Peter reports his experience with Gentile salvation and argues that requiring Gentiles to keep the Law is placing an unnecessary yoke upon them (Acts 15:7-11). He first briefly reminds the assembly of his encounter with Cornelius, a conversion which was confirmed by evidence from the Holy Spirit. At the time this was a shock to Peter and his companions, as well as to the Jerusalem community. Cornelius received the Spirit before he converted to Judaism. In hindsight, this may be the reason that the Spirit comes upon him even before baptism, so that there can be no question that Cornelius was saved apart from conversion.
When Peter describes the Law as a “yoke” on the Gentiles he is not necessarily criticizing the Law. In Judaism, the idea of being “yoked” to the Law is a positive image, although there is often the implication of completeness – if you are yoked to the Law, you are required to keep it all (Bock, Acts, 501). To live under the yoke of the Torah or yoke of Wisdom was to live as God intended!
Sirach 51:26 Put your neck under (wisdom’s) yoke, and let your souls receive instruction; it is to be found close by.
PsSol 7.8-9 For you will have compassion on the people Israel forever and you will not reject (them); And we are under your yoke forever, and (under) the whip of your discipline.
m.Aboth 3:5 R. Nehunya b. Haqqaneh says, “From whoever accepts upon himself the yoke of Torah do they remove the yoke of the state and the yoke of hard labor. And upon whoever removes from himself the yoke of the Torah do they lay the yoke of the state and the yoke of hard labor.”
m.Ber 2.2 Said R. Joshua b. Qorha, “Why does [the passage of] Shema precede [that of] And it shall come to pass [if you keep my commandments]? So that one may first accept upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven and afterwards may accept the yoke of the commandments.
Despite being given the Law, Peter says the forefathers were never able to “bear the yoke.” Luke 11:46 uses a similar phrase with respect to the traditions of the Pharisees, so it is possible Peter has “beyond the Torah” traditions in mind. I really cannot see the requirement of circumcision for converts to Judaism as one of these sorts of burdens, however.
What is more, Peter calls the imposition of law on the Gentiles “testing God.” Luke used πειράζω in Acts 5:9, Sapphira “tests” the Holy Spirit.” To “test God” is to invite disaster! Like Gamaliel’s advice to the Sanhedrin, perhaps it is better to let Paul continue rather than to be on the wrong side of God’s work in this new age. In fact, Peter has already learned God accepts Gentiles without circumcision when the Holy Spirit fell on Cornelius (before circumcision and before baptism!) For Peter, it is dangerous for the Jerusalem community to impose the Law on these new Gentile converts.
Peter therefore is agreeing with Paul, God saves both Jew and Gentile by faith. But God has only given the Law to Israel, not the Gentiles. He agrees with Paul’s claim that Gentiles are not converts to Judaism, although he may stop short of agreeing that Jews and Gentiles both are converts to something new, a new people of God which Paul will later call the “body of Christ” (Eph 3:1-6). Peter is not saying that Jews ought to disregard Law, but only that Gentiles ought not be given this additional burden.
In Acts 15:2, Paul and Barnabas have a “sharp dispute” with people who have come from Jerusalem to Antioch to urge Gentile converts to submit to circumcision in order to be saved. Why was circumcision such an important issue in Acts 15? Why does Paul think it is important enough to travel to Jerusalem and discuss the matter with Peter, James, and members of the Jerusalem community who were Pharisees (Acts 15:5)?
Circumcision was a major factor in Jewish identity. While the practice of circumcision itself is not unique to the Jews in the Ancient world, although some of the traditions based on the Hebrew Bible are specifically Jewish. Circumcision is given as a sign of the Covenant of Abraham in Genesis 17, yet the ritual itself did not confer “spiritual blessing” as a sign of the covenant. For this reason the prophets told the people that they needed a “circumcised heart – clearly a metaphorical use of the idea of circumcision (Deut. 10:16, 30:6; Jer 4:4; Ezek 44:7, 9).
There is strong evidence that during the intertestamental period and into the first century, at least part of the Jews thought that circumcision was required for the convert to Judaism. (See, for example, Lawrence Schiffman in Jewish and Christian Self-Definition Volume 2 (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981), 115-156, especially 125-127. Schiffman discusses the Talmud (Yebamot 46) and the importance of the Izates story in Josephus Antiq. 20.2.4, see this post for more details on this story).
