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Apostolic Council At Jerusalem


New Testament Statements and Allusions (§ 1).

Luke the Author of the Account in Acts (§ 2).

Occasion for the Council (§ 3).

The Outcome. Four Prohibitions (§ 4).

Alleged Contradiction between Acts and Galatians ii. (§ 5).

Later History of the Decision of the Council (§ 6).

1. New Testament Statements and Allusions.

The Apostolic Council is the common designation of the meeting described in Acts xv. It took place in 51 or 52 A.D., between the missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas and that of Paul alone, and marks a distinct stage in the proclamation of the apostles’ message to the Gentile world; viz., the recognition of the right of the Gentiles to a place in the Christian community, without subjection to the Mosaic law. Interest in Luke’s report of the proceedings is increased by the fact that Paul himself refers to the Council in Gal. ii. 1-10 from a controversial standpoint. The comparison of the two accounts has led some recent theologians to assert that the account in Acts is essentially different from that of Paul, and that the author of Acts has made the facts fit the views which he takes of the whole period (see below, § 5). In earlier time this council was the special point used as a fulcrum for the attempt of the Tübingen school to overthrow the received tradition as to the history and literature of the time. Although the objections of Baur, especially as to the irreconcilability of Acts xv. and Gal. ii., have few extreme representatives nowadays, yet their results are seen in recent attempts to deny the unity of the Acts, regarding the book as a composite of various sources, which do not always agree in material and in tendency.

2. Luke the Author of the Account in Acts.

In the following treatment of the Apostolic Council the Book of Acts is assumed to be the work of Luke of Antioch, the companion of Paul, who (xvi. 10 sqq.) narrates in the first person; and the events detailed in chap. xv. are believed to be given partly from his own knowledge, partly from the testimony of the participants. There is no a priori reason to suppose that for chap. xv., or generally for any part of the Antiochian-Pauline period, Luke was working over written authorities; he undoubtedly had seen the Jerusalem letter (verses 23-29), but probably gives it here freely from memory. For a long time Paul’s most trusted coadjutor, he would naturally enter intelligently into the Pauline attitude; and this is precisely what is found in his presentation of Paul’s labors. His standpoint is that found in the Pauline theodicy of Rom. ix.-xi., which excludes any tendency contrary to history, and allows the writer to consider historical facts in a perfectly objective manner. One may thus expect with confidence to find Luke’s report of the Council historically accurate. Of this accuracy Paul’s expressions must of course serve as a criterion; since, however, Paul is not, like Luke, writing from the standpoint of general history, but to enforce a special point of dispute, Luke’s account must be taken as the basis of any later treatment professing to be historical.

3. Occasion for the Council.

It is learned from Luke’s account that some time after Paul and Barnabas had returned to Antioch from their missionary journey, there appeared certain Jewish Christians who taught the hitherto unheard-of doctrine that converts from heathenism could not be saved without circumcision, thus denying the equality prevailing for some ten years (or since Acts xi. 20) between the circumcised and uncircumcised members of the Church of Antioch. This caused great disturbance among the Gentile Christians, whose liberty was threatened, and Paul and Barnabas opposed it strongly and were deputed to lay the question before the apostles and elders in Jerusalem. This mission implies no doubt in their minds of their own position, which had been approved all along; but they wished to be positively assured that they were in harmony with the source of their Christianity, for the quieting of their own minds and the suppression of further attacks from the Judaizing party. Luke gives with care the serious discussion which led up to the decision. The Jerusalem community at first received the tidings of Gentile conversions not with unqualified joy; some Pharisaic members of the Church put forward a definite demand that the Gentile Christians should be bound to the observance of the Mosaic law. It is to be noticed, 247 however, that this demand was not put forward, as at Antioch, on the theory that they could not otherwise be saved. The practical demand was the same, and was so strongly pressed that the decision was postponed to another meeting, in which again a long discussion took place without result. Since the extreme thesis of the disturbers at Antioch was not put forward here, there must have been other weighty grounds which induced no inconsiderable portion of the Church to press for the subjection of the Gentiles to the Mosaic law—apparently based on the idea that the law was God’s ordinance for the lives of men far more universally than merely among the Jews.

4. The Outcome. Four Prohibitions.

It was Peter, the head of the Church of the Circumcision, who silenced this party by the unequivocal declaration of the principle of salvation by grace alone through faith. He appealed, as to something they all knew, to the fact that God had long before proclaimed salvation by his ministry to Cornelius and his household; he declared that the people of God in Israel had not been able to bear the law as a means of salvation, but were equally dependent with the Gentiles upon divine grace, showing that this fundamental principle would be endangered if they insisted upon the observance of the law. This argument reduced the opposition to silence; no one was willing to attack the truth that salvation was to be obtained without the law through faith. The time was now ripe for Barnabas and Paul to show how God had attested their ministry by signs and wonders, which proved also their apostolic independence (cf. II Cor. xii. 12). The final verdict was rendered by James, showing that the prophets had foreshadowed the upbuilding of a Church without the law, and proposing instead of its enforcement to emphasize four prohibitions, which are connected with the rules laid down in Lev. xvii. and xviii. equally for the children of Israel and for the strangers sojourning among them, as also with those imposed by later Jewish tradition on the “proselytes of the gate"; they are possibly nothing but these rules in the form in which they were observed among proselytes in the apostolic times, in the districts here affected (Syria and Cilicia). They are derived originally from the Mosaic law, and forbid what to the Jewish ethical consciousness was highly offensive. Neither of these points is made, however, but they are forbidden as things in themselves morally reprehensible—their prohibition is necessary in order to separate Gentile morality from Gentile immorality and superstition. By the word “fornication” (Gk. porneia) is signified the unrestricted sexual intercourse which was practically tolerated in the heathen world. The words “to abstain from meats offered to idols” refer to both private and public meals on the flesh of the victims of sacrifices, which connected the social life of the people with pagan worship. The prohibition of “blood” and “things strangled,” while not so easily understood, may be taken to stamp with disapproval the habits in regard to food which prevailed among barbarous tribes, but were rejected by the more civilized Greeks and Romans, though they must have been known among the populations to whom the first recipients of the letter belonged. In a word, the whole purpose of the decree was to mark off by a sharp line of division the life of the Gentile Christians from that of the heathen around them.

5. Alleged Contradiction between Acts and Gal. ii.

The account in the Acts has been assailed by numerous critics as a more or less consciously biased presentation of the real story, as it may be taken from Gal. ii. The accusations are mainly these: the account in Acts minimizes the fundamental opposition which existed between Paul and the Jerusalem Church by ascribing to the latter a Pauline standpoint which it had not; the account gives as a result of the Council a limitation of the Gentiles’ liberty and equal title to which Paul could never have consented; in defiance of history, it attributes to Paul a position of subordination to the Jerusalem apostles. The first point scarcely needs further discussion after what has been said. The Pauline expressions in Gal. ii. must be taken in connection with the explanatory preface in chap. i. His Galatian opponents asserted that his preaching to the Gentiles needed correction and completion, supporting this by the statement that he had formerly subordinated himself to the Twelve. He appeals to the superhuman origin of his mission and the fact that he had sought no confirmation of his gospel from men, not even from the Twelve (Gal. i. 11-20). But with verse 21 another point of view begins; the remaining verses are written to demonstrate that no relation existed between him and the Palestinian Christianity, the older apostles, which would give his opponents any right to appeal to them against him. When in Gal. ii. 1 he mentions going up to Jerusalem fourteen years later, it is in order to demonstrate that after so long a time the original concord remains undisturbed. The situation is thus exactly that described in Acts xv. What Paul designates “that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles” is the very thing opposed by the disturbers and brought up in Jerusalem. In both cases uncertainty exists as to the position of Jerusalem toward it, and certainty is sought. In both Paul appears with Barnabas; and if he mentions that he took with him Titus, who was uncircumcised (meaning thereby to test the attitude of the Jerusalem Church toward Gentile Christians), Luke also relates that certain of the Gentile converts from Antioch were sent with him. Paul is stating facts to repel a personal attack on himself; Luke mentions the matter in its bearing on the history of the Church as a whole. Thus there was no need to mention in the Acts the revelation which (in addition to the desire of the community) decided Paul’s journey, while Paul speaks of it apparently to emphasize the importance of the proceeding. That Paul omits any notice of the decree is not surprising when one considers that its purpose was not in any way to limit the freedom of the Gentiles from the law, and that he had no motive to enter 248 on the subject here. On the other hand, he does narrate something which Luke omits, in verses 6-10. Certain prominent leaders, especially the three “pillars,” recognizing the grace given to him, explicitly agreed that he and Barnabas should go to the heathen, and they to the circumcision. By this he means to confirm what must have been denied in Galatia—that his independent position involved no breach with Jerusalem, but had been distinctly sanctioned by the leaders of the Church there. Luke might have been expected to mention this less public discussion and agreement, of which he must have known, and, as a matter of fact, Acts xv. 4, 12, 26 may be taken to refer indirectly to it; not to mention that, according to his narrative alone, it would seem likely that the leaders had had their minds settled as to the position of Paul and Barnabas, and in some such way as Gal. ii. describes. The same process of intelligent comparison will also show that the account of the conflict at Antioch in Gal. ii. 11 sqq. is by no means (as has been frequently asserted) irreconcilable with the narrative of the Acts.

6. Later History of the Decision of the Council.

A word must be said about the later history of the decree. Originally it was addressed to that part of the Gentile Christians who had been in relation with Jerusalem. On his own motion Paul extended it to other Gentile communities already existing. Neither his own writings nor the Acts show that he enforced it upon communities formed later as a decree of the Jerusalem Council; but in regard at least to the first two points, the manner in which they are referred to in I Cor. v., vi., viii.-x. and in Rev. ii. shows that the prohibition was held to be of universal obligation among the Gentile Churches; and in the second century they played an important part in connection with the Gnostic controversy. Singularly enough, no trace of the other two prohibitions is found either in apostolic or in subapostolic times; if the view of them given above is correct, this would be explained by the fact that there was no need to enforce them in the civilized Hellenic world. Later passages in Tertullian (Apol., ix.), Minucius Felix (Octavius, xii.), and the Clementine Homilies (vii. 4, 8) and Recognitions (iv. 36), point to an avoiding of blood even in cooked meats, which must have been based on a misunderstanding of the decree.

(K. Schmidt.)

Bibliography: The subject is treated in the appropriate sections in works on the Apostolic Age, in commentaries on the Acts, and in works on the Apostles Peter and Paul; of especial value are: J. B. Lightfoot, Galatians, pp. 283-355, London. 1866; O. Pfleiderer, Der Paulinismus, pp. 278 sqq., 500 sqq., Leipsic, 1873, Eng. transl. London, 1877; C. von Weizsäcker, Das Apostelconcil, in Jahrbücher für deutsche Theologie, 1873, pp. 191-246; T. Keim, Aus dem Urchristentum, pp. 64-89, Zurich, 1879; F. W. Farrar, Paul, chaps. xxi: xxiii., London, 1883; idem, Early Days of Christianity, i. 294-297, ib. 1882; J. G. Sommer, Das Aposteldekret, 2 parts, Königsberg, 1888-89; W. F. Slater, Faith and Life of the Early Church, London, 1892 (exceedingly valuable).

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