« Prev The Synod of Jerusalem, and the Compromise… Next »

§ 34. The Synod of Jerusalem, and the Compromise between Jewish and Gentile Christianity.


I. Acts 15, and Gal. 2, and the Commentaries thereon.

II. Besides the general literature already noticed (in §§ 20 and 29), compare the following special discussions on the Conference of the Apostles, which tend to rectify the extreme view of Baur (Paulus, ch. V.) and Overbeck (in the fourth edition of De Wette’s Com. on Acts) on the conflict between Acts 15 and Gal. 2, or between Petrinism and Paulinism, and to establish the true historic view of their essential unity in diversity.

Bishop Lightfoot: St. Paul and the Three, in Com. on Galat., London, 1866 (second ed.), pp. 283–355. The ablest critical discussion of the problem in the English language.

R. A. Lipsius: Apostelconvent, in Schenkel’s Bibel-Lexikon, I. (1869), pp. 194–207. A clear and sharp statement of eight apparent contradictions between Acts 15 and Gal. 2. He admits, however, some elements of truth in the account of Acts, which he uses to supplement the account of Paul. Schenkel, in his Christusbild der Apostel, 1879, p. 38, goes further, and says, in opposition to Overbeck, who regards the account of Acts as a Tendenz- Roman, or partisan fiction: "The narrative of Paul is certainly trustworthy, but one-sided, which was unavoidable, considering his personal apologetic aim, and passes by in silence what is foreign to that aim. The narrative of Acts follows oral and written traditions which were already influenced by later views and prejudices, and it is for this reason unreliable in part, yet by no means a conscious fiction."

Otto Pfleiderer: Der Paulinismus. Leipzig, 1873, pp. 278 sqq. and 500 sqq. He tones down the differences to innocent inaccuracies of the Acts, and rejects the idea of "intentional invention."

C. Weizsäcker (successor of Dr. Baur in Tübingen, but partly dissenting from him): Das Apostelconcil in the "Jahrbücher für deutsche Theologie" for 1873, pp. 191–246. And his essay on Paulus und die Gemeinde in Korinth, ibid., 1876, pp. 603–653. In the last article he concludes (p. 652) that the real opponents of Paul, in Corinth as well as in Galatia, were not the primitive apostles (as asserted by Baur, Schwegler, etc.), but a set of fanatics who abused the authority of Peter and the name of Christ, and imitated the agitation of Jewish proselytizers, as described by Roman writers.

K. Schmidt: Der Apostel-Konvent, in Herzog and Plitt, R. E. I. (1877), 575–584. Conservative.

Theod. Keim: Aus dem Urchristenthum. Zürich, 1879, Der Apostelkonvent, pp. 64–89. (Comp. Hilgenfeld’s review in the "Zeitschrift für wissenschaftl. Theologie," 1879, pp. 100f sqq.) One of the last efforts of the author of the Leben Jesu von Nazara. Keim goes a step further than Weizsäcker, strongly maintains the public as well as the private character of the apostolic agreement, and admits the circumcision of Timothy as a fact. He also entirely rejects the view of Baur, Weizsäcker, and Overbeck that the author of Acts derived his information from the Ep. to the Galatians, and perverted it for his irenic purpose.

F. W. Farrar: The Life and Work of Paul (Lond., 1879), chs. XXII.-XXIII. (I. 398–454).

Wilibald Grimm: Der Apostelconvent, in the "Theol. Studien und Kritiken" (Gotha), for 1880, pp. 405–432. A critical discussion in the right direction. The exegetical essay of Wetzel on Gal. 2:14, 21, in the same periodical, pp. 433 sqq., bears in part on the same subject.

F. Godet: Com. on the Ep. to the Romans, vol. I. (1879), pp. 3742, English translation. Able and sound.

Karl Wieseler: Zur Gesch. der N. T.lichen Schrift und des Urchristenthums. Leipzig, 1880, pp. 1–53, on the Corinthian parties and their relation to the errorists in the Galatians and the Nicolaitans in the Apocalypse. Learned, acute, and conservative.

Comp. above § 22, pp. 213 sqq.; my Hist. of the Apost. Church, §§ 67–70, pp. 245–260; and Excursus on the Controversy between Peter and Paul, in my Com. on the Galat. 2:11–14.

The question of circumcision, or of the terms of admission of the Gentiles to the Christian church, was a burning question of the apostolic age. It involved the wider question of the binding authority of the Mosaic law, yea, the whole relation of Christianity to Judaism. For circumcision was in the synagogue what baptism is in the church, a divinely appointed sign and seal of the covenant of man with God, with all its privileges and responsibilities, and bound the circumcised person to obey the whole law on pain of forfeiting the blessing promised. Upon the decision of this question depended the peace of the church within, and the success of the gospel without. With circumcision, as a necessary condition of church membership, Christianity would forever have been confined to the Jewish race with a small minority of proselytes of the gate, or half-Christians while the abrogation of circumcision and the declaration of the supremacy and sufficiency of faith in Christ ensured the conversion of the heathen and the catholicity of Christianity. The progress of Paul’s mission among the Gentiles forced the question to a solution and resulted in a grand act of emancipation, yet not without great struggle and temporary reactions.

All the Christians of the first generation were converts from Judaism or heathenism. It could not be expected that they should suddenly lose the influence of opposite kinds of religious training and blend at once in unity. Hence the difference between Jewish and Gentile Christianity throughout the apostolic age, more or less visible in all departments of ecclesiastical life, in missions, doctrine, worship, and government. At the head of the one division stood Peter, the apostle of the circumcision; at the head of the other, Paul, to whom was intrusted the apostleship of the uncircumcision. In another form the same difference even yet appears between the different branches of Christendom. The Catholic church is Jewish-Christian or Petrine in its character; the Evangelical church is Gentile or Pauline. And the individual members of these bodies lean to one or the other of these leading types. Where-ever there is life and motion in a denomination or sect, there will be at least two tendencies of thought and action—whether they be called old and new school, or high church and low church, or by any other party name. In like manner there is no free government without parties. It is only stagnant waters that never run and overflow, and corpses that never move.

The relation between these two fundamental forms of apostolic Christianity is in general that of authority and freedom, law and gospel, the conservative and the progressive, the objective and the subjective. These antithetic elements are not of necessity mutually exclusive. They are mutually complemental, and for perfect life they must co-exist and co-operate. But in reality they often run to extremes, and then of course fall into irreconcilable contradiction. Exclusive Jewish Christianity sinks into Ebionism; exclusive Gentile Christianity into Gnosticism. And these heresies were by no means confined to the apostolic and post-apostolic ages; pseudo-Petrine and pseudo-Pauline errors, in ever-varying phases, run more or less throughout the whole history of the church.

The Jewish converts at first very naturally adhered as closely as possible to the sacred traditions of their fathers. They could not believe that the religion of the Old Testament, revealed by God himself, should pass away. They indeed regarded Jesus as the Saviour of Gentiles as well as Jews; but they thought Judaism the necessary introduction to Christianity, circumcision and the observance of the whole Mosaic law the sole condition of an interest in the Messianic salvation. And, offensive as Judaism was, rather than attractive, to the heathen, this principle would have utterly precluded the conversion of the mass of the Gentile world.432432    "Circumcision," says Renan (St. Paul, ch. III. p. 67)."was, for adults, a painful ceremony, one not without danger, and disagreeable to the last degree. It was one of the reasons which prevented the Jews from moving freely about among other people, and set them apart as a caste by themselves. At the baths and gymnasiums, those important parts of the ancient cities, circumcision exposed the Jew to all sorts of affronts. Every time that the attention of the Greeks and Romans was directed to this subject, outbursts of jestings followed. The Jews were very sensitive in this regard, and avenged themselves by cruel reprisals. Several of them, in order to escape the ridicule, and washing to pass themselves off for Greeks, strove to efface the original mark by a surgical operation of which Celsus has preserved us the details. As to the converts who accepted this initiation ceremony, they had only one course to pursue, and that was to hide themselves in order to escape sarcastic taunts. Never did a man of the world place himself in such a position; and this is doubtless the reason why conversions to Judaism were much more numerous among women than among men, the former not being put, at the very outset, to a test, in every respect repulsive and shocking. We have many examples of Jewesses married to heathens, but not a single one of a Jew married to a heathen woman." The apostles themselves were at first trammelled by this Judaistic prejudice, till taught better by the special revelation to Peter before the conversion of Cornelius.433433    Acts 10 and 11.

