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"Council of Jerusalem" is a name applied subsequently to a meeting described in Acts of the Apostles chapter Acts 15 and probably referred to in St. Paul's letter to the Galatians. The events described there are generally dated to around the year 50, at the latest some time before the death of James the Just in 62. St.Paul himself described several meetings with the apostles in Jerusalem, though it is difficult to reconcile any of them fully with the account in Acts (see Paul of Tarsus - 'Council of Jerusalem). Paul claims he "went up again to Jerusalem" ( ie a second time) 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/ He describes this as a "private meeting" (not a public council) and notes that neither he nor Titus, who was Greek, were pressurised to be circumcised (7). However, he refers to "false believers secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy on the freedom (8) we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might enslave us" (Gal 2:4). Paul claims the pillars had no differences 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 poor (9) of Jerusalem. Whether this was the same meeting as that described in Acts is not universally agreed.

The issuesEdit

The purpose of the council, according to Acts,was to resolve a disagreement within the Early Christian community between those, such as the followers of the Pillars of the Church, led by James who believed the church must observe the rules of traditional Judaism (1), and Paul of Tarsus, who believed there was no such necessity (see also Supersessionism, New Covenant (theology)). The primary issue in dispute related to the requirement of circumcision, as the author of Acts relates. The initial confrontation had taken place in Antioch, where Paul had been preaching (Acts 15:1), to which believers from Judaea had argued that without circumcision they could not be saved, but other matters arose as well, as the Decree by James indicates.

Thus according to Acts, Paul and his fellow missionary, Barnabas, having disputed fiercely (2) with the Judaean Christians, went up "to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question." (Acts 15:2). Some of the Pharisees who had become believers came forward with the demand that it was 'needful to circumcise them, and to command [them] to keep the law of Moses." (Acts 15:5)

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)

The decision reached, again according to Acts was as follows. "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 positive form of the Golden Rule (5) for the prohibition against things strangled.) This determined questions wider than that of circumcision, most particularly dietary questions but also fornication.

Interpreting the Council's decisionEdit

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 movement (10). 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.

Determining what followed depends on how reliable one believes the various texts to be. Some scholars have taken a very sceptical view of the probity of Acts (11). Moreover, Paul seems to have refused 'to be tied down to particular patterns of behaviour and practice' (12). To the church in Corinth he is much more relaxed and allows that there are situations where one can eat food that hasz been offered to idols -because the idol has no real existence. His attitude towards circumcision varies between his outright hostility to what he calls 'mutilation' in Galatians and his willingness that Timothy be circumcised, recorded in Acts. However, it is discrepances like this which have led to a degree of scepticism about the reliability of Acts.

In fact, from its position of dominance, due, in part to it leadership by James, the Jerusalem church suffered first persecution and eventual decline. The question of the relationship with Jews and Jewish Christians continued for some time.

The Jewish Encyclopedia article on Saul of Tarsus states:

According to Acts ... Paul began working along the traditional Jewish line of proselytizing in the various synagogues where the proselytes of the gate [a biblical term, for example see 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 15:1-31).

The Jewish Encyclopedia: New Testament - Spirit of Jewish Proselytism in Christianity states:

For great as was the success of Barnabas and Paul in the heathen world, the authorities in Jerusalem insisted upon circumcision as the condition of admission of members into the church, until, on the initiative of Peter, and of James, the head of the Jerusalem church, it was agreed that acceptance of the Noachian Laws — namely, regarding avoidance of idolatry, fornication, and the eating of flesh cut from a living animal — should be demanded of the heathen desirous of entering the Church.

The Catholic Encyclopedia article on Judaizers states:

Paul, on the other hand, not only did not object to the observance of the Mosaic Law, as long as it did not interfere with the liberty of the Gentiles, but he conformed to its prescriptions when occasion required (Corinthians 9:20). Thus he shortly after circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:1-3), and he was in the very act of observing the Mosaic ritual when he was arrested at Jerusalem Acts 21:26


  • (1) Galatians 2:12
  • (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.
  • (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."
  • (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. Karl Josef von Hefele's commentary on canon II of Gangra notes: "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."
  • (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".
  • (6) Whether or not Galatians 2:1-10 is a record of the Council of Jerusalem but a different event is not agreed. Paul writes of a 'private interview' not a Council and it has been argued that Galatians was written as Paul was on his way to the Council (see Paul of Tarsus). Raymond E. Brown in Introduction to the New Testament argues that they are the same event but each from a different viewpoint with its own bias.
  • (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.
  • (8) Some took "freedom in Christ" to mean lawlessness, for example Acts 21:21
  • (9) Possibly a reference to the Ebionites
  • (10) Acts 15:19
  • (11) Hans Conzelman
  • (12) Rowland, Christopher, Christian Origins ( SPCK 1985)p. 234

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit

Further readingEdit

  • Badenas, Robert. Christ the End of the Law, Romans 10.4 in Pauline Perspective, 1985 ISBN 0-905774-93-0
  • Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament. Anchor Bible Series, 1997. ISBN 0-385-24767-2.
  • Bruce, Frederick Fyvie. Peter, Stephen, James and John: Studies in Early Non-Pauline Christianity
  • Bruce, Frederick Fyvie. Men and movements in the primitive church: Studies in early non-Pauline Christianity
  • Clark, A.C. The Acts of the Apostles
  • Dunn, James D.G. The Incident at Antioch (Gal 2:11-18) JSNT 18, 1983, pg 95-122
  • Dunn, James D.G. Jesus, Paul and the Law, ISBN 0-664-25095-5
  • Dunn, James D.G. The Theology of Paul's Letter to the Galatians 1993 ISBN 0-521-35953-8
  • Dunn, James D.G. The Theology of Paul the Apostle Eerdmans 1997 ISBN 0-8028-3844-8
  • Ehrman, Bart D. Lost Christianities: The Battle for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew 2003
  • Eisenman, Robert, 1997. James the Brother of Jesus : The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls. ISBN 0-670-86932-5 A cultural historian's dissenting view based on contemporary texts.
  • Elsner, Jas. Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph: Oxford History of Early Non-Pauline Christianity 1998 ISBN 0-19-284201-3
  • Gaus, Andy. The Unvarnished New Testament 1991 ISBN 0-933999-99-2
  • Kim, Seyoon Paul and the New Perspective : Second Thoughts on the Origin of Paul's Gospel 2001 ISBN 0-8028-4974-1
  • Maccoby, Hyam. The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity. New York: Harper & Row, 1986. ISBN 0-06-015582-5.
  • MacDonald, Dennis Ronald, 1983. The Legend and the Apostle : The Battle for Paul in Story and Canon Philadelphia: Westminster Press.
  • Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament 1975 ISBN 3-438-06010-8
  • Mount, Christopher N. Pauline Christianity: Luke-Acts and the Legacy of Paul 2001
  • Ropes, J.H. The Text of Acts
  • Sanders, E.P. Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion 1977 ISBN 0-8006-1899-8
  • Sanders, E.P. Paul the Law and the Jewish People 1983
  • Sanders, E.P. Jesus and Judaism, Fortress Press, 1987, ISBN 0-8006-2061-5
  • Simon, Marcel. The Apostolic Decree and its Setting in the Ancient Church Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, LII (1969-70), pp. 437-460
  • Telfer, W. The Didache and the Apostolic Synod of Antioch The Journal of Theological Studies, 1939, pp. 133–146, 258–271
  • Westerholm, Stephen. Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The "Lutheran" Paul and His Critics 2003 ISBN 0-8028-4809-5
  • Wright, N.T. What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? 1997 ISBN 0-8028-4445-6
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