Monday, October 8, 2007

The Jerusalem Council

My thoughts are on the Jerusalem Council since my class and RECRS is shifting into this discussion soon. I have never been satisfied with the way in which scholars have handled this Council, because I haven't seen a proposal that fits all the evidence. I especially don't like "it never happened" because this position does not take into account all the evidence. But it also couldn't have happened as Luke says it did because it doesn't fit with what we know about things from Paul's letters.

1. The solution that Acts 15 never happened doesn't make sense of the fact that Luke knows about a decision (letter?) from James that resorts to Noahide laws, nor that these laws appear to have been known and observed by Christians as late as the third century. These laws have to have been instituted or invoked by someone somewhere in the first century in order to deal with the Gentile problem.

2. Paul's understanding of his meeting in Jerusalem recorded in Galatians 2 does not correspond to Acts 15, neither in terms of outcome or in terms of who was there and what was discussed. Trying to harmonize them results in apology, not history.

3. If the decision of Acts 15 had been made prior to the Antiochean Affair, it doesn't make sense that the apostles would then begin a counter-mission to Paul after the Affair and demand circumcision of the Gentiles in the churches Paul missionizes. It is very clear to me that the opponents to Paul are not unknown folks, but authoritative missionaries (even disciples) from Jerusalem.

4. Then there is that strange passage in Acts 21:25 that appears to suggest a letter having been sent out without Paul's knowledge about a decision made by James in terms of the Noahide laws, a decision that looks to be a compromise between Paul's radical position, and that of the Jerusalem Church, although no mention is made of circumcision.

5. Other observations?

So here is another thought experiment for you. How can the Jerusalem Council best be explained given the evidence we have?


Jim Deardorff said...

Doesn't this Jerusalem Council look like part of the attempt by the writer of Luke-Acts to reconcile the main split between followers of Peter & John Mark and those of Paul? In Gal 1 Paul preaches against the use of another gospel, and this could have been the document that Peter and John Mark had with them in Rome, which Peter allowed to be distributed to those who asked for it, according to Clement of Alexandria. The writer of Mark apparently made some use of this document, decades later.

In Acts we don't hear of Peter after Acts 15:11 nor of John Mark after Acts 15:40. This is consistent with the writer of Luke-Acts siding strongly with Paul against the gospel that Peter and John Mark had advocated. And it's consistent with Paul being so vehemently against this gospel, while not daring to reveal anything about it, in Gal 1:6-9.

Peter and John Mark must have possessed this written document before they moved to Rome, for the Galatians to have known of it.

So I believe the unmentioned main source of the Peter-Paul split needs to figure into the equation.

Mark Goodacre said...

Hi April. I agree with you about the problem of harmonizing Paul and Acts, which leads to all kinds of problems. I am not sure from your post, though, whether you regard Acts 15 as essentially referring to the same event described by Paul in Gal. 2.1-10, though? You mention Gal. 1 under your second point, but I am wondering whether this is a typo for Gal. 2?

I am pretty sure that Acts 15 should be regarded as a parallel to Gal. 2.1-10 for reasons previously articulated on my blog, even though the chronology of the Acts location is way out. (I think Luke has brought it forward from its "true" location -- for want of a better term -- in Acts 18.22).

April DeConick said...


I did mean Galatians 2 so I corrected this on the blog spot.

I have never connected it to Acts 18:22. Are you thinking that Acts 18:22 is when the Jerusalem Council really occurred but that Luke has brought it forward in his narrative, and that this is the same event as mentioned by Paul in Galatians 2?

I am seriously rethinking whether the Gal 2 reference and the Acts 15 reference refer to the same event or two separate events. I have always thought that they were the same thing, but I'm not so sure about this anymore. What Paul said happened and who he met with is not at all the same thing that Acts 15 describes. Nor does the circumcision movement that Paul encounters in his letters make sense after the Jerusalem council (even if we posit that there was a conservative party who went out to Paul's church). The Jerusalem council appears to be a ruling on the issue that decides it for the future.

So I wonder if the Jerusalem council occurred after Paul had returned to Jerusalem following his third missionary journey.

gdelassu said...

If the decision of Acts 15 had been made prior to the Antiochean Affair, it doesn't make sense that the apostles would then begin a counter-mission to Paul after the Affair and demand circumcision of the Gentiles in the churches Paul missionizes.

