Wednesday, January 17, 2024

History, Language, And Context Of Acts 15

Acts 15 records what is called the Jerusalem Council. The discussions and the decisions reached there can be confusing. What I'd like to show is how certain history, language, and context makes Acts 15 easier to understand. 

The specific controversy was whether Gentile converts needed to be circumcised. The broader question was what did foreigners have to do to become converts. Paul and Barnabas were in Antioch when the controversy arose, and the church there sent them to the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem.

Acts 15:1 Now certain men who had come down from Judea were teaching the brethren, saying, “Unless you are circumcised after the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 

Acts 15:5 But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to keep the Law of Moses.”

Verse 5 says basically the same thing as verse 1, adding the fact that the circumcision advocates were Pharisees who now believed. It's not clear if these are the same men who stirred up trouble in Antioch. Lots of technical discussions on the Greek in verse 5 explain that it could be rendered “being circumcised in order to keep the law of Moses” which would make it consistent with verse 1 - UCG(Craig Scott) [1], UCG Covenants [2]. It is also possible that the Pharisees meant that “they keep the law according to Pharisaic traditions” - CBCG [3

Acts 15:19 (James) Therefore, it is my judgment that we do not cause trouble for those from the Gentiles who are turning to God, 20 but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols, from acts of sexual immorality, from what has been strangled, and from blood. 21 For from ancient generations Moses has those who preach him in every city, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”

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Some History

Instead of jumping into analysis of the text itself, let's begin by looking at how that sounds to us in the 21st century. Everyone is influenced by the culture they live in, and we are no different. We are susceptible to bringing the bias of the surrounding culture when we read the Bible. Many of us came out of Catholic or Protestant churches that teach the law is done away. They even use Acts 15 as a proof text of it. Some may have had no religious background to speak of. Unless you're raised as an observant Jew, you would not be familiar with the Old Testament.  So when we  read these “four abstentions” - 

  • things sacrificed to idols
  • sexual immorality
  • what has been strangled (what we would call roadkill)
  • blood

they sound strange. Of all the laws in the Old Testament, why pick those four?

First Century Culture

Now let's look at the culture of the time, that is the Jewish culture of the first century AD.  The only scripture they had WAS the Old Testament. But Judaism had also taken hold. Many things changed from Moses' time to Jesus' time. 

During the time of the second temple (c. 516 BCE to 70 CE) Gentiles were excluded from entering the Temple past the outer court (which was known as the Court of the Gentiles). bibleq [4]

The money changers operated in the Court of the Gentiles. After overthrowing their tables, Jesus reminded the people that “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” Mark 11:17, Is 56:7, but

The outer court was also where the animals that would be sacrificed were kept, and the noise, stench, and excrement of the many animals hardly made the court a place conducive to prayer - livingwithfaith [5]

The early church was all Jewish (note  Paul called himself Jewish even though he was Benjamite). The Jews felt they had a special relationship with God, and didn't want to let anyone else in. Jews weren't even allowed to eat with Gentiles (Acts 11:3). It took visions and miracles to show them the Gospel was open to all peoples.

But it was not always so. The Tabernacle in the Wilderness did not have a Court of the Gentiles, nor did Solomon's Temple. Gentiles in Judea had become second class citizens, and could not enter the Jewish court on penalty of death. The religious leaders of that day, Pharisees and Sadducees, added rules beyond what Moses wrote in the Torah.

And consider the culture of the first century Gentiles. The first Gentiles called were already “God fearers”, the term used to describe Gentiles that attended synagogue services.  But they came out of an idolatrous society. In time, Paul preached directly to Gentiles who were not God fearers. The Gentile religions of that day involved idolatry, sexual immorality, and consuming blood - UCG(Bible study aids) [6]. And don't forget that NO ONE had a personal copy of the Scriptures, and that few could read anyway. The only way to hear Scripture was the Sabbath reading in the synagogue.

Foreigners in the Torah

Going back to Solomon's time - when Solomon dedicated the first Temple, he prayed specifically that God would hear and answer the prayers of foreigners who would come from a far country.

1K 8:41 Also regarding the foreigner who is not of Your people Israel, when he comes from a far country on account of Your name 42 (for they will hear of Your great name and Your mighty hand, and of Your outstretched arm); when he comes and prays toward this house, 43 hear in heaven Your dwelling place, and act in accordance with all for which the foreigner calls to You, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know Your name, to fear You, as do Your people Israel, and that they may know that this house which I have built is called by Your name.

Solomon's Temple


Going back to Moses and the Torah.

The Old Testament uses three different words for stranger - Zarim, Nahkrim, and Gerim. All three are translated as stranger, and it takes some research to learn how they differ in meaning. According to Jewish Virtual Library [7]:

Ancient Israel was acquainted with two classes of strangers, resident aliens and foreigners who considered their sojourn in the land more or less temporary. The latter were referred to as zarim or nokhrim.

In contrast with the foreigner, the ger, the resident alien, lived more or less permanently in his adopted community.

