Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Showdown in Jerusalem (Acts 15)

1. Acts 15 presents what is sometimes called the Jerusalem Council.  The issue is whether non-Jewish believers have to get circumcised in order to escape God's wrath and be "saved."

Acts 15 presents a very orderly and peaceful series of events. There is a disagreement at Antioch over the issue. Antioch sends Paul and Barnabas to HQ for advice. The Jerusalem church welcomes them.

Then some believers who are Pharisees argue that the Gentile believers must fully convert. The apostles and elders consider the issue. Then Peter shares about his experience with Cornelius, and Paul and Barnabas share their missionary experiences.

James, the brother of Jesus, seems to render the final verdict. He quotes Scripture. He wants to make it easy for Gentiles to get in (After all, they already have Moses and aren't going to flock in with the same requirements as before). He gives four requirements: 1) stay away from meat sacrificed to idols, 2) stay away from sexual immorality, 3) stay away from meat from an animal killed by strangling, and 4) don't ingest blood.

A letter is composed to this effect and sent in the hands of two men to Antioch, a man named Judas and a man named Silas. The church at Antioch receives it with joy.

2. Galatians 2 presents a somewhat similar event but from Paul's perspective. There were some telling the Gentiles at Antioch that they needed to be circumcised in order to be saved from God's coming wrath.  Paul and Barnabas (and an uncircumcised young man named Titus) go down privately to Jerusalem to ask the pillars of James, Peter, and John. These leaders recognize that God has called Paul to go to the Gentiles (just as Peter is called to Jews) and receive them in peace.

Then there is a second event. Peter comes up to Antioch and fellowships freely with Gentile converts. Then some people come from HQ, from James, and convince him he shouldn't eat with them to stay ceremonially clean. Barnabas even joins Peter.

Paul will have none of that. He openly calls Peter a hypocrite. Peter is no scrupulous law-keeper. He's pushing a standard on the Gentiles that he himself doesn't keep.

3. What are we to do with these two accounts? There have been some brilliant attempts at harmonization. F. F. Bruce suggested the following scenario: 1) the Galatians 2 visit was during the "gift trip" of Acts 11, before the first missionary journey, 2) then the incident with Peter happened at Antioch after the first missionary journey, 3) then the issue erupted in Galatia, causing Paul to write Galatians, the first of his letters that he wrote, 4) then the Jerusalem Council settled the whole issue.

As brilliant as this scenario by Bruce is, we have to wonder whether it tries too hard. Harmonization of this sort usually creates an alternative scenario that twists all the existing accounts in deference to an ideal the text itself may or may not care about.

a) The timing of the private meeting does not coincide well with the gift trip of Acts 11. To argue for it, Bruce reinterprets what "after 14 years" means in Galatians 2:1.  He takes it to mean 14 years from Paul's conversion, when its most natural sense is 14 years from the last time he visited Jerusalem. Also, the revelation that leads Paul to Jerusalem in Galatians 2 is not revelation about a famine, as in Acts 11, but revelation that he should go and consult with HQ.

b) Galatians may fit better a little later in Paul's missionary journeys than at the very beginning. Theologically and rhetorically, it reads well as a slightly earlier version of Romans, an argument that Paul has been developing for sometime, perhaps while meeting at the Hall of Tyrannus in Ephesus. Paul uses a word in 4:13 to refer to his first visit to Galatia that would normally imply it was the first of more than one--but Paul would have only been there once if he wrote Galatians when Bruce suggested.

c) Acts is not just giving a videotape of what happened. As was fully acceptable at the time, Luke seems at least to have edited the sermons (because in Acts 2, it seems to have Peter quoting the Greek version of the OT in Jerusalem, as well as the fact that the sermons mostly follow the same outline). Acts arguably shifts blame to Paul's Jewish opponents and omits perhaps some key opponents, such as when we know secular authorities were after him at Damascus and it shifts the blame entirely to Jewish opponents. Peter's visit to Cornelius is highlighted in a way it may not have been at the time. Luke 24 similarly compresses 40 days between the resurrection and ascension into what seems like a single day.

