[15:1-35]. The “Apostolic Council”.
The two most quoted chapters of Acts are Acts 2 (birth of the church at Pentecost) and this one (supposed “deliverance” of the Church from the law of Moses). It is therefore necessary to be very careful now, both because the way of understanding this chapter 15 influences the vision of the whole New Testament, and because we will propose an often-contrasting reading to the most indorsed ones. The problem the apostles began facing was with «some men [who had] come down from Judea», who were teaching the brothers that «unless [they] are circumcised according to the custom of Moses», they cannot be saved. Of course, «Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them», but since the disagreement remained «Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question» (vv. 1-2). In other words, the church of Antioch was being disturbed by some who came from Judea and so a delegation goes to the church of reference of the disruptors, to try to solve the problem at the source.
At that time, the Church was an indefinite organism guided by the Holy Spirit in a humanly indefinite way. Only later will the emperor Constantine try to give it a form more suited to his imperial purposes and values. Constantine served and liked a structure defined and guided by people he believed reliable; for this he summoned in 325, at Nicaea, not far from the capital Constantinople, the first (alleged FIRST) Ecumenical Council, that is, the meeting of all the bishops of the world in order to discuss and make decisions valid for all.
Given the usual vice of “backprojection”, it is thought that this way of proceeding is normal and that it has always existed; that is why the meeting described in Acts 15 is often called “the Council of Jerusalem”. The meeting, however, was attended only by representatives of two churches and not of all, to find the solution to problems that arose between those two churches, not to give orders to all.
Of course, the question addressed and the solution given influenced the whole church at that time and the later one, but according to the power of the Spirit, not with the power of weapons which were then used to impose the decisions of the Council of Nicaea (and the subsequent ones). The “council” of Jerusalem was not therefore a “council” like those begun almost three centuries later, if we therefore call it the “Council of Jerusalem” we convey the idea that the difference with the “Council of Nicaea” is mainly the place, time and in the topics dealt with, while it would suggest that there would have been the same method that is expressed with the word “council”. To avoid misunderstandings, some call that meeting the “Jerusalem Conference”, but an appropriate way could be “Apostolic Council“: because in fact the highest exponents of the Church of that time participated in the meeting (and so “council” might be acceptable); however, the characteristic element was not the place, but the presence of the apostles, which made that meeting unrepeatable.
Beginning to go into detail, it is striking that the problem was not addressed in the secret of the “high spheres”; in fact, the meeting was not reserved for a few, but there was also a participation of the people of believers. With Paul and Barnabas, for example, there also went «other brothers», who were accompanied for a while by the church (that is, by many); during the journey they recounted their experiences of evangelisation, bringing «great joy to all the brothers» (v. 3). Not only the apostles were involved in Jerusalem, but also the elders and «the whole church» (vv. 4 and 22).
The «lively debate» which took place in Antioch (vv. 2 and 7) also began in Jerusalem, because at the level of the Word of God and logic the supporters of the necessity of circumcision were well equipped.
Not being able to find an agreement, Peter pulled out his strong weapon which at this point was no longer secret, retelling how God had operated in Cornelius (7-9). Since some time had already passed from those facts, here Peter shows that he had already sketched a theological explanation “in retrospect” and it is good to dwell on the two main arguments with which he opposed the proponents of circumcision.
The first argument is as follows: «Why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?». The Pharisees who recognised Jesus as the Messiah continued to observe the law of Moses more strictly than the others, and this was an honour (cf. Acts 26:5). When they said that it was necessary to circumcise believers «and to order them to keep the law of Moses» (v. 5) it was implied that they thought they were observing it, but the whole Old Testament testified to the continuous difficulty of the people of Israel in observing the law; this difficulty concerned also that generation, which was, amongst other things, subject to the political domination of the Gentiles too. Peter, therefore, contests the implied presumption that the Jews were truly and fully observing the law of Moses: and if they themselves, in fact, were not fully observing it, it made no sense to impose it on others.
