ACTS 15

Were the Apostles Church or Synagogue Members?
by Jim Myers

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A thorough study of the book of Acts should be a requirement for membership in a church.  It is no secret that most Christians know very little about the history of their religion.  Literally thousands of different religious movements have come and gone since the time of Jesus.  Many share one thing in common, they began as reform movements that promised a return to the original church, the one described in the Book of Acts.

It would seem that the "Acts' church" would be the model for every Christian church to follow.  Yet, it is probably one of the best kept secrets in history.  Instead of "looking back" the trend seems to be that Christians, including scholars, tend to "project their concept of church" back into the Book of Acts.  Therefore, it becomes impossible to use the "Acts' church" as a standard to measure our churches today.

Overview of Acts 14:27-15:5

And having arrived and assembling the congregation, they reported what things God did with them, and how He had opened to the Gentiles a door of faith.  They continued with the disciples for a long time.  Some men came down from Judea and taught the brothers: "Unless you are circumcised by the custom taught by Moses, you are not able to be saved."  

A lot of discord and questioning took place between these men and Paul and Barnabas.  They arranged for Paul and Barnabas, along with some other like them, to go up to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem about this question.  The congregation sent them on their way and they passed through Phoenicia and Samaria, telling in detail the conversion of the Gentiles and caused great joy for all the brothers.

When they came to Jerusalem, the congregation, the apostles and elders, welcomed them.  They reported what things God did with them.  But certain believing ones of the sect of Pharisees stood up and said: "It is necessary for us to circumcise them and to encourage them to keep the Law of Moses."  

Laws of Conversion

The procedure established by the tannaim, according to which a non-Jew may be accepted into the Jewish faith, was elucidated as follows: "In our days, when a proselyte comes to be converted, we say to him: `What is your objective?  Is it not known to you that today the people of Israel are wretched, driven about, exiled, and in constant suffering?'  If he say: `I know of this and do not have the merit,' we accept him immediately and we inform him of some of the lighter precepts and of some of the severer ones ... we inform him of the chastisement for the transgression of these precepts... and we also inform him of the reward for observing these precepts... we should not overburden him nor be meticulous with him..." 

The acceptance of a proselyte "under the wings of the Divine Presence" is equivalent to Israel's entry into the covenant, i.e., with circumcision, immersion, and offering a sacrifice (Encyclopedia Judaica).

Circumcision

Please notice that conversion to Judaism demands that three requirements be met:

(1) circumcision

(2) immersion

(3) offering a sacrifice

The argument presented by the Pharisees, which belonged to the Jesus Movement centered around only one of the above three -- circumcision.  We know from the previous context that these Gentiles converts were being immersed (baptized).  Since it is not mentioned, we must assume that either sacrifices were being offered and therefore were not an issue, or that the Jesus Movement was not concerned with the sacrifice requirement of other Jewish sects.  Therefore, the question that confronted the Jerusalem Council was simply this: "Can a Gentile become a proselyte without circumcision?"

Why do the Jews circumcise their males anyway?  

Genesis 17:11-12 reads: "Every male among you shall be circumcised.  And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be a token of a covenant between Me and you.  And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among every male throughout your generations." 

The promise that Abraham's seed should inherit the land of Canaan was bound up together with this covenant.  Circumcision was not merely a religious practice; it also took on a national character.  Not only could only circumcised males partake of the Passover sacrifice, but they could not hold positions of power in the government either.  

Before the Israelites entered Canaan, Joshua circumcised them.  Today, it is still a Jewish father's duty to circumcise his son, even though any child born to a Jewish mother is a legally a Jew, whether circumcised or not (Encyclopedia Judaica).

The Eliezer - Joshua Debate

We find a very interesting account of a debate between R. Eliezer and R. Joshua which took place around 90 CE, approximately forty years after the Acts account.  The account is recorded in the Talmud, Yebamot 46a

"Our Rabbis taught: If a proselyte was circumcised but had not performed the prescribed ritual ablution, R. Eliezer said, `Behold he is a proper proselyte; for so we find that our forefathers were circumcised and had not performed ritual immersion.' 

