Acts 21:13 NRSV “Then Paul answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”
Perhaps Paul himself best expresses his thoughts about Israel in Romans chapters 9 through 11.
Romans 9:1-5 NET “I am telling the truth in Christ (I am not lying!), for my conscience assures me in the Holy Spirit– I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed—cut off from Christ—for the sake of my people, my fellow countrymen, who are Israelites. To them belong the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from them, by human descent, came the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever! Amen.”
Romans 11:1-2 ESV “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.”
Acts 21:17 NRSV “When we arrived in Jerusalem, the brothers welcomed us warmly.”
There were some false rumors going around about Paul. However, some of the senior leaders among the believers knew Paul personally and knew that the rumors were false. They were happy to see him.
Acts 21:20-24 ISV “When they heard about it, they praised God and told him, “You see, brother, how many tens of thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and all of them are zealous for the Law. But they have been told about you—that you teach all the Jews living among the gentiles to forsake the Law of Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs. What is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. So do what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow. Take these men, go through the purification ceremony with them, and pay their expenses to shave their heads. Then everyone will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you are carefully observing and keeping the Law.”
The Greek word myrias from which we get the word myriad, is used to describe the number of Jews who believe. Many English versions translate the phrase here as “many thousands”— however, myrias means tens of thousands.
James and the elders with him immediately bring up the false rumor about Paul. They are concerned that some among the large group of Jewish believers would become agitated if they thought that Paul, whom they believed to be teaching against the Torah, was there in Jerusalem. The false things that they were told about Paul— that he taught the Jews in the Diaspora to “forsake Moses” and to cease circumcising their sons and to abandon Jewish customs— gives us insight into what is meant by the phrase “zealous for the law”. It follows then that if “there is nothing” to these rumors and that Paul “lives in observance of the law” that he retains and keeps “Moses”— the Torah”— and teaches Jewish circumcision and follows Jewish customs himself.
Now we can look at this text and interpret it in several ways. The most obvious interpretation is to take the text for what it says— that Paul was, indeed, a Torah-observant Jew and that James and the elders were honest men with good discernment of Paul's character. If, as many believe today, that Paul taught that the Law had come to an end— that believers should abandon the Torah and cease circumcising and stop following Jewish customs— then we are forced to conclude that James and the elders were making a false statement about Paul. If this is true, then they were either knowingly making a false statement about Paul or they were deceived about Paul's true character. There are no alternatives for Paul; if he taught against the Torah, circumcision and Jewish customs then he allowed a false statement to be made about himself and cooperated in deceiving the people. If any of these rumors about Paul were actually true, then Paul was a liar and we should not listen to his teachings. Fortunately, Paul consistently asserts his Jewish identity and upholds the Torah.
Following are a selection of texts that illustrate Paul's perspective on these topics.
Acts 16:3 NRSV “Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him; and he took him and had him circumcised…”
Acts 22:3 NRSV “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God, just as all of you are today.”
Acts 22:12 NRSV “A certain Ananias, who was a devout man according to the law and well spoken of by all the Jews living there.” This is a statement that Paul made relatively late in his life. Ananias was a follower of Jesus, and he was also, according to Paul, devout “according to the law”. If Ananias had been a Sabbath-breaker or pork-eater or if he had abandoned his tzitzit tassels or ignored Passover or if he had been negligent in any aspect of the Torah, he would not have been “well spoken of by all the Jews”. This statement is a good indicator of Paul's attitude at this late point in his life— he is speaking positively about Ananias without any qualifications. Clearly, the faithfulness of Ananias to the law and his good reputation with fellow Jews are commendable attributes in Paul's eyes.
Acts 24:14 NRSV “But this I admit to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our ancestors, believing everything laid down according to the law or written in the prophets.”
Acts 25:8 NRSV “Paul said in his defense, “I have in no way committed an offense against the law of the Jews, or against the temple, or against the emperor.””
Acts 26:4-25 NRSV “All the Jews know my way of life from my youth, a life spent from the beginning among my own people and in Jerusalem. They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that I have belonged to the strictest sect of our religion and lived as a Pharisee.”
Acts 28:17 NRSV “Three days later he called together the local leaders of the Jews. When they had assembled, he said to them, “Brothers, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our ancestors, yet I was arrested in Jerusalem and handed over to the Romans.””
Romans 2:13 NRSV “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified.”
Romans 2:25 NRSV “Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision.”
Romans 3:1 NRSV “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision Much, in every way. For in the first place the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.”
Romans 3:31 NRSV “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.”
