15 Sep 2020
A Commentary by John Stott
Acts.15:13-21. c). James (continued).
What then was the decision?. In general, it was *that we should not make it difficult for* (‘impose no irksome restrictions on’, NEB) *the Gentiles who are turning to God (19). Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood* (20). Putting these two sentences together, James was saying that they must recognize and embrace Gentile believers as brothers and sisters in Christ, and not burden them by asking them to add to their faith in Jesus either circumcision or the whole code of Jewish practices. At the same time, having established the principle that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, without works, it was necessary to appeal to these Gentile believers to respect the consciences of their Jewish fellow-believers by abstaining from a few practices which might offend them. *For*, James went on to explain, *Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is* still being *read in the synagogues on every Sabbath* (21). In such contexts, where Moses’ teachings were well known and highly respected, Jewish scruples were sensitive and out of charity should not be violated.
A degree of uncertainty, however, surrounds what is sometimes referred to, at least in Anglican circles, as ‘the Jerusalem Quadrilateral’, that is, the four requested abstentions. At first sight, they appear to be an odd mixture of moral and ceremonial matters, since sexual immorality belongs to the former category, and idol-meats, ‘things strangled’ (AV) and blood to the latter. How could James combine them, as if they were of equal importance? Besides, sexual chastity is an elementary ingredient in Christian holiness; so why state the obvious by including it in the list? In addition, verse 20 raises complex textual questions, as variant Greek readings reflect variant interpretations. Two main solutions have been proposed, both aimed at separating the ethical from the ritual.
The first is to regard the requested abstentions as being all moral. Since the third (‘the meat of strangled animals’) cannot by any feat of imagination or ingenuity be turned into an ethical matter, it is proposed to follow the Western text and omit it. We are then left with three. ‘Food polluted by idols’ (20) or ‘food sacrificed to idols’ (29) is understood as idolatry; ‘blood’ is interpreted as blood-shedding, that is, murder; and sexual immorality retains its moral meaning. These three (idolatry, murder and immorality) were in Jewish eyes the main moral offences which human beings can commit. It seems a neat solution, but it raises more problems than it solves. (i) the textual warrant for dropping ‘the meat of strangled animals’ is very weak; (ii) the interpretation of the unqualified word ‘blood’ as meaning murder is far-fetched; (iii) the three sins are so grave, that a special apostolic decree was not necessary to outlaw them; (iv) the choice of only three moral prohibitions raises the question whether Gentile converts were permitted to break the rest of the Ten Commandments, e.g.. to steal, bear false witness and covet. It may be this lacuna which led a scribe to add the Golden Rule in negative form, preserved in the Western text: ‘and not to do to others what one would not have done to oneself.’
The alternative solution is the opposite, namely to regard the four abstentions as being all ceremonial, all matters of external purity. In this case, the first is not actual idolatry but the eating of idol-meats, to which Paul was later to refer in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8. ‘Blood’ refers not to shedding it, but to eating it, which was forbidden in Leviticus, while ‘the meat of strangled animals’ related to ‘animals killed without having the blood drained from them, whose flesh the Jews were forbidden to eat (Lv. 17:13-14)’. In place of these two, the Gentile believers would be expected to eat ‘kosher’ food, prepared according to Jewish dietary rules. This leaves the fourth item, sexual immorality. It now seems to be the moral exception to a list of ceremonial requirements, just as ‘things strangled’ was a ceremonial exception to a list of moral requirements. One way of dealing with the problem is to omit the word, and there seems to have been at least one manuscript in existence which did this, and which was known to Origen in the third century. But the evidence for this is extremely flimsy. The better way is to interpret *porneia* (which covers, in any case, ‘every kind of unlawful sexual intercourse’, BAGD) as referring here ‘to all the irregular marriages listed in Leviticus 18’ (JB margin), in particular to ‘marriage within degrees of blood-relationship or affinity forbidden by the legislation of Leviticus 18’ . A number of other commentators agree with this interpretation.
If this reconstruction is correct, then all four requested abstentions related to ceremonial laws laid down in Leviticus 17 and 18, and three of them concerned dietary matters which could inhibit Jewish-Gentile common meals. To abstain would be a courteous and temporary (although in some cases ‘necessary’, 28, RSV) concession to Jewish consciences, once circumcision had been declared unnecessary, and so the truth of the gospel had been secured and the principle of equality established. ‘The abstinence here recommended must be understood… not as an essential Christian duty, but as a concession to the consciences of others, i.e.. of the Jewish converts, who still regarded such food as unlawful and abominable in the sight of God’.
Tomorrow: 3. The Council’s letter (Acts 15:22-29).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.