Studies in the Book of Acts
Most of this series was written by Paul Kroll, a journalist working for Grace Communion International. Copyright Grace Communion International. The research was done in the mid 1990s, but all articles were edited in 2012 by Michael Morrison, PhD, professor of Biblical Studies at Grace Communion Seminary.
Barnabas and Paul speak (15:12)
Barnabas and Paul now rise to defend their view about circumcision, and “the whole assembly became silent” (15:12). Barnabas spoke first. He was a respected member of the Jerusalem church, and its trusted representative to Antioch. Both he and Paul tell the story of Gentile conversion as it happened. The two missionaries recount the miraculous signs and wonders God did among the Gentiles through them. Once again, this underscores the fact that God is blessing their work, hence it is in line with his purpose with the Gentiles.
Luke devotes only a single sentence to what Paul and Barnabas say at the conference. We don’t know exactly how they argue their case. However, we know from Acts and especially Paul’s writings exactly where he stands on the matter of circumcision. In this case, they probably again report on their experiences. Hundreds of Gentiles are now converted and God is working miracles through Paul. He and Barnabas appeal to such things, just as Peter had argued from his experience with Gentile conversions.
James speaks (15:13-21)
At the end of the conference, James speaks. He is the leader of the church in Jerusalem (12:17; 21:18), and supposedly the one who had originally authorized the overly zealous people to visit Antioch. Everyone respects him, and when all three apostles agree, that settles the matter.
James is clearly representing the Jerusalem church. The Judaizers look to him for support partly because of his respected position among non-converted Jews, and partly because James himself zealously keeps all the Jewish laws. However, they misread him on the most basic issue, one he held in common with Peter and Paul: faith is the basis of salvation, not religious observance. Just because I keep these laws does not mean that Gentiles have to as well.
A people for himself (15:14)
James’ speech sums up the testimony already presented. James begins his comments before the assembly by summarizing Peter’s speech. But he makes no reference to the comments of Paul and Barnabas. That is rhetorically shrewd, for it is their teaching that is the subject of the controversy. James wants to win his audience, and using the evidence of controversial persons is not the best way to do it.
The point of James’ speech is that God is taking the Gentiles as “a people” for himself (15:14). There is no disagreement on this. If nothing else, the experience of Cornelius proves it. Acts intimates that there is no longer any debate on whether Gentiles are being converted. James is beginning on common ground.
In his speech, he emphasizes the presence of God’s hand in the work of the apostles (15:14). In this he is echoing the thoughts of both Peter and Paul. Paul had referred to “everything God had done” (15:4) including his “wonders” (15:12); Peter said that “God made a choice” (15:7) and that “God… showed” (15:8). The three leaders are making the same point: this outreach to the Gentiles is nothing that humans dreamed up. They are only fulfilling the purpose of God.
Prophets agree (15:15)
After James cited the experiences of the apostles as dynamic encounters with God’s purpose, he refers to a text of Scripture relevant to the discussion. James says, “The words of the prophets are in agreement with this” (15:15). “This” refers to the fact that God is calling Gentiles to his church, and that he does it through faith.
Luke gives only a single example of the verses James cites in defense of the ruling he is about to make. They are the words of Amos 9:11-12. It is probably representative of the other verses James cited.
We should pay attention to the subtle way in which James uses Scripture. He doesn’t say that the experiences of Peter and Paul agreed with Scripture. Rather, James says the words of the prophet are in agreement with what God has done, that is, the conversion of the Gentiles on the basis of faith! For James, the experience of what God had done interprets the scripture, not the other way around.
It is the experience of God revealed through narrative which is given priority in this hermeneutical process: the text of Scripture does not dictate how God should act. Rather, God’s action dictates how we should understand the text of Scripture. (Johnson, page 271)
James’ decision regarding the practice of circumcision and the Jewish law by Gentile converts is based on three vital factors. It depends, first, on the revelation of God. The decision is then confirmed in the experience of the apostles. Finally, the decision is supported by a new understanding of Scripture.
Rest of humanity (15:16-18)
When we analyze the scripture James refers to, we are in for some surprises. The quotation comes mostly from the Septuagint version of Amos 9:11-12, not the Hebrew text on which English translations are based. Amos 9:12 reads this way in the NIV: “So that they [Israel] may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations that bear my name” (Amos 9:12). This is a promise that the nation of Israel will possess the remaining people of Edom as well as other nations in a restored kingdom.
That is strikingly different from the Greek Septuagint version of Amos 9:12 which reads like this: “That the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear my name” (the NIV of Acts 15:17). Here, the remnant of Israel seeks the Lord together with the Gentiles. Thus, all people are invited to become part of the people of God in a restored kingdom.
The Septuagint version allows James to support his contention that the people of God should include Gentiles as well as Jews. God’s people consist of a restored remnant of Israel and the nations as part of David’s rebuilt nation.
Some commentators object that James would not use the Septuagint version in Aramaic-speaking Jerusalem. But the council might have been conducted in Greek, since the representatives from Antioch might not know Aramaic. In addition, James might be using a Hebrew text that agrees more closely with the Septuagint than the Masoretic. (The Masoretic is the basic Hebrew text from which the Old Testament is translated into English.) Parts ofAmos 9:11-12 are quoted in the Hebrew Dead Sea Scrolls, and they agree with James’ version of this verse.
By quoting Amos 9:11-12, James is saying that the promised enlargement of “David’s fallen tent” (Israel) over Gentile nations is taking place in the church, the new Israel. The Gentile mission is the instrument by which Gentiles are becoming part of this new “tent,” the church.
The Hebrew and Greek versions are different, and yet both say that Gentile nations are included in the future kingdom of Israel. But the use of the Septuagint version gave better support for the evangelization of Gentiles and admitting them to fellowship. No longer did Gentiles have to come through Israel, the nation, in order to become a people of God.
Subtly but surely he [James] uses the apostles’ statements to shape a new definition of ‘the people of God’ as one based on messianic faith rather than on ethnic origin or ritual observance. He establishes as a fundamental principle that the church’s responsibility is not to dictate God’s action but discern it, not to close the Scriptures to further interpretation but to open them. He asserts unequivocally that the authentic people of God is one in which all nations can share as equals, and that since God has shown himself to be without discrimination, so must the church itself. (Johnson, 280)
“It is my judgment” (15:19-20)
At the end of the meeting, James makes his decision: “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (15:19). That is, no one should require Gentiles to be circumcised or to obey other laws of Moses. There are no such entrance requirements for the family of God.
However, James does have a public-relations problem. He is refusing to discriminate against the Gentiles by making them live as Jews. But he also feels the need not to offend pious Jewish believers who have been brought up to observe such things as Old Testament food restrictions.
With this in mind, James outlines four prohibitions that the Gentile Christians should observe. These practical considerations will help keep peace in a church that includes people from two widely different cultures, Jewish and pagan. By stressing the observance of these regulations, James believes it will be easier for Christian Jews to accept Gentiles “as they are” and live in harmony with them.
The four things James asks of the Gentile Christians touch on ethical, ceremonial, and even health aspects of the law — behaviors that are particularly offensive to pious Jews.
James’ four regulations direct Christian Gentiles to “abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood” (15:20). There are several theories about why James selects these four rules. One theory traces them to Leviticus 17-18, which gives laws applying not only to Jews but also to resident aliens within Israel.[See later for further comments on this theory.]
Three of the restrictions concern food. First, any food associated with idolatrous worship is to be avoided — especially meat offered to pagan deities in ritual sacrifices. Such meats are eaten in temple banquets, and the excess is sold in the meat markets.
In Gentile cities most of the meat for sale in shops or markets consisted of the carcasses of animals which had been used for sacrificial purposes in one or other of the pagan temples…. In the process they had been dedicated or offered to some god, represented by his statue. From the Jewish point of view, the eating of such meat condoned polytheism and was an act of sacrilege. There was the added complication that social occasions among Gentiles involving banquets or even family gatherings were often held on temple premises where sacrificial meat that was abhorrent to Jews was consumed. (Neil, 173)
The second prohibition concerns the flesh of animals that are improperly killed (hence, “strangled”), and from which the blood has not been properly drained (Leviticus 17:10, 13). This prohibition is connected with the Noachian covenant (Genesis 9:4), and is considered by Jews as being applicable to all humanity. Jewish slaughter practices ensured that an animal killed for food had its blood drained. Any slaughtered animal that comes from a non-Jewish butcher — where the blood may not have been drained — is questionable, even repulsive to Jewish sensitivities.
The third prohibition cautions Gentile Christians to avoid eating blood (Leviticus 3:17; 7:26; 17:10; 19:26; Deuteronomy 12:16, 23; 15:23). In a sense, this is an extension of the restriction on eating improperly slaughtered animals.
The three food restrictions are rather straightforward. They are something of a compromise so strict Jewish Christians will not be offended. One of the prohibitions, the ban on eating meat (or any other food) offered to idols, is not a permanent restriction.
