July 9: Acts 15:19-21ff (concluded)

In the two previous notes, I have been discussing the so-called “Apostolic Decree” from the “Jerusalem Council” in Acts 15, focusing in particular on the four restrictions (prohibitions) required of Gentile believers in v. 20, 29 (cf. also Acts 21:25). The prior day’s note examined each of the four items which Gentile Christians were to “hold/keep themselves away from”. It is now necessary to look again at the best way to understand and interpret the decree. I had indicated three main views:

    • They are legal—that is, they indicate the portions of the Law (Torah) that Gentile converts are required to observe; these restrictions (generally understood as deriving from Lev 17-18, cf. below), and only these, are necessary and required. [View #1]
    • They are practical—the purpose is to promote and facilitate fellowship between Jews and Gentiles; according to this view, the items mentioned are those which would be especially offensive to Jewish sensibilities, and would make table fellowship (sharing of meals) more difficult. [View #2]
    • The orientation is religious and ethical—the purpose is to guard Gentile believers against idolatrous or improper (pagan) practices common to the surrounding culture. [View #3]

The way the matter is framed in the letter from the Council (vv. 28-29), addressed to Gentile believers, would suggest the first option—that these four restrictions are the (only) regulations from the Torah which are binding on Gentiles. It might be better to state that they are the only ritual/ceremonial regulations which apply, the essential ethical precepts (e.g. of the Ten Commandments) remaining in force as part of basic Christian instruction. However, it is difficult to associate the four items specifically with commandments in the Torah. Often Leviticus 17-18 is cited as the source of the prohibitions—with parallels to the four in Lev 17:3-9, 10-12, 13-16, and 18:6-18—and yet, only the command against (eating) blood is clearly addressed (Lev 17:10-12). The identification between the sojourner/foreigner in Israel (the g¢r) and Gentiles is also highly questionable, especially since there are numerous other laws which also would apply to the g¢rExod 12:48-49; Lev 24:16, 22; Num 9:14; 15:14-16, 26, 29-30; cf. also Exod 20:10; Lev 16:29; Num 19:10; 35:15; Deut 5:14; 16:11, 14; 26:11; Josh 20:19 and the “Noachide laws” of Gen 9:8-18. In addition, the interpretation of pornei/a as illicit/improper marriage relationships (according to Lev 18:8-18) is far from certain.

A more fruitful line of reasoning, perhaps, relates specifically to the dietary/food laws. Consider again, the vision of Peter (10:9-16; 11:5-10), which effectively eliminates the distinction between clean and unclean animals. Christians now (and, in particular, Gentile Christians) may eat any meats without restriction. The decree, however, establishes three specific principles of kashrût which must still be observed: (1) no meat which has been sacrificed/associated with idols, (2) no meat which has not been properly butchered (draining the blood), and (3) a prohibition against eating any blood itself. This would still leave the question of where/how pornei/a is related to these.

The second interpretation (above) is probably the most popular and widely adopted today, especially by more traditional-conservative commentators. The basic idea is that these four restrictions are enjoined upon Gentile believers in order to promote peaceful relations and (table) fellowship with Jewish believers, especially in areas (such as Jerusalem and Antioch) where the Jewish element in the congregations (and in society at large) tends be dominant. As such, the restrictions are often viewed as local (cf. verse 23), and of a temporary nature (Paul does not cite them in his letters), based on historical and cultural circumstances. This line of interpretation, however, seems rather colored by Paul’s own instruction in Romans and 1 Corinthians, for example, and almost implies that the restrictions would be adopted voluntarily by Gentile believers out of concern for peace and fellowship. However, the language in the letter itself makes it clear that the four prohibitions were seen as compulsory (that is, required)—note the use of the adverb e)pa/nagke$ in v. 28. The verb kri/nw (“judge”) in v. 20 (cf. also 21:25) indicates an authoritative decision, and not simply good advice. Moreover, nothing in James’ words (or the letter) suggests that the purpose of the restrictions was to facilitate table fellowship between Jews and Gentiles. If the decree (and the letter) was in any way a response to the incident at Antioch in Gal 2:11-14 (which involved Jewish Christians eating with Gentiles), it would provide support for this interpretation, but there is too little evidence to say for certain.

