New Observations on Acts 15
The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:1-29 is a common battleground for Torahism. People who mistakenly believe that followers of Jesus are required to keep the Law of Moses today—and you may know them as Hebrew Roots or Torah-keeping Christians—have their work cut out for them when trying to defend against this passage. And I want to bring some new observations to the conversation. Specifically, we’re going to look at the four restrictions listed in verse 20 and again in 29. Did they come from the Torah? Why were they given? Are they commands or guidelines? Or maybe something else?
If you’re not familiar with the events of the Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15:1-29, it’s worth your time to take a few minutes and read it through. In this passage, some Jewish believers in Jesus were teaching that Gentile believers are required to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses. This generated “no small dissension and debate” (15:2), so a church council was held in Jerusalem to discuss the issue. This Council happened somewhere around50 CE, and many key players were in attendance, including Paul, Peter, James, Barnabas, and the church elders. And in the end, they decided not to require Gentile followers of Jesus to be circumcised or keep the law of Moses. Instead, they gave the Gentile believers four restrictions. And the Council wrote a letter to the Gentile churches with their decision. The last few sentences of that letter read:
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
You’ll notice that the requirements the Council determined should be given to Gentile believers didn’t include a kosher diet, Saturday sabbath, keeping the feasts, circumcision, or any of the staples of Torahism (aka the Hebrew Roots Movement). None of those things were required. So how do those who have come to believe that all followers of Jesus are required to keep the Torah deal with this passage?
Common HRM Objections
One of the more popular approaches for our Hebrew Roots friends is to claim that these are just a sort of “starter pack” of commandments given to help the Gentiles start to become Torah-observant. And over time, they would learn the rest of the commandments. My video Testing Hebrew Roots on the Four Restrictions examines this claim in depth, but here are the two primary reasons that interpretation doesn’t work.
First, the idea of starting with a few Torah commands and learning the rest later is foreign to this passage. The text says nothing about that. And that idea isn’t found in the rest of the Bible, either. And, if the intention was to start the Gentiles off with just a few easy-to-keep commands, it seems odd that Saturday sabbath and eating kosher were not included. These commands would be very simple for a Gentile to understand and apply. Second, the text specifically says that the Council decided “to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements.” No greater burden. This is not language that implies the Gentiles would later be expected to learn the rest of the Torah.
Another popular Torahist approach is to suggest that the four restrictions were given to represent the entire Torah, which is another idea foreign to the text of this passage and the Bible as a whole. And while the four restrictions do have a basis in the Torah (which we’ll examine below), they certainly don’t represent the entire thing.
It’s interesting to note that a plain, open-minded reading of this passage defeats the theology of our Torah-keeping Christian friends, which is why their theories require importing ideas into this passage that aren’t actually found there. So what’s really going on with these four restrictions? Let’s take a closer look at verses 28-29, where those requirements are listed, and let me share four brief observations that may be helpful.
It seemed good…
Verse 28 opens with the words, “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” And I think we sometimes miss the importance of how this statement is worded: “It seemed good.” The Greek word is δοκέω (dokeō), which means “to think or suppose.” This isn’t the language we see in Scripture when commandments are given. We see You shall, or you shall not, or the Lord has said, or a new commandment I give to you. But this verse simply says, “it seemed good to us.”
The full letter to the Gentiles, recorded in verses 23-28, is written in this same, almost informal tone. It does not contain the language we read at Sinai and the giving of the Law. And it’s not the kind of language we see from Paul when he’s cracking down on a rebellious church, commanding them to get their act together. This letter reads more like a church council resolving an issue than a heavenly mandate: It seemed good to us. It reads more like, “Well, we’ve thought about it, and we all talked it through, and this is what we think seems good.” It is written in the language of advice or guidance, not law.
