Council of Jerusalem

The Council of Jerusalem or Apostolic Council was held in Jerusalem around AD 50. It is unique among the ancient pre-ecumenical councils in that it is considered by Catholics and Orthodox to be a prototype and forerunner of the later ecumenical councils and a key part of Christian ethics. The council decided that Gentile converts to Christianity were not obligated to keep most of the fasts, and other specific rituals, including the rules concerning circumcision of males. The Council did, however, retain the prohibitions on eating blood, meat containing blood, and meat of animals that were strangled, and on fornication and idolatry, sometimes referred to as the Apostolic Decree or Jerusalem Quadrilateral.

Accounts of the council are found in Acts of the Apostles chapter 15 (in two different forms, the Alexandrian and Western versions) and also possibly in Paul’s letter to the Galatians chapter 2. Some scholars dispute that Galatians 2 is about the Council of Jerusalem (notably because Galatians 2 describes a private meeting) while other scholars dispute the historical reliability of the Acts of the Apostles.

Council of Jerusalem

Council of Jerusalem

Historical background

See also: Divine Law, and Circumcision controversy in early Christianity § Jewish background

The Council of Jerusalem is generally dated to 48 AD, roughly 15 to 25 years after the crucifixion of Jesus, between 26 and 36 AD. Acts 15 and Galatians 2 both suggest that the meeting was called to debate whether or not male Gentiles who were converting to become followers of Jesus were required to become circumcised; the rite of circumcision was considered execrable and repulsive during the period of Hellenization of the Eastern Mediterranean, and was especially adversed in Classical civilization both from ancient Greeks and Romans, which instead valued the foreskin positively.

At the time, most followers of Jesus (which historians refer to as Jewish Christians) were Jewish by birth and even converts would have considered the early Christians as a part of Judaism. According to scholars, the Jewish Christians affirmed every aspect of the then contemporary Second Temple Judaism with the addition of the belief that Jesus was the Messiah. Unless males were circumcised, they could not be God’s People. The meeting was called to decide whether circumcision for gentile converts was requisite for community membership since certain individuals were teaching that “[u]nless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved”.

Circumcision as a mandate was associated with Abraham (see also Abrahamic covenant), but it is cited as “the custom of Moses” because Moses is considered the traditional giver of the Law as a whole. The circumcision mandate was made more official and binding in the Mosaic Law Covenant. In John 7:22 the words of Jesus are reported to be that Moses gave the people circumcision.

Issues and outcome

The purpose of the meeting, according to Acts, was to resolve a disagreement in Antioch, which had wider implications than just circumcision, since circumcision is the “everlasting” sign of the Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 17:9–14). Some of the Pharisees who had become believers insisted that it was “needful to circumcise them, and to command [them] to keep the law of Moses” (KJV).

The primary issue which was addressed related to the requirement of circumcision, as the author of Acts relates, but other important matters arose as well, as the Apostolic Decree indicates. The dispute was between those, such as the followers of the “Pillars of the Church”, led by James, who believed, following his interpretation of the Great Commission, that the church must observe the Torah, i.e. the rules of traditional Judaism, and Paul the Apostle, who believed there was no such necessity. (See also Supersessionism, New Covenant, Antinomianism, Hellenistic Judaism, Paul the Apostle and Judaism.)

At the Council, following advice offered by Simon Peter (Acts 15:7–11 and Acts 15:14), Barnabas and Paul gave an account of their ministry among the gentiles (Acts 15:12), and the apostle James quoted from the words of the prophet Amos (Acts 15:16–17, quoting Amos 9:11–12). James added his own words to the quotation: “Known to God from eternity are all His works” and then submitted a proposal, which was accepted by the Church and became known as the Apostolic Decree:

It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.

— Acts 15:19–21

Acts 15:23–29 sets out the content of the letter written in accordance with James’ proposal.

The Western version of Acts (see Acts of the Apostles: Manuscripts) adds the negative form of the Golden Rule (“and whatever things ye would not have done to yourselves, do not do to another”).

This determined questions wider than that of circumcision, particularly dietary questions, but also fornication and idolatry and blood, and also the application of Biblical law to non-Jews. It was stated by the Apostles and Elders in the Council: “the Holy Spirit and we ourselves have favored adding no further burden to you, except these necessary things, to abstain from things sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication. If you carefully keep yourselves from these things, you will prosper.” (Acts 15:27–28) And this Apostolic Decree was considered binding on all the other local Christian congregations in other regions. See also Biblical law directed at non-Jews, Seven Laws of Noah, Biblical law in Christianity, and the Ten Commandments in Christianity.

