Early Church IV; Church Council

The Church Council in Acts 15 agreed that Gentiles are not subject to the Law of Moses, but Jewish Christians continued to live according to the Law and customs.

OVERVIEW

Antioch was the second most important city in the history of the early church, behind only Jerusalem.  There were more Jews living in Antioch at this time than in any other city outside Judea.  It became the cradle of Gentile Christianity.

Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and taught that Gentiles must be circumcised and observe the Law of Moses (15:1, 5).  In other words, in their view, these Gentiles must still be converted to Judaism.  Their demands were met with firm resistance from Paul and Barnabas (15:2), and it was decided to refer the matter to the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem for a decision (15:2).

A church council meeting was called in Jerusalem (Acts 15).  Peter maintained that Gentiles must not be circumcised or be required to observe the Law of Moses (15:10).  James, the brother of Jesus (Gal. 1:19), acting as the head of the church in Jerusalem, then proposed “that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood” (15:20).  This proposal was accepted.

The decision in Acts 15 was only relevant to Gentiles (15:19).  It said nothing about the Jewish Christians who still were the majority in the church.  Jewish Christians continued to circumcise and abide by the Law of Moses.  This is confirmed in Acts 21, where it is recorded that the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem were “zealous for the Law“ (21:20).  But they were concerned that Paul was “teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs” (21:21).  They requested Paul to show that this is not true, but “that you yourself also walk orderly, keeping the Law” (21:24).

This resulting in a separation in the early church between Jewish Christians, who observed the Law of Moses, and the Gentiles Christians, who did not.

SUMMARY OF THE TEXT

After their first missionary journey (described in Acts 13-14) Paul and Barnabas (13:2; 14:20) returned to Antioch (14:26), from where they also started that journey (14:26). In Antioch they spent a long time with the disciples (14:28).  When some men came down from Judea and taught, “Unless you are circumcised … you cannot be saved” (15:1), Paul and Barnabas had a great argument with them (15:2).  The brethren in Antioch then decided that Paul and Barnabas and some others should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue (15:2).

After they have arrived at Jerusalem, the apostles and the elders came together to discuss this question (15:5-6):

Some of the sect of the Pharisees, who had accepted Christ, said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses” (15:5).

Peter stood up and recounted his visit to Cornelius, where God gave the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles, ”just as He also did to us“ (15:8).  “He (God) made no distinction between us and them” (15:9).  Peter maintained that Gentiles must not be circumcised or be required to observe the Law of Moses (15:10).  In contrast to some Jewish Christians’ view that “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (15:1), Peter’s position was “that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are” (15:11).

All the people kept silent, and they were listening to Barnabas and Paul as they were relating what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles” (Acts 15:12).

James, the brother of Jesus (Gal. 1:19), who seemed to have acted as the head of the church in Jerusalem, then argued that the prophets agree with Peter’s position (15:14-18), and proposed “that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood” (15:20).

This proposal was accepted, and the apostles and the elders of Jerusalem sent two leading men with Paul and Barnabas to Antioch, together with the letter as proposed by James (15:22-29).  When the believers in Antioch read this letter, they rejoiced (15:30-31).  Afterwards Paul and Barnabas stayed in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord (15:35).

ANTIOCH

Antioch is not mentioned much in the New Testament, probably because none of the New Testament letters are addressed to the church in Antioch.  But Antioch really was a very important city in the early history of Christianity.  In Paul’s day it was the third largest city in the Roman Empire (after Rome and Alexandria), capital of the Roman province of Syria, and located about 300 miles north of Jerusalem.  It was the second most important city in the history of the early church, behind only Jerusalem.  It had a large and flourishing Jewish colony, among the predominantly ‘Greek’ (meaning non-Jewish or Gentile) population. The Jewish historian Josephus records that there were more Jews living in Antioch at this time than in any other city of the world outside Judea.  These Jews offered an immediate field for Christian teaching.  It was perhaps the first place in which large numbers of Gentiles joined the church.  One of the first seven deacons was Nicolas, a proselyte of Antioch (Acts 6:5).  Antioch was Paul’s starting-point in his three missionary journeys (Acts 13:1; Acts 15:36; 18:23), and thither he returned from the first two as to his headquarters (Acts 14:26; Acts 18).  It is possible to call Antioch the cradle or the mother-church of Gentile Christianity.  It was at the instance of the church at Antioch that the council at Jerusalem decided to relieve Gentile Christians of the burden of the Jewish law (Acts 15).

DISCUSSION

It was agreed by the church leaders in Acts 10 and 11 that Gentiles are not to be regarded as unclean, that Jews may associate and eat with Gentiles and that Gentiles may be baptized into the church.

However, some of the Jewish Christians—particular the strict Pharisees (15:5)—believed that Gentiles, after they have come to faith in Jesus, and after they have been baptized, must still be circumcised and observe the Law of Moses (15:5).  In other words, in their view these Gentiles must still be converted to Judaism.  Otherwise, they argued, these Gentiles cannot be saved (15:1).  They could point to the fact that all other church members, being Jews and proselytes (2:10), were circumcised and do observed the Law of Moses.

