The Jerusalem Council and its aftermath recounted by Luke in Acts 15:1-41, was a pivotal moment in the Book of Acts and Luke rightly places it as a turning point in the story of the first Christians. But what exactly is the background that puts the council in context? What was at stake? What was the issue? How was the dispute resolved? Did the apostles and other leaders unhitch themselves from their ancestral faith to accommodate the Gentiles? Did they accept some new revelation not previous given to God’s people in Israel’s sacred Scriptures, which we Christians refer to as the Old Testament? Let’s take each question in turn.
In order to understand the passage in its specifics, it is important to offer the context of first-century Judaism, its understanding of the law, and how certain aspects of the law reminded God’s people of their identity. It is not the case that first-century Judaism was a religion of works-righteousness. That has been the misinterpretation since the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. In other words, no Jew in Jesus’ day believed that salvation was earned; it was an act of grace. Thus, no Jew pitted the law against grace as if they were incompatible opposites– neither did Jesus, nor Paul. Indeed, the giving of the law itself was an act of God’s grace.
Moreover, the phrase “works of the law” utilized by Paul in Romans (3:20, 28) and in Galatians (2:16) does not refer to a belief in salvation by doing good works; rather the “works of the law” denote the badges of ethnic identity that marked Israel off and reminded them that they were the people of God as distinct from the other nations. The most significant of these “works” were circumcision, food laws, and festival and Sabbath observance. Such works or deeds or practices did not give one a means of entering into the covenant, rather they were a way of maintaining the covenant. They were what the law required for those inside the covenant.
The identity of first-century Judaism was built upon the notion that God had freely chosen Israel and made a covenant with them to be their God and they God’s people. In other words, the foundation of Israel’s self-identity was the notion that God had lavished his undeserved grace upon the nations. In no way did Jesus, Paul, or the Pharisees hold to the idea that somehow they had earned the favor of God. This perspective comes from Israel’s Scriptures. Their identity was bound intimately with the Torah. For the first Christians to unhinge themselves from their Scriptures would be nothing less than a complete denial of their identity as God’s people.
Jimmy Dunn states in reference to the considerations of the Jerusalem Council,
In historical terms what was at stake was nothing less than the very existence of the new movement itself, both its identity and its unity– in particular, whether what had begun in Jerusalem was going to remain in vital continuity with Jerusalem and all that Jerusalem represented, and whether the new outreach into the Gentile world now taken up as a life’s work by Paul was going to become something else (p. 195).
In other words, how was it possible to maintain the Jewish continuity of the Christian faith and accommodate the Gentiles already received into the faith? How could this be done and maintain unity between Jewish and Gentiles believers? It was clear to these early church leaders that Gentiles were coming into the ancestral faith because they were receiving the Holy Spirit. What did this mean in reference to the place of the law and the Gentile believers? Up to this point the only way for a Gentile to become a full proselyte to Judaism was to take up “the yoke of the law,” which included being circumcised, and being obedient to the rest of the “works of the law”– food laws and Sabbath observance. It was circumcision that was the first act of taking up that yoke. Was that still necessary for Gentiles to enter the covenant?
It is clear that circumcision was the main concern at the council. “Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved'” (Acts 15:1). Circumcision is the first act in proselytizing, but the issue here is not only what brings a Gentile into the covenant, but how Gentiles live in covenant obedience. The certain individuals Luke mentions and with whom Paul and Barnabas are debating take the position that Gentiles come into the faith the way they always have– by taking up the yoke of the law and its practices. It is from Paul’s letters to the Romans and the Galatians that we know more specifically Paul’s position, which I am offering in my own words: if taking up the yoke of the law– which includes circumcision, dietary regulations, and Sabbath observance– is still in force then what is the point of the cross? What is the point of Jesus? If these certain individuals are right, then “Christ died for nothing” (Galatians 2:21).
Paul’s concern seems to be that in the death and resurrection of Jesus, all are invited and welcomed equally into the covenant based on their faith, their fidelity to Jesus. To continue to insist that Gentile believers in Jesus take up the yoke of the law not only makes the work of Christ a needless event, it continues to relegate the Gentiles as second-class citizens in the covenant, marginalized because the promises remain primarily into the hands of ethnic Israel. It was always God’s intention in calling Israel to work toward opening the inheritance of the covenant to all on equal footing. The yoke of the law prevents that equality. The cross of Christ means that God accepts all who respond by faith– God accepts Gentiles as Gentiles in their own right; they do not have to become Jews to be saved. Thus, to become a full member of this Christian movement, one only need respond to Jesus in faith, signified by baptism (which everyone undergoes, female as well as male). Circumcision was not necessary for Gentile converts because Jewish identity was no longer essential to participating in the inheritance of salvation promised to Jews and to Gentiles in the Old Testament.
The resolution is that the Gentiles will not be required to proselytize–to be circumcised and to be required to obey the works of the law, the badges of identity that marked off Jewish identity from everyone else. They denied any significance to “the ethnic or ritual practices” that prohibited “recognition of everyone’s dependence equally on divine grace” (Dunn, p. 202). Gentiles become followers of Jesus and remain followers in their faithful allegiance to Jesus– just as Jewish Christians who faithfully follow Jesus–by responding in faith to Christ. They will only insist that Gentile believers abstain from four things that were also of concern in the Old Testament: meat and drink sacrificed to idols, sexual immorality, eating meat from animals improperly slaughtered leaving the blood in meat, and from consuming blood. Space and the scope of this post do not allow for extended discussion on these prohibitions.
Now we come to the heart of the matter. Did the Council of Jerusalem unhinge the faith from the Old Testament in order to include the Gentiles? Not at all. It is from the Hebrew Scriptures that the council draws the conclusions it does.
The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. After they finished speaking, James replied, ‘My brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first looked favourably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written,
“After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen;
from its ruins I will rebuild it,
and I will set it up,
so that all other peoples may seek the Lord–
even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called.
Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things known from long ago.” (15:12-18)
While the quote is largely from Amos there are also allusions to Isaiah and Jeremiah. James, the leader of the Jerusalem church uses Scripture to connect Israel’s restoration in Jesus to the calling of the Gentiles. It is the language of promise and fulfillment. It should also be noted that the issue of how Jews relate to Gentiles in their midst was not a new one (e.g. Gen. 9:4-6; Lev. 17:8-9, 10-14; 18:26). Dunn notes that the council’s decision is “an attempt for the Christian communities, on the basis of much longer experience, what could probably be regarded as best practice at that time” (p. 205).
What we find is not an unhitching of Israel’s Scriptures from the dilemma at hand, but rather the council’s working through the texts of their Scriptures to find a solution to the problem before them. They do not see a discontinuity between the ancestral faith and their new situation; quite the contrary they come to a resolution that maintains unity and continuity between their current context and their ancestral faith.
The Jerusalem Council did what Christians have done for some time– utilize the revelation of Scripture to offer new insight that is in continuity with that revelation, not in opposition to it. And it is a categorical mistake to suggest that the solution of the council is a new revelation itself that supersedes previous revelation. It is not an old vs. new issue, it is rather a matter of promise and fulfillment.
Thus, to suggest that James and the apostles unhitched Christianity “from the worldview, value system, and regulations of the Jewish scriptures,” is to unhitch sound exegesis of the text from any practical application that makes sense.
Next Post: Unhitching the Old Testament from the Christian Faith: The Unanimous Testimony of the New Testament: