The First Readings for the Thursday and Friday of the Fifth Week of Easter continue with Acts 15:7-31. The issue of whether all Christians, including Gentiles, should follow the Mosaic Law was raised in Acts 15: 1-6. Only “after there had been much debate (15:7),” did Peter state that “God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us” (15:8-9). The experience of the Holy Spirit amongst Gentiles, witnessed by Peter and detailed in Acts 10-11, is one of the key grounds for welcoming the Gentiles into the Church as Gentiles. Peter, according to Acts, understands that what was essential for salvation for all is “the grace of the Lord Jesus” (15:11). Paul and Barnabas continued to detail how God has worked amongst the Gentiles through “signs and wonders,” common language for miraculous deeds and the working of the Holy Spirit in Luke’s writing (15:12). In response to this testimony, and I suppose to the “debate” referenced earlier, James, the leader of the Jerusalem Church, states his decree.
James cites scripture, an amalgam of Amos 9:11-12 and, perhaps, Jeremiah 12:15 and Isaiah 45:21, to support his decision. I think this is an essential part of James’ decision, that whatever “new” is taking place at the Jerusalem Council has support not only from the experience of the Gentiles, as witnessed by the Apostles, but some scriptural warrant and so continuity with the covenant people and their practices. James does not require the Gentile members of the Church to follow all of the Mosaic Law, but requires that they “abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood” (15:20; see also 15:29 and 21:25). These requirements have been seen recently by scholars such as Alan Segal and Mark Nanos, for example, as referring at least in part to the “Noahide Laws,” which the rabbis said were given to the sons of Noah, that is, all humanity, to follow after the flood. The earliest rabbinic statement is found in Tosefta 8:4f, which postdates Acts by over a century, but there is no reason not to think that these were not based on the sorts of legal stipulations governing relationships between Jews and Gentiles in the Diaspora long prior to the statement in the Tosefta or in Acts. Scholars are more aware now than ever that even prior to the rise of Christianity many Gentiles were attracted to Judaism and, without becoming full members of the people of Israel, participated in some of Jewish life and were known as “Godfearers.”
So, there is certainly both tension and continuity in the decision of James and the Church (“it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us”: v.28) to allow Gentiles to be full members of the body of Christ without following the whole of the Mosaic Law, which some members of the Church had argued was necessary for salvation (15:1, 5). All that is required for Gentile members of the Church is some version of what would later be known as the “Noahide Laws.” These stipulations seem to govern food offered to idols, which includes” whatever has been strangled and from blood," and fornication, or improper sexual relations. Yet, we might also ask now, when have these regulations governing food last been observed?
I recall reading this passage in class with a number of seminarians from Ghana laughing heartily by the time I had finished reading. When I asked why they were laughing they said that it was because at least amongst their tribes they drank blood fairly regularly. According to Eusebius, who reports on the martyrdoms at Lyons which took place around 170 C.E., one woman, Biblis, in the midst of her persecutions denies that Christians are cannibals since they are not even allowed to drink the blood of animals (HE V.I.26). This suggests that the Church of Lyons is still following the prescriptions outlined in Acts 15. My friend and colleague Mike Hollerich reports to me that “As late as 692, I know of canons from an eastern Christian council – the so-called “Quinisext Council” (“Fifth-Sixth council”) or Council in Trullo (for the place in Constantinople where it met) that seem to treat the prohibition of eating blood as though it were still in force” (Mike referred me to The Council in Trullo Revisited. edited by George Nedungatt, Michael Featherstone. Roma : Pontificio Istituto Orientale, 1995 for further information). On the other hand, St. Augustine in Contra Faustum 32.13 states “now that the Church has become so entirely Gentile that none who are outwardly Israelites are to be found in it, no Christian feels bound to abstain from thrushes or small birds because their blood has not been poured out, or from hares because they are killed by a stroke on the neck without shedding their blood.” According to Augustine, the decree, at least concerning food, is no longer in force. Who made the decision? Is Augustine referring simply to common practice and reality? Can change in the teaching of the Church "just happen"? Can Augustine just say it is so?
Although it might not seem like an un important issue to us today in specific, it certainly was a burning issue in the earliest Church. Certainly when James says that “it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” he speaks with the utmost warrant for both the shift away from the Mosaic Law and the shift to the new stipulations he sends out to the Gentile Christians. This is the warrant, that is, from scripture, referenced earlier, and the authority of the Church which has debated the issue. Implicit in it also is the warrant that is seen to rest in Church Councils in general since the Holy Spirit speaks through them. How and why do these teachings change? It is clear that it is not up to a particular person, not even Peter according to Acts 10-15, to change the teaching and behavior of the Church. It is important that many factors come into play: the experiences of the members of the Church; the debate amongst the leaders of the Church; listening to the Holy Spirit; the teachings of Scripture; and Tradition itself all play into the decisions of the Church to move forward with change. In light of Acts 15, however, we must be ready for God to speak to us at all times about how to move forward anew, but is it possible that Augustine is correct that some things just change because of changes within the Church?
John W. Martens