Those same Pharisees traveled to Galatia to promote their views.  This resulted in Paul’s angry letter to the Galatians in which he accused them of distorting the gospel (1:7).  (As argued elsewhere on this website, Galatians was written before the Acts 15 Church Council decision.)

Now, somewhere in AD 48 to AD 50, about 10 years after the Gentiles first received the Holy Spirit and about 20 years after Christ’s death and resurrection, these Pharisees decided to also take their beliefs to Antioch (14:26; 15:1); the mother church of Gentile Christianity.  In Antioch their demands were met with firm resistance from Paul and Barnabas (15:2), and it was decided to refer the matter to the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem for a decision (15:2).

A church council meeting was called in Jerusalem (Acts 15).  After the Christian Pharisees explained their position, Peter stood up to talk.  Peter was the one chosen by God to receive the vision in Acts 10 and to see how the Holy Spirit falls on Gentiles for the first time (10:24, 44).  However, in Antioch he failed to live up to that revelation (Gal. 2:11-13) and Paul had to rebuke the Jewish Christians strongly (Gal. 2:14-21).  But now at the church council in Jerusalem Peter is willing to stand up and correct his previous mistake.  In the first years of the church, when it was still limited to Jerusalem (Acts 1-6), Peter was the main spokesman.  Now, through the leading of the Holy Spirit, he has the humility to accept correction.

Next “Barnabas and Paul .. were relating what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles” (15:12).  These “signs and wonders” provide further support for the view that Gentiles do not have to be circumcised or observe the Law of Moses.

Lastly James made his proposal, which was accepted.

It must have been difficult for the proud Jewish mind to accept that they are no longer God’s chosen people,  The decision of the council required humility; showing that God controlled His people by His Spirit.

ZEALOUS FOR THE LAW

After the Council decision Jewish Christians continued to circumcise and abide by the Law of Moses.  The decision in Acts 15 was only relevant to “those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles” (15:19).  It said nothing about the Jewish Christians who still were the majority in the church.

This is confirmed by Acts 21.   Here is recorded a visit by Paul to Jerusalem about 10 years after the decision in Acts 15.  After his arrival (21:17) the leaders of the Jerusalem church (21:18) said to him:

You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law“ (21:20).

They continued and said that these Jewish Christians “have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs” (21:21).  Note the distinction they made between Jewish and Gentile Christians.  They were not concerned if the Gentile Christians would “forsake Moses” and the “customs”.  They were concerned only about the Jews “who are among the Gentiles”.  In Judea there was no concern, indicating that they were all zealous for the Law of Moses and for the traditions (customs).

They then requested Paul to show to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem that this is not true, but to show “that you yourself also walk orderly, keeping the Law” (21:24).  They therefore expected Paul himself to keep the Law and the traditions.  They asked him to prove this by performing a purification rite (21:23-24).

The church leaders in Jerusalem concluded their request by confirming the decision that “the Gentiles who have believed” are not subject to the Law of Moses (21:25), again indicating the sharp distinction they made between Jewish and Gentile Christians.

Paul complied with their request (21:26).  He later explained:

To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; … though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law (Gentiles), as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law (Gentiles).” (1 Cor. 9 20-21)

These verses are important for a correct understanding of what Paul did.  He himself was not “under the Law” (of Moses), but “under the law of Christ” which refers to Christ’s teachings.  But to win as many as possible people for Christ he lived like a Jew when he was with Jews and lived like a Gentile when he was with Gentiles.

UNITY OF THE CHURCH

Had Paul attempted to settle the matter himself, acting on his own apostolic authority at Antioch, this might easily have created a breach between the Jewish church in Jerusalem and the Gentile church in Antioch.  But by referring the matter to the mother church in Jerusalem for a decision, the unity of the church was maintained.

NEXT: Theological Implications

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When was the Letter to the Galatians Written?

Galatians was written after the great dissension between the believers in Antioch (Acts 15:2; Gal 2), but prior to the Church Council in Jerusalem in Acts 15, therefore somewhere in AD48-50.  The letter to the Galatians therefore represents Paul’s argument before the Church Council, while the Church Council decision substantially made an end to the dispute in the letter to the Galatians. 

Both Galatians and Acts 15 mention a visit by Paul to Jerusalem and a dispute between Paul and other Jewish Christians in Antioch, but the two cities are mentioned in opposite sequences:

The visit to Jerusalem in the letter to the Galatians was a private meeting with a small number of important people, while the visit to Jerusalem in Acts resulted in a large public meeting with a formal church council decision.  For this and other reasons these were two different visits to Jerusalem.

But the two disputes in Antioch are the same.  Both were caused by men that came from the church headquarters in Jerusalem and taught that, unless you (Gentile Christians) are circumcised, you cannot be saved.

