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Saint James the Just

James the Just, whose judgment was adopted in the Apostolic Decree of Acts 15:19-29, c. 50 AD: "...we should write to them [Gentiles] to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood..." (NRSV)

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The Council of Jerusalem (or Apostolic Conference) is a name applied by historians to an Early Christian council dated to around the year 50. The council decided that Gentile converts to Christianity were not obligated to keep most of the Mosaic law, including the rules concerning circumcision of males, however, the Council did retain the prohibitions against eating meat containing blood, or meat of animals not properly slain, and against fornication and idolatry. Descriptions of the council are found in Acts of the Apostles chapter 15 (in two different forms, the Alexandrian and Western versions) and also possibly in Paul's letter to the Galatians chapter 2[1]. Some scholars dispute that Galatians 2 is about the Council of Jerusalem (notably because Galatians 2 describes a private meeting) while other scholars dispute the historical reliability of the Acts of the Apostles. Assuming the council did occur, Paul was likely an eyewitness, a major person in attendance, whereas Luke, the supposed writer of Luke-Acts, who was a later follower of Paul, may not have been in attendance, and thus could have written second-hand, about the meeting he described in Acts 15.

Historical Background

The Council of Jerusalem is generally dated to around the year 50 AD, roughly twenty years after the death of Jesus of Nazareth, which is dated between 26-36, see Chronology of Jesus. It has not been established to have been the first council of the new community's leaders, but it is the first one of which a record exists (in Galatians 2, in Acts 15:4-21, and in the writings of the Church Fathers). The account in Acts may not have been written by an eyewitness to the event, but Galatians (if it is about the Council of Jerusalem) was; and both accounts suggest that the reason the meeting was called was to debate whether or not male Gentiles who were converting to become followers of Jesus were required to become circumcised, presumably in accord with Genesis 17:14, a law from God which according to Genesis 17:13-19 God said would be eternal, and therefore always applicable, see also the Jewish background to the 1st century circumcision controversy and Biblical law in Christianity. However, Circumcision was considered repulsive during the period of Hellenization of the Eastern Mediterranean[2].

The Christian communities looked to Jerusalem as its main centre and point of reference, see also Jerusalem in Christianity, which is a possible reason why the Council was held in Jerusalem.

At the time, most followers of Jesus (which historians refer to as Jewish Christians) were Jewish by birth and even converts would have considered the early Christians as a part of Judaism. According to Alister McGrath, the Jewish Christians affirmed every aspect of then contemporary (Second Temple) Judaism with the addition of the belief that Jesus was the Messiah.[3] Unless males were circumcised, they could not be God's People. Genesis 17:14 said "No uncircumcised man will be one of my people." The meeting was called because, according to the NRSV translation of Acts 15:1-2, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." However, this command is given considerably before Moses' time, stemming from the time of Abraham (see also Abrahamic covenant), but it is cited as 'the custom of Moses' because Moses is the traditional giver of the Law. Jesus Himself also says in John 7:22 that Moses gave the people circumcision. It was hard for Gentile Christians to keep up with all the laws listed in the Jewish Scriptures, which Christians came to call the "Old Testament", a term linked with Supersessionism (see the proposed modern term "Hebrew Bible" for details)[4].

Issues and outcome

The purpose of the meeting, according to Acts, was to resolve a disagreement in Antioch, which had wider implications than just circumcision, since circumcision is the "everlasting" sign of the Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 17:9-14). Some of the Pharisees who had become believers insisted that it was "needful to circumcise them, and to command [them] to keep the law of Moses", according to the popular KJV translation[5] while another translation[6] translates: "They have to be circumcised; we have to proclaim and keep the law of Moses".