The writer of Acts gives an account of a restatement by James and the elders in Jerusalem of the contents of the letter on the occasion of Paul’s final Jerusalem visit, immediately prior to Paul’s arrest at the temple, recounting: “When we had come to Jerusalem, the brothers received us gladly. On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present.” (Acts 21:17–18, ESV) The elders then proceed to notify Paul of what seems to have been a common concern among Jewish believers, that he was teaching Diaspora Jewish converts to Christianity “to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs.” They remind the assembly that, “as for the Gentiles who have believed, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality”. In the view of some scholars, the reminder of James and the elders here is an expression of concern that Paul was not fully teaching the decision of the Jerusalem Council’s letter to Gentiles, particularly in regard to non-strangled kosher meat, which contrasts with Paul’s advice to Gentiles in Corinth, to “eat whatever is sold in the meat markets” (1 Corinthians 10:25).

Historicity

See also: Historical reliability of the Acts of the Apostles

The description of the Apostolic Council in Acts 15, generally considered the same event described in Galatians 2, is considered by some scholars to be contradictory to the Galatians account. The historicity of Luke’s account has been challenged, and was rejected completely by some scholars in the mid to late 20th century. However, more recent scholarship inclines towards treating the Jerusalem Council and its rulings as a historical event, though this is sometimes expressed with caution. Bruce Metzger’s Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament includes a summary of current research on the topic as of about 1994:

In conclusion, therefore, it appears that the least unsatisfactory solution of the complicated textual and exegetical problems of the Apostolic Decree is to regard the fourfold decree as original (foods offered to idols, strangled meat, eating blood, and unchastity—whether ritual or moral), and to explain the two forms of the threefold decree in some such way as those suggested above. An extensive literature exists on the text and exegesis of the Apostolic Decree. … According to Jacques Dupont, “Present day scholarship is practically unanimous in considering the ‘Eastern’ text of the decree as the only authentic text (in four items) and in interpreting its prescriptions in a sense not ethical but ritual” [Les problèmes du Livre des Actes d’après les travaux récents (Louvain, 1950), p.70].

Interpreting the Council’s decision

See also: Paul the Apostle and Judaism and Early Christianity

James’s “Apostolic Decree” was that the requirement of circumcision for males was not obligatory for Gentile converts, possibly in order to make it easier for them to join the movement. However, the Council did retain the prohibitions against Gentile converts eating meat containing blood, or meat of animals not properly slain. It also retained the prohibitions against “fornication” and “idol worship”. The Decree may have been a major act of differentiation of the Church from its Jewish roots.

Jewish Encyclopedia: New Testament — Spirit of Jewish Proselytism in Christianity states:

For great as was the success of Barnabas and Paul in the heathen world, the authorities in Jerusalem insisted upon circumcision as the condition of admission of members into the church, until, on the initiative of Peter, and of James, the head of the Jerusalem church, it was agreed that acceptance of the Noachian Laws—namely, regarding avoidance of idolatry, fornication, and the eating of flesh cut from a living animal—should be demanded of the heathen desirous of entering the Church.

Jewish Encyclopedia: Gentiles: Gentiles May Not Be Taught the Torah states:

R. Emden, in a remarkable apology for Christianity contained in his appendix to “Seder ‘Olam” (pp. 32b-34b, Hamburg, 1752), gives it as his opinion that the original intention of Jesus, and especially of Paul, was to convert only the Gentiles to the seven moral laws of Noah and to let the Jews follow the Mosaic law—which explains the apparent contradictions in the New Testament regarding the laws of Moses and the Sabbath.

The Catholic Encyclopedia article on Judaizers states:

Paul, on the other hand, not only did not object to the observance of the Mosaic Law, as long as it did not interfere with the liberty of the Gentiles, but he conformed to its prescriptions when occasion required (1Corinthians 9:20). Thus he shortly after circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:1–3), and he was in the very act of observing the Mosaic ritual when he was arrested at Jerusalem (Acts 21:26 sqq.)

Joseph Fitzmyer disputes the claim that the Apostolic Decree is based on Noahide Law (Gen 9) and instead proposes Lev 17–18 as the basis, see also Leviticus 18. He also argues that the decision was meant as a practical compromise to help Jewish and Gentile Christians to get along, not a theological statement intended to bind Christians for all time.

According to the 19th-century Roman Catholic Bishop Karl Josef von Hefele, the Apostolic Decree of the Jerusalem Council “has been obsolete for centuries in the West”, though it is still recognized and observed by the Greek Orthodox Church. Acts 28 Hyperdispensationalists, such as the 20th century Anglican E. W. Bullinger, would be another example of a group that believes the decree (and everything before Acts 28) no longer applies.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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