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Studies in the Book of Acts

Decree of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15)

Part 1: The Literary Context

Acts 15 is the center of the book of Acts. In the story-flow of Acts, the Jerusalem council resolves crucial issues and enables the gentile mission to go forward with the approval of the Jerusalem church. The council helps portray the unity of the church and helps explain the church’s transformation from being essentially Jewish toward being a predominantly gentile community freed from laws characteristic of Judaism.

The apostolic decree (15:20, 29; 21:25) summarizes the results of the council: an inspired list of requirements for gentile converts. It shows how gentiles fit into the people of God.

Despite the crucial role of the Acts 15 council, despite the crucial role of the council’s decree, and despite numerous detailed studies, the council and decree remain controversial in several respects. I will bypass questions about the precise date of the council and differences in the Greek texts.

I will focus on literary context, literary source and purpose of the decree. My theses are: 1) The decree is given not as steps required for salvation, but in context of gentiles already being in the people of God. 2) This list was created at the council, not simply borrowed from rabbinic Noachic law lists or Levitical laws concerning aliens living in Israel. 3)I will argue that 15:21 implies that the decree was given in opposition to synagogue preaching, not in harmony with it. 4) Last, I will give evidence that the four prohibitions of the decree were idolatrous practices that gentiles should avoid.

Literary setting

The apostolic council was called because some Judean Christians were teaching gentile Christians in Antioch that they had to be circumcised or else they could not be saved (15:1). However, Luke’s readers already knew that uncircumcised people had been given the Holy Spirit and had been baptized (10:44-48). God had called gentiles to repentance and salvation (11:18), but a formal policy about circumcision had not yet been made.

Many gentiles had come into the church because of the work of Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13-14, especially 14:27), and it became evident that gentiles would become a substantial part of the church. It became necessary to clarify some theological and practical details of gentile membership in the church. Some Pharisees had also become believers (15:5). The council was called to determine how both Pharisees and gentiles could be part of the same community of believers.

Luke was inspired to present the story with a bias that helps his readers be favorable toward the decree. First, Luke’s readers already knew that circumcision was not required. Luke is contrasting the decree with an obviously erroneous position. Luke also tells us that Phoenician and Samaritan believers expressed great joy when they learned that gentiles were becoming believers (15:3). Paul and Barnabas were warmly welcomed by the Jerusalem church (15:4) — implying that the circumcision advocates were a minority even within the Jewish church. Both 14:27 and 15:4 remind us that the gentile mission was being done by God — implying that the opponents were opposing God.

Luke emphasizes the error of the Pharisee believers when he says that they taught that gentile believers must be circumcised and obey all the law of Moses to be saved (15:5).1 As more evidence of Luke’s bias, we see that he reports arguments against circumcision, but none in favor. And he tells us that the people of Antioch reacted to the decree with joy (15:31).

Peter’s speech

There was a lengthy discussion, as there had been in Antioch, but without the discord mentioned in 15:2. Luke is moving the discussion from “sharp dispute” toward resolution.

Peter reminded the group of the precedent set by Cornelius: God is the one who chooses to have gentiles hear and believe, and this was done first through Peter (15:7). Paul, probably a target of criticism both in Jerusalem and perhaps among Luke’s readers, was not the initiator —- God chose to do it. God knew the heart of the believing gentiles and gave them the Holy Spirit (15:8). Luke says it was a witness to them — to the gentile believers — but it now serves as a witness to the Jews, too. God did not discriminate; he treated gentiles and Jews alike (15:9).

By means of faith, God had purified gentile hearts, or made them ritually clean (cf. 10:15). Ritual purity was a major concern for strict Jews, especially Pharisees. After Peter’s involvement with Cornelius, criticism focused not on gentile salvation, but on Jew-gentile fellowship, which had been forbidden as a matter of purity (11:3). In Peter’s vision, too, purity was a major concern. In 15:9, Peter is saying that God had made the gentile believers clean in the heart, where it is most important, and acceptable to him even in their uncircumcised state.

