-Acts 15:13-14 (ESV)
After Paul and Barnabas concluded their testimony, James the brother of the Master took the floor and addressed the assembly. He prepared to offer a formal declaration based upon the consensus that emerged around Simon Peter’s testimony
James summarized the arguments, both for and against, and then recapitulated Simon Peter’s testimony regarding Cornelius the Gentile. That story carried extra weight because it implied a halachic case precedent – something that had already been accepted and established by the assembly. Compelling Gentile believers to accept circumcision required overturning the endorsement they had granted the household of Cornelius.
If you have read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series (and if you haven’t, I recommend you do so before continuing here), you know the direction this is taking. Paul and Barnabas brought with them some “opponents” from the synagogue in Syrian Antioch to the Council of Apostles in Jerusalem to settle a matter of great importance. In granting the Gentiles discipleship under the Messiah in the Jewish sect “the Way,” should the Gentiles be required to convert to Judaism and consequently, take on the full yoke of Torah, as do the people born as Jews?
Many arguments, for and against have been presented before James and the Council of Apostles and elders. Peter recounted his own experiences with the Roman Cornelius and his household of God-fearers and how they too received the Holy Spirit, just as the Jews had, but without first being circumcised and converting to Judaism. They were subsequently baptized in water. God had granted the Gentiles the Spirit as He did the Jews, but He did not require that the Gentiles convert to being Jews. And it absolutely never occurred to any of the Jewish witnesses present or the Apostles that any Gentile disciple must fulfill the full body of Torah mitzvot if they remained Gentiles and did not convert.
Now James, as head of the Council, is about to establish the official halachah on this matter, and it will become binding on the Messianic community from this time forth. It this decision a “slam dunk,” so to speak?
Simon Peter based his argument on the miraculous manifestation of the Spirit that accompanied the conversion of Cornelius and his household (Blogger’s Note: “conversion” is a poor word to use in my opinion, since Cornelius maintained his status as Gentile, but was accepted by the Holy Spirit as “a Gentile called by God’s Name,” see below). Paul and Barnabas added supporting anecdotes. Despite the weight of such stories, the sages do not determine halachah on the basis of miraculous signs. Before he could issue a ruling, James needed to provide a definitive proof text to support the decision. (b.Baba Metzia 59b.) In rabbinic disputation, a legal ruling is almost always paired with supporting proof text.
At this point, some of your reading this may be crying “foul!” How can Lancaster use a Talmudic reference in defining the process by which James would make his determination, when the Talmud wouldn’t be documented for centuries? It is said that a significant portion of the process of rabbinic examination and judgment of issues predated even Jesus. For instance, we know that the teachings of Hillel and Shammai existed a generation or more before Jesus and those teachings are with us today in the Pirkei Avot. Lancaster may be taking a few liberties with his application, but it’s not entirely unreasonable to believe James was employing (even for that day) time-honored processes and traditions in the matter of judging halachah; traditions that were later recorded by the Rabbis and preserved for Jewish communities throughout the ages and until this day.
Assuming for the moment that Lancaster is correct in his description of what James is preparing to do (and a detailed discussion on Lancaster’s opinions regarding ancient halachah is beyond the scope of my blog post), what was the “proof text” to be used to establish the aforementioned halachah for allowing Gentile’s entry into the Way as disciples of the Master?
“After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, that the remnant [rest] of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.”
-Acts 15:16-18 (ESV)
In this case, James has chosen Amos 9:11-12 as his proof text, a passage of scripture that describes the re-establishment of the Davidic dynasty, placing Messiah, Son of David upon the throne of Israel, and the presence of the Gentiles from the nations in the Messianic age seeking the Lord.
But how does that prove anything?
The phrase “all the nations/Gentiles who are called by my Name” employs a common biblical Hebrew idiom for ownership. Ordinarily, Israel is the people “called by God’s name” (see Deut. 28:10, 2 Chron. 7:14, and Jer.14:9 for example). Ordinarily, the Gentiles are “those who are not called by your name” (Isaiah 63:19). Therefore, the Amos prophesy implies that in the Messianic Era, there will be Gentiles who belong to God in the same sense that the Jewish people belong to God.
