Jerusalem Council

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Acts


Are the incidents described in Acts 15:1-29 and Galatians 2:1-21 the same event, known as the Jerusalem Council – one description from Luke and one description from Paul? (See complete text of both passages below.) And how did the early Christians – namely Peter, Paul, and James – eventually settle the question of whether or not Gentile converts to Christianity needed to follow Jewish religious law, including circumcision and dietary codes?


The incident described by Luke in Acts 15 is known today as the Jerusalem Council, or Council at Jerusalem. The traditional view is that Galatians 2 is Paul's description of the Council meeting. However, modern scholars now think Paul is actually describing a second incident. If Paul describes a second incident, it might have been the first test of how things were functioning after the Council Decree was given and sheds a revealing insight on the workings of the early church.

Jerusalem Council
When the early Christians met in Jerusalem, the leaders still saw themselves as full-fledged Jews. Thus the meeting was about whether or not Gentiles needed to follow Jewish religious law, including circumcision, dietary codes.

In addition, Jews were also not sure if they could eat at the same table as their new Gentile brethren – observant Jews did not eat with Gentiles because by definition Gentiles were unclean, according to the Law of Moses. Peter and Paul are at each other's throats – seemingly because of James' opinion on this issue. Paul, the new kid, took Peter to task over the issue of Jews sharing table fellowship – eating a meal – with Gentiles.

Traditional View
Scholars have traditionally thought the issues were resolved at the Jerusalem Council – that the decisions of the Council settled the very serious practical concerns.

The Council decided that Jews were not exempt from the Mosaic Law, but that Gentiles could not be impelled to adopt Jewish customs. In addition, Gentiles could not impel Jews to abandon their customs. It was just as important for the Gentiles to be respectful of the Jews as it was for the Jews to be respectful of the Gentiles.

Since Jews and Gentiles were expected to exist together as new Christians and would need to interact peacefully and harmoniously, the Council reached a compromise that Gentiles should follow four requirements. This compromise is known as the Apostolic Decree.

Table Fellowship – Jews eating with Gentiles
A careful reading of the Decree, however, reveals that little was actually said about full table fellowship – whether or not Jews and Gentiles could eat at the same table. The Decree stated that Gentiles could be full-fledged members of the community without being circumcised and by observing only a small portion of the Law. But it didn't really change the fact that it was not acceptable for Jews to eat with Gentiles.

Earlier in Antioch, Peter had no problem eating with Gentiles – until a delegation from James came from Jerusalem. Then not only Peter, but also Barnabas, stopped eating with Gentiles. At the Jerusalem Council, Paul had a fit about this.

However, many scholars today point out that the text does not actually say James sent the delegation. The delegation might have been doing this on its own volition. They were obviously more conservative than Paul, since Paul refers to them as the "circumcision faction."

However, the argument that James did not send the delegation becomes moot if one accepts that the Apostolic Decree did not address the whole fellowship issue.

Furthermore, if the "circumcision faction" were simply random followers of a more conservative group of early Christians, why would Peter and Barnabas act so decisively? This is, after all, Peter, one of the most esteemed and highly respected individuals in the early church. If the delegation wasn't from James, Peter's actions gave a lot of weight to individuals who had no real measure of authority. Surely, James would have been the only person who could have commanded that amount of respect in the eyes of Peter and Barnabas.

So, we need to consider the possibility that James really did send them because he had heard the Jewish Christians were not completely obeying the Mosaic Law and were doing only the minimum. The result was that Peter and Barnabas changed their behavior in an instant, and Paul was not happy about it.

At the Jerusalem Council, however, James gave his full weight to Paul's mission to the Gentiles and required only a limited observance of the Mosaic Law on the part of the Gentiles. Yet, he did not expect Jews to slack off on their responsibilities, and that would have included table fellowship with Gentiles. This indicates that even after the Decree, there was some confusion and considerable wiggle room regarding interpretation. James took a conservative position; Paul was quite liberal, and Peter waffled between the two.

Acts 15:1-29 (New International Version)
The Council at Jerusalem

1Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: "Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved." 2This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. 3The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the brothers very glad. 4When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.

5Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, "The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses."

6The apostles and elders met to consider this question. 7After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: "Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. 8God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? 11No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are."

12The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. 13When they finished, James spoke up: "Brothers, listen to me. 14Simon has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself. 15The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: 16" 'After this I will return and rebuild David's fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, 17that the remnant of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things' 18that have been known for ages.

19"It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. 21For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath."

The Council's Letter to Gentile Believers
22Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, two men who were leaders among the brothers. 23With them they sent the following letter: The apostles and elders, your brothers, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings. 24We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. 25So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul— 26men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. 28It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell.

Galatians 2:1-21 (New International Version)
Paul Accepted by the Apostles

1Fourteen years later I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also. 2I went in response to a revelation and set before them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. But I did this privately to those who seemed to be leaders, for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain. 3Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek. 4This matter arose because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. 5We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you.

6As for those who seemed to be important—whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not judge by external appearance—those men added nothing to my message. 7On the contrary, they saw that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been to the Jews. 8For God, who was at work in the ministry of Peter as an apostle to the Jews, was also at work in my ministry as an apostle to the Gentiles. 9James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews. 10All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.

Paul Opposes Peter
11When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. 12Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.

14When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, "You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? 15"We who are Jews by birth and not 'Gentile sinners' 16know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.

17"If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! 18If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker. 19For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. 20I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!"

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