The primary issue which was addressed related to the requirement of circumcision, as the author of Acts relates, but other matters arose as well, as the Apostolic Decree indicates. The dispute was between those, such as the followers of the "Pillars of the Church," led by James, who believed, following his interpretation of the Great Commission, that the church must observe the Torah, i.e. the rules of traditional Judaism,[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_1] and Paul of Tarsus, who believed there was no such necessity. (See also Supersessionism, New Covenant, Antinomianism, Hellenistic Judaism, Paul of Tarsus and Judaism)

At the Council, following advice said to have been offered by Simon Peter (Acts 15:7–11), James, the leader of the Jerusalem Church, gave his decision (later known as the "Apostolic Decree"):

"Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood.[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_4] For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath day" (Acts 15:19–21).

The Western version of Acts (see Acts of the Apostles: Manuscripts) adds the negative form of the Golden Rule ("and whatever things ye would not have done to yourselves, do not do to another").[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_5]

This determined questions wider than that of circumcision, most particularly dietary questions but also fornication and idolatry, and also the application of Biblical law to non-Jews. And this Apostolic Decree was considered binding on all the other local Christian congregations in other regions.[7] See also Biblical law directed at non-Jews, Seven Laws of Noah and Biblical law in Christianity.

Historicity of the Council of Jerusalem

Bruce Metzger's Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament includes a summary of current research on the topic as of circa 1971:

In conclusion, therefore, it appears that the least unsatisfactory solution of the complicated textual and exegetical problems of the Apostolic Decree is to regard the fourfold decree as original (foods offered to idols, strangled meat, eating blood, and unchastity—whether ritual or moral), and to explain the two forms of the threefold decree in some such way as those suggested above. An extensive literature exists on the text and exegesis of the Apostolic Decree. ... According to Jacques Dupont, "Present day scholarship is practically unanimous in considering the 'Eastern' text of the decree as the only authentic text (in four items) and in interpreting its prescriptions in a sense not ethical but ritual" ...

Interpreting the Council's decision

James's Apostolic Decree was that most Mosaic Law[8], including the requirement for circumcision of males, was not obligatory for Gentile converts, possibly in order to make it easier for them to join the movement.[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_10] However, the Council did retain the prohibitions against Gentile converts eating meat containing blood, or meat of animals not properly slain. It also retained the prohibitions against "fornication" and "idol worship". See also Old Testament Law directed at non-Jews. In effect, however, the Jerusalem Church created a flexible approach which some accuse of being a double standard: one for Jewish Christians and one for Gentile converts (for the parallel in Judaism, see Convert to Judaism and Noahides). The Decree may be a major act of differentiation of the Church from its Jewish roots[9] (the first being the Rejection of Jesus), depending on when Jewish Noachide law was developed[10]. Around the same time period, the authorities of Rabbinic Judaism made their circumcision requirement even stricter[11]. The decision created a category of persons who were members of the Christian community (which still considered itself to be part of the Jewish community) who, in certain situations, would be unacceptable to the wider Jewish community, because they were uncircumcised, besides other objections relating to the 613 mitzvot.

Determining what followed depends on how reliable one believes the various texts to be. Some scholars have taken a very skeptical view of the probity of Acts.[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_11] Moreover, Paul seems to have refused "to be tied down to particular patterns of behavior and practice."[{{fullurl:{{wikipedia:FULLPAGENAME}}}}#endnote_12] For example, see 1 Corinthians 9:20-23. He does not engage in a dispute with those Corinthians who apparently feel quite free to eat anything offered to idols, never appealing or even mentioning the Jerusalem council.

He rather attempts to persuade them by appealing to the care they should have for other believers who might not feel so free. His attitude towards circumcision varies between his outright hostility to what he calls "mutilation" in Philippians 3:2-3 to praise in Romans 3:1-2 and his willingness that Timothy be circumcised, recorded in Acts 16:1-3.

From its position of dominance, due in part to its leadership by James, the Jerusalem Church suffered first persecution and eventual decline, but never total elimination (see for example Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem and Jerusalem in Christianity and Pentarchy). The question of the relationship with Jews and Jewish Christians continued for some time, indeed it is still debated today.

