Acts 15 Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

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The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 has gotten a lot of attention of late. Those who want to change The United Methodist Church’s position on same-sex practices cite it frequently. Last November, in an open letter to the Northern Illinois Conference, Bishop Sally Dyck announced “open gatherings” in her conference to discuss our current crisis by framing the conversations based on Acts 15 (read it here). She opined that the Jerusalem Council “found itself in a conflict over the law as well as accepted and deeply held assumptions and traditions about who people are (circumcised or uncircumcised).” She went further by saying the Jerusalem Council “found a way to be together that seemed to work.”

Recently Rev. Adam Hamilton proposed here that we should imagine three “buckets” into which Scripture can be divided, and said the following. “The Apostles, in Acts 15, determined that most of the laws like these [pertaining to circumcision, animal sacrifice, dietary kosher laws, etc.] were no longer binding upon Christians.” (See my response to the “buckets” here.)

Is this what the Jerusalem Council decided? Did James and the other apostles decide that portions of the Mosaic law no longer applied to them? Did they put certain Mosaic laws into a bucket that suggested those laws were no longer relevant? In what ways is our current debate similar to and different from the Jerusalem Council?

I’m not the first to raise questions about this analogy. It is doubtful whether a comparison between our debate over sexuality and the Jerusalem Council’s debate over Gentiles has the power to overrule other evidence in both Old and New Testaments arguing against acceptance of same-sex practices (Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament; HarperCollins, 1996, 395-400).

Moreover, this application of Acts 15 involves misreadings of the text. The source of the conflict was former Pharisees (15:5), who were insisting that it was necessary for Gentiles to convert first to Judaism before becoming Christians. The Council ruled against their particular understanding of what it means to be a Christian. The judgment of the Council was not to overturn the ritualistic laws of the Old Testament, but the opinion that Gentiles must become good Jews before they could become Christians. The question was the nature of conversion, and the debate only indirectly raised the question of Mosaic law.

In fact, James and the apostles gathered for the Jerusalem Council would have been shocked to learn that some today are suggesting they overturned Mosaic law. As part of the deliberations, James concluded, “After all, Moses has been proclaimed in every city for a long time, and is read aloud every Sabbath in every synagogue” (CEB, Acts 15:21). The point of this sentence, which was part of James’ conclusion, is that the Gentiles learned the central tenets of Mosaic law long ago. They should have no objection to obeying the main principles of that law.

And what were the central tenets of that law, which the apostles decided should apply to Gentile believers? These are stated succinctly in the “Apostolic Decree” of v. 29 (and compare v. 20). The decision of the Council was that Gentiles were to be included in the people of God. They made that determination based on Scripture itself, specifically basing the requirements for Gentiles on what the Torah requires of Gentiles. James and the apostles decided Gentiles were included as Gentiles, rather than requiring them to become Jews first. The question taken up by the Jerusalem Council was whether Gentiles must first become Jews in order to be included in the people of God. To this question, the Council gave an emphatic answer: Gentiles were members of the people of God by their faith, just as Jewish believers were included because of their faith (v. 11). Neither group was counted among the people of God because of their ability to keep Mosaic law.

Yet concerning the law, there is one important fact about this Apostolic Decree being neglected in our current debate. The apostles decided upon four prohibitions required for Gentile believers: (1) they could not eat food offered to idols, or (2) blood, or (3) meat from strangled animals, and (4) they must abstain from sexual immorality. For many years, scholars were uncertain how the Jerusalem Council landed on these four prohibitions. The best explanation is that these four are based concretely on Leviticus 17-18, and especially on the recurring phrase “the aliens who reside” (NRSV) or “the immigrants who live” (CEB) among the ancient Israelites. The apostles systematically searched these two chapters of Mosaic law and found five occurrences of the phrase (Leviticus 17:8,10,12,13; 18:26). These occurrences explain what non-Israelite foreigners were obligated to do while living in ancient Israel. And the four things prohibited in Leviticus are then repeated in the exact order as listed in the official version of the Apostolic Decree in Acts 15:29. (For details on the Apostolic Decree, see Richard Bauckham, “James and the Gentiles (Acts 15.13-21),” in History, Literature and Society in the Book of Acts, Cambridge University Press, 1996; 154-84, esp. 172-78).

