Council of Jerusalem (or Apostolic Conference) is a name applied by historians and theologians to a Christian Apostolic Age council that was held in Jerusalem and dated to around the year 50 AD. It is unique among the ancient pre-ecumenical councils in that it is considered by Catholics and 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 Law of Moses, including the rules concerning circumcision of males. The Council did, however, retain the prohibitions on eating blood, meat containing blood, and meat of animals not properly slain, and on fornication and idolatry, sometimes referred to as the Apostolic Decree or Jerusalem Quadrilateral. 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. 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.
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 around the year 50 AD, roughly twenty years after the crucifixion of Jesus, which is dated 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 (presumably in accord with Genesis 17:14, a law from God which, according to Genesis 17:13-19, God said would be everlasting). However, circumcision was considered repulsive during the period of Hellenization of the Eastern Mediterranean.
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. 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 “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved”.
Circumcision as a mandate was associated with Abraham (see also Abrahamic covenant), but it is cited as ‘the custom of Moses’ because Moses is considered the traditional giver of the Law as a whole. The circumcision mandate was made more official and binding in the Mosaic Law Covenant. In John 7:22 the words of Jesus are reported to be that Moses gave the people circumcision.
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 while the Unvarnished New Testament 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 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, and Paul the Apostle, who believed there was no such necessity. (See also Supersessionism, New Covenant, Antinomianism, Hellenistic Judaism, Paul the Apostle and Judaism)
At the Council, following advice offered by Simon Peter (Acts 15:7–11), the apostle James submitted a proposal, which was accepted by the Church and 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. 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 15:19–21)
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”).
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. See also Biblical law directed at non-Jews, Seven Laws of Noah, Biblical law in Christianity, and the 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, 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.”(I Corinthians 10:25)
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, 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].
Interpreting the Council’s decision</h3>
James’s Apostolic Decree was that most Mosaic Law, 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. 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, 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, depending on when Jewish Noachide law was developed. Around the same time period, the authorities of Rabbinic Judaism made their circumcision requirement even stricter. 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. On the other hand, some in the early Church did not take long to decide that the Torah requirements were not necessary for Jewish converts either (see the Epistle to the Hebrews, and Justin Martyr’s Dialog with Trypho and Marcionism; Paul also repeatedly states that Jews and Gentiles are one in Christ, which may be interpreted as saying that they are not distinguished in any way, including their relationship to the Mosaic Law, but this is just one interpretation and the issues of Paul the Apostle and Judaism and interpretation of Pauline passages supporting antinomianism and Pauline passages opposing antinomianism are still widely disputed. See also Criticism of Dual-Covenant theology).
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. Moreover, Paul seems to have refused “to be tied down to particular patterns of behavior and practice.” 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.
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.)”
Joseph Fitzmyer 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.
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 Greek Orthodox Church.
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.
According to Hebrew Roots: “The main question of the so-called Jerusalem Council was not ‘How Should Gentiles Behave?’ The question was ‘What Do Gentiles Need To Do In Order To Be Saved’ ”. At the time of the Jerusalem Council, the New Testament was not yet written. Paul instructs Timothy (II Tim 2:15 and 3:15-16) to study the Word of Scripture. The only Scripture available at that time was the Old Testament. Are we to “conclude that it is permissible for Gentile believers to covet, steal, dishonor their parents, and dabble in the occult, for none of the commandments forbidding these things are specified here. [In Acts 15]. And to say that commandments against coveting, stealing, etc. appear on other pages of the New Testament is just evading the issue, for there was no “New Testament” book yet in existence to instruct these believers….Obviously James’ words cannot mean that none of the Torah’s commands are valid except for these four things, for the writers of the New Testament epistles, when writing years later, constantly quoted from the Torah to instruct Gentile believers. The confusion begins to clear up when the rest of James’ statement is read: “For Moses of old time has in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogue every Sabbath day.” (Acts 15:21). In other words, this is similar to what one hears from TV evangelists today (paraphrased): “Go to a Bible believing church to hear the Word of God after one accepts Jesus Christ as Savior”.
Most 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 1st century AD, modern anesthesia and antibiotics did not exist and the death-rates were high from even minor medical operations. Demanding a Gentile adult male be circumcised 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 circumcised, and according to Luke’s account in Acts 15:13-21, James not only permitted uncircumcised 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 circumcised, 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”.
The seven Noahide laws as traditionally enumerated are:
1.) Do not deny God.
2.) Do not blaspheme God.
3.) Do not murder.
4.) Do not engage in incestuous, adulterous or homosexual relationships.
5.) Do not steal.
6.) Do not eat of a live animal.
7.) Establish courts/legal system to ensure law and obedience.