Jewish Encyclopedia: New Testament — Spirit of Jewish Proselytism in Christianity states:

"For great as was the success of Barnabas and Paul in the heathen world, the authorities in Jerusalem insisted upon circumcision as the condition of admission of members into the church, until, on the initiative of Peter, and of James, the head of the Jerusalem church, it was agreed that acceptance of the Noachian Laws — namely, regarding avoidance of idolatry, fornication, and the eating of flesh cut from a living animal — should be demanded of the heathen desirous of entering the Church."

Jewish Encyclopedia: Gentiles: Gentiles May Not Be Taught the Torah states:

"R. Emden (), in a remarkable apology for Christianity contained in his appendix to "Seder 'Olam" (pp. 32b-34b, Hamburg, 1752), gives it as his opinion that the original intention of Jesus, and especially of Paul, was to convert only the Gentiles to the seven moral laws of Noah and to let the Jews follow the Mosaic law — which explains the apparent contradictions in the New Testament regarding the laws of Moses and the Sabbath."

The Catholic Encyclopedia article on Judaizers states:

"Paul, on the other hand, not only did not object to the observance of the Mosaic Law, as long as it did not interfere with the liberty of the Gentiles, but he conformed to its prescriptions when occasion required (1Corinthians 9:20). Thus he shortly after circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:1–3), and he was in the very act of observing the Mosaic ritual when he was arrested at Jerusalem (Acts 21:26 sqq.)"

Tim Hegg, a renowned Messianic teacher and apologist states in Do the Seven, Go to Heaven?:

"We conclude, then, that interpreting the edict of the Jerusalem Council on the basis of the later Noachide Laws is both anachronistic and a misunderstanding of the function of the Noachide Laws in the post-destruction rabbinic literature. For not only did the formulation of the Noachide Laws await the post-destruction era, but even when they were formulated within the rabbinic theology of the later Centuries, they did not function as a separate body of laws given to Gentiles as a means of attaining a righteous status, nor even as an actual code of ethics for Gentiles. It is wrong, then, to conclude that the Jerusalem Council gave the gentile believers a minimal list of commandments, exempting them from the full expression of God's will in the Torah. Another explanation for the edict must be sought. Since all the prohibitions in the edict find a connection to practices in the pagan temples, it seems most likely that they were given to assure that the gentile believers had entirely distanced themselves from the idolatry of pagan worship."

Joseph Fitzmyer[12] disputes the claim that the Apostolic Decree is based on Noahide Law (Gen 9) and instead proposes Lev 17-18 as the basis, see also Leviticus 18. He also argues that the decision was meant as a practical compromise to help Jewish and Gentile Christians to get along, not a theological statement intended to bind Christians for all time.

Many Christians consider circumcision to be only an optional ritual, as does Reform Judaism, but Orthodox Judaism considers it one of the mandatory 613 mitzvot, following Genesis 17:10-27, and the signature-law (or eternal sign) by which men signed the covenant with God, in blood, and thereby became a People of God, subject to God's protection and curse. This, according to the Torah, was the way that Abraham signed the covenant with God and thereby started Judaism, see also Abrahamic religions#Circumcision. In the First Century, modern anesthesia and antibiotics did not exist and the death-rates were high from even minor medical operations. Demanding a Gentile adult male be circumcized in order to become a follower of Jesus, may not only have been terrifying, but it may have been life-threatening. This is the reason why this Council was called by Jesus' apostle James, who, according to Paul's account in Galatians 2:10 concluded that Paul would not have to demand his men to become circumcized, and according to Luke's account in Acts 15:13-21, James not only permitted uncircumcized men to remain in the group, but he said in closing the Council (Acts 15:19) "We should not trouble the Gentiles who are turning to God."

As for Orthodox Judaism today, the rabbis do not believe that Gentiles need to be circumcized, unless they wish to convert to Judaism, which is discouraged. Instead, Gentiles need only follow the Seven Laws of Noah to be assured of a place in the "World to Come".

