Jerusalem Council and How its Decision is Distorted by the Church
According to the main stream doctrine of the Christianity, the Jerusalem Council exempted the Christians from observing the Law and recommended only four prohibitions for them to observe. Part of this doctrine is that the apostles abolished circumcision of the Christians because they are not “under the Law”. However, if that were the intent of the apostles, why did they continue to be Law-observant for decades after the resurrection of the Messiah if “the Law was nailed on the cross”?
This article will touch the nerve to prove the contrary that (1) the exemption of the Christians from observing the Law was not the intent of the apostles, (2) circumcision was no issue for the Jerusalem Council, and (3) the matter the apostles discussed was how the non-native believers in Yeshua to be fully and correctly integrated in the Commonwealth of Israel, or the metaphor apostle Shaul used in Romans 11: “the olive tree of Israel”.
YHVH gives the non-native a full membership in the Commonwealth of Israel, as He makes no distinction between native and non-native; the stranger is to be as the native in rights but also in responsibilities. We read thus,
Let the stranger who dwells among you be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself. For you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am YHVH your Elohim. (Lev 19:34)
There is one Torah for the native-born and for the stranger who sojourns among you. (Exo 12:49)
And because the Christian theologians have come up with the theory of dispensation (exemption from a rule or obligation) for the Christians and that the Church is a different religious body apart from the Commonwealth of Israel, YHVH has made perfectly clear, in order to remove any doubts, as to whether the Christians are exempt from His Torah:
One law is for you of the assembly and for the stranger who sojourns with you – a law forever throughout your generations. As you are, so is the stranger before Yehovah. One Torah and one law of manner is for you and for the stranger who sojourns with you. (Num 15:15-16)
This main theme, namely “As you are, so is the stranger before Yehovah“ was in the discussions and especially in the decision of the Jerusalem Council, not whether the non-native were exempted from circumcision. As we will study below, circumcision was no issue in the decision of the Jerusalem Council despite the common teaching in the Christian theology. Apostle Shaul (Paul) says about circumcision, speaking of Avraham:
He received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had, yet being uncircumcised (Rom 4:11).
The father Avraham was declared righteous and years after, he received the circumcision as a seal of his righteousness of the faith. Circumcision was not intended to make Avraham righteous; he had be found righteous already, when YHVH made a covenant with him. Had Avraham not been righteous before his circumcision, his circumcision could not have been a seal and could not have given confirmation to that which did not exist.
Again, this is the main theme of the Jerusalem Council as we will see it being developed in the discussions of the Jerusalem Council: the non-native were found righteous because of their faith in Yeshua the Messiah, and then circumcision would come as a seal of the righteousness of the faith. No one is any different than the father Avraham.
The opposition in the Jerusalem Council
Shaul and Barnaba were in Antioch, when certain men from the sect of believers in Yeshua among the Pharisees contended that the way of the new converts from paganism to the Messiah must be through circumcision.
And certain men came down from Yehudah and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the practice of Mosheh, you are unable to be saved’. (Act 15:1)
Shaul and Barnaba had no small dispute with them, they arranged for Shaul and Barnaba and certain others of them to go up to Yerushalayim, to the emissaries and elders, about this question. (Act 15:2)
And in order to solve the issue, it was determined to submit the question to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem aka the Jerusalem Council.
The first address at the Jerusalem Council was by Shimon Kepha (Peter), who quoted his own experience at the house of Cornelius to prove that (1) Elohim shows no partiality, but in every nation, he who fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him (Act 10:34-35), (2) as Elohim gave them the same gift as He gave the apostles when they all believed in Yeshua the Messiah (see Act 11:17). (See also the promise YHVH has given in Isa 56:1-8 to those who join His people) Read more.
At the Jerusalem Council, some of the believers in Yeshua, who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees, rose up and said,
It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the Torah of Mosheh. (Act 15:5)
Here we see the issue started developing: First, you are to be circumcised, second, keep the Torah of Mosheh, and then you are saved. Because, unless you are circumcised, you are unable to be saved. (Act 15:1)
And the apostles and elders came together to look into this matter (Act 15:6). “This matter” in verse 6 is the teaching of the sect of the Pharisees that the new converts were to be circumcised and observe the Torah in order to be saved. Soon the matter will be how the non-native believers in Yeshua to become a part of the Commonwealth of Israel and not how to convert to Judaism or Christianity; the matter was not whether or not to observe Torah.