In this way, the apostles equated “sexual immorality” (porneia) with the sexual prohibitions of Leviticus 18. They were, in fact, establishing a new Christian sexual ethic for Gentile believers, as part of their Apostolic Decree. And the foundation of that new Christian ethic was Mosaic law.

In reality, the apostles believed they were requiring of Gentile believers precisely the four commands that the Torah itself requires of them. It would never have occurred to them to question whether the instructions for holy living contained in the Torah might not apply to their day. On the contrary, the apostles were searching for instructional principles (the nature of “torah”) for their new context. This was in no way setting aside the authority of the Old Testament law, and I feel confident in saying James, Barnabas, Paul, and Peter would have been shocked at the suggestion they were doing so. In their minds, they were, in fact, affirming Mosaic law for Jews as Jews, and for Gentiles as Gentiles.

The appeal to Acts 15 as evidence for overruling Mosaic law is ironic. It is especially incongruous to appeal to the Jerusalem Council for evidence in favor of redefining Christian sexual ethics.

Learn more about Bill Arnold’s latest book with Seedbed, Seeing Black and White in a Gray World: The Need for Theological Reasoning in the Church’s Debate over Sexuality.

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Bill Arnold is professor of Old Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is a “cradle Methodist,” having been raised in a Methodist parsonage. When not traveling, he teaches an adult Sunday School class at First United Methodist Church, Lexington, KY. He enjoys Kentucky basketball and Cincinnati baseball, although his wife finds something else to do when games are too intense. He and Susan are survivors of three sons, who are now beginning to provide grandchildren in order to atone for all their offenses against their parents.

18 COMMENTS

  1. Bill, I have been making this point with Leviticus 17 and 18 for years, but you present it much better by using Acts 15 as a reason to use these laws for Gentiles. It is always assuring that one’s own findings are well founded.

  2. We don’t know how they arrived at the statement they did. The important thing is they agreed. The leaders of the worldwide church got together and made a decision based on the Old Testament and the teachings of Jesus as best the apostles could discern. That is scripture and tradition and the magisterium. It is the same as happened at Nicea. The real question is when did the councils stop being used by the Holy Spirit to lead the church? Without a council there is just no way to resolve a question. It means a split is unavoidable over every issue.

    • When did the Councils stop being used by the Holy Spirit? Answer: When the principle of lawlessness (=Torah-lessness) was adopted, i.e. when the Church apostatized from the Torah, separated itself from the Messiah believing Jewish remnant and introduced Replacement Theology. St. Paul in II Thess. 2:3-8 predicted this mystery of lawlessness and saw how it would ultimately lead to the coming of the Antichrist. That’s why he admonishes Timothy to remain faithful to the commandment (I Tim. 6:14) and to depart from lawlessness (II Tim. 2:19). He emphasizes that all Scripture is given for our instruction, and this obviously includes the commandments of the Torah (II Tim. 3:16). From the Second Century the Church began to deviate from this, and today this deviation finds its culmination in the rejection of elementary sexual morality, will will lead to the complete destruction of the Church and to the Second Coming of Messiah.

      • So the church had lost its way already in the second century? That means the New Testament cannon was set by a lawless church? You still have the problem that this is all just your opinion. Why should anyone believe you? Basically we are left with many conflicting human opinions and no good way to know who is right.

  3. The problem with this explanation is that the Leviticus references do not forbid what the council of Jerusalm forbad. Leviticus 17:8-9 states that if someone (Israelite or alien) offers a burnt offering and does not bring it to the tent of meeting to sacrifice it to the Lord they will be cut off from the people. This may refer to sacrifice offered to other gods but it could also refer to sacrifices to the Lord that were not offered at the tent of meeting. Acts refers to meat offered to idols which is not directly addressed here. 17: 10, 12 and 13 all deal with eating blood, 18:26 does appear to refer back to the various sexual violations in chapter 18. None of them refer to strangled animals. Quite simply this explanation does not really explain the reasons for the council Jerusalm decision. Paul in Romans and Corinthians provides a different perspective on food issues.

