The majority of Jewish believers in 49 CE did not accept Paul’s gospel of Gentile inclusion. They challenged the Pauline message by telling the God-fearing Gentile believers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). They contended, “It is necessary to circumcise [the Gentile believers] and to direct them to observe the Torah of Moses” (Acts 15:5).
The Jewish believers calling for circumcision and conversion did not object to God-fearing Gentiles who wanted to learn about Judaism and Yeshua of Nazareth. God-fearers could be found in any Jewish community – not just among believers. Paul’s opponents objected to elevating the status of God-fearing disciples of Yeshua to that of co-heirs with Isarel and fraternity with the Jewish people. Rabbi [Yechiel Tzvi] Lichtenstein [Commentary on the New Testament: The Acts of the Apostles (Unpublished, Marshfield, MO: Vine of David, 2010), on Acts 15:7; originally published in Hebrew: Beiur LeSiphrei Brit HaChadashah (Leipzig: Professor G. Hahlman, 1897)] explains, “Paul and Barnabas said that the brothers among the Gentiles did not need to be circumcised and keep the [whole] Torah of Moses, but they were still full brothers in Israel and shared in their inheritance.”
Continued from Part 4 of this series. Make sure you’ve read the previous parts before proceeding here.
It’s hard to believe that any Christian, regardless of denomination or variant sect, could possibly object to such a bright promise as the one Lancaster interprets from the text of Acts 15, but as we’ve seen from some of the comments folks have made in previous parts of this series, such a promise is hotly contested. Traditional Christians tend to balk at the suggestion that the Jewish disciples of Christ never intended to “cancel” the Torah for Jews, and certain branches of the Hebrew Roots movement are dead set against the idea that all Christians everywhere aren’t fully obligated to the Torah mitzvot. It seems that full co-heir status with Israel in the Kingdom of Heaven and in all of the Messianic promises just isn’t enough.
But if Lancaster is correct and James and the Apostles never intended full Torah obligation on the Gentiles (unless some of them chose to convert to Judaism), then what does this mean?
Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”
–Acts 15:19-21 (ESV)
The four prohibitions (v 20) aren’t always easy to pick out in inline text, so here they are in list form:
- abstain from the things polluted by idols
- from sexual immorality
- from what has been strangled
- from blood
But of all the prohibitions James could have applied to the Gentile God-fearing believers, why these four? What was so special about them? Was he imposing some version of the Seven Noahide Laws on the non-Jewish disciples?
These seven laws, developed centuries after the lifetime of James, Peter, and Paul, are based on what we find here:
And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image. And you,[plural in Hebrew] be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it.”
God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
–Genesis 9:1-7, 17 (ESV)
While there may be some superficial similarities, it doesn’t seem reasonable to say that James’s four essential prohibitions were directly lifted from the covenant God made with all of humanity through Noah. Also, and this is important, if some version of the Noahide laws were already understood within late Second Temple Judaism, wouldn’t the Jews have already considered all Gentiles bound by these laws? Why would James bother to simply re-state them and how would it have made any sort of distinction between the Gentile disciples of Jesus and the rest of mankind?
Are these four laws of the apostolic decree the only commandments of the Torah enjoined upon the Gentile believers? No. Judaism already taught a minimum standard to which the Torah held all God-fearing Gentiles. The sages taught that certain commandments of the Torah apply universally to all human beings. If not, how could God have punished the Gentiles in the story of Noah? For what did He punish the people of Sodom and Gomorrah? Why did He drive out the Amorites and Canaanites in the days of Joshua? – As Paul says, “Sin is not imputed when there is no Torah” (Romans 5:13).
Based on this line of reasoning, the rabbis derived a list of seven universal commandments. The earliest version of the list appears in the Tosefta (see t.Avodah Zarah 8:4-6).
-Lancaster, pg 459
I know what you’re thinking. I (and Lancaster) am being anachronistic. How can the Noahide laws, which I’ve already said were codified many centuries after James, have been applied to humanity and understood as such by James and the Jerusalem Apostles?
Some critics argue that, since the rabbis formulated the list of seven laws subsequent to the days of the apostles, those laws are not relevant to the context of Acts 15. On the contrary, the apocryphal “Book of Jubilees” (c. 150 BCE) demonstrates that the theological concept behind the laws of Noah already existed well before the days of the apostles:
Noah began to command his grandsons with ordinances and commandments and all the judgments which he knew. And he bore witness to his sons that they might do justice and cover the shame of their flesh the one who created them and honor father and mother, each one love his neighbor and preserve themselves from fornication and pollution and all injustice … [And he said], “No man who eats blood or sheds the blood of man will remain upon the earth … You shall not be like one who eats [meat] with blood, but beware lest they should eat blood before you. Cover the blood … You shall not eat living flesh …” (Jubilees 7:20-32)
That is not to say that the apostles considered observance of the laws of Noah or the four laws of the apostolic decree as sufficient for attaining salvation. The laws of Noah offered Gentiles a baseline for ethical, moral conduct, but salvation came to the God-fearing Gentile believers “through the grace of the Master Yeshua.”
-Lancaster, pp 459-60
I know. Jubilees isn’t canonized Bible, but the plain history of the document tells us that the Jewish people were aware of an application of the laws of Noah over a century and a half before James made his pronouncement that Luke recorded in Acts 15. There was already a Jewish consciousness that God held humanity to a certain set of universally applied standards. And the apostolic decree thus was not a simple restatement of the universal laws of Noah. As we see, Lancaster doesn’t believe that obeying any combination of laws actually “saves” anyone, and the message of James confirms that for Jews and Gentiles, salvation is from the Jews through Jesus Christ.
In today’s “meditation,” I’ve defined the four prohibitions by what they aren’t (the Noahide laws) rather than what they are. So what are the four prohibitions for Gentiles in the apostolic decree and what are their implications for the Christians in ancient times and today? For the answer to that question and more, you’ll have to read the sixth and final part of this series. I had intended to write only five parts rather than six, but when I tried to include all of my material in a single blog post, it was well over 3,000 words long. I’d rather write shorter missives that are easier to read and digest.
See the conclusion of Return to Jerusalem in Part 6.