For the Jew, circumcision was one of a handful of important boundary markers which set them apart from the rest of the world. For the Gentile, circumcision was a strange mutilation of the flesh. Greco-Roman writers who comment on Judaism usually ridicule the practice. Marital, for example, seems to find a great deal of (naughty) humor in the Jewish practice (Epigrams 7.35.3-4; 7,82, 11.94).
Paul does not reject circumcision for Gentile converts for practical missionary concerns. Sometimes Paul’s Law-free Gospel for the Gentiles is described as a shrewd move on Paul’s part in order to make a Jewish religion more palatable to the Greco-Roman world. But Gentiles were attracted to Judaism in the first century. Shaye Cohen suggested several levels of attraction to Judaism, including simple admiration of Jewish life, benefaction towards Jewish synagogues, joining the Jewish community, and full conversion to Judaism (The Beginnings of Jewishness, 140-197; “Respect for Judaism by Gentiles according to Josephus,” HTR 80 (1987): 409-430). Michael Bird argued Second Temple period Jews successfully proselytized Gentiles, although Judaism was not a missionary religion (Crossing over Sea and Land, 149). If Gentiles were already attracted to Judaism and some did in fact fully convert, this may explain why Paul’s Gentile churches in Galatia were tempted to accept circumcision and other Torah practices as a part of their new faith in Jesus.
As an analogy, the evangelical Christian church has more or less accepted rock-styled praise bands as necessary to appeal to the modern world. Most churches have (rightly) rejected the idea that worship music must be played only on a proper pipe-organ. In most cases, this shift in worship style is motivated by a desire to stay contemporary for evangelistic reasons. This is how some see Paul’s rejection of circumcision as a entrance requirement into faith in Jesus. Richard Pervo, for example, suggested the implied reader of Acts believed Gentiles were eager to participate in the divine promises but found some practices of Judaism to be an obstacle. This is particularly true for circumcision, but Sabbath and food taboos were also considered odd in the Greco-Roman world. Pervo finds it difficult to imagine why Paul’s Gentile converts would have been receptive to Jewish practice in the light of the narrative of Acts, yet Galatians presupposes some Gentiles were tempted to fully convert to Judaism by submitting to circumcision (Pervo, Acts, 334).
Such a view makes light of the practice of circumcision in the first century. If this is the sign of Abraham’s covenant given by God, how can it be rejected as inconsequential? Paul does not merely call circumcision for Gentiles meaningless, he says it is dangerous. If one allows himself to be circumcised, he is in danger of nullifying the grace of God! (See Gal 1:6-9, for example.) Paul arrives in Jerusalem in Acts 15 convinced that any Law added to the Gospel is no gospel at all, including circumcision. Whatever God is doing among the Gentiles in Asia Minor (Acts 14), there is no conversion to Judaism. Schnabel makes this point in Paul the Missionary in the context of the book of Galatians (126): “Paul insists that the Gentiles do nothave to become Jews before they are accepted by God as followers of the Messiah” (emphasis added).
Perhaps my analogy to modern worship-practice is lame because music is not an essential part of the Gospel. Why is Paul so upset in Acts 15:1-2 at the suggestion Gentile converts ought to submit to circumcision?
As Paul and Barnabas moved into new territory they evangelized the Gentiles directly. After the initial contact in a town at the synagogue, the work of evangelism focused on the Gentiles of the community. The church was expanding into areas where the Jewish Christians would not have naturally seen as their “mission field.” As Gentiles accepted Christ and began to fellowship with ethnic Jews, some problems arose primarily concerning the Gentiles not keeping of the Law. By Acts 15 enough Gentiles have accepted Jesus as messiah and savior that some Jewish Christians in Jerusalem argue they ought to start keeping the Law, beginning with circumcision but food taboos (implied from decision in Acts 15:24-29; but see also the situation in Galatians 2:1-11-15).
We know from Acts 10 that Peter was instructed by the Lord to preach the gospel to Cornelius, a Roman Centurion and God-Fearer. Peter was hesitant to do so, and after he returns to Jerusalem the Jewish Christians there question Peter closely about why he had entered into the house of a Gentile. Peter appears to have understood that salvation was moving into the Gentile world. But Paul was doing more than preaching to God-Fearers in the synagogues who were keeping most of the Law in the first place. He was preaching the gospel to Gentiles and telling them that they did not have to keep the Law in order to be saved. This means that they did not have to worry about Jewish food laws or circumcision, two of the most fundamental boundary markers for the Jew in the first century.
