ (Jew and Gentile alike), Paul is no longer required to observe the commands and regulations of the Old Testament Law. Note also, in v. 21, that:
    3. He is not without the “Law of God” (cf. also Rom 7:22, 25), and identifies himself as now being under (lit. “in”) the “Law of Christ”. This (being “in Christ”) is an altogether new covenant, as he makes clear in 2 Cor 3:1-18.

The basic principle of freedom in Christ, which Paul consistently teaches (cf. Gal 2:4; 3:25, 28; 4:21-31; 5:1ff, 13; 1 Cor 9:19ff; 2 Cor 3:17; Rom 6:7ff; 7:2-6; 8:2ff, 21, etc), also means that believers—certainly Jewish believers—may continue to observe the Torah, and other Jewish customs, either voluntarily, or as a matter of personal conscience. There is a world of difference between “may observe” and “must observe”—I believe Paul would affirm the former, but definitely not the latter. All of the passages in the book of Acts examined above can be understood and interpreted as voluntary observance. In this sense, the claims reported about Paul (according to James) in Acts 21:21 are false; but there are actually two erroneous claims which ought to be rejected:

    • He teaches that Jewish believers must, or should, cease observing the Old Testament Law—false
    • He teaches that Jewish believers must continue (strict) observance of the Old Testament Law—likewise false

When it comes to Gentile believers, the situation is somewhat different; Paul, especially in Galatians, takes the more forceful position, that they should not observe the Torah, and speaks in the harshest terms regarding those who would influence them to do so. However, this must be understood in the historical (and rhetorical) context of the letter, and not turned into any sort of absolute rule to follow. Early Christianity was dominated by Jewish traditions and patterns of thought, and initial Gentile converts could easily be compelled to adopt Jewish religious practices as well. For the most part, this dynamic has long since disappeared from the Church, and there is little inherent danger in (Gentile) Christians today voluntarily adopting customs and practices set forth in the Torah. I will discuss this point again at the very conclusion of this series on The Law and the New Testament.

The Speeches of Acts, Part 19: Acts 15:6-21 (continued)

In Part 18, I looked at the first twelve verses of chapter 15 which comprise the first half of the main section of the so-called “Jerusalem Council” narrative. Here is an outline for the chapter as a whole:

    • Part 1: Main Narrative (15:1-21)
      Narrative Introduction (vv. 1-6)
      Speech of Peter (vv. 7-11)
      Transition (v. 12)
      Speech of James (vv. 13-21)
    • Part 2: Letter from the Council (15:22-35)
      The Letter (vv. 22-29)
      Narrative Conclusion (vv. 30-35)

Verse 12 is transitional between the twin speeches of Peter and James, concluding the one and leading into the next. The two speeches are thus closely connected—two parts of a single message—and within the literary context of the book of Acts it truly represents a transitional point: Peter’s speech looks back toward the Cornelius episode and the early apostolic mission, while James’ looks ahead to the wider mission to the Gentile world. Unlike Peter’s speech, that of James more closely follows the sermon-speech pattern found in the earlier speeches of Acts:

    • Narrative Introduction/Transition (v. 12)
    • Introductory Address (vv. 13-14)
    • Citation from Scripture (vv. 15-18)
    • Concluding Exhortation (vv. 19-21), with implicit exposition/application of the Scripture
    • Narrative Conclusion (v. 22), leading directly into the Letter from the Council (vv. 22-29)

Narrative Introduction/Transition (v. 12)

There are two elements in this verse, related to the response of the assembled believers (pa=n to\ plh=qo$, “all the full [crowd]”, i.e. the number of those present/involved):

    1. It (sg., the crowd) became silent (e)si/ghsen)—Peter’s words effectively put an end to the (immediate) dispute, cf. a similar reaction in 11:18.
    2. They (pl.) heard (h&kouon)—the people listened to the account of Barnabas and Paul (v. 12b)

It is interesting that the author does include any of Paul and Barnabas’ actual words; from the standpoint of the overall narrative, this of course would not be necessary, since the reader/hearer of the book would already be familiar with the events of chapters 13-14. It is also possible that the author was unaware of precisely what was said, and/or simply chose not to include it for other reasons. The simple statement in v. 12b is effective, however, and quietly serves the purpose of connecting the missionary work of Paul and Barnabas with the miraculous work of God in the Cornelius episode (vv. 7-9).

Introductory Address (vv. 13-14)

The opening of verse 13 (“and with/after their having kept silent…”), following upon the notice in v. 12a, may be an indication of editorial joining of separate traditions, or as a literary device to bring together the two speeches. James uses a vocative address (“Men, brothers…”, a&ndre$ a)delfoi/) familiar from earlier speeches (Acts 1:16; 2:14, 22, 29; 3:12; 5:35; 7:2; 13:15, 16, 26, 38; 15:7). The imperative “hear (me)!” (a)kou/sate) also occurs in the prior speeches (2:22; 7:2; 13:16; 22:1); on the importance of hearing (i.e. listening/understanding) in relation to the Gospel witness, etc., see the frequent use of the verb in this context in 1:4; 2:6, 8, 11, 33, 37; 3:22-23; 4:4, 19-20; 8:6; 9:21; 10:22, 33, 44; 11:18; 13:7, 44, 48; 14:9; 15:7, 12 and throughout the book.

In verse 14, James confirms (and re-affirms) Peter’s message regarding the earlier conversion of the Gentiles (in the Cornelius episode):

Shim±ôn [Simeon, i.e. Peter] has brought out [i.e. explained] even as at (the) first (how) God looked (closely) upon (them) to take out of [i.e. from] the nations a people (for/unto) his Name”

The use of the adverb prw=ton (“at [the] first”) clearly relates to Peter’s use of the phrase a)f’ h(merw=n a)rxai/wn (“from [the] beginning days”) in verse 7. The use of these expressions in reference to fairly recent events is perhaps a bit unusual, but the basic idea seems to be that from the very beginning of the Christian mission, and with such purpose and intention, God has included Gentiles among those who would come to believe. The meaning is thus twofold: (1) temporal (from the very start), and (2) in terms of importance (a primary, leading purpose). In this light, it is most significant the way that James uses vocabulary and expressions, normally applied specifically to Israel, in reference to Gentile believers:

These themes continue on in the Scripture citation (from Amos 9:11-12) which follows.

Citation from Scripture (vv. 15-18)

James cites Amos 9:11-12, in a form which generally corresponds with the Greek (LXX) version; this is noteworthy, since it has several significant differences from the Hebrew (MT) version, differences which are actually essential to the interpretation and application given to the passage here.  A comparison of Amos 9:11-12:

Translation of the Hebrew (MT)

11 In that day I will raise up [lit. make stand] the woven-shelter of David th(at) is fallen,
and I will wall up her [pl.] (holes that are) bursting out;
And I will raise up [lit. make stand] his [sg.] torn-down-remains [i.e. ruins],
and I will build her [sg.] as in (the) days of distant (past)
12 In order that they possess the remainder of Edom
and all the nations (for) which my name is called upon them—
utterance of YHWH (the one) doing this.

