When the apostles gathered in Jerusalem for the first-ever church council, recorded in Acts 15, the debate centered around one issue: Should Gentile converts to faith in Jesus be required to be circumcised in order to be full members of God’s People? After all, they reasoned, circumcision was an eternal commandment from the days of Abraham on. At the time Gentiles who half-converted to Judaism were called “Godfearers” (Yireh Elohim). Those who moved beyond the Godfearers were called “Converts” (Gerim), and to be a convert one had to experience the covenant blade. (An early modern circumcision knife is seen to the left.)
What does the view proposed below say about Gentile Christians and the Torah today?
One apostle after another had his say about what should happen, but it was settled by Jesus’ brother, James, who restricted Gentile obligations to the Torah to four items, and the big conclusion was that they could be full converts without circumcision, nothing less than a breathtaking, radical, equalizing conclusion… but they did stipulate four obligations for Gentile converts:
You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality (Acts 15:29).
There’s some debate about these, whether they are just concessions expected from Gentiles or actual Torah stipulations for Gentiles who dwell in the Land, which means they would classify the Gentile converts as “resident aliens” (Torah category) instead of the more recent Jewish category of “Convert.” That, at least, is one reading. I’m inclined to think this is not on the best reading but the only reading that makes good sense. Acts 15:29 is connected to resident alien laws in Leviticus 17 and 18, and here are the texts:
Lev. 17:8 “Say to them: ‘Any Israelite or any foreigner residing among them who offers a burnt offering or sacrifice 9 and does not bring it to the entrance to the tent of meeting to sacrifice it to the LORD must be cut off from the people of Israel.
Lev. 17:10 “ ‘I will set my face against any Israelite or any foreigner residing among them who eats blood, and I will cut them off from the people.
Lev. 17:12 Therefore I say to the Israelites, “None of you may eat blood, nor may any foreigner residing among you eat blood.”
Lev. 17:13 “ ‘Any Israelite or any foreigner residing among you who hunts any animal or bird that may be eaten must drain out the blood and cover it with earth,
Lev. 18:26 But you must keep my decrees and my laws. The native-born and the foreigners residing among you must not do any of these detestable things,
If this is the best interpretation, then Gentile converts — I would be in this class of people — are to follow these items not because they are concessions to Jewish scruples but because they are Torah for Gentiles. This is a huge conclusion, and it has been argued in brief by Richard Bauckham in his chp 16 in D. Rudolph, J. Willitts, Introduction to Messianic Judaism.
I have myself wondered aloud and in print if Paul ignored Acts 15 when he got into the Diaspora (after all, Acts 15: 29 is about Gentiles in the Land), but at least for this post we’ve got something to discuss: What would this view say for Gentiles and their relationship to the Torah? Was the apostolic decree for Gentile converts in the Land or for Gentile converts even in the Diaspora?