And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.
Christianity starts with a revolution in Judaism that grows and develops into its own religion, spreading all over the Roman world, and bringing in Gentiles. That’s the pivotal part. Once Gentiles are allowed in, Christianity becomes a religion that can address everyone. Which is also a problem. Because the original believers, the ones who got there first, aren’t so sure about the admission requirements.
Peter baptized Gentiles, but only after they had been given the holy spirit and demonstrated its gifts. This crystallized the issue: What does it take to be a Christian? Answer: Well, you have to believe in and follow Christ who is the Jewish Messiah. So, don’t you have to be Jewish, part of God’s “chosen people”?
Those questions were hard enough before the Apostle Paul got involved. Then rumors started coming back to Jerusalem, the center of the Christian movement, that the former Pharisee was baptizing large numbers of non-Jews who did not intend to convert to Judaism. Not only were his baptismal standards questionable, but the number of new, Gentile converts who claimed to be Christians were changing the whole concept of Christianity as the true, righteous sect of Judaism. Something had to be done.
The circumcision party
Since most of us are Gentiles, it’s a little hard to see things from the perspective of the “hard liners” who wanted Christianity to remain a Jewish sect. But they had a point. The people who pushed the argument were Pharisees, the best Bible students of their day. Not long before, Peter had told them about Cornelius (a believing Gentile who was already in the process of proselytization, remember) and his family, so they knew that God would reach out to the Gentiles now. That was expected. They knew the prophecies which said God would be worshipped all over the world. They would also have turned to the scriptures to determine how Gentiles could be a part of the Christian community.
Circumcision — most of us today don’t think about it seriously, but consider the words in Genesis 17: “…my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant…” This was something not only for Jews, but their slaves, and any male members of their household as well. When God calls something an everlasting covenant, it’s understandable that Bible students might want to hold on to it as more than a cultural habit. For them, it was the sign of the promises made to the patriarchs, a sign of God’s covenant.
As far as keeping the Sabbath, it is one of the ten commandments. Consider God’s basic statement: “But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates” (Ex. 20:10). It’s the ‘stranger that is within thy gates’ part that forms the argument here. The circumcision party would accept non-Jews as long those non-Jews conformed to what they saw as the basics of a godly life. Consider this passage:
Also the sons of the stranger, that join themselves to the LORD, to serve him, and to love the name of the LORD, to be his servants, every one that keepeth the sabbath from polluting it, and taketh hold of my covenant; even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon mine altar; for mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people (Isa. 56:6-7).
These and similar passages could be quoted as evidence that Gentiles would be accepted as part of the promises to the Fathers and as chosen people when (and only when) they accepted God’s ways.
The Christians of the “circumcision party” were afraid. The truth was going to be contaminated by people who didn’t know the scriptures as well as they did, by people who maybe a year ago offered sacrifices to idols, by people who wouldn’t follow God’s law or the established traditions of good society, by people with whom they obviously could NOT fellowship. We should all be able to understand those fears — and reject them.
The Bible and the Iliad
The average Greek-speaking member of the Roman Empire in the first century was familiar with Homer. Educated people would have been able to quote large portions of it. Everyone would have heard the public debates and discussions of the various philosophical schools (Academic, Stoic, and Epicurean), as well as the general principles of various popular religions and cults. But Judaism and the Jewish Bible (Tanakh) were obscure. The Roman historian Tacitus believed that Jews worshipped a god with an ass’ head. He got the idea from Greek and Egyptian writers. Most Gentiles had no idea what Jewish religious practices were, and even those who did visit synagogues or talk with Jews would rarely have looked at Jewish scriptures. They would, however, have attended public sacrifices to various gods and the deified emperor. Even those philosophers who questioned the existence of the gods would happily attend public ceremonies, and probably visit the temple of Aphrodite on the way.
This does not mean that Gentile Christians didn’t know the Jewish scriptures, or were unaware of Jewish and Christian theology. Paul seems quite confident that they do, and constantly refers to (what was now becoming) the Old Testament when writing to them. Gentile Christians seem to have made great efforts to educate themselves about their faith and its heritage. But the circumcision party didn’t know that. What they did know was that these Gentiles did not conform to the established standards of the community.
Arguments on policy
At this point, Christianity had a global center, and that center was in Jerusalem, where the apostles stayed when so many of the disciples scattered. James, the brother of Jesus, was the head of the community. He was not a missionary, but an administrator. When he sent messengers to complain about the apostle Peter’s practices (Gal. 2:11-12), Peter complied. And James was sending messengers out, men who were authorized to tell believers what they could and could not do, should or should not believe. Most importantly, he stated (possibly less than two years before the Jerusalem Conference) that Jews should not eat with Gentiles. This gives us some idea of his bias on the issue.
In the fifteenth chapter of Acts, certain men from Judea met Paul and Barnabas and told them that their preaching work wasn’t right. It was felt that they should have told the Gentiles to be circumcised so that they could inherit the promises to the Fathers and be saved. Paul and Barnabas did the unimaginable thing that even Peter didn’t do: they disagreed. So it was time to settle the issue. They went to Jerusalem to meet the apostles and the elders, and finally decide what was right.
We might be a little surprised how the issue was decided. They do not pray for direct revelation or cast lots. No one stands up and prophecies, No one says, “The holy spirit has shown me…” Instead they debate.
Paul and Barnabas begin by giving their case. They preached, they baptized, and God sent His spirit gifts. Therefore, God must be happy with the Gentile believers. It should be clear they are saved by their faith.
Christian Pharisees counterpoint: Without the covenant of circumcision, they are outside the promises. Unless they keep the Law, they are rebels who disobey God.
Peter testifies. God already chose Gentiles. God looked on Cornelius’ heart, blessed him with His spirit, and justified him for his faith. Why should we ask more than God did? We, and they, will all be saved by grace.
That shuts everyone up long enough to listen to Paul and Barnabas speak again, and testify that God has ratified their position with His miracles.
James proposed a compromise: “Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood” (Act 15:19-20).
And that was it.
Why it worked
It worked. And that should be astonishing. Men who had spent most (possibly all) of their lives keeping the Law as a way of honoring God agreed that this was no longer necessary. They didn’t insist that anyone else would have to do things their way. And a man like James, who not long before had commanded Peter not to eat with Gentiles, now accepted them as his equals, fellow servants in Christ.
It worked because the side with tradition and power behind it yielded to other brethren. They asked only the smallest concessions from Gentiles, things which, by the way, most of us have forgotten (Do you know if your dinner was killed by strangling? Or if a good Christian can eat a steak tartar?). And they gave up the larger issues of Sabbath, circumcision, unclean meats, etc., not because they didn’t believe those things were important, but because of what Peter had pointed out: God had picked these people already. If God wants them as His servants, how could we (mere fellow humans) put a yoke on their neck? So people who, not long before, would have left the room rather than associate with a Gentile, recognized God’s larger will, and yielded to it.
It worked because the strong became meek.