Greek (LXX) with translation

11 e)n th=| h(me/ra| e)kei/nh| a)nasth/sw th\n skhnh\n Dauid th\n peptwkui=an kai\ a)noikodomh/sw ta\ peptwko/ta au)th=$ kai\ ta\ kateskamme/na au)th=$ a)nasth/sw kai\ a)noikodomh/sw au)th\n kaqw\$ ai( h(me/rai tou= ai)w=no$
12 o%pw$ e)kzhth/swsin oi( kata/loipoi tw=n a)nqrw/pwn [to\n ku/rion] kai\ pa/nta ta\ e&qnh e)f’ ou^$ e)pike/klhtai to\ o&noma/ mou e)p’ au)tou/$ le/gei ku/rio$ o( qeo\$ o( poiw=n tau/ta

11 In that day I will raise [lit. stand] up/again the tent of David th(at) has fallen and I will build up/again her [sg.] fallen-parts, and I will raise [lit. stand] up/again her [sg.] dug-down-remains [i.e. ruins] and I will build her [sg.] up/again even as (in) the days of the (past) age
12 how that the (ones) remaining down [i.e. the remainder] of men, and every nation upon whom my name has been called, might seek out [the Lord], says the Lord God the (one) doing these things.

Acts 15:16-18

11 meta\ tau=ta a)nastre/yw kai\ a)noikodmh/sw th\n skh/nhn Daui\d th\n peptwkui=an kai\ ta\ kateskamme/na au)th=$ a)noikodomh/sw kai\ a)norqw/sw au)th/n
12 o%pw$ a&n e)kzhth/swsin oi( kata/loipoi tw=n a)nqrw/pwn to\n ku/rion kai\ pa/nta ta\ e&qnh e)f’ ou^$ e)pike/klhtai to\ o&noma/ mou e)p’ au)tou/$ le/gei ku/rio$ poiw=n tau=ta
gnwsta\ a)p’ ai)w=no$

11 After these (things) I will turn up/again [i.e. return] and I will build up/again the tent of David th(at) has fallen and her [sg.] dug-down-remains [i.e. ruins] I will build up/again and I will set her [sg.] straight up/again,
12 how that the (ones) remaining down [i.e. the remainder] of men, and every nation upon whom my name has been called, might seek out the Lord—says the Lord doing these things,
known from (the) age.

The LXX generally follows the Hebrew of v. 11, although in very flat translation, having lost nearly all of the color and texture of the verse. The citation in James/Acts matches neither the Hebrew or LXX all that closely; it generally follows the vocabulary of the LXX, but in a much simpler form. The most notable differences between the LXX and James/Acts for v. 11 are:

LXX:

e)n th=| h(me/ra| e)kei/nh| (“in that day”)

{no corresponding phrase}

repeats a)noikodomh/sw (“I will build up/again”)

kaqw\$ ai( h(me/rai tou= ai)w=no$
(“even as [in] the days of the [past] age”)

Acts/James:

meta\ tau=ta (“after these [things]”)

a)nastre/yw (“I will turn up/again [i.e. return]”)

uses a)norqw/sw (“I will set straight up/again”)

{no corresponding phrase}
(reflected in gnwsta\ a)p’ ai)w=no$?)

For verse 12, LXX (A) and James/Acts are nearly identical, and both are very different from the Hebrew: “they may possess the remainder of Edom” has turned into “the remainder of men might seek out [the Lord]”—this seems to be the result of a two-fold error in translation:

    1. <d)a$ (Edom, defective spelling) was mistaken for <d*a* (Adam/man)
    2. Wvr=yy] (“they [may] possess”) was either mistaken for, or ‘corrected’ to, Wvr=d=y] (“they [may] seek”)

The lack of a clearly identified subject for the verb in Hebrew would have added to the confusion: the ‘remainder’ and ‘all the nations…’ became the subject (who/what seeks out) in the Greek version. There being no clear object for the ‘seeking’ it was easy enough to add a pronoun or “the Lord” as both the A-text and Acts/James do. That these verses would have proved difficult for Greek translators to understand, several centuries after the fact, is not surprising; it remains troublesome even today. Consider, for example, the complex set of referents indicated by the various pronominal suffixes in verse 11. As for verse 12, there are three ways to read the text:

    1. “all the nations…” is a coordinate object with “Edom”. That is, Israel will possess “Edom and all the nations”. There are two difficulties with this view: (a) the lack of a parallel object marker (Áta) for “all the nations”, and (b) the phrase “my name is called upon” being applied to the nations, which is unusual in the Old Testament. The sense would be that the nations possessed by restored Israel will come to have God’s name called upon them—that is, they will effectively be converted.
    2. “all the nations…” is the subject, coordinate with Israel (implied). This would be translated as follows: “They—even all the nations (for) which my name is called upon them—will possess the remainder of Edom”. Though such a role for the nations may fit the outlook of the LXX and Acts, it seems rather foreign to the original context of Amos; however the idea of nations united/cooperating with Israel could conceivably be in mind.
    3. The phrase “which my name is called upon them” is substantively the subject, but does not apply to “all the nations”. This would be translated: “They—(those for) which my name is called upon them—will possess the remainder of Edom and all the nations”. Here the sense would be that the (restored) Israel is identified (only) with those upon whom God’s name is called. This is an interesting possibility, and one which does fit the context of Amos to some extent.

Despite some syntactical awkwardness, I feel that the first way of reading the verse remains the best option. Of course, there is always the possibility of corruption having crept into the Masoretic text; unfortunately, only one Dead Sea document (a Prophets scroll from Wadi Murabba‘at) contains v. 12, highly fragmentary, but apparently conforming to the MT. Otherwise, apart from the variant reading of LXX/Acts, there is little basis for asserting textual corruption here.

There are other textual, literary and historical-critical difficulties regarding the citation of Amos 9:11-12 in Acts, such as:

    • At the historical level, would James have cited such a passage of Scripture from the Greek? If so, did he recognize a discrepancy with the Hebrew?
    • To what extent is this quotation the product of the author (traditionally Luke) rather than the speaker (James), whether in terms of translation or insertion?
    • What is one to make of either author or speaker using a version of Scripture which is apparently at odds with the original (inspired) Hebrew text?

These are important questions, both for an understanding of the composition of the book (Acts), and in terms of how we regard the nature and extent of inspiration. For more on this, see the supplemental articles on critical questions related to Acts 15.

Admitting that there are difficulties with the version of Amos 9:11-12 cited by Acts/James, just how does the author/speaker make use of it, and how does this differ from the original context of the passage?

Consider first the original setting of these verses in the book of Amos: they are part of an ‘epilogue’, both to the sequence of visions (7:1-9:6) and the book as a whole. After searing proclamations of judgment, concluding with a vision of destruction for Israel (9:1-6), there is a promise of restoration, beginning in vv. 7-8, and more fully in vv. 11-15. The “woven-shelter” (hKs often translated “hut”, “booth”) of David, central to this passage, is a curious image—overall, the reference seems to be to the Kingdom (of Judah) and Jerusalem (but perhaps representative of the whole Kingdom) in ruins. However, the “booth”, with its echo of the exodus and wilderness wandering (commemorated by the festival of toKs), may refer to an Israelite identity that predates/transcends the Kingdom (at least the divided Kingdom of Amos’ time). The restored Israel will possess again the land (vv. 14-15), including the territory of Edom and, it would seem, the surrounding nations (v. 12), accompanied by a time of renewed prosperity (vv. 13-14).

In James’ speech (Acts 15:13-21), these verses are applied to the early Christian mission to the Gentiles, in particular to the episode of Peter and Cornelius (vv. 7-11, 14; cf. 10:1-11:18). This is done by “catchphrase bonding”, an ancient interpretive method, but one which is rather foreign to us today. By this method, different passages of Scripture (which may be otherwise unrelated), are connected by the presence of a common/similar word or phrase. Here the triggering phrase is “a people for/to His Name”:

V. 14: Simeon [i.e. Simon Peter] has related [lit. led out] even as (at the) first God looked closely upon (it) to take out of (the) nations a people for/to His Name.

One well-versed in the Scriptures—whether James of the author of Acts—might quickly associate this phrase with the reference in Amos 9:12; and, while the context of the Hebrew is perhaps not so suitable, the Greek of the LXX is very much to his purpose, for it speaks of the nations “upon whom My Name is called” seeking out [the Lord]. Unmistakably, this here is a reference to ‘God-fearing’ Gentiles (such as Cornelius) seeking God (the Lord) and responding to Christ (the Lord) in the proclamation of the Gospel. In other words, James associates the LXX version of Amos 9:12 with the early Christian mission and conversion of the Gentiles. Interestingly, in the Greek, it is no longer the remnant of Israel specifically involved but rather the remnant of (all?) men. Note how Paul treats Hosea 1:10; 2:3 in a similar manner in Romans 9:25-27.

It is all the more extraordinary that this universal reference to the nations would be associated with the “fallen booth/tent of David”, which in Amos clearly refers to Israel and the Davidic Kingdom. However, this is fully in accord with the implicit theme (in Luke-Acts) of the “restoration of Israel” in terms of the early Christian mission—beginning with the Twelve (symbolic of the twelve Tribes) and other believers in Jerusalem, to the Jews of the dispersion (among the nations), and then to ‘God-fearers’ and other Gentiles (non-Jews among the nations). Even in the Hebrew of Amos 9:12 there is the idea of nations who are (or come to be) associated with Israel and share “God’s Name upon them”.

In this light, one should also recognize an eschatological aspect of this reference in Acts. The introductory phrase itself (“after these [things] I will return”), found neither in the LXX or the Hebrew, seems to carry such a nuance. God returns to His People (cf. for example the echoes of the Sinai theophany in Acts 2), establishing His Kingdom in the new Age (“last days” cf. Acts 2:17ff, etc) which now consists of both Jews and Gentiles (cf. Paul’s grand eschatological hope/expectation in Romans 9-11). It is clear from the Qumran texts that Amos 9:11 was understood in an eschatological/Messianic sense. The Florilegium (4Q174), which strings together related Scripture passages (with a brief interpretation), associates Amos 9:11 with the promise of the Davidic dynasty in 2 Sam 7:

This (refers to the) “Branch of David”, who will arise with the Interpreter of the Law who [will rise up] in Zi[on in] the [l]ast days, as it is written: “I will raise up the hut of David which has fallen”, This (refers to) “the hut of David which has fall[en”, which he will raise up to save Israel.
(translation from García Martínez & Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition Vol. 1 [Leiden/Brill, 1998/2000], p. 353)

Here the “booth/hut of David” is identified with the Messianic designation “Branch of David”, that is to say with a specific Anointed (Messianic) figure. A similar use of Amos 9:11 is found in the Cairo version of the Damascus Document (CD 7:15-16 [MS A]); this passage mentions in sequence: (a) coming days of judgment and tribulation [citing Isa 7:17], (b) exile of the ‘booth of the king’ [Amos 5:26-27], (c) raising up the ‘booth of David’ [Amos 9:11], (d) the coming of the ‘star’ [Interpreter of the Law] and ‘sceptre’ [Messiah/Prince] who will smite the nations [Num 24:17]. Such eschatological expectations are very far removed from the book of Acts (cf. 1:6ff, not to mention most of the New Testament as a whole); that is to say, they have been transferred into a different framework:

Jewish expectation c. 1st century B.C./A.D.
(Qumran texts, etc.)

  • Signs of travail, persecution, etc
  • Appearance of an Anointed figure (Messiah)
  • Judgment/war on the (wicked) nations
  • Restoration of the Kingdom

Early Christian expectation (1st cent. A.D.)
(Jesus’ teaching, Apostolic preaching, rest of NT)

    • Signs of travail, persecution, etc
    • Judgment on the World
    • Return of Christ (Parousia)
    • Entry into Life in Heaven with God/Christ
      (references to an earthly ‘Messianic’ kingdom are rare in the NT)

Concluding Exhortation (vv. 19-21)
and Narrative Conclusion (v. 22ff)

James concludes his speech with an authoritative determination, confirming Peter’s message and effectively affirming the missionary approach of Paul and Barnabas among Gentiles—

V. 19: “Therefore I judge (we/you are) not to crowd in alongside the (one)s from the nations turning upon God…”

that is, Jewish believers are not to cause (extra) trouble for Gentile converts by demanding (or expecting) that they should be circumcised and observe fully the Law of Moses (v. 1, 5). This, indeed, seems to accord with the “Law-free” Gospel proclaimed by Paul (esp. in Galatians), and is now so familiar (if perhaps somewhat misunderstood) by non-Jewish believers today that what follows from James in vv. 20-21 could come as a bit of a surprise: “…but we set upon them [i.e. send to them] (in writing) to hold (themselves) away from…”, citing four specific prohibitions (requirements) derived, it would seem, from the Law (apparently from Lev 17-18). These four legal requirements are indicated in the letter which follows (vv. 22-29). The nature and historical context of this resolution continues to be debated; and, of course, as the Church grew to become predominantly Gentile, and influenced greatly by Paul’s writings, these restrictions soon disappeared, and their precise meaning and significance is, to some extent, lost to us today. However, they are important for a proper understanding of the passage, and, as such, I have discussed them in more detail in the article on Acts 15 in my series on “The Law and the New Testament” and in a supplemental note.

* * * * * *

The association of Amos 9:11-12 with this question of keeping the Law has an interesting parallel in the passage from the Damascus Document (mentioned above). There the “fallen booth of David” is specifically identified with the Books of the Law (Torah), related to the congregation as a whole. The reference in Num 24:17 (“star” and “sceptre”) was understood as foretelling the coming of an “Interpreter of the Law” and a “Prince of the Congregation”—these two will restore obedience to the Books of the Law (and Prophets) “whose sayings Israel has despised”. So here we have two distinct interpretations of the “booth of David” found in the Qumran community (and related groups):

    • Identified with the coming (Anointed) One who will save/restore Israel
    • Identified with the Torah, which the coming (Anointed) One[s] will restore to Israel

Can we not see Jesus as both Anointed (Christ) and Torah (Word of God), who comes to save His People?

The Speeches of Acts, Part 18: Acts 15:6-21

In this article, I will be discussing the pair of Speeches (by Peter and James) which are set together in the narrative of the so-called “Jerusalem Council” in Acts 15. This episode is central to the overall narrative of Acts, occurring virtually at the mid-point of the book, though I prefer to regard it as the culminating (and climactic) episode of the first half (chapters 1-15). Here is how I would outline the first half of the book:

  • Introduction—the Disciples with Jesus (Acts 1:1-11)
  • The Believers in Jerusalem (Acts 1:12-8:3)
    Acts 1:12-26: The reconstitution of the Twelve, with a speech by Peter
    Acts 2:1-47: The Pentecost narrative (the coming of the Spirit), with a speech by Peter
    Acts 3:1-4:31: The healing miracle and the Apostles before the Sanhedrin, with two speeches by Peter and a prayer
    Acts 4:32-5:11: Conflict among the Believers—Ananias/Sapphira
    Acts 5:12-42: Miracle(s) and the Apostles before the Sanhedrin, with two speeches (by Peter and Gamaliel)
    Acts 6:1-7: Conflict among the Believers—the appointment of the Seven (incl. Stephen and Philip)
    Acts 6:8-8:3: The Stephen narrative, with a major speech, concluding with onset of persecution
  • The Early Mission outside of Jerusalem (Acts 8:4-12:25)
    Acts 8:4-40: Two episodes involving Philip (in Samaria and on the road to Gaza), along with an episode of the Apostles in Samaria (Peter and Simon Magus)
    Acts 9:1-31: The Conversion and early Ministry of Saul Paulus (Paul) (around Damascus)
    Acts 9:32-43: Two episodes (healing miracles) involving Peter (in Lydda/Sharon and Joppa)
    Acts 10:1-11:18: Peter and Cornelius (in Caesarea): first outreach to Gentiles, with two speeches by Peter
    Acts 11:19-30: Introduction to the Church in Antioch
    Acts 12:1-25: The arrest (and miraculous release) of Peter, followed by the death of Herod Agrippa
  • Paul’s (First) Mission to the Gentiles (Acts 13:1-15:35)
    The sequence of the mission (Acts 13-14): (a) Departure from Antioch (13:1-3); (b) On Cyprus (13:4-12); (c) In Pisidian Antioch, with a major sermon-speech (13:13-52); (d) At Iconium (14:1-7); (e) At Lystra, including a short speech (14:8-20); (f) The Return to Syrian Antioch (14:21-28)
    Acts 15:1-35: The Jerusalem Council—The Reaction/Response to Paul’s Mission

I would further outline Acts 15:1-35 as follows:

  • Part 1: Main Narrative (15:1-21)
    Narrative Introduction (vv. 1-6)
    Speech of Peter (vv. 7-11)
    Transition (v. 12)
    Speech of James (vv. 13-21)
  • Part 2: Letter from the Council (15:22-35)
    The Letter (vv. 22-29)
    Narrative Conclusion (vv. 30-35)

There are major longstanding (and much debated) critical issues associated with Acts 15, involving: the historical background, chronology, the blending of separate traditions, the authenticity of the speeches (and the letter), the relationship to Paul’s account in Galatians 2, and so forth. I am dealing with the historical background and questions related to the Torah as part of my current series on “The Law and the New Testament”; several of the critical difficulties will be treated, to some extent, in a supplemental article. Here I am limiting discussion to the speeches in 15:6-21, though in so doing I will touch upon several of the critical points.

Narrative Introduction (vv. 1-6)

These verses provide a narrative summary of events leading to the meeting in Jerusalem. The ‘Western’ text typically shows significant expansion and other differences (indicated below) compared with the Alexandrian/Majority text—most scholars today would regard these as secondary expansions, but it is possible that they reflect authentic tradition.

Verse 1: This states the conflict—”some coming down from Judea taught the brothers that ‘if you are not circumcised in the customary way of Moses [i.e. according to the Law of Moses], you are not able to be saved'”

    • Western MSS specify the people from Judea as being believers (“ones having trusted”) from the Pharisees (cf. verse 5); other MSS (including D) read “and walk [kaiperipathte] in the customary way of Moses”, indicating that they believed it necessary for Gentile converts to observe the Torah completely.

Verse 2: The controversy is stated simply—”and (as there was) coming to be no little standing (up) and searching [i.e. uproar/commotion and dispute] toward them for Paul and Barnabas…”; it follows that “they [i.e. the congregation of Antioch] set/appointed Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them to step up into Jerusalem, toward the apostles and elders, about this searching [i.e. dispute]”
Note the differences in the Western text (italicized), in the context of more conventional translation:
“And Paul and Barnabas had no small confrontation and dispute with them, for Paul told them [i.e. Gentile converts] strongly to remain just as (they were when) they came to believe; but the ones coming from Jerusalem gave the message to [i.e. ordered] them, Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them, to go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, so as to be judged before them [i.e. before the apostles and elders] about this question”
The Western version presents a somewhat different picture, emphasizing the role and authority of the Jerusalem church.

Verse 3: This verse narrates the journey of Paul and Barnabas (and the others), mentioning their travel through Samaria. Two points are emphasized especially: (1) that they were sent forth by (lit. “under”) the congregation [e)kklhsia] (of Antioch), and (2) along they way they explained (lit. “led out thoroughly”) the conversion of the Gentiles, which brought great joy to the other believers.

Verse 4: The arrival in Jerusalem—”and coming to be along in(to) Jerusalem, they were received along (Western MSS add ‘greatly’) from [i.e. by] the congregation [e)kklhsia] and the apostles and the elders, (and) they gave the message (again) as many (thing)s as [i.e. all of the things] God did with them”.

Verse 5: This summarizes the opening of debate, along the conflict lines established in verse 1 (note the similarity here to the Western text of v. 1). Certain men from the Pharisees (who had come to believe in Jesus) “stood up”, saying that “it was necessary for them [i.e. Gentile converts] to be circumcised and (also for them) to keep the law of Moses”. Western MSS (including D) identify these Pharisees with “the ones who gave the message [i.e. ordered] them [i.e. Paul and Barnabas] to go up to the elders”, according to the Western text of verse 2.

Verse 6: This describes the meeting proper—”The apostles and elders (Western MSS add ‘ with the full [congregation]’) were brought together to see about this word/account [i.e. this particular subject or issue]”.

The question clearly had to do with whether Gentile converts were (or should be) required to observe the commands and regulations of the Old Testament/Jewish Law (Torah). The principal issue, in terms of Jewish identity, of course, was circumcision—but this reflected the wider point of dispute regarding Torah observance. The controversy itself suggests that the early (Jewish) Christians observed the Law faithfully (cf. Acts 10:13-14, 28; 11:1-3, 8; 21:20-26), and would have expected other Christians to do the same. The conversion of Gentiles created an understandable religious difficulty (addressed in the Cornelius episode of chaps. 10-11). The debates must have been fierce—the author of Acts does not express this in any real detail, taking care to present a more harmonious overall picture of the Church. The disputes themselves in chapter 15 are hardly described at all, being mentioned only to set the narrative, by way of introductory participial clauses:

    • genome/nh$ de\ sta/sew$ kai\ ou)k o)li/gh$… (“and [there] having come to be no little standing [up] and searching [i.e. debate/dispute]…”), v. 2a—this leads into the appointment of Paul and Barnabas (and others) to go to Jerusalem.
    • pollh=$ de\ zhth/sew$ genome/n$… (“and [there] having come to be much searching [i.e. debate/dispute]…”) v. 7a—this leads into the speech by Peter.

Speech by Peter (15:7-11):
Introductory Address (v. 7)

The participial opening clause of 7a is followed by Peter’s response (“standing up Peter said toward them…”); this “standing up” (a)nasta/$) by Peter in response to the disputing (zhthsi$) may be seen as parallel to the “standing” (sta/si$, i.e. commotion, dissension, uproar) which accompanies the disputing (zhthsi$) in verse 2. Ultimately, Peter’s speech silences the commotion (verse 12). He begins with a vocative address (a&ndre$ a)delfoi/, “Men, brothers…”) used elsewhere in the speeches of Acts (cf. 1:16; 2:14, 22, 29; 3:12; 5:35; 7:2; 13:16, 26, 38). Notes on each phrase follow in turn:

u(mei=$ e)pi/stasqe o%ti, “you (may) stand (your mind) upon [i.e. understand] that”—i.e., “you know/understand that…”, for a similar address, cf. Acts 10:28; 19:25; 20:18.

a)f’ h(merw=n a)rxai/wn, “from beginning/leading days”—this expression normally would mean “from days (long) ago”, which is a bit unusual in context here, since the events to which Peter is referring (the Cornelius episode in Acts 10-11) cannot have taken place all that long ago; however, it may be have a rhetorical or literary usage here, to emphasize that it took place at the very beginning (and in a central/leading position) of the Gospel proclamation (see a similar play on words in 11:15).

