Acts 21:17-25 – Meeting with James (Part 1)

When Paul arrives in Jerusalem, he meets with “James and the Elders.”  As it turns out, there are many Jews in Jerusalem who are believers in the Gospel and are still  following the laws and traditions of the Jews (21:20).  This is not unexpected– Jesus did not come to destroy the Law and does not teach anything that might be taken as a rejection of the Law or Temple worship.  While Jesus may have rejected the traditions of the Pharisees, he lived as any Jew might have in the first century.

temple2James describes the Jerusalem church as very large, the NIV has “thousands,” translating the Greek “myriads.” While this might seem like a bit of hyperbole, there were several thousand people mentioned in Acts 2 and 3, so it is not unlikely that there have been additional converts in the many years that have passed.

But there is a problem.  There are some among their church that think that Paul is a false teacher  by teaching that Gentiles should turn away from the Law (vs. 21).  Is this true?  Certainly Paul taught that Gentiles were not under the law, in fact, in Galatians he is quite strong in his condemnation of these same zealots who were teaching the Gentiles to keep the law. With respect to Jews, it is true that we do not have a text which clearly indicates that he told Jews to continue keeping the law and traditions of Israel. It may or may not be the case that Paul considered ceremonial law and traditions matters of indifference.

Witherington seems to allow for more possibility that Paul taught that traditions were not required.  Certainly Galatians could be read as a repudiation of the Law, although it seems that Paul only has in mind Gentile converts.  In the end, that may still be the heart of the problem – what Paul has created is something new and different.  People are converting to a belief in Jesus as savior apart from Law rather than converting to Judaism or converting to a particular messianic conviction within Judaism (Acts, 648).

Based on Paul’s behavior in Acts, it may well be he would have told the Jews to continue keeping the Law.  He required Timothy be circumcised, for example, and he had made a vow while in Corinth. Later he will claim that he has continued to keep the law, although one wonders to what extent he kept the boundary markers of the Law these conservatives Jews would have expected from him.

James proposes that Paul prove his loyalty by submitting to the Nazarite vow along with a few men (vs. 22-25).   Dunn rightly observes that James does not deny the rumor: “the advice of James and the elders is carefully calibrated.  They do not disown the rumors.  Instead they suggest that Paul disprove the rumors by his own action, by showing that he himself still lived in observance of the Law” (Dunn, Acts, 287).  The fact that James drops out of the story after Paul’s arrest is a mystery – why does James not come to the aid of Paul?  No Christians are willing to defend Paul when he goes before the Sanhedrin.  Why is this?  It seems as though Paul has less support in Jerusalem in A.D. 58 than we might have expected.

Does Paul make a mistake in sponsoring the vow in the Temple?  Some people think it would have been unlike Paul to “keep Law” at this point in his career.  What is his ultimate motivation for doing this?  Does he really need to “prove himself” to be faithful at this late date?

21 thoughts on “Acts 21:17-25 – Meeting with James (Part 1)

  1. I would challenge your assertion concerning v. 21 that Paul was rumored to be teaching that Gentiles did not have to keep the Law. Verse 21 is quite clear that Paul was being accused of teaching Jews not to keep the Law. This is a crucial distinction. In fact, James seems to assume the Gentile-Law issue was settled at the Jerusalem Council since he refers to it in v. 25.

  2. Interesting post and questions posed at the end. (Ideally, I’d have been reading all the posts, but not been able to.) I’ll have to restrain myself from any detail here, as I have long been and currently am studying issues of Paul and the Jerusalem believers as I have time. It can be puzzling sometimes, regardless of one’s interpretation, understanding of Paul and the others, etc. But I’ve found that a whole lot more fits into place and makes good sense with a couple well-warranted conclusions (which in turn serve as frameworks for further re-readings and analysis):