The third view (above) in some ways best explains all four restrictions taken together—the three dietary restrictions are all related to (idolatrous) pagan practice involving animals slaughtered for sacrifice or used in meals. This does not necessarily require a specific cultic ritual—Jews (and Jewish Christians) were highly sensitive to the idolatrous character of the Greco-Roman culture around them, touching many aspects of daily life, everything from coinage to the meat sold in the marketplace. In this view, the emphasis is not so much on a requirement to observe the Torah, but on avoiding the defiling elements of pagan culture (note the expression which leads the list in 15:20). Any of the three main interpretations of pornei/a (see previous note) would fit this view as well. The four restrictions essentially relate to three defiling aspects of pagan culture: (1) food associated with idolatrous sacrifices, (2) improper handling or consumption of blood, and (3) improper sexual and/or marital relationships.

Before concluding, it will be useful to examine the statement by James in verse 21; after listing the four prohibitions he states:

“For out of [i.e. from] beginning (time)s (that have) come to be, according to (every) city, Moshe {Moses} has the (one)s proclaiming him, being known again (in writing) [i.e. being read] in the places of bringing-together [i.e. synagogues] according to every Shabbat {Sabbath}”
In more conventional English:
“For from earliest times/generations, in every city, Moses has those proclaiming him, being read in the Synagogues every Sabbath”

In other words, the Law (Torah) “of Moses” is read and proclaimed in every city—i.e., in cities all throughout the Roman Empire. The specific interpretation of this declaration, however, remains much debated, especially in connection with the restrictions of v. 20. There are two main approaches:

    1. The Law is in force, and is binding (on Jews and Jewish Christians) throughout the Empire, even in areas which might be otherwise influenced by Greco-Roman culture. Gentile believers everywhere are required to observe these four simple restrictions which relate, in some manner, to the Torah commands.
    2. Since there are devout, observant Jews in cities all over the Empire, Gentile believers should be sensitive to their religious scruples and beliefs, especially in matters of food and sexual/marital relations, which might otherwise be overlooked or taken for granted. Particularly for Gentile Christians in Judea, Syria and the surrounding regions, where Jewish believers dominate, this would be important.

The first option generally corresponds with view #1 (regarding the four restrictions) above. The second option (by far the more popular among commentators today) corresponds with view #2. As I mentioned above, the language of the letter itself (vv. 28-29) tends to suggest view #1, as does James’ reference to it in 21:20-25. The context of this latter passage is important; James and others in Judea have heard about Paul’s extensive missionary work among the Gentiles, and James is concerned about the way it is being viewed and characterized in some quarters. Verse 20 reads (in conventional translation)—

“You notice, brother, how many (tens of) thousands there are among Jews who have trusted (in Jesus) and they all live under zeal for the Law”

and continuing with v. 21 (in a literal, glossed rendering):

“but it has sounded down (in their ears) about you, that you teach a standing-away from Moshe {Moses} (for) all the Yehudeans {Jews} down (among) the nations, relating (that) they (are) not to circumcise th(eir) offspring and (are) not to walk about [i.e. live] by the (proper) customs.”

Clearly this is a distortion of Paul’s teaching, even in Galatians. At most, Paul taught that Jewish believers were free to observe (or not observe) the Torah, though even that is not stated so directly, but is implied from a number of passages. At any rate, one finds nothing of this in the book of Acts, and here (vv. 22-24) James urges Paul to demonstrate that these claims are completely unfounded, advising him to participate in a purification ritual at the Temple. Verse 24 concludes:

“…and all will know that the (things) which were sounded down [i.e. reported] about you are nothing [i.e. are not true], but (rather that) you step in line and (you your)self guard/keep the Law”

In verse 25, directly following this, James mentions the decree and the four requirements for Gentile converts (from 15:20, 29). Clearly, then, the context has to do with observing the Law.

