In the last post, we considered the process by which the Jerusalem church’s leadership came up with an answer to the circumcision question: whether Gentiles must convert to Judaism to be saved.
Peter and Paul both addressed the council, pointing out that God himself had done miracles and accepted Gentiles based on faith in Jesus, without works of the law, such as circumcision.
James, the brother of Jesus, evidently acting as chairman, concluded,
(Act 15:20-21 ESV) 20 “[We] should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. 21 For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”
This is a bit surprising to us Westerners. After all, what does strangulation by a butcher have to do with conversion to Judaism?
One clue is found in v. 21: “For Moses … has had in every city those who proclaim him.” Who are these? Surely the Jews. Therefore, it sounds like James is speaking of Jewish sensibilities — because if he were speaking of eternal law, why would it matter whether Jews might be around in every city? This sounds to me very much like a Romans 14 sort of decision — which bothers many who are looking for simple black and white rules.
But I just learned that N.T. Wright agrees –
The letter then gives the instructions which were mooted in James’s speech. Gentile believers are not to be required to undergo circumcision; that is the meaning of the rather vague ‘not to lay any burden on you’ (from the very beginning, it seems, official church documents lapsed by some kind of inexorable law into abstractions!). And they, the Gentile believers, are requested to make sure that they stay well clear of the main areas in which pagan culture, particularly pagan temples and what went on there, would give offence to Jews, whether believers or not. The final flourish, ‘if you abstain from these, you will do well’, could sound a little grudging, but again it should be understood as ‘official-ese’. The real meaning is: ‘That’s all we ask, and if that’s in place we are delighted to regard you as full members of the family.’ We should note that this doesn’t mean, ‘If you find it hard to comply with these, your very salvation is in doubt’, but ‘If you cannot comply, it would make things much, much harder for all of us on this side of the fence.’
Tom Wright, Acts for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 13-28 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2008), 50. Thus, Wright concludes that the letter is seeking to bring about peace between Jews and Gentiles, taking into account Jewish sensibilities, without requiring the Gentiles to convert.
The New International Commentary by F. F. Bruce is to much the same effect –
There remained, however, a practical problem. In most cities Gentile believers had to live alongside Jewish believers, who had been brought up to observe the levitical food restrictions and to avoid contact with Gentiles as far as possible. If there was to be free association between these two groups, certain guidelines must be laid down, especially with regard to table fellowship. Members of the church of Jerusalem might have little experience of this social problem at home, but it disturbed them to hear of Jewish Christians elsewhere who associated with Gentile Christians in a totally relaxed manner, as though the time-honored food restrictions were no longer valid. Peter’s initial breach with convention in entering the house of Cornelius had been overlooked, since he acted under divine compulsion; but his sitting at table with Gentile Christians in Antioch caused grave scandal in Jerusalem. Readers of the New Testament today are familiar with Paul’s totally emancipated attitude in such matters, and may be tempted to suppose that it was generally shared; in fact, Paul was probably quite exceptional in this regard (as in several others) among Jewish believers.
James therefore gave it as his considered judgment that Gentile Christians should be directed to avoid food which had idolatrous associations and the flesh of animals from which the blood had not been completely drained, and that they should conform to the Jewish code of relations between the sexes instead of remaining content with the pagan standards to which they had been accustomed.
It is natural that, when the stumbling block of circumcision had been removed, an effort should have been made to provide a practical modus vivendi for two groups of people drawn from such different ways of life. The modus vivendi was probably similar to the terms on which Jews of the dispersion found it possible to have a measure of fellowship with God-fearing Gentiles. The prohibition against eating flesh with the blood still in it (including the flesh of strangled animals) was based on the “Noachian decree” of Gen. 9:4.
F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988), 295–296.
All of these “essentials” relate not to salvation, but to fellowship within mixed churches and expanded opportunities for Jewish evangelism.
Robert James Utley, Luke the Historian: The Book of Acts, vol. Volume 3B, Study Guide Commentary Series (Marshall, TX: Bible Lessons International, 2003), 186.
