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When Paul went up to Jerusalem, he had been teaching Gentiles that they are not converting to Judaism and they are therefore not under the Jewish covenant nor the Law associated with it.  At the meeting in Jerusalem (Acts 15), Peter reports his experience with Gentile salvation and agrees that requiring Gentiles to keep the Law is placing an unnecessary yoke upon them (Acts 15:7-11).

Jerusalem CouncilPeter briefly reminds the assembly of his encounter with Cornelius, a conversion which was confirmed by evidence from the Holy Spirit. At the time this was a shock to Peter and his companions, as well as to the Jerusalem community. Cornelius received the Spirit before he converted to Judaism. In hindsight, this may be the reason that the Spirit comes upon him even before baptism, so that there can be no question that Cornelius was saved apart from conversion.

When Peter describes the Law as a “yoke” on the Gentiles he is not necessarily criticizing the Law. In Judaism, the idea of being “yoked” to the Law is a positive image, although there is often the implication of completeness – if you are yoked to the Law, you are required to keep it all (Bock, Acts, 501). Here are a few examples of this view from Sirach (200 B.C.), the Psalms of Solomon (50 B.C.) and the Mishnah (A.D. 250, but perhaps reflecting an earlier oral tradition).

Sirach 51:26 Put your neck under her yoke, and let your souls receive instruction; it is to be found close by.

PsSol 7.8-9 For Thou wilt pity the seed of Israel for ever And Thou wilt not reject (them): But we (shall be) under Thy yoke for ever, And (under) the rod of Thy chastening.

PsSol 17:30 And he shall have the heathen nations to serve him under his yoke; And he shall glorify the Lord in a place to be seen of (?) all the earth.

m.Aboth 3:5 R. Nehunya b. Haqqaneh says, “From whoever accepts upon himself the yoke of Torah do they remove the yoke of the state and the yoke of hard labor. And upon whoever removes from himself the yoke of the Torah do they lay the yoke of the state and the yoke of hard labor.”

m.Ber 2.2 Said R. Joshua b. Qorha, “Why does [the passage of] Shema precede [that of] And it shall come to pass [if you keep my commandments]? So that one may first accept upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven and afterwards may accept the yoke of the commandments.

Peter therefore seems to be saying that God saves both Jew and Gentile by faith, but that God has only given the Law to Israel. The law is a yoke, but is is a yoke that the Jewish people accept.  Peter agrees with Paul’s claim that Gentiles are not converts to Judaism, but rather Jews and Gentiles both are converts to something new, a new people of God, a new “body of Christ” (Eph 3:1-6). Peter is certainly not saying that Jews ought to disregard Law, but only that Gentiles ought not be given an additional burden that was given to the Jewish people.

I suspect that many (non-Jewish) Christians in the contemporary church would find the law to be a difficult burden, mostly because the western value of freedom. To a Jewish person in the first century, the Law was not difficult because it was exactly what God had called them to do. It was a responsibility, but also a response to the grace of God toward the Jewish people.

The Law was not something the Jewish people “had to do,” but rather something they “get to do” in order to honor their God.

As Paul and Barnabas moved into new territory they evangelized the Gentiles directly. After the initial contact in a town at the synagogue, the work of evangelism focused on the Gentiles of the community. The new church was expanding into areas that the Jewish church would not have naturally seen as their “mission field.” As Gentiles accepted Christ and began to fellowship with ethnic Jews, some problems arose primarily concerning the Gentiles not keeping of the Law.

jerusalem-councilWe know from Acts 10 that Peter was instructed by the Lord to preach the gospel to the Gentile Cornelius, a Roman Centurion and God-Fearer. Peter was hesitant to do so, and after he returns to Jerusalem the Jewish Christians there question Peter closely about why he had entered into the house of a Gentile. Peter appears to have understood that salvation was moving into the Gentile world. But Paul was doing more than preaching to God-Fearers in the synagogues who were keeping most of the Law in the first place. He was preaching the gospel to Gentiles and telling them that they did not have to keep the Law in order to be saved. This means that they did not have to worry about Jewish food laws or circumcision, two of the most fundamental boundary markers for the Jew in the first century.

The core of the problem is that up until Paul, Christianity was a messianic movement within Judaism. The people that were accepting Christ in Jerusalem (and even Antioch) were not rejecting the Law, they remained fully “Jewish” in every sense. They maintained ritual purity as they always had, they ate only clean foods, and they continued the practice of circumcision for converts to the faith. This conflict between Jewish Christians and Gentile (Pauline) Christians was the first major problem in the church. The issue appears in several of Paul’s letters (Galatains primarily, but it is also found in 1 Corinthians and Colossians as well. Romans 9-11 deals with the problem of the Jews in the current age.)

