Acts 15 – Who were the Judaizers?

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.

21 thoughts on “Acts 15 – Who were the Judaizers?

  1. “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?”

    I think that the answer to this question is definitely yes. At the end of Peter’s speech in Acts 15 he says, “We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” Peter is saying that they and the Gentile’s are equal, they reap the same benefits from Christ dying on the cross. This sentence makes me believe that Peter understood the message that Paul had been preaching. That Christ died on the cross, for everyone’s sins, Jews and Gentiles alike, and by His grace we are saved by faith.
    We are all apart of God’s people when we believe in Him. God chose the Israelites to be His people for awhile, but now God had opened up the door for anyone to come in. But by opening up that door, things changed. Christ had died on the cross, and the ultimate sacrifice was done. God’s people no longer needed to do all the things that they were once required. Therefore there is no reason why the Gentiles needed to do the ritual that the Jews were used to living with. Whether a Gentile was circumcised or not, if he believed in the gospel and had faith, then the rituals were no longer a necessity to becoming a part of God’s family.

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  2. “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.”

    Its interesting how the early Christians had so much trouble switching from the legalistic characteristics of the Law to the grace message of Paul. There is no freedom in gaining favor through works, but according to Paul in Galatians 2, “We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know 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.” (2:15-16). So the heart of what saves us whether a man is under Judaism or Paul’s gospel,it matters not, but faith in Christ, matters above all. No matter what people tell us. Wear this, read this certain version, play this kind of music, whatever, we are to live by faith, because we are justified by faith.

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    • I love how he puts it: “can a Gentile be a member of the people of God and allow himself to be circumcised?” Not to often do we think of it in this way. should we not do something so that we stay saved. We always think we have to change and DO things to get salvation. Paul’s message is like Zakk said, by faith alone and it does not matter what we have done or do, we are saved.

      However, this does not mean that we ignore the practice of our faith. We cant think that just because we are saved by faith and we do not have to do anything, that we do not need to DO anything while we are saved. In Ephesians 2 it says “For by grace you have been saved through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is a gift from God–not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus TO DO GOOD WORKS which God prepared in advance for us to do.” We are to live a life of faith that is evident in the good things that we do. Our lives are to by holy (1 Peter 1), set a part for God. We are to be doers of the Word (James 1). This means that we should be noticing what we are doing throughout our day, what we listen to, what we watch, what we are thinking. And this isnt just when we do our devotions or go to church or our small group. This means all the time! We should be judging what we do in everything and see if this is for God’s glory, and if it isnt, should we be doing it?

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  3. Why does the debate have to be between Peter and Paul? Could not a similar argument be made for James, the brother of Jesus? In Acts 15:19 He is giving the judgment. Also, for the most part, his epistle seems to have more of a Jewish background of concept of taking care of widows and orphans as religion that pleases the Lord (James 1:27). According to Josephus, James was noted for keeping Jewish law (ESV Notes Acts 15:13). So it would seem that a very logical case could be made that the “Judaizers” were disciples under James.

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  4. “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.”

    From the Bible many things can be factually known about the Judaizers: “…some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. (Gal 2:4).” Polhill states this well and even makes an intelligent assumption as to Paul’s feelings regarding these people. “Paul would not grant them legitimacy at all; they were false brothers, spies who had sneaked in trying to rob others of their freedom. Verses 4 through 6 are extremely disjointed in the Greek text. Paul was so choked with rage at the circumcisers that he almost lost his train of thought. The NIV seems to preserve the thrust of Paul’s argument.” (111).
    Another interesting thing to note about these Judiazers was that they were not representatives of Jerusalem. They were in fact what Paul described them as: ‘false brothers and spies.’ “Here for the first time we learn that the ‘men from Judea’ (v.1) who had stirred up the circumcision controversy at Antioch were not official representatives of Jerusalem.” (116). Whether or not the Jerusalem Church used this opportunity to find a compromise is difficult to determine, although it does appear to have that nature. However, it is very evident that God had a plan in this council which resulted in the ‘right hand of fellowship’ and the recognition of Paul as the apostle to the Gentiles.

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  5. I’m surprised to see so much discussed about whom these “Judaizers” may have been when the real issue was not who they were, or where the hailed, but what they preached, that upset Paul so much. In fact, it seems to be of such minor importance that neither Luke in Acts 15, nor Paul in Galatians, finds it necessary to address the issue. In my opinion this may be a “missing the forest for the trees” issue.

    So, could the real issue of the Acts 15 council, at least for Paul, then have been that there was a false doctrine being preached against grace that needed to be squelched?

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  6. Galatians 6:12-14 really seems to be a key verse in understanding the tension between the Jews and Gentiles. Based off of the Galatians 6:12-14, the reason for the conflict of Judaizers trying to bring people under the law was based on pride. These Judaizers either did not know the freedom in Christ or they did not understand how it applied to the law. Whichever the case the result trying to convince others to keep the law is self-righteousness. To be a Christian not under the law and decide begin living under the law, minimized the righteousness found in trusting Christ for the payment of sins. “Those who want to make a good impression outwardly are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ. Not even those who are circumcised obey the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your flesh. May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. “

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  7. In relation to Jewish history, Gentiles who wanted to be accepted into the Jewish covenant had to become proselytes. They had to become circumcised and follow the Jewish law, this was the way it had always been done. Polhill, draws attention to the important fact that the Jews, (most likely Pharisees) who came to Antioch preaching that Gentiles must be circumcised to be saved, most likely considered Christianity to be a “sect”, or movement within, Judaism, and because of this, saw it as necessary that the Gentiles do what they had always done to become part of the exclusive Jewish covenant. This confusion makes perfect sense because as Polhill points out, “The apostles were all Jews. With few exceptions, the converts in Jerusalem…were Jews. Jesus was himself a Jew, the Messiah promised to Israel” (106). The reason for Paul and Barnabas’ argument at the council was that this would prevent the gospel totally reaching beyond the walls of Judaism and, having a real impact. “He could not allow such Jewish distinctions to subvert the mission to the Gentiles” (107). If circumcision would be required, Paul’s mission to the Gentiles would be in vain. I think this really clears up the picture of what was going on within Christianity emerging out of Jewish history and through Jewish people.

