Acts 15 in its Historical Context
In ~50 CE, believers in Jesus held the first recorded Church council. Following a clash with men from Judea, the apostles and elders—including Paul, Peter, James, and Barnabas—gathered in Jerusalem to discuss whether new Gentile believers were required to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses in order to follow Jesus (Acts 15:5). The meeting of this council is recorded in Acts 15:1–29. This essay will examine the cultural, historical, and theological background of this debate. Particular focus will be given to the following passage, in which James, the leader of the Church in Jerusalem, voiced his decision.
Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.Acts 15:19–21, ESV
The events recorded in Acts 15 occur against the backdrop of a turbulent cultural and theological milieu in which first-century Judaism and the early Christian Church were trying to find their way. With the Maccabean revolt in relatively recent history, Hellenization was still an issue for first-century Jews. Shaye Cohen notes,
How should Judaism adapt itself to meet the new conditions of the Age? How far could Judaism go in absorbing foreign ways and ideas before it was untrue to itself and lost its identity? These were key questions the Jews of antiquity had to answer.1
Additionally, the relationship between Judaism and the new Jewish sect called “The Way”2 was complex and nuanced. Daniel Boyarin writes,
In the earliest stages of their development . . . Judaism and Christianity were phenomenologically indistinguishable as entities, not merely in the conventionally accepted sense, that Christianity was a Judaism, but also in the sense that differences that were in the fullness of time to constitute the very basis for the distinction between the “two religions” ran through and not between the nascent groups of Jesus-following Jews and Jews who did not follow Jesus.3
A shared history, common sacred texts, and a conjoined theology entwined the two groups. They were each trying to work out the significance of Jesus while fumbling for solid footing amid the ever-shifting political sands of the Roman Empire. Indeed, a majority of the New Testament epistles were written to instruct the early Church on this very issue of its identity in Christ.
The epicenter of this activity was Jerusalem. Not surprisingly, the early groups of believers were “untidily diverse.”4 Indeed, “These earliest Christian communities did not perceive a boundary line between themselves and their fellow Jews. Instead, ethnicities and social placement were more visible.”5 The new groups of believers comprised Jews, God-fearing Gentiles, full-fledged proselytes, and those of the “circumcision party.”6 The latter were at the heart of the Jerusalem Council debate.
The Circumcision Party, commonly referred to as “Judaizers,” were Jewish believers in Jesus who taught adherence to the Mosaic law to early Christians. In Acts 15, these Judaizers are identified as Pharisees. “But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses’” (Acts 15:5). Josephus characterized the Pharisees as a sect of Jews who “interpret the laws strictly”7 and “honor the traditions of those before them.”8 This description accords with the New Testament witness and explains why it was the Jews from the party of the Pharisees who raised this issue in Acts 15.
The Four Restrictions
It was against this backdrop that the Jerusalem Church debated the question of circumcision and Mosaic legal obligations for Gentiles who had come to follow the Jewish Messiah. After hearing from Peter, Barnabas, and Paul, James addressed the council with his final decision (vv. 19–21), which was then recorded in a letter written to the Gentile churches in Antioch. The letter, which is found in vv. 23–29, closes with the council’s decision:
For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.Acts 15:28-29
The text does not expressly indicate the council’s reasoning for these four prohibitions. A common claim of Torahism (aka Torah-observant Christianity) is that the four restrictions were given as a set of prefatory commands to introduce new Gentile believers to the Law of Moses. This claim is based on the assumption that Gentile believers would eventually learn to keep the whole Mosaic law because “from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues” (Acts 15:21). In other words, these four prohibitions were to serve as a “starter pack” of commandments for the Gentiles as they learned more about law in the synagogues every Shabbat. This theory is problematic for at least three reasons.