Peter criticized the circumcision advocates by asking: “Therefore, why do you test or tempt God?” (15:10). The Cornelius event had happened much earlier, and they all understood it (15:7), so, Peter seems to imply, the question about circumcision shouldn’t have even been raised. If gentile believers are acceptable to God, they ought to be acceptable to Jewish believers. The extremists were advocating laws that the Jewish people had never been able to carry successfully (15:10).

Though modern readers may think that “yoke” and “burden” (15:10) are derogatory terms, Peter may not be criticizing the law. “When a Jewish writer spoke of the Law as `the yoke of the kingdom of heaven,’ he spoke of an obligation to which one gladly committed himself.”2 Peter says that the law is not an effective means of gaining acceptance with God. The Jews, even though they struggled with the yoke, had never achieved the kingdom of God. Law-keeping cannot save. Jews are saved by grace and faith (15:11), just as gentiles are.

The principle of salvation for those born Jews is measured by that for Gentiles, in a complete reversal of the expected order. God uses the salvation of the Gentiles to reveal to the Jewish believers the true ground of their own salvation. Peter’s statement stands as a direct rebuttal to the opening attack, “if you are not circumcised, you cannot be saved” (15:1).3

The question about salvation has already been answered: Gentiles do not need to be circumcised. They do not have to become Jewish by becoming proselytes. The assembly was silent (15:12), apparently in agreement, and they then heard about the miracles God had done in the gentile mission through Barnabas and Paul — the only reported contribution of Paul to the public debate!

James’ speech

James then spoke. Galatians presents him as a strict conservative, but Luke tells us little about him. He is a leader of the Jerusalem church (12:17). He speaks with authority (15:19); he and the elders tell Paul what to do (21:18, 23). He is presumably accepted by the readers as authoritative. “He is the only character in Acts whose authority no one questions.”4

James does not directly address the question of salvation or of circumcision, but his topic is related: the gentiles’ place in the church, the people of God. “Peter’s discourse tackles the issue of the salvation of the Gentiles in fundamental terms, while the discourse of James wrestles with this problem from the perspective of the Gentiles’ relationship to Israel.”5

James starts with God as the initiator, saying that God is taking a people out of the gentiles, a people for his name (15:14). Just as God was taking Jews to be his special people, he was also taking gentiles. “The Gentiles now turning to God are God’s people in the full sense that Israel is.”6 And since both gentiles and Jews are saved in the same way, the implication is that they are the same people of God. Nevertheless, gentiles can be saved without circumcision.

In 15:15-17, James said that the prophets (the Septuagint version of Amos 9:12) agreed with what God was doing. “Luke does not have James declare that `this thing’…agrees…with the prophets, so that the scripture text is the measure of how God can work, but the opposite: the working of God precedes the perception of the text’s agreement.”7 God will rebuild David’s fallen tent —- a reference to Christ and/or his kingdom —- so the remnant of men, including gentiles who have God’s name, may seek him. This quote from Amos helps “bring out more clearly the way in which the progress of the church is in accordance with the Old Testament prophecies.”8

By quoting Amos, James puts the gentile mission into a new age. As Marshall says, “God is doing something new in raising up the church; it is an event of the last days, and therefore the old rules of the Jewish religion no longer apply.”9 This prophecy had been known for ages, James said (15:18), so gentile converts should be no surprise nor cause for controversy.

Therefore, said James, I decide not to harass the gentiles (15:19). “James characterizes the Pharisees’ demands as a form of harassment of the Gentiles that he wants stopped.”10 Because God is doing this, James said, we should not put obstacles in the way of the gentiles who are turning to God.

