Some time ago, actually August of 2007, I posted a three-part commentary on Acts 15. I get questions emailed to me regularly by Christians wondering if they should start eating kosher style or keeping the Sabbath. As regular readers know, I adhere to the Jewish view of Torah, which is that Torah contains identity markers meant for Israel alone (Sabbath, dietary law, fringes, circumcision, etc.). I do not believe we need to persuade Christians to follow the Torah (yet I do believe non-Jews may choose to join in with Messianic Jews or even convert if so led by God).
I offer here the whole set of notes, all three original posts. This is not the interpretation you have seen either from Christian commentaries, which overlook the continuing Jewish obligation to Torah, or one-law groups which promote Torah observance for non-Jews.
I would love to hear your comments, critiques, etc.
Acts 15 Notes: Part 1
Luke Timothy Johnson, Acts: Sacra Pagina Vol. 5. Collegeville, MN, The Liturgical Press, 1992.
Derek Leman, Paul Didn’t Eat Pork. Stone Mountain: Mt. Olive Press, 2005.
Note: The following interpretations steer a course between two extremes. On the one side are Torah-obsolete interpretations that the Torah of Moses has been abolished for Jew and Gentile in Messiah. On the other side are one-law interpretations that Jews and Gentiles are equally obligated to Torah. The middle course of this interpretation is that the Torah of Moses is still binding on Jewish believers yet, while applicable, not binding on Gentile believers.
Some Men Came Down from Judea
Anyone going to Jerusalem is said to go up and anyone leaving to go down, regardless of the direction. This story begins in Antioch, far north of Jerusalem and Judea.
The events of Acts 15 happened after the writing of Galatians. Otherwise, Paul would certainly have referenced the decision of the Jerusalem leaders in Galatians. Thus, Paul had dealt extensively with this problem before Acts 15. There are those in the Yeshua movement who did not understand that God was calling Gentiles without conversion.
“Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
The issue here is salvation and inclusion in the people of God, not conformity of Gentiles to Torah for other reasons. Thus, Acts 15 need not at all be taken as a blanket condemnation of Gentiles keeping Jewish customs voluntarily.
The thinking of these Judean brothers in Messiah is easy to recognize. They had a theology in which only Israel is to be saved. They saw any hope for Gentiles lying only in converting and joining Israel. There had already been expressed in Judaism other ideas about Gentile inclusion. God-fearers, Gentiles who did not fully convert or keep Torah but who shared monotheistic faith in Israel’s God, had been encouraged for some time.
These Judean brothers were missing a great deal of what the Hebrew Bible has to say about righteous Gentiles. Examples in the Bible such as Naaman the leper and the Syro-Phoenician woman who helped Elijah show that joining Israel was never God’s requirement. Further, in certain prophecies, one of which James alludes to in this chapter, Gentile inclusion in God’s kingdom is envisioned apart from conversion.
“Direct them to observe the Law of Moses.”
A necessary correction to some Messianic Jewish and Torah observant interpretations of Acts 15 needs to be sounded here. The apostles in Jerusalem will not agree that Gentiles must: (1) be circumcised and (2) observe the Law of Moses.
First, regarding circumcision, God had always regarded this as means of inclusion in the Abrahamic covenant as per Genesis 17. Gentiles have a different role in the Abrahamic covenant. Whereas Israel inherits through Abraham the land, the peoplehood, and the role as blesser of the world, the nations inherit something different. The nations are blessed through Abraham’s descendants, not as Abraham’s descendants. Israel is the blesser and the Gentiles of faith are the ones who receive the blessing.
This is why Paul has Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3) but not Titus (Gal 2:3). Timothy’s mother was Jewish but he had not been circumcised because of his Greek father. Titus was a Gentile. Therefore, he had no reason to be circumcised.
Second, the Law of Moses contains numerous commandments that do not apply to Gentiles. Many of the commandments presume Israel living in the land with an active sanctuary and priesthood. A Gentile in Aram, such as Naaman, need not come to worship in Jerusalem. These commandments are not required for him. Likewise a case can be made that not only circumcision, but also Shabbat observance, dietary law, and the wearing of fringes never were intended for anyone but Israel (cf. Leman, Paul Didn’t Eat Pork, pp.93-95). Most of the Torah commandments, however, do have universal application. It is not that Gentiles can ignore the Torah, but that their relationship to it is different than Israel’s.
