This study is part of a series that will examine the Jewishness of the original followers of Jesus. Did their belief in Jesus the Messiah and his death and resurrection lead to a subsequent abandoning of various Jewish practices? The approach taken will be to go through each book of Acts, examining relevant texts for insights into this question.
Acts 15:1 NRSV “Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders.”
Was Paul against circumcision? Apparently not since he spoke favorably of circumcision in Romans 3:2. Notice the parallelism that Paul uses in Romans 3:1; circumcision is being used to mean the same thing as being a Jew. Romans 3:1-2 ESV “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.”
Paul would not have had a problem with being a Jew— he was a Jew himself. Circumcision is a symbol of Judaism— it is used this way in several places in the Scriptures. We can see an example of circumcision being used to mean becoming a Jew in the Septuagint Greek translation of the last phrase in Esther 8:17, “and many of the Gentiles were circumcised, and became Jews” (Brenton translation of the Septuagint).
We see a similar process being described in Exodus 12:48 where a "stranger" becomes the same as a native born through circumcision. The text says that a "stranger" who desires to keep the passover and is circumcised "shall be as one that is born in the land." Notice that there is no hint of compulsion in this description— the circumcision happens only if the "stranger" chooses it. Exodus 12:48 NIRV “Suppose an outsider living among you wants to celebrate the Lord’s Passover. Then all the males in that home must be circumcised. After that, the person can take part, just like an Israelite. Only circumcised males may eat it.”
We find the same pattern in the apocryphal book Judith; circumcision is used to mean joining the “House of Israel”. Judith 14:10 NRSV “When Achior saw all that the God of Israel had done, he believed firmly in God. So he was circumcised, and joined the house of Israel, remaining so to this day.”
Not long after the decision of the Jerusalem council described in Acts 15, Paul circumcised Timothy, and then "went through the cities" delivering to them "the decrees to keep, which were determined by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem." He does the very thing— circumcision— over which the council was convened. Clearly, it wasn't circumcision itself that was the problem.
In Galatians 2:3, Paul gives us a hint at the real problem that the Jerusalem council was addressing. Galatians 2:3 NRSV “But even Titus, who was with me, was not compelled to be circumcised, though he was a Greek.” Paul was not opposed to circumcision, he was opposed to people being "forced" or "compelled" to be circumcised. As we will see later, the "stranger" living among the people of Israel had never been required to be circumcised. To require it was something new— it was a "tradition of men" that was being added to the Law of Moses rather than a requirement of the Law.
There are three places in Acts 15 where the problem is described. The second and third of the descriptions— 15:5 and 15:24— make it clear what the problem was. "Some of the sect of the Pharisees" were troubling and unsettling the the new disciples by telling them that they could not be saved unless they were circumcised. Since circumcision "according to the custom of Moses" was the defining step that converted a Gentile to a Jew, they were essentially saying that the new disciples must be Jews in order to be saved.
John the Baptist encountered people who felt that they were right with God simply because of their Israelite heritage. He said, rather, that "every tree which does not bear good fruit" will be cut down and "thrown into the fire." Luke 3:8-9 NKJV “Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Jesus also encountered people in the Jewish community that tried to impose "heavy burdens" on other people. When we consider what "some of the sect of the Pharisees" were demanding — adult circumcision in an age before anesthesia or antibiotics— it was a very "heavy burden" indeed, a burden that they would never have to bear themselves. Matthew 23:2-4 NRSV “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.“
Acts 15:5 NRSV “But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.””
We can learn several things from this text. First, it was possible to be both a Pharisee and a follower of Jesus— this is consistent with Paul's declarations found in Acts 23:6, “I am a Pharisee” and Acts 26:5, “according to the strictest party of our religion I have lived as a Pharisee”. It is also makes no sense for the Pharisee believers to be making this point if the others in the room had abandoned keeping the “law of Moses”— everyone there was circumcised and Torah observant.
Acts 15:6-7 ESV “The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, ...”
