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:
- What is the correct form/version of the text that has come down to us?
- How are these prohibitions to be understood in context—both from the stand point of the apostles (James) and the author of Acts?
- 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)