    Paul was “in sync” with the other Apostles (Jeru. based, mainly) mainly around the death, burial, resurrection and soon “appearance” (not 2nd coming) of Christ and the Kingdom. But NOT re. keeping Torah nor being otherwise observant as a Jew (which I think it’s pretty clear the other Apostles/leaders in Jeru. were, despite the harmonizing efforts of Acts). AND, on resurrection, either Paul distorts the others’ experience and understanding of it (as in I Cor. 15), or (more likely) they share HIS type of experience (visionary vs. “touch my hands and side”, eating fish physicality). But on the spiritual identity of Jesus he is way “off the reservation.” (“Christ” is the main name/title for Paul, who leans tellingly little — only about 3 quick places — on Jesus’ earthly ministry, miracles or teachings…. It’s virtually ALL what he personally “saw” by revelation as being true in “heaven” or in terms of cosmic spirituality…. he repeatedly, loudly makes the point he did NOT receive “his” gospel from the apostles or any human source.)

    All this, in addition to his specific theological statements and recounting of his tactics in a few places (to Jews, what they needed to see, and same for Gentiles) leads me to believe with high confidence that James et al DID only know what Paul really taught via rumors(!) or maybe some indirect knowledge by Peter or others having visited some of his congregations, not real solid info. Thus Paul was able to do what he thought was both necessary for ongoing endorsement by “Jerusalem” and to get him through this test. Thus submitting to the oath, probably almost “pleading the 5th amendment” (or political-type answers to queries) to direct q’s., etc. That, then, makes it sensible why he had little if any ongoing support by James or others who WERE still observant Jews and had not been exposed to nor even known a lot about what Paul’s real theology re. the new covenant and being “in Christ” was about.

    I’ve only come to this kind of view gradually and from many sources of input and support, but the latest one, and I think about the best I’ve read so far is the fairly recent “Paul and Jesus” by James Tabor. His analysis on the relation of Paul to the Acts material and to the Jeru. leaders, as well as Paul’s overall theology, etc. is really tight, solid analysis. And not (apparently) on the basis of having any “dog in the fight”… pretty historically oriented (vs. theologically, tho he gets the theology better than most theologians, in my view.)

  3. You ask why James and the Jerusalem church leaders do not come to Paul’s aid during his imprisonment. To deflect the charges against him, Paul had to present himself as a pious Jew. See, for example, 24:17 where he describes the collection as an act of piety. Consider also 22:40-22:3 where he displays his Jewish credentials, and 22:12 where he presents Ananias as a well respected Law-observant Jew (contrast 9:10). Paul strengthens his defense by associating himself with well respected, pious Jews, such as Ananias and Gamaliel. We can assume therefore, that his case would have been weakened if he had associated himself with Jerusalem Christians, such as Peter and James, who supported the inclusion of Gentiles without circumcision. I suggest, therefore, that James and Peter and the other leaders did not intervene on Paul’s behalf because it would have been counter-productive for them to do so. James and Peter could serve Paul best by staying away from him.

    Only a misreading of Gal 2:12 supports the view that James was more conservative than Paul on the Gentile question. If James was a respected, pious Jew, as many suppose, his intervention could have helped Paul. The fact that he did not intervene (as far as we know) would then be surprising (unless we suppose that he wanted Paul dead, which seems unlikely on any hypothesis).

    By the way, it is not only James who disappears from the narrative. Paul’s Gentile companions also disappear. It may have been better for Paul’s case for him to associate with Aristarchus and the author of Acts, who were both Jews.

  4. Richard, I’m curious if your last paragr. indicates that you think “Luke” was a travelling companion of Paul or at least worked directly with Paul some? If so, on what basis (besides the uncertain matters like the “we” sections about the travels, the claims in the Luke and Acts prologues, etc.)?

    It would sure be easier to figure stuff out, as to historicity and actual theological issues IF “Luke” could be relied on as at least a relatively objective “historian.” I just can’t see that at all, anymore…. The more I study the issues the clearer that becomes. He uses a general historical structure, yes, but beyond that, a primarily theological and “rewriting-of-history” agenda seems clear. An it lets him pour all kinds of historical-sounding content into a very sketchy and flexible framework. And one has to hand it to him… it WAS effective in swaying the “received” view of early Christian history, probably with the help of most differing accounts and interpretations either disappearing or being “disappeared” by proto-orthodox and later orthodox church leaders.

