Council of Jerusalem
Datec. 50
Accepted bymost Christian denominations
Next council
Ancient church councils (pre-ecumenical) and the First Council of Nicaea
Presidentunspecified, but presumably James the Just and perhaps Simon Peter
TopicsControversy about male circumcision, the Christian views on the Old Covenant, and if keeping the law of Moses is necessary for salvation or a natural response in a believer.[1]
Documents and statements
Excerpts from New Testament (Acts of Apostles and perhaps Epistle to the Galatians)[2]
Chronological list of ecumenical councils
James the Just, whose judgment was adopted in the Apostolic Decree of Acts 15:19–29, c. 78 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)
James the Just, whose judgment was adopted in the Apostolic Decree of Acts 15:19–29, c. 78 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)

The Council of Jerusalem or Apostolic Council was held in Jerusalem around AD 50. It is unique among the ancient pre-ecumenical councils in that it is considered by Catholics and Eastern Orthodox to be a prototype and forerunner of the later ecumenical councils and a key part of Christian ethics. The council decided that Gentile converts to Christianity were not obligated to keep most of the fasts, and other specific rituals, including the rules concerning circumcision of males.[1][2][3] The Council did, however, retain the prohibitions on eating blood, meat containing blood, and meat of animals that were strangled, and on fornication and idolatry, sometimes referred to as the Apostolic Decree or Jerusalem Quadrilateral. The purpose and origin of these four prohibitions is debated.

Accounts 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).[2][3][4] Some scholars dispute that Galatians 2 is about the Council of Jerusalem, while others have defended this identification.[5]

Historical background

See also: Biblical law in Christianity § History and background, and Circumcision controversy in early Christianity § Jewish background

The Council of Jerusalem is generally dated to 48 AD, roughly 15 to 25 years after the crucifixion of Jesus (between 26 and 36 AD). Acts 15 and Galatians 2 both suggest that the meeting was called to debate whether or not male Gentiles who were converting to become followers of Jesus were required to become circumcised; the rite of circumcision was considered execrable and repulsive during the period of Hellenization of the Eastern Mediterranean,[6][7][8][9] and was especially adversed in Classical civilization both from ancient Greeks and Romans, which instead valued the foreskin positively.[6][7][8][10]

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 scholars, the Jewish Christians affirmed every aspect of the then contemporary Second Temple Judaism with the addition of the belief that Jesus was the Messiah.[11] Unless males were circumcised, they could not be God's People. The meeting was called to decide whether circumcision for gentile converts was requisite for community membership since certain individuals were teaching that "[u]nless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved".[12]

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" (KJV).[13]

The primary issue which was addressed related to the requirement of circumcision, as the author of Acts relates, but other important 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,[1] and Paul the Apostle, who believed there was no such necessity.[14][15] The main concern for the Apostle Paul, which he subsequently expressed in greater detail with his letters directed to the early Christian communities in Asia Minor, was the inclusion of Gentiles into God's New Covenant, sending the message that faith in Christ is sufficient for salvation.[14][15] (See also Supersessionism, New Covenant, Antinomianism, Hellenistic Judaism, and Paul the Apostle and Judaism)

At the council, following advice offered by Simon Peter (Acts 15:7–11 and Acts 15:14), Barnabas and Paul gave an account of their ministry among the gentiles (Acts 15:12), and the apostle James quoted from the words of the prophet Amos (Acts 15:16–17, quoting Amos 9:11–12). James added his own words[16] to the quotation: "Known to God from eternity are all His works"[17] and then submitted a proposal, which was accepted by the Church and became known as the Apostolic Decree:

It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead 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.[2] For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.

Acts 15:23–29 sets out the content of the letter written in accordance with James' proposal.

