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28 February 2019

How Paul remembered the Council of Jerusalem.

Where the problems with the legalists came to a head.

Galatians 2.1-10.

In Acts its author, Luke, provided no dates, no timeline. Exact dates weren’t relevant to historians back then, and it’s not like average people kept track. So when Paul provides something of a timeline in Galatians, it’s a little rough. All dates, other than the year the Holy Spirit started the church, are loose guesses:

  1. The Holy Spirit started the church.
  2. Stephen got killed; Paul started persecuting the church.
  3. Jesus got hold of Paul and flipped him.
  4. Paul’s trip to Jerusalem to see Simon Peter, “after three years.” Ga 1.18
  5. Barnabas gets Paul to join him in Antioch.
  6. Barnabas and Paul’s missions trip begins.
  7. Barnabas and Paul’s trip to Jerusalem for the Council, “after 14 years.” Ga 2.1

Give or take the possibility Paul’s persecution began later, or lasted longer… or maybe all those events happened in the very same year, 33. Also bear in mind these might be rough estimates in Paul’s mind: Stating “14 years” isn’t a sign of accuracy and precision, but a sign Paul remembered two shmitas (or “Sabbath years” Ex 23.10-11) had taken place between one event and the other. Regardless, most scholars agree the Council of Jerusalem happened around 50CE or so.

And here’s how Paul remembered it.

Galatians 2.1-10 KWL
1 After 14 years I went up to Jerusalem again with Joseph Barnabas, taking Titus along.
2 I went up because of a revelation. I submitted to them—to those of us we think highly of—
the gospel I preach to gentiles, in case we were running, or might run, off track.
3 But Titus who was with me, being Greek, wasn’t ordered to be circumcised 4 because of fake “fellow Christians.”
They slip in to check out the freedom we have in Christ Jesus, so they will enslave us.
5 We don’t even grant them an hour to explain their view—so the gospel’s truth can survive within you.
6 Those thought to be Christian: Possibly once they were. Makes no difference to me.
God doesn’t accept people as they appear, 7 but on the contrary.
Once they saw I was entrusted with the gospel to “foreskins,” just like Simon Peter to the circumcised
8 —for the one who empowered Peter to be an apostle for the circumcised also empowered me for the gentiles—
9 and once they knew the grace granted me… James, Simon Kifa, and John, those thought to be pillars,
gave me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; we for the gentiles, they for the circumcised.
10 Only we should remember the poor, which I also earnestly do.

After the apostles had sent Paul home to Tarsus, Ac 9.30 he spent an undetermined length of time there until Joseph Barnabas, the man who’d first brought him to the apostles, Ac 9.27 came to get him. Barnabas had been sent by the apostles to check out a church in Antioch, Syria, where Syrian Greeks—who were of course non-Israelis, or gentiles—had been led to Jesus. Enthused, Barnabas went to Tarsus and got Paul to join him. Antioch became where the followers of Jesus were first called Χριστιανούς/Hristianús, Christians. Ac 11.19-25 (I deduced the year Paul moved to Antioch as anywhere between 38 and 41, ’cause a later prophecy about a famine didn’t come to pass till Claudius became emperor, Ac 11.28 and he wasn’t till 41. As for Barnabas and Paul’s first missions trip, that didn’t take place till Agrippa Herod 1 died in 44. Like I said, loose guesses.)

The Council of Jerusalem was set into motion to sort out a growing problem in Barnabas and Paul’s church:

Acts 15.1-2 KWL
1 Certain people who’d come down from Judea were teaching the fellow Christians this:
“When you’re not circumcised, following Moses’s manner, you can’t be saved.”
2 Creating an uproar, and not a little debate between Paul and Barnabas and them,
the church decided Paul, Barnabas, and certain others of them
were to go to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem regarding this controversy.

They did try to sort it out themselves, but the visitors from Judea weren’t at all willing to accept Barnabas and Paul’s view, so the church decided they’d better hear it from the Twelve—or the Three, as the case was, plus all the mature Christians among them. Christians consider this to be the first of the early church councils, where major theological issues were hashed out between all the leading Christians in the world… and of course once the Roman Catholics and Orthodox split, we can’t do these councils anymore. (Not that Catholics don’t try to claim their councils still count for all of Christendom. But nope; they’re only internal councils now, for the rest of us don‘t feel constrained whatsoever by them.)