But even after the baptism of the uncircumcised centurion, and Peter’s defence of it before the church of Jerusalem, the old leaven still wrought in some Jewish Christians who had formerly belonged to the rigid and exclusive sect of the Pharisees.434434    Acts 15:1, 5:τινὲς τῶν ἀπὸ τῆς αἱρέσεως τῶν Φαρισαίων πεπιστευκότες . They came from Judaea to Antioch, and taught the converts of Paul and Barnabas: "Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved." They no doubt appealed to the Pentateuch, the universal Jewish tradition, the circumcision of Christ, and the practice of the Jewish apostles, and created a serious disturbance. These ex-Pharisees were the same whom Paul, in the heat of controversy, more severely calls "false brethren insidiously or stealthily foisted in," who intruded themselves into the Christian brotherhood as spies and enemies of Christian liberty.435435    Gal. 2:4: παρείσακτοι (comp. παρεισάξουσιν in 2 Pet. 2:1) ψευδάδελφοι οἵτινες παρεισῆλθον(who came in sideways, or crept in, sneaked in; comp. Jude 4, παρεισέδυσαν) κατασκοπῆσαι τὴν ἐλευθερίαν ἡμῶν ἣν ἔχομεν ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ, ἵνα ἡμᾶς καταδουλώσουσιν . The emissaries of these Pharisaical Judaizers are ironically called "super-extra-apostles,"ὑπερλίαν ἀπόστολοι, 2 Cor. 11:5; 12:11. For these are not the real apostles (as Baur and his followers maintained in flat contradiction to the connection of 2 Cor. 10 to 12), but identical with the "false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ,"2 Cor. 11:13. Baur’s monstrous misinterpretation has been completely refuted by Weizsäcker (on Paul and the Congregation of Corinth, l.c. p. 640), Keim, Klöpper, Wieseler, and Grimm (l.c. 432). Comp. also Godet, l.c. pp. 49 sq. He clearly distinguishes them not only from the apostles, but also from the great majority of the brethren in Judaea who sincerely rejoiced in his conversion and glorified God for it.436436    Gal. 1:22-24. They were a small, but very active and zealous minority, and full of intrigue. They compassed sea and land to make one proselyte. They were baptized with water, but not with the Holy Spirit. They were Christians in name, but narrow-minded and narrow-hearted Jews in fact. They were scrupulous, pedantic, slavish formalists, ritualists, and traditionalists of the malignant type. Circumcision of the flesh was to them of more importance than circumcision of the heart, or at all events an indispensable condition of salvation.437437    To what ridiculous extent some Jewish rabbis of the rigid school of Shammai carried the overestimate of circumcision, may be seen from the following deliverances quoted by Farrar (I. 401): "So great is circumcision that but for it the Holy One, blessed be He, would not have created the world; for it is said (Jer. 33:25), ’But for my covenant [circumcision] I would not have made day and night, and the ordinance of heaven and earth.’"" Abraham was not called ’perfect’ till he was circumcised." Such men could, of course, not understand and appreciate Paul, but hated and feared him as a dangerous radical and rebel. Envy and jealousy mixed with their religious prejudice. They got alarmed at the rapid progress of the gospel among the unclean Gentiles who threatened to soil the purity of the church. They could not close their eyes to the fact that the power was fast passing from Jerusalem to Antioch, and from the Jews to the Gentiles, but instead of yielding to the course of Providence, they determined to resist it in the name of order and orthodoxy, and to keep the regulation of missionary operations and the settlement of the terms of church membership in their own hands at Jerusalem, the holy centre of Christendom and the expected residence of the Messiah on his return.

Whoever has studied the twenty-third chapter of Matthew and the pages of church history, and knows human nature, will understand perfectly this class of extra-pious and extra-orthodox fanatics, whose race is not dead yet and not likely to die out. They serve, however, the good purpose of involuntarily promoting the cause of evangelical liberty.

The agitation of these Judaizing partisans and zealots brought the Christian church, twenty years after its founding, to the brink of a split which would have seriously impeded its progress and endangered its final success.

The Conferences in Jerusalem.

To avert this calamity and to settle this irrepressible conflict, the churches of Jerusalem and Antioch resolved to hold a private and a public conference at Jerusalem. Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas as commissioners to represent the Gentile converts. Paul, fully aware of the gravity of the crisis, obeyed at the same time an inner and higher impulse.438438    Paul mentions the subjective motive, Luke the objective call. Both usually unite in important trusts. But Baur and Lipsius make this one of the irreconcilable contradictions! He also took with him Titus, a native Greek, as a living specimen of what the Spirit of God could accomplish without circumcision. The conference was held a.d. 50 or 51 (fourteen years after Paul’s conversion). It was the first and in some respects the most important council or synod held in the history of Christendom, though differing widely from the councils of later times. It is placed in the middle of the book of Acts as the connecting link between the two sections of the apostolic church and the two epochs of its missionary history.

The object of the Jerusalem consultation was twofold: first, to settle the personal relation between the Jewish and Gentile apostles, and to divide their field of labor; secondly, to decide the question of circumcision, and to define the relation between the Jewish and Gentile Christians. On the first point (as we learn from Paul) it effected a complete and final, on the second point (as we learn from Luke) a partial and temporary settlement. In the nature of the case the public conference in which the whole church took part, was preceded and accompanied by private consultations of the apostles.439439    Luke reports the former and hints at the latter (comp. Acts 5 and 6) Paul reports the private understanding and hints at the public conference, saying (Gal. 2:2): "I laid (ἀνεθέμην) before them [the brethren of Jerusalem] the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but privately before them who were of repute (or, before those in authority),"i.e., the pillar-apostles of the circumcision, James, Cephas, and John, comp. Acts 2:9. Dr. Baur who denies the public conference, mistranslates κατ ̓ ἰδίαν δὲ τοῖς δοκοῦσιν und zwar wandte ich mich speciell (specially) an die vorzugsweise Geltenden,"so that τοῖς δοκοῦσιν would be the same as the preceding αὐτοῖς (Paul, ch. V. p. 117, in the English translation, I. 122). But this would have been more naturally expressed by τοῖς δοκοῦσιν ἐν αὐτοῖς and κατ ̓ ἰδίαν, as Grimm, the lexicographer of the N. T., remarks against Baur (l.c., p. 412), does not mean "specially" at all, but privatim, seorsum, "apart," "in private," as in Mark 4:34, and κατ ̓ ἰδίαν εἰπεῖν, Diod. I. 21.

