[16:1-5]. Application of the decisions of the “Apostolic Council”.
If the “Apostolic Council” of Jerusalem forbade circumcision, why did Paul circumcise Timothy? This embarrassing episode we tend to overlook and even more we overlook the fact that it is Paul himself to perform the operation in a Hebrew manner (v. 3). The fact is that circumcision was not at all forbidden, but only made not-mandatory for the Gentiles in order to belong to the Church, while the Jews were well pleased to continue to practice it for the purpose of belonging to the people of Israel.
Galatians is often quoted as saying, «If you are circumcised, Christ will be of no use to you […] you have fallen out of grace» (3:2-4). In the Epistle to the Galatians, however, Paul does not condemn the use of circumcision, but abuse. In other words, he condemns the necessity of circumcision for the purpose of salvation, therefore considering the work of Christ as insufficient. If Cornelius would later have liked to be part of the people of Israel, he would have not been forbidden, as long as he did not consider that adherence necessary.
Whether to be circumcised or not, for Paul, had no value in itself (1 Cor 7:19) and for him the principles were important and stable, rather than their particular and temporary applications; he considered himself free from all (even the circumcised) to then become a servant to all (even the circumcised) (1 Cor 9:19).
He also considered food to be of no value in itself to eat or not to eat some of it, because «all things are pure», but afterwards he called to abstain from any food, if it offended a brother (Rom 14:13-23).
Paul’s desire was to proclaim to the Jews the need for the forgiveness of sins in Christ, but if he had showed with an uncircumcised collaborator such as Timothy, they would have listened to him with more difficulty. In the matter of food, Paul writes «By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died» (Rom 14:15); one application is «Do not lose, because of circumcision, the one for whom Christ died». In summary, to communicate to the Jews that being circumcised did not save, Paul paradoxically circumcises Timothy.
Paul passed on to the various churches the decisions taken by the apostles in order for them to observe them (v. 4); this seems to contradict what is written just above, where we have essentially affirmed that those decisions were not binding on all and forever. It should be borne in mind, however, that the structure of the disagreement did not concern only Antioch, but also the churches that had derived from it. The apostles’ decision, not by chance, is addressed to an entire region «to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia» (15:23) and it seems logical that the geographical indication was not be understood in a restrictive sense, but extending to all those who were in similar conditions.
To hold that the Apostolic Council’s decisions are valid for all with regard to the principles, but not necessarily in the applications that one can draw from them, the most important case is how Paul then tackled the problem of food. The most contested directive today is the one on abstaining from blood, which is linked to the one on animals that have been killed by suffocation, that is, without the draining of blood. If one takes into account that in the New Testament there is a progressive doctrinal revelation, as we have widely seen, then the Letter to the Romans should be more relevant to us than Acts 15: because it was written after the meeting in Jerusalem; because it reflects more our current circumstances; and because there the problem is dealt with more extensively.
In Antioch, as in the churches formed during Paul and Barnabas’ first missionary tour, there was generally a strong Jewish presence and the Old Testament strictly forbids eating blood (Lev 3:17; 7:27). In order not to create unnecessary fractures between believing Greeks and believing Jews, then, it was logical to ask the Greeks for a small adaptation, also because the Jews were required an even stronger one, that is to consider a “brother in faith” someone who was not even circumcised. In Rome, however, the Jewish presence was less significant and then, as we have seen above (Rom 14:13-23), the call to not eat blood was always valid, but only if it scandalised someone, as happened in Antioch and surroundings (in short, the principles are the same, but the application adapts to the circumstances).
The above is reinforced by the fact that even the first Letter to the Corinthians (also written after the meeting in Jerusalem) treats the problem in a similar way to that of Romans: indication that it was necessary to specify the confined sense (in space and time) of the prohibition to eat blood. In 1 Corinthians we perceive even better the parallelism with the Apostolic Council’s decisions (1 Cor 10:23-33) and incidentally it is written: «eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience – I do not mean your conscience, but his».
To some the problem of eating or not eating blood appears entirely secondary, but “Bible-practicing Christians” are roughly divided into three groups with a similar number of convictions, which each defends with a certain jealousy: 1) those that uphold the freedom to eat even blood (among which I count myself, but if possible I avoid it, also for hygienic reasons); 2) those who do not allow as church members those who believe they can eat blood; 3) those who do not even allow blood transfusions.
[16:6-10]. «..having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia».
