A while back I pointed out some questions in the New Testament that at least give the need for new perspectives on Paul some plausibility. I also tried to point out some places in the Old Testament where Gentiles were not under the exact same law as Jews. Prompted by another discussion elsewhere, I think we can find something of interest in the ruling of the Jerusalem council in Acts 15.
The dispute was over this: “But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’”
Now let’s note that this question was cause for a council. It was not necessarily a “no brainer,” and we can notice that some Pharisees were present at the council with the rest of the Christians. It was these council participants who said “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” (5)
James gives the decisive answer to this, citing both Simeon (Simon?) and Amos 9. This reminds me of Peter’s (Simon/same guy?) citation of Joel 2:28-32 at Pentecost. The conclusion of the council, though, is that the Gentiles ought not to be “troubled,” but should simply abstain from things polluted by idols, from blood, from what has been strangled and from sexual immorality (vs 29).
The question that immediately arises is “Why just these four?” The idols and sexual immorality seem like obviously bad things, but why are blood and strangled foods worse than other violations of kosher law?
It seems that these four prohibitions correspond with the four laws in Leviticus 17-18 that include the “sojourners within Israel” as well as the children of Israel. There are commands, the next chapter in Leviticus for example, which mention only the congregation of the sons of Israel, and thus would not include the Gentiles. It seems that this is what the council at Jerusalem is doing. It is enforcing the proper interpretation of the Mosaic law, since of course, “from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”
After AD 70 it would be pretty clear that the Mosaic era had come to a close, so these prohibitions would not have the same significance as they did in the 1st century. The fact that the council gave prohibitions at all is interesting though, and seems to be consistent with Paul’s willingness to circumcise Timothy, but not Titus. People often say that the problem was that circumcision was seen as meritorious, but I cannot see how one would argue that it was not being seen that way in Timothy’s case, especially given that Timothy’s circumcision comes right on the heels of the Jerusalem Council. Whatever the Pharisees had been proposing at Jerusalem certainly had to be on Paul and Timothy’s mind in the next chapter.
So if the Jews’ primary problem with the law was not merit, then what was it?
It was a failure to understand the specific place that the Mosaic law held in Redemptive history. Circumcision was not for everybody, and to assume that Gentiles would need circumcision is to miss the point that the law of Moses served a time-specific (and ethno-specific) function. As Peter said, a faithful Jew believed that he would “be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they [Gentiles] will.”
I suppose that merit could be an implication and a subset of this problem, indeed I would allow for that, but the primary emphasis that the New Testament brings out is eschatology and Christology. Now that Jesus has come, the saving grace is here. There’s no need to go backwards, and insisting that salvation comes through Moses is to do just that.
I’m sure our paradigms won’t allow this reading to come easily, but the Jerusalem Council’s resolution ends up being semi-Pelagianism if we don’t broaden our perspectives.