Darrell Bock makes an excellent observation concerning this “council,” it ought to be called a “consultation” rather than a council since this is not anything like the later “church councils” that decided doctrine for the church. This is quite true, although Bock does not take this far enough. Paul does not take his doctrine that Gentiles are not required to keep the Law to Jerusalem in order to have it approved by the apostolic community. He does not argue his case and accept the will of the apostolic community. Rather, he reports what it is that God has been doing and the “Judiazers” accept Paul’s position on the issue.

As Paul and Barnabas moved into new territory they evangelized the Gentiles directly. After the initial contact in a town at the synagogue, the work of evangelism focused on the Gentiles of the community. The new church was expanding into areas that the Jewish church would not have naturally seen as their “mission field.” As Gentiles accepted Christ and began to fellowship with ethnic Jews, some problems arose primarily concerning the Gentiles not keeping of the Law.

We know from Acts 10 that Peter was instructed by the Lord to preach the gospel to the Gentile Cornelius, a Roman Centurion and God-Fearer. Peter was hesitant to do so, and after he returns to Jerusalem the Jewish Christians there question Peter closely about why he had entered into the house of a Gentile. Peter appears to have understood that salvation was moving into the Gentile world. But Paul was doing more than preaching to God-Fearers in the synagogues who were keeping most of the Law in the first place. He was preaching the gospel to Gentiles and telling them that they did not have to keep the Law in order to be saved. This means that they did not have to worry about Jewish food laws or circumcision, two of the most fundamental boundary markers for the Jew in the first century.

Not Like This

Not Like This

The core of the problem is that up until Paul, Christianity was a messianic movement within Judaism. The people that were accepting Christ in Jerusalem (and even Antioch) were not rejecting the Law, they remained fully “Jewish” in every sense. They maintained ritual purity as they always had, they ate only clean foods, and they continued the practice of circumcision for converts to the faith. This conflict between Jewish Christians and Gentile (Pauline) Christians was the first major problem in the church. The issue appears in several of Paul’s letters (Galatains primarily, but it is also found in 1 Corinthians and Colossians as well. Romans 9-11 deals with the problem of the Jews in the current age.)

Darrell Bock makes an excellent observation concerning this “council,” it ought to be called a consultation rather than a council since this is not anything like the later “church councils” which decide doctrine for the church. This is quite true, although Bock does not take this far enough. Paul does not take his doctrine that Gentiles are not required to keep the Law to Jerusalem in order to have it approved by the apostolic community. He does not argue his case and accept the will of the apostolic community.

Rather, Paul reports what it is that God has been doing and the “Judiazers” accept Paul’s position on the issue.

I realize I have wrestled with this question quite a bit lately, but I ought to address the Jerusalem Conference and Galatians one more time since I ran across something interesting on the issue.

In Polhill’s chapter on Galatians in Paul and his Letters (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999) it is less than clear if he believes that Galatians comes before or after the Jerusalem council. He gives both sides of the argument and deals with Galatians after the council. I was under the impression that he was opting for the later view, which he states clearly as his view on page 111 of P&HL. In his excellent commentary on Acts, he says “Although the two accounts contain significant differences, the similarities seem to outweigh these, and it is probable that they relate to the same event” and a bit later “it will be assumed in the commentary that follows that Paul and Luke were referring to the same conference” (Acts, NAC 26; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001) page 321.

However, John Pollhill also wrote the notes on Acts for the ESV Study Bible. In this shorter commentary on Acts, he states “Though some scholars think that Paul is referring to this meeting in Gal 2:1-10, it is better to see that passage as referring to private contacts made during his famine relief visit to Jerusalem” (ESVSB, 2114). I suppose this indicates some change of thought for Polhill on the chronology of Acts and Galatians.

It is good to know that scholars develop their ideas over time.

By Acts 15, there appear to have been some Jewish Christians that did not like the implications of Gentile salvation that Paul was preaching.  Individuals from this group went into churches established by Paul and taught that circumcision was required for converts to Christianity.  Who were these opponents of Paul?

The traditional answer to the identity of the opponents of Paul is that they are Jewish Christians that desire to impose the law on Gentile converts – Judaizers.  The term appears in the New Testament only in Gal 2:14 (although a form appears in  but is found in a number of secular sources (Plutarch, Cicero 7:6; Josephus JW 2.17.10; Ignatius, Magn 10.3) with the basic meaning of  “to  live as a Jew in accordance with Jewish customs.”

As early as 1831, F. C. Bauer (from the Tübingen school) suggested that there was a split within early Christianity.  Based on 1 Corinthians, he understood that there were two major parties, a Peterine party (which included the “Christ party”) and a Pauline party (which included the Apollos party).  Those that followed Peter claimed to be “of Christ” since their leadership had been followers of Christ in his earthly ministry, while Paul and Apollos did not know Jesus directly.  The Jerusalem Christians were of the Peter division, a party that was unable to counter Paul’s argument for a gentile mission, but were not particularly pleased with it either.  The opponents at Galatia were the radical elements of the Peterine division.  The serious problem with this view is that it makes Peter the Judizing element in Galatians, despite his rather conciliatory speech in Acts 15.