Is it possible that it is the Holy Spirit himself who forbids to preach the Gospel? No, it is not possible, and in fact the Holy Spirit did not “forbid” in the general sense to preach, but forbade Paul to do so in certain areas, because he thought it more appropriate to send him before to other parts (vv. 6-10). Instead of having Paul continue to operate “like wildfire” in present-day Turkey, the Holy Spirit preferred to make him apply the “strategy of the arsonist”, who ignites the fire in one forest and then goes away to another, letting the fire advance by itself. Paul was thus directed into present-day Greece, that is, into the heart of that world which, at that time, had the cultural pre-eminence and which offered God the language to pass on the New Testament. In other words, it was more urgent for Paul to arrive early in Athens and Corinth than to linger in a Turkey in which the work had already begun and could be continued by others (presumably less suited to go to Athens).
What can be defined as “the geographical axis of the Gospel”, therefore, will head west and not only up to Greece, because then Paul will get to Rome and, in the two millennia that have followed, has again continued to build his axis in the west direction (France, Spain, Germany, England, United States), with the overview of soon completing “the world tour”.
There is, in this episode, an implication of a certain relevance: if Paul had insisted on continuing his activity in present-day Turkey, he would have disobeyed God while preaching the Gospel! From this we deduce that it is necessary not only to stick to the general teachings of the Word of God, but also to listen to the Holy Spirit, so as to be obedient even in concrete applications.
Another implication is how Paul could be sure that it was the Holy Spirit who guided him. There are no precise indications and there is nowhere described a secure system through which to know how to concretely apply the will of God. But since the Holy Spirit dwells in every believer (cf. Rom 8:9; 1 Cor 3:16; 2 Tim 1:14), everyone should learn as soon as possible to understand his messages, so that they are certain for him (or her). In short, the rule valid for all is that the Holy Spirit is given to us together with the forgiveness of sins (which we have through Christ); but then, concretely, the Holy Spirit establishes with each believer his particular ways of communication.
Paul was sure that the Holy Spirit was calling him to Macedonia (16:10), but to convince others, the most appropriate way is to show the results; results which at first were somewhat ambivalent, for there was at once the conversion of Lydia (v. 14), though the missionaries also took many beatings and were put in prison (v. 23). In the long run, however, the mission in present-day Greece would have been very fruitful.
In verses 6 and 7 we speak first of the “Holy Spirit” and then of the “Spirit of Jesus”: the context leaves no doubt on the equivalence of the two expressions and this is another of the “small signs” on Jesus’s divinity present in Acts.
Note how Luke introduces here the “we” (v. 10) and therefore his recommendation becomes that of an eyewitness (16:10-17; 20:5 till 21:18; 27:1 till 28:16). However, it is significant that Luke does not insert “we” in strategic or particularly important moments, because he wants to be an “eyewitness” without drawing attention to himself, but to what he saw.
[16:11-40]. Paul at Philippi.
It is impressive, in a negative sense, how demon-possessed people sooner and more than others understand the value of a believer (vv. 16-18). The evil spirit that acted in the fortune-teller woman seemed to just want to help Paul and the Gospel, but his collaboration was actually destroying the testimony, so Paul was forced to remove the misunderstanding by expelling that demon. The masters of that woman thus saw their ability to make a profit fade away and incited the crowd against Paul and Silas, who were significantly referred to as “Jews” (v. 20).
It is also impressive, but in a positive sense, that Paul and Silas, after having their clothes torn, after having taken loud beatings and being placed in the inner part of the prison, arriving at midnight they did not stand there to groan or even to sleep… but they sang hymns to God! One can imagine the astonishment of the prisoners, who certainly did not suspect that the greatest surprise was yet to come, because then there was a great earthquake and the chains of all were broken (vv. 22-26). This passage would lend itself to many reflections and applications, but we cannot dwell on them. We note only, continuing to follow our themes, how the miraculous deliverance of Paul from prison establishes another parallel with Peter (12:7-10).
Famous is the so-called “question of questions” of the jailer of Philippi: «Sirs, what must I do to be saved?» ; with the consequent “answer of answers” given by Paul: «Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved» (vv. 30-31). After the conversion there was an immediate baptism (v. 33), and here too there is a close parallel between Paul’s way of operating and that of Peter.
