Apostolic Decree

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"Council of Jerusalem" is a name applied in retrospect to a meeting described in Acts of the Apostles chapter 15. The events described there are generally dated about the year 50, some time before the death of James the Just in 62.

Relationship to Noahide Laws?

Some thinkers have compared James's resolution with the notion of Judaism's Noahide Laws. In this regard, the following is found in The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended, by Sir Isaac Newton (Dublin, 1728, p. 184): "This law [of abstaining from blood] was ancienter than the days of Moses, being given to Noah and his sons, long before the days of Abraham: and therefore when the Apostles and Elders in the Council at Jerusalem declared that the Gentiles were not obliged to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses, they excepted this law of abstaining from blood, and things strangled, as being an earlier law of God, imposed not on the sons of Abraham only, but on all nations, while they lived together in Shinar under the dominion of Noah: and of the same kind is the law of abstaining from meats offered to Idols or false Gods, and from fornication." (Italics original). The Apostolic Constitutions 6.64[1] states: "Wherefore my sentence is, that we do not trouble those who from among the Gentiles turn unto God: but to charge them that they abstain from the pollutions of the Gentiles, and from what is sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication; which laws were given to the ancients who lived before the law, under the law of nature, Enos, Enoch, Noah, Melchizedek, Job, and if there be any other of the same sort." The Jewish Encyclopedia article on Paul states: "According to Acts ... Paul began working along the traditional Jewish line of proselytizing in the various synagogues where the proselytes of the gate [for example Exodus 20:10] and the Jews met; and only because he failed to win the Jews to his views, encountering strong opposition and persecution from them, did he turn to the Gentile world after he had agreed at a convention with the apostles at Jerusalem to admit the Gentiles into the Church only as proselytes of the gate, that is, after their acceptance of the Noachian laws (Acts xv. 1-31)."


The issues

A common interpretation is that the council was convened as the result of the disagreement within the Early Christian community between those, such as the followers of James, who believed the church must observe the rules of traditional Judaism1, and Paul of Tarsus, who believed there was no such necessity (see also Supersessionism). However, the "rules of traditional Judaism", the Halakha of Rabbinic Judaism, were still under development at this time, as the Jewish Encyclopedia article on Jesus notes: "Jesus, however, does not appear to have taken into account the fact that the Halakah was at this period just becoming crystallized, and that much variation existed as to its definite form; the disputes of the Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai were occurring about the time of his maturity."

The central issue was circumcision, as the author of Acts relates the initial confrontation in Antioch, where Paul had been preaching:

"And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, [and said], Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved." (Acts 15:1) KJV

Paul and his disciple, here called Barnabas, disputed fiercely2 with the Judaean Christians, so that it was determined that they "and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question." (Acts 15:2). The Western3 version of Acts states those from Jerusalem ordered Paul and Barnabas and some others to Jerusalem to be judged before the apostles and elders. The author of Acts identifies the position of the Jerusalem Christians as if they were "Pharisees which believed" in Christ, a label of opprobrium for radicals like the early Christians, but one that was not strictly accurate in this case:

"But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command [them] to keep the law of Moses." (Acts 15:5)

The brackets around [them] shows that it is was an addition not found in the original that was needed to make sense in translation. An alternate translation of the Koine Greek construct (Template:Polytonic,15:5) is found in Andy Gaus' Unvarnished New Testament: "They have to be circumcised; we have to proclaim and keep the law of Moses."

At the council, following advice said to have been offered by Simon Peter, whose presence has not otherwise been signalled (Acts 15:7-11), James, the leader of the Jerusalem Church, gave his decision (later known as the Apostolic Decree):

"Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and [from] fornication, and [from] things strangled, and [from] blood.4 For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day." (Acts 15:19-21)

The Western version of Acts substitutes the negative form of the Golden Rule5 for the prohibition against things strangled.

