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The "Jerusalem Council"

We start our analysis of Paul's trouble with the Jerusalem church headed by James, the brother of Jesus with the so-called "Jerusalem council". [a].
  • The first step is an analysis of the source documents that provide information about this council in Jerusalem.
    • Accounts of the council are found in both the Acts of the Apostles and Paul's epistle to the Galatians. It is obvious from the various agreements in the points of reference that these two refer to the same event.
    • Some conservative theologians have tried to tie the Galatian account of the meeting with an earlier trip to Jerusalem by Paul. Such attempts are untenable.
    • Having shown that the Acts and Galatians accounts are of the same event, we see that Luke added some additional details which, upon analysis, are not historical.

  • Having sorted out the source documents and their basic reliability we can now see what actually happened in the council. The outcome could be best described as an unstable agreement.

  • Finally, as an excursus, we take note of how Luke "spin doctored" the historical account (as we can gather from Paul's own eyewitness account).

Two Versions of the Council

There are two accounts of the Jerusalem council. One given in Acts 15:1-29 and the other in Galatians 2:1-10. There are many points of contacts between the two accounts: [1]

  • The problem arose because some unnamed party was asking for Gentile believers to be circumcised.

    Acts 15:1 Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved."
    Galatians 2:4 But because of false believers secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might enslave us--

  • Paul and Barnabas went together to Jerusalem for the meeting.

    Acts 15:2 And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders.
    Galatians 2:1 Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas...

  • The main agendum for the gathering was about the mission to the Gentiles.
    Acts 15:2 The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles.
    Galatians 2:2 Then I laid before them ... the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain.

  • James and Peter were both present there.

    Acts 15: 7
    Acts 15:13
    After there had been much debate, Peter stood up ...
    After they finished speaking, James replied...
    Galatians 2:9 [A]nd when James and Cephas [Peter] and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.

  • The mission to the Gentiles was recognized at the meeting.

    Acts 15:19 [James' ruling] "Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God"
    Galatians 2:9 [A]nd when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.

These similarities conclusively show that the accounts in Acts 15:1-29 and Galatians 2:1-10 were about the same event.

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Is the Galatian Account that of Paul's Previous Trip to Jerusalem?

The section immediately above may strike the reader as trivial since anyone reading through the accounts above could tell that Acts 15:1-29 and Galatians 2:1-10 refer to the same event. However there is a reason why we need to be vigorous on this. Due to the historically unpalatable (for conservative Christians) outcome of the incident of Antioch (that according to Galatians immediately followed the Jerusalem conference), conservative apologists have suggested that the account in Galatians 2:1-10 is not identical to the one given in Acts 15:1-29. Instead they suggest that the Galatians account was of an earlier trip by Paul to Jerusalem, recounted in Acts 11:27-29, the so-called famine relief visit.

There are a couple of problems with this, obviously apologetic [b], suggestion.

Firstly we have seen that that Acts gave too many (five) trips by Paul to Jerusalem when we compare it with the epistles of Paul (three). With Acts 11:26-29 a fictitious addition by Luke. The only way to get around this difficulty is to postulate that Galatians was written before the events in Acts 15:1-29. [2], However it is a near scholarly consensus that the Galatian epistle was written after the conference in Acts 15:1-29. Most New Testament scholars date the writing of the Galatian epistle to between 54-57 CE [3], while the Jerusalem Conference of Acts 15:1-29 is dated to between 47 CE (Gerd Lüdemann) and 51 CE (Robert Jewett) [4] with most scholars settling for 48/49 CE. For those who distrust "scholarly consensus" (as I do too, sometimes) there is a direct argument against Galatians been written before the events depicted in Acts 15:1-9. Galatians 2:11-14 recounts Paul's split with the Antiochene community immediately after the conference. (Luke too had a similar incident after the conference, Acts 15:26-41) Yet after the visit of Acts 11:26-29, Paul is shown going back to Antioch (Acts 13:1) and, indeed, the incident which sparked the conference depicted in Acts 15:1-29 happened at Antioch (Acts 14:26-15:1)![5]

Secondly, and more importantly, take a look at the account in Acts 11:27-29:

Acts 11:27-29
At that time prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them named Agabus stood up and predicted by the Spirit that there would be a severe famine over all the world; and this took place during the reign of Claudius. The disciples determined that according to their ability, each would send relief to the believers living in Judea; this they did, sending it to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.

