|THE APOSTOLIC COUNCIL OF JERUSALEM
Paul and Barnabas evidently returned to Antioch after the sailing season had begun in early spring 49. When they had stayed there "a long time," there arose a problem which led to one of the most important decisions of the early church. From Judea had come to Antioch "some" who demand that Gentiles too should be circumcised, for otherwise they cannot be saved. Therefore the church decided to send Paul and Barnabas "to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders." The late autumn storms of the year 49 may have already begun. Therefore they travelled by land "through Phoenicia and Samaria" and on their journey told "how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the brothers very glad." When "the church and the apostles and elders" in Jerusalem heard of the results of the first missionary journey, some of the converts who belonged to the "party of the Pharisees" stood up and said, "The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the Law of Moses."
At this stage, in late autumn 49, was held the Apostolic Council of Jerusalem. It laid the foundation for Paul's ministry and for all Gentile mission. The Antiochian church crisis did not only have the effect that Gentile-born and Jewish believers could keep company and enjoy meal fellowship together. Circumcision was made a condition for salvation: without it you "cannot be saved!"
Therefore "the apostles and elders met to consider this question." Really the Pharisaic wing of the early church was stricter in its attitudes than contemporary Jewish proselyte workers. In this light the apostles came to a negotiated settlement which better in practice observed the well-tried instructions of the Jewish Gentile mission. Nor do we find in the Acts of the Apostles or in Galatians any reference to the Antiochians needing to recognize Jerusalem's leading position by taking their problem to be solved by the apostles. If there had been such a power struggle, it would indeed be visible in the New Testament writings. Rather, the question was that Jewish Law interpretation was better known in Jerusalem than elsewhere. Therefore this apostolic council should be interpreted in the light of prevailing Jewish precepts.
The apostolic council was divided into Peter's speech (15:7-12), James's proposed solution (15:13-21) and the apostles' "unanimous" decision, which Judas Barsabbas and Silas delivered in writing to the Gentile Christian churches (15:23-29).
When Peter states his opinion he points to the fact that Gentiles too have received the Holy Spirit upon coming to faith and thus God "made no distinction between us and them." Why then now tempt God by placing upon the Gentiles a yoke "which neither our fathers nor we have not been able to bear?" And we "believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are." Meanwhile Barnabas and Paul tell of the signs and miracles which God has done through them among the Gentiles.
James the Just, the Brother of the Lord, whom the Jews too knew for his strict obedience to the Law, refers in his decision to the restoration of "David's fallen tent" in Amos 9:11. Midrash Bereshit Rabbah interprets this as meaning that "on that day the whole world will be one family," (Heb. "agudah ahat"). And then God will, according to Zephaniah 3:9, "purify the lips of the peoples, that all may call on the name of the LORD and serve him with one mind." This may be how James's interpretation of the Bible is to be understood. And therefore he says, "It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from meat from which the blood has not been drained and from blood." For Moses has indeed "been preached in every city from the earliest times."
The actual accompanying letter also reveals the basic reason for the problem: "We have heard that some went out from us without our authorisation and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. So we all agreed" to send you these instructions: "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meat from which the blood has not been drained and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell!"
The Jerusalemite experts in interpretation of the Law at the Apostolic Council did not in practice issue any instructions new to Judaism. The best picture of contemporary Jewish proselyte work and the possible foundations of the Apostolic Council may be provided by Stockholm's famous learned rabbi, Professor Gottlieb Klein, in his book "Den första kristna katekesen". Israel's late master of dialogue, Professor Martin Buber, mentioned once in personal conversation that he regarded Klein as the greatest expert of our time on Jewish literature of the Second Temple period. This "First Christian Catechism" deals with instructions for Jewish proselyte work, the so-called "derekh eretz" rules and the "Noachic" laws, commenting extremely thoroughly on the entire "Didache" or "Teaching of the Twelve Apostles".
Professor Klein says in the introduction of his book that "nowadays people believe that they are able to prove everything under the banner of religio-historical research." Thus they reach "hasty conclusions in areas which have not been studied in very great detail." Klein complains about the prophet and "universal genius" of this trend in research, A. Harnack, from whom he says he had learnt the most, that he "could not move independently in the area of rabbinic literature." In Klein's book there are five hundred or so references to Jewish sources and also separate chapters on proselyte teaching and, for instance, "the Apostolic Council" and its background issues.