I would, however, be inclined to modify this interpretation, according to the third view (regarding the decree and its restrictions) mentioned above. This could be summarized as follows:

The purpose of the restrictions is for Gentile believers to keep themselves away from those (ordinary) elements of Greco-Roman (or otherwise non-Jewish, pagan) culture which expressly violate the Law. Above, I outlined what these three basic elements would be: food associated with idols, improper handling or consumption of blood, and improper sexual and/or marital relationships. None of these would necessarily appear obviously sinful or problematic to Gentile converts, especially when ingrained as part of the ordinary fabric of society and daily life. Yet, they violate the Law at key points, even if in a technical sense, and, at the same time, would likely offend the sensibilities of observant Jewish Christians. This may contrast somewhat with Paul’s subsequent approach (see his treatment of such matters in 1 Corinthians), but it seems to be the best way to understand the decree (with its restrictions) in its historical context and within the book of Acts.

Within a few generations, among Gentile believers, the significance of the “Jerusalem Decree” (and its restrictions) was soon forgotten, for the most part being of little or no relevance to local congregations. Even in the mid-1st century, among the churches of Asia Minor, there is no surviving evidence for the Decree, nor any sign of its influence, as is clear from the New Testament writings themselves. Paul never once refers to it in any of his surviving letters, nor is it mentioned anywhere in the New Testament outside of the book of Acts. It remains instructive, from a historical standpoint at least, as an example of how early Christians sought to realize their new identity, as believers in Christ, within the context of the surrounding culture—both Jewish and Pagan.

July 8: Acts 15:19-21ff (continued)

In the previous day’s note, I began looking at the statement of James in Acts 15:20-21 which introduces four restrictions (prohibitions) which are required of Gentile converts (repeated in the letter of vv. 22-29). This is sometimes referred to as the Jerusalem or Apostolic Decree. I posed the three principal questions related to these verses as:

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

I dealt with the first question in the prior note. Here it remains to touch upon the next two, and to examine specifically the statement in verse 21.

With regard to an interpretation of the prohibitions, there are three main ways to understand them:

    • They are legal—that is, they indicate the portions of the Law (Torah) that Gentile converts are required to observe; these restrictions (generally understood as deriving from Lev 17-18, cf. below), and only these, are necessary and required.
    • They are practical—the purpose is to promote and facilitate fellowship between Jews and Gentiles; according to this view, the items mentioned are those which would be especially offensive to Jewish sensibilities.
    • The orientation is religious and ethical—the purpose is to guard Gentile believers against idolatrous or improper (pagan) practices common to the surrounding culture.

Before offering any evaluation, it is necessary first to examine each of the four restrictions. As indicated above, they are often seen as deriving from Leviticus 17-18 (part of the so-called Holiness Code), involving regulations which apply both to Israelites and to the foreigners/sojourners dwelling among them. In 15:20 (and v. 29), the four items are introduced by the infinitive a)pe/xesqai, “to hold (onself) away from”; in 21:25 the verb is fula/ssesqai, “to guard (oneself from)”. The injunction is, then, to abstain or keep away from the following four things (the order differs between v. 20 and 29, I am using the order in the letter):

ei)dwloqu/ton (eidœlothy¡ton, pl. “things slaughtered [i.e. sacrificed] to images”)—in verse 20, the expression is “pollutions (a(li/sgema, pl.) of/from images”, clarified in v. 29 and 21:25 as “things [i.e. food/meats] sacrificed to images”. This is familiar to students and readers of the New Testament from 1 Corinthians 8-10. It relates not only to involvement in pagan religious/cultic meals, but also the (ordinary) purchase or consumption of meat in the marketplace which had been sacrificed to pagan deities (“idols/images”). As Paul’s discussion makes clear, in a Greco-Roman cultural setting a complex social dynamic was at work, and it was not always easy to be certain whether food had been sacrificed. Paul the Jew may have been inclined to offer a blunt and simple answer to the question, along the lines of the Jerusalem decree; instead, he presents a long, nuanced and highly sensitive argument (spanning three whole chapters). However, it is clear that he ultimately warns strenuously against any association with what here is called “pollution of idols/images”.  Interestingly, Leviticus 17-18 (cf. above) does not deal specifically with this matter; rather, 17:3-9 offers regulations regarding sacrificial offerings, emphasizing specifically that they are to be offered, in the proper manner, within the central sanctuary (the Tent/Tabernacle or later Temple), rather than out in the open field. These regulations may, at least in part, have been intended to eliminate pagan tendencies; verse 7 particularly mentions the practice of sacrificing to ´®±îrîm (<yr!yu!c=), “hairy/shaggy ones”, goat(-shaped) deities/demons and presumably spirits personifying the wilderness (cf. also the ±¦z¹°z¢l in Lev 16), though the precise cultural context is lost to us. Verses 8-9 apply the regulations to the foreign traveller/dweller (rG@, g¢r) in Israel (see below). A more direct prohibition against sacrificing to pagan deities is found in Lev 20:2-3 (cf. also Ezek 14:7-8).

