June 30, 2006

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

St. Paul: The Council of Jerusalem

When Paul left Corinth in the year 51 to return briefly (he thought) to Antioch, he took Aquila and Priscilla with him as far as Ephesus.

He apparently had decided to make Ephesus his home base since it was approximately at the center of a circle equidistant from Corinth, Thessalonica and Galatia, with excellent land and sea routes.

Aquila and Priscilla were given the task of starting a Christian community in Ephesus while re-starting their tent-making business in a strange city. Paul asked a lot from his followers.

When he reached Antioch and reported on his successes, he was in for a shock. Members of the mother Church in Jerusalem had gone to Antioch and insisted that Gentile converts had to become Jews, an idea that never entered Paul’s mind. He was convinced that Jesus, as the Messiah, was the alternative to the Jewish law. Circumcision and following the Jewish law, he thought, were completed irrelevant.

After hearing Paul’s arguments, the Church in Antioch sent him, Barnabas and Titus (an uncircumcised Gentile convert) to Jerusalem to get this matter cleared up. When they arrived in Jerusalem, Paul was shocked again to find that Peter wasn’t the final authority. Instead, there was a committee composed of Peter; James, the brother of Jesus; and John. James was head of the leadership in Jerusalem, and he continued his lifestyle as a Jew.

There then occurred what has been called the Council of Jerusalem, described in Chapter 15 of the Acts of the Apostles. After much debate, Peter sided with Paul, saying, “We believe that we are saved through the grace of Jesus Christ, in the same way as [the Gentiles].”

Finally, James agreed, probably for practical rather than theological considerations. He apparently realized that, while Jewish Christians were first and foremost Jews, circumcised Gentile converts would not really have an attachment to Judaism. They were followers of Christ, not of Moses.

Paul, Barnabas and Titus returned to Antioch with a letter saying that Gentile converts did not have to be circumcised. But if Paul thought that that settled the matter, he was badly mistaken. Soon, Peter arrived in Antioch to learn more about this community with a mixture of Jews and Gentiles. This was new to him.

Then other Jews from Jerusalem arrived, not just out of curiosity. They were intent on driving a wedge between the Jews and Gentiles, and they did it over the issue of table fellowship. The Jews and Gentiles did not eat together. Even Peter and Barnabas were swept up, as Paul wrote in his Letter to the Galatians (Gal 2:11-14). Paul stood up to them, calling them hypocrites.

This time, Paul lost the battle. The Jewish Christians continued to refuse to have table fellowship with Gentiles. It got so contentious that Paul no longer wanted to be part of the Church of Antioch. He decided to do what he had planned—move to Ephesus and continue his missionary work.

From now on, though, he wouldn’t do it under the auspices of Antioch. This was to have repercussions. †



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