Gosh, is it really that strange to think that Apostles would render a pro-Paul decision (à la Acts 15) and then turn around and start a mission antagonistic to Paul which would end up in the Antiochian affair? It seems to me that Loren Rosson has offered a very plausible account of why one might well expect that the whole fracas was all about the Apostles reneging on a previous consensus.

Geoff Hudson said...

Before you decide on what was going on in Acts 15, why don't you spare a thought for Acts 14? You then might realise what 15 was all about, and it wasn't circumcision.

April DeConick said...

I don't buy the honor and shame argument here.

It may be as simple as a misplaced piece in Luke's chronology.

Geoff Hudson said...

Since last evening when I was considering Acts 14, I have come to the conclusion that at least the second and third of the missions to Gentiles supposedly undertaken by Paul were Pauline re-workings of journeys by James and Simon, the sons of Judas, to Jerusalem from Rome. Thus original Acts 14 was written for a completely Jewish milieu. If the first 'missionary' journey was similarly to Jerusalem from Rome, then there would appear to be no mission to Gentiles in the original documents. And the three journeys of Paul would have been fabricated out of three journeys by James and Simon to Jerusalem from Rome.

Loren Rosson III said...

April wrote:

I don't buy the honor and shame argument here.

Can you explain why you don't buy the argument. It makes perfect sense in historical context, not to mention goes a long way to resolving discrepencies between Gal 2 and Acts 15 and "fitting the evidence" as you ask for.

It's no mystery that Luke goes out of his way to claim the support of Peter and James by reversing their historical roles. (Historically they were a lot more like Matthew than as portrayed in Acts.) Gal 2 should definitely be identified with Acts 15 (as opposed to Acts 11:27-30), but that doesn't mean Luke is reporting everything as it really happened when it really happend. He has retrojected the Jerusalem conference back into an earlier stage of Paul's ministry, before he evangelized Asia Minor and Greece, and reworked the facts with the apostolic decree, smoothing things over and portraying things less controversial than they really were. That shouldn't be difficult to accept -- that's Luke's agenda. I wrote more about this here, on the trail of Mark Goodacre. I suspect the apostolic decree is historical, but came later than Luke reports it: possibly at Acts 18:22 as Mark suggests, possibly even later.

April DeConick said...


I don't think that we need to explain what happened based on an honor/shame appeal. If the Jerusalem council happened later in the historical events than Luke has said (which I find possible - perhaps immediately before or after Paul's final visit to Jerusalem), he did so because the Antiochean Church necessitated it, not because Paul needed or forced it. James' ruling has very little in it that would appeal to Paul or address his issues. Whether James' ruling included a circumcision decision is questionable given what we are told later in Acts 21:25. Paul certainly would not have abided by the Noahide ordinances. He said eat anything as long as no one objects.

Loren Rosson III said...

Just a brief note, April. In your comment you write:

Paul certainly would not have abided by the Noahide ordinances. He said eat anything as long as no one objects.

I agree that Paul wouldn't have accepted anything like the Noahide ordinances at the time of writing Galatians. But by the time he wrote Romans (which you cite) he seems to have become more sensitive to Judean concerns (for a variety of reasons I've outlined elsewhere): Gentiles aren't entirely free from the law in the presence of unbelieving Israel. If Judeans are being injured by what Gentiles eat, then those Gentiles aren't behaving properly (14:15); they shouldn't eat meat or drink wine if it causes strife (14:21). Now his position seems to be that while Gentiles are still free from the law, they must accommodate unbelieving Judeans -- in hopes that the latter will convert through jealousy (Rom 11) and soon worship alonngside the Gentiles as "one voice" (Rom 15:5-6), etc.

April DeConick said...


Exactly. And when was Romans written? It must be after James had made the Noahide ruling.

Loren Rosson III said...

Exactly. And when was Romans written? It must be after James had made the Noahide ruling.

Perhaps, but we know Paul was on the way to Jerusalem at the time of writing Romans (Rom 15) (from Corinth ~ Acts 17?). I'm inclined to think that the shifts between Galatians and Romans are accounted for in terms of audience, Paul's increasing bad reputation, and even a genuine change of heart over time. So here's an interesting question: did the apostolic decree owe as much to Paul as James? If it came at the point of Acts 18:22 (or later), and probably after Romans, Paul had already begun to see the wisdom in accomodating Judeans on these questions.