|Council of Jerusalem|
|Date||c. 48–50 AD|
|Accepted by||Mainstream Christianity and most Christian denominations|
|Ancient church councils (pre-ecumenical) and the First Council of Nicaea|
|President||Unspecified but presumably James the Just, Peter, and John.|
|Topics||Controversy about male circumcision, the Christian views on the Old Covenant, and whether keeping the Mosaic Law is necessary for the salvation of Gentiles.|
Documents and statements
|Excerpts from New Testament (Acts of Apostles and perhaps Epistle to the Galatians)|
|Chronological list of ecumenical councils|
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of the Catholic Church
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Outline of Bible-related topics|
The Council of Jerusalem or Apostolic Council is a council described in chapter 15 of the Acts of the Apostles, allegedly held in Jerusalem around c. 48–50 AD.
The council decided that Gentile converts to Christianity were not obligated to keep most of the rules prescribed to the Jews by the Mosaic Law, such as Jewish dietary laws and other specific rituals, including the rules concerning circumcision of males. 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. 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). Some scholars dispute that Galatians 2 is about the Council of Jerusalem, while others have defended this identification.
Main article: Historical background of the New Testament
Further information: Biblical law in Christianity § History and background, and Circumcision controversy in early Christianity § Jewish background
Jerusalem was the first center of the Christian Church according to the Book of Acts, and according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the location of "the first Christian church". The apostles lived and taught there for some time after Pentecost. James the Just, brother of Jesus was leader of the early Christian community in Jerusalem, and his other kinsmen likely held leadership positions in the surrounding area after the destruction of the city until its rebuilding as Aelia Capitolina in c. 130 AD, when all Jews were banished from Jerusalem.
The apostles Barnabas and Paul went to Jerusalem to meet with the "Pillars of the Church": James the Just, Peter, and John. The Council of Jerusalem is generally dated to c. 48–50 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 the legitimacy of the Evangelizing mission of Barnabas and Paul to the Gentiles and the Gentile converts' freedom from most of the Mosaic Law, especially from the circumcision of males, a practice that was considered execrable and repulsive in the Greco-Roman world during the period of Hellenization of the Eastern Mediterranean, and was especially disdained in Classical civilization both from ancient Greeks and Romans, which instead valued the foreskin positively.
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 Jewish Messiah.
Main article: History of early Christianity
Further information: Historical reliability of the Acts of the Apostles and Antinomianism
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 considered the "everlasting" sign of the Abrahamic covenant in Judaism (Genesis 17:9–14). The Acts say that "certain men which came down from Judaea" were preaching that "[u]nless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved"; the Acts also states that furthermore some of the Pharisees who had become believers stated that it was "needful to circumcise [the Gentiles,] and to command [them] to keep the law of Moses" (KJV).
See also: Supersessionism, Hellenistic Judaism, and Paul the Apostle and Jewish Christianity
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 (Galatians 2:12), and Paul the Apostle, who called himself "Apostle to the Gentiles", who believed there was no such necessity. 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.
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 to the quotation: "Known to God from eternity are all His works" 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.[a] 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").[b]
See also: Seven Laws of Noah, Christian views on the Old Covenant, and Proselyte § Rules for proselytes in the Torah
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.
The author 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, particularly in regard to non-strangled kosher meat, which contrasts with Paul's advice to Gentiles in Corinth, to "eat whatever is sold in the meat markets" (1 Corinthians 10:25).
Main article: 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, is considered by some scholars to be contradictory to the Galatians account. The historicity of Luke's account has been challenged, and was rejected completely by some scholars in the mid to late 20th century. However, more recent scholarship inclines towards treating the Jerusalem Council and its rulings as a historical event, though this is sometimes expressed with caution. 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 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" [Les problèmes du Livre des Actes d'après les travaux récents (Louvain, 1950), p.70].
Main article: Pauline epistles
Further information: Pauline Christianity and Paul the Apostle and Judaism
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The council retained the prohibitions on eating blood, meat containing blood, and meat of animals that were strangled, and on fornication and idolatry. The resulting Apostolic Decree in Acts 15 may simply parallel the seven Noahide laws found in the Old Testament, and thus be a commonality rather than a differential. However, modern scholars dispute the connection between Acts 15 and the seven Noahide laws. The Apostolic Decree may have been a major act of differentiation of the early 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 [...] 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.
According to the 19th-century German Catholic bishop Karl Josef von Hefele, the Apostolic Decree "has been obsolete for centuries in the West", though it is still recognized and observed by Eastern Orthodox Christians.
The 20th-century American Catholic priest and biblical scholar Joseph A. Fitzmyer SJ disputes the claim that the Apostolic Decree is based on the seven Noahide laws (Gen 9), and instead proposes Lev 17–18 as the basis for it. (See also: Leviticus 18).
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.
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.