And...that's it! Nothing more is mentioned in this episode. When this is compared with the points of correspondence between Acts 15:1-29 and Galatians 2:1-10, it is quite obvious why Pierre-Antione Bernheim in his book James, Brother of Jesus, called the suggestion that Acts 11:27-29 should be identified with Galatians 2:1-10 a "solution that abuses both logic and chronology".[6]

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Unhistorical Elements in the Account of Acts

Having clarified the issue of identity we now note that while Acts 15:1-29 is to be identified with Galatians 2:1-10, it does contain elements not found in the latter. These include the speeches of Peter (Acts 15:7-11) and James (Acts 15:13-21) and the so-called Apostolic Decree (Acts 15:29). We will see here that the speeches are unhistorical and the free literary inventions of Luke. The status of the Apostolic Decree is a bit more complicated. We will look at all these three issues below.

Peter's Speech

The speech of Peter is given in Acts 15:7-11. As a prelude to Peter's speech there was according to Acts 15:7 "much debate" about the issue of Gentile conversion without the requirement of circumcision. Yet Acts 10 already narrated the conversion of Cornelius, an uncircumcised Gentile by Peter himself! This makes the whole idea of the "debate" quite pointless and completely irrelevant. As Heanchen pointed out in his commentary on the Acts of the Apostles:

[T]his incident [the conversion of Cornelius-PT] is supposed to have remained without sequel, so that it vanished completely from human ken. The men who come preaching circumcision from Jerusalem to Antioch know nothing of it. The Pharisee turned Christian who, as we shall assume for the moment-only entered the Church after the Cornelius episode, have never heard of it. The congregation itself has completely forgotten it-otherwise it would never have come to the [much debate] of 15:7.
That so fundamental a decision of God, so stirring and surprising should in so short a time have been entirely forgotten, is so contradictory that one must bluntly insist: it is intrinsically impossible. The whole theory with which Luke reconciles the legitimacy of the Gentile mission without the law (i.e. its recognition by Jerusalem!) with Antioch's struggle for the recognition of its mission to the Gentiles is an imaginary construction answering to no historical reality. [7]

Also, as we have seen elsewhere that the Cornelius story as it is given in Acts is in itself unhistorical.

Peter speech starts with a veiled allusion to the conversion of Cornelius ("[I]n the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers." Acts 15:7 ). Obviously from what we have seen, no one in the conference seems to have any knowledge or memory of the Cornelius conversion. As Martin Dibelius remarked this allusion is so vague that it could not have made any sense to those present at the meeting. Only the reader of the Acts, seeing how much emphasis Luke put on the story of the conversion in Acts 10 would have understood Peter's remark. [8]

Peter's remark about the law in Acts 15:10-11 is totally unbelievable; we have Peter telling the conference of devout Jews that the law was an "unbearable yoke". As many scholars have pointed out, no Jew, not even Paul, would have considered this of the law. (For Paul the law was annulled not because it was "unbearable" but Jesus' death and resurrection had dealt with it.) As Conzelmann remarked in his commentary on Acts, "It expresses the view of a Christian when the separation from Judaism already lies in the past." [9]

We can safely conclude that Peter's speech, as given in Acts 15:7-11 is unhistorical and a free literary composition of Luke. [10]

James' Speech

Now we move on James' speech given in Acts 15:13-21. Here Luke had James quote a text (Acts 15:16-18) from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Bible, instead of the original Hebrew one. In this text (Amos 9:12), the original Hebrew had Edom which the Septuagint translators mistook for adam (i.e. Man). Now the point of James' speech only works if the Septuagint version was used, i.e. that the "remnants of men may seek the Lord". The original Hebrew would not only not support it but would have even contradicted his point for it mentioned that the Israelites will possess "the remnants of Edom". That James, a devout Palestinian Jew, would quote an erroneous translation of the Bible to make an important point, at a meeting in Jerusalem is simply beyond historical possibility. [11]

Our finding that both James's and Peter's speeches are unhistorical and are the composition of Luke agrees with our earlier more general review of the speeches in Acts.

The Apostolic Decree

The situation with the Apostolic Decree [c],which Luke had James mention towards the end of his speech (Acts 15:20) and repeated again in the formal conclusion of the conference (Acts 15:29), is, as we have mentioned above, a little more complicated.