First, the notion of gradual obedience to the commands of God is foreign to both the text of this passage and the Scriptural witness as a whole. There is no biblical precedent for such a claim. Moreover, if we entertain the possibility that the council’s decision was the inauguration of progressive obedience, it raises the question, why these four commands? If the council intended to start the Gentiles off on the right foot with a few rudimentary instructions, why not include the two key identity markers of first-century Judaism: Shabbat and a kosher diet? Dunn notes,
[Jewish] dietary rules constituted one of the clearest boundary markers which distinguished Jews from Gentiles. The observance of the Sabbath was another. Thus, eating unclean food and violating the Sabbath ranked together as the two chief hallmarks of covenant disloyalty, while strictness in both was of fundamental importance in maintaining covenant faithfulness.9
These two commands would be simple for Gentiles to adopt and would act as a public declaration of solidarity with their new Jewish brothers. Conversely, if the Mosaic legal obligations were still in effect, the four restrictions actually given would leave new Gentile believers free to profane the Sabbath (Exod. 31:14) and consume food the Torah labels an abomination (Deut 14:3), since neither was prohibited by the Council’s decision.
Second, the NT contains no indication that Gentile believers were ever taught the Old Testament law. Moreover, in His Upper Room discourse, Jesus prophesied that the synagogues would become a source of opposition for even His Jewish followers. He said, “They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God” (John 16:2, see also Luke 21:12). Indeed, the historical record reveals that Jesus’ prophecies came true. To ensure the exclusion of Jewish Christ-followers from the synagogues, the rabbis introduced the Birkat ha-minim,10 a “benediction against the heretics.” Alan Segal notes:
[Jewish rabbi] Gamaliel (about AD 80-115) ordered Samuel the Small to compose a ‘benediction’ against the minim. This would have made participation in synagogue services impossible for anyone identifying himself as a min.11
Thus, the theory that Gentile followers of Jesus would have learned to keep the whole Law of Moses every Sabbath in the synagogues is untenable.
Third, the tone of Acts 15 belies the expectation of a growing understanding of and obedience to Old Covenant law. Rather than using the force of a legal requirement, James merely decided they should “not trouble” (μὴ παρενοχλεῖν12) Gentiles who have come to faith (v. 19). The language in the letter composed by the Council conveys the same colloquial tone, stating that it “seemed good” to lay on the Gentiles “no greater burden than these requirements” (v. 28). Contra an introductory set of commands intended to expand over time, the phrase μηδὲν πλέον… βάρος (no greater burden/weight) suggests the four restrictions represent the entirety of the prohibitions given. Moreover, the implied consequence of keeping these four restrictions is not commensurate with avoiding sin or maintaining righteousness. Instead, the letter ends, “If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well (εὖ πράξετε)” (v. 29).
Why, Then, These Four Restrictions?
Gil Shin proposes “The Lukan James’s speech tightly combines intertextual elements that bear on significant Jewish spatiality”13 In James’ decree, Shin finds an allusion to the holy land (v. 20) as drawn from Lev 17-18. Additionally, within James’ quotation of Amos 9:11-12, Shin sees an allusion to the restored tent of David (v. 16). Lastly, he reads v. 21 (synagogues in every city) as the background of James’s final petition to Moses. He concludes,
The decree circumscribes what believers are to avoid in the pagan cultic environment in order for the new gentile believers to bolster their commitment to the worship of Israel’s God. This Lukan portrait suggests that some conceptual transformation has taken place in which the holy land sanctity has been expanded to the wider Greco-Roman world to the extent that, whether one is a Jew or a gentile, one is in the restored “Davidic tent.”14
W. Edward Glenny offers an alternate theory, proposing that in Leviticus 17-18, the phrase “the stranger who sojourns among you” is used about four prohibitions given to Gentiles living among the ancient Israelites, and these prohibitions are the basis of the restrictions listed in Acts 15:20, 29. Glenny traces the things “sacrificed to/polluted by” idols to Lev. 17:7-9, which speaks of idolatry and forbids offering a sacrifice and not bringing it to the temple. The prohibition against eating blood is directly based on Lev 17:10, 12. Avoiding meat that has been strangled is connected to the positive prescription to drain the blood from animals in Lev. 17:13. Lastly, Glenny traces the prohibition against sexual immorality to Lev. 18:26, which is a summary statement indicating that both the Israelite and the Sojourner them shall “do none of these abominations,” noting that the phrase “these abominations” refers to all the forms of sexual immorality given in Lev. 18:6-23. He concludes,