e)n u(mi=n, “in/among you”—this is connected with what follows (“God gathered out [from] among us”); there should probably be understood here also a subtle emphasis on Jewish identity, cf. the reference to “the ones fearing God [i.e. Gentile ‘Godfearers’] among you [e)n u(mi=n]” in Paul’s speech, 13:26).

e)cele/cato o( qeo\$ “God gathered (me) out from”—the verb e)kle/gomai (“gather out”, i.e. “choose, select”) and the related noun e)klekto/$ (“[one] gathered out, chosen, ‘elect’), may be used (a) of disciples and believers chosen by Christ (and/or God), Lk 6:13; 18:7; Jn 6:70; 13:18; 15:16, 19; Acts 1:2, 24; 1 Cor 1:27-28; Rom 8:33; Eph 1:4; James 2:5; 1 Pet 2:9 etc; (b) Israel and the Fathers chosen by God, Acts 13:17; (c) Jesus as the Elect/Chosen One, Lk 9:35; 23:35; 1 Pet 2:4, 6; (d) believers chosen for a special mission or duty, Acts 6:5; 15:22, 25. The specific Greek expression (with the preposition e)n “in/among”) can be found in the LXX (1 Sam 16:10; 1 Kings 8:16, 44; 11:32, etc). The noun e)kklhsi/a, customarily rendered “congregation, church” is derived from a verb with a similar basic meaning, e)kkale/w (“call out”), which is used only rarely in the LXX (not in a religious sense) and never in the NT.

dia\ tou= sto/mato/$ mou, “through my mouth”—on this idiom, often used in the sense of the revelation (by the Prophets, etc) in Scripture, cf. Lk 1:70; Acts 1:16; 3:18, 21; 4:25; for the apostolic witness (preaching/proclamation) taking place through “(opening) the mouth”, see also Acts 8:35; 10:34; 18:14.

a)kou=sai ta\ e&qnhkai\ pisteu=sai, “(for) the nations to hear… and trust”—hearing and trusting (i.e. “believe, have faith”) are commonly associated with the Gospel proclamation and conversion throughout Acts (and elsewhere in the New Testament); the emphasis on the Gentiles (“the nations”) is clear, especially in the context of the current controversy (cf. Acts 10:45; 11:1, 18; 13:46-48; 14:27; 15:3).

to\n lo/gon tou= eu)aggeli/ou, “the word/account of the good message [i.e. Gospel]”—this seems to be a combination of two separate, but related, expressions used throughout Acts: (a) “the word/account of God” (or “…of the Lord)”, Acts 4:31; 6:7; 8:25; 11:1; 12:24; 13:5, et al, and (b) “the good message” (“good news”/Gospel), Acts 20:24, also 8:12, 35; 10:36; 13:32, etc. See also the related expressions in Acts 5:20; 13:26; 16:17.

Central Narration: Citation from Recent History (vv. 8-9)

The sermon-speech pattern for many of the prior speeches in Acts includes a central citation from Scripture (see the speech of James, below); here, the citation consists instead of a narration of recent events, similar to that in 11:1-18 (for the notes on this earlier speech by Peter, cf. Part 14). The narration in chapter 11 is much more extensive, here it is limited to a pair of concise statements:

    • “And the heart-knowing God witnessed to them, giving the holy Spirit, even as he did to us” (v. 8)
    • “and he judged/separated through [die/krinen] nothing between us and them, cleansing their hearts by/in trust” (v. 9)

It is also possible to discern a chiastic structure:

    • God who knows (all) hearts—witness
      • giving the holy Spirit
        • to them just as (also) to us
        • no separation between us and them
      • cleansing (i.e. making holy)
    • Their hearts (in response to God)—trust/faith

For an interesting association between the Holy Spirit and cleansing, see the rare (but notable) textual variant in the Lukan version of the Lord’s Prayer (Lk 11:2). For the descriptive epithet “heart-knowing” (kardiognw/sth$) applied to God, see its use earlier (by Peter) in Acts 1:24; cf. also 1 Sam 16:7; 1 Kings 8:39; Psalm 7:9; Jer 11:20; 17:10.

The first half of Peter’s statement (verse 8) summarizes Acts 10:44-48 (also 11:15ff). In the second half (verse 9), Peter comments on the events described in v. 8, explaining them, much as one might expound and apply a Scripture passage (as in sermon-speech pattern). Two actions of God are mentioned, indicated by the verbs:

  • diakri/nw—this is an intensive compound form of kri/nw (“to separate, judge”, sometimes with the nuance of “make distinction, discriminate”), the idea here being that God does not make any distinction between Jew and Gentile. See the careful use of this verb in chapter 10-11 (10:20; 11:2, 12), with clever wordplay covering its various shades of meaning. Note also in this regard Peter’s reference to God in 10:34 as one who is not a “taker/receiver of faces” (proswpolh/pth$), a Semitic idiom (“to raise/lift the face”), which in a judicial context often carries the meaning of showing favoritism or partiality in rendering judgment. The message is that God shows no preference or partiality—in God’s eyes, and in Christ, Jews and Gentiles are on an equal footing (see Paul’s famous declaration in Galatians 3:28f).
  • kaqari/zw (“cleanse, make clean”)—the only other use of this verb in Acts, also occurs in chapters 10-11, from the heavenly voice in Peter’s vision (10:15; 11:9): “that which God has made clean, you must not treat as common”. The voice tells Peter that God has made/declared clean all animals (i.e. all food, related to the dietary laws), but with the deeper meaning as well that all people (Jews and Gentiles both) are clean (from a ritual standpoint), and may be cleansed (from a spiritual standpoint). There is certainly also a reference to baptism, involving the forgiveness of sin, though this is usually understood in terms of release/freedom rather than cleansing. However, the association of the Holy Spirit and baptism with water and fire—both are agents and images of purification—is longstanding in Christian tradition, going back to the early Gospel tradition (Matt 3:11 / Lk 3:16, cf. Acts 1:5; 11:16). It is interesting to note that in Acts 10-11, the Holy Spirit is manifest (baptism by the Spirit) prior to baptism with water (10:44-46; 11:15-16). The question is whether the Gentiles should be allowed to be baptized as fellow Christians (with water), 10:47; 11:17—in other words, God has already chosen to accept and baptize them (with the Spirit), now it is up to other (Jewish) Christians, whether or not to accept them. Peter, by his use of the verb kwlu/w (“cut off, prevent, hinder”) in 10:47 and 11:17, equates preventing Gentiles from being baptized (“cutting off water”) with opposing (trying to “cut off”) God.

