Sunday, 24 July 2011

The Council at Jerusalem (and what happened after)

The Council at Jerusalem was an important event in early Christianity, chronicled primarily in Acts 15, but also discussed by Paul in Galatians 2. The best way to show its far-reaching effects is to tell the whole thing as a continuous narrative, bringing parts of Acts 14 and 21 along the way. Specific references have therefore been omitted in the rest of this post.

In AD 48, Barnabas and Paul were at Antioch in Syria, preaching the Word and teaching the opening of the Gospel to the Gentiles. After some time, other men (unnamed) arrived out of Judea to the south, preaching that Gentile members needed to be circumcised after the Law of Moses. Barnabas and Paul disagreed vehemently, and it was decided that they and some of the opposing side should go to Jerusalem and ask the Twelve for guidance. By virtue of this decision, they showed themselves to be merely misguided, not actively deceiving. Titus, a Greek, was in Paul's company, and intimately involved - it is entirely possible his presence was the trigger for the whole debate.

The group arrived at Jerusalem in AD 49, where some ex-Pharisees - Paul's sect - also proposed that Gentile converts should obey the Law of Moses. The council of Apostles and Elders convened - and bickered.

During the debate, Simeon - possibly Simon Peter - pointed out that God had created Israel at the very beginning from Gentile stock. Eventually Peter brought the general discussion to a close, reminding the Council of God's opening of the Gospel to the Gentiles by his mouth; he mentioned that the Holy Ghost was poured out on them, and asked, "Why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?"

Following this, Barnabas and Paul spoke, recalling the "miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them". According to Paul later, the council "added nothing to [him]", but saw as he did - that the Gospel of the Gentiles was now committed to him.

James, the brother of the Lord, summed up: quoting Amos 9:11, he declared that they should "trouble not" the Gentiles, but simply instruct them to remain unpolluted - that is, to keep the parts of the Law of Moses which were still important. He pointed out that Moses was already preached every Sabbath - they hardly needed to do more.

Paul states that Peter, James and John gave him a commission to preach to the Gentiles while they served the Jews, and to care for the poor - which was Paul's plan all along. The Twelve sent Barnabas, Paul, Judas and Silas to teach the Gospel abroad, sending with them a letter outlining the details of the council. Titus escaped being circumcised, and Paul's company returned to Antioch.

Likely at this time, Peter went up to Antioch, where he ate with the Gentiles as usual - until some Jewish converts sent by James arrived. Then Peter separated himself from the Gentiles, afraid of upsetting the newcomers. The other Jews followed his lead, even including Barnabas, until Paul called Peter on it. In front of the congregation, he demanded to know why Peter was compelling the Gentiles "to live as do the Jews", and managed to work in the point that Peter normally lived like a Gentile himself.

Paul referred obliquely to the Council at Jerusalem, stating, "If I build again the things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor." He testified of the uselessness of the works of the Law, by which "shall no flesh be justified", and closed on an emotional note, saying, "if righteousness come by the Law, then Christ is dead in vain." We have no record of Peter's reply.

It seems likely that this occasion caused Paul to lose some of his respect for Barnabas. Shortly following the confrontation the two had a disagreement on who they should take as a companion. They parted ways at Antioch, and never came together again.

Two years after Paul wrote of these events to the Galatians, and eight years after the Council - in AD 57, at the close of his third missionary journey - he came once again to Jerusalem. With Luke and other disciples he presented himself to James and gave an account of his labours amongst the Gentiles. The assembled Elders told him of the concerns of the Jewish converts - they heard that he had commanded all to put aside the Law of Moses.

To prove these rumours wrong, Paul agreed to ritually purify himself and enter the Temple. Before the process was complete, however, Jews who had not heard or did not believe in his display - and thought that he had taken an Ephesian Greek into the Temple - seized Paul from the Temple itself and dragged him away. Thus began the long road to Rome.