  5. Howard, yes, the best explanation for the “we passages” is that the author was a companion of Paul. The traditional name of the author is LOUKAS, which is an abbreviated form of the name LOUKIOS (Lucius). The author of Acts assembled in Achaia, ready to travel with Paul to Judea. He was a well travelled believer who must have been well known to many who had moved to Rome. It is surely no coincidence, therefore, that Lucius sends greetings to the church of Rome (Rom 16:21). This Lucius is mentions second only to Timothy, so was probably well known to those who had moved to Rome. If we did not have the later traditions we would suppose that the author of Acts was this Lucius. This confirms the tradition since Luke is essentially the same name. I have written about this here:

    Howard, your skepticism of the historical accuracy of Acts is typical of many scholars. Unfortunately your lack of specific evidence is also typical. Whenever I ask the skeptics for evidence they either go strangely silent or they trot out the usual “conflicts” that are predicated on an interpretation of Gal 1-2 that I do not share.

    In your last paragraph you sound a bit like the conspiracy theorist who says that the lack of evidence for his theory just shows how thoroughly the truth has been suppressed. I understand that a short blog comment is not the place to lay out a detailed analysis of the evidence, but I feel that if we are to discredit the historicity of Acts it must be through specific pieces of evidence rather than through a thousand insinuations, as often happens.

    • Thanks for the reply and “engagement”, Richard. Unfortunately, I don’t have much time at all right now to give any such specifics. And, in fact, as you imply, whenever I do begin on that kind of thing, it rarely if ever gets responded to point-by-point. This is understandable in terms of the nature of blogs and most blog posts and comments, as you say.

      A cple quick things for now: As to sounding a bit like conspiracy… and suppression: That is NOT at all the core of my conclusions (and they are not rigidly finalized, but I’ve already taken literally thousands of hours of study to very gradually modify them, mostly in the last dozen years. This after already having a seminary degree (MDiv) plus 48 PhD units (not mostly biblical studies, but some theology and related) and MUCH personal study before and after that… probably over 100-150 relevant books in the last decade or so and parts of many more, direct study of the NT, etc. So the loss (via whatever causes) of some relevant docs (which is not mere guesswork for a # of reasons you know about also, such as relatively recent discoveries of many only know OF earlier or not known of at all) is certainly not a significant issue for me… just an interesting and potentially important side one.

      As to specific issues, indeed there are a great many. For now, I’ll have to rest on just letting some of the scholarly work of others speak for me. They range widely throughout the book of Acts, in relation to Luke there, but aren’t restricted to that either. And I don’t at all see that they are all or mostly tied to Gal. 1-2. No one or two or even a half-dozen of them would probably make a very strong case. But when taken together and understood in terms of theological development and issues of Paul, Luke, the Jerusalem believers and later Gospel writers (besides Luke), the “case” is extremely strong…. I know, that is not evidence per se, but due to no time left, I’m stating the overall situation as I see it after so, so much study (coming out of a fascination to understand what really went on and its implications, etc.). Given time I could give a very long list.

  6. The question that P. Long mentions about James or any of the Christians in Jerusalem not going to the defense of Paul when he is mobbed and put on trial is a good question. My first thought is that they would not have had much influence in that situation anyway so it wouldn’t make sense for them to try to defend him anyway (or if they did try to defend him, they were unsuccessful and thus Luke skipped over that detail in recording this passage of Scripture). My second thought is that James and the other Christians didn’t defend him because that would have been destructive to the Christian community in Jerusalem. If James or anyone else had tried to defend Paul, that might have aimed some persecution or threats toward the Jerusalem church. In verse 30, we see that the whole city is aroused, therefore this was no small matter. Recently, I researched and wrote a paper about the riot in Ephesus in Acts 19. In Acts 19, we see that the Roman Empire does not appreciate any disturbance of the peace so much that Roman citizens are punished for trying to persecute Christians because they had caused too much of a commotion. Here in Acts 21, another city-wide uproar is happening and the Romans get involved by arresting Paul. So it is possible that James would not have wanted to get involved with the Roman officials so that Romans could put any blame on the Jerusalem church and thus be able to bring charges against them.

