From Jerusalem To Rome: Jerusalem Council (2)

Last time, we saw that as chairman, James summed up the discussion at the Jerusalem Council. James concluded the gathering with takkanah, (may I remind you that takkanah is a regulation issued by a rabbinic authority which revises an ordinance that no longer satisfies the requirements of the times or circumstances). James did in fact, issue such a takkanah, and today, we are going to discuss the content of this decision.

Noachide Laws?

Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idolsfrom sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood.”[1]

First of all, James’ use of the plural, “we”: “we should not trouble” seems to represent the Jerusalem leadership as a whole and their agreement over this issue. It is also important to understand that while speaking of “troubling” or “burdening” the Gentile believers, James speaks about the majority of the Gentiles who turn to the God of Israel through Jesus—the Jewish community will not require from them anything other than these regulations. It doesn’t mean, however, that if a Gentile believer wants to take upon himself additional observances, he will not be allowed. The rabbinic view of this matter is very clear: “A Noahide who wishes to perform any commandment of the Law with a view to receiving a reward is not to be hindered from performing it properly.”[2]

I have no doubt that you have all heard many commentaries on the rulings issued by the Jerusalem Council.  Nevertheless, just a few words of clarification on each one:

  • To abstain from things polluted by idols means to abstain from food (especially meat) sacrificed to idols.
  • To abstain from sexual immorality – Whereas in the pagan world this was regarded very lightly, for the Torah-believing Jew, it was a clear abomination.
  • To abstain from what is strangled, means to abstain from the meat from animals not slaughtered in a way that allows blood to flow out.
  • To abstain from blood – can be understood either literally, meaning “to abstain from eating meat with blood,” or metaphorically, referring to murder.

Usually, these four prohibitions are seen as a version of Noahide laws, listed by Talmud as the laws that God has required from all humanity since the days of Noah, before “Jew” and “Gentile” were even defined. “Our rabbis taught, ‘The sons of Noah were given seven commandments: practicing justice and abstaining from blasphemy, idolatry, adultery, bloodshed, robbery and eating flesh torn from a live animal’”[3]. The Jerusalem Council may have based its prohibitions on this tradition, although we find nothing about “practicing justice” or “abstaining from robbery” among its requirements. On the other hand, “the Council may have specified only minimum requirements, with the expectation that other moral attributes will be acquired later, possibly as a result of Gentiles’ attending synagogue service and learning there the Jewish moral tradition”[4]. This would explain the following mention of reading the Torah in synagogues: “For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.” It may be that James is actually saying here, we will let Gentiles become part of the Messianic community without proselyting them formally, because no matter where they live, in every city, they can attend a local synagogue and hear what the Torah teaches about a godly life.

Torah as the Only Authoritative Source

If we remember, however, that Noachide laws were formulated and written down much later than the first century, we would find it very unlikely that James does refer to these laws here. So where does he derive his regulations from?

I would like to remind you of something I mentioned last time: the absence of any reference to the Torah in James’ speech is somewhat striking, and has even caused some scholars to suggest that what we have in Acts 15 is only a fragment of a longer speech. There is – and probably was at that time as well – a clear hermeneutical rule that states that the Torah is the only authoritative source, and that the Prophets were not permitted to introduce new regulations. In this sense, James’ regulations should necessarily be based on the allusions derived from the Torah. Can we find anything in the Torah that would relate to the regulations of the Jerusalem Council?

In fact, we can. Indeed, behind the list of Acts 15, many scholars see the influence of Leviticus 17–18. These chapters are about holiness in the camp and the land of Israel, and they contain various regulations that are also binding on aliens “living among you” in Israel. They emphasize the sanctity of blood, refraining from idolatry, and refraining from various forms of sexual immorality including incestuous relationships. We can sum up these chapters in the four main laws:

  1. Don’t sacrifice to demons/false gods;
  2. Don’t consume blood, for life is in the blood;
  3. Don’t eat something that died or was torn by beasts;
  4. Don’t engage in sexual immorality.

 

Does that sound familiar? We just read James’ speech where he decided that the Gentiles should abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood.  The two lists – from Acts 15 and from Leviticus 17-18 – sound almost identical.

“We might question why these particular laws were chosen, and other, more obvious ones, like the Ten Commandments, are not even mentioned. The reason becomes clear when we read Leviticus 17 and 18—clearly these injunctions were taken straight from here and were likely designed to remove any demonic influence from the lives of the Gentiles coming into the assembly of Israel.”[5] Leviticus regards these things as Gentile evils, which would contaminate Israelites. By observing these four commands, the Gentiles could be accepted into Israel and could attend Sabbath synagogue services along with the Jews. This would explain the final comment by James referring to the reading the Torah in synagogues: “For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.” This refers to the possibility of Gentiles learning the law once they are admitted into a synagogue. It might also be seen as additional confirmation that the regulations are in fact drawn from the Torah – especially if we take into account that the very next chapter of Leviticus, Leviticus 19, opens the Torah portion Kedoshim – “Holy People” (Lev. 19:1-20:27). Torah Portion, Kedoshim, in many ways resembles (and might even have been the source of) Jesus’ Sermon on the Mountain. This portion begins with words: “You shall be holy for I the Lord you God am holy,” and in this Portion we find the famous words that, not only Jesus, but many Jewish sages before and after Him, considered to be the kernel of the entire Torah: “Love your neighbor as yourself”. James points out the possibility for the Gentiles to listen to these words of the Torah, and to learn how to be holy.

[1] Acts 15:19,20

[2] Hillary Le Cornu, Joseph Shulam, The Jewish Roots of Acts, Vol.I, p. 835

[3] Sanhedrin 56a

[4] David H.  Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary, p.  278

[5] Dorothy Healy, https://www.ourlivingtorah.com/_files/ugd/ed5d00_6806a953f7284220941f51a7a3273104.pdf

 

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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