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See also


  • ^  Galatians 2:12
  • ^  Robert Eisenman in James the Brother of Jesus identifies Paul with Josephus Ananias the Jewish merchant (Jewish Antiquities 20.2.3–4), who proselytized Gentiles teaching them that faith in God is superior to circumcision.
  • ^  There are two major versions of Acts: Alexandrian and Western; with preference generally given to the Alexandrian, see Bruce Metzger's Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament which has for the Western 15:2, "for Paul spoke maintaining firmly that they should stay as they were when converted; but those who had come from Jerusalem ordered them, Paul and Barnabas and certain others, to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders that they might be judged before them about this question."
  • ^  According to Bruce Metzger's Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament: "the Apostolic Decree [15.29, 15.20, 21.25] ... contain many problems concerning text and exegesis"; "it is possible ... (fornication means) marriage within the prohibited Levitical Degrees (Leviticus 18:6–18), which the rabbis described as "forbidden for porneia", or mixed marriages with pagans (Numbers 25:1; also compare 2Corinthians 6.14), or participation in pagan worship which had long been described by Old Testament prophets as spiritual adultery and which, in fact, offered opportunity in many temples for religious prostitution"; "An extensive literature exists on the text and exegesis"; NRSV has things polluted by idols, fornication, whatever has been strangled, blood; NIV has food polluted by idols, sexual immorality, meat of strangled animals, blood; Young's has pollutions of the idols, whoredom, strangled thing, blood; Gaus' Unvarnished New Testament has pollution of idolatrous sacrifices, unchastity, meat of strangled animals, blood; NAB has pollution from idols, unlawful marriage, meat of strangled animals, blood. Karl Josef von Hefele's commentary on canon II of Gangra notes: "We further see that, at the time of the Synod of Gangra, the rule of the Apostolic Synod with regard to blood and things strangled was still in force. With the Greeks, indeed, it continued always in force as their Euchologies still show. Balsamon also, the well-known commentator on the canons of the Middle Ages, in his commentary on the sixty-third Apostolic Canon, expressly blames the Latins because they had ceased to observe this command. What the Latin Church, however, thought on this subject about the year 400, is shown by St. Augustine in his work Contra Faustum, where he states that the Apostles had given this command in order to unite the heathens and Jews in the one ark of Noah; but that then, when the barrier between Jewish and heathen converts had fallen, this command concerning things strangled and blood had lost its meaning, and was only observed by few. But still, as late as the eighth century, Pope Gregory the Third (731) forbade the eating of blood or things strangled under threat of a penance of forty days. No one will pretend that the disciplinary enactments of any council, even though it be one of the undisputed Ecumenical Synods, can be of greater and more unchanging force than the decree of that first council, held by the Holy Apostles at Jerusalem, and the fact that its decree has been obsolete for centuries in the West is proof that even Ecumenical canons may be of only temporary utility and may be repealed by disuse, like other laws."
  • ^  Hillel the Elder when asked by a Gentile to teach the whole Torah while standing on one foot cited the negative form of the Golden Rule, also cited in Tobit 4:15. Jesus in Matthew 7:12, part of the Sermon on the Mount, cited the positive form as summary of the "Law and Prophets."
  • ^  Whether or not Galatians 2:1–10 is a record of the Council of Jerusalem or a different event is not agreed. Paul writes of laying his gospel before the others “privately,” not as in a Council. It has been argued that Galatians was written as Paul was on his way to the Council (see Paul of Tarsus). Raymond E. Brown in Introduction to the New Testament argues that they are the same event but each from a different viewpoint with its own bias.
  • ^  Acts 16 says Paul personally circumcised Timothy, even though his father was Greek, because his mother was a Jewish believer, i.e. a Jewish Christian.
  • ^  Some took "freedom in Christ" to mean lawlessness, for example, Acts 21:21.
  • ^  Possibly a reference to the Ebionites
  • ^  Acts 15:19
  • ^  Hans Conzelman
  • ^  Christopher Rowland, Christian Origins (SPCK 1985) p. 234