The Didache, short for "Teaching of the Lord to the Gentiles by the Twelve Apostles", part of the Ethiopian Orthodox Bible and the Apostolic Fathers collection, is generally dated about the same time as Acts. Though it doesn't mention a council, its title strongly suggests it is meant to represent the decree of that council. It starts with a first commandment, the Shema and the negative form of the Golden Rule, then a second commandment has prohibitions against murder, adultery, corrupting boys, sexual promiscuity, theft, magic, sorcery, abortion, infanticide, coveting, perjury, false testimony, speaking evil, holding grudges, being double-minded, not acting as you speak, greed, avarice, hypocrisy, maliciousness, arrogance, ploting evil against neighbors, hate, narcissism and expansions on these generally with references to the words of Jesus. Chapter 4, verse 13 states you must not forsake the Lord's commandments, neither adding nor subtracting. Chapter 6, verse 2 states if you can bear the whole yoke of the Lord you will be perfect, but otherwise do what you can, (which seems to parallel James as recorded in Acts), followed by the prohibition against meat sacrificed to idols. Related to the Didache are the texts: Epistle of Barnabas, Apostolic Constitutions, Didascalia Apostolorum[2], Apostolic Church Ordinances[3], Summary of Doctrine, Life of Schnudi and On the Teaching of the Apostles (or Doctrina).

Interpreting the Council's decision

The earliest reaction to the so-called Council of Jerusalem was that of Paul himself, in his Epistle to Galatians. The account in Acts and Paul's own report are from fairly different angles6. In the letter to the churches of Galatia Paul claims he went to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus "in response to a revelation", in order to "lay before them the gospel (he) proclaimed among the Gentiles" (Gal 2:2); them being according to Paul "those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders" (Gal 2:6): James, Cephas and John; in a "private meeting". Paul claims that the "acknowledged pillars" didn't even pressure Titus, who was Greek, to get circumcised7. What he had trouble with was "false believers secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy on the freedom8 we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might enslave us" (Gal 2:4). Paul claims the pillars had no issues with him, on the contrary they gave him the "right hand of fellowship", he bound for the mission to the uncircumcised and they to the circumcised, requesting only that he remember the poor9 of Jerusalem.

Origen in the beginning of the 3rd century placed the apostolic council in Antioch: "Wherefore, as there is some obscurity about this matter [food], without some explanation is given, it seemed good to the apostles of Jesus and the elders assembled together at Antioch, and also, as they themselves say, to the Holy Spirit, to write a letter to the Gentile believers, forbidding them to partake of those things from which alone they say it is necessary to abstain, namely, "things offered to idols, things strangled, and blood."" [Contra Celsus 8.29][4] Circumcision wasn't an issue for Origen as he castrated himself based on his reading of Matthew 19:12. The Apostolic Constitutions also reference an apostolic council in Antioch.

Augustine of Hippo in the 4th century, in Contra Faustum 32.13[5] noted: "The observance of pouring out the blood which was enjoined in ancient times upon Noah himself after the deluge, the meaning of which we have already explained, is thought by many to be what is meant in the Acts of the Apostles, where we read that the Gentiles were required to abstain from fornication, and from things sacrificed, and from blood, that is, from flesh of which the blood has not been poured out. Others give a different meaning to the words, and think that to abstain from blood means not to be polluted with the crime of murder. It would take too long to settle this question, and it is not necessary. For, allowing that the apostles did on that occasion require Christians to abstain from the blood of animals, and not to eat of things strangled, they seem to me to have consulted the time in choosing an easy observance that could not be burdensome to any one, and which the Gentiles might have in common with the Israelities, for the sake of the Corner-stone, who makes both one in Himself; while at the same time they would be reminded how the Church of all nations was prefigured by the ark of Noah, when God gave this command,--a type which began to be fulfilled in the time of the apostles by the accession of the Gentiles to the faith."

James's resolution was that most Jewish law, including the requirement for circumcision of males, was not obligatory for gentile followers, possibly in order to make it easier for them to join the movement10. However, the council did retain the prohibitions against eating meat containing blood, or meat not properly slain. It also retained the prohibitions against "fornication" and idol worship.