The issue is of course what we have to do before we become Christian. Legalists figured gentiles had to convert the very same way they would to Pharisaism. Which began with ritual cleanliness… and for men, this also included ritual circumcision. The LORD had made it mandatory for Abraham and his descendants:

Genesis 17.9-14 KWL
9 God told Abraham, “You. You keep my covenant. You and your seed after you, for generations.
10 This is my covenant, which you keep between me, you, and your seed after you: Circumcise all males.
11 Trim off the flesh of your foreskins. It’s to signify covenant between me and you.
12 An 8-day-old son is to be circumcised by you. Every male in your generations.
Born to a house, and sons of foreigners bought with silver which aren’t your seed:
13 Circumcise, circumcise those born to your house, and bought with your silver.
My covenant in your flesh is a permanent covenant.
14 An uncircumcised male, whose foreskin flesh isn’t trimmed off:
Cut off this soul from his people. He broke my covenant.”

It’s physical, permanent, and hurt like crazy. Not that opium wasn’t around back then, but the only anesthetic Pharisees ever mentioned was wine! Which doesn’t dull pain so much as keep you from seriously resisting that guy who’s coming at your penis with a knife. It definitely meant commitment, ’cause that’s your penis—a part of a man’s body with a whole lot of nerve endings, which means it’s only to be treated nicely—and you’re cutting it.

For Pharisees, circumcision was simply what you did if you’re gonna follow God. Wasn’t debated, wasn’t optional. That nasty foreskin had to go! And Pharisees frequently referred to an uncircumcised gentile—even in this Galatians passage here—as an ἀκροβυστία/akrovystía, “foreskin.” No I’m not kidding. The KJV, and most bibles, tone this down to “uncircumcision,” but akrovystía is a compound of ἄκρον/ákron (“tip”) and πόσθη/pósthi (“penis”), so… yeah, that’s in the bible now. Sorry. Hey, I didn’t write it.

Ancient Christians and circumcision.

Y’notice Paul referred to ψευδαδέλφους/pseudadélfus (KJV “false brethren”), fake fellow Christians. That’s how strongly Paul felt about these legalists who started telling the gentiles of his church they weren’t even saved, then later snuck into his church to make sure the gentiles were now foreskin-free. How’d they go about checking? How you’d expect ’em to check: “Okay, let’s see it.” Yep, it’s the most disturbing church service ever.

I suspect much of the reason Paul didn’t even consider these guys to be Christian, was less about promoting their very wrong beliefs, and more about their lousy, racist attitudes towards gentiles. Attitudes Peter likewise had to deal with when word got out he’d led Cornelius, a Roman, to Jesus:

Acts 11.1-3 KWL
1 The apostles, and fellow Christians throughout Judea,
were hearing gentiles were also accepting God’s word.
2 When Simon Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised opposed him,
3 saying this: “You went to men who have foreskins. And ate with them.”

As if that was these Romans’ entire crime: Having all-natural penises.

Some of the Judeans’ foreskin-phobia might’ve had to do with them not liking the Romans. Which I get, ’cause the Romans had been awful to them. A lot of it might’ve been an ancient variant of germophobia: If you weren’t ritually clean, stands to reason you weren’t literally clean either, so if you went into a gentile home it was a lot like visiting a dirty, mildew- and bacteria-filled home, so filthy you not only couldn’t sit down, but probably didn’t want your shoes to touch their floor. And let’s not forget racism: Many Jews today, who recognize they’re God’s chosen people, presume this doesn’t just mean God singles ’em out for certain blessings—and responsibilities, remember?—but figure it also means God made them better than non-Jews. More knowledgeable of God’s laws; better able to follow them; karmically deserving of God’s blessings, whereas gentiles really aren’t. As if karma has anything to do with salvation.

As soon as the foreskin-phobic started teaching what they did in Antioch, Barnabas and Paul solidly opposed them. Peter’s experience had proved it had no solid ground: Under orders from the Holy Spirit, Peter had preached the gospel to Romans. They believed, and in response the Holy Spirit obviously, audibly filled the gentiles: They spoke in tongues. Peter realized it’d be ridiculous to make the gentiles jump through further hoops before he could declare them Christian, and had ’em baptized. Ac 10.44-48 And after sharing this story with “the circumcision party” in Jerusalem, they rightly quit objecting: God lets gentiles into his kingdom too. Ac 11.18 The Spirit clearly doesn’t see this ritual cleanliness deal to be any impediment.