  7. I find it ironic how much dissension there was between the apostles ministry, and Paul’s ministry. If you look in the opening of Acts, it is a “battle” between Judaism and this new found Christianity. A group who believed that Jesus was the messiah, and a group who didn’t. We then see a transition into a “battle” between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christian in regards to the law. This second group was not violent or hateful, it was simply a dispute of doctrine, and more specifically over the law. We see on multiple occasions, Paul standing up to defend the Gentiles to show that Gentile Christians did not have to keep the law (Gal. 2). But if Paul is defending NOT following the law, then why does he submit to a Nazarite vow? I believe that Paul was caught between two worlds of Christianity, the Jewish and the Gentile world. For most of his ministry he was speaking to the Gentiles, but he still went into synagogues and he still went back into Jerusalem. In Romans 14:13, Paul says that you should not be a stumbling block for fellow brothers and sisters. I believe that is precisely why Paul took that Nazarite vow, for the Jews. After all they had heard he was doing, it seems as if they were questioning his devotion to Christianity because of his teaching about the law. So Paul took a Jewish vow, and became a Nazarite for a year. He did this to show the people, “Hey! I’m not here to take away your law, or threaten your lifestyle! i am following the law right now!” By doing this Paul is catering to both the Jews and the Gentiles as he wants to get his gospel to the entirety of the world.

  8. I think that Paul’s stance on the practice of Judaism was that if you were a Jew there was no reason for you to stop following the law. That is why he continued to practice Jewish tradition and law. The message that Jesus Christ is the Messiah fits in with Judaism, because the Messiah was something the Jews were expecting. Jesus was a consummation of the law. In regards to animal sacrifices, they would have been no longer necessary on the part of any Christian Jews because Jesus was the final sacrifice that took away the sin of the world. (John 1:29) Now Paul is a Jew, who preaches to Gentiles. Gentiles are not Jewish, so they do practice the law. Jesus’ sacrifice extends beyond the Jews and goes to the Gentiles, of whom Paul gives the right to not practice Jewish law. That is why conflict arises between the Christian Jews in Jerusalem and Paul. The reason why the Jerusalem council does not back up Paul in his trial is unclear. Although Jbefus makes some excellent points on why they would not; it may have been that they did not like Paul, but I would like to think that it was for another reason. The reason that Paul takes a Nazarite vow is unknown, but what I would hope for is that he was doing it not for political reasons, but for his own spiritual growth. Many times we try and analyze actions of historic figures as political, but many times they are not.

  9. I believe Paul had further motives than proving himself loyal by keeping the law. Though I think Paul did indeed keep the law in part to show he was still loyal, I also believe he did it to prove a point. This point would have been to show that the old law was still relevant in some areas especially for the Jews, but not an absolute necessity in others, because he “considered ceremonial law and traditions, matters of indifference.” This is because as the post talks about, Paul never directly states whether Jews should uphold the traditions. However, he does state that Gentiles are not held to the law and are not required to live by the old law. So I believe in fact the Jews (For example James and the elders) were starting to doubt Paul; that he was leaning more towards the Gentiles and anti-law. Consequently, I believe Paul wanted to show his commitment through keeping the law by “having been purified with them” (Acts 21:26). However like I alluded to earlier I do not think this was his only motive, but also I believe he wanted to show that there are elements of the old law that were still relevant to the Jews. This is because like the post says, “He required Timothy be circumcised, and he made a vow while in Corinth.” I believe that whether Paul liked it or not his traditional Jewish beliefs were still a part of his belief system especially regarding the Jews. So though Paul did not hold the Gentiles to the law and the Jewish traditions, I believe that he held Jews to a “higher standard,” in some cases demanding them to keep the law but in every situation demanding them to live by the new law of Jesus Christ.