This first argument of Peter is often understood by us Christians as an authorisation to abandon the law of Moses, but this is not so, because many Jewish believers continued to be «zealous for the law» (21:20). There are, however, two questions we would like to ask those who support this thesis: 1) Are we Christians bound to observe the Word of Jesus, such as the “sermon on the Mount” (Mt. 5-7)? 2) Could we carry the weight of the “law of Jesus”? The conclusion that can be drawn from this is that Peter challenges the Pharisees as to the salvific value of the law of Moses, but certainly not the educational value of that law and its being a point of reference for the Jewish people.
Peter’s second argument is closely related to the first: since we Jews are also sinners (as he had recognised at once and spontaneously with Jesus, Luke 5:8), so we too can only be saved by grace (v. 11). In the Old Testament, on the other hand, one can see how God has always graced Israel. These words of Peter, surprisingly, are a sort of “theological framework” of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. The fact that Luke quotes these “Pauline” words of Peter, produces a sort of “legitimisation” of Paul (which seems to us the primary objective of Acts) and in any case means that, even though there was some momentary misunderstanding between the two (e.g., Galatians 2:11), they did not preach two different Gospels.
Peter’s arguments confuse the protesters, perhaps unprepared to face the “friendly fire”, opening them to listen to the “opponents”, Barnabas and Paul (more Barnabas than Paul, as we have seen, because Barnabas was more ‘of the house’ in Jerusalem and with the Twelve). Barnabas and Paul also draw the strong weapon of what God has done (v.12) and so the victory of the “new course” is total.
James, brother of Jesus, then does what normally belongs to those who preside, that is, he draws conclusions and proposes a way out (vv. 13-21). The emergence of James in the church government in Jerusalem is noted in Acts 12:17, when Peter says, «Tell these things to James and to the brothers» (cf. also Gal 1:18-19); next we see clearly the pre-eminence of him in Acts 21:18, when Paul came to Jerusalem, that he went first to James, where all the elders were gathered together.
Since he is no longer named, it seems that Joseph died before the public ministry of Jesus, who therefore had to assume the running of the house as his eldest son. Perhaps then James had seen how Jesus had been able to manage a family, and perhaps that more intimate knowledge of Jesus had made him particularly effective. More than this conjecture, however, the reflection of Argentino Quintavalle was useful to me, who wrote to me as follows: «The reason why James, the last to arrive, took charge of the church in Jerusalem is that, being a brother of Jesus, he was of a real lineage and, therefore, in the absence of the king (Jesus), he was the nearest descendant: That is why he was respected by those who were waiting for the restoration of the kingdom of Israel and that is why James speaks of the restoration of the tent of David (a phrase apparently out of context)».
Let us return to the conclusion that James proposes. In recalling what Peter had done with Cornelius, James invites us to take note that God «first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name» (v. 14). This confirms that the setting of the church of Antioch, composed mainly of uncircumcised, is seen as additional and not as substitute. In other words, before there was only one people consecrated to YHWH, now this people has been joined by another, that of the “uncircumcised” in the general sense, but that in fact was of Greek language.
Paul writes that Christ « has made us both one» (Eph 2:14) and that «There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus» (Gal 3:28). If the book of Acts is not borne closely in mind, this can interpreted as if the distinction between Jews and non-Jews had ceased, but evidently it is not so. The unity of faith between Jews and Greeks is similar to the unity of faith between male and female, which according to Paul certainly does not involve a “one-gender”!
All this is evident in Acts, where there are two churches which have two different settings, one based on the circumcised (Jerusalem) and the other on the uncircumcised (Antioch). But the two realities are so united that the formation of the uncircumcised is entrusted to the circumcised Paul and Barnabas. Even clearer is the scene of the Jewish Peter baptizing the Roman centurion Cornelius (Acts 10:47): two persons united by faith in Christ and by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, but the one remains Jewish and the other Roman.