ai!ma (haíma, “blood”)—though this may have been understood by later scribes and commentators as “bloodshed”, there can be no doubt that it refers to the ritual prohibition against eating blood. Of the four items in the Jerusalem decree, this is one most clearly reflected in Lev 17-18—17:10-12 expressly forbids the eating of any blood, the prohibition applying equally to the foreigner/stranger (g¢r) dwelling in Israel. See also Lev 3:17; 7:26-27; Deut 12:16, 23; it is also found among the so-called Noachide laws (Gen 9:4), which subsequent Jewish tradition applied to Gentiles.

pnikto/$ (pniktós, “thing[s] choked [to death]”, pl. in verse 29)—here again a ritual context is involved, for the term refers to an animal choked/strangled rather than being slaughtered in the proper fashion (with the blood drained). The basic idea is dealt with in Lev 17:13-14, being extended (in vv. 15-16) to any animal that dies of itself (rather than being slaughtered); this regulation is related distinctly to the prohibition against eating blood (above). However, within the context of Acts, the regulation appears to be highly problematic; suddenly it seems as though the Jewish Christians are beginning to impose upon Gentiles the sort of legal ‘burden’ that they sought to remove (Acts 15:10, 28). It is not surprising that Western (and other) manuscripts omit this item from the list, some ‘replacing’ it with a version of the Golden Rule, giving the prohibitions an ethical, rather than ritual, emphasis.

pornei/a (porneía)—this term has perhaps caused the greatest difficulty for interpretation; there are three main options:

    • In the general sense of “sexual immorality”
    • As a symbolic description of idolatry
    • As a reference to improper/illicit marriage relationships

For those who view the four prohibitions specifically as legal restrictions (from the Torah) applicable to Gentiles, the last option is preferred, since it is addressed in Lev 18:6-18, and is known to be an issue dealt with by Paul among Gentile believers at least once (cf. 1 Corinthians 5). However, it must be asked if Gentile believers would make this connection based on the simple use of pornei/a, without further explanation. On the other hand, the general sense of the word (indicating “sexual immorality”, spec. “fornication”) seems somewhat out of place in the context here, which is doubtless the reason why a few manuscripts and textual witnesses omit it from the list. If the other three items mentioned are all connected with pagan animal sacrifices, then the second option could be possible—the Hebrew tWnz+ (z®nû¾), largely synonymous with Greek pornei/a, is often used as a shorthand pejorative for idolatry and the deviation from true religion (2 Kings 9:22; Ezek 23:11, 29; Hos 2:4, 6; 4:12; 5:4, etc). It should also be remembered that the fundamental meaning of pornei/a is prostitution, though in the New Testament it is typically used in the wider or more general sense of illicit sexual intercourse.

(to be concluded in the next day’s note)

July 7: Acts 15:19-21ff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(continued in the next day’s note)

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).

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.

The Law in Luke-Acts, Part 2: The Mission to the Gentiles

The Mission to the Gentiles

In this part (cf. the earlier Pt 1), I will explore the Law in the book of Acts in terms of the early Christian Mission to the Gentiles, as presented in chapters 10-14, along with a specific discussion of the so-called “Jerusalem Council” in chapter 15.