  10. It is almost as if James and the elders are persuading Paul to forfeit the Law and persuade others to do so (21:21) This also includes the vow. (21:23 – do therefore what we tell you) However it is evident that Paul does not heed their advice. Paul goes into the synagogues and preaches that faith in Jesus Christ is what saves you; not ceremonial traditions. Yet he is loyal to the Jewish roots by upholding the vow. I believe that this action might have been to show the Jews that ceremonial traditions are not inherrently bad, but they do not grant salvation. Therefore Paul does not forgeit the Jewish Laws completely. This dissension between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians is a result of “mixed table fellowship” of which neither Jew or Gentile want to associate with one another because it could possibly lead to idolatry. But the point that Paul is trying to make to the people is simply that salvation through Jesus Christ is offered to anyone who will believe. (whether you follow the Jewsh customs or not) It is no longer an exclusive Gospel but it is an inclusve Gospel to all who believe; puttng their faith and trust in Jesus Christ alone.

  11. I have to agree with a lot of what Nick says. I think the reason that Paul continued to live by the law is because it is still important. I like what Nick says about Paul also living by the law because he is living according to Jewish tradition and because the law is still a part of him. I believe it was in class that we talked about how Paul didn’t turn completely away from his Jewish lifestyle and I think this shows that the law still is a part of his life. I As Christians, today we don’t live by the law, but it is still a part of our lives. I think that Paul was showing the Jewish people that they can still observe the law, not to live by it (because Paul still wants them to know they need to accept Jesus as the Messiah and live by Him).

  12. It may be a personal matter for Paul to continue to keep the Law. It may be that it is what he is used to, so he would continue to keep it. It is also possible that Paul felt that he needed to lead the new believers by example. If a person was crucial in converting someone, wouldn’t the converted want to that person practice what they preached? Paul may be doing this. He is ethnically and religiously Jewish. For Paul to tell the Jewish Christians to continue in the Law, yet he does not do it himself, would do more harm than anything. His witness would fall apart. It would make most sense, however, that both theories are true. Paul could be being an example to the new believers, while at the same time, practicing Judaism due to comfortability. Either way, Paul had the right idea to suggest practicing the Law after conversion. God did not call the Gentiles to practice the Law; He called the Jews to practice the Law. By sending Christ, He did not eradicate the Law (Matt. 5:17).

  13. The first time looking at the passage, I too thought it was a bit weird for Paul to talk so much about no longer needing the law, then only to take up a Nazirite vow? The ESV study notes point to one idea of his motivation for doing this, “it is an example of his willingness to become ‘all things to all people’ (1 Cor. 9:22).” In 1 Corinthians Paul says, “for though I am free” free from the law, “I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.” The goal in Paul’s mind is winning souls, not being right or wrong, petty arguments. That should also be the goal for Christians today.

    For Christians today, I believe that it is also important to note a difference between the Jewish law, “Mosaic law,” and “the law of Christ”. The Mosaic Law is the law that outlines the Jewish way of life, which they follow. But “the law of Christ” includes the teaching of Jesus as well as some moral parts of the Mosaic Law. It is important to remember that often times the way of Christ deviates against culture. We see a hint at this in Acts 21:25, “the should abstain from… sexual immorality.” Like perhaps in Acts 15:20 ESV study note, “it [warning against sexual immorality] may have needed special emphasis because many gentiles consciences were so corrupted” by the culture they lived in. So, when we follow Paul’s footsteps to become “all things, to all people,” this does not mean we fall away from the “law of Christ.”

  14. So we have Paul sitting around and people accusing himof being something he is not. Huh, remind you of anyone? Maybe the guy that he likes to talk about a lot? Anyway, I think that Paul took the vow because he saw no reason not too. If he refused the vow then all that would have happened was people getting pissy over something that they thought was important. So why wouldn’t he take the vow? In theory it would calm his nay sayers down, shows people that he was not a false preacher and in the end bring more people to Christ. So it is far from a mistake for him to haev taken the vow.