G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson take largely the same view, although a bit more nuanced –
That, however, is not the end of the matter. The Gentiles are required to abstain from foods sacrificed to idols, sexual immorality, things strangled, and blood. Behind this list many scholars detect the influence of Lev. 17–18, which contains various regulations that are binding also on aliens “living among you” in Israel (Pesch 1986: 2:81; Jervell 1998: 397–98). In Leviticus only sacrifices offered at the tent of meeting are acceptable, with the implication that only the meat of these may be consumed; hence the text can be taken as indirectly forbidding the consumption of sacrificial meat offered to idols (Lev. 17:8–9). The consumption of blood is expressly forbidden (Lev. 17:10–12). The blood must be drained from any animal that is eaten; hence it can be argued that implicitly the eating of animals killed by strangulation (without draining off the blood) is forbidden (Lev. 17:13–14). Sexual immorality of all kinds is said to be forbidden in Lev. 18:26 (but the reference is to the preceding list of forbidden relationships, and prostitution is not mentioned). These four items occur in the same order in Acts 15:29 (though not in 15:20). In Leviticus these regulations are bound up with the fact that such actions pollute the land. The statement in Acts does not reflect specifically LXX phraseology at this point. The word alisgēma (“pollution”) occurs in the Greek Bible only here in Acts 15:20 (although the cognate verb alisgeō occurs in Dan. 1:8; Mal. 1:7, 12; Sir. 40:29). The word porneia (“sexual immorality”) is not used in Leviticus, but many examples of it are given. Bauckham (1996: 174–78) argues that the choice of these restrictions (excluding the Sabbath requirement on resident aliens in Exod. 20:10; Deut. 5:14) reflects the prophecies about the Gentiles joining the people of God and living “in the midst of them,” specifically Jer. 12:16; Zech. 2:11. Only the pentateuchal rules for aliens “in the midst” are applied here to Gentiles in the new people of God. The gezerah shavah link (use of a common word creating a link) between the passages depends on the MT and not on the LXX. So Gentiles do not have to become Jews (i.e., proselytes) when they come into the new people of God, but they are required to keep the commandments that applied to Gentiles living in Israel. Thus certain aspects of the OT law were applied to Gentiles. Nevertheless, the prohibition of nonkosher food has been quietly dropped from most Christian practice. On this, see the comment by Calvin (Calvin 1965–1966: 2:51–52, cited in Barrett 1994–1998: 738).
This interpretation is not universally accepted. The proposal to find the origin of the requirements elsewhere, specifically in the “Noachian precepts” that developed in Judaism as God’s law for all peoples (cf. Gen. 9:4–6; Jub. 7:20; see Str-B 3:37–38), is less convincing, but the broad similarities are not surprising. Barrett (1994–1998: 734–35) notes that Jews under persecution faced three issues on which compromise was impossible—idolatry, the shedding of blood, and incest—and thinks that these are the basis of the requirements here, but the parallel is much less close, and the rationale for the adoption of these points here is not clear. Turner (1982: 114–19) and Witherington (1998: 464–65) are skeptical of the appeal to Lev. 17–18. Turner argues that Luke did not expect believing Gentiles to keep the law and that Jewish law required more from the Gentiles than simply the four requirements listed; these are ad hoc requirements, the minimum needed to enable fellowship with scrupulous believing Jews. Witherington draws attention to the points where the requirements do not correspond very precisely with those in Leviticus and develops an alternative understanding of the passage as prohibiting the eating of sacrificial food in pagan temples. It can be seen that these regulations would in fact deal on a practical level with the problem of fellowship at the table in mixed churches (similarly, Blomberg 1984: 65–66).
G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007), 593–594.
In short, the consensus of some of the greatest conservative scholars is that James and the council agreed with Peter and Paul that faith in Jesus is sufficient to save without works of the Law, but James also understood that the infant church would struggle for Gentiles and Jews to eat together unless the Gentiles were to yield on certain sensitive matters, such such as meat sacrificed to idols and eating blood or the flesh of strangled animals.
Hence, as important as this passage is, we usually draw the wrong conclusions here. This is not the drawing of the line between those parts of the Law that survived Pentecost and those that did not, but another excellent and important example of how the strong in the church must sometimes give up their freedom for the sake of the consciences of the weak.
The real unifying thought in James’ conclusion is not how to rightly divide the Law of Moses or the Noahide (or “Noachide”) laws – but how to eat together. And sexual immorality was a routine part of Grecian formal dinners. Hetairai — courtesans who provided sexual favors, that is, high class prostitutes — were standard after-dinner entertainment.
Hence, James is worried about something that we don’t even think about: how to conduct oneself at the dinner table with fellow Christians. Every single element mentioned by James could have been part of a common meal in the Grecian world of Asia Minor. And the centrality of common meals is shown by the fact that Peter refused to eat with the uncircumcised converts in Antioch (Gal 2). The early church was all about eating together.
We don’t eat together in the same sense that the early church did. The love feast is not a routine part of our weekly church life. And we certainly aren’t worried about eating with people of another race or ethnicity — they attend a different church where they are “more comfortable.” (Sorry for the cynicism. It’s also true that racially mixed dining is not the taboo it once was in the US.)
But James and Paul — over and over — see being together at the same table as near the core of the gospel. Indeed, Romans 14 appears to have been written with the common table in mind.
We’ve definitely missed something — something so central to the life of a Christian that we struggle to interpret many passages because “church” is just so different for us.