It is historical, in the sense that such a decree was in circulation among the early Christian church. [d] Yet the fact that these late first century Gentile Christians took it as a moral prohibition as opposed to a cultic one (which it was), shows that the decree did not originate from them and must have been passed on from earlier generations. This too points to its origins in the Jewish-Christian church in Jerusalem. [12]

However its placement by Luke at the Jerusalem council cannot be correct for a few reasons. Firstly, Paul explicitly mentioned that the Jerusalem pillars "added nothing to me" (Galatians 2:6); i.e. they did not include any additional requirements to his gospel. Secondly when dealing with these very issues (later) in I Corinthians 8-10, Paul made no reference to the decree at all. Indeed in I Corinthians 8:7-8 and 10:19-29 Paul's advice actually contradict the decree as he allows "the strong" to eat food offered to idols if it does not affect "the weak". [13] Thus we can conclude that the Apostolic Decree was issued by the Jerusalem Church at a later date without the involvement of Paul.

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The Council and Its Outcome: An Unstable Agreement

Our analysis above shows that the only real source we have for the Jerusalem conference is Paul's epistle to the Galatians. However it is also important to note a couple of facts. Firstly that in the Galatian epistle Paul was engaged in a struggle with opponents who questioned his apostleship and his gospel. Secondly Galatians was written around five to six years after the Jerusalem council. These may provide the reason and the mechanism for Paul to skew his description of events in his favor. Thus we need to use his narrative with care.[14]

From the accounts of Galatians 2:1-10, we are in a position to confirm the basic facts about the council. There was agitation in Antioch about the need for Gentile converts to Christianity to be circumcised. Paul went down to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus to discuss the issue with the leaders of the Jerusalem Church, James, Peter and John. Paul was able to stand his ground. He brought Titus, an uncircumcised convert, as a "test case", and there was no compulsion to have him circumcised. According to Paul the leaders in Jerusalem offered him "the right hand of fellowship" and agreed that Paul and Barnabas should "go to the Gentiles" and they "to the circumcised". And also they asked him to initiate a collection for the Jerusalem poor.

However there are a few, more subtle, clues in Paul's account that points to something more disturbing that the quite idyllic summary given above.

Firstly Paul's references to the Jerusalem leadership had a touch of irony which showed that tensions existed between him and James, Peter and John during that meeting. He called them "those who were of repute" (Galatians 2:2), "those who were reputed to be something" adding "what they were makes no difference" to him (Galatians 2:6a) and finally "those who were reputed to be pillars" (Galatians 2:9). As Hyam Maccoby remarked, Paul's reference to the leaders was made with "hardly veiled contempt."[15]

Secondly, as Gerd Lüdemann pointed out, the statement about the unsuccessful attempt to compel Titus to circumcise by unnamed "false brothers" points to something revealing:

"How could they [the "false brothers"-PT], in Jerusalem, under the eyes of the most respected apostles, have possibly thought that they could compel the circumcision of Titus, unless the original apostles already supported this view?" At least a majority of the congregation must have supported the "false brethren," for otherwise they could never have made the demand for circumcision so effectively. [16]

A natural question to ask here is, why did the apostles in Jerusalem, who were also devout Jews, agree to Paul's "gospel of the uncircumcision" to the Gentiles? There has been no shortage of suggestions for this. Luke, as we have seen, suggested that both Peter and James were convinced by the correctness of Paul's theology. Jerome Murphy-O'Connor suggested that James agreed due to the unstable political factors affecting Jews during that time. According to Murphy-O'Connor, the Jerusalem church consisted of nationalistic Jews and the uncertain times call for a strengthening of Jewish identity. Adding "lukewarm" circumcised Gentiles would only dilute it. In any crisis, these converts probably could not be trusted to lay down their lives for Palestine. Thus, according to Murphy-O'Connor, they thought it better to keep the Gentiles separate from Jewish Christians. [17] Or it could simply be that the success of Paul's mission convinced the leadership that he was a worthwhile ally to have on their side (the collection probably came to mind!). [18]

Luke's suggestion, as we have seen, is based on his own fictional invention and the theological perspective of a Christian living at the turn of the first century. However the other suggestions, politics and expediency, are not necessarily mutually incompatible and could have had an impact on the decision making process.

If that is the case, why was there such a quick fallout, as can be seen from the Incident at Antioch which followed this meeting? The answer I think lies in an often mentioned point, but one from which the logical conclusion is very rarely drawn. This involves the nature of the meeting at Jerusalem. Luke, as we have seen, presented it as a full-blown religious conference. Paul however presented quite a different picture. He mentioned that he presented his gospel to the Gentiles "privately before those who were of repute". Nothing in the subsequent narration changes this setting. Thus we can conclude that the meeting was a private, informal one. [19]

What conclusions can be drawn from this? Firstly we can understand how Paul could have "laid out his gospel to the Gentiles" to the leadership and still get away with it! For if we look at the full implication of Pauline theology it has some very nasty things to say about the Mosaic Laws. Among other things, he called the law "so much dung" (Philippians 3:8), declared that "all who rely on the law are under a curse" (Galatians 3:10) and said that the Mosaic laws put "a veil over their eyes" (II Corinthians 3:14). The fact that Paul could get away with the presentation of his gospel, amidst the leadership of the law observant Jewish-Christians, strongly supports the informal nature of the meeting. He most probably presented a very laconic verbal summary of his gospel.

Secondly it suggests that the agreement for one party to "go to the Gentiles" and the other to the "circumcised" was all there is to it. There was no attempt to elaborate on what this means to each party. Certainly there was no written document noting down what had been agreed upon (in contrast with Acts's "Apostolic Decree".)

That the agreement was vague had been noted by many scholars. Gunther Bornkamm said that it is obvious that the Jerusalem Church did not get the "logical implications" of Paul's gospel. [20]

Many have noted that the division of labor is unclear. In other words, was the division (between the mission to the circumcised and uncircumcised) geographical or ethnical or theological? As John Painter noted:

There are two missions but how are they distinguished? In geographic terms-the one mission restricted to "Palestine" and the other aimed at the Roman World beyond Palestine? Or are we to think of an ethnic distinction: one mission restricted to Jews only and the other to the Gentiles? Or are the difference ideological-the differing demands made by the two missions, the one mission demanding circumcision and all that this entails and the other mission free of demands? If the last then both missions might include Jews and Gentiles. [21]

These three possibilities exhaust the possible interpretations of the Jerusalem agreement, yet they all have problems that would have made them less than satisfying to the parties involved.

The first interpretation would restrict the Jerusalem Church to "Jewish lands". Yet this is vague. If it is meant only Palestine (i.e. Judea, Galilee and Paraea-Jewish majority areas), the total number of potential converts (i.e. Jews) would number less than a million. When we take into account that there were probably 7-8 millions Jews throughout the whole Roman Empire, or one seventh of the whole population, this understanding would certainly not be satisfactory to the Jerusalem Church. However if the geographical definition is enlarged to include areas with a large, not necessarily majority, Jewish population this would include Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, Bithynia and even Antioch! Paul would hardly have accepted an agreement that would force him out from his own mission headquarters! [22]

The second interpretation would mean that the Jerusalem Church preaches only to the Jews and Paul only to the Gentiles. Like the first suggestion, this wouldn't work. For it meant that Paul would be prevented from teaching in the synagogues (where many Gentile "god-fearers" [Gentile who attend synagogue service without undergoing circumcision] would congregate) and thus would have closed the door on what would probably be the best candidates for conversion. Also it would lead to the absurd situation where these same god-fearers are off limits to the Jerusalem mission since they can only preach to Jews! [23]

The third interpretation, meaning that the Jerusalem Church could preach their circumcision gospel to willing Gentiles would never have been tolerated by Paul! [24] He says as much in his first epistle to the Corinthians:

I Corinthians 7:17-20
However that may be, let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you. This is my rule to all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone as the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but obeying the commandments of God is everything. Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.

Hanchen thinks that these unsatisfactory state of affairs is due to the fact that we do not have the "official wording of the agreement reached in Jerusalem". [25] However, as I had mentioned above, the three interpretations exhaust all possibilities. Thus Paul's presentation of the agreement could not have been improved to remove the logical contradictions inherent in it.

However if we take into account the informal nature of the meeting we could understand how the meeting could have ended with such an "agreement". Note that none of the three interpretations of the agreement would have been completely satisfactory to both parties at the same time. But note also that each of the interpretation would have favored one party or the other. In all probability both parties assumed they got the better deal. The Jerusalem leadership would assume that Paul's mission would be restricted to the Gentiles who are not willing to undergo circumcision while their mission would be to Jews and Gentiles (i.e. those willing to undergo circumcision). Thus contra Haenchen, the evidence does not favor the existence of a written document with "official wording" of the agreement. The agreement was that which would have simply been agreed verbally and sealed with a handshake. It was unstable and as subsequent events show, an untenable agreement. The summary of the outcome by John Painter says it all:

The strategy of two distinct missions with independent ground rules might have been an attempt to find a diplomatic solution to a difficult problem. It allowed the Jerusalem pillars to acknowledge the legitimacy of a circumcision- free mission to the Gentiles without giving up their own position of demanding circumcision and law observance. Had it been possible for the two missions to remain separate and distinct, the one to the Jews and the other to the Gentiles, the solution might have worked. The result would have been two quite distinct missions, as James, and perhaps Peter, envisaged. But this was not a real possibility. Conflicting understandings of the accord made actual conflict inevitable. The complexity and impracticality of the solution became apparent when (Cephas) Peter came to Antioch (2:11). Perhaps the flaw in the accord was already foreshadowed when, as Paul notes, the pillars extended the right hand of fellowship to him and to Barnabas(2:9). Titus, who had accompanied Paul with Barnabas, is not included. He is not mentioned again after the note that, although he was a Greek, he was not compelled to be circumcised (2:3). [26]

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Excursus: Lukan Spin doctoring

As an excursus we need to make some observations about how Luke handled and presented the story of the council.

First we note that Luke included major facts about the events he is writing about. For the current case, we note that Luke is in general agreement with Paul when he said that there was a meeting in Jerusalem to discuss the issue of circumcision that was attended by Paul and Barnabas on one side and James and Peter on the other. He also indicated that the reason for the meeting was due to some agitation by Jewish-Christians from Judea. The reason for this is simple. He could not ignore or omit certain facts about the early Church that would have been well known to his audience. Thus the issue of circumcision which arose from "men from Judea" (probably from the Jerusalem Church itself!) was included by him.

Second we note that Luke added in fictional details such as the speeches by Peter and James. Both speeches openly supported Paul's position, conveying a distinctly different impression from the account given by Paul in Galatians. These put a positive spin on these whole account. No tradition would have "remembered" what was said during the conference, thus Luke was able to compose his own speeches for the event.

Third we noted that Luke omitted facts which are of a very contentious nature. For instance, Paul mentioned that he took Barnabas and Titus with him. And that there was a very strong disagreement (which he finally won) about the necessity of circumcising Titus. Luke completely removed any reference to Titus in his account of the council. Reading the accounts in Acts one would not even know that Titus was there.

Thus while Luke did not invent the story from whole cloth, he added a lot of his own, fictional, embroidery to it and omitted issues which he probably felt were best forgotten!

This conclusion must be borne in mind when we analyze the account of Paul's final trip to Jerusalem later. For this incident we only have the account in Acts to rely on.

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a.We have placed the "Jerusalem Council" in inverted commas because, as the reader will see below, in all probability the council resembles more of a private meeting between Paul, Barnabas and a few representatives of the Jerusalem Church. Calling it a council could give the erroneous impression that it was a major meeting akin to the later council such as the celebrated Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. We will drop the inverted commas for the subsequent references, but the semi-private nature of the meeting should be kept in mind.
b.The apologetic reason for this suggestion is simple. If Acts 11:27-29 is to be identified with Galatians 2:1-10, then the incident at Antioch, recounted in Galatians 2:11-14, which showed Paul's break with Barnabas and with the Jerusalem Church, could then be "resolved" by the Jerusalem conference 15:1-29. Hence Paul and the apostles become one happy family again!
c.We have already discussed the ,essentially Jewish, theology of the apostolic decree elsewhere
d.We have allusions to the decree in, among other documents, Revelation 2:14,20, Justin's Dialogue with Trypho 34:8 and Tertulian's Apologeticum 9:13. These all point to the fact that the decree was (still) in circulation around the end of the first century and the second century CE.

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1.Lüdemann, Early Christianity According to the Tradition in Acts: p171
2.Bernheim, James Brother of Jesus: p143
Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles: p377-378
3.Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament: p477
4.Roetzel, Paul: 179-182
5.Brown, op. cit.: p476 n24
6.Bernheim, op. cit.: p143
7.Haenchen, op cit: p463
8.Dibelius, Studies in the Acts of the Apostles: p94-95
9.Conzelmann, The Acts of the Apostles: 117
10.Dibelius, op. cit.: p95
11.ibid.: p179
Haenchen, op. cit.: p448
12.Conzelmann, Acts of the Apostles: p119
Conzelmann, History of Primitive Christianity: p90
13.Bornkamm, Paul: p41-42
Conzelmann, Acts of the Apostles: p119
Conzelmann, History of Primitive Christianity: p88
14.Lüdemann, Opposition to Paul in Jewish Christianity: p35
15.Armstrong, The First Christian: p86
Maccoby, The Mythmaker: p146
Painter, Just James: p64
16.Lüdemann, op. cit.: p36
17.Murphy-O'Connor, Paul: A Critical Life: p138-141
18.Bornkamm, op cit: p39
19.Armstrong, op. cit.: p86
20.Bornkamm, op cit: p39
21.Painter, op. cit.: p66
22.Haenchen, op cit: p466-467
24.Painter, op. cit.: p66
25.Haenchen, op cit: p467
26.Painter, op. cit.: p67

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