In contrast to harassment, James decided to tell the gentiles to abstain from four things (to be discussed in detail below). The four restrictions are presented as minimal requests, as small, easy-to-comply-with requirements —- perhaps things the gentiles in Antioch were already doing. As Johnson says, “According to Luke’s presentation…the prohibitions are neither new to these Gentile converts nor a burden to them. This implies that they…would have already been observing them.”11 As Dunn notes in a similar setting, “Many of these Gentiles were sufficiently ready to conform to Jewish practices as to make possible regular social intercourse, including at least guest friendship and table-fellowship.”12

Moses preached in synagogues

Why these four restrictions? Because Moses is preached in every city (15:21). However, that’s not the only reason for the decree. The “therefore” at the beginning of 15:19 indicates that 15:14-18 is also a reason for the decree. The logical sequence is this: “A; therefore B, because of C.” C (15:21) is relevant because it explains how B (15:19-20) should be a consequence of A (15:14-18).

A: God is doing this work. B: Therefore we need a decree. C: Because Moses is preached in synagogues. The decree is needed not only because God is calling gentiles but also because Moses is being preached in synagogues. The sequence implies a contrast between the decree and the preaching of Moses, as has already been implied in 15:5.

The thought is this: Because God is doing this work (15:14-17), and because we do not want to hinder his work (15:19), we should therefore give gentile converts this decree (15:20) because much stricter rules are being preached in the synagogues (15:21). Pharisaic rules are too strict for gentile Christians, but because those rules are being taught in every city, we need to write a decree to let all gentiles believers know that they don’t have to keep the laws of Moses. James is advocating a contrast, not just a pared-down version of synagogue rules.

The “instead” that begins 15:20 also supports this. We do not want to harass the gentiles, James said. Instead, we should write an easy decree, because Moses is widely preached. This implies that synagogue preaching (the laws of Moses as interpreted by Pharisees) was a harassment for gentile Christians. The decree was needed because there was a conflict between God’s work and Pharisaic teaching. The decree is needed to counteract the harassing rules of the Pharisees.

This understanding is further supported when we analyze the audience of the synagogue preaching. Some commentators have assumed (without analysis) that James is referring to preaching that gentiles were hearing in the synagogues. But gentiles who attended synagogues had already changed their behavior to be acceptable to Jews; they had little or no need for a decree. Moreover, gentiles were coming into the church who did not have a background in the synagogue (11:20). There was a synagogue in Iconium (14:1), but none is mentioned for Lystra or Derbe, but there were disciples in each city, presumably from pagan backgrounds (14:8-22). James’ comment in 15:21, if it referred to gentiles who attended synagogues, would fail to address the situation the church was facing. The decree was needed even by gentiles who did not have a background in Judaism —- even by those who lived in cities that may not have had a synagogue (16:1-4).

The thought in 15:21 seems to be that in every city there are Jews who are being instructed in the laws of Moses.13 James was not encouraging gentiles to go to the synagogues to hear Moses be preached. Throughout the book of Acts, Christ is the one who is preached. It was the Pharisees who preached the law of Moses, and the decree was given in opposition to Mosaic law, not as a supplement to it. The decree was needed because of the discrepancy between synagogue preaching and God’s purpose.

The council’s letter

The Jerusalem sent two men with Paul and Barnabas to Antioch (15:22) to testify to the truth of the decree (15:27). These men strengthened the Antioch church (15:32) and contributed to the sense of unity.

The decree was addressed only to gentiles (15:23), since the four requirements were not designed for Jewish believers (who presumably kept a stricter code). The letter acknowledged the problem (admitting that the troublemakers had been part of the Jerusalem church), praised Barnabas and Paul, and introduced the delegates from Jerusalem (15:24-27). The decision was presented as inspired by the Holy Spirit.

The four requirements were necessary, but not burdensome (15:28). The decree was not a heavy-handed demand for obedience; there was no reference to salvation and no mention of penalties for infraction. Rather, the letter ends with the mild words: “You will do well to avoid these things.” Seifrid gives ample evidence for the rendering “you will prosper” or “do well.”14

Part 2: The Purpose of the Decree

The Four Requirements

The decree told gentile Christians to abstain from four things.15 Minor variations occur in order and number (15:20, 29; 21:25); these variations suggest that order and number are not significant. The four prohibitions:

1) Pollutions of idols (15:20) or things sacrificed to idols (15:29; 21:25). Wilson notes that “pollutions” could have either a religious sense or a reference to morality.16 All four prohibitions may be described as pollutions, as ritual uncleanness.17

2) Blood. This is a prohibition of eating or drinking blood.

3) Strangled things. Perhaps meat from strangled animals was forbidden because blood remained in the meat, but if that is the only reason, it would not seem necessary to mention strangled things in addition to blood. Wilson points out uncertainties in the meaning of strangled things. The verb means “strangle,” but the noun may refer to a method of cooking as well as of killing.18 Either way, it is an unusual dietary restriction. Strangled meat played a role in some pagan cults, and may have been mentioned because of that.19

4) Sexual immorality (porneia). Achtemeier notes that some scholars say it means fornication, others that it cannot mean fornication; some say it means incest; others say it cannot; some say adultery, or marriage to an idolater, or ritual prostitution.20 If the writer(s) of the decree wished to be precise, he picked the wrong term. Incest is included in the meaning of the term (1 Cor. 5:1), but other sexual aberrations were, too. The gentile recipients of the decree would probably have understood it as major sexual misconduct or perhaps more specifically as pagan temple prostitution. Wilson says, “The ban on porneia is a standard part of Christian exhortation… [often] in connection with or in the same list as idolatry.”21 Seifrid emphasizes the connection between porneia and idolatry: “Although porneia has an ethical dimension, there is good reason to think that all four elements are tied together by a common thread of concern with ritual defilement.”22

These four laws, of course, are not the only laws that Christians need. Many other Old Testament laws have greater claim to permanent validity. Why are they not mentioned? Does the decree assume that the gentiles know all the valid laws except these four? Why would it be necessary to list these four laws, but not others? To answer that, scholars have explored some possible literary sources of these prohibitions.

Source of the Rules: Two Common Theories

What was this collection of restrictions based on? Luke does not tell us. Common suggestions are either rabbinic “Noachic” laws, or laws for gentiles living in the land (Lev. 17-18). Most scholars have advocated either one or the other, but there are weaknesses with each.

A Noachic theory neatly explains the prohibition of blood (and, as a corollary, strangled meat, which contains blood), because Gen. 9:4 forbids blood. Since Noah is the ancestor of gentiles as well as Jews, these commands could with reason be applied to gentiles.

The rabbis listed seven Noachic laws: “idolatry, incest/unchastity, shedding blood, profanation of God’s name, robbery, injustice, and eating the flesh of a living animal.”23 Since the Talmud was written long after the apostolic decree, Sanders suggests that the Acts 15 decree is “an early version of the Noachic laws.”24 This might explain the discrepancy in number —- the Talmudic list is an expanded list, or the decree is a selective list. At least the Talmud shows that Jews discussed which laws applied to gentiles who wished to obey God. Dunn notes a variety of rabbinic opinions about which laws were applicable to proselytes, gentile Godfearers and resident aliens.25 It seems that the lists were flexible, not fixed.

However, the Noachic theory has serious shortcomings. In the rabbinic lists, blood is not directly forbidden. Strangled things are not specifically mentioned, either, and it is not clear that the prohibitions about porneia or idol-meat can be traced back to Noah. Wilson, after a thorough analysis (his discussion of the decree is probably the single best treatment), summarizes the weaknesses of the Noachic theory:

Noachic laws are dissimilar in both number and in content…. They do not, for example, forbid the consumption of “things sacrificed to idols,” although this might be subsumed under the general prohibition of idolatry, and it is the shedding rather than the consumption of blood which is banned.26