What was the matter that the apostles and elders considered? Whether the Gentiles needed to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses— the Torah. There is nothing in the text that suggests that the Pharisee believers were bad people with evil intentions. The apostles and elders seem to take their concerns seriously— there is “much debate”. They do not say, “We abandoned the Law— the Torah— a long time ago. Your concern for the Law is not relevant in our community.” No— they seem to take the topic seriously; the Law of Moses is important to them.
It is helpful to see what the Jerusalem church looked like a few years later; Acts 21:20-25 describes the church and also discusses the decision made here in chapter 15. We see that there are “many tens of thousands” (see comments on 21:20) of Jewish believers and that they are “all zealous for the law” and, indeed, Paul is said also to live “in observance of the law” (verse 24). This is consistent with Paul's statements about himself; see Acts 22:3, Acts 24:14, Acts 25:8, and Phil 3:5-6. The decision of the Jerusalem council is mentioned in Acts 21:25— in contrast to the Jewish believers who are “zealous for the Law” it then goes on “as for the Gentiles who believe...”. What we find is that the Jerusalem church has not abandoned the Law of Moses— it is still faithful to the Torah. It is clear from Acts 21:25 that the decision described in chapter 15 is about how the Gentiles fit in to the church; it is not about overturning the Law.
Were the Pharisee believers— still “zealous for the law” years later— satisfied with the decision of the council? Apparently they were, as verse 25 says they were "unanimous” (NRSV) or of “one accord” (ESV) about the decision. They began the meeting concerned about the law and they were ”zealous” for it years later; there is no reasonable way to think that they could so quickly come to a unanimous agreement with the council if they understood the decision of the council to be the abandonment of the Law.
Acts 15:9-11 NASB “and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.””
What is the unbearable “yoke” that Peter is talking about? Is it the mark of Jewish identity, circumcision? Although that is the main topic of the meeting, that does not make sense as they are, indeed, all circumcised. Is it the Law of Moses— the Torah? Again, that does not make sense as the Jerusalem church remained “zealous for the Law” years later (Acts 21:20) and Paul himself claimed to be keeping the Law (Acts 22:3, Acts 24:14, Acts 25:8, and Phil 3:5-6). Key to understanding this text is the conjunction beginning verse 11, translated as “but” here in the NASB; the Greek lexicon gives “rather” and “on the contrary”— the NRSV translates it as “On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”, the NIV begins it with “No! We believe...”. The contrast is an important clue; it is not circumcision or the Law that is the unbearable yoke, rather, it is the alternative to the “grace of the Lord Jesus” which is the idea that we can somehow merit or earn salvation through our own deeds.
Acts 15:15-18 NIV “The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: “‘After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things’— things known from long ago.”
The first thing that James says, after acknowledging Peter's comments, is to point to Scriptural authority as the basis for a decision. James is here basing his decision on Scripture— the council is not setting Scripture aside. The Gentiles— other nations— have always had a role outlined in Scripture. As the Scriptures define a role for the various nations distinct from Israel, it follows that they need not become Israelites in order to fulfill Gods plan. Israel and the other nations each have a role to play in God's plan.
Here James is quoting from Amos— roughly following the wording in the Septuagint. Amos 9:11-12 NRSV “On that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen, and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins, and rebuild it as in the days of old; in order that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by my name, says the LORD who does this.” James quotes a text taken from a larger passage that is about Israel. Preceding his quote, “I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob, says the LORD." (Amos 9:8 NRSV) “I will command, and shake the house of Israel among all the nations as one shakes with a sieve, but no pebble shall fall to the ground.” (Amos 9:9 NRSV).
Following the quote, “I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. I will plant them upon their land, and they shall never again be plucked up out of the land that I have given them, says the LORD your God.” (Amos 9:14-15 NRSV).
This certainly affirms a future for Israel— “I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel... and they shall never again be plucked up out of the land that I give them.” The reference to the “Booth of David” (or “Tent of David”) most likely speaks of the restoration of the Davidic Kingdom— it is a Messianic Prophecy. Note that the prophecy that follows is a consequence of that restoration— “in order that" the “rest of mankind may seek the Lord”. This prophecy speaks of the “Tent of David” within the context of a restored Israel— there is no mention of a replacement of Israel or a Kingdom apart from Israel.
