Acts 15: Two Laws?
The Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:1-29) speaks directly to the relationship of Gentile believers and the Law of Moses. But does it also offer insights on the relationship between that Law and Jewish believers in Jesus? In his article, Was Paul Championing a New Freedom from—or End to—Jewish Law?, Dr. David Rudolph, a Jewish believer in Jesus, holds that Paul “regarded Jewish identity and law observance as a matter of calling and covenant fidelity.” And further that Paul “lived as a Torah-observant Jew and taught fellow Jews to remain faithful to Israel’s law and custom.” Rudolph’s conclusions introduce an interesting line of thought. Are there two laws—or at least two sets of obligations—on the Christian: one for the Gentile and one for the Jew? Are Gentiles to keep the commandments of Christ, while Jews are expected to keep both the Law of Moses and the commandments of Christ? An examination of Acts 15 offers some insight into these questions.
In Acts 15, we see two groups of Jewish believers in Christ arguing about a matter of theology. The first group, Group A, is teaching that Gentiles were to be circumcised and keep the Mosaic Law (a position we will label “C+ML” for short) to be saved. Group B disagrees. Michael Wyschogrod suggests that “both sides agreed that Jewish believers in Jesus remained obligated to circumcision and the Mosaic Law.”1 Is that a reasonable assumption about both sides? Moreover, do Jewish believers in Jesus, indeed, remain obligated to circumcision and the Mosaic Law?
If all Jewish believers in Jesus held that C+ML was no longer required of anyone, there would not have been a disagreement. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that Group A—those who taught that Gentiles should be required to keep C+ML—believed that Jewish believers were obligated to keep C+ML. Indeed, Group A promoted the idea that salvation came through keeping C+ML and, as such, Gentile believers needed to abide. But what about Group B? In Acts 15, we see them disagreeing that Gentiles were obligated to keep C+ML. Indeed, the quarreling Jewish believers convened a council to discuss this very issue. However, the council did not speak directly to whether the Jews were still obligated to keep C+ML. Therefore, Group B could have held that (a.) Jewish believers were required to do so, or (b.) no one is obligated to do so. The text can be read either way.
A Matter of Salvation
The Jerusalem Council passage begins with a question about salvation. “But some men 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, ESV). Concerning that teaching, “Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them” (v. 2). So they headed to Jerusalem to discuss the matter among other apostles and church elders. Once gathered “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” (v. 5). Carrying forward the nature of the initial debate in verse 1, we can interpret the phrase “it is necessary” here in verse 5 as related to salvation. In other words, the matter put before the council was, “Is it necessary to circumcise the Gentiles and require them to keep the law of Moses in order for them to be saved?”
This matter was then considered by the apostles and elders (v. 6), “and after there had been much debate, Peter stood up” (v. 7) and addressed the council. He related his own experience in sharing the Gospel with the Gentiles. In an apparent reference to the story of Cornelius (from Acts 10), Peter explained that God “bore witness to [the Gentiles] by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us [Jews], and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith” (vv. 8-9). In other words, God brought salvation to the Gentiles, who were not circumcised and did not keep the Law of Moses. They were saved by faith, not by keeping the commandments.
Peter continued his argument by saying, “therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” (“Disciplines” here refers to the Gentile believers.) There is a Hebrew concept of a “yoke” as a teaching. This term is used in the sense of the teaching of a particular rabbi to which a student obligates himself. For example, Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt 11:29-30). Therefore, we are not obligated to think Peter is using the phrase “yoke” to cast the Law of Moses in a negative light. But he does explicitly state that “neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear” the yoke of the Law. Peter is here referring to his contemporary Jewish brothers and sisters as well as their Jewish ancestors. In other words, all Jews. This sweeping statement brings to mind Romans 3 where Paul, citing Psalm 14:1-3 and Psalm 53:1-3, wrote, “as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one’” (Rom 3:10-12). Paul goes on to add, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23).
Peter then comes to the culmination of his argument: “But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will” (Acts 15:11). His statement reveals two details germane to our study. First, Jews and Gentiles are saved in the same way. Second, salvation does not come through keeping C+ML but rather through “the grace of the Lord Jesus.” Peter is again echoing the teachings of Paul found elsewhere,
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.Ephesians 2:8-9
Following Peter, Barnabas and Paul tell of the signs and wonders they have seen God do through and among the Gentiles (v. 12). They are offering evidence supporting Peter’s claim that God is bringing salvation to the Gentiles despite their lack of circumcision or keeping of the Mosaic Law. And then James, the head of the church in Jerusalem, speaks up. He quotes from Amos 9 and Jeremiah 12 to show that God’s calling of the Gentiles was foretold long ago (Acts 15:15-18). And with this, James reaches a decision on the issue:
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.Acts 15:19-20
In other words, James decided that the Gentiles should not be “troubled” with circumcision and the Mosaic Law (as had been debated) but rather given four things to avoid. How are we to classify these four restrictions?