Although Gentile Christians are not under the Law, the Jewish (OT) Scriptures still have authority. The decision that is made concerning Gentiles in Acts 15 is based finally on those Scriptures (15:21), which speak directly to the situation under consideration at the Council.Thus, the Scriptures of Israel are the authority for the decisions made at the Council, and the Decree of the Council is the application of the Law of Moses to Gentiles who have become the people of God in the midst of Israel.15
Because no direct connection is made between the four restrictions and the Torah in the text of Acts 15—and yet, it is not unreasonable to presume the Jewish council would have looked to the Torah as a basis for their decision—the theories of Shin and Glenny have merit. To what degree and in what way(s) the assembly invoked the Torah remains a matter of debate. What can be safely concluded from the text is that the council acknowledged that the Old Covenant laws are no longer in effect. The Gentiles were not required to be circumcised or keep the Law of Moses, the very things the Judaizers demanded (Acts 15:5). And further, rather than a “starter pack” of commands intended to initiate the Gentile’s journey into Torah-observance, a strong case can be made that the overriding motivation behind the four restrictions was unity in the nascent church.
James explains that the four specific restrictions should be given because “from ancient generations, Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues” (Acts 15:21). His point is not precisely explained. However, consider the unique theological and cultural landscape in which he rendered his decision. Believing Jews were openly debating how to let Gentiles into what they saw as the natural evolution of the Jewish faith. The Jewish believers had “from ancient generations” heard the Law of Moses read every Sabbath in the synagogue. It was their heritage, the ancient constitution of their holy nation. As God’s covenant people, the Mosaic traditions were part of their cultural DNA. The Jerusalem Council recognized that Gentile believers, having been newly welcomed into God’s family, would live and serve alongside Jewish believers. A blending of backgrounds and traditions was inevitable as Jews and Christians gathered to pray, break bread, and worship the same God.
Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that the four prohibitions were given to foster unity between Gentile believers and their new Jewish brothers and sisters with whom they would eat, worship, and minister. Three of these prohibitions address matters of Jewish dietary tradition that the average Gentile believer coming out of a pagan background may not have intuitively recognized as offensive: consuming blood and eating animals sacrificed to idols or that had been strangled. The restriction against sexual immorality speaks to the higher view of sexuality held by Judaism, as compared to paganism. Loader notes, “Jewish norms were generally stricter and much less tolerant of deviation than were many of the cultures of the Hellenistic world, where prostitution was generally accepted and same-sex relations more likely to be tolerated.”16
In light of the turbulent cultural and theological setting in which the Jerusalem Council was operating, unity was seen as the highest aim for the burgeoning Church. Indeed, a universal theme in the ministry of Jesus and throughout the whole of the New Testament is unity among believers.17 The Apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall” (1 Cor. 8:13).18 The Jerusalem Council’s four restrictions accord with this biblical theme of unity between Gentile and Jewish believers. Indeed, when James stood and declared his judgment to the Jerusalem Council (vv. 19–21), he prioritized unity over circumcision and the keeping of the Law of Moses. Rather than “making it difficult for the Gentiles turning to Yahweh,” the council offered a few instructions to help them keep the peace with their new Jewish brothers and sisters. In the words of Peter during the debate, they wanted to avoid “putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear” (Acts 15:10). Thus, the four prohibitions in Acts 15:20, 29 were ultimately a directive for maintaining harmony and unity in the burgeoning Christian church.
