When they arrived, they called the church together and related all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles. And they stayed there with the disciples for some time.
Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders.
–Acts 14:27-15:2 (NRSV)
Luke notes a sharp disagreement existed (verse 2), his otherwise respectful reference to the circumcision groups contrasts markedly with Paul’s trenchant comment about the Jewish Christians who were advocating the requirement of Gentile circumcision in Galatians 5:12: “I could wish that those who trouble you would even cut themselves off!” This treatment is consistent with the desire by Luke not to hang the church’s “dirty laundry” before Roman officials.
-John W. Mauck
“Chapter 17, Acts 15:1-35: Circumcised Hearts”
Paul On Trial: The Book Of Acts As A Defense Of Christianity (Kindle Edition)
I previously mentioned Mauck’s book on my blog and I am continuing to read and enjoy his insights on Luke/Acts as a reflection of his belief that these books were written as a legal brief pursuant to Paul’s trial in Rome before the emperor (Acts 28). Mauck, an attorney and Bible scholar, suggests that Luke did not write his gospel or the book of Acts as theological instruction for the Jewish and Gentile disciple of Christ, but as a legal document for the secular Roman court. His book acts as “evidence” of his assertion to his readership and I must say, as a lay person, I’m certainly seeing how he arrives at his position.
Acts 15 is of special interest to me, since it is the pivotal chapter in Luke’s book regarding how Gentiles were to be formally entered into the Jewish religious movement of “the Way.” I previously spent a good deal of time writing on Acts 15, primarily from D. Thomas Lancaster’s viewpoint as expressed in Torah Club, Volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles published by First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ). While Lancaster’s treatment of Acts 15 was dense with information and insight, I always welcome different viewpoints on this material, since I consider it so vital in understanding the purpose and drive of the Gentile Christian life today.
What follows is a summary of Mauck’s chapter on Acts 15 and what I can glean that is of relevance to both Jewish and Gentile disciples of the Messiah today.
(I haven’t abandoned my series on the First Fruits of Zion Shavuot Conference, but wanted to change my focus for a moment to keep my thoughts fresh and to continue to provide new and enlightening material to anyone who is reading my blog. I’ll continue my commentaries on the conference and its presenters tomorrow).
Scripture informs the argument and decision. Acts 15:17, a part of Jacob’s interpretation of the prophet Amos, is particularly important: “that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord. Even all the Gentiles who are called by My name.” It tells the Roman reader that the Hebrew prophets had foreseen that not all Jews would remain faithful to God, while Gentiles would become followers of Israel’s God without becoming Jews. The Messianics were not inventing a new faith, but following a plan of God unfolding from ancient times.
-Mauck, Chap. 17
As a legal brief written by Luke, Mauck believes that the intended audience of Acts is not only Gentile but non-believing. One of the most serious charges leveled against Paul was that he was promoting a new religion among Jews and Gentiles in the Roman Empire. Only Judaism was considered a legal religion outside of the Greek/Roman pantheon of “gods”. The creation and promotion of any other religious form would be considered “atheism” in the Roman courts. Luke then, must convince the court in Rome that Paul’s evangelism to Jews and Gentiles was the promotion of a pre-existing religion: Judaism, and that the Jewish expression of “the Way” was wholly consistent with the other normative Judaisms of the first century CE as evidenced, in part, by the Tanakh (Old Testament).
But as we’ve seen so far, while the plan to include Gentiles in the Jewish movement has been established from ancient times, it isn’t clear just how they (we) were to be involved. At the beginning of Acts 15, Jewish believers from the “circumcision party” assert that the only way for Gentiles to gain entry into any form of Judaism was to be circumcised (convert) and to follow the Torah as proselytes. Paul disagreed with this position and it became such a controversy that the matter was referred to James (Jacob) and the Council of Apostles in Jerusalem for a legal decree.
I’ll leave it to the reader to acquire Mauck’s book and review Chapter 17 in its entirety, but in addressing the “Jerusalem Letter,” which contains a summary of the Council’s final decision about the Gentiles, Mauck says this:
By carefully setting forth the controversy, summarizing the arguments of the disputants, recounting the decision-making procedure, and memorializing the decision and reasons for it, Acts 15:1-35 exemplifies how a legal brief addressing a theological subject should be written to a secular reader.
Instead of the far more extensive law of Moses which the Jewish Christians were following, the Gentiles who are now going to be included in the people of God have been given four laws to obey…
Dan Gruber 1. has shown how the Jerusalem Council never changed the requirements of Torah but rather took portions of Torah which applied to Gentiles living among the Jews and informed the Gentiles of those requirements.
