This essay seeks to discuss the problems associated with the historicity of the Jerusalem Council. In doing so, the narration of the event will be briefly given as told by Acts 15. The causes of the event, what transpired at the conference and the decision will be highlighted on. The main thrust, however, is on the problems of historicity. The problems to be discussed are the historicity of the book of Acts itself, dating or the chronology of events, inconsistence with the other epistles of Paul, problems arising with literary criticism, and the muted voice of the conservatives. As the discussion progresses, the other side, which supports the historicity, will be analysed. Based on the discussion, the paper is to conclude that though there are problems associated with the Jerusalem Council, the event might have taken place. The fact that there are some problems associated with its historicity does not mean that it did not take place. It might have taken place in a different form, or that Luke coloured his narration according to his bias or prejudice, but there is a trace of the event taking place, though probably not as Luke records it.
To start with, the various sections of the Judaic people viewed Jesus differently. Some Jews were convinced that Jesus was the messiah and that through him the age of fulfilment had come. Generally, they seem to have regarded the new faith as a continuation of God's work through the history of Israel in the past (Scott 1997: 208-209). They upheld Judaism, though they followed Jesus of Nazareth. It should be noted that all of the initial converts of Jesus were racially Hebraic/ Jews present in Jerusalem at the time. (Scott 1997: 208)
After the resurrection of Jesus, the Church grew rapidly starting from "Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of earth" (Acts 1:8). This rapid growth was necessitated by the downpour of the Spirit at the Pentecost event, the persecution of the Hellenistic Jews when they spoke against the Temple and the evangelisation of Phillip, Peter, Paul and others (Higgins 1956: 191). The evangelisation saw the inclusion of the Gentiles into the Christianity (in initially known as the Way, according to Acts 9:2).
However, problems arose because of this inclusion of these non-Jewish Christians. At Antioch were two communities: The Jewish Christians, who went on observing the laws of Judaism, and those who were Gentiles. Christians from different backgrounds faced a problem in eating meals together due to the Jewish dietary prohibits. (Comby 1985:12).
To aggravate the problem, some men went to Antioch, from Judea, and taught that one had to become a Jew in order for him to be saved (Acts 15:1) or to have a place in the world to come. The Rabbis taught that this was only possible proselytization, a ritual based entirely upon their rules but without foundation in the Torah itself. They said that one could not be saved unless he is circumcised according to the custom of Moses. (Hegg 2008: 1). They thought that one was justified by allegiance to the laws of Judaism, even the non-Jewish people. On the other hand, Paul and Barnabas were convinced that there was no need to for the non-Jewish people to be circumcised and convert to Judaism in order to be saved.
This led to the necessity of convening the Jerusalem Council. The participants at the meeting, according to Luke (Acts 15) represented various views. Firstly, there was Paul and Barnabas, who represented the view that the Gentiles could be saved by faith alone, without converting to Judaism. Secondly, there was the group of men from Judea (Acts 15:1) who might also have "belonged to the party of the Pharisees (Acts 15:5), these were the conservatives of the Jewish Law (Shillington 2008:292-293). From the narration of Luke, it is not clear whether James was part of the men from Judea (Mahan 2013: 47) or he was there as an apostle, like Peter. However, the views of James seem to be those of the Judean group (Acts 15:20-21). Peter seems to have been an arbitrator (Comby 1985:13)
At the meeting, the men from Judea and some who belonged to the party of the Pharisees agitated for the proselytisation of the Gentile Christians; i.e. circumcision and allegiance to the Judaic law in order to be saved. (Acts 15:1, 5). Peter argued by narrating how God has accepted the Gentiles (Acts 15:6-11). James made a decree, as he quoted Amos 9. He said that the Gentiles were not to be troubled by becoming Jews but had to follow the four guidelines that they gave them. The Gentiles were to abstain from the pollutions of idols, from chastity, from what is strangled and from blood, according to Acts 15:19-20(Weiss 1959: 267). Men were selected to take the message to Antioch, Syria and Cilicia. However, it is important to note that the decree on verses 19-20 is different from the one on verse 29. Probably the one on verses 19-20 is the first draft, while the latter is the final draft (Hegg 2008:8-9)
Having given the background and narration of the Jerusalem Council, the paper now analyses the problem associated with the historicity of the conference. Firstly, the historicity of the book of Acts itself has some problems. Several factors lead to such assumption that the book of Acts is not historical.