These tendencies lead us to ask whether Acts 15 is an efficient, orderly, and ideal way of presenting what historically was a little messier and perhaps took a little more time. Again, it was perfectly acceptable to do such things in history telling at the time (i.e., it would not be an error). For example, the four prohibitions sound more like a response to how Jewish and Gentile Christians might eat together than a complete list of what Gentiles need to be saved. Presuming that Paul knew of such a letter, he never mentions it when the issue of meat sacrificed to idols came up at Corinth, suggesting that he didn't agree with it.

A possible analysis of the event tomorrow...


Susan Moore said...

Perhaps the KJV and an interlinear translator can shed some light.
When Jesus ‘save’s a person, he saves the whole person, the body and mind and soul, not just one’s soul. For instance, He uses the Greek word ‘sozo’ all inclusively to mean heal, rid of demons, and save one’s souls. Also, it seems when Jesus uses the word sozo He means initial salvation and sanctification, both: In His faithful mind, it all goes together, a done deal; “No one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27-18).
Also, I have not found where the Gospels have recorded Jesus using the words ‘soteria’ for salvation, or ‘hagiasmos’ for sanctification. Although John, Peter and Paul used those two words, Jesus did not, nor did James, the writer of the book of James and assumedly the half-brother of Jesus. Nor did Luke, the writer of Acts. But James did use the word, ‘sozo’, and He used it holistically, as Jesus did, and to mean both initial salvation and sanctification, as Jesus did.
So, Peter and Paul are in Jerusalem talking with James. Only James can tell, since he was personally there, whose ‘sozo’ they are referring to. It is quite possible that the use of the words ‘sozo’ ‘soteria’ and ‘hagiasmos’ are actually what the heated discussion was about. Therefore, it was relevant to point out that everyone understood God had accepted the Gentiles (verses 7-9), and why the ‘whole assembly became silent’ (NIV) when Barnabas and Paul told of God’s miraculous signs and wonders done among the Gentiles (vs. 12).
In that James believes (as do Peter and Paul), that faith without works is dead (James 2:14-26), it seems he may be addressing the sanctification of the Gentiles in Acts 15:19-21. The Jewish-Christians already appear to the world different because they follow the same Jewish traditions that Jesus did, but Gentiles do not, so, what should Gentile believers do so that the world understands that they are set aside for God’s purpose? What traditions should they follow to give evidence of their faith? James’ answer has four parts; abstain from food given to idols, sexual immorality, from consuming meat of strangled animals and from ingesting blood. At that time both the Jewish and Gentile Christians were meeting together, right? So it makes sense then, that James would conclude that the Gentiles would gain knowledge of the lesser commands of God (lesser than loving God, loving neighbor), “For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath” (vs. 21).
Although we do not need to show evidence of being under the law prior to initial salvation, giving evidence of loving God and loving one’s neighbor as one’s self is only possible when one follows the Ten Commandments: I cannot both love God and worship another god, and I cannot both love my neighbor and murder him.

Scott F said...

If the four conditions on gentile believers are essentially the Noachide Laws that governed "god fearers" all along, could Acts be seen as arguing for a maintenance the status quo vis-a-vis gentiles and Jews?

Susan Moore said...

Oops. I should know better than to trust my memory. Please erase what I said above about Luke. After checking, I've found no record of 'hagiasmos' (sanctification) in Luke or Acts, but I did find soteria (salvation). It's the Gospels of Matthew and Mark that do not use either soteria or hagiasmos. Sorry.

Ken Schenck said...

Thanks for the word study Susan. Scott, the Noahic interpretation is a longstanding one. I suppose the sense of the word "blood" is important. Does Acts 15 mean don't kill anyone or don't ingest blood?

Susan Moore said...

I went by what you said in the fourth paragraph '4)don't ingest blood'. I didn't study it. But my guess is in the Common Language it would be connected to the importance of only being 'covered' by the blood of Christ; the great exchange of our filthy old clothes for His glory (Blog 2).