  1. Whether or not Galatians 2:1–10 is a record of the Council of Jerusalem or a different event is not agreed. Paul writes of laying his gospel before the others “privately,” not as in a Council. It has been argued that Galatians was written as Paul was on his way to the Council (see Paul of Tarsus). Raymond E. Brown in his Introduction to the New Testament argues that they (Acts 15 and Galatians 2) are the same event but each from a different viewpoint with its own bias.
  2. Jewish Encyclopedia: Circumcision: In Apocryphal and Rabbinical Literature: "Contact with Grecian life, especially at the games of the arena [which involved nudity], made this distinction obnoxious to the Hellenists, or antinationalists; and the consequence was their attempt to appear like the Greeks by epispasm ("making themselves foreskins"; I Macc. i. 15; Josephus, "Ant." xii. 5, § 1; Assumptio Mosis, viii.; I Cor. vii. 18; , Tosef., Shab. xv. 9; Yeb. 72a, b; Yer. Peah i. 16b; Yeb. viii. 9a). All the more did the law-observing Jews defy the edict of Antiochus Epiphanes prohibiting circumcision (I Macc. i. 48, 60; ii. 46); and the Jewish women showed their loyalty to the Law, even at the risk of their lives, by themselves circumcising their sons."; Hodges, Frederick, M. (2001). "The Ideal Prepuce in Ancient Greece and Rome: Male Genital Aesthetics and Their Relation to Lipodermos, Circumcision, Foreskin Restoration, and the Kynodesme" (PDF). The Bulletin of the History of Medicine 75 (Fall 2001): 375–405. doi:10.1353/bhm.2001.0119. Retrieved 2007-07-24. 
  3. McGrath, Alister E., Christianity: An Introduction. Blackwell Publishing (2006). ISBN 1-4051-0899-1. Page 174: "In effect, they [Jewish Christians] seemed to regard Christianity as an affirmation of every aspect of contemporary Judaism, with the addition of one extra belief — that Jesus was the Messiah."
  4. For a prominent discussion of the term's usage and the motivations for it, see "The New Old Testament" by William Safire, New York Times, 1997-25-5. Also see: Mark Hamilton. "From Hebrew Bible to Christian Bible: Jews, Christians and the Word of God". Retrieved 2007-11-19. "Modern scholars often use the term 'Hebrew Bible' to avoid the confessional terms Old Testament and Tanakh." 
  5. Acts 15:5
  6. Andy Gaus' Unvarnished New Testament, Phanes Press, 1991
  7. Apostolic Presbyterianism - by Willaim Cunningham and Reg Barrow
  8. Jewish law or Halakha was formalized later, see Jewish Encyclopedia: Jesus of Nazareth: Attitude Toward the Law: "Jesus, however, does not appear to have taken into account the fact that the Halakah was at this period just becoming crystallized, and that much variation existed as to its definite form; the disputes of the Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai were occurring about the time of his maturity."
  9. Jewish Encyclopedia: Baptism: "According to rabbinical teachings, which dominated even during the existence of the Temple (Pes. viii. 8), Baptism, next to circumcision and sacrifice, was an absolutely necessary condition to be fulfilled by a proselyte to Judaism (Yeb. 46b, 47b; Ker. 9a; 'Ab. Zarah 57a; Shab. 135a; Yer. Kid. iii. 14, 64d). Circumcision, however, was much more important, and, like baptism, was called a "seal" (Schlatter, "Die Kirche Jerusalems," 1898, p. 70). But as circumcision was discarded by Christianity, and the sacrifices had ceased, Baptism remained the sole condition for initiation into religious life. The next ceremony, adopted shortly after the others, was the imposition of hands, which, it is known, was the usage of the Jews at the ordination of a rabbi. Anointing with oil, which at first also accompanied the act of Baptism, and was analogous to the anointment of priests among the Jews, was not a necessary condition."
  10. An early form of Noachide Law may appear in the Book of Jubilees which is generally dated to the 2nd century BC: Jubilees 7:20-28: "And in the twenty-eighth jubilee [1324-1372 A.M.] Noah began to enjoin upon his sons' sons the ordinances and commandments, and all the judgments that he knew, and he exhorted his sons to observe righteousness, and to cover the shame of their flesh, and to bless their Creator, and honour father and mother, and love their neighbour, and guard their souls from fornication and uncleanness and all iniquity. For owing to these three things came the flood upon the earth ... For whoso sheddeth man's blood, and whoso eateth the blood of any flesh, shall all be destroyed from the earth." The earliest clear reference is found in Tosefta Avodah Zarah 8.4, dated circa 300.
  11. "peri'ah", (Shab. xxx. 6)
  12. The Acts of the Apostles (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries), Yale University Press (December 2, 1998), ISBN 0-300-13982-9, chapter V