In Palestine in Jesus' time there were extensive so-called "derekh eretz" instructions or, better still, "derekh kol ha-aretz" instructions, that is, "concerning the whole land." This "doctrine of the way", referred to in many New Testament passages, defined the basic instructions of moral conduct. The teachings of the Didache once functioned as a manual of the Jewish Gentile mission. The derekh eretz aimed to be an outer court to the Torah proper. Alongside it were used the so-called "haggadot meshubbahot", selected stories to enliven preaching.
One midrash says that the "derekh eretz" instructions existed twenty-six generations before Moses. The rabbis emphasized that these precepts, which were accepted early on, gave people the right direction in life. According to scholars, "a modest mind and a humble heart are greater values than all the sacrifices prescribed by the Torah." Man's moral qualities maintain this world. The rabbis say that there are "eight things that bring judgment to the world: infringing justice, idolatry, fornication, murder, blasphemy, godless talk, pride and slander." By contrast, there are "four things that keep the world together: righteousness, justice, truth and peace." Klein repeats in different ways his basic thesis that "only he who practises love, justice and righteousness knows God and only a moral man can be religious." The Apostle Paul received, in Klein's estimation, the main emphases of his missionary work from the Jewish "derekh eretz" doctrines. This is also indicated by Paul's words: "The whole Law is fulfilled in one commandment: love your neighbour as yourself." And "he who loves his neighbour has fulfilled the Law"(Gal. 5:14 and Rom. 13:8).
The so-called Noachic laws also contain regulatory foundations of the common life of the synagogue and pagan culture. Some sources speak of as many as thirty Noachic laws. Their precise definition and limitation to seven is unlikely to have taken place as early as the time of Jesus. Therefore the instructions of Acts 15 do not correspond exactly to later precepts. However, murder, fornication and idolatry were regarded as the most basic prohibitions. To them were usually added obedience to the authorities, honouring God's name, the prohibition of robbing one's neighbour and of eating the flesh of animals raw.
If one defines the seven Noachic commandments in the light of wider discussion, they can be listed as follows: 1. the commandment to avoid idolatry and related customs, 2. the prohibition of blasphemy, 3. the prohibition of incest and unnatural sexual behaviour, 4. the prohibition of killing or murder, 5. the prohibition of stealing, robbery or taking another's property, 6. the prohibition of eating meat from which the blood has not been drained and of eating raw meat and blood, 7. and the commandment to respect and obey the authorities. The most famous scholar of the Middle Ages, RaMBaM, emphasises that "a Gentile who observes the seven Noachic commandments has a share in the life to come."
In Klein's opinion, the "halakhah", that is, the norms of the six hundred and thirteen commandments and prohibitions drawn up by the rabbis, indeed aimed to preserve the Jews' special character as a people. "But nowadays they devote themselves exclusively to this halakhah and Israel is surrounded by the net of halakhah, so that not even the smallest sunbeam can get in." However, "Israel's ethical teaching tradition is like an oasis amidst the desert of halakhah." The young Christian church recruited as its new members mainly those "God-fearers" whom Jewish missionary work had already converted to Judaism.
The Jews had two kinds of proselytes: a) "gerei toshav" or "half proselytes", who "lived" with Jews and therefore observed some minimum demands of the Law and b) "gerei tzedeq" or "proselytes of righteousness", who attempted to bear the yoke of the entire Jewish religion. It was generally recognized that "if a Gentile gives before three Jews who know the Law the assurance that he will observe the seven Noachic commandments, he can be considered with certain restrictions as a Jew." Those who proposed a more lenient interpretation thought that it was sufficient if a God-fearing Gentile merely promised to avoid idolatry. The strictest group demanded that a proselyte must commit himself to the entire Jewish Torah.
Because the question of "derekh eretz" precepts and the "Noachic commandments" is directly connected with the foundations that regulated Paul's relationship to foreign peoples, it is good to see some of the special regulations about them in the Talmud. According to scholars, the prohibition of idolatry created social security and guaranteed personal salvation. However, a Gentile did not actually need "to know God", nor was a martyr's death demanded of him, if he was compelled to worship idols. The New Testament does not make a distinction between Gentile-born believers and Jewish Christians: both were required to have a personal faith and relationship with God and readiness to die a martyr's death for their faith.
Deut. 18:9-11 forebade "imitating" Gentile nations by practising magic, interpreting omens, engaging in witchcraft and sorcery, casting spells and consulting the spirits of the dead. The rabbis emphasized the same principles. Proselytes might not "drink the blood of animals, castration was not allowed, and witchcraft and all superstitious practices were forbidden." On the other hand, general purity, respect for one's parents and love for one's neighbours, for instance, were required of Gentiles. Robbery was not just understood as theft but also included the acquiring of booty and the economic exploitation of another person. Actually, in the Law of Moses dietary precepts are a question of inner purity. Lev. 11:43-44 twice says in connection with the prohibition of eating unclean animals: "Do not defile 'your souls,' 'et nafshoteikhem.' " In all Jewish interpretation of the Law there is always extensive discussion of the internalized meaning of the commandments.
