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)