For example, Acts 10:1 speaks of a Roman Centurion called Cornelius belonging to the "Italian regiment" and stationed in Caesarea. Robert Grant claims that during the reign of Herod Agrippa, 41–44, no Roman troops were stationed in his territory (Grant 1963:145). Another example that leads scholars to suspect the historicity of the book of Acts is the Pentecost event. His ‘statistics' are impossible; Peter could not have addressed three thousand hearers [e.g. in Acts 2:41] without a microphone, and since the population of Jerusalem was about 25–30,000, Christians cannot have numbered five thousand [e.g. Acts 4:4]"(Grant 1963:145).
Basing on the few inconsistences cited, the book of Acts' historicity is questionable. Therefore, it follows that the Jerusalem Council, being part of that book, may also not be historical. If the book was a literary creation by Luke to advance his ideologies or interests, it is more likely that the Jerusalem Council is part of that creation.
However, some scholars advocate for the historicity of the book. They say that Acts contains some accurate details of 1st century society, specifically with regard to titles of officials, administrative divisions, town assemblies, and rules of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, including: inscriptions confirm that the city authorities in Thessalonica in the 1st century were called oligarchs (Acts 17:6–8). According to inscriptions, Grammaticus is the correct title for the chief magistrate in Ephesus (Acts 19:35) Felix and Festus are correctly called procurators of Judea (Talbert 2003:198-200).
The second problem associated with the historicity of the Jerusalem Council is that of dating or the chronology of events. Acts 10:1 speaks of a Roman Centurion called Cornelius belonging to the "Italian regiment" and stationed in Caesarea. Robert Grant claims that during the reign of Herod Agrippa, 41–44, no Roman troops were stationed in his territory (Grant 2003:145). The Italian regiment or cohort is a unit whose presence in Judea is attested no earlier than AD 69. The Jerusalem Council is generally believed to have taken place around 49 or 50 AD (Bruce 1951). At this council, Peter reported what God had done by his mouth to the Gentiles (Acts 15:7-11). Most probably, he referred to his contact with Cornelius in Acts 10:1-48.
According to the Jerusalem Council narrative, Peter's contact with Cornelius is placed well before the Italian cohorts were present in Judea. This serves to confirm the chronological inconsistency, which dents the historicity of the event. On that note, the generally agreed date of AD 49 or 50 conflicts with the historical date of the presence of the Italian cohort in Judea.
However, the fact that there are inconsistences in terms of chronology does not mean that an event has not taken place. Since Luke wrote his book by compiling various works (Acts 1:1), he might have got some information from the oral tradition. Some events in the oral tradition can be true but might not be accurate. Some of the details can be lost as they are passed on. On that note, the event might have taken place, though chronology is a problem.
The third problem of the historicity of the Jerusalem Council is the inconsistences with the other epistles of Paul. Paul's records of the event and the issues is related is not in agreement with that of Luke. There are overlaps and divergences. The most notable one is found on Galatians 21-14. It describes on both a conflict in Antioch and a meeting in Jerusalem, but in quite different terms than Luke's (Johnson 1992: 269). Both Luke and Paul report of the men from Judea who came to Antioch (Galatians 2:12 and Acts 15:1). However, Paul reports of a private meeting, in which he told those who were of repute what had been revealed to him concerning the gospel to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:2), on the other hand, Luke says that the position on the Gentiles was an outcome of the council (Acts 15:18-29). From a historical criticism perspective, it can be seen that Paul also records his meeting with the elders as only once. He reports it as a private meeting (Dibelius 2004:139).
The fact that there are inconsistences on how the decision or position regarding the Gentles was reached casts doubts on the historicity of the event. It might have been a private meeting, as Paul portrays it. However, the fact that two people reported the same event differently does not dismiss the historicity of such. It actually reinforces its historicity. The reason for the differences in reporting can be self – interest or prejudice. Each of the writers had some interests to further. As a result, he chooses how to record it. For instance, Paul seems to have been struggling with the authentication of his apostleship (Galatian 1:1and 1 Corinthians 9:2). This is why he might have dismissed the council to elevate himself. He says that it was a revelation, not a council (Galatians 2:2). On the other hand, Luke might also have wanted to advance his interests, as a Gentile himself.