James goes on (vv. 15-18) quoting one of the many passages of the Old Testament where the God of Israel is also the God of all nations (Amos 9:11-12) and that, therefore, all nations are called to worship. The chosen step is particularly suitable, because it shows that God’s plan was not to raise up Israel against the Gentiles but together with the Gentiles. Like Peter’s previous statement, this too is significantly a sort of “frame” of Paul’s Letter to the Romans: in particular of chapters 9-11, where Paul frames God’s mercy towards the Gentiles as a forerunner (not a replacement) of mercy toward “all Israel,” because God’s ultimate goal is to «have mercy on all» (Rom 11:26-32).
Acts 15 clearly shows how Peter, James and Paul did indeed perform different tasks, but with a doctrinal commonality that leaves no room for the hypothesis that there were “theses of Paul” contrasting with those of Peter and James. It is true that some wanted to impose circumcision on behalf of James (Gal. 2:12), but James in this chapter of Acts disavows that category of spokesman (15:1,5), stating that they had departed from Jerusalem without receiving any instruction from the church (v. 24). Generally the Epistle to the Galatians is much better known than the Book of Acts, but in the more general perspective of Acts, the contrast between Paul and Peter in Galatians 2 is reduced to a particular case, with limited and temporary effects: in other words, an exception that confirms the rule, even if you often take that exception to make it a rule!
James too, in conclusion and as Peter did earlier, sides with Paul and Barnabas, holding «that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God» (v. 19). However, he asks that the Gentiles «abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood» (v. 20). This request of James to the Gentiles is often interpreted as a need for compromise, which, while freeing the Gentiles from observing the whole law of Moses, safeguards certain aspects on which the Jews were particularly sensitive. We will see little below that, however, that James applies other criteria.
James then assures his fellow-countrymen that this openness to the Gentiles is not made at the expense of the law of Moses, a law that the Jews have honoured «from ancient generations» and that they would continue to honour in the synagogues of every city, with the reading that was made every Saturday (v. 21).
Acts 15 is often recounted as an “abolition of the law of Moses”, but it is not true. In fact, Acts 15 does not oblige Christians of pagan origin to obey the law of Moses, but invites the Jews to continue to observe it. This is clearly seen by the fact that, several years later, tens of thousands of Jews who had believed in the Gospel were «all zealous for the law» (21:20); for them, in fact, believing in Christ gave more meaning to the rites of Moses, while it is erroneously held that believing in Christ rendered animal sacrifices in the Temple inopportune (on the contrary, even forbidden); to support this we rely on the Letter to the Hebrews, but if that Letter is read in the light of Acts, one can very well understand it in the light of the continuity between the Old and New Testament. The Hebrews Letter, however, is too complex to be adequately addressed in this context and therefore, as I said, we limit ourselves to asking some questions in the designated Link n. 6, placed in the final pages.
Returning to the conclusion of James, it not only does not abolish the law of Moses, but in preventing it from being made mandatory for the uncircumcised… paradoxically applies the law of Moses and the Old Testament in general. In fact, the law of Moses foresaw that among the people of Israel there could also be foreigners, to whom, however, discriminating legislation should not be applied («one rule for you and for the stranger», Num 15:16). The foreigner was obliged to circumcise himself only if he wanted to celebrate the Passover with the Jewish people (Exodus 12:48) and the Temple of Solomon was considered a place of prayer not only for the people of Israel, but also for foreigners (1 Kings 8:41-43). The stranger that sojourned in the midst of Israel was not obliged to observe all the law of Moses, but only certain essentials; but the stranger that was outside the people of Israel was not regarded as compelled to observe the law of Moses, a gift that God had given specifically to Israel. Precisely the elasticity and openness of Judaism allow the apostles to deal flexibly with the question of the baptism of the uncircumcised.
I left with the idea that the decisions of the apostles were inspired by the rules given by Moses to foreigners within Israel, but the sensible criticism of a friend pushed me to reflect on it again… helping me to find a simpler perspective, and more in line with the whole Word of God, which presents the New Testament from in a new light and which we emphasise with a headline.
THE “NOAHTISM” OF UNCIRCUMCISED CHRISTIANS.
In authorising Noah to eat flesh, God had set a limit: «You shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood» (Gen 9:4). This involved the duty to kill the animals by slicing (that is, by letting out the blood), because if killed in another way the flesh would be soaked in blood. Having said this, the four prohibitions for the gentiles decided by the apostles can be reduced to three, because the prohibition of eating suffocated animals is similar to not eating blood.