Not Like This
Until Paul reached out to Sergius Paulus in Cyprus, Christianity was a messianic movement within Judaism. People who were accepting Jesus in Jerusalem (and even Antioch) were not rejecting the Law. They remained fully “Jewish” in every sense other than they believed the resurrected Jesus is the Messiah.T hey appear to have maintained ritual purity as they always had, they ate only clean foods, and they continued the practice of circumcision for converts to the faith. This conflict In Acts 15 between Jewish Christians and Gentile (Pauline) Christians was the first major problem in the church. The issue appears in several of Paul’s letters (Galatians primarily, but it is also found in 1 Corinthians, Colossians; Romans 9-11 deals with the problem of the Jews in the current age).
Acts 15:1 indicates some people came from Jerusalem to Antioch and said “unless you are circumcised according to the customs taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This means a Gentile God-fearer like Cornelius must fully convert to Judaism in order to be a real follower of Jesus. This group of Jewish Christians are usually called the Judaizers, although scholars working on Galatians call them “the agitators” or simply “Paul’s opponents.” Since Galatians implies these opponents were sent by the Jerusalem community, some scholars call them the “men from James” (Gal 2:11-12, sometimes using the modifier “allegedly”).
From the book of Galatians it is clear Paul told his Gentile converts they ought not submit to circumcision since they were not under the old covenant. In fact, there is neither Jew nor Gentile in this new age. Gentiles were not converting to a form of Judaism, nor are Jews rejecting Judaism and becoming Gentiles. For Paul, what is happen is something new and radical, God is accepting both Jew and Gentile by faith apart from the works of the Law. (See this post on whether Galatians was written before or after Acts 15). The relationship between Paul’s Galatian opponents and the “certain men” who traveled to Antioch to tell Gentiles circumcision was required is complicated; for now it is important to observe there are some Jewish believers in Jesus who understand this new movement as a kind of reform movement within Second Temple Judaism and not a new religion.
In his commentary on Acts, Darrell Bock makes the excellent observation that this “council” ought to be called a “consultation” since it is not like the later church councils which decide doctrine for the church. This is quite true, although (in my view) Bock does not take this far enough. Paul does not take his teaching that Gentiles are not required to keep the Law to Jerusalem in order to be approved by the apostolic community. He does not argue his case and accept the will of the apostolic community. Rather, Paul reports what it is that God has been doing and the “Judiazers” appear accept Paul’s position on the issue.
What is at stake in the Jerusalem Council? We know the Jerusalem community agrees with Paul that Gentiles ought to be free from the “yoke of the Law” as Peter puts it (15:16), but there are some issues which will cause friction in Christian communities with both Jewish and Gentile believers. What are the implications for Paul’s mission if the Jerusalem community disagreed with his law-free Gospel for the Gentiles?
Barclay, John M. G. Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2016. 454 pp. Pb; $48. Link to Eerdmans
This collection of essays published between 1992 and 2011 was originally published by Mohr Siebeck. Chapter 1 was written as an introduction to that volume and chapters 18 and 19 appeared for the first time. The remaining sixteen essays appeared in various journals and Festschrifts. The Eerdmans edition is essentially the same, only a few typographical errors have been corrected. The volume concludes with a bibliography, Indices of Sources, Authors and Selected Topics.
In his introductory essay “Pauline Churches, Jewish Communities and the Roman Empire. Introducing the Issues” Barclay begins with a survey of contemporary social-historical research into the early Christ-movement. Beginning in the 1970s with the work of Malherbe, Thiessen and Meeks, biblical scholarship has benefited greatly from new research into the social world of the Roman Empire as well as a flood of new research into Diaspora Judaism. Barclay points out the evidence is occasionally rich, too often scattered and ambiguous (11).
First, how did Pauline churches compare to Diaspora Jewish communities in the Mediterranean world? Are Gentile Pauline converts in some sense “Jewish”? Are Jewish converts in some way renouncing their ethnicity? In the first collection of essays in this volume (ch. 2-8), Barclay observes the “relative fragility of the Pauling Churches in comparison with Diaspora synagogues”(12). Gentiles in Pauline churches were resocialized “in Christ” rather than in the Jewish communities. Barclay discusses the role of the Law in his second chapter (“Do We Undermine the Law?’: A Study of Romans 14.1—15.6”). This text offers a valuable insight into the “practical effects of Paul’s stance on the law” (37) even if the word does not appear in the section. The issue is sharing food (open commensality) between Jew and Gentile converts. For Paul, mutual toleration is the basic principle but the “stronger” ought to refrain in order not to offend the “weaker” with respect to food or Sabbath traditions. The “strong” are free to eat whatever they want and to not observe Sabbath. A result of this is a protection of Law-observing Jewish Christians but also an allowance for Gentile Christians to neglect the Law (54-55). Although Barclay does not address the other side of the issue, based on Galatians, Paul would not have permitted Gentile Christians to begin keeping the Law, and perhaps he did not recommend Jewish Christians to stop keeping the Law. He does think the long-term effect of Paul’s view of the Law in Romans 14-15 undermined the social and cultural integrity of Law-observant Christians in Rome (56).