In the Noachic precepts there is often emphasis on three basic matters which also relate to the discussions of our own time: the questions of abortion, blasphemy and our relations with the authorities. Such things as incest, homosexuality and incest were regarded as typically pagan sins. The prohibitions of Didache II,2 also concern everyone: "You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery ... you shall not steal; you shall not use magic ... you shall not procure abortion, nor commit infanticide; you shall not covet your neighbour's goods."
It is also worthy of note that in these minimum Noachic precepts to be taught to Gentiles, mention is usually first made of idolatry and alongside it prohibition of blasphemy. A society in which there is no respect for another person's sacred values leads to ethical chaos. It is very symptomatic of our time that the so-called "blasphemy clause" has been deleted, for instance, from Finnish legislation and the church was incapable of defending this minimum requirement of human conduct.
The Noachic principles also included "respect for the authorities," which is often seen in a one-sided negative way. Especially Paul's words at the beginning of Romans 13 have aroused criticism: "Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities ... those who rebel against the authority will bring judgment on themselfves... Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he commend you. For he is God's servant to do you good." Respecting the authorities was one of the protective regulations the Roman Empire granted to the Jews. Rom. 12:18 is concerned with this: "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone." The Jews have a well-known Aramaic proverb: "Dinna de-malkhutha dinna," that is, "The Law of the Kingdom is our Law." However, believers appeal finally always to the justice of God: "It dinna ve it Dayanna," "There is judgment and (a higher) Judge!" If one says the latter words to a pious Jew, it obligates him to speak the truth as before the Great Judge.
Gottlieb Klein's ideas about the "apostolic decree" and Paul have a place in the Jews' own frame of reference. In Klein's opinion, the apostles' decisions were taken according to old halakhic practice. Since, for instance, Timothy had a Jewish mother, he was circumcised. Titus, by contrast, was left in the position of a "ger toshav", and therefore he was not circumcised (Gal. 2:3) Klein concludes with several things: "We have shown above that ... Paul knew the concept of "derekh eretz" and developed his teachings accordingly. Still more clearly is this apparent in 1 Cor. 6:9-10, 2 Cor. 12:20b, Col. 3:1-10, Gal. 5:19-22 and Eph. 4:32 and 5:22-6:9. In them we have catalogues of virtues and vices, which can be compared with the derekh-eretz tractates and the teachings of the Didache."
"Thus Paul drew conclusions from his faith and its significance for Gentile nations. He broke down the fence erected between Israel and the Gentiles. God-fearing Gentiles no longer belong to a secondary system as semi-proselytes and, as it were, an appendage of Judaism. In Christ all are equal. Thus is born a new people, the people of the Christians."
"Paul is fully and clearly aware of the significance of his way of action. But he not can behave otherwise, because God does not want anything else. God wishes that Gentiles too should be saved. The bond to Israel may nevertheless not be severed. No, it should be tied more strongly. But Israel does not have any privilege alongside the Gentiles, for in Christ all are one."
Klein refers to the "Christ mystery" in Ephesians 2 and 3, according to which Jews and Gentiles participate in the same "heritage". Once it was different. "At that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility ... His purpose was to create in himself one new man ...Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens (i.e. semi-proselytes, gerim toshavim), but fellow-citizens with God's people and members of God's household."
Gottlieb Klein concludes on page 322 with the words of Tanna debe Eliahu, which he also had printed on the front page of his book: "I call God as my witness that both Gentile and Israelite, man or woman, both servant and maidservant can participate in the Holy Spirit only through a moral life."
The decisions of the Apostolic Council were communicated to the Antiochian
church. "The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message."
And we are told that Paul and Barnabas "remained in Antioch, where they
and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord." But "a few
days later Paul said to Barnabas, 'Let us go back and visit the
brothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see
how they are." The Greek saying "tinas hemeras" may refer to
the corresponding Hebrew expression, which may also be translated as "some
time later" (Acts 15:36). These small shades of meaning point to the
fact that soon after the Jerusalem conference Paul was leaving on his second
missionary journey. Evidently he had heard that some exponents of a stricter
interpretation of the Law from Jerusalem were travelling around without
authorisation in the young churches, bringing about discord and quarrelling.
Now the message of the apostolic decree was to be taken to everyone.