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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *