Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Council of Jerusalem

Reading N°14 in the History of the Catholic Church

Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

History does not tell us what effect was produced by the epistle to the Galatians. But we do know that very soon the trouble sprang up again at Antioch. So intense did it become that the brethren at Antioch decided upon an appeal to the Apostles and ancients at Jerusalem.[1] From them it was that these dissenters said they had received their commission; to them the Antiochene Christians turned to have the pending conflict settled by a competent authority that was recognized by all.

The delegates from Antioch, with Paul and Barnabas at their head, set out, by way of Phenicia and Samaria, for the Holy City. Their solemn reception by the Apostles and ancients[2] shows that the latter wished to repudiate any solidarity with the coterie that had stirred up so many disputes. But this party, which had its center in Jerusalem and claimed to have connection with the supreme religious authority of the city,[3] was ready to renew its attacks. It was violently aggressive. No doubt it repeated all the curses of the old rabbis against violation of the Law.

The Apostles and ancients were assembled in council. All were waiting to hear what Peter and James would say. "Men, brethren," said Peter, "you know that in former days God made choice among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knoweth the hearts, gave testimony, giving unto them the Holy Ghost, as well as to us. [...] Now therefore, why tempt you God to put a yoke upon the necks of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?"

After Peter finished speaking, "all the multitude held their peace." It was not easy to say anything against words so full of authority and good sense. Paul and Barnabas were brought into the council to tell "what great signs and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them." Then James arose. Although Peter's hierarchical authority was beyond dispute among the faithful, yet James' moral authority was universal at Jerusalem, even in the Jewish world. His regular attendance at the Temple had gained him the particular esteem of the zealots; his being a "brother of the Lord" won him exceptional deference. After citing certain words of the prophets, he concluded by saying: "I judge that they who from among the Gentiles are converted to God are not to be disquieted. But that we write unto them that they refrain themselves from the pollution of idols and from fornication (πορνεία) and from things strangled and from blood."

This was clearly an acceptance in principle of the law of liberty proclainled by Peter and Paul. But it also took into account the need of managing the transition cautiously. The whole assembly agreed to the view expressed by James. The prohibition against eating blood and things strangled went back to the early days of the world. God had given this prohibition to Noe for the purpose of inculcating in his descendants respect for human life. The ban on food offered to idols was intended to inspire a horror of idolatry. The word "fornication" in this passage probably means marriage between relatives within the degrees of consanguinity and affinity forbidden by the Book of Leviticus.[4]

The Council of Jerusalem then drew up the following decree:
It hath seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us, to lay no further burden upon you than these necessary things: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication. From which things keeping yourselves, you shall do well.[5]
In the letter written to the Church at Antioch we find these additional words: 
Some going out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, to whom we gave no commandment.[6]
This assembly, which took place about the year 51, is commonly spoken of as the Council of Jerusalem.[7] Besides giving the faithful a rule of conduct, the Apostles and ancients proclaimed a rule of faith by refusing, contrary to the claims of Christians overly imbued with the Pharisaic spirit, to recognize circumcision and the Jewish observances as necessary for salvation. The rule of conduct which was laid down could have only a passing significance. As St. Thomas Aquinas says, "its only purpose was to facilitate the union of Gentiles and Jews living together, and it therefore ceased in course of time; when the cause ceased, the effect would likewise disappear."[8]

St. Luke relates that the Christians of Antioch received the decree of Jerusalem enthusiastically.[9] Henceforth the road to the Gentiles was wide open to the Apostles, and Antioch could be proud of having been the starting point of this movement of free expansion.

The Judaizing party did not, however, lay down their arms; they merely changed their tactics. Finding they could no longer hope to shelter themselves under hierarchical authority, they set up a schismatic sect with chiefs of their own. The Epistles of St. Paul, St. Peter, St. Jude and St. James supply a few valuable data about this revolt and schism. St. Paul, writing to the Colossians some time between 58 and 63, warns the faithful against false doctrines that are "according to the tradition of men," "according to the elements of the world,[10] and not according to Christ."[11] In his pastoral Epistles, he names some of the leaders of the sect: Hymeneus, Alexander, and Philetus.[12] He also mentions their disputes over words, their idle questions, and the endless patriarchal genealogies to which they appealed.[13] St. Peter and St. Jude denounce their contempt for authority and their denial of the coming of the Lord.[14] St. John declares that, at the time he was writing, certain Antichrists, who had come from the ranks of Christians, denied that Jesus was the Son of God or the Christ, and said that He was only a man and had only the appearance of a body.[15] In these details, as also in those to be found in the Apocalypse,[16] we can recognize the germ of Ebionitism and Docetism. In the spread of Christianity, its chief auxiliary had been Judaism; but soon the Judaizing spirit became its principal internal enemy.

It is impossible to deny the existence of the Judaizing sects in Palestine during the Apostolic age, and there is reason to believe that the party condemned by the Council of Jerusalem formed the nucleus of that sect. But it would be a serious mistake to exaggerate, as Baur does, the extent of their influence, by misunderstanding the perfect orthodoxy of those "churches of God which are in Judea," which, as St. Paul testifies in his Epistle to the Thessalonians, suffered from those Jews "prohibiting us to speak to the Gentiles, that they may be saved."[17] The Acts of the Apostles also mentions Christian communities in Galilee, in Samaria, and on the coast of the Mediterranean. "The term Judaeo-Christianity, strictly speaking, applies only to those Christians, born in Judaism, who looked upon the Law as still binding, and who therefore found themselves engaged in an irreconcilable conflict, not only with St. Paul, but with all Christianity."[18]

But in the daughter churches, two currents still appear: that of the Ecclesia ex Judaeis, made up of Christians of Jewish birth, who continued to observe the Law, and that of the Ecclesia ex Gentibus, made up of non-Jewish Christians, for whom the Law, though certainly of divine institution, had been provisional, and was now abolished. Beginning with the Council of Jerusalem, this latter current takes on a preponderant role. The triumphant formula is decidedly that of the Epistle to the Galatians:
Neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision availeth anything, but a new creature. And whosoever shall follow this rule, peace on them and mercy, and upon the Israel of God."[19]
In fact, and justly so, all the old bonds are broken.[20]


[1] Acts 15:2.
[2] Acts 15:4.
[3] The expression τινὰς ἀπὸ Ἰακώβου, which St. Paul uses (Gal. 2:12), may signify persons who claimed to have been sent by James or who were in his entourage. This is the most likely interpretation of the text. "Anyhow, we should not wonder if this old man who, from the testimony of St. Epiphanius (Haereses, LXXVIII, 14), was then from 85 to 88 years old, and had never left his Palestinian surroundings, had not fully realized the situation at Antioch, and judged things not exactly in the same way as did Peter and Paul." (Tixeront, History of Dogmas, I, 151.)
[4] This is the view of Father Prat, La Théologie de saint Paul, I, 76. Le Camus (L'Œuvre des apôtres, I, 161) holds a like opinion. In any case, the decree cannot refer to the sin of fornication as such. It is concerned with determining certain outward and public facts which are capable of serving as the ground for admission into or exclusion from the Christian society. According to the Book of Leviticus, cohabitation within forbidden degrees is a heinous deed (revelare turpitudinem). (Lev. 18:7-18.)
[5] Acts 15:28 f.
[6] Acts 15:24.
[7] Melchoir Cano (De locis theologicis, V, 4) considers it a provincial council; Torrecremata (De ecclesia), a diocesan council; Benedict XIV (De synodol dioecesana, I, i, 5), a sort of council. Some authors look upon it as a tribunal rather than a council. (Le Camus, L'Œuvre des apôtres, II, 153.)
[8] Summa theologica, 1a 2ae, q. 103, a. 4. St. Paul (I Cor. 8:4-10) interprets the decree somewhat broadly. It is possible that the Jerusalem decree, in its practical regulation, was not observed everywhere, but only where there was a question of scandal for certain Jews. Thus are explained the numerous texts gathered by German scholars to cast doubt upon the authenticity of the Council of Jerusalem, because it is supposed that it was not applied in some places. For references of all these texts, see Dufourcq, L'Avenir du christianisme, III, 22. The authenticity of the account of the Council, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, is attacked on the ground that St. Paul recounts it differently in his Epistle to the Galatians. This difficulty does not exist for those who, like us, agree with Le Camus (op. cit.), Belser (Einleitung in das Neue Testament), Weber (Die Abfassung des Galaterbriefes vor dem Apostelkonzil) , and Round (The Date of St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians), that the Epistle to the Galatians is anterior to the Council of Jerusalem and that it relates a journey made by St. Paul to Jerusalem in the year 47. The provisional character of the practical regulations promulgated by the Council, and their early abandonment, account for the numerous variants of the decree, as found in the manuscripts. The copyists, thinking to correct an error, altered the text to make it conform to the practice of their time. Amidst these divergencies, the critics distinguish two versions: the Eastern and the Western, but they are not agreed on the question which version is the earlier. At all events, the fact of these variants does not affect the authenticity and the substantial integrity of the decree. On this question, see a scholarly article by Coppieters in the Revue biblique, 1907, pp. 35 ff. The so-called "Canons of the Council of Antioch," discovered in 1572 by Father Torres, S.J., have proved to be apocryphal; they were composed at Antioch about the year 360. The critical questions concerning the Council of Jerusalem are summed up by Leclercq in Hefele, Histoire des Conciles (French transl.), vol. I, part 2, pp. 1070 ff.
[9] Acts 15:31.
[10] By these "elements of the world," St. Paul means the elementary religious institutions, Jewish or other, which could serve as a preparation for the Christian faith for one who knew how to pass beyond them, but which could be an obstacle to the faith for those who let themselves be seduced and halted by them.
[11] Coloss. 2:8.
[12] Cf. 1 Tim. 1:20; 2 Tim. 2:17.
[13] Cf. 1 Tim. 1:4; 4:7; 6:3-5. Today, exegetes generally hold that the "endless genealogies" spoken of in the Epistle are fabulous genealogies to be found in certain Jewish apocrypha, not the genealogies of the eons. (Jacquier, Histoire des livres du Nouveau Testament, I, 375.)
[14] Cf. 2 Pet. 2:10 f.; Jude 8.
[15] Cf. 1 John 2:18 f., 22 f.; 4:2, 3, 15.
[16] Apoc. 2:9, 14-16, 20-25.
[17] Cf. 1 Thess. 2:14-16.
[18] Batiffol, Primitive Catholicism, p. 238; Harnack, History of Dogma, I, 289.
[19] Gal. 6:15 f.
[20] For a detailed study of the relations of the Christian Church with Judaism, and for its progressive separation therefrom, see Batiffol, op. cit., pp. 1-36.


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