Further reading

  • Badenas, Robert. Christ the End of the Law, Romans 10.4 in Pauline Perspective, 1985 ISBN 0–905774–93–0
  • Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament. Anchor Bible Series, 1997. ISBN 0–385–24767–2.
  • Bruce, Frederick Fyvie. Peter, Stephen, James and John: Studies in Early Non-Pauline Christianity
  • Bruce, Frederick Fyvie. Men and movements in the primitive church: Studies in early non-Pauline Christianity
  • Clark, A.C. The Acts of the Apostles
  • Dunn, James D.G. The Incident at Antioch (Galatians 2:11–18) JSNT 18, 1983, pg 95–122
  • Dunn, James D.G. Jesus, Paul and the Law, ISBN 0–664–25095–5
  • Dunn, James D.G. The Theology of Paul's Letter to the Galatians 1993 ISBN 0–521–35953–8
  • Dunn, James D.G. The Theology of Paul the Apostle Eerdmans 1997 ISBN 0–8028–3844–8
  • Ehrman, Bart D. Lost Christianities: The Battle for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew 2003
  • Eisenman, Robert, 1997. James the Brother of Jesus: The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls. ISBN 0–670–86932–5 A cultural historian's dissenting view based on contemporary texts.
  • Elsner, Jas. Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph: Oxford History of Early Non-Pauline Christianity 1998 ISBN 0–19–284201–3
  • Gaus, Andy. The Unvarnished New Testament 1991 ISBN 0–933999–99–2
  • Kim, Seyoon Paul and the New Perspective: Second Thoughts on the Origin of Paul's Gospel 2001 ISBN 0–8028–4974–1
  • Maccoby, Hyam. The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity. New York: Harper & Row, 1986. ISBN 0–06–015582–5.
  • MacDonald, Dennis Ronald, 1983. The Legend and the Apostle: The Battle for Paul in Story and Canon Philadelphia: Westminster Press.
  • Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament 1975 ISBN 3–438–06010–8
  • Mount, Christopher N. Pauline Christianity: Luke-Acts and the Legacy of Paul 2001
  • Ropes, J.H. The Text of Acts
  • Sanders, E.P. Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion 1977 ISBN 0–8006–1899–8
  • Sanders, E.P. Paul the Law and the Jewish People 1983
  • Sanders, E.P. Jesus and Judaism, Fortress Press, 1987, ISBN 0–8006–2061–5
  • Simon, Marcel. The Apostolic Decree and its Setting in the Ancient Church. Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, LII (1969–70), pp. 437–460
  • Telfer, W. The Didache and the Apostolic Synod of Antioch The Journal of Theological Studies, 1939, pp. 133–146, 258–271
  • Westerholm, Stephen. Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The "Lutheran" Paul and His Critics 2003 ISBN 0–8028–4809–5
  • Wright, N.T. What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? 1997 ISBN 0–8028–4445–6

External links

This page uses content from the English Wikisource. The original article was at Council of Jerusalem. The list of authors can be seen in the page history. As with the Religion wiki, the text of Wikisource is available under the CC-BY-SA.

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