The most common theory is that of a Leviticus source. With a little creativity, Lev. 17-18 can be correlated to all four prohibitions. Lev. 17:2-9prohibits sacrifices to any god except Yahweh; 17:10 prohibits blood; 17:13-15 might be construed as prohibiting snare-strangled game; and 18:6-26 prohibits incestuous sex, homosexuality and other sexual aberrations. What makes the Leviticus theory especially attractive is that all four prohibitions apply specifically to alien gentiles as well as to Israelites. But the correspondence is not exact, and Wilson lists numerous problems.27 Lev. 17 is a questionable source of a prohibition about strangled meats, and it is unlikely that gentiles would understand the word porneia, by itself, to include the Leviticus incest tabus. As Seifrid says, “It is hard to see how Luke intended the readers of the Decree in the narrative, gentile believers, to discern a narrow Jewish sense.”28

Scholars often mention incest, because Lev. 18 includes it in great detail, but it is unlikely that the decree had that as its main meaning. Wilson notes, “The common meaning of porneia —- fornication, licentiousness, harlotry —- is far broader than the notion of consanguineous [incestuous] marriages.”29 Nor would Jews assume that the sexual behavior of gentiles was acceptable except for their definition of incest. It seems best to understand porneia in a broad sense; the discussion of incest in Lev. 18 is a coincidence rather than the main sexual guidelines needed by gentile Christians.

Another problem with the Leviticus theory is that Luke does not indicate that the decree has a biblical origin. Wilson notes: “Luke presents the decree as apostolic rather than Mosaic in origin…and we might suppose that, with his penchant for quoting the Old Testament to prove a point, he would have referred clearly to Lev. 17-18 [or Gen. 9] if that was the connection he had wished to make.”30

Another objection is that other Mosaic laws applying to aliens living in Israel were not included in the decree. The alien (ger in Hebrew proselytos in the Septuagint31) was also required to keep the Sabbath (Ex. 23:12Deut. 5:14), to keep the annual festivals (Lev. 16:29Deut. 16:1114)), to be cleansed by the ashes of a red heifer (Num. 19:10), to give sacrifices (Num. 15:27-29), and to be circumcised if he wanted to observe the Passover (Ex. 12:48-49).32 Is there any logic for including some alien laws but not others? None is given.

The mention of strangled meat is especially puzzling, for either theory. Is avoiding strangled things just as important as avoiding sexual immorality? Neither the Old Testament nor the New gives strangled things that much importance. The old covenant penalty for eating blood was being “cut off” (Lev. 17:14), but the penalty for eating meat that might have blood in it was only ritual uncleanness (Lev. 15:15). Moreover, Deut. 14:21 allows gentiles to eat animals that die without proper slaughter. So even by Old Testament standards, “strangled things” doesn’t seem to be a very important prohibition. The New Testament contains many prohibitions, but “strangled things” is not repeated anywhere else in the New Testament. Neither theory explains why it is in the decree.

Another weakness of both Noachic and Leviticus theories is that, if the list were based on the law of Moses, it would imply that the law of Moses was still in force — four laws for gentiles, and 613 laws for Jews. This would perpetuate Jew-gentile distinctions in contradiction to Peter’s statement in 15:9-11 and Paul’s in Eph. 2:11-18. It does not make sense to see the council’s decree as based on the law of Moses.

Both Noachic and Levitical theories have serious inadequacies. The variety of rabbinic opinions —- long after the date of Acts —- about which laws applied to gentiles33 suggests that there was no list of undisputed authority, whether Noachic or Levitical, that the apostles could have quoted from. More likely, the decree was created specifically for the early Christian church. The four prohibitions do not need to have a common source; one may have come from Gen. 9 or Lev. 17, another from a different scriptural passage; yet another from a cultural custom, etc.

