Council of Jerusalem

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"Council of Jerusalem" is a name applied in retrospect to a meeting described in Acts of the Apostles chapter 15. The events described there are generally dated about the year 50, some time before the death of James the Just in 62.

The council was convened as the result of the disagreement within the early Christian community between those, such as the followers of James, who believed the church must observe the rules of traditional Judaism1, and Paul of Tarsus, who believed there was no such necessity.(disputed) The symbolic central issue became that of circumcision, as the author of Acts relates the initial confrontation in Antioch, where Paul had been preaching:

"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."

Paul and his disciple, here called Barnabas, disputed fiercely with the Jerusalem Christians, so that it was determined that they "and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question." (Acts 15:2). The Western version of Acts says those from Jerusalem ordered Paul and Barnabas and some others to Jerusalem to be judged before the apostles and elders. The author of Acts identifies the position of the Jerusalem Christians as if they were "Pharisees which believed" in Christ, a label of opprobrium for radicals like the early Christians, but one that was not strictly accurate in this case:

"But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command [them] to keep the law of Moses." (Acts 15:5).

The brackets around "them" shows that it is an addition, an alternate translation of the Greek construct "paraggellein te terein" is found in Andy Gaus' Unvarnished New Testament:

"They have to be circumcised; we have to proclaim and keep the law of Moses."

At the council, following advice said to have been offered by Simon Peter, whose presence has not otherwise been signalled (Acts 15:7-11), James, the leader of the Jerusalem Church, gave his decision:

"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.
"For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day. (Acts 15:19-21)

The Western version of Acts substitutes the negative form of the Golden Rule2 for the prohibition against things strangled.

The Didache, short for "Teaching of the Lord to the Gentiles by the Twelve Apostles", part of the Apostolic Fathers collection, is generally dated about the same time as Acts. Though it doesn't mention a council, its title strongly suggests it is meant to represent the decree of that council. It starts with a first commandment, the negative form of the Golden Rule, then a second commandment has prohibitions against murder, adultery, corrupting boys, sexual promiscuity, theft, magic, sorcery, abortion, infanticide, coveting, perjury, false testimony, speaking evil, holding grudges, being double-minded, not acting as you speak, greed, avarice, hypocrisy, maliciousness, arrogance, ploting evil against neighbors, hate, narcissism and expansions on these generally with references to the words of Jesus. Chapter 6 says if you can bear the whole yoke of the Lord you will be perfect, but otherwise do what you can, (which seems to parallel James as recorded in Acts), followed by the prohibition against meat sacrificed to idols. Related to the Didache are the Epistle of Barnabas, Didascalia, and Apostolic Constitutions.


Interpreting James's decision

The earliest reaction to the so-called "Council of Jerusalem" was that of Paul himself, in his letters to the Galatians and the Colossians; the account in Acts and Pauls own report are from fairly different angles (leading some scholars to argue that they record different events). In the epistle to the churches of Galatia Paul says he had attended "in response to a revelation", in order to "set before them the gospel (he) preached to the Gentiles" (Gal 2:2), "because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves." (Gal 2:4)

James's resolution was that most Jewish law, including the requirement for circumcision of males, was not obligatory for gentile followers, possibly in order to make it easier for them to join the movement3.(disputed) However, the council did retain the prohibitions against eating meat containing blood, or meat not properly slain. It also retained the prohibitions against fornication and idol worship.

Some thinkers have compared James's resolution with the notion of Judaism's Noahide Laws. In this regard, the following is found in The Chronology of Antient Kingdoms Amended, by Sir Isaac Newton (Dublin, 1728, p. 184): "This law [of abstaining from blood] was ancienter than the days of Moses, being given to Noah and his sons, long before the days of Abraham: and therefore when the Apostles and Elders in the Council at Jerusalem declared that the Gentiles were not obliged to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses, they excepted this law of abstaining from blood, and things strangled, as being an earlier law of God, imposed not on the sons of Abraham only, but on all nations, while they lived together in Shinar under the dominion of Noah: and of the same kind is the law of abstaining from meats offered to Idols or false Gods, and from fornication." (Italics original).


Flavius Josephus in Jewish Antiquities book 20, chapter 2 records the story of King Izates who decided to follow the Law of Moses. He was going to get circumcised, but his mother advised against it. However, a Jew from Galilee named Eleazar convinced him that he should, and so he did. As his reign was peaceful, his mother visited the Jerusalem Temple to thank God, and since there was famine at the time, she brought food to the people of Jerusalem.


  • Note 1: Galatians 2:12
  • Note 2: Hillel the Elder when asked by a Gentile to teach the whole Torah while standing on one foot cited the negative form of the Golden Rule
  • Note 3: Acts 15:19

See also

Outside links

  • NA26 Greek Acts 15 (
  • Judaizers ( In: The New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1910, 2003.
  • Didache (
  • Jewish Antiquities 20 (

Further reading

  • Eisenman, Robert, 1997. James the Brother of Jesus : The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls. ISBN 0-670-86932-5 A cultural historian's dissenting view based on contemporary texts.

Template:Christianity-stub de:Apostelkonzil


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