The Early Mission into the Gentile World

This will be treated, rather briefly, under several headings:

    • Missionary Themes and Motifs in the early chapters
    • Conflict with Judaism
    • The Cornelius episode in Acts 10-11
    • The (first) Missionary Journey of Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13-14)

Missionary Themes and Motifs (in Acts 1-9)

Acts 1:8—Jesus’ final instruction to his disciples (according to the narrative of Luke-Acts) emphasizes the worldwide character (i.e. into all the Greco-Roman world) of the eventual Christian mission; it fairly well serves as a summary of book of Acts itself:

“and you will receive power of the holy Spirit coming upon you, and you will be my witnesses—in Yerushalaim and [in] all Yehudah and Shomrôn, and until the end(s) of the earth

Cf. also the declaration in Luke 24:47 that the Gospel (repentence and forgivness of sins) “should be proclaimed in his [i.e. Jesus’] name unto all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem”.

Acts 1:15-26ff—As I have argued previously, the reconstitution of the Twelve, and the united presence of the believers together in one place in Jerusalem (2:1ff), are symbolic of the (end-time) restoration of Israel—an important theme in the early chapters of Acts. This idea of the (post-exilic) restoration of the twelve tribes, gathered from among the nations, was typically described in eschatological language, both in the Old Testament Prophets and subsequent Jewish tradition; often this involved, in some manner, the inclusion of Gentiles—see especially in the book of Isaiah (Deutero-Trito Isa 45:22; 49:5-6; 56:6-8; 60:3-7; 66:18-19ff), and cf. also Mic 4:1-2 (Isa 2:2-3); Zech 2:11; 8:20-23; Tobit 14:6.

Acts 2:4ff—There are echoes of the ancient Babel tradition (confusion of tongues) in the Pentecost narrative (the confusion created by the disciples speaking in tongues), a point I have demonstrated as well in prior studies. The hearing of the Word of God in the languages of the nations also reflects Jewish traditions surrounding the Sinai revelation (trad. set at Pentecost, cf. Exod 19:1). The reversal of the division of language (representing fundamental division of the nations), is also an eschatological motif (e.g. Zeph 3:9) which admirably serves the theme of the mission to the Gentiles in Acts.

Acts 2:5-11—The list of nations (set in the mouth of the crowd, as a literary/dramatic device) covers much of the territory of the Roman empire and its environs (i.e. the known world at the time). Even though these are Jews dwelling or residing in Jerusalem, they still represent the nations. The symbolism is two-fold: (1) the Jews returning to Jerusalem/Judah from the nations, and (2) the nations coming to Jerusalem to hear the word of God—both are important eschatological themes (see above) and foreshadow the mission into the Gentile world. For additional references to the universality of the Christian mission in Peter’s subsequent sermon-speeches, see Acts 2:21, 39; 3:25; 4:12.

Acts 6:1-6—This brief traditional narrative (which sets the stage for the story of Stephen in 6:8-8:1) indicates the influence of “Hellenists” (Jewish believers who exclusively, or primarily, speak and read Greek) in the early congregation. Some of these believers may have come from the Diaspora (2:5-11, 14, 41; cf. 6:9ff), that is from among the nations; all of the Seven (6:5-6) have Greek names, and at least one (Nikolaos) is described as a proselyte (Gentile convert to Judaism). This socio-religious dynamic may have contributed to the opposition to Stephen, and the charges against him (6:11-14). The ‘anti-Temple’ elements in his speech (in 7:35-50, cf. below) especially seem to point toward the wider Gentile mission—note the similarity of language in Paul’s speech at Athens (17:22-29). Following Stephen’s execution, the onset of persecution causes the believers to be scattered (a new Dispersion) out of Judea (8:4ff; 11:19) and into the Gentile world.

Acts 8:26ff—It is not clear whether the Ethiopian official (‘eunuch’) is a Diaspora Jew, a proselyte, or simply an interested Gentile (a ‘God-fearer’). The ambiguity may be intentional; at any rate, he holds a place (in the narrative framework) between the Diaspora Jews of 2:5-11 and the Gentile God-fearer Cornelius (chs. 10-11), and, as such, his encounter with Philip is set at the threshold of the mission to the Gentiles.