The matter how to integrate in the Olive Tree
And when there had been much dispute, Kepha rose up and pointed to his experience with Cornelius in Acts 10-11 that salvation precedes circumcision and that there was no distinction between Israel and the nations, cleansing the hearts of them all by faith (Act 15:9). This was soon confirmed in Act 16:1-3, when Shaul circumcised Timotheus, in implication that one cannot come before YHVH in his flesh (notice and in Eze 44:9)
No alien, uncircumcised in heart and uncircumcised in flesh, shall enter into My sanctuary, even any alien that is among the children of Israel. (Eze 44:9 JPS)
And Kepha made that statement:
Now then, why do you try Elohim by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? (Act 15:10)
Here, we see that Kepha addressed the Pharisees, the believers in Yeshua, who insisted that unless the new converts were circumcised, they would not be saved, thus putting a burden upon the disciples which even the fathers (presumably Mosheh and Aharon) were unable to bear.
In other words, Kepha blamed them for creating an issue that did not even existed for the fathers to solve, because there was no reason for it to exist in the first place. By the will of YHVH, not only the native Israelites but also the non-native were to be circumcised to have the token of their faith. That is the Torah, the Word of YHVH, as He said to Avraham,
As for you, guard My Covenant, you and your seed after you throughout their generations. This is My Covenant which you guard between Me and you, and your seed after you: Every male child among you is to be circumcised. And you shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall become a sign of the Covenant between Me and you. (Gen 17:9-11)
Ironically, the Christian theologians misinterpret Act 15:10 to mean that “the Judaizing” teachers have put the yoke on “the Christians” to get circumcised. Thus, they equate the Torah of YHVH with “unbearable burden” the Christian cannot take, contrary to the words of YHVH that His Torah is light and easy to carry. But if the Christian theologians have not believed the Creator, they should have believed Apostle Yochanan (John),
For this is the love for Elohim, that we guard His commands, and His commands are not heavy. (1Jn 5:3)
Read also 1Jn 5:2 and the article “What is Love?“
After hearing Kepha, Shaul and Barnaba were likening their cases of conversions with Kepha’s case of conversion of Cornelius (Act 15:12). And after them, Ya’akov (James) stood up to say that what Shimon declared, that Elohim visited the gentiles to take out of them a people for His Name, agreed with the words of the prophet Amos (Amo 9:11-12).
This phrase, the gentiles to take out of them a people for His Name, in Ya’akov’s speech, has been extremely misunderstood and twisted by many theologians to mean that the “gentiles” were taken out to form a separate religious entity called “church”.
Note: Contrary to the common belief that the first congregations of believers in Yeshua were called “churches”, the account in Acts speaks otherwise. See Act 9:2, Act 19:23, and Act 24:22 where they were called “The Way” after the words of the Master who called Himself, “I am the Way… (Joh 14:6). But probably, the most convincing are the words of Shaul who, when falsely accused of teaching against the Torah of YHVH and the Temple, said this (see also what Shaul did in Acts 21), Nor are they able to prove the charges of which they now accuse me. And this I confess to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect, so I worship the Elohim of my fathers, believing all that has been written in the Torah and in the Prophets, (Act 24:13-14). Both Yochanan’s (John the Baptist) and the Qumran communities referred to themselves as being “in the wilderness” and both the Qumran community and the early believers in Yeshua called their movement “The Way” according to what is said in Mat 3:3; Mar 1:3; Luk 3:4; Joh 1:23; see also Dam. Doc. viii, 12-14; ix, 20).
Then Apostle Ya’akov continued,
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. (Act 15:19-21 KJV)
Now, these verses too have been misinterpreted to mean that the disciples, in order to relieve the yoke (the Law of Moses) upon “the Christians”, have set only four prohibitions for them to follow, as if the disciples had had the authority to change the Torah of YHVH.
Thus, if that were true, then supposedly, the Christians are free to worship idols, disrespect parents, murder, lie, covet, etc., etc. And if the Christian theologians have to ever comment on the Jerusalem Council decision, they conveniently avoid the last verse of Ya’akov’s decision, which is obscured enough in [English] texts.
Below is the interlinear Greek-English translation by the present author:
μωσηςMosheh γαρbecause εκfrom γενεωνgenerations αρχαιωνancient καταevery πολινcity τουςthose κηρυσσονταςpreached αυτονself εχειhas ενin ταιςthe συναγωγαιςsynagogues καταevery πανall σαββατονSabbath αναγινωσκομενοςknown again (Act 15:21)
And this is the same verse rendered in English from an Eastern Orthodox Bible translation of the Greek text for more clarity. It reads thus,
Because, from ancient generations, in every city, there were those who preached [the Law of] Mosheh that has being read in the synagogues every Sabbath. (Act 15:21)
Acts 15 is best understood in its context.
