In my previous post, I asked some very straightforward questions about the text of Acts 15. Those who believe that Paul was teaching the exact same thing as the 12 disciples will, predictably, struggle with these questions. This is because the questions try to explore the actual events in Acts 15, and it is hard to fit the events into a “covenant theology” mindset. Because the covenant theologian teaches that all individuals throughout the entire Bible had the exact same ministry (and meant the exact same thing by “gospel” or “saved” or “faith“) it is hard for them to deal with theological struggles among the leadership in the church. Their strategy is to paint the detractors as heretics, but it just doesn’t fit the text.
Instead, here is a fitting narrative of the events in Acts 15:
Acts 14 ends with Paul’s ministry to Galatia (specifically the city of Antioch). In Antioch there was a fairly large church consisting of both Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles, but mainly Gentiles. The Gentiles had converted because Paul taught something that was very appealing to them (not getting circumcised yet being considered equal with the Jews). Things are going fine until there arrived disciples (v 24) of Peter and James from Judea.
These disciples see that the Gentiles are considering themselves equal with Jews yet not keeping the commandments of Moses. In the Old Testament, God almost killed Moses for not circumcising. This was important to the Jews.
Claiming the authority of Peter and James, they start to preach against Paul’s circumcision-less gospel. They claim that not only must Gentiles be circumcised but that Gentiles much also follow the whole law. The Christian Gentiles start to listen to them. After all, Peter was a direct disciple of Jesus, and James was Jesus’ own brother. Contrast this to Paul; whose primary claim to fame is that he once persecuted Christians. Paul was an upstart with no direct connection to Jesus. Paul did not walk and talk to Jesus, much less even meet Jesus. The disciples of James and Peter discredit Paul on these grounds.
Paul debates vigorously with the disciples of James and Peter. But after no headway, everyone decides it would be best to ask James and Peter directly. To solve this dispute, a committee is formed and sent to Jerusalem.
On the way to Jerusalem, Paul takes it upon himself to stir up goodwill towards the Gentiles and starts proclaiming the good things that has happened due to his own unique ministry. If Galatians 2 describes the same events as Acts 15 (and I think they do), we also learn that Paul secretly met with Peter, James and John to further secure favor before any controversy would erupt.
After arriving at Jerusalem, news of Paul’s ministry spreads. A new contingent of Christian Jews arise that proclaim the exact same thing as those in Galatia. They say explicitly that the Gentiles need to keep the laws of Moses. The revelations about Paul’s ministries stir up such a commotion that the elders (including the 12 disciples) had to convene a special session to consider the matter. Until this point (and afterwards as described in Acts 21), the 12 disciples were still preaching the law.
The debate was furious. The Christian Jews were wedded to the law. Acts 21 states they were “zealous for the law”. Peter (the peacemaker) then decides to break up the intense discussion and recounts his own experience with Gentiles. He states that Gentiles can still be saved, but don’t have to convert to Judaism.
This pause in the debates also allows Paul to proclaim all the good that his ministry is accomplishing among the Gentiles. No one can dispute the good things that Paul uses as evidence. There is brief silence.
James takes this opportunity to declare a compromise. The Jews should not trouble the Gentiles anymore. Although the Gentiles have to follow a couple of commands, they did not have to fulfill the most burdensome aspects of the law. James states that only basic Jewish law is applicable (not eating strangled animals or blood, not worshiping idols, and not engaging in sexual immorality). Otherwise, the Gentiles were free.
They decide to advertise this compromise with a letter. The letter is addressed only to Gentiles and reassures the Gentiles that the previous disciples were never commanded to teach circumcision to the Gentiles. To re-enforce this letter, they send direct representatives back to Galatia (so that people don’t think Paul is just making things up).
The icing on the cake is that sometime thereafter, Paul is caught teaching that even Jews did not have to follow the law. When Paul returns to Jerusalem, a riot ensues. Before the riot, James recollects about the previous decree they made (applicable only to Gentiles) and then commands Paul to engage in activity to prove that Paul does not (DOES NOT!) preach that Jews do not have to keep the law. James literally recounts that their previous letter was only to the Gentiles, and that they teach no such thing to the Jews.
Here is the text:
Act 21:18 On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present.
Act 21:19 When he had greeted them, he told in detail those things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.
Act 21:20 And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord. And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many myriads of Jews there are who have believed, and they are all zealous for the law;
Act 21:21 but they have been informed about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs.
Act 21:22 What then? The assembly must certainly meet, for they will hear that you have come.
Act 21:23 Therefore do what we tell you: We have four men who have taken a vow.
Act 21:24 Take them and be purified with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads, and that all may know that those things of which they were informed concerning you are nothing, but that you yourself also walk orderly and keep the law.
Act 21:25 But concerning the Gentiles who believe, we have written and decided that they should observe no such thing, except that they should keep themselves from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality.”
The next thing that happens is a riot involving Jewish Christians against Paul. Paul was even warned of this before he came to Jerusalem. Paul was in danger of being killed by both Christian and Judaic Jews for his teaching!
This is the narrative that fits the text. Alternative narratives should at least address the questions posted in my previous blog post.