The other major boundary marker in the early Christian movement was circumcision. Barclay compares Paul and Philo on circumcision (“Romans 2.25—29 in Social and Cultural Context,” ch. 3). The article interacts with Daniel Boyarin who argued in his A Radical Jew that Pauline religion was a “relgio-cultural formation contiguous with other Hellenistic Judaisms.” Barclay argues Boyarin has made an important observation but “subtly mistaken” (61-62). Paul’s redefinition of circumcision as a “hidden phenomenon ‘in the Spirit’ in Rom 2:25-29” is not an intellectual drive for a Hellenistic “universal human essence,” but rather a radical commitment to live out biblical categories in a new, multi-ethnic community. This cannot be fitted into a form of contemporary Judaism (79).
Chapters 6-7 both concern deviance and apostasy in early Christianity and Judaism. Beginning with Howard Becker’s Outsiders (1963), Barclay defines deviancy and compares the case of Philo’s nephew, Tiberius Julius Alexander. Alexander was a high ranking member of the Roman administration in Egypt and was Titus’s second-in-command during the siege of Jerusalem. Neither Philo nor Josephus consider him to be an apostate. He then compares Alexander to Paul, who was denounced and expelled from synagogues and was opposed by Christian Jews. Paul was therefore viewed by some Jews as an apostate. There are some situations in Paul’s churches in which a person is judged to be a deviant (1 Cor 5, or example). For Paul, the Corinthian believers are “too comfortable in their social integration” (137), perhaps they are (in Paul’s view), not deviant enough. Barclay also examines charges of apostasy in 3 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Philo, Josephus, and 4 Maccabees.
Second and third, to what degree was the social identity practiced in Pauline assemblies compatible with social expressions in Diaspora Jewish communities in the Mediterranean world? How did Pauline churches invent and maintain durable identity? What are distinct Christian practices? The essays in the second major section of the collection address these issues (ch. 9-13). For example, Christian non-practice of idolatry had significant social impact for Gentile converts. Breaking with family gods would cause deep social offense and the early Christian movement would look like a dangerous superstition to outsiders. In addition, Christianity lacked the trappings of normal religion in the Roman world: there were no altars, sacrifices, or priesthood.
In his “Thessalonica and Corinth. Social Contrasts in Pauline Christianity” (ch. 9), Barclay suggests these dealt with social identity and interaction with outsiders differently because one church faced conflict and the other did not. At Thessalonica, the church has an apocalyptic outlook which encouraged them to embrace social alienation as normal” (186). At Corinth, on the other hand, the members of the church were integrated in Corinthian culture and never faced social ostracism experienced by the Thessalonians (199).
The following two essays in the collection examine elements of this thesis. The emphasis on speech in the early Christian communities is the subject of “πνευματικός in the Social Dialect of Pauline Christianity” (ch. 10). The term πνευματικός had “a degree of semantic indeterminacy” which allowed the early Christians to develop insider/outsider categories. In “‘That You May Not Grieve, Like the Rest Who Have No Hope’ (1 Thess 4.13): Death and Early Christian Identity” (ch. 11), Barclay argues Paul makes the first moves towards “Christianizing death.” Compared to Roman mourning rituals, the Christian sense of hope was so remarkable that Christians were distinct even in their death (235).
Fourth, how did Diaspora Jewish and Christian communities negotiate their relationship with Roman power and Roman Religion? The third major section of the book addresses Paul Josephus, and Rome (ch. 14-19). The issue of Paul’s attitude toward Rome has been a particularly controversial issue in recent years. Barclay’s approach is to read Josephus through the lens of postcolonial theory (30). Josephus is a good candidate for postcolonial reading since he wrote under Roman patronage while attempting to tell the story of Israel.