The other two prohibitions can also be traced back to the first chapters of Genesis. Abstaining «from sacrificed flesh to idols» had the meaning of not endorsing and encouraging idolatry (1 Cor 8:4-13) and idolatry is in clear contrast with the beginning of Genesis: since God created the heavens and the earth, the “Sun-God ” and all idols (being part of creation) cannot be object of worship. Also for fornication there is an implied prohibition at the beginning of Genesis, where sexuality is seen as within a monogamous relationship (Gen 1:28; 2:24).
The prohibitions to the Gentiles are present in the law of Moses (see Lev 17:12 for blood, Lev 20:10 for fornication and Ex 20:3-6 for idolatry), however they are not imposed on this basis, but rather in reference to those universal values that underlie all the Word of God (and therefore also to the law of Moses) and are present in the first chapters of Genesis. In fact, while from Moses onwards the Word of God is addressed specifically to Israel, before Abraham the Word is addressed to all humanity and is usually reconnected with Noah, the last common ancestor of humanity. From Noah to before Abraham is sometimes called “Noahchism”; we prefer “Noahtism”, easier to understand, but in any case it seems that the apostles have decided to impose on the Gentiles to respect… THEIR “Noahtic” law. By imposing norms that can be linked to Noah, in summary, the apostles did not seek a political “compromise” between the demands of the Jews and those of the Gentiles: instead, they wished to submit to the Word of God, asking the Gentiles to do the same.
Precisely the harmony between the proposals of James and the whole of the Old Testament explain why those proposals are accepted unanimously, with James showing in these circumstances his good skills of leadership. Therefore, a letter was written, to be entrusted to Barnabas and Paul, to formalise the decisions taken. To avoid any suspicion of the letter’s authenticity, Barnabas and Paul will be accompanied to Antioch by two authoritative believers of Jerusalem (Barsabbas and Silas, v. 22). The senders and the official recipients of the letter are specified at the beginning: «The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia». This is not an “encyclical letter”, issued with authority by the apostles and concerning the whole Church, but the solution to a problem that arose with the Church of Antioch, whom the Church of Jerusalem addresses.
This expression is beautiful: «It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us» (v. 28): the Holy Spirit had respected the personality of those on whom he had acted and people take responsibility for the decisions they have taken, without shielding themselves behind the Holy Spirit.
The passage ends with Paul and Barnabas returning to Antioch, teaching and preaching together «with many others » (v. 35). In the final part of Acts, Luke will describe an almost solitary Paul, but before that time Paul showed a great ability to connect and bring himself into harmony with others, such as Peter, James, Barnabas and the church of Antioch.
Further Insight n. 7
When proceeding on a somewhat complex itinerary, it is useful every now and then to make a panoramic summary of the route taken and of what is still to be done. The book of Acts can ideally be divided into two, with a first part in which the work of Peter prevails and a second part in which Paul emerges instead. But since the passage was gradual, then it is indeed quite clear that there is also an intermediate phase, in which Peter slowly leaves the centre of the scene, in which, at a certain point, Paul definitively breaks in.
1.INITIAL PHASE OF FOUNDATION BY PETER (1-5)
The Twelve in general, and Peter in particular, are extraordinarily effective in bringing about and growing the Church. In Jerusalem, thousands of Jews accept Jesus as their Messiah. The Church remains within Judaism, but closer relations develop between the disciples of Jesus.
2.INTERMEDIATE PHASE OF PREPARATION FOR CHANGE (6-12)
More and more the Twelve show deficiencies, shortcomings and, above all, difficulties in understanding the new stages of the “strategic plan of God”. God will therefore use more and more people outside the Twelve, such as Stephen, Philip, Cornelius, the evangelisers of Antioch and Barnabas. Although the Church’s progress seems a bit chaotic, in effect the conditions are gradually being prepared for the “final phase”. Even for Paul there are events that are not easy to grasp, but that actually prepare the full industriousness: he appears first as a persecutor (7:58 to 8:3), then comes the conversion (9:1-22), the immature attempt to be a missionary (9:23-31), the eclipse (9:32-11:24) and effective return to the service of the church in Antioch (11:25-30).