Interpreting them as a requirement of salvation would contradict the previous passages in which Peter taught that salvation comes through grace, not works. It would also contradict the passages in which we see God bringing salvation to the Gentiles, despite their lack of C+ML. Instead, these four restrictions appear to have been given as matters of direction for the new Gentiles believers regarding how to live out their faith alongside their new Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ. There are two reasons for this interpretation.
First, the perspective of the Council as revealed in Acts 15:1-29 is that faith in Yeshua HaMashiach (Jesus the Jewish Messiah) was a Jewish belief. This was a debate between Pharisees and the Jewish apostles and elders, which occurred in Jerusalem, the geographical home of the Jewish people. The topic of discussion was what should be required of non-Jews who also want to follow Yeshua. Thus, it can be read as a sort of internal discussion among Jews who met to decide “how do we let outsiders into our faith”?
Second, James explains that he is giving the four restrictions 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, he links the four restrictions with the widespread presence of Judaism. The point he is trying to make is not neatly explained. However, the interpretation that seems to make the most sense of this passage is that James was pointing out that the Gentile believers, no matter where they are located, are bound to come into contact with Jewish believers. Consider the following:
- The Jews at this council were discussing how to let Gentiles into the Jewish faith.
- The Jewish believers were people who had “from ancient generations” heard the Law of Moses read every Sabbath in the synagogue. It was not just their Law, it was in their cultural DNA.
- The council knew that new Gentile believers would be living and serving alongside Jewish believers. They would be worshipping the same God, gathering together to pray and break bread, etc.
- The four restrictions given by James were activities that would have been offensive to a Jew.
- These four restrictions were also activities that the average Gentile—who would have come from a pagan background—may not have realized would be offensive to a Jew. Gentiles would have known that things like murder and adultery were forbidden. But, these four would not have been so obvious.
- Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that the council’s concern in giving these specific restrictions was to promote unity between Gentile and Jewish believers. Indeed, this is a common theme throughout the NT. (See: Rom 12:3-8, 14:1-23; 1 Cor 8:7-13, Gal 3:23-29, 5:1-15; Eph 4:1-16; Phil 2:1-11; 1 Peter 3:8-22, etc.)
Thus, James’ message in verses 19-21 could be reasonably paraphrased as:
Let us not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to the Jewish God. Instead, let us offer them a few restrictions to help them keep the peace with their new Jewish brethren, who have been steeped in the Law of Moses for generations. Here are four guidelines that should be sufficient to keep relations agreeable between them.Author’s suggested paraphrase of Acts 15:19-21
Additional support for this interpretation can be found in the way these restrictions are introduced in verse 19: “Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God.” The phrase “should not trouble” is rendered in other translations as “should not cause difficulties” (CSB) or “should not make it difficult” (NIV). The Greek word is parenochlein (Strong’s 3926) which means “to annoy.” James’ stated motivation of not wanting to trouble (or annoy, or cause difficulty for) the Gentiles lacks the force of a commandment or obligation. It speaks more to a matter of discretion in which a decision was made based on maintaining harmony or peace.
The way these requirements are referred to in the letter drafted by the council provides additional support for this interpretation:
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.Acts 15:28-29
They are referred to as “requirements” (ESV, CSB, NIV), or “necessary things” (KJV, LEB, NKJV, RSV), or “essentials” (NASB, NRSV). Yet, the closing statement of the Council’s letter on the matter—“If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well”—also appears to lack the force of a commandment or obligation. Especially since three of the four restrictions are dietary, and the teachings regarding food elsewhere in the NT indicate the dietary restrictions given in the Mosaic Law are no longer binding (Mark 7, Rom 14, etc.). Indeed, N. T. Wright, in a comment on Romans 14, notes that “Paul did not himself continue to keep the kosher laws, and did not propose to, or require of, other ‘Jewish Christians’ that they should, either.”2
Therefore, these four restrictions appear to have been given neither as a matter of salvation nor as a commandment or obligation of obedience. Instead, they seem best understood as a directive for maintaining harmony and unity in the nascent Christian church.
Acts 15 partially answers our “two law” question. It reveals that neither Jews nor Gentiles are required to be circumcised or keep the Mosaic Law as a matter of salvation. We are all saved the same way: by grace through faith and not by works (Eph 2:8-9). Additionally, the council’s decision reveals that Gentiles are not required to keep C+ML as a matter of obedience.
This leaves one question unanswered: Are Jewish believers in Jesus obligated to keep circumcision and the Mosaic Law? Acts 15 does not directly speak to this question. If the answer is yes, it would mean that, although there is a single way to salvation, Jewish and Gentile believers are to walk out their obedience differently. But, alas, we would need to expand our search to other NT passages to find a sufficient answer to that question.
 Michael Wyschogrod, Abraham’s Promise: Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations, ed. R. Kendall Soulen (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, (2004), 194.
 N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, (2013), 359.