1. Apostolic Recognition. The pillars of the Jewish Church, James, Peter, and John440440    The order in which they are named by Paul is significant: James first, as the bishop of Jerusalem and the most conservative, John last, as the most liberal of the Jewish apostles. There is no irony in the term οἰ δοκο̑ντες and οἰ στῦλοι, certainly not at the expense of the apostles who were pillars in fact as well as in name and repute. If there is any irony in Gal 2:6, ὁποῖοί ποτε ἦσαν, οὐδέν μοι διαφέρει, it is directed against the Judaizers who overestimated the Jewish apostles to the disparagement of Paul. Even Keim (l.c., p. 74) takes this view: "Endlich mag man aufhören, von ironischer Bitterkeit des Paulus gegenüber den Geltenden zu reden: denn wer gleich nachher den Bundesschluss mit den ’Säulen’feierlich und befriedigt registrirt, der hat seine Abweisung der menschlichen Autoritäten in v. 6nicht dem Andenken der Apostel gewidmet, sondern dem notorischen Uebermuth der judenchristlichen Parteigänger in Galatien."—whatever their views may have been before—were fully convinced by the logic of events in which they recognized the hand of Providence that Paul as well as Barnabas by the extraordinary success of his labors had proven himself to be divinely called to the apostolate of the Gentiles. They took no exception and made no addition to his gospel. On the contrary, when they saw that God who gave grace and strength to Peter for the apostleship of the circumcision, gave grace and strength to Paul also for the conversion of the uncircumcision, they extended to him and to Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, with the understanding that they would divide as far as practicable the large field of labor, and that Paul should manifest his brotherly love and cement the union by aiding in the support of the poor, often persecuted and famine-stricken brethren of Judaea. This service of charity he had cheerfully done before, and as cheerfully and faithfully did afterward by raising collections among his Greek congregations and carrying the money in person to Jerusalem.441441    Gal. 2:7-10; comp. Acts 11:30; 24:17; 1 Cor. 16:1-3; 2 Cor. 8 and 9; Rom. 15:25-27. Such is the unequivocal testimony of the fraternal understanding among the apostles from the mouth of Paul himself. And the letter of the council officially recognizes this by mentioning "beloved" Barnabas442442    Barnabas, as the older disciple, still retained precedence in the Jewish church, and hence is named first. A later forger would have reversed the order. and Paul, as "men who have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." This double testimony of the unity of the apostolic church is quite conclusive against the modern invention of an irreconcilable antagonism between Paul and Peter.443443    Dr. Plumptre remarks against the Tübingen critics (on Acts 15:7): "Of all doctrines as to the development of the Christian church, that which sees in Peter, James, and John the leaders of a Judaizing anti-Pauline party is, perhaps, the most baseless and fantastic. The fact that their names were unscrupulously used by that party, both in their lifetime and, as the pseudo-Clementine Homilies and Recognitions show, after their death, cannot outweigh their own deliberate words and acts."

2. As regards the question of circumcision and the status of the Gentile Christians, there was a sharp conflict of opinions in open debate, under the very shadow of the inspired apostles.444444    This is very evident from the indignant tone of Paul against the Judaizers, and from the remark in Acts 15:6: πολλῆς συζητήσεως γενομένης, comp. Acts 15:2: γενομένης στάσεως(factious party spirit, insurrection, Luke 23:19; Mark 15:7) καί ζητήσεως οὐκ ὀλίγης. Such strong terms show that Luke by no means casts the veil of charity over the differences in the apostolic church. There was strong conviction and feeling on both sides, plausible arguments were urged, charges and countercharges made, invidious inferences drawn, fatal consequences threatened. But the Holy Spirit was also present, as he is with every meeting of disciples who come together in the name of Christ, and overruled the infirmities of human nature which will crop out in every ecclesiastical assembly.

The circumcision of Titus, as a test case, was of course strongly demanded by the Pharisaical legalists, but as strongly resisted by Paul, and not enforced.445445    Gal. 2:3-5. See the note below. To yield here even for a moment would have been fatal to the cause of Christian liberty, and would have implied a wholesale circumcision of the Gentile converts, which was impossible.