An example that can be given is that of the different media houses in Zimbabwe. They can report the same political rally differently, but they will all agree that the event to place. The state-controlled papers, like The Herald, can report that an MDC-T rally had only 700 young people. Reporting on that same event, The Daily News may say that there were over 7000 people of all ages, and from all occupations.
Though the two might differ on the details, due to their political orientations, they will all be testifying that there is an MDC-T rally that took place. Therefore, the fact that Paul and Luke differ does not dismiss the historicity of the event. Besides, it might be Paul who wrongly recorded the event.
Still on that note, of inconsistences with the other epistles, there is another conflict, though not very direct. In 1 Corinthians 8-10 Paul writes to the Gentiles concerning the propriety of eating the food that has been sacrificed to idols. This discussion is written in a letter that is said to have been written after this putative council. Paul was a major participant at the council, but he never mentions or upholds the decree of the council (Johnson 1992:269).
If Paul was a major participant as narrated by Luke, he might have upheld the agreement of the council. His stance here seems to be relaxed. It is not forbidding as that of the supposed council. This can lead to the conclusion that the council did not exist. On the other hand, the fact that Paul does not recognise the council's decision might not be Luke's problem, or the council's problem. It might have been the problem of Paul. A closer analysis of his letters and responses during his various trials in Acts can show that Paul cannot be fully relied upon. For example, he could easily speak the language of the people he would be dealing with at the moment, probably to be accepted as an apostle (1 Corinthians 9:20-22 and Acts 23:6-7). The fact that Paul was not consistent and shrewd vindicates Luke's divergences with Paul.
The other reason that might have led Paul to ignore the decree of the council is that the supposed council agreed to dispatch the letters to Syria, Cilicia and Antioch (Acts 15:23). They were not delivered to Achaia. This might have led Paul to be relaxed in Achaia, in terms of the decree. Paul's failure to allude to the event might have been affected by other factors. Therefore, the fact that Paul seems to have no knowledge of the council's decree in his epistles does not necessarily mean that it did not take place.
The fourth problem of the historicity of the Jerusalem council is the way in which the story is written. From a literary criticism perspective, it can be noted that the way Peter speaks about his mission to the Gentiles shows that the event was a literary creation of Luke. He speaks as if all the participants knew about his alleged encounter with Cornelius (Acts 15:7). His contact with the Gentiles (probably including Cornelius) is referred to in a way that could only be understood by readers of the book alone, but not by the members of the meeting (Dibelius 2004:138).
The event might have been created in writing. Since the writer knew how his story would flow, some of the details were easily skipped. To support this notion further is the way in which the debate flowed at the council. Those of the Pharisaic party or men from Judea are almost muted in the story. The vehemence that they displayed in the build up to the story does not correspond with their behaviour in the meeting. They are only heard when laying the charge. Being conservative or fanatic as they were, they could not have easily conceded without a fight. It also shows that the story might have been created. The writer was only rushing towards the conclusion that the Christian Gentiles were finally freed from the yoke of Judaism or Mosaics Law.
In conclusion, though the Jerusalem Council, as reported by Luke in Acts 15 is significant in the whole book of Acts and helps to understand the mission to the non-Jewish people, several inconsistences cast doubts on its historicity. Basing on the discussion above, this paper can assert that the fact that there are inconsistent does not dismiss the taking place of the event. The details of how, when and where it happened might not be clear but a slight indication of the event is present. On the other hand, Luke might have idealised or theologised, and ignored the finer details so that he can clearly express the salvation by grace (not Mosaic Law) motif.
Brian Maregedze is an author, Zimbabwean historian and Bulawayo24.com columnist. M. A in African History, B.A Special Honours in History, B.A.A Major in Religious Studies and History- all from the University of Zimbabwe. Some of his authored and co-authored works include; A Guide to Sources of African History: For Advanced Level Examination Candidates (2018); Advanced Level Family and Religious Studies, focus on Christianity and Islam (2018), New Trends in Family and Religious Studies, (Zimbabwean Indigenous Religions and Judaism) Advanced Level (2018) among other publications. Further reading material; Humanitiesspecialists.blogspot.com, Call/app +263779210440 or Email firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be visited at Valley Crest Academy, located 34/35 Masotsha Ndlovu Way, Parktown-Waterfalls in Harare.
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