The first four essays in this section (ch. 14-17) are close readings of Josephus’s careful navigation of Roman power. Turning to Paul, Barclay sees different themes. Paul wrote under Roman rule, but he occasionally touches on the Roman Empire, and usually only in passing. Barclay argues Paul was neither apolitical nor covertly anti-imperial (“Paul, Roman Religion and the Emperor: Mapping the Point of Conﬂict,” ch. 18). His critique of Rome is not based on Roman ideology but rather the focus of worship. Any worship not directed at the “living God” through Christ is not acceptable. Rome is simply “this evil age” and stands condemned “on the apocalyptic stage newly configured in the Christ-event” (33).
Barclay therefore argues the Roman Empire was more or less insignificant to Paul (ch. 19). In the final essay of the collection, Barclay interacts with N. T. Wright’s view that Paul’s theology was directly opposed to the Roman Empire. After a short review of the state of the question in scholarship, Barclay summarizes Wright’s major points (scattered throughout several publications). Wright emphasizes the pervasiveness of the imperial cult and he many echoes of imperial language in the Pauline letters (savior, Lord, salvation, gospel, etc.) From this, Wright concludes Paul’s message “could not but be construe as deeply counter imperial, as subversive to the whole edifice of the Roman Empire” (369). Barclay responds by “reframing the issues.” For example, with respect to vocabulary, Barclay wonders if Paul’s use of terms like salvation create an antithetical relationship between Christian salvation and imperial salvation. Certainly they might have been heard as anti-imperial, but for Barclay, this is different than Wright’s “must have been heard” (378). For Barclay Paul does not recognize any empire as an autonomous political system, all are doomed to destruction by the God who establishes kingdoms (385). If Paul’s Gospel is subversive, it is because he does not oppose the empire on their own terms. He does not attack Augustus as the savior because Rome “nevr was and never would be a significant actor in the drama of history;” Rome is reduced to “bit-part players in a drama scripted by the cross and resurrection of Jesus” (386-7).
Conclusion. Volumes of collected essays are always welcome since the draw together articles from often obscure journals or expensive volumes. By making this collection available in a less expensive volume, Eerdmans has provided scholars with a rich collection of stimulating essays on how early Christianity interacted with the Roman world.
NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.
In 1 Thessalonians 2:4 Paul says he spoke to the congregation as someone who was approved by God to be entrusted with the Gospel. This is an important claim and is related to Paul’s apostleship.
First, Paul says he was “approved by God.” This verb (δοκιμάζω) has the sense of being tested for the purpose of determining the genuineness (BDAG). For example, an ore which appears to contain gold can be tested to determine if it is in fact gold as well as the quality of the gold. Only after the test is finished can the ore be described as real gold (as opposed to iron pyrite, fool’s gold). Paul is claiming he has been tested by God and has been given approval for his mission to the Gentles. Ironically, it is his suffering persecution for that is the “proof” he has been tested and approved!
Second, Paul was “entrusted with the Gospel.” He was given a revelation that God’s grace was being extended to the whole world without distinction. Gentiles are now able to be right with God without keeping the Law or converting to a form of Judaism. He says something similar in Galatians 2:7. There Paul describes his commissioning as the “apostle to the Gentiles.” His commission is a trust given him from God and he takes this commission very seriously.
To be “entrusted” with something is perhaps a financial metaphor. When someone invests money they expected the financial manager to wisely invest the money and provide some kind of return on the investment. If the manager loses the money, they have not taken their commission seriously and have failed. The fact is that God tested Paul and approved of him to be entrusted the ministry of the evangelization of the Gentiles, and Paul took that commissioning so seriously that he would not do anything that might possibly hinder that trust from yielding fruit.
There are a number of obvious applications to the modern church that can be drawn at this point. Each church is given by God a commission, a purpose, a ministry. You are called to do something in this community. A church that wants to succeed tries to understand what their purpose is, and evaluate their ministry to get that purpose done.
If you know why you exist and you have a pretty good idea what it is you can do to fulfill that purpose, then you must not doing anything that might detract from that purpose. Paul is saying that his ministry is a success, and it is a success because he is honest and genuine while doing his ministry, that he is not out for money or power, or anything else that might motivate other people.
Are churches (or individuals) “entrusted with the Gospel” in a similar way today? Can (or should) we apply similar tests to churches today in order to decide if they are in fact genuine? I think this might even be applied to individual programs within a church – what do we do as part of church which fulfills our “trust” of the Gospel?