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  8. “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?”

    I take the “judaizers” to be jewish christians. I guess in that sense I’m part of the more tradition train of thought. Before I get scoffed at, let me explain. These “judaiszers” were teaching a form of doctrine contradicted by Paul. What were they teaching? You must be a jew (that is circumcised and maintain kosher) to be a Christian. It should be noted that, before Peter’s sheet vision where God revealed to him that there is no unclean thing and to go to Cornelius, this was the common held view of “Jewish Christians”. It should also be noted that the Jews persecuting Paul are not those from Jerusalem but the Hellenistic Jews of the day. In class, it has been noted that often time Hellenistic Jews were much more conservative than those in Jerusalem, so when Philip and Stephen ministered to the synagogues they most likely carried the message that was now hindering Paul.

    It’s not that Peter or Stephen or Philip are judaizers. The gospel until Paul came along was to Israel not extended to the Gentiles. So, of course, the common doctrine was that in order to be a “Christian” you had to be a Jew. You could choose to argue by saying that Philip and Stephen went to the Hellenists so obviously gentiles would have heard; but, like gaining access to Israel, it would have been denied them. It is not until Paul receives his revelation, do we see Gentiles being worked into the equation in such a way as to not require circumcision. So we have a group of people believing one thing, and one man saying another. To the majority, they would be right and this one man would be a heretic, or at least wrong because he’s going against everyone. So, of course, there’s a “Jewish Christian” backlash to Paul because what he is preaching is something new and unheard of. Furthermore, it does not make any other the other thoughts wrong in their time and place, because before Paul they were right in thinking so; but this new way to salvation for Gentiles, God used Paul to bring.

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    • John Im pretty sure you do not have to worry about being criticized about your view. Its completely understandable that men who had been taught circumcision and kosher laws for generations would not listen to a man that had seemed to disagree with them.
      I think though that seeing these great miracles that had happened with Cornelius and his family, these dissenters should have noticed that the hand of God was at work in the lives of “unclean gentiles” also. But the revelation of God has always been hard to notice (especially by the Jewish nation), and the unbelief/ doubt expressed by the dissenters can be understood.
      Any thoughts others?

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  9. I think that the Judaizers had there own set of problems. They thought that you had to follow rules to be saved. They did not take in to account that Jesus saved by faith and not by what set of rules set up by man that we follow. The Judaizers I think just wanted to cause problems within the church. They thought that they were better than everyone else and they wanted everyone else to follow them and be like them. I think that they did this so they could justify what they were doing as being right. They went around and caused so many problems within the church. There are so many things that God did not tell us about how we are to live. He did not tell us everything because He wants to see how we will live our life for Him. Because of that, we all have different views of how we are to live. Some of us have more rules than others and then there are others who don’t have many rules at all. Who is right? Who is wrong? Well, we have to find out what we think is right in our eyes, check it with the bible to see it many say about the issue, and then say that the rule or no rule is right or wrong for my life, not anyone else. We can not tell others how to live. They have to figure that out. If it is biblically wrong than you can correct them, but if the bible does not say, than we can not judge them. God will have that responsibility when we get to heaven.

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  10. This conflict in Act 15 was a very important issue to address. As Polhill points out the decision of the council that following the Law was not the grounds of salvation was very important for church history because it separated Christianity from Judaism. which is very important because if the gentiles were expected to follow the law circumcision, food, and sabbath there would not be many conversions because they would have to move to Jewish community to make in even possible for them to follow the law. Also that makes Christianity no longer a sect of Judaism but and fulfillment of the promise of the coming of The Messiah who fulfilled the and brought the whole mankind together with the hope of Salvation through Jesus The Christ.

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  11. Whoever they were it seems that they had an agenda that was very different from Paul. There had to be some motivation for these people to head out and be militant. They may have been part of a Jerusalem church that practiced these types of law things still and headed out to try and help and just didn’t do so properly. Because Christianity was so new they probably did not understand what was really going on and what was really at stake. The Judaizers probably looked and said “hey, when we practice the law (kinda) no one bothers us, so you should to so you aren’t bothered.” They probably took one look at the galatian gentiles and were like “oh man, these guys would never make it in Jerusalem and just went for it. I guess this would make me line right back up with tradition. Here is where the rubber meets the road. They wanted to add works to Salvation for thier own gain at the expense of the gentiles. The Judiazers also intended for the gentiles to get out of persecution of thier faith by keeping the law. Paul was all about the sacrifice because that is what shows us the true extent of our faith.

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  12. Who were the Judaizers?
    ” 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. ”

    hmmm…

    I’m not convinced that the harsh words used by Paul against the Judaizers – the harshest words we read of his – were levied against Christians at all, much less those with good intentions. Wouldn’t Paul have had more sense? I realize the guy wasn’t perfect, but he was writing these epistles by inspiration and with apostolic authority.

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  13. I was researching for tips for my very own weblog and
    encountered your blog post, “Acts 15 – Who were the Judaizers?
    Reading Acts”, would you care in cases where I use a few of your
    own points? Thank you ,Lizzie

    Like

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