3.FINAL PHASE OF EXPANSION THROUGH PAUL (13-28)
Here in the centre is the church of Antioch and Paul, of whom God, in the end, asks to proceed in “heroic solitude”. The Twelve and the church of Jerusalem had effectively carried out God’s work on the “quality” level, but there was also a “quantitative” work to be done: that is, to bring the Gospel «to the ends of the earth» (1:8). Antioch had at first appeared as an exception, and some hoped that it would soon arrive at the normality of a church composed only of circumcised; instead, it was a plant that was maturing and that would produce powerful seeds, able to take root in every part of the world. As usual, the initiative is taken by the Holy Spirit, who sends Barnabas and Saul on a mission, opening a new phase with countless developments. While inside the church of Antioch Barnabas and his gifts were more important, on the missionary battlefield Paul will immediately take over the direction of the operations, eventually proceeding in solitude.
After this “panoramic stop”, we resume our comment.
[15:36-41]. Beginning of the second journey of Paul and separation of Barnabas.
It was not only the questions connected with the “Apostolic Council” that created an interruption in Paul and Barnabas’ work of evangelisation, because before they had remained in Antioch «no little time» (14:28) and the same is repeated at the end of the meeting in Jerusalem (15:36): all this warrants Paul’s impatience in wanting to return to the evangelised brothers, while Barnabas seems to “be subjected” to Paul’s initiative. Obviously the solidarity between the two had already cracked, otherwise Luke would have written: «Paul and Barnabas decided to return to the evangelised brothers». The suspicion that there was a crack already in place is reinforced by the reason of the separation (whether to bring Mark or not), which does not seem so important as to justify the rupture of the collaboration and which seems more a pretext than the real cause.
There are many who take the parts of the “more benevolent” Barnabas, pointing out how later Paul would have recognised Mark’s usefulness (Col 4:10; 2 Tim 4:11). Indeed, one cannot disregard that capacity of Barnabas to welcome and encourage, by which Paul had also benefited, but it seems that Luke (and God himself, if we consider Luke inspired) leaves no doubt in justifying Paul.
First of all because it is Paul, and not Barnabas, who continues to carry on God’s “strategic plan”.
Secondly, because the church aligns itself with Paul, who sets out again «having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord» (40); whereas the fact that Barnabas immediately leaves Antioch, that is, the church he built up, suggests that he clashed not only with Paul, but with the whole church.
Thirdly, at the time, the Holy Spirit had called to the work «Barnabas and Paul» (13:2), so there was perhaps already at the beginning an error of Barnabas, who wanted to bring with him his cousin (Col 4:10), certainly promising, but who had not been specifically called and who still needed to mature.
Perhaps Barnabas – because of his age, tiredness or family problems – had a desire or need to return to his Cyprus, so he takes the opportunity to detach himself from a work now brought to maturity.
Instead of Barnabas, Paul chooses Silas and the reason seems clear: Barnabas was the “trustee” of the Jerusalem church and so, to avoid suspicion and problems with that church (which continued to be a point of reference for all), Paul takes with him another believer highly esteemed by the apostles (15:22,40).
When God and his work are involved, however, the “true reason” is not perceptible by looking at the human horizon, because it is given by the needs of the plan that God is carrying forward. The Bible is full of stories in which it seems that everything takes place on a human level, while in reality it is under the will of God. Moving then in the perspective of the “strategic plan of God”, Paul and Barnabas separated simply because Barnabas had finished his function, which was to enhance, legitimise and launch Paul.
Barnaba is then like a missile that carries into orbit the spaceship of Paul and then detaches itself from it. Of course, God would not have thrown Barnabas into the garbage as he would have not done so with Peter, but after asking them to move to the second row, I believe that these servants felt a nearness to God in a different, but presumably more fulfilling, way. After all, staying and dwelling with God should be better than working for God.