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").[3]

This determined questions wider than that of circumcision, particularly dietary questions, but also fornication and idolatry and blood, and also the application of Biblical law to non-Jews. It was stated by the Apostles and Elders in the council: "the Holy Spirit and we ourselves have favored adding no further burden to you, except these necessary things, to abstain from things sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication. If you carefully keep yourselves from these things, you will prosper." (Acts 15:27–28) And this Apostolic Decree was considered binding on all the other local Christian congregations in other regions.[18] (See also Biblical law directed at non-Jews, Seven Laws of Noah, Biblical law in Christianity, and Ten Commandments in Christianity)

The writer of Acts gives an account of a restatement by James and the elders in Jerusalem of the contents of the letter on the occasion of Paul's final Jerusalem visit, immediately prior to Paul's arrest at the temple, recounting: "When we had come to Jerusalem, the brothers received us gladly. On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present." (Acts 21:17–18, ESV) The elders then proceed to notify Paul of what seems to have been a common concern among Jewish believers, that he was teaching Diaspora Jewish converts to Christianity "to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs." They remind the assembly that, "as for the Gentiles who have believed, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality". In the view of some scholars, the reminder of James and the elders here is an expression of concern that Paul was not fully teaching the decision of the Jerusalem Council's letter to Gentiles,[19] particularly in regard to non-strangled kosher meat,[20] which contrasts with Paul's advice to Gentiles in Corinth,[21] to "eat whatever is sold in the meat markets" (1 Corinthians 10:25).[22]


See also: Historical reliability of the Acts of the Apostles

The description of the Apostolic Council in Acts 15, generally considered the same event described in Galatians 2,[23] is considered by some scholars to be contradictory to the Galatians account.[24] The historicity of Luke's account has been challenged,[25][26][27] and was rejected completely by some scholars in the mid to late 20th century.[28] However, more recent scholarship inclines towards treating the Jerusalem Council and its rulings as a historical event,[5] though this is sometimes expressed with caution.[29] Bruce Metzger's Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament includes a summary of current research on the topic as of about 1994:

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[30] 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[30] in some such way as those suggested above.[31] 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" [Les problèmes du Livre des Actes d'après les travaux récents (Louvain, 1950), p.70].[32]

Interpreting the Council's decision

See also: Paul the Apostle and Judaism and Early Christianity

James's "Apostolic Decree" was that the requirement of circumcision for males was not obligatory for Gentile converts, possibly in order to make it easier for them to join the movement. 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". The Decree may have been a major act of differentiation of the Church from its Jewish roots.

The Jewish Encyclopedia 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.

The Jewish Encyclopedia also 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.)

Joseph A. Fitzmyer SJ disputes the claim that the Apostolic Decree is based on the Noahide laws (Gen 9) and instead proposes Lev 17–18 as the basis for it[33] (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.

According to the 19th-century Roman Catholic Bishop Karl Josef von Hefele, the Apostolic Decree of the Jerusalem Council "has been obsolete for centuries in the West", though it is still recognized and observed by the Eastern Orthodox Church.[34] Acts 28 Hyperdispensationalists, such as the 20th century Anglican E. W. Bullinger, would be another example of a group that believes the decree (and everything before Acts 28) no longer applies.

See also



  1. ^ a b Stendahl, Krister (July 1963). "The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West" (PDF). Harvard Theological Review. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Harvard Divinity School. 56 (3): 199–215. doi:10.1017/S0017816000024779. ISSN 1475-4517. JSTOR 1508631. LCCN 09003793. OCLC 803348474. S2CID 170331485. Archived (PDF) from the original on 24 December 2021. Retrieved 12 February 2022.
  2. ^ a b c Dunn, James D. G. (Autumn 1993). Reinhartz, Adele (ed.). "Echoes of Intra-Jewish Polemic in Paul's Letter to the Galatians". Journal of Biblical Literature. Society of Biblical Literature. 112 (3): 459–477. doi:10.2307/3267745. ISSN 0021-9231. JSTOR 3267745.
  3. ^ a b Thiessen, Matthew (September 2014). Breytenbach, Cilliers; Thom, Johan (eds.). "Paul's Argument against Gentile Circumcision in Romans 2:17-29". Novum Testamentum. Leiden: Brill Publishers. 56 (4): 373–391. doi:10.1163/15685365-12341488. eISSN 1568-5365. ISSN 0048-1009. JSTOR 24735868.
  4. ^ 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 in a Council. It has been argued that Galatians was written as Paul was on his way to the Council (see Paul the Apostle). 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.
  5. ^ a b "There is an increasing trend among scholars toward considering the Jerusalem Council as historical event. An overwhelming majority identifies the reference to the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 with Paul's account in Gal. 2.1–10, and this accord is not just limited to the historicity of the gathering alone but extends also to the authenticity of the arguments deriving from the Jerusalem church itself.", Philip, "The Origins of Pauline Pneumatology: the Eschatological Bestowal of the Spirit", Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 2, Reihe, p. 205 (2005). Mohr Siebeck.
  6. ^ a b 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). Bulletin of the History of Medicine. Johns Hopkins University Press. 75 (Fall 2001): 375–405. doi:10.1353/bhm.2001.0119. PMID 11568485. S2CID 29580193. Retrieved 3 January 2020.
  7. ^ a b Rubin, Jody P. (July 1980). "Celsus' Decircumcision Operation: Medical and Historical Implications". Urology. Elsevier. 16 (1): 121–124. doi:10.1016/0090-4295(80)90354-4. PMID 6994325. Retrieved 3 January 2020.
  8. ^ a b Fredriksen, Paula (2018). When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation. London: Yale University Press. pp. 10–11. ISBN 978-0-300-19051-9.
  9. ^ Kohler, Kaufmann; Hirsch, Emil G.; Jacobs, Joseph; Friedenwald, Aaron; Broydé, Isaac. "Circumcision: In Apocryphal and Rabbinical Literature". Jewish Encyclopedia. Kopelman Foundation. Retrieved 3 January 2020. 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.
  10. ^ Neusner, Jacob (1993). Approaches to Ancient Judaism, New Series: Religious and Theological Studies. Scholars Press. p. 149. Circumcised barbarians, along with any others who revealed the glans penis, were the butt of ribald humor. For Greek art portrays the foreskin, often drawn in meticulous detail, as an emblem of male beauty; and children with congenitally short foreskins were sometimes subjected to a treatment, known as epispasm, that was aimed at elongation.
  11. ^ 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."
  12. ^ Acts 15:1–2
  13. ^ Acts 15:5
  14. ^ a b Klutz, Todd (2002) [2000]. "Part II: Christian Origins and Development – Paul and the Development of Gentile Christianity". In Esler, Philip F. (ed.). The Early Christian World. Routledge Worlds (1st ed.). New York and London: Routledge. pp. 178–190. ISBN 9781032199344.
  15. ^ a b Seifrid, Mark A. (1992). "'Justification by Faith' and The Disposition of Paul's Argument". Justification by Faith: The Origin and Development of a Central Pauline Theme. Novum Testamentum, Supplements. Leiden: Brill Publishers. pp. 210–211, 246–247. ISBN 90-04-09521-7. ISSN 0167-9732.
  16. ^ Gill, J., "Acts 15". Gill's Exposition of the Whole Bible. Accessed 13 September 2015.
  17. ^ Acts 15:18
  18. ^ "Apostolic Presbyterianism" Archived 2018-09-16 at the Wayback Machine by William Cunningham and Reg Barrow.
  19. ^ Robert McQueen Grant Augustus to Constantine: The Rise and triumph of Christianity in the Roman World. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, p. iv. "According to Acts 21:25, the elders at Jerusalem were still concerned with observance of them when Paul last "