-ibid, pg 441
Lancaster offers a very detailed analysis of Amos 9:11-12 in this Torah Club study, and I encourage you to get a copy and read it for the full details. More than that, Boaz Michael’s recent book, Tent of David: Healing the Vision of the Messianic Gentile, goes into exquisite detail about how James, his proof text, and the subsequent halalaic decision regarding the admission of Gentiles into the discipleship of the Messiah, applies to all Christians today, particularly those of us who are “hebraically-aware” and who find ourselves drawn to a Jewish perspective on the Bible, Messiah, and God.
From Lancaster’s perspective, James delivers a midrash on Amos 9, rather than simply quoting the text, that predicts Messiah rebuilding the fallen Temple in Jerusalem from where he will continue the Davidic dynasty, and where God will once again place His Presence. Once the fallen “sukkah” of David has been re-established, the Gentiles among the nations will seek out God in Jerusalem.
(References are numerous: Isaiah 2:2-3, 25:6, 56:6-7, 60:6-7, 66:23; Jeremiah 3:17; Micah 4:1-2; Zechariah 14:16, and also in many of the Psalms where the nations are called to worship God, according to Lancaster’s notes).
Lancaster further states that James’s words, ”After this,” or “After these things,” (Acts 15:16) utilize a prophetic formula that alludes to various prophesies of the Messianic Age (see Hosea 3:5 and Jeremiah 12:15-16; also Isaiah 45:20-22).
Based on what you’ve read so far, you may be convinced that God indeed allows Gentiles to enter into covenant relationship with Him through Messiah without converting to Judaism (and most Christians believe this), but some may be asking themselves, “What is it here that says the ‘Gentiles who are called by His name’ are not obligated to the same Torah mitzvot as the Jewish disciples?” Good question, though keep in mind that Part 1 and Part 2 of this series already established that only born Jews or converts to Judaism have an obligation to the “full yoke of Torah.” Lancaster asks something very similar.
Before proceeding with Lancaster, I should say at this point that we non-Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah are not completely “unyoked” from Torah, but rather not “yoked” fully in the manner of the Jews, or as Derek Leman recently said (scroll down to the comments section), The “Father’s instructions” might be different for Jews and non-Jews. Something to consider. Much of what Jesus taught and what is practiced in many churches today comes directly from the Torah, so we are not “lawless.” The law is simply applied differently to us, and I hope to describe that a little better later on in this series. Now, back to Lancaster’s commentary.
How does this passage legitimize the decision of James and the Jerusalem Council? In what way does this passage justify a Gentile exemption from circumcision, conversion to Judaism, and full liability to the laws of the Torah?
To James and the believers in Jerusalem, David’s restored booth represented Yeshua (Jesus), the Davidic king who comes to rebuild the monarchy of Israel. He is the repairer of the broken places, the restorer of the ruins, who will rebuild the house of David and establish the Temple in the Messianic Era. According to the Amos passage, the restored Davidic kingdom will include Gentiles who bear God’s name, i.e., they belong to God.
The God-fearing Gentile believers fit the description: Gentiles from the nations who identified themselves with God’s name and sought after God because of the revelation of the Davidic Messiah. If the apostles required those same Gentiles to become legally Jewish, however, they would cease to be “Gentiles who are called by God’s Name.” They would be Jews. They would fail to fulfill the prophesy because a literal fulfillment of the Amos prophesy requires that both Jews and Gentiles must exist in the Messianic Era.
-ibid, pg 442
If the Council required the Gentiles to all convert to Judaism as a condition of being called by God’s Name, they would all be Jews who are called by God’s Name, not Gentiles. Not only would the Council be frustrating the Amos prophesy, but they would be robbing the Gentiles of their (our) reward and their (our) destiny in the Messianic Age.
Notice there’s still a piece or two missing. The actual decision of the Council and how it was to be expressed (in this case, by writing a letter). But for the sake of space and not requiring you to read a “meditation” that is prohibitively lengthy, I’ll save that for Part 4 of “Return to Jerusalem.”