1 Shaye J. D. Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishna (Westminster John Knox Press: Lexington, KY, 2014), 37.
2 Acts 19:9, 23; 24:14, 22.
3 Daniel Boyarin, Borderlines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 89-90.
4 Craig C. Hill, Hellenists and Hebrews: Reappraising Division within the Earliest Church (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 4.
5 Elaine A. Phillips, “Early Church Demographics” in Lexham Geographic Commentary on Acts through Revelation, ed. Barry J. Beitzel, Jessica Parks, and Doug Mangum, Lexham Geographic Commentary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019), 94.
6 Acts 11:2; Galatians 2:12; Titus 1:10.
7 Josephus, Jewish War 2.162–166
8 Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.12–17
9 James D. G. Dunn, Romans 9-16, Volume 38B. (Grand Rapids: HarperCollins Christian Publishing, 2014), 800.
10 In Hebrew, min means “from, out of” and commonly refers to heretics. Minim is the plural form.
11 Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven: The Significance of the Rabbinic Reports about Binitarianism, Ditheism and Dualism for the History of Early Christianity and Judaism (1977; repr., Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2002), p. 6.
12 This term is a NT hapax legomenon (BDAG 775 s.v. παρενοχλέω). Other translations render the phrase as saying they should not “cause difficulties” (CSB, LEB, NET) or “make it difficult” (NIV).
13 Gil W. Shin, “Holy Land Sanctity for Every Greco-Roman City: Rethinking the Lukan Apostolic Decree (Acts 15:19–21).” Journal of Biblical Literature 141, no. 3 (2022), 553.
14 Ibid., 574.
15 W. Edward Glenny, “The Septuagint and Apostolic Hermeneutics: Amos 9 in Acts 15.” Bulletin for Biblical Research / 22, no. 1 (2012): 22.
16 William Loader, “Not as the Gentiles: Sexual Issues at the Interface between Judaism and its Greco-Roman World,” Religions Vol. 9, Iss. 9 (2018), 18.
17 John 13:35; Romans 14:19–21; 1 Corinthians 8:13, etc.
18 See also Romans 12:3-8, 14:1-23; 1 Corinthians 8:7-13, 10:25-30, Galatians 3:23-29, 5:1-15; Ephesians 4:1-16; Philippians 2:1-11; 1 Peter 3:8-22.
Boyarin, Daniel. Borderlines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.
Cohen, Shaye J. D. From the Maccabees to the Mishna. Westminster John Knox Press: Lexington, KY, 2014.
Dunn, James D. G. Romans 9-16, Volume 38B. Grand Rapids: HarperCollins Christian Publishing, 2014.
Glenny, W. Edward. “The Septuagint and Apostolic Hermeneutics: Amos 9 in Acts 15.” Bulletin for Biblical Research / 22, no. 1, 2012.
Hill, Craig C. Hellenists and Hebrews: Reappraising Division within the Earliest Church. Fortress: Minneapolis, 1992.
Josephus, Flavius Jewish Antiquities 18.12–17
______________. Jewish War 2.162–166.
Loader, William. “Not as the Gentiles: Sexual Issues at the Interface between Judaism and its Greco-Roman World.” Religions Vol. 9, Iss. 9 (2018).
Phillips, Elaine A. “Early Church Demographics” in Lexham Geographic Commentary on Acts through Revelation, ed. Barry J. Beitzel, Jessica Parks, and Doug Mangum, Lexham Geographic Commentary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019.
Segal, Alan F. Two Powers in Heaven: The Significance of the Rabbinic Reports about Binitarianism, Ditheism and Dualism for the History of Early Christianity and Judaism. Baylor University Press: Waco, TX, 2002.
Shin, W. G. “Holy Land Sanctity for Every Greco-Roman City: Rethinking the Lukan Apostolic Decree (Acts 15:19–21).” Journal of Biblical Literature 141, no. 3, 2022.