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The Jerusalem Council – The Decision

Posted by on Sep 30, 2010 in scripture | 18 comments

The Jerusalem Council – The Decision

Over the last few days, I’ve been writing about the so-called “Jerusalem Council” of Acts 15:1-35. (See my posts “The Jerusalem Council – Introduction” and “The Jerusalem Council – Literary Position.”) In this post, I will consider the decision that was reached during the council.

In my first post, I quoted Stein’s article on “Jerusalem” in The Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, as follows:

[T]he results of the Jerusalem Council were a clear victory for Paul. The church with one voice recognized that salvation was by grace alone. The Gentiles needed only believe. Those who were troubling them and demanding their circumcision were refuted. (Edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, Daniel G. Reid; Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1993, pg 469)

Stein refers to the council’s “decision” that it was necessary for Gentiles to be circumcised in order to be saved.

But, is this truly a decision reached by the council? No. This had already been determined because of the events of Acts 10 in Cornelius’ house, which Peter later recounted in Acts 11.

Luke described Cornelius as a centurion who was also “a devout who feared God” (Acts 10:2 ESV). More than likely, this phrase indicates that Cornelius had not converted to Judaism (and had not been circumcised). Also, Cornelius was not the only Gentile involved. He “had called together his relative and close friends” to hear Peter. Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit fell on everyone who heard Peter’s message.

What did Peter and the Jewish Christians who were with him think about this? Luke writes:

And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. (Acts 10:45 ESV)

Luke even calls the Jewish Christians those “among the circumcised” to point out the difference between them and the Gentiles.

When Peter later told this story about Cornelius to others in the church in Jerusalem who were concerned about uncircumcised people being saved, Luke writes:

When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” (Acts 11:18 ESV)

The church in Jerusalem had already accepted the fact that God was saving Gentiles. This was not a decision made by the church in Jerusalem; it was a decision made by God and simply recognized by the church. They saw and experienced that God was saving Gentiles, and that he was then filling them with the Holy Spirit, just as he had done to the disciples (in Acts 2) and to Samaritans (in Acts 8).

Therefore, the Jerusalem Council was not about whether or not God would accept Gentiles without circumcision. That had already been witnessed and recognized and decided.


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 9-30-2010


    If everything was settled with the Cornelius episode then how then do you read Acts 15:1–2? Luke states, “And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’” (15:1). Note that the ones who are making the statement are described as from Judea. Or in other words, these were not Hellenistic Jews. Apparently, these folks didn’t get the Cornelius memo. Notice also the litote in 15:2 “no small dissension” suggests that the requirements of salvation for Gentiles, is still very much a live issue. Furthermore, if it was as settled as you seem to suggest in Acts 10–11, then why do the disputing parties need to go to Jerusalem to settle the issue? Why do you have to settle what has already been settled? Another point merits consideration. I would suggest that it seems unlikely that the Judean Jews would have considered it a foregone conclusion that they would lose the debate in Jerusalem. I think it is important to understand that the idea that Gentiles could be saved and how they could be saved (these are not exactly the same issue) was a massive paradigm shift for the early Jewish church. (See Peter in Acts 10.) Paradigm shifts are not like turning a light switch on and off. By the way, it is worth noting that while the Cornelius episode is referenced in the speeches of Peter and James at the Council, the salvation of Cornelius is not the only argument made by these men (see 15:10–11, 15–18).

  2. 9-30-2010


    I could ask the same question about the Jerusalem Council. If the question of salvation with circumcision was settled in Acts 15:1-35, then who were those “zealous for the law” in Acts 21:18-22. The fact that the church recognizes that salvation is possible without circumcision in Acts 11 or Acts 15 does not negate that fact that some (many?) Jewish Christians continue to impose the law on other Christians.

    Also, notice how the Jerusalem Christians summarize the “Jerusalem Council” and letter in Acts 21:25. Where is the mention of their “judgment” that salvation is possible without circumcision? I’ll talk about this in a later post.

    And, by the way, I think there is a very good explanation as to why Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem apart from asking the church in Jerusalem to make a decision. I’ll cover that a little later also.


  3. 9-30-2010


    You are exactly right in noting that the issue continues to be in play through Acts. That is part of the point I am making. But note that the Jerusalem Council is remarkable in a number of ways and thus is central to Acts. It is remarkable in that the major players are present (Peter, James, Paul, Barnabas, the elders, the apostles). It is significant that this meeting takes place in Jerusalem (the acknowledged center of the early Christian movement) and not in Antioch or elsewhere. The Jerusalem Council is noteworthy because it is unprecedented. While Christianity would have a number of councils after this (e.g.,Nicea, Chalcedon,etc.) this one appears to be the first.

    By the way, whatever other reasons that Paul and Barnabas may have had for going to Jerusalem, what does Acts 15:2 explicitly say? Shouldn’t we deal with the text at hand before attempting to read the white space?