Romans 8:7 NRSV “For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot,”
Why was Paul so controversial? Perhaps Peter explains it— in 2 Peter 3:15 (NRSV) “… our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, … as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.” If James and the elders clearly attest to Paul's law keeping and Paul himself cooperates in demonstrating his faithfulness to the law and repeatedly upholds the law in his writings but yet he is accused of teaching against the law then perhaps the “hard to understand” parts of his writings that some people “twist to their own destruction” have something to do with the law. Perhaps we should be examining his entire life and writings in their completeness in order to make our interpretations consistent. Whatever difficulties we find in his writings, we need to interpret them so that Paul’s statements are consistent and so that the law-keeping claims of James and the elders, and indeed of Paul himself are true.
Acts 21:26-27 NET “Then Paul took the men the next day, and after he had purified himself along with them, he went to the temple and gave notice of the completion of the days of purification, when the sacrifice would be offered for each of them. When the seven days were almost over,…”
Later, Paul describes this event. Acts 24:17-18 NRSV “Now after some years I came to bring alms to my nation and to offer sacrifices. While I was doing this, they found me in the temple, completing the rite of purification, without any crowd or disturbance.”
What was Paul doing? Verse 23 and 24 are helpful for putting this into context— “we have four men who have taken a vow; take them and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may have their heads shaved.” Here are the basic facts. There are vows. There are seven days of purification. There is a sacrifice. Heads would be shaved. These four men are brought to Paul by James and the elders of the church and Paul is participating. What can we learn from the Law— the Torah— about this ritual? Numbers chapter 6 is our best guide to what Paul is doing. A brief aside in Acts 18:18 may provide an additional clue about Paul’s journey to Jerusalem— at Cenchreae Paul had his hair cut because “he was under a vow”. On reading Numbers 6, we see that Paul is fully participating in a wide range of temple rituals— there is no suggestion that he rejects or declines from any of them.
Numbers 6:1-21 NIV “The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man or woman wants to make a special vow, a vow of dedication to the Lord as a Nazirite, they must abstain from wine and other fermented drink and must not drink vinegar made from wine or other fermented drink. They must not drink grape juice or eat grapes or raisins. As long as they remain under their Nazirite vow, they must not eat anything that comes from the grapevine, not even the seeds or skins. “‘During the entire period of their Nazirite vow, no razor may be used on their head. They must be holy until the period of their dedication to the Lord is over; they must let their hair grow long. “‘Throughout the period of their dedication to the Lord, the Nazirite must not go near a dead body. Even if their own father or mother or brother or sister dies, they must not make themselves ceremonially unclean on account of them, because the symbol of their dedication to God is on their head. Throughout the period of their dedication, they are consecrated to the Lord. “‘If someone dies suddenly in the Nazirite’s presence, thus defiling the hair that symbolizes their dedication, they must shave their head on the seventh day—the day of their cleansing. Then on the eighth day they must bring two doves or two young pigeons to the priest at the entrance to the tent of meeting. The priest is to offer one as a sin offering and the other as a burnt offering to make atonement for the Nazirite because they sinned by being in the presence of the dead body. That same day they are to consecrate their head again. They must rededicate themselves to the Lord for the same period of dedication and must bring a year-old male lamb as a guilt offering. The previous days do not count, because they became defiled during their period of dedication. “‘Now this is the law of the Nazirite when the period of their dedication is over. They are to be brought to the entrance to the tent of meeting. There they are to present their offerings to the Lord: a year-old male lamb without defect for a burnt offering, a year-old ewe lamb without defect for a sin offering, a ram without defect for a fellowship offering, together with their grain offerings and drink offerings, and a basket of bread made with the finest flour and without yeast—thick loaves with olive oil mixed in, and thin loaves brushed with olive oil. “‘The priest is to present all these before the Lord and make the sin offering and the burnt offering. He is to present the basket of unleavened bread and is to sacrifice the ram as a fellowship offering to the Lord, together with its grain offering and drink offering. “‘Then at the entrance to the tent of meeting, the Nazirite must shave off the hair that symbolizes their dedication. They are to take the hair and put it in the fire that is under the sacrifice of the fellowship offering. “‘After the Nazirite has shaved off the hair that symbolizes their dedication, the priest is to place in their hands a boiled shoulder of the ram, and one thick loaf and one thin loaf from the basket, both made without yeast. The priest shall then wave these before the Lord as a wave offering; they are holy and belong to the priest, together with the breast that was waved and the thigh that was presented. After that, the Nazirite may drink wine. “‘This is the law of the Nazirite who vows offerings to the Lord in accordance with their dedication, in addition to whatever else they can afford. They must fulfill the vows they have made, according to the law of the Nazirite.’””
Acts 21:27-28 NRSV “… the Jews from Asia, who had seen him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd. They seized him, Fellow Israelites, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against our people, our law, and this place;…”
Paul's presence triggered a massive protest. Undoubtedly there were quite a few of those “many tens if thousands" of believers that were also present. Why is there nothing said about them? Why is there no protest about them? What conclusion can we draw from this? First, as James and the elders said, the were “all zealous for the law”— they were all Torah-observant. Second, they were Jews— accepted as Jewish by other Jews. From this we can conclude that the church in Jerusalem was not not a break-away religion— if we could see them today we would consider them Jewish and not recognize them as “Christian”. And yet, they were the most authentically “apostolic” group of believers.