But how could Paul consistently afterwards circumcise Timothy?446446    Acts 16:3. The silence of Luke concerning the non-circumcision of Titus has been distorted by the Tübingen critics into a wilful suppression of fact, and the mention of the circumcision of Timothy into a fiction to subserve the catholic unification of Petrinism and Paulinism. What a designing and calculating man this anonymous author of the Acts must have been, and yet not shrewd enough to conceal his literary fraud or to make it more plausible by adapting it to the account in the Galatians, and by mentioning the full understanding between the apostles themselves! The book of Acts is no more a full history of the church or of the apostles than the Gospels are full biographies of Christ. The answer is that he circumcised Timothy as a Jew, not as a Gentile, and that he did it as a voluntary act of expediency, for the purpose of making Timothy more useful among the Jews, who had a claim on him as the son of a Jewish mother, and would not have allowed him to teach in a synagogue without this token of membership; while in the case of Titus, a pure Greek, circumcision was demanded as a principle and as a condition of justification and salvation. Paul was inflexible in resisting the demands of false brethren, but always willing to accommodate himself to weak brethren, and to become as a Jew to the Jews and as a Gentile to the Gentiles in order to save them both.447447    Comp. Rom. 14 and 15; 1 Cor. 9:19-23; Acts 21:23-26. In genuine Christian freedom he cared nothing for circumcision or uncircumcision as a mere rite or external condition, and as compared with the keeping of the commandments of God and the new creature in Christ.448448    Gal. 5:6; 6:15; 1 Cor. 7:19. Dr. Plumptre’s remarks on the last passage are to the point: "Often those who regard some ceremony as unimportant magnify the very disregard of it into a necessary virtue. The apostle carefully guards against that by expressing the nothingness of both circumcision and uncircumcision (Rom. 2:25; Gal. 5:6; 6:15). The circumicision of Timothy, and the refusal to circumcise Titus by St. Paul himself, are illustrations at once of the application of the truth here enforced, and of the apostle’s scrupulous adherence to the principles of his own teaching. To have refused to circumcise Timothy would have attached some value to noncircumcision. To have circumcised Titus would have attached some value to circumcision."

In the debate Peter, of course, as the oecumenical chief of the Jewish apostles, although at that time no more a resident of Jerusalem, took a leading part, and made a noble speech which accords entirely with his previous experience and practice in the house of Cornelius, and with his subsequent endorsement of Paul’s doctrine.449449    Acts 15:7-11; comp. Acts 10: 28 sqq.; 1 Pet. 1:12; 5:12; 2 Pet. 3:15, 16. The style of Peter is distinctly recognizable, as in the epithet of God, ὁ καρδιογνώστη, Acts 15:8, comp. Acts 1:24. Such minute coincidences go to strengthen the documentary trustworthiness of the Acts. He was no logician, no rabbinical scholar, but he had admirable good sense and practical tact, and quickly perceived the true line of progress and duty. He spoke in a tone of personal and moral authority, but not of official primacy.450450    Like the Popes, who do not attend synods at Jerusalem or elsewhere and make speeches, but expect all doctrinal controversies to be referred to them for their final and infallible decision. He protested against imposing upon the neck of the Gentile disciples the unbearable yoke of the ceremonial law, and laid down, as clearly as Paul, the fundamental principle that "Jews as well as Gentiles are saved only by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ."451451    Acts15:11: τῆς χάριτος τοῦ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ πιστεύομεν σωθην́αι, καθ’ ὃν τροπον κἀκεινοι (the heathen). Comp. Rom. 10:12, 13.

After this bold speech, which created a profound silence in the assembly, Barnabas and Paul reported, as the best practical argument, the signal miracles which God had wrought among the Gentiles through their instrumentality.

The last and weightiest speaker was James, the brother of the Lord, the local head of the Jewish Christian church and bishop of Jerusalem, who as such seems to have presided over the council. He represented as it were the extreme right wing of the Jewish church bordering close on the Judaizing faction. It was through his influence chiefly no doubt that the Pharisees were converted who created this disturbance. In a very characteristic speech he endorsed the sentiments of Symeon—he preferred to call Peter by his Jewish name—concerning the conversion of the Gentiles as being in accordance with ancient prophecy and divine fore-ordination; but he proposed a compromise to the effect that while the Gentile disciples should not be troubled with circumcision, they should yet be exhorted to abstain from certain practices which were particularly offensive to pious Jews, namely, from eating meat offered to idols, from tasting blood, or food of strangled animals, and from every form of carnal uncleanness. As to the Jewish Christians, they knew their duty from the law, and would be expected to continue in their time-honored habits.

The address of James differs considerably from that of Peter, and meant restriction as well as freedom, but after all it conceded the main point at issue—salvation without circumcision. The address entirely accords in spirit and language with his own epistle, which represents the gospel as law, though "the perfect law of freedom," with his later conduct toward Paul in advising him to assume the vow of the Nazarites and thus to contradict the prejudices of the myriads of converted Jews, and with the Jewish Christian tradition which represents him as the model of an ascetic saint equally revered by devout Jews and Christians, as the "Rampart of the People" (Obliam), and the intercessor of Israel who prayed in the temple without ceasing for its conversion and for the aversion of the impending doom.452452    Comp. Acts15:13-21; 21:18-25; James 1:25; 2:12; and the account of Hegesippus quoted in § 27, p. 274. He had more the spirit of an ancient prophet or of John the Baptist than the spirit of Jesus (in whom he did not believe till after the resurrection), but for this very reason he had most authority over the Jewish Christians, and could reconcile the majority of them to the progressive spirit of Paul.