A real problem with the view of Bauer is that it makes Paul an independent apostle who is the only one that fully understood the teaching of Jesus and the mission to the Gentiles.  While this is quite similar to the view of Paul in some more conservative Dispensationalist circles, it does not reflect the variety of thought in the Jewish element of the church.  The situation was not “either Peter or Paul.”  Peter seems more moderate than James, Barnabas and Silas are a step further towards Paul.

Bauer also seems to have thought that Paul was in continual conflict with the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem.  This does not seem to be the case, although one might describe the situation as “cool” between the Gentile mission and the Jerusalem church based on Acts 21.

In 1865 J. B. Lightfoot argued against Bauer and the Tübingen school.  The Judaizers were not authorized at all by Peter or the Jerusalem church, although the Jerusalem church were slow in stopping them.  The Jerusalem Church wanted to find a way to compromise between the radical teaching of Paul and the traditional teaching of the Judaizers.  J. F. A. Hort suggested that these Jewish opponents of Paul were lead by James, although mistakenly so.  James himself did not authorize the teaching in direct opposition to Paul, but his followers took James’ example of a Law-keeping Jewish Christian to the logical extreme and forced Gentiles to keep the law.

More recently, Robert Jewett argued that the Jewish opponents of Paul in Galatia were from the growing Zealot movement of Palestine [1].  The Zealot movement was a rather radical anti-Rome movement that sought strict obedience to the Law for all Jews.  Any Jews that were “Gentile-sympathizers” were the enemy.  These teachers sought to supplement Paul’s teaching, according to Jewett, by teaching a form of perfectionism to counter the libertine paganism from which they were converted.

It is perhaps the statement made by Paul in Galatians 6:12-13 that gives us an insight into who the false teachers may have been. They are people that think that by compelling Gentiles to be circumcised they might avoid persecution for the cross of Christ.  Likely Jewett’s theory has some merit; some Jewish Christians thought that by making Gentile Christians conform to the basics of the Law they might avoid persecution by the growing radical elements of Judaism.

Galatians 6:12-13 It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised—only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh.

Who were the Judaizers, then?  Jewish Christians, likely Pharisees according to Acts 15, who, with good intentions, sought to supplement Paul’s gospel by requiring that the basics of the Law be followed: circumcision and food laws. Perhaps the real issue at stake here is the status of the Gentiles within the people of God.  Could an uncircumcised Gentile be part of God’s people along with Israel?  Could a person be faithful to God and not keep the key elements of the covenant?

Paul reversed this argument in Galatians:  can a Gentile be a member of the people of God and allow himself to be circumcised?  Can a Gentile be “free in Christ” and keep the Jewish laws concerning food, festivals, etc.?  The answer in Galatians is a resounding no.

[1] Robert Jewett, “The Agitators and the Galatian Congregation.” NTS 17 (1971) 198–212.  See also Howard, G. Paul: Crisis in Galatia, 1–19.

Peter reports his experience with Gentile salvation and argues that requiring Gentiles to keep the Law is placing an unnecessary yoke upon them (Acts 15:7-11). Peter briefly reminds the assembly of his encounter with Cornelius, a conversion which was confirmed by evidence from the Holy Spirit.  At the time this was a shock to Peter and his companions, as well as to the Jerusalem community.  Cornelius received the Spirit before he converted to Judaism.  In hindsight, this may be the reason that the Spirit comes upon him even before baptism, so that there can be no question that Cornelius was saved apart from conversion.

When Peter describes the Law as a “yoke” on the Gentiles he is not necessarily criticizing the Law.  In Judaism, the idea of being “yoked” to the Law is a positive image, although there is often the implication of completeness – if you are yoked to the Law, you are required to keep it all.

Sirach 51:26 Put your neck under her yoke, and let your souls receive instruction; it is to be found close by.

m.Aboth 3:5 R. Nehunya b. Haqqaneh says, “From whoever accepts upon himself the yoke of Torah do they remove the yoke of the state and the yoke of hard labor.  And upon whoever removes from himself the yoke of the Torah do they lay the yoke of the state and the yoke of hard labor.”

m.Ber 2.2 Said R. Joshua b. Qorha, “Why does [the passage of] Shema precede [that of] And it shall come to pass [if you keep my commandments]? So that one may first accept upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven and afterwards may accept the yoke of the commandments.