How remarkable it is that there is no mention of Jesus in the charges the people made against Paul. James and the elders and Paul himself all deny these charges. (Acts 25:8 NRSV “Paul said in his defense, “I have in no way committed an offense against the law of the Jews, or against the temple,…” Acts 28:17 NRSV “… he said to them, “Brothers, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our ancestors,…”) And yet, when we look at the history of Christianity and even the perspective of Christians today— these charges are all true of us.
Here is a brief sample of quotes that demonstrate the truth of these charges when applied to Christians of later eras.
- John Chrysostom (347–407 A.D.) — “What is this disease? The festivals of the pitiful and miserable Jews are soon to march upon us one after the other and in quick succession: the feast of Trumpets, the feast of Tabernacles, the fasts. There are many in our ranks who say they think as we do. Yet some of these are going to watch the festivals and others will join the Jews in keeping their feasts and observing their fasts. I wish to drive this perverse custom from the Church right now.”
- Canon 29, Council of Laodicea (363-364 A.D.)— “Christians must not judaize by resting on the Sabbath, but must work on that day, rather honouring the Lord's Day; and, if they can, resting then as Christians. But if any shall be found to be judaizers, let them be anathema from Christ.”
- Canon 37, Council of Laodicea — “It is not lawful to receive portions sent from the feasts of Jews or heretics, nor to feast together with them.”
- Canon 38, Council of Laodicea — “It is not lawful to receive unleavened bread from the Jews, nor to be partakers of their impiety.”
- Martin Luther (1483-1546 A.D.) — “First, that their synagogues be burned down… Second, that all their books their prayer books, their Talmudic writings, also the entire Bible, be taken from them… Third, that they be forbidden on pain of death to praise God, to give thanks, to pray, and to teach publicly among us and in our country… In my opinion the problem must be resolved thus: If we wish to wash our hands of the Jews' blasphemy and not share in their guilt, we have to part company with them.… They must be driven from our country....I wish and I ask that our rulers who have Jewish subjects exercise a sharp mercy toward these wretched people, as suggested above, to see whether this might not help (though it is doubtful). They must act like a good physician who, when gangrene has set proceeds without mercy to cut, saw, and burn flesh, veins, bone, and marrow. Such a procedure must also be followed in this instance. Burn down their synagogues, forbid all that I enumerated earlier, force them to work, and deal harshly with them, as Moses did in the wilderness, slaying three thousand lest the whole people perish.”
Acts 21:37 NKJV “Then as Paul was about to be led into the barracks, he said to the commander, “May I speak to you?” He replied, “Can you speak Greek? ””
If the Greek was commonly spoken in Jerusalem, then this question would not make sense. We can conclude then that Greek was not the language spoken in Jerusalem.
Acts 21:39-22:2 ESV “Brothers and fathers, hear the defense that I now make before you.” And when they heard that he was addressing them in the Hebrew language, they became even more quiet.… Paul replied, “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no obscure city. I beg you, permit me to speak to the people.” And when he had given him permission, Paul, standing on the steps, motioned with his hand to the people. And when there was a great hush, he addressed them in the Hebrew language, saying: “Brothers and fathers, hear the defense that I now make before you.” And when they heard that he was addressing them in the Hebrew language, they became even more quiet.…”
Many recent translations say Aramaic rather than Hebrew. The subject is too long to fully develop here, but— Hebrew is the correct word. The Greek word is Hebrais. Greek has a word for Aramaic that could have been used here, but it was not. Scholarship in Israel in the last few decades— using archeological and textual evidence— has shown that Hebrew was a living language in Judea at the time of the second temple.
Now, given that the correct word is “Hebrew”, what does that tell us about Paul and what does that tell us about other languages that could have been spoken? Leaving Hebrew aside, the languages that the soldiers could have spoken are Latin, Aramaic and Greek. Latin was the language of Rome, but Roman functionaries did not necessarily work in Latin; many spoke the regional languages common to the whole area— those languages were Aramaic and Greek. Now we know, because of the “Can you speak Greek” question that Greek was not a common language around Jerusalem— but could have been a language the soldiers spoke. Aramaic was a common language of the entire region— lots of people spoke Aramaic in the surrounding countries and also in Israel. It would not have been anything special if Paul spoke Aramaic to the people of Jerusalem— Aramaic was a language spoken in many countries in the area. But, when Paul spoke Hebrew he was identifying specifically with Israel. He was communicating to them in the clearest possible way “I am one of you”. He is not just saying that he is Jewish, but that he is a Pharisee trained at the feet of a local Rabbi. That is why Hebrew is a special language in this context. It explains why ”when they heard that he was addressing them in the Hebrew language, they became even more quiet”.