From Jerusalem To Rome: Jerusalem Council (1)

My dear friends, we are entering Acts 15 – one of the most crucial chapters of this book. I daresay that most modern readers while reading this chapter, don’t always understand what is going on there.  If one were a religious Jew of the 1st century, he would definitely know what’s going on. We miss so much without knowing the religious background – and it’s my job here to help you regain what you miss.

The Inquiry

This chapter opens with some men who “came down from Judea” and visited the congregation in Antioch. They began teaching that circumcision according to the law of Moses is necessary for salvation. The words “according to the law of Moses” are completely lost on a modern reader. Many Near Eastern peoples practiced circumcision then – and many practice circumcision even now – but only if it’s done in a certain way, with a certain ceremony, according to the law of Moses does it become “brit-milah” (“covenant of circumcision”). This is exactly what these men from Judea demanded. We read that after some discussions and disputes, the congregation decided “that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question”[1].

The famous Jewish tractate “Pirkei Avot” opens with the words: “All Israel has a share in the world to come.” Even though this tractate was written much later than the New Testament, the idea was clearly present in Jesus’ time as well: all Israel will be saved. If we know that, we would understand the predicament of Jewish believers in Acts 15. After they have received Paul and Barnabas with their inquiry, they gathered together to answer the question: Can Gentiles be saved? If yes, what do they have to do?

A Yoke

Many Christian commentators emphasize the words of Peter:  “Why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?”[2] They oppose “the yoke of the law,” which Peter is supposedly talking about, with the words of Jesus: “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”[3] Such teaching is wrong because it misinterprets the yoke that Peter calls unbearable.

The term “yoke” in this context is a truly Jewish term. “The metaphor of the ‘yoke’ is typically employed in rabbinic literature to indicate Torah-observance as a sign of acceptance of God’s covenant – עול תורה (ol Torah – the “yoke of the Torah”), עול (מלכות) שמיים   (ol malkut shamayim – the “yoke of heaven”), orעול מצוות  (ol mitzvoth – the “yoke of the commandments”)”.[4] Observant Jews do not consider Torah a burden, but rather a joy! In rabbinic literature, accepting “the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven” means acknowledging God’s sovereignty and obeying Him out of love for Him. Once one loves God, one would happily choose to obey His commandments – exactly as Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commands.”[5] The yoke of His commandments is not a burden if one loves God.  In this sense, the Jewish term “yoke” does not mean an oppressive burden any more than Jesus’ yoke does.

So, what is that unbearable yoke that Peter is talking about? As an example, let us consider the requirement of circumcision that this chapter – and the whole debate – began with. While “the men from Judea” demanded that the circumcision would be performed “according to the law of Moses,” we do not find any specifics about the “manner” of the circumcision in the Torah. Why? And where are these specifics described? Here we come to a very important point that would help us understand what yoke Peter was talking about: by this time, in the minds of religious Jews, “the law of Moses” was already a huge compendium of both commandments and interpretations of how to walk out those commandments. These interpretations belonged to the so called “Oral Torah”. The Oral Torah was understood to have been given to Moses at Mount Sinai together with the written Torah. By the first century, the Written Torah and the Oral Torah were absolutely interwoven: If one goes against tradition, in the eyes of religious people they go against Torah. This is the reason why Jesus was several times accused of “breaking the law” – because the miracles he performed on Shabbat, according the tradition, were not allowed. It helps us see that the decision of Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 was very brave and truly revolutionary – but one would not understand it if he does not know the religious situation in the Land at this time. It also helps us understand what “yoke” Peter was talking about: it was not the yoke of the commandments of the Torah, given by God, but a yoke of traditions prescribed by men!

James’ speech

James’ speech is undoubtedly the central piece of this chapter. Some scholars[6]  claim that James’ speech belongs to the genre of yelammedenu.  Yelammedenu is the special halakhic homily (it usually begins with the words yelammedenu rabbenu , “Let our master teach us”, hence the name) which contains both references to precedent and to Scripture. Here the precedent that James refers to is the story of Peter’s evangelism of Cornelius and his household.  The reference to Scripture is a quotation from Amos. Surprisingly, we do not hear any reference to the Torah that should precede an appeal to the prophets; therefore, some scholars suggest that what we have in Acts 15 is only a fragment of a longer speech.

As chairman, James sums up the discussion. In order to understand his conclusion, we need to know what rabbinic takkanah is. Takkanah is a regulation issued by rabbinic authority which revises an ordinance that no longer satisfies the requirements of the times or circumstances.  Takkanot (plural of Takkanah) are considered extensions of the Law; they are of ancient origin and cover different topics. James concludes their gathering with such takkanah, and next time, we will discuss the content of this takkanah.

[1] Acts 15:2

[2] Acts 15:10

[3] Mat.11:30

[4]Hillary Le Cornu, Joseph Shulam, The Jewish Roots of Acts, Vol.I, p. 823

[5] John 14:15

[6]  G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson. Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (p. 589). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

I would like to remind you, dear friendsthat we offer a wonderful course, Jewish Background of the New Testament.  As always, you are welcome to contact me for more information.  Also, if you like the articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books, you can get them here.

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. Gladys Fox

    Thank you Dear Julia,
    Every day I thank God for you and all that you teach me
    Every day I read three chapters of the Bible and compare them in three different versions . One of them is the K.J.V. For over three hundred years the K.J.V. was the only Bible that many Christians had and it is easy to see how they were misled . For instance how one letter can change the meaning of something . The word people meaning everyone can be changed to mean a certain people by writing A people .
    The Bible is woven together in so many ways that sadly many Christians never see .
    May God of All understanding Bless us all