Learning Moses on Sabbaths
The Jerusalem Council did not give the new converts in Yeshua a maximum list of four prohibitions to follow, but rather it gave a minimum list with which they needed to start in order to participate in any Jewish community.
The reasoning of Acts 15:21 is given right after the minimal list of four prohibitions that states: Because, from ancient generations, in every city, there were those who preached [the Law of] Mosheh …
That “for” is explaining the reasoning behind the four prohibitions. The former pagans were expected to do the four minimal requirements in order to be able to participate in the community of Israel, as a start and a turning point of their walking with the chosen people. If these four minimal requirements were not met, the new converts could not be able to participate in any communion in the Messiah, much less to bring their sacrifices to the Temple, as Apostle Shaul did (see Acts 21).
Once they were able to meet these minimal requirements, they would hear, that is to learn the Torah of YHVH, preached in the synagogues every Sabbath.
And it was expected that no further burden was necessary to be placed upon the new converts other than these four in order to begin integrating them into the communities of The Way.
That was the answer to the demand from the sect of the Pharisees that the new believers from the nations needed to be “circumcised” first in order to be saved.
Therefore, the four prohibitions were not meant to become the only Torah standards by which all converts would be bound for all time. This is evident in the conjunction “for (for the reason that; on account of) Mosheh”. Since the context of this verse pertains to the public readings of the Torah in the synagogues every Sabbath, the Jerusalem Council thought it was good to immediately bind the Gentiles with the understanding that they would be attending synagogues with the Jews on Shabbat.
And since they had already been grafted into Israel (read the entire Romans 11), they could learn the Torah and live righteously according to the Torah of YHVH, because all [Hebrew] Scripture, not just four commands, is breathed out by YHVH and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for setting straight, for instruction in righteousness (see 2Ti 3:16-17). (Read more about righteousness)
So, the Jerusalem Council gave the new converts the four basic commands in the Torah to start with; the rest they would learn in the synagogues every Sabbath. In other words, the Jerusalem Council gave the instruction to the disciples and elders that once the converts were in the faith, they would be hearing the Torah taught in the congregations every Sabbath as the most natural place and time to learn.
Now, if the Jerusalem Council prohibited the new converts to eat blood, according to Lev 17:7-15, were they not also bound to obey the whole Torah, as Mosheh taught? Does YHVH not teach that there is one Torah for the native and non-native who live among the children of Israel?
And indeed, the new converts are subject to the same law as the native Israelites (Exo 12:49, Num 15:16); to observe the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:29, Num 19:10) and Passover (Num 9:14); not blaspheme the Name of Yehovah (Lev 24:16). The reason given for this equal treatment by the Torah and the Jerusalem Council is that as Israel was once a sojourner in the land of Egypt (Exo 23:9; Lev 19:33-34; Deu 10:19; Deu 16:9-12), so were the non-native sojourners in Israel.
Again, the decision of the Jerusalem Council was that the non-native believers in Yeshua, needed first to obey the four basic prohibitions, as a starting point to walk in Torah; the entire Torah would be learned on the Sabbaths, as the native were learning.
Indeed, when the new believers attended the congregations to learn from the Torah, they would start from Genesis to learn that the father Avraham was first declared righteous for his walking in obedience to YHVH and then in old age he was circumcised as a token of the Covenant between him and YHVH.
Then, they would continue with Exodus where they would learn about circumcision in order to participate in the Passover dinner (Exo 12:48), the Covenant of YHVH to keep the Sabbath of the Creator (Exodus 20). And Leviticus where they would learn what had and what had not be considered food (Leviticus 11), and the Appointed Times of YHVH in Leviticus 23, and the rest of the commands of YHVH until the end of the Torah, and then again they would start with the new cycle of studying from Genesis.
In other words, they will go through the entire Torah in the course of the year to learn how to walk with YHVH, but first they were to abstain from what was most important that would separate them from their former religions, the paganism they had been rooted into.
One mind of the Jerusalem Council
Therefore, the Jerusalem Council having become of one mind came to the conclusion that that was (and still is) the proper order of the matter: (1) Salvation by faith, (2) Learning and living out Torah in obedience to YHVH, and (3) Receiving circumcision as a token of the Covenant.
This is the proper order, as opposed to the teaching of the Rabbis then and now, who reversed the order: circumcision first and then learning Torah, as seen in b.Yevamot 47a:
Our Rabbis taught: If at the present time a man desires to become a proselyte, he is to be addressed as follows: ‘What reason have you for desiring to become a proselyte; do you not know that Israel at the present time are persecuted and oppressed, despised, harassed and overcome by afflictions’? If he replies, ‘I know and yet am unworthy’, he is accepted forthwith, and is given instruction in some of the minor and some of the major commandments … If he accepted, he is circumcised forthwith. Should any shreds which render the circumcision invalid remain, he is to be circumcised a second time. As soon as he is healed arrangements are made for his immediate ablution, when two learned men must stand by his side and acquaint him with some of the minor commandments and with some of the major ones. When he comes up after his ablution he is deemed to be an Israelite in all respects.
The reader should not be caught in surprise that the Rabbinical Judaism teaches that the Torah is for the Jews only and the keeping the so-called Noachide laws are for the Gentiles. That is pretty close to what the Church teaches: the Law is for the Jews, the four laws of the Jerusalem Council are for the Christians.
However, all believers in Yeshua, as having full status of Covenant members according to the Torah, are to also submit to four verses that the Lord has said in Mat 5:17-20. Read more.
The desire to have the sign of the Covenant
Those who submit themselves to YHVH and His Messiah, have the full rights but also the full responsibilities in the Covenant and the Torah. The Christians need to understand that they have not only rights, but responsibilities, too, and the Jerusalem Council has set these four responsibilities to start with.
The Christians also need to understand that neither the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, nor Shaul in any of his letters ever prohibited, revoked, annulled circumcision for the new converts. They did not have the authority to do it, nor did they do it. Circumcision was cautioned against but not prohibited, because it was seen by the Pharisaic sect in The Way as a means of salvation.
Then and now, the term “circumcision” is seen in Judaism and Christianity as synonymous with “Jewish conversion”. The problem in this thinking is that circumcision is seen by both sides as a prerequisite for salvation, rather than a result, a sign, of it (see Gen 17:10-11). It naturally follows that a new convert who desires to become part of the Covenant people, the olive tree of Israel (see again Romans 11), and observe the Torah of YHVH, is one who will also desire to get circumcised in order to have the sign of the Covenant.
In conclusion, the burden the Jerusalem Council, speaks of, in the context of the plain reading of the text, is not the Torah of YHVH, as taught in the Christianity but the burden of the sect of the Pharisees among the early believers if Yeshua. The phrase no greater burden than these necessities (the four prohibition) in Act 15:28 is not an exhaustive list of “recommendations” but the beginning point to walk on the righteous path of Torah.
In the present author’s opinion, their intention was not evil, as it is presented in the Christianity. The Pharisees believed that what circumcision should be the first step in the process of salvation of the nations. That was what they had been taught and that was what they wanted to teach the new believers. Should we blame them for their intention? The disciples did not.
Let us pay a close attention to the decision of the Jerusalem Council: the Jerusalem Council did not condemn the requirement of the sect of the Pharisees to have the new believers from the nations circumcised. But in a loving and tolerant manner, Ya’akov, Shimon, and Shaul corrected them and took the best possible decision, namely that the new believers must first abandon the pagan practicing of eating meat with blood, whoring, etc., and then they were to learn the Torah of YHVH in the synagogues every Sabbath. Let us not ignore the fact that the Pharisees believed that Yeshua was the Messiah promised by Mosheh, and that they were a part of the Jerusalem Council.
Read more about what the Rabbis believe about Yeshua in the article “Revealing the Name of Yeshua Secretly Guarded by the Rabbis“.
Therefore, these four prohibitions dealt with the pagan temple idolatry and prostitution explicitly prohibited in Exo 34:15-16. The Jerusalem Council did not deal with abolishing the Torah of YHVH and giving the “Christians’ only four commandments to follow, as taught today in the churches.
The rest of the commands the new believers could learn by simply hearing the Torah in the synagogue every Shabbat. By no means the Jerusalem Council meant Torah as a burden, because the apostles, unlike the Christian theologians, knew that Torah was not a burden.
Thus, the decision of the Jerusalem Council reinforced the fundamental truth: the former Gentiles are to be grafted in the olive tree of Israel because of their confession of Yeshua as their Master. But the first and most important evidence of their genuine conversion is for them to abandon all connections to their religious past. The adherence to the four basic prohibitions would prove that they have started to walk on the righteous path of Torah.
The Jerusalem Council did not abolish the Torah of YHVH but upheld it in the most appropriate way.
YHVH gives the non-native a full membership in the Commonwealth of Israel in rights but also in responsibilities.
May we merit seeing the coming of our Mashiach speedily in our days.