Purpose of the Decree

Many commentators have concluded that the decree was designed to make it possible for Jewish and gentile Christians to fellowship together without requiring the Jewish Christians to compromise their purity customs. Indeed, there is almost a consensus that the decree required gentiles to conform to the most important sensitivities of Jewish Christians. This view is held by Longenecker, Neyrey, Seifrid, Tannehill, and others.34

Some commentators specify that the issue is table-fellowship: eating together. It is true that table-fellowship was an important part of social acceptance, and it is true that three parts of the decree may involve dietary restrictions, but Luke says nothing in this chapter (unlike 11:3) about table-fellowship. Sanders35 correctly notes three problems with the table-fellowship theory:

1) “The four prohibitions in the decree hardly cover the laws of kashrut: one need think only of pork, shellfish, and meat with milk.” It is unlikely that gentiles would know all the Jewish table-fellowship rules except for the four mentioned in the decree. Nor does it seem likely that these four are the most important rules. If gentiles kept the decree, they could still be unclean by Pharisee standards (even pious, God-fearing Cornelius was controversial).

2) “The [Jewish] dietary laws do not, in fact, prevent Gentiles and Jews having a common meal —- if the Jews do the cooking.” If table-fellowship had been the problem, it could have been solved without a decree. Common sense would have told the gentiles that fellowship could proceed if they followed Pharisee rules.

3) “The Apostolic Council is not convened to deal with the issue of dining together.” The council was about salvation; Acts 11:3 had already addressed the matter of eating together.

4) There is a fourth problem with the fellowship theory: There is no decree to Pharisee Christians that they must accept decree-observant gentiles as clean for fellowship. A decree only to gentiles (whether in the original setting or in Luke’s readership) is an inadequate basis for fellowship because the gentiles were given fewer rules than the Pharisees wanted them to have. Also, for this theory, it is odd that porneiawould be mentioned but other sins not mentioned.

Other Suggestions

Because the more common theories about purpose are not entirely convincing, other suggestions are worth examining in greater detail. Some have suggested that the decree simply prohibited customs associated with pagan cults.36 This view answers some questions and may be the least unsatisfactory explanation.

All four prohibited things had some connection with pagan customs. Pollutions of idols has an obvious connection with paganism. Porneia can, too, since it can refer to cultic prostitution, or it may be a metaphor for religious disloyalty.37 Blood could also have connections with pagan religion:

That haima [blood] refers to the bloody rites of pagan sacrifices, one of their most prominent features, is certainly feasible…. It was also the custom in some cults to drink the blood of the victim…. It is not difficult, therefore, to see how blood could have been associated in a variety of ways with pagan cults, especially if that association had already been established by other terms of the decree [such as beginning the list with “pollutions of idols”].38

What about strangled things? Origen wrote that blood, including that in strangled meat, was said to be the food of demons: “If we were to eat strangled animals, we might have such spirits feeding along with us.”39 Scythians and Indians were known to strangle their animals, but most Greek cults bled the sacrifices, so the “strangled things” prohibition doesn’t fit perfectly. But strangling was a pagan custom in Alexandria, and old Macedonian cults killed without bleeding the animals.40 The word was also used for some unusual (pagan?) cooking method.41 Since Antioch in Syria included many ethnic groups from the east, it is possible that strangulation was a cultic custom there.42 Would gentile Christians be tempted to continue or resume such pagan practices? Apparently they were in Corinth; it is plausible that a decree to this effect would be needed. This is possible, but not proven. Perhaps it seems unlikely.

Unfortunately, the word for “strangled things” is so rare that almost any meaning is “unlikely” and “difficult.” But in the Acts 15 decree, it is not any more difficult to interpret it as referring to paganism than it is to interpret it in terms of Jewish sensitivities. Since the decree already forbad blood, there would be no need to mention “strangled things” unless they were wrong for additional reasons. At least the pagan-cultic theory of the decree’s purpose gives a possible explanation for mentioning strangled things in addition to blood.

However, it may be misleading to expect all four prohibitions to be of the same category. Old Testament laws mixed ritual and moral laws; Jewish vice lists also did, and other Christian lists did, too. The first three items may have been prohibited for cultic associations, and porneia for moral reasons; all were considered equally polluting and ungodly. Since idolatry and sexual immorality were considered chief sins of gentiles, it would be reasonable to address both problems in an early decree.