Syntactically, the verbs in verse 9 form a parallel with the two in verse 8:

    • e)martu/rhsen, aorist active indicative, positive—”he witnessed” (to them [i.e. Gentiles])
      • dou/$ (participle)—”giving” (the holy Spirit)
    • die/krinen, aorist active indicative, negative—”he judged/separated” (nothing between [Jews and Gentiles])
      • kaqari/sa$ (participle)—”making clean” (their hearts)

Concluding Exhortation (vv. 10-11)

This also is comprised of a pair of statements—one negative (regarding the Law), one positive (regarding favor/grace):

V. 10—”Now, therefore, (for) what [i.e. why] do test God to set a yoke upon the neck of the(se) learners [i.e. disciples] which neither our Fathers nor we had strength to carry?”
V. 11—”but through the favor of the Lord Yeshua we trust to be saved, according to the (same) way as those also (do)”

There is something of a ‘Pauline’ ring to this—trust (faith) and favor (grace) juxtaposed with observance of (i.e., works of) the Law. For a statement similar to that in verse 11, see Eph 2:5, 8; cf. also Rom 3:24; 5:2, 15ff; 6:14-15; 11:6; Gal 2:21; 2 Thess 1:12; 2 Tim 1:9; Tit 2:11, etc. The statement in verse 10 sounds very unusual (from a Jewish-Christian perspective); in Jewish tradition, the Law is sometimes referred to as a “yoke”, but in a positive sense (m. Abot 3:5), as part of the covenant that binds the people of Israel to God (cf. also in relation to Jesus’ teaching, Matt 11:29-30). Some critical scholars have questioned whether the historical Peter would have made such as statement as we find here (on this point, see further below at this end of this article). Paul does once refer (in a rhetorical flourish) to the the Law as a “yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1); for similar thought along these lines, see Acts 13:38-39; Gal 2:16; Rom 2:25-27.

Narrative Conclusion (v. 12)

In response to Peter’s speech, the full assembly is silent (the same result we see in 11:18). This means that the dispute effectively came to an end; whether or not this entirely resolved matters (at the historical level), there can be no doubt that, from the standpoint of the author of Acts, Peter’s message (with the declaration in verses 10-11) is to be regarded as decisive, waiting only to be confirmed by the words of James which follows. It is the speech of James (Acts 15:13-21) which will be discussed in detail in the conclusion of this article (in Part 19 of this series).

June 29: Galatians 2, etc

June 29 is the traditional date celebrating the apostles Peter and Paul, a feast observed in both Eastern and Western tradition since the mid-4th century; it is associated with their martyrdom (in Rome), and may have been connected with the deposition of their remains (bones/relics) during the 3rd century. In commemoration of this date, over these three days (June 29, 30, and July 1), I will be presenting short notes on several aspects of the traditional relationship between Peter and Paul, as follows:

  • Opposition between Peter and Paul in Christian tradition
  • Peter and Paul as a symbol of Church Unity
  • An exegetical outline and summary of the famous passage in Galatians 2:11ff

Today’s note will look at the first of these:

Opposition between Peter and Paul in Christian tradition

There is only one passage in the New Testament which refers to any opposition between Peter and Paul—this is the second chapter of Galatians (Gal 2). The historical-critical questions surrounding the episode[s] in this chapter (in relation to those of Acts 15) are well-known and continue to be debated by scholars and commentators today; it will not be possible (nor advisable) to try to address them here. Rather, I will simply let Galatians speak for itself:

In verses 1-3, Paul refers to a session held during a visit to Jerusalem, where he and Barnabas (along with Titus, a Greek) met (privately kat’ i)di/an) with those considered (or seeming/appearing, dokou=sin) to be leaders (among the Jerusalem Christians). Though not stated here, these ‘leaders’ must have included James, Peter, and John (v. 9). According to v. 2, Paul went to Jerusalem according to a revelation (kata\ a)poka/luyin), his main concern being to set before them the “good news” (Gospel) that he had been proclaiming among the Gentiles. While he does not clearly explain the reason for doing this, he certainly was aware that his missionary approach—emphasizing that non-Jews could come to Christ and join the wider Christian Community without observing the traditional requirements of the Old Testament Law—was liable to be misunderstood (and misrepresented) even among Jewish Christians. He no doubt wished to maintain strong relations with the Jerusalem community, and to see his missionary work confirmed by them. He goes out of his way to point this out in verses 7-9.

In vv. 4-5, Paul suddenly mentions “false brothers” who were “brought in” (lit. “led along in[side]”) and “came in alongside” to “look down (at)” (i.e. inspect, ‘spy’)—it is not specified just who these people are or how they came to be a part of the proceedings, they may simply have been associates of the leaders (James-Peter-John). Here Paul introduces the freedom vs. bondage theme that will carry through the rest of the letter. The implication is that these “false brothers” wished to impose religious-legal requirements—circumcision, at least—on Gentile converts such as Titus (on the curious language in verse 6, see below). Paul concludes his narrative in vv. 7-10 by emphasizing that the meeting ended with a basic agreement—Paul was indeed recognized as an apostle to the Gentiles, just as Peter was for the Jews [the circumcised]. However, while this distinction could be harmonious, it could also serve as the basis for division. A hint of opposition between Paul and the Jerusalem leaders runs through vv. 1-10, by his repeated use of a curious expression, using the verb doke/w:

    • “the ones thought/considered (to be…)”, v. 2
    • “the ones thought/considered to be some(thing)”, v. 6 (partially repeated)
    • “the ones thought/considered to be pillars”, v. 9

Note the way this narrows and becomes more specific: in verse 9 the expression is identified with James, Peter and John. It is possible that the earlier references could apply to a larger group of church leaders. Some commentators have argued that there is nothing derogatory or negative about the expression “the ones thought/considered to be…”, but Paul’s repeated use of it here suggests otherwise, especially when we consider what he adds in verse 6: “whatever they were carries through [i.e. matters] nothing to me, (for) God does not receive the face of man [i.e. does not take a person at face value, according to appearance].”

However, it is clear that actual opposition does not break through until verse 11-14, a separate (later) incident, narrated by Paul, which took place in Antioch. Paul states that he “stood against (Peter) according to (his) face” (in English we might say “opposed him face to face”, or colloquially, “got right in his face”). The concluding expression of v. 11 (o%ti kategnwsme/no$ h@n) is a bit difficult to translate, but could be rendered “in that [i.e. because] he [Peter] was known/recognized (to be in error) regarding (this)”. I will discuss this passage in more detail in a later note, but the gist of it seems to be that, for a time, Peter was willing to forego the dietary laws (and/or other religious scruples) to observe Christian fellowship with the Gentile believers of Antioch; but, when prominent representatives of the Jerusalem church (“men from James”) arrived, he withdrew and was reluctant to associate publicly in the same way. Paul uses this as the springboard into the main argument of Galatians (summarized powerfully in verses 15-21).

There is only one other passage in the New Testament which could reflect some sort of opposition between Peter and Paul; this is 1 Corinthians 1:12, part of a discussion on divisions among believers in Corinth:

“each one of you says: ‘I am of Paulus’, and ‘I (am) of Apollos’, and ‘I (am) of Kefa [i.e. Peter]’, and ‘I (am) of (the) Anointed [i.e. of Christ]’—has the Anointed (One) been divided (into parts)?…”

Kefa (the original Aramaic of Pe/tro$/Peter, “Rock”) is mentioned again in 1 Cor 3:22 and 9:5. The reference in 1 Cor 1:12 (and perhaps also 3:22) would not be a direct personal opposition, but could imply emphasis on a more “Jewish” style of Christianity associated with Peter. That such a distinction of “Jewish” vs. “Gentile” Christianity, represented by Peter and Paul, persisted in Christian tradition, may perhaps be indicated by the so-called Pseudo-Clementine Literature (the Homilies and Recognitions). These works, typically dated to the early-3d century, are pseudepigraphic (see on Pseudonymity and Pseudepigraphy), associated with Clement, a prominent figure of the early sub-apostolic period, and traditionally one of the first bishops of Rome. The Homilies are prefaced by (pseudonymous) correspondence between Peter and James, in which Peter presents books of his preaching (the Homilies) and gives instruction regarding their use and distribution. In the letter to James (2:3-4), Peter complains (and warns) that:

“some among the Gentiles have rejected my lawful preaching and have preferred a lawless and absurd doctrine of the man who is my enemy. And indeed some have attempted, while I am still alive, to distort my words by interpretations of many sorts, as if I taught the dissolution of the law and, although I was of this opinion, did not express it openly. But that may God forbid!” (transl. Johannes Irmscher and George Strecker in Hennecke-Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha, vol.2 ).