If he performed the prescribed immersion but had not been circumcised, R. Joshua said, `Behold he is a proper proselyte; for so we find that the mothers had performed ritual immersion but had not been circumcised.'

The Sages, however, said, `Whether he had performed ritual immersion but had not been circumcised or whether he had been circumcised but had not performed the prescribed ritual immersion, he is not a proper proselyte, unless he has been circumcised and has also performed the prescribed ritual immersion."

Back To Acts

As we can see from the above debate, the early leaders of Israel differed about the necessity of circumcision for conversion.   The custom of circumcision seems to have spread among the Romans in the Diaspora.  Hadrian again proscribed it, and this is said to have been one of the causes of the Bar Kokhba rebellion.  When a Roman official asked Rabbi Oshaya why God had not made originally him as he wanted him, the rabbi replied that it was so that man could perfect himself by the fulfillment of a divine commandment (Gen. R. 11:6)  (Encyclopedia Judaica).

Don't you find it very interesting that the question raised by the members of the Jesus Movement was still being argued about over 50 years later.  Now lets see how they handled it in beginning in verse Acts 15:6 - "The apostles and elders assembled to see about this question.  After much debate, Peter stood up and said to them: 'Brothers, you know that from the first days God made the decision among you, that from my lips the Gentiles should hear the announcement of the good news and so believe.  God, who knows the heart, confirmed this by giving them the Holy Spirit, as He did us also.  He has made no difference between us and them and has purified their hearts by faith.'"

Next, Peter made a statement that has been at the heart of much debate and discussion for many years - "Why then do you test God by laying upon the shoulders of the disciples a yoke that neither our fathers nor we have had the strength to bear?"

At a meeting in Arlington, Texas, Dr. Ike Tennison presented a possible meaning of this quote that fits the context very well - "What was the yoke -- circumcision as an adult male?  Needless to say, placing the requirement of circumcision on every Gentile male could cause a great number to reconsider their decision to come to the God of Israel."

Jacob's Decree  
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 Jacob (James) answered: "Men, brothers, listen to me. Even as Simon laid out how God at first visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for his name.  To this the words of the prophets agree, even as it is written: "After these things I will return and I will rebuild David's fallen tent, and the things having been overturned.  I will rebuild and I will re-erect it so that the rest of men may earnestly seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles on whom has been invoked my name, says the Lord, who does these things that have been known for ages.

"It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are converting to God.  Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.  For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath."

Notice that Jacob did not require male Gentiles to be circumcised before they could become converts to the Jesus Movement.  Did you catch that?  Jesus' Movement was Jewish.  How do we know?  First, simply raising the question of circumcision presents us with a very significant clue.  Second, the Gentile converts were told to attend the synagogue every Sabbath and learn the Law of Moses.  Lets take another look at the end of Jacob's instructions - "It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are converting to God. . . For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath."

Jacob didn't want to put to many commandments on the new converts at first.  After all, they would meet at the synagogue every Sabbath in order to study with the others members of the Jewish community.  Wasn't it Jesus' habit to do this himself?

Circumcision Debate Continues Today

In 1843 the clerical leaders of the Reform movement in Frankfort sought to abolish circumcision among their adherents.  They based their objections to circumcision on five reasons:

(1) It was a commandment given to Abraham, not to Moses.  It is not exclusive to Israel since the descendants of Ishmael also practice it.

(2) It is mentioned only once in the Mosaic Law; it was not repeated in Deuteronomy.

(3) Moses did not circumcise his own son.

(4) The generation of the desert was not circumcised.

(5) There is no initiation for the daughters into Judaism.

Reform rabbis insisted upon the potential convert receiving instructions in Judaism and the reading of books as prerequisites for conversion.  However, in conflict with the traditional Jewish attitude they have stressed the importance of the declaration of faith by the convert, disregarding the ritual aspects of conversion, such as circumcision.

Questions to Consider

(1) Do modern churches follow Jacobs decree?

(2) What was the original relationship of the Gentile members of Jesus' Movement with Judaism?

(3) When did the church drop Jacob's requirements for non-Jews?

(4) How different is Jacob's requirements from those of your church concerning conversion?

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