  4. I really appreciated this piece since I didn’t know about the Leviticus
    connection to Acts 15, and I think the connection makes sense. On the
    other hand, Leviticus is being interpreted by the Apostles in a new way,
    arguably “fulfilling the Law,” but certainly changing people’s
    understanding of it. They are interpreting it to say that the Gentile in
    your midst can be as full-fledged a citizen of the Messiah’s Kingdom as
    an Israelite who follows the whole law, and that was news.

    And the church through history has similarly shouldered the
    continuing responsibility of changing our understanding of things. For
    instance, we would not split the church over Christians eating blood sausage, whereas Acts 15 would have us cast such a person out
    of our midst. And we would forbid prostitution, which Leviticus 18 and thence
    Acts 15 would accept, as long as the women are not kin to the Johns, nor
    the property(!) of another man.

    Behavior matters. Judgement matters. But we can and do, in the church, change our understanding of what is acceptable.

    More in this line at rruuaacchh.org.

  5. Could it not be that the main questioin of the Council was whether eternal salvation and thus covenant status depended on becoming a proselyte Jew? This seems to be indicated by Acts 15:1. The Apostles decided that this wasn’t the case, since salvation is through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ (15:11). But this doesn’t mean that the Torah didn’t apply to the Gentile believers. The first things they had to observe were the four prohibitions of the Apostolic Decree, which were given as four fence laws against idolatrous and idolatry-related practices, such as the consumption of blood and religious prostitution. If the Gentile believers kept these four minimal requirements, their covenant status could be recognized on a practical and social level by the Jewish believers without fear for idolatrous contamination. If the Gentiles kept these four first principles, they would be welcome in the Synagogue in order to worship together with the Jews and to learn more and more of the Torah (15:21). In this gradual manner they could be instructed to lead a godly life and be integrated in the existing community.

    The Pharisees in 15:1 & 5 held the position that faith in Jesus Christ didn’t have any value for non-Jews. So the Gentiles could be ardent believers, but according to the Pharisees they weren’t saved at all, since faith in the Jewish Messiah was only salvific for Jews. The believing Gentiles were nothing at all in their eyes, and were to be excluded from the community, unless they subjected themselves to rabbinic conversion.

    The Apostles instead held the position that the Gentile believers had already saving faith and by this faith and their baptism were included in the messianic community and united with the believing remnant of Israel. This implies that the Gentiles were Israelites, or sons of Abraham, by faith, which is also the position of Paul (Gal. 3:29). By their faith they belonged immediately to the community of Israel and had full covenant status in God’s eyes, even if this status wasn’t recognized by the Jewish authorities. For that reason they couldn’t be separated from the Jewish believers in Jesus. All believers belonged to the remnant of Israel and had the same covenant status. This seems to be the position of James (in 15:13-18), who draws the conclusion that because of this the Gentiles were not to be troubled by the requirement of rabbinic conversion (in 15:19). They were already included in Israel and only had to learn to lead a godly life, which to James’ understanding obviously was a life of Torah observance.

    In this learning process the Gentiles were to be guided by the authority of the Apostles, not by the authority of the Pharisees, since the Lord Jesus Christ didn’t agree with all the oral laws of the Pharisees.

  6. With all due respect this seems to me a weak argument because at least some of the Jerusalem Council’s decrees were not continued. Paul later loosened the ban on eating meats sacrificed to idols. Therefore, the councils ban on sacrificed meats at least was not an unchangeable command. There were some places in the pagan world where a person might starve or enter into ill health if he refrained from eating meat sacrificed to idols. There were some locales where virtually everything was sacrificed to idols. In the ports and marketplaces they sacrifices to idols as the food entered the city or was slaughtered. It was routine business. The Jerusalem council gave a hard fast rule but Paul tells us that in certain circumstances a Christian may eat Meat sacrificed to idols.

    Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For “the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.” – I Cor. 10:25,26

  7. Bill Arnold’s raises a number of significant issues in terms of how we understand and relate the OT law/torah to the context of New Testament Christians – and rightly critiques a number of proposals based on Acts 15 however I remain unconvinced of his argument the Council Decree is rooted in an understanding of the laws for aliens in Leviticus which is the crux of argument in the shorter article. There are three reasons for this.

    1) The texts he refers to 4 provisions of the council decree do not match the texts in Leviticus relating to requirements for aliens. (a) Lev 17:8 instructs all who want to make burnt offerings that they are to be brought to sacrificed at the tent of meeting. (b) Lev 17:10 & 12 Forbids the eating of blood. (c) Lev 17:13 commands that that the blood of an animal killed in hunting must be poured out. Lev 18:26 forbids people from committing the abominations listed earlier in the chapter (sexual offences and sacrificing children to Molach).

    The first and third provisions of the council – not eating meat offered to idols and meat that has been strangled do not appear in Leviticus. Meat that had been killed by strangulation could have the blood let out afterwards by pouring as Leviticus instructs for meat killed in hunting. The reference to porneia raises some questions as to what is intended by it. Porneia referred originally to prostitution which in the Greco-Roman world was primarily regarded as morally neutral it was however used by Hellenistic Jewish writers to refer to a range of sexual practices, including prostitution, that they regarded as morally wrong. In this latter sense one could see it being a reference to Lev 18:26.

    Arnold is aware of the problems and in a footnote in a longer article in Asbury Journal he responds to the critique of his NT colleague Ben Wittherington III by proposing that that the Council was not make a direct reference but is rather making an halakic interpretation of the text. While this is possible it is not an obvious reading and undermines the claim that the Decree refers to Leviticus because it only does so if the Council adopted the kind of interpretation of these passages proposed by Arnold– while they may have this it is a matter of speculation.

    2) These are not the only laws given for aliens in Leviticus and there are further laws in Numbers so if this lay behind the Decree why were only these texts used as its basis? Further examples include: Lev 16:19 Aliens are forbidden to work on the Day of Atonement. Lev 17:15 & 16 Aliens and Israelites become unclean from eating animals that died of itself or were killed by other animals – this contrasts with Deut 14:21 . Lev 24: 10-23 Aliens are subject to the same laws as Israelites regarding blasphemy, murder and injury to others. Num 9:14 Aliens could celebrate the Passover according to the same regulations as the Israelites but according to Exodus 12:48 to do they had to be circumcised. Aliens were required to keep the Sabbath (Deut 5:14), Aliens who sacrifice their children to Molech shall be put to death Lev 20:2.

    3) More fundamentally to equate Gentile Christians with aliens in ancient Israel seems to undermine the theological point that is being made in the various narratives in Acts that deal with Gentile inclusion. The emphasis is that Gentile become integral parts of the eschatological people of God with the same status as Jewish believers yet in OT law, while Aliens had a particular place in Israelite society both in terms of privileges and responsibilities they were not fully integrated into the people of God. Unlike Israelites they could be enslaved This is perhaps best symbolized in the law concerning the Passover in Exodus – to share this one had to be circumcised. The crux of the NT debate was that Gentiles could become full members of the people of God without circumcision. As Ephesians puts it “So now you are no longer strangers and aliens. Rather, you are fellow citizens with God’s people, and you belong to God’s household.”
    Ephesians 2:19 CEB

  8. After the Jewish Roman War, the Church in Jerusalem, composed mostly of Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah, disappeared from history. The Disapora church of Paul, peopled mostly with Gentiles, assumed leadership and control of the fledgling Christian church. I contend that the arguments of the so-called Jerusalem Council, which may even be an invention of the author of Acts, were completely ignored thereafter and are totally irrelevant today.

  9. Sometimes we strain at a nat and swallow a camel. the Jerusalem Council’s dictum was a simple way to guide converted Pagans into a way of life which honored God and the Creation where sexuality reflects His will rather than man’s. Sadly, today there is a rush headlong to satisfy mankind rather than God.

  10. Can someone direct me to the conversation regarding how much we should keep when we sell everything and give it to the poor, as Jesus suggested we do if we want to be perfect? Thanks.

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