The compromise of James was adopted and embodied in the following brief and fraternal pastoral letter to the Gentile churches. It is the oldest literary document of the apostolic age and bears the marks of the style of James:453453    The Gentile form of greeting, χαίρειν, Acts 15:23, occurs again in James 1:1, but nowhere else in the New Testament, except in the letter of the heathen, Claudius Lysias (Acts 23:26); the usual form being χάρις καὶ εἰρήνη. This is likewise one of those incidental coincidences and verifications which are beyond the ken of a forger.

"The apostles and the elder brethren454454    According to the oldest reading, οἱ ἀπόστολοι καὶ οἱ πρεσβύτεροι ἀδελφοί, which may also be rendered: "the apostles, and the presbyters, brethren;" comp. Acts 15:22. The omission of ἀδελφοί in some MSS. may be due to the later practice, which excluded the laity from synodical deliberations. unto the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia, greeting: Forasmuch as we have heard, that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, to whom we gave no commandment, it seemed good unto us, having come to be of one accord, to choose out men and send them unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who themselves also shall tell you the same things by word of mouth. For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that ye abstain from meats sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication; from which if ye keep yourselves, it shall be well with you. Farewell."455455    Acts 15:23-29.

The decree was delivered by four special messengers, two representing the church at Antioch, Barnabas and Paul, and two from Jerusalem, Judas Barsabbas and Silas (or Silvanus), and read to the Syrian and Cilician churches which were agitated by the controversy.456456    Acts 16:4 The restrictions remained in full force at least eight years, since James reminded Paul of them on his last visit to Jerusalem in 58.457457    Acts 21:15. Comp. also Rev. 2:14, 20. But why does Paul never refer to this synodical decree? Because he could take a knowledge of it for granted, or more probably because he did not like altogether its restrictions, which were used by the illiberal constructionists against him and against Peter at Antioch (Gal. 2:12). Weizsäcker and Grimm (l.c., p. 423) admit the historic character of some such compromise, but transfer it to a later period (Acts 21:25), as a proposition made by James of a modus vivendi with Gentile converts, and arbitrarily charge the Acts with an anachronism. But the consultation must have come to a result, the result embodied in a formal action, and the action communicated to the disturbed churches. The Jewish Christians observed them no doubt with few exceptions till the downfall of idolatry,458458    Justin Martyr, about the middle of the second century, considered the eating of εἰδωλόθυτα as bad as idolatry. Dial. c. Tryph. Jud. 35 and the Oriental church even to this day abstains from blood and things strangled; but the Western church never held itself bound to this part of the decree, or soon abandoned some of its restrictions.

Thus by moderation and mutual concession in the spirit of peace and brotherly love a burning controversy was settled, and a split happily avoided.

Analysis of the Decree.

The decree of the council was a compromise and had two aspects: it was emancipatory, and restrictive.

(1.) It was a decree of emancipation of the Gentile disciples from circumcision and the bondage of the ceremonial law. This was the chief point in dispute, and so far the decree was liberal and progressive. It settled the question of principle once and forever. Paul had triumphed. Hereafter the Judaizing doctrine of the necessity of circumcision for salvation was a heresy, a false gospel, or a perversion of the true gospel, and is denounced as such by Paul in the Galatians.

(2.) The decree was restrictive and conservative on questions of expediency and comparative indifference to the Gentile Christians. Under this aspect it was a wise and necessary measure for the apostolic age, especially in the East, where the Jewish element prevailed, but not intended for universal and permanent use. In Western churches, as already remarked, it was gradually abandoned, as we learn from Augustine. It imposed upon the Gentile Christians abstinence from meat offered to idols, from blood, and from things strangled (as fowls and other animals caught in snares). The last two points amounted to the same thing. These three restrictions had a good foundation in the Jewish abhorrence of idolatry, and every thing connected with it, and in the Levitical prohibition.459459    Ex. 34:,15; Lev. 17:7 sqq.; Deut. 12:23 sqq. The reason assigned for the prohibition of the taste of blood is that "the life of the flesh is in the blood," and the pouring out of blood is the means of "the atonement for the soul" (Lev. 17:11). The prohibition of blood as food was traced back to the time of Noah, Gen. 9:4, and seems to have been included in the seven "Noachian commandments" so-called, which were imposed upon the proselytes of the gate, although the Talmud nowhere specifies them very clearly. The Moslems likewise abhor the tasting of blood. But the Greeks and Romans regarded it as a delicacy. It was a stretch of liberality on the part of the Jews that pork was not included among the forbidden articles of food. Bentley proposed to read in Acts 15:20 πορκεία (fromπόρκος, porcus) for πορνεία, but without a shadow of evidence. Without them the churches in Judaea would not have agreed to the compact. But it was almost impossible to carry them out in mixed or in purely Gentile congregations; for it would have compelled the Gentile Christians to give up social intercourse with their unconverted kindred and friends, and to keep separate slaughter-houses, like the Jews, who from fear of contamination with idolatrous associations never bought meat at the public markets. Paul takes a more liberal view of this matter—herein no doubt dissenting somewhat from James—namely, that the eating of meat sacrificed to idols was in itself indifferent, in view of the vanity of idols; nevertheless he likewise commands the Corinthians to abstain from such meat out of regard for tender and weak consciences, and lays down the golden rule: "All things are lawful, but all things are not expedient; all things are lawful, but all things edify not. Let no man seek his own, but his neighbor’s good."460460    1 Cor. 8:7-13; 10:23-33; Rom. 14:2, 21; 1 Tim. 4:4.