When Paul’s congregations in Corinth later ask him about food sacrificed to idols, he says “an idol is nothing at all” (1 Corinthians 8:4). That is, food is not actually polluted just because it was offered in pagan rituals. It is physically no different than other meat. Thus, it can be eaten by Christians – but not as part of pagan worship. Paul does not want believers to participate in banquets held in pagan temples. Nor should they eat meat when someone tellsthem it has been offered to an idol – that is giving the meat a religious significance, and the believer should refrain, to avoid offending someone’s conscience.
Meat sold in the public shops might not be properly killed and bled, and hence might violate the decree on not eating strangled meat or blood. The Bible does not directly tell us how first-century Christians are to deal with such questions.
Sexual immorality (15:20)
A fourth restriction James imposes had to do with unchastity or sexual immorality (Greek, porneia). The New Testament condemns all forms of sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 6:18; 7:2; 2 Corinthians 12:21; Galatians 5:19; Ephesians 5:3; Colossians 3:5; 1 Thessalonians 4:3; Hebrews 13:4). So did Jewish writings of the time (Tobit 4:12; 8:7; Sirach 23:23). Sexual immorality is so detested in Scripture that it symbolizes idolatry (Hosea 5:4; 6:11; Ezekiel 16:15-46; 23:7-35; Jeremiah 3:6-8; 1 Corinthians 10:8 and Revelation 2:14, 20).
Fornication and adultery — sexual immorality in general — are forbidden either directly or in principle. These moral principles are already being taught to Gentile converts as elementary aspects of Christian instruction. So it seems that James does not need to mention sexual promiscuity, since this is forbidden among all Christians — Gentile or Jewish — as much as it is among Jews. Many pagan Gentiles also recognize the evils of sexual immorality.
Why, then, does James mention sexual immorality? He may be referring to something quite specific when he forbids porneia. That may be breaches in the special incest regulations of Leviticus 18. (These come after the prohibition of eating blood in Leviticus 17.) Those regulations forbid sexual relations with close relatives. They also forbid adultery with neighbors (18:19); homosexual activities (18:22); and sex with animals (18:23). But the laws of Leviticus 18 are mainly a corrective to various forms of incest that may have been prevalent in the pagan world of the time.
Is incest a problem in the first-century church? It was in Corinth. The very kind of sexual immorality James writes about occurred in the Corinthian church. A man is having sexual relations with “his father’s wife,” presumably his step-mother (1 Corinthians 5:1).
The situation is so bad that Paul says not even the pagans go this far. Yet, what is more shocking, the Corinthian church prides themselves on allowing this behavior! In the light of this situation, James’ injunction against sexual immorality takes on a quite practical turn.
Despite this, as Paul states, even the Gentiles tend to avoid this kind of incestuous activity. It’s reasonable to suppose that the Christian Gentiles (especially those who have some prior teaching in synagogue and church) are not committing these outrageous sexual offenses to any great degree.
The reason James insists on mentioning this, and the other proscriptions, was primarily for the benefit of the Jewish Christians. He wants more to relieve their fears than to correct any widespread disregard of these laws within the church. He wants to assure them that such immorality will not be allowed. (Though, as we see in Corinth, violations can occur.)
The prohibitions are neither new to these Gentile converts nor a burden to them. This implies that they would have learned of the prohibitions through their association with the synagogue, and would have already been observing them. Looked at in this light, the prohibitions themselves clearly seem to fit within the sort of requirements for “proselytes and sojourners” already spelled out in Leviticus 17-18, and elaborated in the rabbinic discussions of the so called “Noachian precepts.” These were the commandments given to the sons of Noah for observance. (Johnson, 273)
In the first century, people eat with others only if they share the same values. In the church, eating together symbolizes spiritual oneness (1 Corinthians 10:14-17). Thus, James’ ruling provides the understanding for a safe and wholehearted table-fellowship between Jewish and Gentile Christians. [For a more detailed analysis of James’ decree, with a different emphasis, see below.]
Moses is preached (15:21)
James has declared that the church should not make it difficult for the Gentiles by requiring them to observe a Jewish way of life. He then lays out four prohibitions for the Gentiles to follow, as described above. James then concludes by saying: “Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath” (15:21). This statement seems puzzling. Why does James refer to Moses?
One answer is that James is stressing the reason for the four prohibitions. James would be saying that there are Jewish communities everywhere who regularly hear the law of Moses read in the synagogues, and the four prohibitions are part of their most fundamental beliefs — and they determine their life-style. The Christian Gentiles should therefore respect Jewish beliefs, and practice them as well.