James undoubtedly was a loyal Son of Israel and he could not have imagined a “Jew free” future for the church. The question under consideration was whether those who were not Jews had a place in God’s kingdom— in the church. Finding their answer in the Hebrew Scriptures, the apostles determined that the Gentiles— the nations— also were God's people. The apostles did not determine that Jews should abandon the Law— the Torah— and to cease being Jews. There is nothing in Acts 15 that suggests any end to the validity and function of the Law of Moses— the Torah.
Acts 15:19 NKJV “Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood.”
The Greek word in this text translated as “trouble”, occurs only here in this verse in the New Testament. However, it occurs several times in the Septuagint Greek translation of the Old Testament. The Lexicon definition is “to trouble, annoy, add extra trouble, harass”. Examples of this word in the Septuagint include where Samson’s wife “nagged” (exasperated) him until he told her the answer to his riddle (Judges 14:17). The same word is used to describe how Delilah “pestered” Samson until he told her the secret of his strength (Judges 16:16).
Other translations of Acts 15:19 write “that we should not cause extra difficulty for ... the Gentiles” (NET), “that we should not make it difficult” (NIV), “that we shouldn’t create problems” (CEB), “that we should not put any additional obstacles” (PHILLIPS), “we should not bother” (NCV), “we should not make it hard” (NIRV), and “we’re not going to unnecessarily burden” (MSG).
The choice of word in this text— to annoy, harass, nag or pester— suggests that James felt that the treatment inflicted on the believing Gentiles was inappropriate. The Torah does not require that they be circumcised and become Jews. Nor does it prohibit that they be circumcised—some may choose to join with Israel. It appears to be a personal choice, a matter of personal conviction.
The essential points that James and the council agree on are those that the Law of Moses is uncompromising on in regard to the “stranger” living amongst Israel. The NRSV translates verse 20 as “but we should write to them to abstain only from...”— there is no “only” in the Greek. Most versions say simply “but that we write to them to abstain from...” which more accurately conveys the idea that these are essential requirements without suggesting that they are a complete guide to moral and religious life.
Acts 15:21 NASB “For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”
James points to “Moses” in his concluding remarks. He said earlier that “the prophets are in agreement” that God looks favorably on the Gentiles and that He takes “from among them a people for his name”. As Moses was also a prophet, we should find this “agreement” in the books of Moses.
The whole discussion began with the assertion that “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Well— what does Moses have to say on the topic? The only text in the Torah that specifically addresses circumcision for the foreigner is Exodus 12:48 (NKJV) “And when a stranger dwells with you and wants to keep the Passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as a native of the land. For no uncircumcised person shall eat it.” The Hebrew is more literally “and would do Passover to the Lord”— most likely meaning “would offer the passover to the LORD", meaning the Lamb itself. The later part of this verse supports this view as “no uncircumcised person shall eat it”, that is, the lamb.
This circumcision text from the Torah makes circumcision sound quite optional for the “stranger” living in association with Israel. If he chooses to be circumcised, then he becomes “as a native of the land”, that is, an Israelite. He is no longer a “stranger”. And yet, the Torah makes provision for the stranger to participate with every other aspect of the religious life of Israel.
The Scriptures provide an abundance of evidence that foreigners always had a place in God's plan. Deuteronomy 10:17-19 (HCSB) “For the Lord your God is the God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, mighty, and awesome God, showing no partiality and taking no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner, giving him food and clothing. You also must love the foreigner, since you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.” The foreigner is given rest in the Sabbath commandment (Exodus 20:10), and is also given place in many other services— Festival of Weeks (Deuteronomy 16:10-11), Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29-31), Festival of Booths (Deuteronomy 16:13-14), Offerings to the LORD (Leviticus 22:18-19), and even the learning of the Law (Deuteronomy 31:10-13). Deuteronomy 31:12 (HCSB) “Gather the people—men, women, children, and foreigners living within your gates—so that they may listen and learn to fear the Lord your God and be careful to follow all the words of this law.”
Clearly, one does not have to be an Israelite to worship the God of Israel. In this, Moses and, indeed, all the prophets agree.