It seems strange to a modern reader that with these ceremonial prohibitions should be connected the strictly moral prohibition of fornication.461461    The word πορ́νεια, without addition, must be taken in its usual sense, and cannot mean illegitimate marriages alone, which were forbidden to the Jews, Ex. 34; Lev. 18, although it may include them But it must be remembered that the heathen conscience as to sexual intercourse was exceedingly lax, and looked upon it as a matter of indifference, like eating and drinking, and as sinful only in case of adultery where the rights of a husband are invaded. No heathen moralist, not even Socrates, or Plato, or Cicero, condemned fornication absolutely. It was sanctioned by the worship of Aphrodite at Corinth and Paphos, and practised to her honor by a host of harlot-priestesses! Idolatry or spiritual whoredom is almost inseparable from bodily pollution. In the case of Solomon polytheism and polygamy went hand in hand. Hence the author of the Apocalypse also closely connects the eating of meat offered to idols with fornication, and denounces them together.462462    Apoc. 2:14, 20. Paul had to struggle against this laxity in the Corinthian congregation, and condemns all carnal uncleanness as a violation and profanation of the temple of God.463463    1 Cor. 6:13-20; comp. 1 Cor. 5:9; 1 Thess. 4:4, 5; Eph. 5:3, 5; Col. 3:5. What a contrast between these passages and the sentence of Micio in Terence.
   "Non es flagitium, mihi crede, adulescentulum

   Scortari, neque potare."—Adelph. i. 2. 21, 22. (Ed. Fleckeisen p. 290.)

   To which, however, Demea (his more virtuous married brother) replies:

   "Pro Juppiter, tu homo adigis me ad insaniam.

   Non est flagitium facere haec adulescentulum?"—Adelph. i. 2. 31, 32
In this absolute prohibition of sexual impurity we have a striking evidence of the regenerating and sanctifying influence of Christianity. Even the ascetic excesses of the post-apostolic writers who denounced the second marriage as "decent adultery" (εὐπρεπὴς μοιχεία), and glorified celibacy as a higher and better state than honorable wedlock, command our respect, as a wholesome and necessary reaction against the opposite excesses of heathen licentiousness.

So far then as the Gentile Christians were concerned the question was settled.

The status of the Jewish Christians was no subject of controversy, and hence the decree is silent about them. They were expected to continue in their ancestral traditions and customs as far as they were at all consistent with loyalty to Christ. They needed no instruction as to their duty, "for," said James, in his address to the Council, "Moses from generations of old has in every city those who preach him, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath."464464    Acts 15:21; comp. Acts 13:15; 2 Cor. 3:14, 15. And eight years afterwards he and his elders intimated to Paul that even he, as a Jew, was expected to observe the ceremonial law, and that the exemption was only meant for the Gentiles.465465    Acts 21:20-25. Irenaeus understood the decree in this sense (Adv. Haer III. 12, 15: "Hi qui circa Jacobum apostoli gentibus quidem libere agere permittebant; ipsi vero ... perseverabant in pristinis observationibus ... religiose agebant circadispositionem legis quae est secundum Mosem."Pfleiderer (l.c. 284) takes a similar view on this point, which is often overlooked, and yet most important for the proper understanding of the subsequent reaction. He says: "Die Judenchristen betreffend, wurde dabei stillschweigend als selbstverständliche Voraussetzung angenommen, dass bei diesen Alles beim Alten bleibe, dass also aus der Gesetzesfreiheit der Heidenchristen keierlei Consequenzen für die Abrogation des Gesetzes unter den Judenchristen zu ziehen seien; auf dieser Voraussetzung beruhte die Beschränkung der älteren Apostel auf die Wirksamkeit bei den Juden (da eine Ueberschreitung dieser Schranke ohne Verletzung des Gesetzes nicht möglich war); auf dieser Voraussetzung beruhte die Sendung der Leute von Jakobus aus Jerusalem nach Antiochia und beruhte der Einfluss derselben auf Petrus, dessen vorhergegangenes freieres Verhalten dadurch als eine Ausnahme von der Regel gekennzeichnet wird."

But just here was a point where the decree was deficient. It went far enough for the temporary emergency, and as far as the Jewish church was willing to go, but not far enough for the cause of Christian union and Christian liberty in its legitimate development.