According to the books of Homilies which follow, the “lawless” “enemy” is Simon Magus; however, many critical scholars hold that Simon is actually a kind of code (or cipher) for Paul and his teachings. In Hom. II.17.3-5, Simon is described specifically as one who went (ahead of Peter) to the Gentiles and proclaimed “a false gospel”. The narrative of the Homilies works on two levels: (1) Peter pursues Simon and challenges/opposes him as a false teacher and wicked magician, much in the manner of other legendary, extra-canonical “Acts” of the Apostles; and (2) Peter pursues and corrects a specific sort of false teaching that has been spread out into the Gentile world.

The theological outlook of the Homilies is strongly Jewish Christian, having much in common with the language and thought-world of the Sermon on the Mount; indeed, it draws heavily on the “Two Ways” motif (see also Didache 1-5; Barnabas 18-20), which was itself no doubt influenced by sayings of Jesus such as in Matt 7:13-14ff. The “easy way” that leads to destruction involves ignoring or disregarding the Law of Moses and/or the corresponding commands of Jesus (Hom. VII.7.1-2ff; VIII.5-7, etc). The dualism of the Homilies is even more pronounced, as we see in book 2, culminating in the juxtaposition of Simon and Peter—Simon with the false Gospel comes first, then follows Peter with the true Gospel—an inversion/perversion of the proper order of God (and Creation) which the true Gospel is meant to correct. However, the Homilies (as reflecting the purported teaching of Peter) do not simply require Gentiles to obey the Law of Moses; rather, its theological outlook is expressed well in book 8, where in chapters 4ff an argument is laid out akin to the modern-day “Two Covenants” theory—Jews who faithfully observed the Law of Moses will not be condemned, even apart from Jesus, and (Gentile) Christians who faithfully observe Jesus’ commandments (as in the Sermon on the Mount) too will be accepted, even apart from the Law. It is the “lawless” pseudo-Christians (i.e. followers of “Simon”) who certainly will be condemned.

There are rough similarities to the Homilies in the epistle of James, a much earlier compendium of Jewish-Christian instruction which has also been greatly influenced by the Sermon on the Mount. In James 2:14-26, there is the famous passage on “faith and works”, often thought by many commentators to have been written in response to Paul’s teaching. Of course, much depends on the date of composition and authorship of the letter (perhaps better described as a sermon-tract). Dating varies considerably, from early (40s) to late (90-100); I am more inclined to accept an earlier dating, at least prior to the Jewish War of 66-70. Did ‘James’ know Paul’s teaching on “faith and works” such as we see in Galatians, and is he writing to contradict it? At least one statement (verse 24) almost seems to be an explicit contradiction, as does the very different use of Genesis 15:6 in vv. 21-23 (cf. Gal 3:6; Rom 4:3). On the other hand, it can be argued (rather convincingly) that James and Paul use e&rga (“works”), pi/sti$ (“trust/faith”) and even dikai/w/dikaiosu/nh (“justify”, “justice/righteousness”) somewhat differently; certainly the context is different—in James 2 the main issue is the importance of “good works” (acts of mercy) to the poor and needy, whereas in Galatians Paul is addressing the question of whether Gentiles (and believers in general) are still required to observe the Old Testament Law.

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Galilean Period, Pt 2 (Acts 1:14 etc)

In the last several notes, I have been looking at the main Gospel traditions involving the family and relatives of Jesus. These early traditions occasionally put Jesus’ relatives in something of a negative light—suggesting a certain misunderstanding of who he is and the nature of his mission, and, at times, even reflecting opposition toward him. Such traditions soon would disappear; we can actually see this process at work, by noting that there is nothing corresponding to Mark 3:20-21 in either Matthew or Luke—the episode described briefly in those verses has ‘dropped out’ of the Gospel Tradition. At the same time, Jesus’ family came to achieve a revered position and status in the early Church. While we know virtually nothing of Jesus’ sisters (mentioned in Mk 6:3), his mother (Mary) and at least some of his brothers began to feature prominently in early Christian tradition by the end of the first century. Something of this is reflected already in the New Testament, and must, on objective grounds, go back to authentic (historical) tradition. Here I will briefly examine the New Testament references (1) to Mary, (2) to James, and finally (3) the important Lukan description in Acts 1:14.

1. Mary, the mother of Jesus

It is scarcely necessary to mention the revered position of Mary, as Jesus’ mother, well-established (with traditions full of fabulous details), by the early 2nd century A.D. It has always been somewhat surprising to Christians that the New Testament, on the whole, has so little to say about her. If we separate out the Infancy Narratives of Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2, she is mentioned by name in just one passage—Mark 6:3 (par Matt 13:55). In several other places she is referred to as “his mother”, or otherwise indirectly (Mark 3:31-32ff par; John 2:3ff; 19:25-27; Gal 4:4). Given the importance of the virgin birth for Christians past and present, it is worth pointing out that even the birth of Jesus is scarcely mentioned in the New Testament, apart from the Infancy narratives.

Mary appears in the Matthean Infancy narrative , but it is really Joseph who is featured most prominently in those passages (1:16, 18-25; 2:13-15, 19-23). On the other hand, in the Gospel of Luke, Mary takes center stage. It is she who receives the Angelic message (1:26-38), is honored by Elizabeth (1:39-45), utters the Magnificat hymn [according to most MSS] (1:46-55), has a central place in the birth scene (2:5-7, 16-19), and in the purification ritual that brings the family to the Temple (2:22-24), and is addressed directly within Simeon’s oracle (2:34-35). I have discussed the Infancy narratives in considerable detail in several study series for Advent and Christmas season (“And you shall call His Name…“, “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus“); here I will point out several verses in the Lukan narrative which indicate Mary’s faith, and, if we may say, her spiritual growth:

  • At the Angel’s initial appearance and greeting (1:28-29), Mary is thoroughly disturbed (vb. diatara/ssw) but also “gathers things through” (dialogi/zomai), i.e. in her mind. This use of dialogi/zomai is significant.
  • Following the Angel’s message, Mary responds with trust and obedience—”See, (I am) the slave-girl of the Lord; let it come to be for me according to your utterance [i.e. your word]” (v. 38)
  • Elizabeth’s blessing of Mary contains the declaration: “and happy [i.e. blessed] (is she) the one trusting that there will be a completion [i.e. fulfillment] to the (thing)s spoken to her (from) alongside the Lord” (v. 45). Again, this indicates Mary’s faith/trust in God.
  • After the birth of Jesus, and following the visit of the shepherds announcing the miraculous things they had seen and heard (i.e. Angels’ message, 2:10-14), it is said of Mary in verse 19, that “she kept all these (thing)s (close) together, throwing (them) together, in her heart”. This suggests that Mary is beginning to ponder the true nature and identity of the child born to her. The two verbs used here are parallel to the two in 1:29, following the Angel’s announcement:
    • diatara/ssw (pass. “[be] stirred/disturbed through[out]”)
      dialogi/zomai (“gather [i.e. consider] [things] through”)
    • sunthre/w (“keep [things] together”)
      sumba/llw (“cast/throw [things] together”, i.e. in one’s mind)
  • In 2:21-24, along with v. 39 and 41ff, Mary and Joseph are depicted as faithful in observing the religious requirements and regulations set down in the Old Testament/Jewish Law.
  • The statement by Simeon, in his oracle, addressed directly to Mary (in v. 35a): “and a sword also will come/go through your heart”. As I discussed in an earlier note, this declaration may possibly allude to Ezekiel 14:17, and the sword of God’s Judgment that will pass through the land. If Mary represents the people of Israel, at the transition point between the Old and New Covenants, then the sword that separates and divides (cf. the context of vv. 34-35) will also pass through Mary (her own heart). She, too, will have to come to terms with Jesus’ identity.
  • In the following episode (the child Jesus in the Temple, vv. 41-50), it is illustrated that Mary still does not fully understand who Jesus is—his true identity (as God’s Son) and the nature of his mission (to be in/among “the things of God”), cf. verses 48-49.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ mother (not mentioned by name) appears in two episodes. The first is the miracle at Cana (2:1-12), in which she requests Jesus to perform a miracle for the wedding party. This narrative, on objective grounds, has all the earmarks of an early (authentic) tradition, though one which is unique to John. There are also certain similarities between this episode and that of Luke 2:41-50. Each includes a question/request by Mary, and a response by Jesus, illustrating that his mother does not truly understand the nature and purpose of his mission. The second scene occurs at the crucifixion (19:25-27). Critical scholars are more likely to question the historicity of this tradition, since it would seem to have the (apologetic) purpose of giving prominence to the “disciple whom (Jesus) loved”, and is otherwise absent from the well-established Gospel traditions surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus. It is sometimes thought to have symbolic significance—e.g., Mary as the “mother” of the disciples (i.e. the Church, represented by the beloved Disciple). However, I find it much more likely that the significance is literary, in terms of the overall structure of the Fourth Gospel. The two episodes involving Jesus’ mother are set at the very beginning and end of his ministry on earth, respectively—his first public miracle (in Galilee) and his death (in Jerusalem). In view of the portrait of Jesus in this Gospel—as the eternal Son of God who was sent to earth (as a human being)—Mary was only his mother during the short time of his incarnation and earthly ministry. At the time of Jesus’ death, it was necessary to transfer that (human) sonship to another—the one closest to him, the beloved Disciple.

2. James, the Brother of Jesus

In Mark 6:3 (and the parallel in Matthew), four of Jesus’ brothers are named, including Ya’aqob (Heb. bq)u&y~), transliterated into Greek as Ia/kwbo$, and into English as “Jacob” (the corresponding James comes into English through the Latinized form Iacomus). This is the only mention of James in the Gospels. It is not certain if he is to be counted among the brothers of Jesus in Mk 3:31ff par, or the ‘relatives’ in 3:21 (cf. the earlier note on these traditions). Jesus’ brothers are also part of the tradition recorded in Jn 7:1-9 (also discussed in an earlier note). If James was among the brothers mentioned in these passages, it would indicate that he did not understand or believe in Jesus, at least during the Galilean period of ministry.

The earliest New Testament tradition regarding James would appear to be Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 15:7, of a resurrection appearance by Jesus to James. Paul cites this as a well-established tradition, passed down to him (vv. 1-3ff), and the way he phrases vv. 3-7 would indicate a relatively fixed (traditional) formula, in place by at least 50 A.D. (if not earlier). In Galatians, Paul does not cite traditions but (his own) memory of recent events in Jerusalem and Antioch. The date of the letter, and the events recorded in chapters 1-2, have varied somewhat among commentators. Style and subject matter suggests a date (for the letter) around the same time as Romans and 2 Corinthians (i.e. early-to-mid-50s). At around 50 A.D., James was an important leader in the Jerusalem Church (1:19; 2:9), whom Paul associates with his Jewish(-Christian) opponents at Antioch and elsewhere (2:12). This generally relates to the controversy addressed at the so-called Jerusalem Council (in Acts 15). In Gal 1:19, Paul refers to James specifically as “the brother of the Lord”.

In the book of Acts, probably written around 70 A.D., but certainly containing many older (historical) traditions, James is mentioned as a leader of the Jerusalem Christians in 12:17. He is also featured in the Jerusalem Council episode (15:13-21), and is associated directly with the letter sent to believers in the region around Antioch (vv. 22-29). What is noteworthy for the author of Acts (trad. Luke) is that Peter and James both speak out in favor of allowing Gentile coverts to be considered part of the Church without requiring their observance of the Old Testament Law (with the exception of the points made in vv. 20-21 and 29). James thus plays a central role in the central episode of the book. After chapter 15, the Jerusalem Church gives way in the narrative to Paul’s missionary work. James does appear in one more episode (21:17-25), which confirms the validity of Paul’s work, but yet still declares the validity of the Law for Jews (and, by extension, Jewish believers). I have dealt with this topic extensively in my earlier series “The Law and the New Testament” (cf. the articles on Paul’s view of the Law, and the Law in Luke-Acts [soon to be posted on this site]).

Later Christian writers preserve additional traditions regarding James, who was surnamed “the Righteous/Just”. Eusebius (Church History 2.1, 23) cites a (lost) writing by Hegesippus which recorded several such traditions, including (a) the great virtue of James, (b) that he was a Nazirite, (c) spent time in the Holy Place of the Temple (dressed in priestly clothing), (d) that Jesus gave special instruction to him following the resurrection appearance (cf. 1 Cor 15:7), and (e) that he was clubbed to death on the parapet of the Temple sanctuary. James’ death is also reported by Josephus in his Antiquities 20.200. Both Eusebius and Jerome (Lives of Illustrious Men 2) consider James to have been Jesus’ half-brother (cf. Mk 15:40 par), and regard him as the first bishop of Jerusalem. James the brother of Jesus is also thought, by most commentators to be the “James” of the New Testament letter, whether such attribution is considered genuine (the traditional-conservative view) or pseudonymous (most critical scholars). Similarly, the “Jude” of the New Testament letter, called “brother of James”, is thought to refer to another of Jesus’ brothers (Mk 6:3 par).

3. Acts 1:14

That at least some of Jesus’ brothers (whether full-brothers, half-brothers, or cousins) had achieved a level of prominence in the early Church is indicated by Paul’s references in Gal 1:19 and 1 Cor 9:5. The latter reference indicates that they were thought of as distinct from the apostles (the Twelve, and others). Yet the brothers of Jesus appear in just one passage of the New Testament, outside of the Gospels—in Acts 1:14. Verses 12-14 are a narrative summary which serves as a transition between the ascension of Jesus (vv. 8-11) and the assembly of the (120) disciples in Jerusalem (vv. 15ff). We read that the disciples who witnessed the ascension returned to Jerusalem, to the (upper) room in which they were staying. Those present were: (a) the Twelve (minus Judas, i.e. Eleven), (b) the women who followed Jesus (cf. Lk 8:2-3; 23:49, 55), (c) his mother Mary, and (d) his brothers. These are precisely the characters who appear in the key section 8:1-21 of the Gospel (vv. 1-3, 19-21). In that passage, Jesus mother and brothers were contrasted with the (close) disciples of Jesus (in vv. 1-3ff). His mother and brothers want to come to Jesus, to meet him and be with him, but are unable to enter the room where he and his disciples are gathered (vv. 19-20)—they remain outside. In Acts, this situation has changed. Now the disciples of Jesus and his family (mother/brothers) are inside, together in the same room. The Jesus’ disciples and his natural family together form a single unified family of faith, a most beautiful picture which essentially fulfills the words of Jesus in Lk 8:21—”my mother and my brothers–these are the ones hearing and doing the word of God!”