  20. ^ Paul Barnett (2004). Jesus & the Rise of Early Christianity: A History of New Testament. p. 292. "He chided Paul later for his failure to require the Gentiles to observe the decree (Acts 21:25). Paul delivered the letter from the Jerusalem meeting expressing James's decree, but only to churches in Syria, Cilicia and Galatia ... Paul did not impose the food requirements for the kosher-killed meat and against the idol-sacrificed meat upon the Corinthians"
  21. ^ 1 Corinthians: a new translation Volume 32 Anchor Bible William Fridell Orr, James Arthur Walther – 1976 "Paul's openness regarding dietary restrictions raises again the question of the connection with the decrees of the council at Jerusalem (Acts 15:29; Introduction, pp. 63–65). There is no hint here of an apostolic decree involving food."
  22. ^ Gordon D. Fee (1987). The First Epistle to the Corinthians. p. 480. "Paul's 'rule' for everyday life in Corinth is a simple one: 'Eat anything sold in the meat market'".
  23. ^ "In spite of the presence of discrepancies between these two accounts, most scholars agree that they do in fact refer to the same event.", Paget, "Jewish Christianity", in Horbury, et al., "The Cambridge History of Judaism: The Early Roman Period", volume 3, p. 744 (2008). Cambridge University Press.
  24. ^ "Paul's account of the Jerusalem Council in Galatians 2 and the account of it recorded in Acts have been considered by some scholars as being in open contradiction.", Paget, "Jewish Christianity", in Horbury, et al., "The Cambridge History of Judaism: The Early Roman Period", volume 3, p. 744 (2008). Cambridge University Press.
  25. ^ "There is a very strong case against the historicity of Luke's account of the Apostolic Council", Esler, "Community and Gospel in Luke-Acts: The Social and Political Motivations of Lucan Theology", p. 97 (1989). Cambridge University Press.
  26. ^ "The historicity of Luke's account in Acts 15 has been questioned on a number of grounds.", Paget, "Jewish Christianity", in Horbury, et al., "The Cambridge History of Judaism: The Early Roman Period", volume 3, p. 744 (2008). Cambridge University Press.
  27. ^ "However, numerous scholars have challenged the historicity of the Jerusalem Council as related by Acts, Paul's presence there in the manner that Luke describes, the issue of idol-food being thrust on Paul's Gentile mission, and the historical reliability of Acts in general.", Fotopolous, "Food Offered to Idols in Roman Corinth: a socio-rhetorical reconsideration", pp. 181–182 (2003). Mohr Siebeck.
  28. ^ "Sahlin rejects the historicity of Acts completely (Der Messias und das Gottesvolk [1945]). Haenchen's view is that the Apostolic Council "is an imaginary construction answering to no historical reality" (The Acts of the Apostles [Engtr 1971], p. 463). Dibelius' view (Studies in the Acts of the Apostles [Engtr 1956], pp. 93–101) is that Luke's treatment is literary-theological and can make no claim to historical worth.", Mounce, "Apostolic Council", in Bromiley (ed.) "The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia", volume 1, p. 200 (rev. ed. 2001). Wm. B. Eerdmans.
  29. ^ "The present writer accepts its basic historicity, i.e. that there was an event at Jerusalem concerning the matter of the entry of the Gentiles into the Christian community, but would be circumspect about going much further than that. For a robust defence of its historicity, see Bauckham, "James", and the relevant literature cited there.", Paget, "Jewish Christianity", in Horbury, et al., "The Cambridge History of Judaism: The Early Roman Period", volume 3, p. 744 (2008). Cambridge University Press.
  30. ^ a b For a clarification of "fourfold decree" vs "threefold decree", see International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: A-D, 1995, by Geoffrey W. Bromiley ("Apostolic Council"), page 202.
  31. ^ Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd edn, (NY: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994), 382.
  32. ^ Metzger, Textual Commentary, 383n9.
  33. ^ Fitzmyer, Joseph A. (1998). The Acts of the Apostles: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries. Vol. 31. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press. p. Chapter V. ISBN 9780300139822.
  34. ^ 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."

Further reading