Acts 9:15—The visionary words (of Jesus) to Paul specifically declare that he “is to take up (and carry) my name in the eyes of (the) nations…”, directly emphasizing (for the first time in Acts) a mission to the Gentiles.

Conflict with Judaism

Issues related to the Law (Torah) in Acts occur within the framework of these two historical and narrative themes: (1) the mission to the Gentiles, and (2) early Christian conflicts with Judaism. Interestingly, for the most part, the conflicts with Judaism are not specifically tied to the Gentile mission.

Appearances before the Sanhedrin—There are three episodes where believers are taken into custody and brought before the Jewish council (“Sanhedrin”) in Jerusalem, in Acts 4:1-22; 5:17-41; and 6:8-8:1. There is a similar narrative arc to each of these episodes, increasing in severity, leading ultimately to the mob-execution of Stephen. The reasons indicated for the believers being taken into custody are as follows:

    • The priests and Sadducees were worried/troubled because the believers were proclaiming resurrection from the dead in Jesus (4:1-2)
    • The High priest, and those with him (identified as Sadducees), were “filled up with hot (zeal/jealousy)”, presumably because of the popular effect and success of the early Christian preaching (5:17)
    • Hellenist Jews who disputed with Stephen secretly gathered supporters and stirred up the crowd against him with (slanderous) claims (6:11); this leads to an action by the Council, with charges (apparently brought by false witnesses), 6:12-14.

The Sanhedrin action is clearest in the case of Stephen, with a ‘trial’ setting that has a number of definite similarities with the ‘trial’ of Jesus. The charges are related to those against Jesus as well (cf. 6:14; Mark 14:58 par), but they also look forward to the claims brought against Paul at his arrest in Jerusalem (21:28). With regard to Stephen and Paul, the claim is that they speak against the Law and the Temple. There is no indication that Stephen spoke against the Law, but there are anti-Temple sentiments in his speech (7:35-50) (on this, see my discussion in the series on the Speeches of Acts). In the book of Acts, Paul says nothing opposing the Law or the Temple (the closest we find is in 13:39); in fact, the author takes care in the narrative to indicate that this is not true of Paul (cf. 21:20-24ff). Elsewhere, in Galatians (and parts of Romans), Paul’s line of argument certainly could be (and doubtless was) understood by many Jews (and Jewish Christians) as being “against the Law”.

Opposition to Paul’s Mission Work—This is described already in chapter 9, following his conversion, in response to his early preaching in Damascus and Jerusalem (9:22-25, 29-30). During the story of his missionary journeys in Acts, the Jewish opposition is a (stereo)typical element in the narrative, with little attempt to flesh it out in detail; a definite pattern emerges, which is doubtless both historical and literary:

Even though Jewish opposition gradually leads to Paul focusing more on outreach to Gentiles, this mission does not appear to be the basis of the opposition. As in 5:17, the reason typically given is jealousy (13:45; 17:5), apparently due to the success of his preaching with other Jews and Gentile proselytes/God-fearers (in the synagogue setting). However, there certainly were substantive religious objections as well, as we see described (in seminal form) in 9:22-23:

“but Saul [Paul] was much more empowered and threw together the Jews (in confusion) [i.e. confounded them]…bringing together (points to show) that this (one) [i.e. Jesus] is the Anointed.
And as [i.e. after] sufficient days were filled up, the Jews consulted/decided together to take him away [i.e. to kill him]…”

See also the charge brought against him in Corinth (18:12), which is similar in tone and substance (even if presented maliciously) in 21:28. Thus we find three sources of opposition:

    • Jealousy with regard to the success of Paul’s mission
    • Paul’s (effective) proclamation and demonstration that Jesus is the Anointed One (“Messiah”)
    • The view, whether or not accurate to any extent, that Paul teaches against the Law

The last of these relates more directly to the Gentile mission, as we see also in the core narratives of chapters 10-11 and 15; in these episodes, however, as in Galatians, the opposition comes from Jewish Christians.

The Cornelius Episode (Acts 10-11)

I have already discussed this in detail as part of the series on the Speeches of Acts; here I will only highlight the most salient points:

    • Cornelius is identified as a devout “God-fearer”—i.e. a Gentile who follows Jewish belief, ethics and tradition (at least in part), is sympathetic and supportive of Judaism, faithful in prayer and charitable giving, etc. This is important in that it sets the initial mission to the Gentiles within a Jewish context. Cf. also the central episode of 13:13-52.
    • Central to the narrative of chapter 10 is Peter’s vision (vv. 9-16), which effectively abolishes the dietary restrictions involving clean and unclean animals (cf. Lev 11; Deut 14:4-20). When Peter objects to the divine command to slay and eat from both clean and unclean animals (vv. 13-14), the heavenly voice declares bluntly: “that which God (has) made clean you must not treat as common” (v. 15). The importance of this scene (and the difficulty surrounding it) is indicated by the fact that Peter narrates it a second time in chapter 11:5-11.
    • There are two levels of meaning to Peter’s vision: (1) literal, abolishing the dietary restriction (involving clean and unclean animals), and (2) symbolic, abolishing the ethno-religious distinction between Jew and Gentile. It is the latter interpretation that is in view in 10:28; however, it is hard to see how the plain sense of verse 15 can be ignored or denied—if valid, then it is the first instance in Acts where regulations from the Torah are abolished (or re-interpreted) in a Christian context. While the consequences of this view are not dealt with specifically in Acts, they seem to underlie the episode in Galatians 2:11-14, and would clearly be a practical concern in Jewish-Gentile relations in the mission field.
    • Peter accepts the invitation and visits Cornelius, entering his house, despite the basic religious objection voiced in 10:28: “it is not proper/lawful [i.e. against custom] (for) a Jewish man to join (with) or come toward another tribe/clan [i.e. race/nation]”—note the same basic objection, stated in more certain terms in 11:3 (“you went in toward men having foreskin [i.e. uncircumcised] and ate with them”).
    • The objection (11:3), from Jewish believers in Jerusalem, with regard to Peter’s action emphasizes two points: (a) circumcision and (b) Jews eating with Gentiles, which are central to the two main portions of chapter 15 respectively (cf. below).
    • Acceptance of Gentiles believers is confirmed by the miraculous work of God (10:44-46; 11:15-16); the question is whether Jewish believers would accept this (indicated by formal admission to baptism), 10:47-48; 11:17.
    • The narrative concludes with a fundamental acceptance that God has given to Gentiles salvation (“repentance unto [eternal] life”), 11:18.

The (first) Missionary Journey of Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13-14)

The missionary work of Paul and Barnabas was centered primarily within the Synagogue setting, preaching to Jews and Gentile proselytes or ‘God-fearers’ (13:5, 14ff, 44; 14:1); see especially the central sermon by Paul at Pisidian Antioch (13:13-52), discussed as part of the series on the Speeches of Acts. Note the following important details of the sermon:

    • The addresses in vv. 16, 26, 38 unite Jews and (Gentile) God-fearers under the label “brothers”
    • The promise to the Fathers (of Israel) is fulfilled to their children (Jews and Gentiles both) in Christ (v. 32-33)
    • Salvation and forgiveness are connected with freedom, and contrasted with the Law of Moses (vv. 38-39) (a theme developed more substantially by Paul in Galatians and Romans)
    • Paul emphasizes his (and Barnabas’) role as chosen missionaries to the Gentiles (vv. 46-48); note, in particular, the citation of Isaiah 49:6 in v. 47 (cf. also Luke 2:32).

This episode represents a shift in focus—both historically (of Paul’s) mission, and in terms of the narrative of Acts—toward the Gentiles. Even though Paul would continue to preach in the Synagogues, he and his co-workers would increasingly address Gentiles outside of a Jewish context. This is clearly narrated (for the first time) in 14:8-18 (cf. also 17:17b ff).

