Chapter 15 of the book of Acts relates the decision of the Council of Jerusalem. This is considered the first ecumenical council of the Church. Our own generation has grown up in the shadow of Second Vatican Council. In fact we are about to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the opening of this council.
Scholars have found the interpretation of the council to be a very complex task. There is considerable debate about what sources and traditions flowed into the council and precisely what influences created the synthesis we see in the final documents. Extremely careful records were kept at the Council. In fact the official collections of the Councils documents (including preparatory documents) are 63 volumes long. Although historical research is important, the council is clearly the work of the Holy Spirit. Recently Pope Benedict noted that we must understand the council not through the “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” but rather with the “hermeneutic of reform” (Address to the Roman Curia, 12/22/05). The final documents of the council are the result of a near unanimous vote by the Council fathers gathered in an ecumenical council. Acts chapter 15 gives us interesting parallel insights into the first primitive council held by the early Christians.
Paul’s extensive first missionary journey resulted in the conversion of large numbers of Gentiles. As a result we see two distinct cultures emerge within the early Church, one of Gentile origin and one of Jewish origin. Initially we see some conflict over exactly which norms apply to each group. Luke tells us that “some men” came down from Judea to the Church in Antioch and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.” Not only were these Jewish Christians requiring the practice of circumcision, but they even considered it necessary for salvation. Jewish sources contemporary with the New Testament indicate that prominent Rabbis debated the significance of circumcision for new converts at this time. The strong position taken by these men from Jerusalem sounds very similar to the controversy Paul confronts in his letter to the Galatians. This teaching on the necessity of circumcision caused “no small dissension and debate” among the Antioch believers so they decided to send Paul and Barnabas and some of the others to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders to inquire about this question.
Luke Timothy Johnson has made some interesting observations about the procedure by which they resolve this matter at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-35). Beginning with Peter’s speech, and then followed by Paul and Barnabas they begin by recounting and discerning what God had been doing in Church through the Holy Spirit. Next they sought to understand Sacred Scripture in light of their experience of the Holy Spirit. James responds to Peter and Paul saying “the words of the prophets agree with this” (Acts 15:15). Next they engage in debate, a necessary part of the process (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:18-19). Finally, they obtain the agreement of the whole assembly. They reply, “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities, namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage. If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right. Farewell” (Acts 15:28-29). The decision of the council is sent through the messengers Paul, Barnabas, Judas and Silas.
Some aspects of these precepts, such as abstaining from blood and meat from strangled animals are not universal but are restrictions which provide the basis for table-fellowship and communion between Jews and Gentiles. They resemble the prohibitions given to ‘proselytes and sojourners’ in Leviticus 17-18 and discussed in rabbinic circles as the “Noachian precepts.” In Jewish tradition the consequence for breaking these precepts was to be cut off from the people (Leviticus 17-18).
As Paul and Barnabas prepare to visit the Churches of Asia minor again “there arose a sharp contention” between them over the inclusion of John Mark whom Paul considered a deserter.
Paul chose Silas and departed, through Syria and Cilicia. When they reached Derbe and Lystra they meet a disciple named Timothy (Acts 16:1-5). Timothy had a Jewish mother but his father was a Greek. Paul wanted to take Timothy along as a traveling companion but “on account of the Jews of that region, Paul had him circumcised, for they all knew that his father was a Greek” (Acts 16:3). Paul travelled from city to city, implementing the “decision reached by the apostles and presbyters in Jerusalem” (Acts 16:4). As we experience this year celebrating the anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, may we seek to implement God’s will through the prayer of Mary.
Scott McKellar is Director of the Bishop Helmsing Institute for the Diocese of Kansas City – St. Joseph.