Footnotes

  • Note 1: Galatians 2:12
  • Note 2: Robert Eisenman in James the Brother of Jesus identifies Paul with Josephus' Ananias the Jewish merchant (Jewish Antiquities 20.2.3-4), who proselytized Gentiles teaching them that faith in God is superior to circumcision.
  • Note 3: There are two major versions of Acts: Alexandrian and Western; with preference generally given to the Alexandrian, see Bruce Metzger's Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament which has for the Western 15:2 "...for Paul spoke maintaining firmly that they should stay as they were when converted; but those who had come from Jerusalem ordered them, Paul and Barnabas and certain others, to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders that they might be judged before them about this question."
  • Note 4: According to Bruce Metzger's Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament: "the Apostolic Decree [15.29,15.20,21.25] ... contain many problems concerning text and exegesis"; "it is possible ... (fornication means) marriage within the prohibited Levitical degrees (Lv 18.6-18), which the rabbis described as "forbidden for porneia," or mixed marriages with pagans (Nu 25.1; also compare 2 Cor 6.14), or participation in pagan worship which had long been described by Old Testament prophets as spiritual adultery and which, in fact, offered opportunity in many temples for religious prostitution"; "An extensive literature exists on the text and exegesis"; NRSV has things polluted by idols, fornication, whatever has been strangled, blood; NIV has food polluted by idols, sexual immorality, meat of strangled animals, blood; Young's has pollutions of the idols, whoredom, strangled thing, blood; Gaus' Unvarnished New Testament has pollution of idolatrous sacrifices, unchastity, meat of strangled animals, blood; NAB has pollution from idols, unlawful marriage, meat of strangled animals, blood. Hefele's commentary on canon II of Gangra notes[6]: "We further see that, at the time of the Synod of Gangra, the rule of the Apostolic Synod with regard to blood and things strangled was still in force. With the Greeks, indeed, it continued always in force as their Euchologies still show. Balsamon also, the well-known commentator on the canons of the Middle Ages, in his commentary on the sixty-third Apostolic Canon, expressly blames the Latins because they had ceased to observe this command. What the Latin Church, however, thought on this subject about the year 400, is shown by St. Augustine in his work Contra Faustum, where he states that the Apostles had given this command in order to unite the heathens and Jews in the one ark of Noah; but that then, when the barrier between Jewish and heathen converts had fallen, this command concerning things strangled and blood had lost its meaning, and was only observed by few. But still, as late as the eighth century, Pope Gregory the Third 731 forbade the eating of blood or things strangled under threat of a penance of forty days. No one will pretend that the disciplinary enactments of any council, even though it be one of the undisputed Ecumenical Synods, can be of greater and more unchanging force than the decree of that first council, held by the Holy Apostles at Jerusalem, and the fact that its decree has been obsolete for centuries in the West is proof that even Ecumenical canons may be of only temporary utility and may be repealed by disuser, like other laws."
  • Note 5: Hillel the Elder when asked by a Gentile to teach the whole Torah while standing on one foot cited the negative form of the Golden Rule, also cited in Tobit 4:15. Jesus in Gospel of Matthew 7:12, part of the Sermon on the Mount, cited the positive form as summary of the "Law and Prophets".
  • Note 6: Because of the differences, a minority argue Galatians 2:1-10 is not a record of the Council of Jerusalem but a different event. Raymond E. Brown in Introduction to the New Testament argues the majority position that they are the same event but each from a different viewpoint with its own bias.
  • Note 7: Acts 16 says Paul personally circumcised Timothy even though he was Greek and his father was Greek because his mother was of the Jewish faith.
  • Note 8: Some took "freedom in Christ" to mean lawlessness, for example Acts 21:21
  • Note 9: Possibly a reference to the Ebionites
  • Note 10: Acts 15:19