The “Jerusalem Council” of Acts 15

Many critical questions and difficulties surround the narrative of Acts 15:1-35 (the so-called “Jerusalem Council”), which I am addressing (at least in part) in a supplemental article. Here, I wish to focus on the main issues involved, both from the standpoint of historical tradition, and the way this tradition has been understood and shaped within the narrative framework by the author of Acts (trad. Luke). The narrative can be divided into two main portions, which I treat here under the following headings:

    • What is not required of Gentile converts (15:1-21)
    • What is required of Gentile converts (15:22-35)

What is not required of Gentile converts (15:1-21)

The first half of the narrative can be outlined as follows:

    • Narrative Introduction (vv. 1-5), which establishes the conflict and the primary issue involved
    • Speeches of Peter (vv. 6-11) and James (vv. 13-21), with a joining transition in verse 12—the speeches of these leading apostles provide an authoritative determination of the issue.

Both of these sections have been analyzed in considerable detail in the series on the Speeches of Acts. The narrative introduction is framed by statements in vv. 1 and 5 which set the conflict:

V. 1: Believers (“certain [ones]”) from Judea (to those in Antioch): “If you are not circumcised in the custom/practice of Moses, you are not able to be saved”
Western MSS add “and walk in the custom/practice of Moses”
V. 5: Certain believers from the Pharisees (to the rest of the [Jewish] believers in Jerusalem): “It is necessary to circumcise them [i.e. Gentile converts] and to give along the message (that they are) to keep the Law of Moses

Clearly observance of the (entire) Old Testament/Jewish Law (Torah) was at issue, but the main concern involved circumcision (also the principal question in Galatians). Interestingly, there is no record of the considerable debate, dispute and other discussion which must have taken place (summarized generally in vv. 6-7a, 12); rather, space is devoted entirely to the (positive) speeches of Peter and James:

  • Peter’s speech—Interpretation of recent events (conversion of Cornelius) as the work of God, confirmed by the miraculous gift of the Spirit, with no distinction between Jew and Gentile (vv. 7-9)
    • Determination: Observing the Law is referred to as a “yoke” which even Jews are not able to bear (thus it should not be forced upon Gentiles); rather we trust/believe that we all (Jew and Gentile alike) are saved by the favor/Grace of the Lord Jesus (v. 10-11) (there is a curious ‘Pauline’ ring to this which many commentators have noted)
  • James’ speech—Interpretation of Scripture (Amos 9:11-12), with its message of the (eschatological and ‘Messianic’) restoration of Israel (see above), applied to the Christian mission to the Gentiles (vv. 13-18)
    • Determination: His (authoritative) judgment is that Jewish believers should not “crowd in alongside” the Gentile converts, i.e. should not pressure or require them to observe the Law (v. 19)

What is required of Gentile converts (vv. 22-35)

The second half of the narrative follows an outline parallel to the first half:

    • Narrative Introduction (vv. 1-5)
      • Speeches of Peter and James (vv. 6-21)
      • The Letter (from the Council) (vv. 22-29)
    • Narrative Conclusion (vv. 30-35)

Just as verses 1 and 5 frame the conflict in the Introduction, so verses 30 and 35 frame the resolution (with its setting in Antioch). The believers rejoice at the letter (v. 31), they are strengthened and encouraged (v. 32), and peace is restored (v. 33). There are interesting details in the letter itself (discussed in the supplemental article), but the basic thrust of it follows James’ own determination in verses 19-21, and indeed, the narrative as a whole:

    • Verse 24—in the narrative context this would refer to verse 1-2, though many critical scholars hold that it refers to a separate (later) conflict (such as in Gal 2:12ff).
    • Verses 25-27 repeat what is narrated in v. 22; though it is just as likely that v. 22 derives from the letter.
    • Verse 28 follows the judgment of Peter and James in vv. 10, 19.
    • Verse 29 follows James’ statement in vv. 20-21.

As it is verses 20-21, stating what is required for Gentiles to observe, relating to the Law (Torah) and Jewish religious custom, which provide the greatest interpretive difficulty for us today—and since they are vital to a proper understanding of the early Christian view of the Law (as recorded in Acts)—I am devoting a separate note specifically to discuss them.