1. The Apostolic Conference at Jerusalem.—This has been one of the chief battle-fields of modern historical criticism. The controversy of circumcision has been fought over again in German, French, Dutch, and English books and essays, and the result is a clearer insight both into the difference and into the harmony of the apostolic church.

We have two accounts of the Conference, one from Paul in the second chapter of the Galatians, and one from his faithful companion, Luke, in Acts 15. For it is now almost universally admitted that they refer to the same event. They must be combined to make up a full history. The Epistle to the Galatians is the true key to the position, the Archimedian ποῦ στῶ.

The accounts agree as to the contending parties—Jerusalem and Antioch—the leaders on both sides, the topic of controversy, the sharp conflict, and the peaceful result.

But in other respects they differ considerably and supplement each other. Paul, in a polemic vindication of his independent apostolic authority against his Judaizing antagonists in Galatia, a few years after the Council (about 56), dwells chiefly on his personal understanding with the other apostles and their recognition of his authority, but he expressly hints also at public conferences, which could not be avoided; for it was a controversy between the churches, and an agreement concluded by the leading apostles on both sides was of general authority, even if it was disregarded by a heretical party. Luke, on the other hand, writing after the lapse of at least thirteen years (about 63) a calm and objective history of the primitive church, gives (probably from Jerusalem and Antioch documents, but certainly not from Paul’s Epistles) the official action of the public assembly, with an abridgment of the preceding debates, without excluding private conferences; on the contrary he rather includes them; for he reports in Acts 15:5, that Paul and Barnabas "were received by the church and the apostles and elders and declared all things that God had done with them," before he gives an account of the public consultation, ver. 6. In all assemblies, ecclesiastical and political, the more important business is prepared and matured by Committees in private conference for public discussion and action; and there is no reason why the council in Jerusalem should have made an exception. The difference of aim then explains, in part at least, the omissions and minor variations of the two accounts, which we have endeavored to adjust in this section.

The ultra- and pseudo-Pauline hypercriticism of the Tübingen school in several discussions (by Baur, Schwegler, Zeller, Hilgenfeld, Volkmar, Holsten, Overbeck, Lipsius, Hausrath, and Wittichen) has greatly exaggerated these differences, and used Paul’s terse polemic allusions as a lever for the overthrow of the credibility of the Acts. But a more conservative critical reaction has recently taken place, partly in the same school (as indicated in the literature above), which tends to harmonize the two accounts and to vindicate the essential consensus of Petrinism and Paulinism.

2. The Circumcision of Titus.—We hold with most commentators that Titus was not circumcised. This is the natural sense of the difficult and much disputed passage, Gal. 2:3–5, no matter whether we take δέin 2:4 in the explanatory sense (nempe, and that), or in the usual adversative sense (autem, sed, but). In the former case the sentence is regular, in the latter it is broken, or designedly incomplete, and implies perhaps a slight censure of the other apostles, who may have first recommended the circumcision of Titus as a measure of prudence and conciliation out of regard to conservative scruples, but desisted from it on the strong remonstrance of Paul. If we press the ἠναγκάσθηcompelled, in 2:3, such an inference might easily be drawn, but there was in Paul’s mind a conflict between the duty of frankness and the duty of courtesy to his older colleagues. So Dr. Lightfoot accounts for the broken grammar of the sentence, "which was wrecked on the hidden rock of the counsels of the apostles of the circumcision."

Quite another view was taken by Tertullian (Adv. Marc., V. 3), and recently by Renan (ch. III. p. 89) and Farrar (I. 415), namely, that Titus voluntarily submitted to circumcision for the sake of peace, either in spite of the remonstrance of Paul, or rather with his reluctant consent. Paul seems to say that Titus was not circumcised, but implies that he was. This view is based on the omission of οἶς οὐδέin 2:5. The passage then would have to be supplemented in this way: "But not even Titus was compelled to be circumcised, but [he submitted to circumcision voluntarily] on account of the stealthily introduced false brethren, to whom we yielded by way of submission for an hour [i.e., temporarily]." Renan thus explains the meaning: "If Titus was circumcised, it is not because he was forced, but on account of the false brethren, to whom we might yield for a moment without submitting ourselves in principle." He thinks that προς ὥρανis opposed to the following διαμείνῃ.In other words, Paul stooped to conquer. He yielded for a moment by a stretch of charity or a stroke of policy, in order to save Titus from violence, or to bring his case properly before the Council and to achieve a permanent victory of principle. But this view is entirely inconsistent not only with the frankness and firmness of Paul on a question of principle, with the gravity of the crisis, with the uncompromising tone of the Epistle to the Galatians, but also with the addresses of Peter and James, and with the decree of the council. If Titus was really circumcised, Paul would have said so, and explained his relation to the fact. Moreover, the testimony of Irenaeus and Tertullian against οἷς οὐδέmust give way to the authority of the best uncials (אB A C, etc) and versions in favor of these words. The omission can be better explained from carelessness or dogmatic prejudice rather than the insertion.

« Prev The Synod of Jerusalem, and the Compromise… Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection