Council of Jerusalem

COUNCIL OF JERUSALEM (συνέδριον, G5284; tr. “council” in every occurrence in the NT, RSV. Heb. סַנְהֶדְרִין), Biblical meaning: “an ecclesiastical assembly for deciding matters of doctrine or discipline” (RHD). Used in reference to the first general church Council recorded in Acts 15, where the word “council” per se does not occur; not to be confused with the Jewish Sanhedrin.

The Council’s occasion and issue.

The Council of Jerusalem most likely occurred about a.d. 48 or 49, and prob. between the first and second missionary journeys of Paul, following a temporary visit of Paul and Barnabas to the church at Antioch of Syria. In Acts 15:1-5 Luke describes the occasion for the Council. Galatians 2:1-10 is now viewed by most scholars as Paul’s general, though non-chronological, account of the same event.

Certain believing Christian Jews of the sect of the Pharisees (commonly known as Judaizers) regarded submission to Jewish legal rites, but circumcision in particular, as essential to the salvation of the Gentiles and their admission to membership in the Christian Church (Acts 15:1). Representatives of this sect visited the flourishing Jew-Gentile Christian Church at Antioch of Syria as purported emissaries of the Jerusalem apostles (Gal 2:12), while Paul and Barnabas were ministering there, and evidently during a temporary visit of Peter also (2:11). Their insistence upon circumcision of the Gentile believers as essential to personal salvation and to membership in the Church appeared to Paul to negate faith in Christ as adequate for justification, and thus in effect render void Christ’s death on the cross (2:21). Paul stoutly withstood them and even severely rebuked Peter for his social, though perhaps nonreligious, segregation (2:11-20). Peter’s reprehensible conduct was most likely due to fear produced by the ostentation of the Judaizers at Antioch, rather than by any disposition to compromise the vital issue of the conditions for Gentile salvation. However, even in this he was not guiltless (see Acts 11:1-18). These Judaizers precipitated the single greatest crisis of the Early Church, and one of the greatest of all church history. They threatened a cleavage within the Jew-Gentile Christian Church that might never have been healed, and which might well have precluded the universal worldmission of the Gospel.

The decision to send a delegation, including Paul and Barnabas, from Antioch to the Jerusalem mother church for an official decision in the dispute evidently had a twofold authorization; (1) the Antioch church (Acts 15:2, 3), and (2) divine revelation (Gal 2:1, 2; cf. Acts 13:2-4). Titus, an uncircumcised Gr. believer, was among the “certain other” delegates (15:2) sent to Jerusalem (Gal 2:1, 2) where he became a test case. Paul refused to yield to the demands of the Judaizers at the Jerusalem Council that Titus be circumcised, lest by such a concession they win the right of their position before the Council and thus impose the burden of the Mosaic law upon all Gentile believers. Paul was sustained by the Council and Titus later became one of his most trusted co-workers in the Gentile world mission.

The Council’s deliberations.


The Council’s decision.

The Council’s decision was rendered by James in unambiguous terms.

First, negatively considered, the Council’s judgment was that the Gentile believers should not be required to subscribe to the Mosaic law as a condition for salvation and church membership (Acts 15:19).

Second, Paul and Barnabas were to be recognized as God’s special ambassadors to the Gentiles, while James, Peter and John would be recognized as God’s special messengers to the Jews, with the specific provision that Paul and Barnabas should receive offerings from the Gentile churches for the poor at Jerusalem (Gal 2:9, 10).

Third, the Council approved four prohibitions to be observed by all Gentile believers, which were designed, in part at least, to facilitate Jew-Gentile Christian social and church relationships, but all of which pertained to approved Christian deportment rather than requirements for salvation. These prohibitions appear to fall into four categories:

(1) A religious prohibition:abstinence from contamination of idols (Acts 15:20a); not a reference to worship of idols, a practice renounced by Gentiles at conversion (1 Thess 1:9), but the eating of meat known to have been sacrificed to idols (15:29).

(2) A moral prohibition:abstinence from sexual impurity (v. 20b). The Gr. word πορνέιας tr. “fornication” here, means “illicit sexual intercourse in general” (Thayer). Thayer asserts that any other interpretation of the word in this passage, such as marriage within the prohibited degrees, must be rejected. The Corinthian situation (1 Cor 6:12) indicates how prone Gentile converts were to revert to such practices.

(3) A hygienic prohibition:abstinence from the eating of strangled, or unbutchered meat (Acts 15:20c). While meat prepared in its own blood was considered a delicacy by many pagans, the practice was strictly forbidden by God (Lev 17:10-14; Deut 12:16, 23, 25), and was highly obnoxious to all Jews. Violation of this regulation would have caused no limit of socioreligious difficulty within the Christian Church.

(4) A civil prohibition:abstinence from shedding of blood or violence (Acts 15:20d). To hold, as some do, that “blood” here refers to the use of animal blood for food would appear to render this fourth prohibition unnecessary and repetitious, since this problem was dealt with in the third prohibition. The more likely view is that it forbids cruelty, murder, manslaughter, inciting of riots and other similar activities common to the Gentile world (Clarke; cf. Gen 9:4-6). The “Western Text” actually designates this prohibition “bloodshed.” These were all reasonable requirements which were socio-ethical directives for Christian conduct and not requirements for initial salvation or church membership. Actually they appear to have been but a restatement, in the main, of the Noachian precepts long required by the Jews of Gentiles who became proselytes to Judaism.

Fourth, the Council decided wisely to write an official letter to accompany the delivery of the decrees to the Gentile churches, and thus preclude the possibility that Judaizers located at these churches would charge that the decrees were forged by Paul (Acts 15:21, 23-29). Further support was given the decrees by sending them at the hands of certain select, trusted, leading men from the Jerusalem church (v. 22). Finally, the Council commended highly, to the confidence of the Gentile churches, Paul and Barnabas who were the champions of Gentile freedom (vv. 25, 26), with a view to precluding their being belittled by the Judaizers in the eyes of the Gentile churches.

Bibliography

J. B. Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (1890), 102-132; W. M. Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen (1895, rep. 1949), 40-69, 89-193; J. Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible (1909), 277, 278; K. Lake, “The Apostolic Council of Jerusalem,” Beginnings of Christianity, V (1933), 195-212; H. N. Ridderbos, The Epistle of Paul to the Churches of Galatia, NIC (1953), 67-107; F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of Acts (1954), 298-324; W. Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles (1955), 121-129; H. J. Cadbury, The Book of Acts in History (1955); M. C. Tenney, Galatians the Charter of Christian Liberty (1957), 68-93; C. W. Carter and R. Earle, The Evangelical Commentary, “The Acts of the Apostles” (1959), 205-224; F. V. Filson, IDB, Vol. I (1962), 710, 711; C. W. Carter, The Wesleyan Bible Commentary, IV (1964), 580-592; E. P. Blair, Paul’s Call to the Gentile Mission (Reprint from Biblical Research, X, 1965); J. Stein, ed., The Random House Dictionary of the English Language (1966).