  4. 9-30-2010


    Yes, I plan to deal with Acts 15:2, along with some other passages (not white space) that tell us why Paul and Barnabas came to Jerusalem. There is a very good reason given to us in the text. By the way, notice that Paul and Barnabas did not plan to return to Jerusalem. Did they really think of Jerusalem as “the center of early Christian movement”? Or was that “acknowledged” by others instead?

    So, we agree that the meeting in Acts 15:1-35 does not settle the issue for all Jewish Christians. We can then take that out of the list of results of the “Jerusalem Council.” Concerning salvation by circumcision, nothing new was “decided” at the council.


  5. 9-30-2010


    I would agree with the general consensus that church in Jerusalem was considered so by the early Christians, including Paul to be the center of the early Christian movement. One might note the central function of Jerusalem in Luke-Acts. In Luke, you are moving towards Jerusalem, in Acts you are moving from Jerusalem.

    No, I would argue that the issue was settled at the Jerusalem Council. It was a church decision affirmed by the Holy Spirit (15:28). The fact that the decision was carried to Antioch also suggests that the issue was decisively addressed (15:30). But just because a decision has been reached does not mean that it will be immediately embraced. I am old enough to remember when wearing a seat belt in a car became mandatory, and yet many people resisted the law (and some still do). Or perhaps, one can look at Christian history. The early church councils definitively repudiated Arianism, but even after these councils, Arianism continued to be a major problem for years to come.

  6. 9-30-2010


    Everything you said about the Jerusalem Council (in your second paragraph) could be said about the “council” in Acts 11.


  7. 9-30-2010

    How so? Neither Paul or Barnabas were present as far as the text notes. There is no mention of James although one might argue that he was there. The Holy Spirit was noted in the retelling of the Cornelius story, but is not mentioned in regard to the “decision.” In fact a careful reading of the text notes that there is no explicit decision is made, but rather a recognition and response of what God had done. Also, the “decision” that you have seemed to suggest is not carried to Antioch. It is interesting that I do not recall a single commentary that would call Acts 11 a “council.”

  8. 9-30-2010


    You didn’t mention Paul or Barnabas in the second paragraph that I mentioned, but notice that Acts 11:1-2 does mention “the apostles and the brother who were throughout Judea” along with “the circumcized party.” That seems pretty broad and inclusive. The Holy Spirit did not “affirm” (to use your previous term) decision in Acts 11, because the Holy Spirit initiated the decision in Acts 11:15, not to mention in Acts 10. The decision that God has accepted the Gentiles (“God has granted repentance that leads to life”) is mentioned in the decision of Acts 11, but not in the decision of Acts 15. And, in fact, the very next passage in Acts 11 has the Gospel spreading to Antioch.

    So, everything mentioned to make Acts 15 a “council” is also found in Acts 11.

    Many of my other arguments will have to wait until my later posts, especially concerning the “decision” in Acts 15.


  9. 9-30-2010

    Thanks for the correction concerning Paul and Barnabas. You are right.

    But I would disagree that “everything mentioned to make Acts 15 a ‘council’ is also found in Acts 11.” Not only for the reasons I have noted, but I do not know of a single source that has argued that what happens in Acts 11 and Acts 15 are basically the same kind of event. And as I have already noted, I do not know of a single source that would argue that Acts 11 is a council. If you know of something published that does so I would be very interested (I mean that sincerely). I have done a lot of work in this area, but obviously one cannot read or remember everything.

  10. 9-30-2010


    I’ve appreciated the discussion on this topic. Actually, I don’t see any reason to call either Acts 11 or Acts 15 a “council.” In each case, the church was meeting to solve a problem, and we see several instances of this in Scripture. But, of course, I’m going against the grain by not recognizing Acts 15 as a special kind of meeting that is typically called a council.

    I have just started studying this topic in Scripture, so I have not studied the academic literature. I think there are good reasons for scholars to accept Acts 15 as a special council, whether Scripture justifies this or not.


  11. 9-30-2010


    I too appreciate the dialogue.

    I think that one might be able to argue that the label “council” might be anachronistic. But I am not sure that the problem is the label. If I have read you correctly, you are disputing the central role of what happens in Acts 15. But whether one calls it a council or not, the text in Acts I believe suggests that this is a watershed event. Note what the text does state (some of this will be a rehash).

    1. We have a meeting for the primary purpose of addressing Gentile salvation (not the if, but the how).
    2. We have a meeting with the major players present(especially Peter and Paul).
    3. We have a meeting in Jerusalem (a city of central Christian importance). By the way, it is worth noting that the circumcision camp are on their home turf as it were.
    4. We have two significant speeches from two prominent leaders in a book where speeches play an important role (see M. Soards).
    5. We have James functioning as a moderator of sorts (debated, but F.F. Bruce suggests it).
    6. We have a clearly stated decision affirmed by those present and by the Holy Spirit.
    7. We have a written decree which is noted three times in Acts. There are only a handful of events mentioned three times in Acts.
    8. We have the intentional taking of the decree to Antioch.
    9. We are told that Antioch responds positively to the decree. Think about how that functions at a literary level.
    10. At a broader literary/thematic level I would suggest that it is worth noting that Acts occurs between Paul’s first and second “missionary journeys. An important question to ask is how Paul’s journeys function at a literary level, particularly in relation to Acts 1:8.
    11. And just for grins, J. Fitzmyer has noted that Acts 1-14 contains 12,385 words in English whereas Acts 15-28 contains 12,502 words. I am not sure what the Greek word count would be, but I suspect it would be comparable. In any case, it is illustrative.

