Acts 15 Discussion

The following is an open letter of response to The Oxford Bible Commentary on Acts 15:   Read All About It!

April 2013

To the Editors of The Oxford Bible Commentary

For some time now the Jerusalem Quadrilateral in Acts 15 has held my attention in relation to some personal experience. Applying this experience to the Quadrilateral, as well as to Abraham’s story and subsequent events and really thinking matters through very deeply and very carefully, has brought me to a somewhat interesting and intriguing understanding. I have given a good deal of thought to these matters. I have no higher-level theological academic training or education. In terms of Bible reading: English translations (ref NRSV), various commentaries, questioning and dialogue (both one to one and in a small group) and so on, including my own faith, is all I have to go on.

Re The Oxford Bible Commentary edition (2012 paperback) ‘TOBC’, I note the statement on page 1047 re verses 19 and 20 of Acts 15 that “it is clear that James comes to the formal decision that Gentile converts should observe the same restrictions as had been placed since biblical times on ‘aliens’ wishing to live among God’s people”; and “the list of prohibitions is even more clearly designed to facilitate table-fellowship between Jewish and Gentile believers”. I also note the acknowledgement of difficulties: “there are many textual and exegetical problems relating to the details of this decree”; “there is a puzzling lack of ‘fit’ between James’ conclusion (and the decree that follows) and the introduction to the debate”; “the implication is that circumcision is not required of Gentile converts, but it is not stated in so many words”; “but discrepancies are equally hard to explain”; and “but we are still left with the problem of Paul’s failure ever to mention the decree in any other letter”.

Please find enclosed an open letter, JQuad, to my family and friends setting out what the Jerusalem Quadrilateral appears to me to be driving at. This interpretation is free of the problems expressed in TOBC and it makes logical sense. I struggle with the opening assertion in TOBC that “It is clear that James comes to the formal decision that Gentile converts should observe the same restrictions as had been placed since biblical times on ‘aliens’”. As Paul makes clear in his letter to the Galatians, it was fear of the circumcision faction that was leading Peter and others to hypocrisy in separating themselves from Gentiles. As far as I’m aware, the restrictions from biblical (Old Testament) times make no direct reference to anything strangled. I understand that some early transcriptions/translations of Acts do not contain the reference to anything strangled. This forces one to question whether this was because it was a subsequent addition? What, though, would have been the purpose of adding it? Or, maybe, the true meaning (i.e. as per JQuad) of the quadrilateral had been lost or forgotten: remember that the message back to Antioch was given both by letter and in person: this suggests that there was more to speak about/explain that was articulated in the letter. Or maybe, even, there was a deliberate attempt by some transcribers/translators later on to manipulate the difficult matter away from the original. (The conclusion in NRSV is that ‘anything strangled’ correctly belongs, on balance, in the text).

Abraham by Filippino Lippi 1487-1502 Fresco Strozzi Chapel Santa Maria Novello Florence Italy - image from www.wgh.hu

Abraham by Filippino Lippi 1487-1502 Fresco Strozzi Chapel Santa Maria Novello Florence Italy

Council of Jerusalem – Cathedral of St Mary of the Assumption Trenton, New Jersey, USA (M Bogden

Council of Jerusalem – Cathedral of St Mary of the Assumption Trenton, New Jersey, USA (M Bogdan)

The debate was about the claim that Gentiles should be circumcised before table could be shared with them. It was not particularly about food laws, except, perhaps, to the general extent of warning against idol worship. A clear and simple answer for both Jews and Gentiles was needed on the circumcision question and this, I believe, is what was given. Interestingly, I. Howard Marshall in his book Acts refers to Revelation letters to churches in Pergamos (2 12-17) and Thyatira (2 18-29) to explain away the fact that Christians never followed the ‘blood and strangled’ parts of the quadrilateral anyway (he assumes that the quadrilateral is mainly about food laws): “they were quietly dropped”. Is this convincing? I don’t think so.

As regards Paul, as far as I can see he had no reason to mention the Jerusalem decree. He went to great pains in many of his letters, however, to say that circumcision and uncircumcision (unprepuce and prepuce) were of no import and also to point out that Abraham had faith before he was circumcised. Jesus Himself had pointed out that the practice came from the patriarchs before Moses. Paul preached justification by faith and being saved through the grace of Lord Jesus. The Jerusalem decree addressed some practical details. Paul’s mission was to advocate the main universal principle. The particular practical details that came out of the Jerusalem Council were not crucial to this mission. In God’s eyes we are all the same, there is no difference between us, and no amount of decisions by committees is going to change this.

The reason the Jerusalem decree does not state in so many words that circumcision is not required of Gentile converts is because there may be circumstances for individuals where it is medically necessary. The council needed to be careful not to tie the future to any one particular prescriptive procedure and yet more Mosaic-type rules in this area, I would suggest.

The letter is for those Gentiles turning to God… No further burden/irksome restrictions than these essentials…
Abstain from, keep free of:

What is sacrificed to idols (which gets in the way of relationship with God);
Prepuce/frenulum problem(s) (which get(s) in the way of relationship with God);
Sexual immorality (which gets in the way of relationship with God).

The quadruple-negative nature of language of the decree makes it quite a challenge to unpick (no-burden-abstain-strangled; no-burden-abstain[sexual] immorality) but the logical conclusion for Gentiles, once having fully turned to God, would be:

Love God;
If you have a problem prepuce or frenulum or both (or, even, a problem circumcision?), sort it, or them, out;
Love one another, be [sexually] moral.

So, yes, the list is designed to facilitate table-fellowship between Jewish and Gentile believers but this is to be achieved not through circumcision or through keeping a couple of out-moded food preparation rules but through the first and greatest commandment and through reasoning and understanding and, in the particular matter debated at the Council of Jerusalem, articulation of medical/anatomical signs/symptoms where circumcision (or other suitable intervention, including with the benefit of future science) might be appropriate according to the condition, or combination of conditions, in the individual (still a valid consideration today). For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every Sabbath in the synagogues.

Having had these thoughts and matters rattling around me and developing for a number years now (at least 47, conceivably), and finding enough of the wit steadily to articulate them into more coherent order, I would appreciate your thoughts.

Yours sincerely,

Edwin M Douglas

PS Richard Dawkins’ book, of questionable science, The God Delusion makes no reference to the prepuce or male circumcision whatsoever. I pointed this out to him some time ago.

PPS Sex and relationship education guidance for schools, by the Department for Education, leaves open naming and education about the prepuce (and frenulum), but gives no specific direction. This unfortunately leaves intact boys and young men (i.e., in the UK, the greater majority) at risk of being uninformed about the matters and, thereby, at risk of harm. Present developing human rights law, re right of freedom of religious practice taking precedence over boys’ right of maintenance of bodily integrity is having the unfortunate effect of further suppressing a more open and universal understanding, based on simple anecdotal scientific truths on these matters.