No greater burden…
Verse 28 ends “…to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements.” This is a powerful statement against Hebrew Roots. It says This is it, Gentiles. We’re not asking you to do any more than this. The wording here echoes the sentiments Peter shared earlier in this chapter during the debate when he asked, “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?” (v. 10). In other words, why would we require the Gentiles to keep the entire Torah when our own Jewish people haven’t been able to bear it? And as Peter had pointed out in verses 8-9, God had already given the Gentiles the Holy Spirit without requiring them to keep the law. And then James, the leader of the Jerusalem church, echoed this sentiment when he decided to write the letter, saying, “my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God” (v. 19). Not trouble the Gentiles. Again, this is not the language of law-giving. Our Holy God would never say I don’t want to trouble you with my commandments!
Verse 28 communicates guidance or counsel: we’re laying on you no greater burden than these four things. It doesn’t read like a command of partial law-keeping until the Gentiles can learn to keep the entire Torah. It doesn’t read like a statement of law at all. This is guidance from the church leaders who don’t want to trouble the Gentiles with a heavy burden. So they’re giving them nothing more than four requirements.
The Four Restrictions
The four prohibitions are found in verse 20 and repeated in a different order in verse 29. The Gentile believers are told to abstain from…
|Verse 20||Verse 29|
|things polluted by idols|
what has been strangled
|what has been sacrificed to idols|
what has been strangled
Why these four requirements? I’ll be honest; I couldn’t work out the Scriptural significance of these four particular restrictions until I found an explanation hidden in a theology paper on a different subject. In a paper called the Septuagint and Apostolic Hermeneutics: Amos 9 in Acts 15 by professor W. Edward Glenny, I found the four restrictions in Acts 15 compellingly tied to Leviticus. I examined the verses Glenny cited in his comparison and found it a persuasive theory. It’s not an exact one-to-one match; some interpretation is involved, but his theological institution seems sound, so I wanted to share his thesis here. You’ll find it in his own words on pages 20-22 of his paper, but here is my summary of it.
Glenny points out that, in Leviticus chapters 17-18, the phrase “the stranger who sojourns among you” is used to refer to four prohibitions that applied to Gentiles living in ancient Israel. And these four prohibitions can be connected to the four restrictions given in Acts 15. It breaks down as follows
|Acts 15:20, 29|
Prohibitions given to the Gentiles believers
Prohibitions that also applied to the Sojourner
|Things sacrificed to/polluted by idols||Leviticus 17:7-9 |
This passage talks about idolatry and forbids offering a sacrifice (whose meat could be eaten) and not bringing it to the temple.
|Blood||Leviticus 17:10, 12|
This is an explicit prohibition against eating blood.
|What has been strangled||Leviticus 17:13 |
This is a positive prescription to drain the blood from animals. And it’s perhaps the weakest connection in the list, in my opinion. But it’s not outside the boundaries of reasonable interpretation.
|Sexual immorality||Leviticus 18:26|
This verse is a summary statement that says both the native and the foreigner among them shall “do none of these abominations,” and the phrase “these abominations” refers to all the forms of sexual immorality given in verses 6-23 of Chapter 18.
And then Glenny 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.W. Edward Glenny, The Septuagint and Apostolic Hermeneutics: Amos 9 in Acts 15, p. 22
I find this a pretty credible theory. Remember, it was the Pharisees who brought this debate to the Council. They argued that the Gentiles needed to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses—in essence, they needed to become Jews—to follow the Jewish Messiah.
So James and the Council referred to a situation in the Torah where Gentiles were living among the people of God, and God handed down rules for those Gentiles to avoid offending the Israelites they were living among. God didn’t command the sojourners (the Gentiles) to be circumcised, keep the weekly Sabbath, keep the feasts, or eat kosher. They didn’t have to become Israelites fully. But He gave them some prohibitions and essentially said, “If you avoid these things, you’re welcome to live here among My people in Israel.”
And that’s precisely what James and Council applied to their situation in the first century. They looked to the Torah as a precedent for their decision, which was a wise decision. This approach would have made the Pharisees, known as diligent studiers of the law, comfortable with the idea of the Gentile believers living among them. And at the same time, this approach also honored the Gospel. It acknowledged that both Jews and Gentiles were now part of God’s family and that the Torah customs had not been done away with or forbidden. They are permitted but not required of followers of Yeshua.
You will do well…
The letter ends with the words, “If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell” (v. 29). Again, we don’t see the language of law-giving or weighty matters of obedience here. They didn’t say, “if you keep yourself from these four things, you will be saved,” or “you will be righteous,” or “you will avoid sin.” It simply says, “you will do well.” It’ll be good. You’ll be okay. This, again, harkens to the idea of the restrictions being offered in the spirit of unity and peace in the nascent Church. If you Gentiles keep these restrictions, you will avoid offending your new Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ. And as we all know, unity in the growing Church is a consistent theme taught throughout the New Testament. Let me close with one of the many verses that speak to this issue.
“Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification”Romans 14:19
19 thoughts on “New Observations on Acts 15”
 Quote: “In this passage, some Jewish believers in Jesus were teaching that Gentile believers are required to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses.”
Correction — Verse 1: “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.”
 The “yoke” in verse 10 and the “trouble” in verse 19 is adult circumcision, not keeping the “Law of Moses.” Adult circumcision is something awful for a grown man to go through, and done in the first week of life partly for this reason I imagine.
 Some smart people estimate the number of Jews in the 1st century doubled due to the intake of God-fearing Gentiles as well as proselytes (Feldman). The God-fearers were required to abstain from the same things the Acts 15 list requires of new converts to Christianity (Scott) — probably both groups drew from Leviticus, as you point out so nicely.
Proselytes (full converts) were expected to go further, however (Scott). In this context, it makes perfect sense to have a ‘starter pack’ for Gentiles to match the standard for God-fearers, plus steps toward full conversion, since — as Paul so ably teaches — Gentiles in Christ are full-fledged members of Israel.
 And you left out verse 15 which makes sense of the whole passage (!) where they say (to paraphrase): “they need only to do these things, since Moses is preached every week in every synagogue all over the place.”
In other words, they will catch up with the rest of the Torah in time. Their rationale for the whole decision they reached? God “made no distinction between us and them” (v. 9).
Whoops – forgot to cite sources 🙂
Feldman, L. H. (2003). Conversion to Judaism in classical antiquity. Hebrew Union College Annual, (74). Hebrew Union College Press
Scott, J. J. (1995). Jewish backgrounds of the New Testament. Baker Academic.
Error begets more error and moreso without a proper understanding of the historical and cultural background aka hermeneutics
Verse 24 tells us these men from Judah were from the Messianic community in Yerushalayim but had not been authorized to be teaching the brothers. Unauthorized teachers are also discussed at Galatians 2:1
Unless you undergo circumcision (b’rit-milah) in the manner prescribed by Moshe. The condition named for salvation is actually shorthand for something far more comprehensive. These men from Y’hudah are insisting that Gentiles must become in every sense Jews. At v. 5 they make this clearer by adding explicitly that the Gentile believers should be directed “to observe the Torah of Moshe,” by which they mean both the Written and Oral Torah.
The “you” are Gentiles who have come to faith in God and Messiah Yeshua without becoming proselytes to Judaism.
This condition goes beyond the requirements for individual salvation set forth in the Tanakh. In Judaism or by the emissaries. The Tanakh says, and Peter quotes it at 2:21, “Everyone who calls on the name of Adonai will be saved.” Judaism teaches that to be saved Gentiles need only obey the seven Noachide laws (v.20). Insofar as salvation is concerned, the Brit Hadasha books of Romans, Galatians and Ephesians have as a central issue the equality of Jews and Gentiles before God.
The requirement that Gentiles convert to Judaism and the teaching behind this requirement constitute a serious threat to the Gospel. For if individuals not born into Jewish culture and society are each required to become Jews before God will recognize their faith in him, far fewer Gentiles will trouble themselves to accept the Gospel. The real issue is: can faith in God and his Messiah transcend Jewish culture? Can a Gentile become a Christian without also becoming a Jew?