In Egypt, the Israelites WERE the strangers. After the Exodus, the mixed multitude that left Egypt with Israel became the strangers. And over time, people came to Israel for various reasons, some temporarily, some chose to stay. The Bible records there was to be "one standard for stranger and citizen alike" (Lev. 24:22). I think this refers to criminal justice because in other ways foreigners had a few special rules. For examples, 

The foreigner (zarim and nahkrim) was not bound by the ritual laws, and it was permissible to sell him animals that had died a natural death.

[Summarized quote] With the passage of time, the gerim were assimilated culturally and religiously.  Hence, the ger, in contrast to the nokhri, was required to conform to the practices of the native Israelite - Like purification, incest laws, food laws, observe the Sabbath & holy days.  In other words, they were expected to be loyal to YHWH.  [7] 

So we see the Gerim, the resident aliens, could become part of Israel. Many countries today are like that – you can come to America, live as a  resident alien, then apply for citizenship. Some countries not so, like North Korea, Saudia Arabia, China, and others make it very difficult to get citizenship.  These days, countries will have a formal process for becoming a citizen. In ancient Israel, not so much. The one exception is that males must be circumcised to keep the Passover, also Num 9:14.


Ex 12:48 HCSB If a foreigner (ger) resides with you and wants to celebrate the LORD’s Passover, every male in his household must be circumcised, and then he may participate; he will become like a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person may eat it.

See why the Pharisees who believed (Acts 15:5) insisted that Gentiles needed to be circumcised? Even if you get past the rules added by Judaism, the Torah plainly says “he will become like a native of the land” after circumcision.

Finally, Acts 15

Curiously, neither circumcision nor the law of Moses or even the word “law” are mentioned again after verse 5 (though they appear in verse 24 in the KJV). Commandment keeping is not mentioned at all. So without history and context, verses 20 and 29 say something puzzling – that abstaining from these four things is all that is required of Gentile converts.

  • things sacrificed to idols
  • sexual immorality
  • what has been strangled (roadkill)
  • blood

That doesn't really make sense, does it? Does that mean Gentiles could murder and steal, but not eat roadkill? The Jerusalem Council was about circumcision according to the custom of Moses, not about the Ten Commandments. These requirements in vss 20 and 29 came directly from the Torah, specifically Leviticus 17 (7-9, 12, 15) & chapter 18.

7. And they shall no more offer their sacrifices to goat demons, after whom they have gone whoring. This shall be a statute forever to them throughout their generations.8. And you shall say to them, ‘Any man of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who are staying among you, offers a burnt offering or sacrifice,9. And does not bring it to the door of the tabernacle of the congregation to offer it to the LORD, even that man shall be cut off from among his people.

12. Therefore I said to the children of Israel, ‘No one among you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that is staying among you eat blood.’ 

15. And anyone who eats that which died of itself, or a torn thing, whether one of your own country or a stranger, he shall both wash his clothes and bathe in water, and be unclean until sunset. Then he shall be clean.

Chapter 18 is all about sexual impurity. It concludes this way.

26. You shall therefore keep My statutes and My judgments, and shall not commit any of these abominations, neither the native, nor any stranger that lives among you

In all these cases, stranger is translated from ger. 

Torah Scroll

Does Acts 15 show the law of Moses is done away? It actually shows that the Apostles looked to the Torah to resolve the question.

This false interpretation depicts the Jerusalem Council as supposedly rejecting the law of Moses but also calling upon the law of Moses as a form of validation for what they resolve. [1]

So why would the Apostles pick these four items out of the Torah? These are the things that the ger had to do to live among Israel. Likewise, the first century Gentiles still had to live among the Jews in order to attend synagogues. 

The Jews considered Gentiles that followed these laws to be good people, and as such were welcome to study in the synagogues - hermeneutics [].

What about circumcision then? Peter was eye witness to Cornelius and his household receiving the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues. The point is this happened while they were uncircumcised. Instead of circumcision, Peter directed that they be baptized.  Baptism is the outward sign of the New Covenant, circumcision is the outward sign of the Old Covenant - [1]

What about the timing of this? According to scholars, Peter's vision and subsequent visit to Cornelius was 35-40 AD, and the Jerusalem council about 50 AD. Racism against Gentiles may have been simmering the whole time, but why did it take 10-15 years to convene  a council? (Gal 2:1) - annomundi [9],  learnreligions [10]. When Peter explained what happened with Cornelius (Acts 11), it should have been the end of the matter.


  • Our culture makes Acts 15:20,29 hard to understand.
  • Foreigners could join the nation of Israel.
  • First century Jews discriminated against Gentiles.
  • Gentile religions violated the 4 abstentions.
  • Some thought that circumcision fulfilled the law of Moses.
  • Cornelius and family received the Holy Spirit while uncircumcised.
  • The 4 abstentions can't mean the 10 Commandments are done away.
  • The Apostles looked to the Torah to resolve the question.
  • Gentiles had to observe these things to be welcome in the synagogues.

It could sound like the only reason for the four abstentions was to placate the Jews in the synagogue. It's more than that. Are these four abstentions binding today? I believe so. I will try to cover why I think so in a future article.