    While he did not need to “prove himself” to anyone, it still helped to take the vow. Just because you know you are innocent does not mean that everyone views you as innocent. You must big forward proof to prove your worth. That is all Paul did here. Nothing drastic really.

  15. I agree, as Mr. Befus pointed out, that defending Paul from the mob not only would have been detrimental to the Gospel that the apostles have been preaching, but also may have caused more problems for the church than it could have handled. Christ says in Matthew 10:22, “You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” Christ warned His disciples that they would indeed face persecution from those who did not believe, and in every instance of persecution, the apostles did not act violently, precisely because it would have gone against Christ, whom they represented. Also, had the apostles stepped in, the Roman commander who saved Paul may have viewed the dispute as a problem started by the Christians. In this instance, it is possible that all of the leaders of the Jerusalem church would have been taken as prisoners, and being as they were not Roman citizens, would not have gotten off lightly as Paul did. This would have left the Jerusalem church without its leaders, and the believers may very well have crumbled under persecution.

    In regards to Paul going to the temple, I believe this was a very calculated move. Paul understood the bitter feelings that the Jews had towards him and his fellow Christians. However, Paul taking and performing the Nazarene vow allows him to testify of his innocence in the keeping the Law. In fact, the Roman commander and Festus find no fault with Paul because he has neither broken the Roman law, nor the Jewish customs. The accusations are false and Paul has grounds to stand on for his innocence. It is these ground that allow him to ultimately appeal to Caesar and complete the mission that he had set out to do in Acts.

  16. The issue of Paul leading converts astray comes up again and again in the book of Acts. As you said, in Galatians Paul speaks very strongly against those teaching that the gentile converts had to keep Torah. This is strange since Paul did not forgo his Jewish roots. Paul seemed to understand that keeping of Torah was for Gods chosen people whom were under the law when they began to follow Christ.
    Perhaps Paul still wanted the respect of his peers so he decided to take on the vow. He could have also done the vow to show that he did not believe that Jews were supposed to forgo the law completely. He understood that there was freedom in Christ, but he could have known that he was supposed to continue to follow the law as he had already taken on that yoke.

    • Im late. Love the website.

      I don’t know where people are getting this idea.
      It is quite clear that Paul was not under the Law of Moses and did not keep the Law and neither did Peter. Gal 2:14

      If Paul was still following the Law of Moses his message as apostle to the Gentiles would have been absurd. Rom 14.
      I suggest a deeper unbiased reading on all Paul writes on this topic and it will be quite clear .

      • Hello John, late though you may be, I appreciate the input for here on on the James thread.

        As for Paul “under the Law,” I agree with you, however he does claim in Acts 23:` that he has a good conscience before God as having “fulfilled his duty” and still claims to be a Pharisee. He had just participated in a Nazarite vow, and seems to have taken one himself in Acts 18:18, and some take 20:6 as an indication he still kept Passover.So there seem to have been some traditional Jewish practices he maintained as a Jewish person, perhaps in order to win his own people to Christ.

  17. I do not think it was a mistake for Paul to sponsor the vow in the Temple; however, it seems that no matter what he chose to do, these “zealous Jews” would always find a way to stir up trouble. Although Paul is preaching that it is not necessary for the Gentiles to keep the Law as part of their salvation, it does not mean that Paul is devaluing the Law. Paul himself still keeps the Law; he required Timothy to be circumcised and it seems that he still encourages the Jews to keep the Law (Meeting with James post). However, Paul’s main desire is not that Jews and Gentiles keep the Law; instead, that they realize that because of Christ’s death as payment for the world’s sins, Jews and Gentiles alike are now saved by faith alone by the gift of His grace (Eph 2). This does not negate the value of the following the Law, but it is no longer a requirement for salvation. It seems that Paul adheres to James and the elders’ request to prove himself, even if he knows that it is futile; there will always be those who oppose the Way.

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