Acts 21 – “Nine Years Before the War”

Clint Arnold has a nice sidebar in his commentary on Acts entitled “Jerusalem: Nine Years Before the War.”  I have long thought that the political situation in Jerusalem is the key to understanding James and his chilly reception of Paul.  James was faced pressure from Jews who were Christians to be spiritual prepared for the coming Messiah and Jews who rejected Jesus as messiah but were every bit as much zealous for the Law.  Likely there were many who were unhappy with James’ decision to side with Paul and not require Gentile conversion to Judaism as a requirement of salvation.  If the political climate of Jerusalem made James’ position dangerous, it made Paul’s position on Gentiles lethal.

Fall of Jersualem

News of Paul’s activities would have been well known in Jerusalem.  Paul has been creating islands of Gentile Christianity in the Roman world for years now, and it is undoubtedly true that the Gentiles outnumber the Jews in many of his congregations.  Paul has confronted Peter over table fellowship with Gentiles (Gal 2) and made it clear that Gentiles are saved apart from the Law.  Perhaps the theology of Romans 9-11 was known in Jerusalem – the Jews have “stumbled” and the Gentiles have been grafted in.

To what extent is James part of the problems which face Paul in Jerusalem?   On the one hand, Luke does not explicitly state that James believed these rumors, although he also does not show James as rejecting them either.  When Paul arrived, Jerusalem itself was a hotbed of nationalistic fever is a fact, and the Jewish church was very much a part the messianic nationalism which caused the revolt of A.D. 66.  Arriving in Jerusalem with an entourage of Gentiles who were not at all converts to Judaism was dangerous at the very least (Dunn, Beginning from Jerusalem, 961-2).

Paul’s arrival in Jerusalem probably was in spring of A.D. 56 or 57 during the procuratorship of Felix. Josephus described this period of the mid-50s as a time of intense Jewish nationalism and political unrest. One insurrection after another rose to challenge the Roman overlords, and Felix brutally suppressed them all. This only increased the Jewish hatred for Rome and inflamed anti-Gentile sentiments. It was a time when pro-Jewish sentiment was at its height, and friendliness with outsiders was viewed askance. Considering public relations, Paul’s mission to the Gentiles would not have been well received. (Polhill, Acts, 447).

For fifteen years prior to the war, Judea was ruled by mediocre Roman governors who managed Jewish affairs poorly, exacerbating the problems which eventually led to the revolt.  Judea was not a particularly important to Rome, and as a result they sent some particularly poor officials to govern the region.  Felix, for example, is described by Tacitucs as “wielding royal power with the instincts of a slave” (Hist 5.9).  Felix was recalled by Nero in A.D. 60, and while Festus was an improvement, he died in office .  Schürer described the Roman government as having “deliberately set out to drive the people to revolt” (Schürer, History of the Jewish People, 1.455).  Josephus covers the chaos of this period in Antiq. 20.16–172 and  JW 2.254-265.

It is of course impossible to know the mind of James, but it appears he is trying very hard to keep the more conservative elements of his church in fellowship with the less conservative elements – but from Paul’s perspective, the Jerusalem church was entirely conservative.  By coming to Jerusalem Paul was stepping into a situation which can only end badly for him.

5 thoughts on “Acts 21 – “Nine Years Before the War”

  1. He went in to Jerusalem yes, but it was for the sake of Gentiles who were also moving onto territories unknown. The Jews who wanted to keep the Law in the hands of everyone was not going over so well after Christ’s death, resurrection, and growth/spread of “the Way.” Could it also be said that, as corrupt the Roman government was, and as equally corrupt the Pharisees/Sadducees, these groups were vying for people to their side of support and building up to war/revolt? Paul comes into a serious hotbed at the very wrong time, yes, but ultimately, he wants to help those keep peace and or ultimately help them get out, and ends up getting “jailed” for it.

  2. It is too easy to read a book like Acts and completely miss the social and political context surrounding the text. In the case of mid- and late-Acts, the political tides were certainly turning, and the undercurrents of revolution were already circulating throughout the Jewish populace. The Jews living in Jerusalem were especially tired of Roman rule, of putting up with the political control and prosperity of Gentile nations. They were fed up with the corrupt religious leaders who cared more about fame and fortune than they did about following God’s perfect Law.

    The tension in Jerusalem had nearly reached its boiling point when Paul arrived on the scene, fresh from teaching Gentiles about salvation apart from the Law through faith in a Messiah that the Jews had crucified. I think it’s safe to say that Paul was not going to be warmly received, and he likely could have predicted as much. It should not come as a great surprise, then, that James, the leader of the Jewish church in Jerusalem, seems to keep Paul at arm’s length when he arrives. While this could come across as a kind of disapproval of Paul and his ministry, it seems more probable that James was simply trying to avoid stirring up even more anger in the hearts of the Jews.

    If there is still any doubt from this passage as to whether James was on board with what Paul was doing, it seems helpful to consider Galatians 2:9. “James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised.” Even though he didn’t act very warmly toward Paul when he visited Jerusalem, we know that James understood Paul’s calling to the Gentiles, and even took part in his commissioning. This is a great picture of how the body of Christ can work together to reach the whole world, both Jews and Gentiles, for Him.

  3. James warned current followers of Christ that they had to take action and understand the pressure that was going to happen for their commitment to Christ. There were many individuals who rejected Christ because they were afraid of torment and pain, so they would abandon Jesus. All of the miracles and actions performed by Jesus and His followers have been known. The fact that the Jews and Gentiles were saved and knew more than unbelievers, they were looked at as having an upper hand. But many could argue against. James was eager to keep Christ known and fight for his faith. Even though James would fall to the problem of questioning his purpose and also question what God was doing in his life. He stayed obedient and stayed eager to know God more fully in his life. God puts us through trials and constantly gives us opportunities to seek Him more and more every day.

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