The passage concludes with a Paul who seemed over-elaborate, because he did not accept a simple exit from prison, but wanted the authorities to apologise personally, due to their having abused in public and for no reason Roman citizens (vv. 35-39). We believe, however, that Paul’s request was not a retaliation, but rather that the public shaming had negative repercussions on the Gospel’s message and on those who had accepted it (Lydia and the jailer, among others): leaving the city in an honourable way (vv. 39-40) in other words, was more useful to the witness and witnesses who remained in that place rather than being Paul’s personal demand.
Further Insight n. 8
JERUSALEM, ATHENS AND ROME
After being in Macedonia (Acts 16), Paul would later enter the Greek cultural world, that is, Athens (Acts 17) and Corinth (Acts 18). The Greek-speaking world was the most prominent on the cultural level and Acts show us Paul who comes to witness in its most prestigious place (the Areopagus, 17:19). The Roman world, on the other hand, had the pre-eminence on the political level and Acts describes to us Paul interacting with those authorities, until he reached the emperor (from 23:11 to the end). Jerusalem, Athens and Rome are regarded as “the three capitals of the West” and we cannot now address the complex question of their relationships; however, since there are cultural bias that hinder the understanding of what is described in Acts, it is useful to give some guidance.
Athens is often opposed to Jerusalem: one would be the founder of true culture, while the other of religious fables. The reality is that the Greeks came to their present territory from the north and as barbarians. On the Mediterranean shores, they found the flourishing culture produced by the world where Abraham had moved, who came from Mesopotamia and arrived in Egypt, a world that can be called generically “Semitic” culture.
The Greeks would only be in a position to be culturally leading figures after spending centuries absorbing the Semitic culture; a clear indication of this is that their alphabet is an adaptation of the Semitic-Phoenician one. There was, therefore, a progressive alignment between the Greek world and the Jewish-Semitic world and it is as a result of this development that the Greek translation of the Old Testament was birthed (about 2 centuries before Christ), which is called the Septuagint and which would have greatly accelerated the process of alignment that had produced it.
One can understand at what point the mixing between Jewish and Greek worlds had stretched specifically through Acts, where in almost every city there was a synagogue open to the Greek population (proselytes) and able, at times, to involve the entire city (Acts 13:44; 14:4).
For Rome the question is less obvious, because the history of its origins is shrouded in myth. We know, however, that Rome arose as a river port in relation to the East and therein had settled themselves those “ethnic” villages typical of the ports, which then united to found the city.
Rome arose shortly after the dispersion of the Jews caused by the Assyrians (8th c. BC.) and it is likely that a group of fugitives arrived in Rome. Rather than these speculations, though, it is the cultural analysis of more ancient Rome (that is, Royal and Republican Rome) that suggests some Jewish influence. In the oldest Rome, for example, we find the centrality of the law, a substantial religious freedom and a perception of the stranger as a potential “brother-citizen”. Incidentally, as the Etruscan culture is of Middle-Eastern origin and the Etruscans were very influential in royal Rome, also through them there was an infiltration of Semitic elements in Rome.
In any case, Paul, continuing in the line of Christ who submitted to the Roman Pontius Pilate, would act respecting the Roman authorities; also because, in addition to being a Jew, he was also a Roman citizen. All the more so because the Roman authorities often treated him much better than those Jews who had rejected the Gospel (Acts 16:35-40; 18:12-15; 21:30-40; 22:22-29; 23:12-25; 25:7-12; 28:16-31). So it is basically Paul himself who lays the foundations of an alliance between Christianity and Romanism, although then on this alliance (Constantine) there would be much to discuss, because there is no doubt that it went well beyond the framework that we find in Acts.
Apart from these complex questions, what we wish to emphasise is that Acts shows us a particular relationship of Christianity with three worlds: the Jewish, the Greek and the Roman. Today, after 20 centuries, we can see that Christianity has a Jewish religious connotation, but expressed in the Greek language and that it more easily spread both in what was the Roman Empire, and in the world which was inspired by it (for example, Russia and England). Paul was a very suitable tool to achieve these goals, because he was of Jewish religion, knew Greek culture and had Roman citizenship.
Three languages came together on the cross, the Hebrew, the Greek and the Latin (Jn 19:19-20), because the message of that death and subsequent resurrection – without excluding anyone, of course – wanted to turn first to those three worlds.
For a less telegraphic exposition on History, see chapter 7 of my book “Culture and the Bible” (Gribaudi, 2009).