  12. 9-30-2010


    I still think that many of your points could also refer to Acts 11. Plus, Acts 10-11 is rhetorically prominent given the repetition, and is then repeated a third time in one of the major speeches of Acts 15.


  13. 9-30-2010


    Think about what you are trying to demonstrate here. You want to demonstrate that Acts 10-11 is a better candidate for the center than Acts 15 (If I understand you correctly). In order to do this Acts 10-11 must be a better candidate and not merely one that bears some similarities to Acts 15. I think that you are going to have a hard time validating that at either a textual or literary level. Acts 10-11 is part of the crisis that leads to Acts 15. I just don’t think you can demonstrate that the high point of Acts is in chapters 10-11. But since you have admitted to being at the front end of your study you might want to work through a bit more of the literature. I reiterate the request that you share sources that you find which support your thesis. I would be very interested in them. You can check the index of my blog (under Acts, Jerusalem Council) and see that I am very interested in Acts in general, and the Jerusalem Council in particular.

  14. 9-30-2010


    I’m not concerned with proving that either Acts 10-11 or Acts 15 is the center of the book. I do think that Acts 10-11 represents a very important transition in Acts, and is at least as prominent as Acts 15.


  15. 9-30-2010


    I think I understand what you are getting at based on your closing statement in the post. Even if the “special council” horribly crashed, it wouldn’t change the Truth.

    Without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he that cometh to God must believe that HE IS, and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him.

    For Abram believed in the Lord and He counted it to him for righteousness.

    Before circumcision….before the law.

  16. 9-30-2010


    But you stated on the previous post which you link to this one one that, “Thus, if Acts 15:1-35 is important literarily, it is only because Acts 10-11 is important literarily, and actually more important.”
    According to this you are saying two things, the importance of Acts 15 is dependent on the importance of Acts 10-11. I wouldn’t quite put it that way, but okay because that tends to be how narrative works. Your second point is that Acts 10-11is more important literarily. I think that might be problematic.

    I certainly do not doubt that Acts 10-11 represents an important transition. But note that in Acts 1:8 the progress of the gospel is presented in geographical terms. As important as the Cornelius episode is, it occurs in Caesarea, or in other words, still in Judea. So Cornelius does not really fulfill the “end of the earth” of Acts 1:8. It is not until you get to the travels of Paul that you get to the fulfillment of 1:8. Think it through literarily. And as i have already noted, Acts 15 occurs in between Paul’s first two missionary journeys. In a very real sense the legitimacy of Paul’s mission is being questioned. For me, that raises the stakes for the significance of Acts 15.

  17. 9-30-2010


    Yes, the “decision” to accept the Gentiles without circumcision was made by God, demonstrated in Acts 10, and reported to and accepted by the church in Acts 11. There was no decision for the church to make.


    That’s correct. I think that Acts 10-11 is more prominent that Acts 15. That does not mean that I think Acts 10-11 is the literary center of the book.

    If the travels of Paul fulfill Acts 1:8, why would that not be in Acts 13?


  18. 9-30-2010


    I think we will have to disagree on the prominence issue.
    I would be curious to know though, if neither Acts 10-11 or Acts 15 is the literary center, then what is?

    But you do ask a great question about Acts 1:8 and Acts 13. Let me clarify first that the fulfillment of Acts 1:8’s “end of the earth is usually understood in the sense of Paul in Rome (Acts 28). And although I think it is legitimate to speak of three (or some prefer four journeys), in a broader context one can see one one long journey culminating in Rome, with three or four legs to the journey. The importance of Acts 15 is that it validates Paul’s first journey and provides the introduction to Paul’s second journey. By the way, a number of interpreters feel (and with some good reason in my opinion) that Paul’s second journey is the most significant of the three. But in any case, I think one could argue that a significant point for Luke in Acts is to validate Paul’s ministry. Note how Paul towers over half of the entire book. I think it is telling that the literary function of Peter and James in Acts 15 is to validate Paul’s mission as it were. Note that after validating Paul’s ministry in Acts 15, Peter disappears from the narrative completely and James only makes a brief appearance in Acts 21. So like Acts 10-11, I feel that Acts 13-14 lead up to the pivotal moment in Acts 15.The decision of the Council then provides a segue into the rest of Paul’s travels which will ultimately culminate in Rome.