“A yoke which neither our fathers or we have been able to bear”
Some interpreters have deduced from this saying that Peter was not Torah-observant. Perhaps he had been up until the Cornelius vision in Acts 10 and thereafter began eating unclean meat with Gentiles.
Yet this is not at all what Peter says. Far from being against Torah, Peter is saying it is not the means of salvation. Israel had never successfully as a nation kept the Torah. Nor had any individual kept it perfectly. Even Moses sinned. If keeping Torah had been God’s means of salvation, no one would have made it. Yet these Judean brothers were making it the standard inappropriately. Peter’s words in Acts 15:10-11 can be paraphrased, “Why are you making Torah observance, which we have as a nation never managed to pull off, the requirement for salvation when we know that it is by faith that we are saved?” Torah observance by a Jewish believer, such as Peter, is not for salvation, but is a way of life for a believer. Thus, Gentiles should not be told Torah observance is a prerequisite.
Acts 15 Notes: Part 2
Luke Timothy Johnson, Acts: Sacra Pagina Vol. 5. Collegeville, MN, The Liturgical Press, 1992.
Acts 15:13-21, James Cites Amos 9
The apostles were careful to cite scripture as a precedent for their actions. They wanted to move ahead with God’s wisdom and not their own. For example, in choosing a disciple to replace Judas, they cited two scriptures in Acts 1:20—Psalm 69:25 and 109:8.
Now, in deciding this issue that they had to see as a turning point in the progress of the Yeshua-movement, they grounded their decision in scripture. James saw the answer in Amos 9, a scripture about Gentiles in the Messianic kingdom. The prophets of Israel, starting with Moses, had a long tradition of speaking of Gentile inclusion in God’s kingdom:
Rejoice, O nations, with His people. (Deut 32:43, “nations” is goyim).
All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will worship before You (Psalm 22:27).
Now it will come about that in the last days the mountain of the house of the Lord will be established as the chief of the mountains, and will be raised above the hills; and all the nations will stream to it (Isa. 2:2).
Then in that day the nations will resort to the root of Jesse, who will stand as a signal for the peoples; and His resting place will be glorious (Isa. 11:10).
It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make You a light of the nations so that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth (Isa. 49:6).
I will also take some of them [the nations] for priests and for Levites,” says the Lord (Isa. 66:21).
Naaman said, “If not, please let your servant at least be given two mules’ load of earth; for your servant will no longer offer burnt offering nor will he sacrifice to other gods, but to the Lord.” (2 Kings 5:17).
Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and stay there; behold, I have commanded a widow there to provide for you (1 Kings 17:9).
…and yet Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian (Luke 4:26-27).
James sees the principle clearly in Amos 9:11-12. James quotes Amos 9 with a few variations:
Amos 9:11-12 In that day I will raise up the fallen booth of David, And wall up its breaches; I will also raise up its ruins And rebuild it as in the days of old; 12 That they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by My name,” Declares the LORD who does this.
Acts 15:16-18 AFTER THESE THINGS I will return, AND I WILL REBUILD THE TABERNACLE OF DAVID WHICH HAS FALLEN, AND I WILL REBUILD ITS RUINS, AND I WILL RESTORE IT, 17 SO THAT THE REST OF MANKIND MAY SEEK THE LORD, AND ALL THE GENTILES WHO ARE CALLED BY MY NAME,’ 18 SAYS THE LORD, WHO MAKES THESE THINGS KNOWN FROM LONG AGO.
Of the variations between James’ citation and the text of Amos 9:11-12, one stands out as major. James says, “That the rest of mankind may seek the Lord,” whereas Amos says, “That they may possess the remnant of Edom.” This variation comes from the Septuagint, the Greek version also called the LXX.
Luke Johnson says it is this variation in the Septuagint that allows James to use this verse “midrashically” (p.265). In other words, James knows that the Hebrew text does not contain this phrase, but uses it as the rationale for citing this verse. James finds a hidden meaning in Amos 9:12 that God wants all mankind, including Gentiles, to seek him.
This view of scriptural authority, however, would not fit the pattern of the apostles. For them the scripture was the word of God. They would not base a doctrine on a difference between the Septuagint and the Hebrew text.
Rather, James cites the Septuagint because that is what he has memorized. Even Jews living in the land read from the Septuagint and found it an easy translation. James’ point does not come from the phrase, “That all mankind may seek the Lord.” Rather his point come from the phrase, “Gentiles who are called by his name.”
Gentiles Called by God’s Name
What occurred to James and brought light to the discussion of the apostles was a simple idea seen in the prophet Amos. In the last days God would take Gentiles to himself and put his name on them. And God said nothing about these Gentiles converting. Rather, God accepted them as Gentiles.
That means they would not need circumcision. They would not need to join Israel, as Caleb, Ruth, and others had done. They are Gentiles called by God’s name, not Gentile converts.
That is to say, God had always been open to accepting Gentiles. Further, it was understood that these Gentiles would not have to go back to their country and live the Jewish calendar and eat the Jewish diet. The Torah called upon Israel to eat a peculiar diet to separate them as holy from the Gentiles. The Torah called upon Israel to keep Shabbat as a sign between God and Israel (Exod 31:13). These Israel-specific practices were not incumbent on Gentiles to have a relationship with God.
With this precedent from scripture as a foundation, James and the apostles would receive Gentiles by faith into the community of Yeshua without circumcision or dietary law or Sabbath observance. Gentiles are welcome as Gentiles and Jews as Jews. The two are one, yet distinct, just as man and woman are one yet distinct.
Acts 15 Notes: Part 3
Leman, Derek. Paul Didn’t Eat Pork. Stone Mountain: Mt Olive Press, 2005.
…That We Not Trouble the Gentiles…
What does James mean? What exactly is it that they are not to trouble the Gentiles to do? At the start of the chapter, we find that certain believers wanted the Gentiles to:
Be circumcised, tantamount to conversion (vs.1).
“Direct them to observe the law of Moses” (vs.5).
When James says that the leaders of the Yeshua-movement should not trouble the Gentiles, then, he means:
They need not be circumcised.
They are not obligated to the whole law of Moses.
So many scriptures teach that not all of the Torah applies to Gentiles that it should be a simple conclusion. For example, the Torah itself says Shabbat is only for Israel (Exod. 31:13), dietary law is only for Israel (Deut. 14:21), and circumcision is only for Israel (Gen. 17). Galatians 5 warns the Gentiles considering conversion that if they allow themselves to be circumcised they will have to keep the whole Torah (Gal. 5:3). Colossians 2:16 tells Gentiles not to let others judge them regarding a Sabbath day. Romans 14:5, discussing differences between Jews and Gentiles, notes that not all follow the Sabbath.
“Abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood”
These four things all had to do with pagan temple life. Meat dedicated to idols was sold in the temples and was a common source of meat. Temple prostitution was widely practiced in Greco-Roman temples, much as it had been in the Ancient Near East. Tim Hegg, in Paul: The Letter Writer, provides evidence of drinking blood and eating strangled (not drained of blood) meat in pagan temples. James was saying, “These Gentiles don’t have to start living as Jews, but they need to immediately cease pagan temple practices.
“For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”
Those who believe that the Torah applies equally to Gentiles and Jews attempt to use this verse to prove their point. Here is how they interpret it, “For now the Gentiles need only worry about four major changes in their lifestyle. We can’t expect them to adopt a Torah-lifestyle overnight. Later, they will hear the word preached in synagogue and they will learn Torah and adopt it.”
There are several problems with this interpretation:
1. The followers of Yeshua were ejected from synagogues in many places. In Rome there were riots in the streets over Yeshua earlier than 48 C.E. The trouble in Galatia, most likely involving synagogue leaders threatening to expose Gentile followers of Yeshua as frauds, also occurred quite early and before Acts 15. James would not have assumed that Gentile disciples would be in synagogues.
2. James used the past tense, not the present or future. That is, he did not say, “After all, Moses is being preach in the synagogues.” He said, “Moses has from ancient times been preached in synagogues.”
A more consistent understanding of James’ point has been offered by Rabbi Russ Resnik. He observes that James is speaking about the past, “from the earliest times, Moshe has had in every city those who proclaim him.” James’s point has something to do with Moses having been preached in the past. Here is a possible answer: James is noting that the law of Moses, which has long been heard by Gentile God-fearers, did not result in a mass turning of Gentiles to God. It is the gospel which has done so. Thus, it is not conversion to a Jewish way of life that the Gentiles need.