It’s been rather frustrating for both ancient and modern Bible scholars that Luke didn’t record more of the “mechanics” of exactly how the “Apostolic Decree” was supposed to impart a life of holiness and inclusion upon the Gentile believers. On the surface, the four decrees seem especially anemic in addressing Gentile worship and devotion to God within a Jewish framework. However as Mauck points out:
The theological basis for this decision would be lost on a Roman official reading Luke’s brief except that Luke records Jacob’s pronouncement that his decision is based upon the teaching of Moses…if Luke were writing to Gentile or Jewish Messianics, it seems to me that a more comprehensive or edifying explanation for these rules would be forthcoming…
What has been lost to history and thus to us, are the instructions that were orally provided to the letter’s Gentile recipients by Barnabas, Paul, Judas, and Silas (Acts 15:22) which no doubt gave dimension and deeper meaning to the pen and paper content of the Council’s letter to the Gentiles in the diaspora.
However, Mauck appears convinced of an important point: that the Gentile believers were never intended to live a Jewish lifestyle and take on board the full “yoke of Torah” as were the Jews.
I know I’ve said that before in a number of different ways and I’m sure certain members of my audience are getting tired of hearing it, but when presented by an attorney as not theology but legal evidence to be submitted to a pagan court system, the nature and weight of the information changes. The differences in application of Torah to Jewish and Gentile participants in the Nazarene movement cease to be an argument of opposing theological opinions and become a series of established facts set before the Roman court, complete with documentation (assuming any copies of the letter could be acquired) and witnesses (Paul could testify on the events he witnessed as could other apostles and disciples if they could appear before the court).
In the next Chapter, Mauck nails home the point of differing Torah application to Jewish and Gentile disciples:
…that the church’s disruption of the social/religious status quo (allowing Gentiles to become full members of the faith without circumcision and observance of the Torah)…
He further states:
Gentiles could be included into the people of God by faith in him rather than by circumcision and observance of extensive ritual…
Of course, it is faith that attaches both Jew and Gentile to God through Messiah by the Spirit, not observance of Torah, but Mauck does repeatedly assert that upon turning to God through faith in Messiah, the Gentile was not required to become circumcised or to observe Torah in the manner of the Jews.
While I believe it’s important to continue to establish that it was never the intent of the Council of Apostles (nor of the Holy Spirit) that Gentile disciples were to have Torah applied to their lives in the same manner as the Jewish disciples of Jesus, it is equally important to drive home the point that, according to the evidence, God never intended for Jewish believers to ever cease observance of the Torah of Moses:
Also, the inclusion of Paul’s circumcision of Timothy…refutes charges that Paul and the Messianics were changing “customs handed down from Moses.” (Acts 21:21, see Acts 6:14)
In further support of this point (Mauck’s references to Jews turning to Jesus as Messiah while remaining Jewish and remaining “zealous for the Torah” are replete in this book and I won’t attempt to create a comprehensive list), Mauck notes in Chapter 21:
The meeting with Jacob and the elders (Acts 21:15-26) has essential forensic applications. First, the elders declare how thousands of “zealous for the law” Jews have believed. Luke wants Theophilus to know that the faith in Jesus remains Jewish completely.
I’ll stop here since I only intended to present the content of primarily a single chapter of this book rather than write a complete review. Nevertheless, I believe I have found another stone to support the structure that Gentile entry into the first century Jewish Messianic movement did not require that the Gentiles undergo circumcision and adhere to Torah observance in the manner of the Jews, nor did Jewish entry into “the Way” convert Jewish believers to “Christianity” as we understand it in the modern era, and force them to surrender their Jewish identities and Jewish Torah observance.
The modern Messianic Jewish movement is on a quest of discovery, re-establishing these facts, re-asserting the right of Jews to live as Jews, to observe the Torah of Moses, and to be devoted disciples of the Messiah, as concepts and behaviors that are completely acceptable and integrated within a Jewish lifestyle and worldview.
In doing so, Messianic Judaism, like the Apostolic Council in ancient days, does not require Gentile believers in Jesus to become circumcised and to observe the Torah in a manner identical to their Jewish counterparts. This is established by the Bible and specifically Acts 15 and related scriptures as both theology and legal evidence along with the support of the Holy Spirit of God.
The mystery isn’t in how Jewish believers are to live as disciples of the Messiah, but how we Christians are to understand the application of the Torah upon us, since the oral instructions accompanying the Council’s letter did not survive. However, if we are to believe that the Bible is sufficient for our needs (though not containing all of the information that exists and with the understanding that extra-Biblical data, such as history and archeology, can enhance Biblical understanding), then we must agree that what we have in our hands when we hold the Bible, is enough to tell us who we are and how we are to proceed forward, as Jews and Gentiles, in a life of discipleship as followers of our Master.
1. Dan Gruber, “Torah and the New Covenant” (Hanover, N.H.: Elijah Publishers, 1998), 26-7 and other references; see Bauckham, “James and the Church,” 459-62.