Conclusion

The best explanation of the decree, if a single explanation must be sought, is that it forbids gentile Christians to participate in four things associated with pagan cults. This conclusion is supported in part by the failure of other theories to explain the decree, and it harmonizes with these facts:

  • Gentiles without synagogue background were coming into the church —- a situation significantly different than that faced in Acts 10. Their single greatest instructional need would be to avoid paganism or syncretism.
  • The decree lists four things demonstrably associated with pagan cults as well as with Jewish sensitivities. The words have other associations, too, but pagan cultic associations are a viable option.
  • The decree is presented as easy to comply with, not a burden, something the gentiles may have already been in compliance with.
  • James says the decree is needed because he did not want to hinder gentile conversions, but he implied that synagogue preaching would. The decree is much less than synagogues taught and much less than Pharisee Christians would observe.
  • The decree is given in answer to people who taught that gentiles had to keep the law of Moses. This implies that the decree is not based on the law of Moses. It does not perpetuate ritualistic laws for either Jews or gentiles.
  • This theory explains why all gentiles needed to comply with the decree, whether they lived near Jews or not, and why there was no decree for Jewish Christians.

Endnotes

1A few people have said that the Pharisee claim was not that gentiles had to be circumcised and to obey the law of Moses, but to be circumcised in order to obey the law of Moses. The people then argue that the council rejected only circumcision and not the need to obey the law of Moses — that is, that the council merely concluded that gentiles do not have to be circumcised in order to obey the law of Moses (as if everyone agreed that the law of Moses should be obeyed; only that it did not require gentiles to be circumcised). This interpretation would make the decree unnecessary. Moreover, the Greek words do not support this translation, and I am not aware of any published translation that conveys this idea. Acts 21:20-25 shows that gentiles do not have to obey the law of Moses. Also, John 7:22-23 shows that circumcision is part of the law of Moses. Last, Gal. 5:3 shows that circumcision cannot be separated from the law as a whole; they are part of the same package. The Pharisees were claiming that gentiles had to obey the whole package of old covenant law.

2Royce Dickinson Jr. “The Theology of the Jerusalem Conference, Acts 15:1-35.” Restoration Quarterly 29 (1987) 65-83, p. 70, citing an article by John Nolland.

3Luke Timothy Johnson. The Acts of the Apostles. Sacra Pagina Series, vol. 5. (Collegeville, Minn.: Michael Glazier/Liturgical Press, 1992), p. 263. 

4Jacob Jervell. Luke and the People of God: A New Look at Luke-Acts.(Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1972), pp. 185-6.

5Dickinson. p. 68.

6Robert C. Tannehill. The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A Literary Interpretation. Volume 2: The Acts of the Apostles. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), p. 187.

7Johnson, p. 264.

8Ian Howard Marshall. The Acts of the Apostles. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), p. 253.

9Ibid.

10Johnson, p. 266.

11Johnson, p. 273.

12James D.G. Dunn. Jesus, Paul, and the Law. (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox, 1990), p. 150, citing Josephus, Jewish War7.3.3.

13Luke is favorable to Mosaic law — for Jews. He points out the circumcision of Jesus, for example, and the circumcision of Timothy, whose mother was Jewish (16:1-3). Luke defends Paul from the accusation that he encouraged Jews to abandon the law of Moses. But Luke has a different approach when discussing the role of Mosaic law for gentiles.

14M.A. Seifrid. “Jesus and the Law in Acts.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament. 30 (1987) 39-57, p. 56, note 41.

15In some Western Greek manuscripts, the decree contains only three ethical admonitions: Avoid idolatry, blood (in the sense of bloodshed) and sexual immorality. This fits in with “the rabbinic tradition which considers the three primary sins of the Gentiles to be precisely idolatry, shedding of blood and immorality” (Stephen G. Wilson. Luke and the Law. [Cambridge: University Press, 1983], p. 80). However, Wilson also observes that “the Western version consists of such widely accepted ethical norms that a decree to this effect would be superfluous” (Stephen G. Wilson. The Gentiles and the Gentile Mission in Luke-Acts. [Cambridge: University Press, 1973], p. 188).