On this basis a threefold sequence is proposed:

  • First an informal visit to the leaders in Jerusalem,
  • Followed by the public dispute in Antioch,
  • which was resolved through a formal Council decision in Jerusalem.

Since the letter to the Galatians does not mention the Jerusalem decision, it must have been written before that decision, therefore somewhere in AD48-50.

Purpose – To prepare for a discussion of the early development of the church, this page reconciles events in Jerusalem and Antioch, described in Acts, with the events in the same cities, described in Galatians.  This will help to determine where the letter to the Galatians fits into the early development of the church.

Dates – See here for a table with dates for key events in the early church.  As indicated by this table, chronologists do not always exactly agree on the dates, but they more or less agree.  For that reason the dates in this article are all approximates.

The letter to the Galatians mentions:

  • A visit by Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem (2:1-10)
  • Followed by a dispute between Paul and other Jewish Christians in Antioch (2:11-24)

Acts mentions the two cities in the opposite sequence:

  • First a dispute between Paul and other Christians in Antioch (15:1-2)
  • Followed by a visit by Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem (15:4-30)

Some argue that Paul’s visit to Jerusalem in Galatians 2:1-10 is the same as his visit to Jerusalem in Acts 15.  There are similarities, such as:

  • The key issue in both visits is whether Gentile Christians must be circumcised (Gal 2:3; Acts 15:5).
  • In both Barnabas went with Paul (Gal 2:1; Acts 15:2).

However, the details of the two visits are too different to refer to the same visit:

  • In the letter to the Galatians Paul took Titus along as an example of the work he does under the Gentiles (Gal. 2:1, 3), but there is no mention of Titus in Acts 15.
  • In Galatians Paul went to Jerusalem “because of a revelation” (Gal 2:2), but in Acts it was because of a decision of the brethren in Antioch (15:2).
  • In Galatians Paul visited “those who were of reputation” “in private” (Gal 2:2). In Acts “they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders” (15:4), and the entire church council, consisting of the “apostles and the elders” (15:6, 22) decided the matter.
  • In Galatians “those who were of high reputation” (Gal. 2:6, 9) simply “gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship” (2:9). In Acts there was a formal church council decision, where-after leading men from the Jerusalem church were chosen to go with Paul and Barnabas with a formal letter explaining the decision “to the brethren in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia who are from the Gentiles” (15:23).

Further indications that the visit to Jerusalem in Gal 2:1-10 cannot be the council decision in Acts 15, include:

  • If the visit to Jerusalem in Gal. 2:1-10 was the same as in Acts 15, then the council decision was taken before the incident in Antioch in Gal. 2:11-24 and therefore before the letter to the Galatians was written. But this is very unlikely because Paul would then have mentioned the Jerusalem decision in the letter to the Galatians, because the entire purpose of Galatians is to argue against the circumcision of Gentiles.
  • If Gal. 2:1-10 was the same as the Acts 15 church council meeting, then James would not have sent men afterwards to Antioch to preach the circumcision of Gentiles (Gal. 2:12).  Also, Peter and the other Jews would not have responded in Antioch the way they did (Gal. 2:12-13).

It is therefore proposed that these two visits to Jerusalem were not the same.

It is rather proposed that the two disputes in Antioch (Gal. 2:11-21; Acts 15:1-2) are the same.  Both disputes were caused by “men (that) came down from Judea” (Acts 15:1) (“from James” Gal. 2:10) and taught “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1) (“the party of the circumcision” – Gal 2:12).

On that basis the following sequence of events is proposed:

  1. Knowing that a dispute would burst out in the open, the Spirit first led Paul to informally visitthose who were of reputation” (Gal 2:2) in Jerusalem (Gal. 2:1-10).
  2. This is followed by the dispute in Antioch, described in both Galatians 2:11-24 and Acts 15:1-2.
  3. This is followed by the more formal visit to Jerusalem, to resolve the dispute through a formal Council decision (15:4-30)

We are now able to date Galatians relative to these three events.  Since Galatians mentions the dispute in Antioch, but does not mention the Jerusalem decision, and since that decision is critical for the topic in Galatians, namely whether Gentile Christians must be circumcised and live like Jews, it is proposed that Galatians was written by Paul while on his way to Jerusalem after the Antioch incident.  Since the Jerusalem council decision is dated to AD48-50 (about 20 years after Christ’s death) it means that Galatians was written during those same years.  It would make Galatians the earliest of Paul’s letters.

This conclusion corroborates with the information in Gal. 2:1-10, namely that the first visit to Jerusalem was “after an interval of fourteen years” (Gal. 2:1).  The key event mentioned in the previous chapter is Paul’s Damascus-conversion (1:16) in AD35.  It is therefore possible that the first visit to Jerusalem in Gal. 2:1-10 was “fourteen years” after AD35, which will bring it to AD49.  On the assumption that the Antioch-dispute and the Jerusalem church council decision happened within a year or two after the first visit, the Jerusalem council meeting could have been in AD50.

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