However, it seems James is doing more than making a concession to Jewish scruples. After all, circumcision is a much more venerable institution, and James lays it aside. Clearly, the prohibition on sexual immorality, for example, has intrinsic value. It is more than a public relations ploy, since it is important in governing family values and relationships.
Perhaps James’ reference to Moses being preached is his way of saying that the four principles he set out are rooted in the Torah. They are the norms the Torah sets down for proselytes and sojourners, and they have value for the Christian life, whether Jewish or Gentile. In that case, James would be saying the following: These principles have been preached from the Torah (Moses) since earliest times and are so today each Sabbath in the synagogues. That underscores their importance. Unlike circumcision or ritual washings, these principles (James might be arguing) have intrinsic worth. The problem here, however, is that one might question whether the ban on food offered to idols had permanent merit. Later, Paul himself seems to compromise it.
A third way to understand James’ statement in 15:21 is to see him giving what he feels are the basic essentials of Christian observance in such matters as food and sex. This would be due to Jewish sensitivities. The decree might be given to calm Jewish Christian fears that the Torah is going to be disregarded. In this theory, James is saying that if Christian Gentiles want to find out more details about the Jewish law, then it is up to them to do so. The church will make no more prohibitions, or concessions to Jewish feelings. Interested Christian Gentiles can attend the local synagogue for further instruction — if they so desire.
Yet another possibility is that James is mentioning a different reason for publishing the decree: There are synagogues all around teaching decrees that do not apply to Gentile Christians. James is advocating a far more lenient approach – that they should not make it so difficult for Gentile converts, and he says that the lenient decree needs to be published because so many synagogues are teaching the legalistic way.
The whole church (15:22)
James’ proposal is accepted by the apostles, the elders and “the whole church” (15:22). That is an important point. Now, almost everyone is on the same page regarding the matter of Jewish beliefs and practices.
The extremist Jews lose the argument, and the church embarks on a more liberal policy. It makes a fundamental statement about the Hebrew Scriptures as well: The church is released from following a strictly literal interpretation of Scripture. Its own experience with God is a more vital element in determining its policy. In the right circumstance, experience can interpret Scripture instead of the Scripture always determining church policy.
The meeting allows Luke to legitimate in formal fashion the Gentile mission: the human church now catches up with the divine initiative, and formally declares itself on the side of God’s plan to save all humanity. Second, the debate enables Luke to define more precisely the basis for this legitimacy, by establishing faith as the basis of salvation (and of inclusion within God’s people) for all, both Gentiles and Jews. (Johnson, 268)
Also, Paul’s mission and person are now publicly legitimated in the church. Though Paul insists that he received the gospel by revelation and does not need human vindication (Galatians 1:11-12), church members in general have no way of being convinced of this. A formal agreement by the leading apostles gives comfort to both Jews and Gentiles that the path the church is choosing is within God’s will.
James’ ruling marginalizes a hard-core group of Jewish Christians who are permanently opposed to Paul. They will continue to be a source of friction in the church for decades to come. This, too, is an important part of the story of the apostolic church.
Judas and Silas (15:22)
A letter regarding James’ decision is drafted and sent to the churches in Antioch, as well as the provinces of Syria and Cilicia (15:22-23). Two leading members of the Jerusalem congregation, Judas Barsabbas and Silas, are appointed to take the letter and read it to the various congregations. They do more than carry the letter: They give personal witness that the letter is authentic, and as authorized representatives of the apostles, they can answer whatever questions arise.
We are introduced to Judas and Silas as “some of their own men” (15:22) who are prophets (15:32). These leaders represent the viewpoint of the apostles and the Jerusalem church, lest anyone think that Paul was twisting the decision of the church. (The Jerusalem church wisely had Judas and Silas, not Paul, read James’ letter.)
We know nothing of Judas Barsabbas, though some have speculated he may have been the brother of Joseph Barsabbas (1:23). Joseph was one of two men selected to possibly replace Judas Iscariot. Neither Judas nor Joseph appears again in Luke’s story.
On the other hand, Silas plays a key role as Paul’s future partner in missionary work (15:40-41; 16:19, 25, 29; 17:4, 10; 14-15; 18:5). Like Paul, he is a Roman citizen (16:37). Silas is generally identified with Silvanus (a Latin name), a co-worker Paul mentions several times in his letters (2 Corinthians 1:19; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1). Peter also mentions a Silas, who may be the same individual (1 Peter 5:12).