All major English translations, including the King James and the NIV, use a Greek text with four prohibitions. The textual questions are discussed in detail in Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. (New York: United Bible Societies, 1971), pp. 429-433.

16Wilson, Luke, p. 82.

17Seifrid, p. 48

18Wilson, Luke, pp. 88-91.

19Hans Bietenhard. “Pnigo, apopnigo, sympnigo, pniktos.” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Ed. Gerhard Friedrich, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), vol. 6, pp. 455-8, citing Philo).

20Paul J. Achtemeier. The Quest for Unity in the New Testament Church: A Study in Paul and Acts. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), p. 84.

21Wilson, Luke, p. 93.

22Seifrid, p. 48.

23Wilson, Luke, p. 86, citing Sanhedrin 56b and Sibylline Oracles 4:28-29. Dunn (p. 144) cites Aboda Zara 64b and Sanhedrin 56a. Maxwell cites Midrash Genesis Rabbah 16:6 (Soncino ed., p. 131), Midrash Song of Songs Rabbah 1:2(5) (Soncino ed.. pp. 26-7), and Midrash Deuteronomy Rabbah 1:21 (Soncino ed., pp. 23-4) (C. Mervyn Maxwell and P. Gerard Damsteegt, eds., Source Book for the History of Sabbath and Sunday. [Berrien Springs, Mich.: Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, 1992], pp. 74-75).

24Jack T. Sanders. The Jews in Luke-Acts. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), pp. 121-2.

25Dunn, pp. 142-147.

26Wilson, Luke, p. 74.

27Wilson, Luke, pp. 84-94.

28Seifrid, p. 48.

29Wilson, Luke, p. 88.

30Wilson, Luke, p. 85.

31The Septuagint version of Lev. 17-18 has the restrictions apply to the proselytos. But a major conclusion of the Acts 15 council was that gentiles did not have to become proselytes, so it would be confusing for the decree to quote, without clarification, proselytos laws.

32If the council were discussing alien laws and chose only four, the Sabbath and annual festivals were specifically excluded — not required for gentiles. We might be tempted to argue this, but it does not seem exegetically sound, since the decree probably was not based on the alien laws. Rather, the council concluded that gentiles did not have to look to the law of Moses for a description of Christian conduct.

33Dunn, pp. 142-7.

34Richard N. Longenecker. “The Acts of the Apostles.” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Ed. Frank E. Gaebelein. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), p. 448; Jerome H. Neyrey. “Ceremonies in Luke-Acts: The Case of Meals and Table-Fellowship.” The Social World of Luke-Acts: Models for Interpretation. Ed. Jerome H. Neyrey. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1991), pp. 380-382.; Seifrid, p. 47; and Tannehill, p. 191.

35Sanders, p. 120.

36Wilson, although not dogmatic, seems to favor this cultic theory (Luke, pp. 94-99, citing Lake and Kümmel as scholars who also supported this view).

37Lake points out “a serious difficulty” in understanding porneia as a reference to cultic prostitution: “none of the early Christian writers interpreted the decree in this way” (Kirsopp Lake. “The Apostolic Council of Jerusalem.” The Beginnings of Christianity. Ed. Frederick J. Foakes-Jackson and Kirsopp Lake. Part I, The Acts of the Apostles, vol. 5. [London: MacMillan, 1933], pp. 195-212; quote from p. 207).

38Wilson, Luke, pp. 97-8.

39Ibid., pp. 96-7, citing Contra Celsum 8.30.

40Bietenhard, pp. 457-8.

41Wilson, Luke, pp. 89-91.

42Christians in the West would be less likely to know that strangled things were associated with pagan customs. Perhaps this explains why the word was omitted in the Western text.

**Several additional studies of the decree have been published since  this paper was written.

Michael Morrison, PhD GCS offers online master's degrees.