So do men need to be circumcised before we can become Christian? Obviously not. Do we need to be ritually clean now that we follow Jesus? Nah; the purpose of ritual cleanliness was to prepare for God’s presence, but the Holy Spirit indwells us, so we’re never not in God’s presence. Doesn’t mean we should stop bathing and washing and cleaning our homes and workplaces, but its ritual aspects are kinda moot when we ourselves are the Spirit’s temple. 1Co 3.16

Okay, but should Christians get circumcised after we turn to Jesus, along with all the other good deeds he expects of us? Should we circumcise our own kids, recognizing it represents how we want ’em to grow up with a relationship with God? (Plus, y’know, hygiene?) Well, the answers to these questions vary from person to person. Everybody’s different. Paul circumcised Timothy, y’know. Ac 16.3 Yes, even with Paul‘s stated views on circumcision—because it made sense for Timothy. Talk it over with the Spirit. But don’t do it out of legalism, out of a fear you’ll get unsaved. God doesn’t work like that.

And that’s the whole problem with the legalists: They insist God does work like that. Too many sins and you’ll lose your salvation. God’s grace has its limits. And other unhealthy, destructive attitudes which don’t reflect the gospel whatsoever, and turn people into dark Christians—or drive ’em away from Jesus altogether.

Legalism and heresy.

When Barnabas, Paul, and the legalists went to Jerusalem to sort it out, the apostles and elders listened to Peter, Barnabas and Paul, and likely (and fairly) the pro-circumcision guys. Then James gave his ruling:

Acts 15.13-21 KWL
13 After the witnesses were silent, in reply James aid, “Men, fellow Christians, hear me.
14 Simon Peter related how God first sought to take a people from the gentiles, for his name.
15 This agrees with the prophets’ words, like it’s written:
16 ‘ “After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen-down tent. I will rebuild its ruins.
I will raise it 17 so the people’s remnant can search for the Lord. And all gentiles.
My name can be called upon by them,” says the Lord, who makes these things 18 known ages ago.’ Am 9.11-12
19 So I judge not to pile duties onto any of the gentiles in their turning to God.
20 Instead we write them to stay away from idolatry’s corruption—porn, strangled animals, and blood.
21 For Moses has been preached in every city to them since ancient generations,
being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”

The rest of the apostles and elders agreed, so that became official church doctrine: Circumcision isn’t a problem. But stay far away from the stuff idolaters are into—from the stuff you yourselves might’ve previously practiced—like ritual sex, like the nasty ways they sacrifice animals, like their icky practices of playing with and consuming animal blood. (God forbade humanity, not just the Hebrews, from eating or drinking blood, Ge 9.4 which makes it not just a command about ritual cleanliness.)

The Council was kinda like the Supreme Court, so James’s ruling was final… but you know how people are. They don’t care what the Supreme Court rules; they figure over time they can get it overturned; they still figure they know best, not the justices. And the legalists likewise figured they knew best, not James. So even though James sent people to Antioch to explain the Council’s conclusion, Ac 15.22-33 Paul still, and always, had to contend with legalists who taught otherwise. Even though the Council’s conclusion had pretty much confirmed the legalists’ teachings were heresy.

Yep, heresy. When you get God so wrong, you’re not teaching Christianity anymore. You’re teaching something else altogether. False Christianity. False gospels. “Ban them,” Paul wrote, Ga 1.8-9 ’cause they’re not gonna do us any good. They’re just gonna spread corruption, confuse people, create wedges, and drive some Christians to despair—or to even quit Christianity.

Fr’instance say you’re gay. If a legalist convinces you it’s impossible to be saved unless you’re not gay, what’re you going to do? Well you might—and many have—go to some therapist who promises to brainwash you till you’re no longer gay; usually with some sort of aversion technique which is torture instead of therapy. More often you’ll just conclude if being gay automatically sends you to hell, there’s no escaping hell… and why pursue Jesus if he hates you so much? And in this way many a legalist has driven out many a gay Christian. And it’s ten times as hard to bring ’em back to Jesus.

Same is true for everything legalists add to Christianity, and turn into requirements which must be fulfilled before God can accept us. Like circumcision. Like leaving our unmarried partners once we become Christian (as if God considers government-registered marriages valid, but not common-law marriages), because it’s somehow different than Paul telling Christians not to abandon their unbelieving spouses. 1Co 7.12-24 Like taking their new-believers’ classes—and sometimes having to pay for these classes—or fulfilling certain other obligations before they can be baptized. Like any form of cleaning up, dressing the part, and acting holy—which is more hypocrisy than anything.

Coming to Jesus isn’t complicated. Following him is, but getting into the kingdom is as simple as “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Lk 23.42 And you’re in. You’re saved. You might quit, but Jesus is never throwing you out. Jn 6.37 Doesn’t cost a thing; doesn’t require you cut anything off.

So not for nothing does Paul have some very harsh words for legalists.