It is one of the supreme ironies of life on this planet that the issue today has become precisely the opposite: can a Jew become a follower of Yeshua the Messiah without becoming a Goy? Much of the opposition within the Jewish Community to Jews’ coming to trust in Yeshua takes it for granted that the answer is No. It is assumed that when a Jew accepts Yeshua he abandons his people, adopts a Gentile lifestyle and is lost to the Jewish community. While some Jews who became Christians have done exactly that, the very existence of the early Messianic Jewish communities proclaimed from the beginning that it did not have to be so. These communities lasted, some of them, at least until the fourth and fifth centuries of the Common Era, when Epiphanius wrote about them.
It is not only that these believers from Judea wanted the Gentile believers circumcised, but they wanted it done in accordance with the Oral Law, in accordance with Jewish tradition. Three points support this understanding:
(1) Circumcision by itself is not enough for them; they want it done in this specific way, in the manner prescribed by Moshe.
(2) The written Torah, the Pentateuch, specifies hardly anything about the “manner” in which Jewish circumcision is to be done.
(3) The Oral Torah was also understood to have been given by God to Moshe on Mount Sinai at the same time as the Written Torah and it does specify the “manner” in which Jewish circumcision is to be done.
These men from Y’hudah seem to have been unaware that Cornelius and his friends had been received into the Messianic Community without being circumcised (10:1-11:18); or they were aware of it but opposed (10:45), and unwilling to accept this fait accompli, so that they decided on their own to do something to limit the influx of Gentiles.
R. L. Solberg
Brilliant, Mitchel. Thank you for weighing in.
The Bible was written primarily by all Jewish men with a Jewish mindset to a predominantly Jewish audience who understood Jewish culture and customs. Reading and attempting to interpret and understand the bible with a 2022 mindset leads to a forced interpretations based on what is essentially “reform” Christian theology and terminology as well as denominational doctrines and definitions. WHY? The “Reformers” reformed the catholic church and didn’t go further back to the Council of Nicea in 325 when christianity became an official religion. religion.
One needs to first properly understand what Torah is to understand what it isn’t. Torah remains the teachings/instructions, precepts/principles and wisdom/doctrine of G-D for one purpose and one purpose only! The purpose is to provide the FOUNDATION (hayesod) for living a righteous life, pleasing to G-D
Rob, I would be more than happy to personally dialogue with you should you choose to do so.
L’shana tovah on this Shabbat Shuvah
Great thoughts. Agreed: “It is one of the supreme ironies of life on this planet that the issue today has become precisely the opposite: can a Jew become a follower of Yeshua the Messiah without becoming a Goy?”
Almost as tragic as it is ironic.
Quote: “The condition named for salvation is actually shorthand for something far more comprehensive. These men from Y’hudah are insisting that Gentiles must become in every sense Jews.”
This is an assumption not supported by the literal text or as far as I can tell, by any similar passages. It does fit a popular interpretation of this passage of course.
The Pharisees that stood up and asked for both circumcision and obedience to “Moses’ Law” are, in the most plain reading of the passage, different than the unauthorized teachers wanting circumcision. This was a discussion primarily about circumcision, but we see the Pharisees were also pushing what they always pushed: Tradition!
My reading of the passage, when I know you believe is incorrect, is the written-Torah-following Paul and his Gentile converts are being assaulted on two fronts — being told by some they should keep the oral traditions, and also being told by some they should be circumcised. The council clearly affirms their Torah following part while rejecting the circumcision part. It is not clear from the final bit of the passage where they landed on the oral traditions, but based on Paul’s life and teaching (as well as Jesus’) we can be pretty certain. It sounds like the Pharisee group maybe wasn’t strong enough to even warrant much discussion in the passage.
Your answer leads me to believe you are not one of my ethnic Jewish cousins. Sadly, not a few many “in the church” have a working knowledge of 1st century Jewish culture and customs. Gmar Chatima Tova v’shavua tov
Well, close. I’m an adopted cousin. Thank you, Adonai!
For clarification, are you indicating you were physically adopted by a family who are my ethnic Jewish cousins?
No, not physically adopted, though just as real.
Remember that once you goyim – called “uncircumcised” by ethnic Jews – were separate from Messiah, alienated from the nation of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise — without hope or G-d in the world.
Now . . .everything has changed! In Messiah you once-distant goyim have been brought hear by Messiah’s blood! He made peace, turning Gentile and Jew into a single person in place of two, and making peace, reconciling both of us to G-d, crucifying any hostility between us.
Now you goyim are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the G-d’s chosen people.
–Paraphrase of excepts from Eph. 2
There remains a huge difference between an ethnic Jew and one who isn’t. Regardless, since you are an Israelite by adoption and all countries are governed by some form/type of Constitution; what is the Constitution for Israelites? Also, is this Constitution ONLY for some of it’s citizens or ALL?
I like your analogy. And it does bring us to what I think may be our point of disagreement: I say “all” and I bet you say “some”. Thankfully, agreement on this is not necessary for fellowship.
For clarification, in the context of the discussion “what is the Constitution for Israelites? ALSO, was there a reason you bypassed this question? Regardless, would all citizens be subject to all laws and statutes or able to discard some believing they were merely suggestions?
Whoops – wasn’t being cheeky or trying to bypass. I assumed we would agree it would the written Torah, so that’s my answer. No, not good to discard any of it as suggestions. Of course much of it cannot be fulfilled in one’s life right now due to no standing temple, no theocracy, etc.
I believe the author of Acts in chapter 15 is whitewashing what really took place at the Council. Either the original apostles declared Paul and apostate, and that’s why Paul’s words about them in Galatians 2 are a “shipwreck of grammar” (Lightfoot) given that while they rejected him, he could not entirely reject them since they had lived with Jesus for the prior three years, and their authority could not be meaningfully attacked.
They believed Paul was a heretic, but they acquiesced to his different version of the gospel because this nascent church was suffering during times of famine, and after going hungry enough, they thought it better to make friends with somebody willing to give them money, than to trifle about doctrine.
Those two theories are far more reasonable than the fundamentalist position that just blndly believes everything in the bible, as if there was some canon of historiography requiring people to believe every report they hear until they can prove it wrong. Such canon doesn’t exist, therefore, the initial skepticism toward Luke’s honesty does not break any “rules”, and therefore cannot possibly be unreasonable.
Hi Barry. The only thing more fun that a great hymn-sing is great speculation on biblical ideas/passages 🙂
Theory 1: “the original apostles declared Paul an apostate.” Any evidence other than the crummy grammar in Gal. 2?
Theory 2: “they acquiesced to his different version of the gospel because this nascent church was suffering.” What is the best evidence for this?
I was following most of your points in the article, but was really surprised at the “You will do well…” section. Since the word requirement was used in the verse, I found it odd that you seemed to imply the four requirements were more like suggestions. Christians believe that the Holy Spirit is God, so if it seemed good to God to give a requirement, I am not sure how that could be thought of as a just a suggestion. It seems that James was just saying it in a polite or friendly way, but he still said it was a requirement.
The argument that a requirement not to offend the Jews that lived around the Christians seems logical, but if true, that is only part of the reason.
The prohibition against eating blood goes back to Genesis 9:4 (with Noah) and is repeated in the Torah and again in the NT.
As a Jewish person, I have certain requirements that a Gentile does not have to follow. I will agree with you there, but there are some laws of the Torah that do apply to both Jew and Gentile. The prohibition against eating blood is one of them.
I would be interested in whether you believe that a Christian can eat blood?
R. L. Solberg
Hi Zev. You make a good point about the prohibition against eating blood appearing before, during, and after the Law of Moses. But I believe Scripture, as a whole, teaches that under the New Covenant, what enters our mouths does not make us unclean (Mark 7:14-23; Matt 15:17-18). While eating blood sausage or black pudding doesn’t appeal to me, I don’t believe it’s a sin. “The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17). “Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink” (Col 2:16). We live under grace and have liberty in Christ. Others may have different convictions about food and drink, and in that case we are to voluntarily limit our freedom in order to better serve them and God. Paul tells us, “Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats” (Rom 14:20, emphasis added). So I take the prohibition in Acts 15 against eating blood in that spirit of unity, rather than as a command about unclean food.
“Constitution” or Marriage Covenant?
One Bride or two?