Peter therefore seems to be saying that God saves both Jew and Gentile by faith, but that God has only given the Law to Israel.   He agrees with Paul’s claim that Gentiles are not converts to Judaism, but rather Jews and Gentiles both are converts to something new, a new people of God, a new “body of Christ” (Eph 3:1-6).  He is not saying that Jews ought to disregard Law, but only that Gentiles ought not be given this additional burden.  Peter’s speech emphasizes the freedom of the Gentiles from the law, which is remarkable when paralleled with Galatians 2.  When Peter seems to be advocating some separation from the Gentiles, Paul publicly confronts him and accuses him of hypocrisy (Gal 2).

Barnabas and Paul report that God did miraculous signs even among the Gentiles (verse 12).  This is obviously the briefest of summaries of what was said.  Likely Paul recounts all of the events of chapter 13-14, since we (the readers) know what happened Luke does not repeat anything. The point Paul would make here is that the gospel to the Gentiles was accompanied by the same signs as the gospel to the Jews in Jerusalem, or to Hellenistic Jews in Judea, Samaria, Caesarea or Antioch. His Gospel to the Gentiles is approved by God – therefore the Jewish believers ought not object.

The possibility exists that the Jewish believers could have explained this as false miracles, like the Pharisees claiming that Jesus cast out demons in the power of Beelzebub. There is no evidence that I can see that anyone in Jerusalem thought this, but I suppose it was at least possible.

Chapter 15 gives us our first chance to read Acts along side the Pauline Letters. What is the relationship of the Letter to the Galatians and the Jerusalem Conference of Acts 15? Which came first?

This is a thorny issue that is extremely difficult to solve. There are several solutions to the problem involving the recipients of Galatians as well as the chronology of Acts.   For now, it is enough to know that the letter may be addressed to either north Galatia or south Galatia, and that the letter may be written either before or after the Jerusalem Conference.

Some New Testament scholars prefer the location of the churches in the northern area of the Roman province of Galatia. This causes a few problems, since the first missionary journey as recorded in Acts does not describe Paul as traveling into the region of northern Galatia. It is not until 16:6 that Luke gives a brief summary of what may be considered ministry in that area. This means that the letter is written after the Jerusalem Council. Why then does Paul not mention the agreement or the letter concerning Gentiles in the book of Galatians? There are other difficulties as well, especially concerning the leadership of James in Acts 15. Many who hold to the northern Galatia theory simply dismiss Luke’s account in Acts 15 as “wishful thinking” on his part (Silva, Interpreting Galatians, 130).

After the work of William Ramsey, who defended the Southern Galatian theory, many scholars (especially conservative scholars) began to date the book of Galatians before the Jerusalem Conference (Witherington, Paul Quest, 315, Acts, 439-449).  The churches addressed are those that Paul established in Acts 13-14, the letter is written as Paul is traveling to the conference concerning the issues that are discussed in Acts 15. For many this theory is preferred because it helps to support the historical trustworthiness of the Acts narrative.

It is entirely possible to hold that the churches addressed in Galatians are in the southern region but also hold that the letter is written after the Jerusalem Council. (Note that if one holds to the northern Galatia theory, the book can only be written after Acts 16:6. If one holds to the southern Galatia theory, the book can be written either before or after.) This is the position of Moises Silva in his Interpreting Galatians.

It appears (to me) best to see the letter to the Galatians as having been written just prior to the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15.  This is how I see the general chronology of the period.  Paul has gone through Galatia establishing a number of churches, re-visited them and returned to Antioch. This is normally referred to as the “first” missionary journey because Paul makes a circuit and returns to Antioch (Acts 13-14).

While Paul is in Antioch (end of chapter 14), Jews from Jerusalem have moved into these churches and taught the Gentiles that they ought to keep the law, starting with circumcision. These Jewish teachers were sent by James, likely to investigate the churches established by Paul. Witherington (for example) suggests that John Mark returned to Jerusalem and reported what Paul had done on Cyprus and his evangelism of Gentiles outside of the Synagogue.

Paul receives word of this teaching and writes a letter to be circulated among the churches of Galatia concerning what he considers a false teaching. The book of Galatians argues clearly that Gentiles are not bound by the law nor should they be forced to keep the law in any way.

Paul and Barnabas are then sent to Jerusalem to stop the teaching at the source. It is possible that Paul thought that the teaching came directly from James, although James seems to deny this in Acts 15.  In this visit to Jerusalem Paul is representing the Gentiles churches, while James is representing the interests of conservative Jewish believers, perhaps the converted Priests and Pharisees mentioned in 15:1.

It is possible that the Epistle of James was written about the same time as Galatians, in response to the same issue (keeping the Law after Christ). While James is written from a Jewish Christian perspective while Galatians is written from the Gentile Christian perspective, they both deal with the same general issue, keeping the law in the post-cross age.

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Phillip J. Long

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