“Silence, brothers, silence! Maintain order or I’ll adjourn this council forthwith!”
I can barely hear Yakov’s voice over the tumult that fills the upper room of my mother’s house. The place is so crowded that I fear the floor will not hold us all up and we will go crashing into the room below. I am standing up, my back to the wall, just behind Yosef and Paul. Given their relative importance to the proceedings, they are seated on low stools. But floor space is definitely at a premium; I don’t think there have been this many people in here since that glorious day of Pentecost nearly twenty years ago now.
The hubbub begins to abate slowly. As it does I run over in my mind the events that have led to this moment…
… Gentiles and the Law! That’s what this is all about. I thought we had seen the end of the matter, five years ago now, when Paul had confronted Kephas and Yosef — only to be shamed in front of everyone when no one sided with him. True, in the aftermath, only a few Gentiles had gone under the knife; but those were the ones who had then been able to participate in table fellowship with us Jews. The rest had been left out, meeting separately. But then when Paul and Yosef had returned from their missionary travels, they had shared how God had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. And Paul had insisted that circumcision was not required to go through that door; it was simply enough to believe the proclamation of the good news, that Jesus is the Christ. And, by way of proof, God had poured out his Spirit on them. Somehow, much to my frustration, this argument from experience was seen as sufficient to overturn the clear teachings of Scripture, and mixed table fellowship recommenced almost immediately.
… But then some men from Judea came to Antioch, teaching that Gentiles need to be circumcised and take on the Mosaic Law in order to be saved. By that stage I had been only too happy to find others following my way of thinking. However, I kept a low profile in the ensuing debate. I knew that Paul was already deeply unhappy with me for my abandoning of their mission in Perga; I did not want to give him any more excuse to think even less of me than he already did. But what a debate! The men from Judea were Pharisees like Paul and they had gone at each other like wildcats in the arena. The dispute had raged for days, with both sides marshalling their supporting evidence. The Pharisaic believers had mostly appealed to Scripture; Paul and Yosef had mostly appealed to experience. But in the thick of the debate, Paul had brought up an intriguing point from the Law that had got under my skin in a way that I found extremely disconcerting. For the first time I was faced with the possibility that perhaps Paul was right, that God really was offering salvation to the Gentiles apart from the Law. That thought gave me a few sleepless nights as I wrestled with what Paul had said.
… Then, when it was clear that the debate was at an impasse, it had been decided that Paul and Yosef should go to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders of the church there to get the question resolved once and for all, much like Yosef had wanted that day on our mission trip to Cyprus. The Pharisaic believers had been only too happy to agree to this, figuring that of course the apostles and elders, particularly Yakov, the brother of Yeshua himself, would be on their side. But I wasn’t so sure. I remembered what Kephas had said to me about the vision he had received and his own experience preaching to that Roman centurion and his family. And by this point I had discovered, much to my shock, that I agreed with Paul, having found that argument from the Law to be utterly compelling. So I had asked to join the travelling party, ostensibly to visit my mother who was getting on in years, but mostly because I wanted to see Paul’s rhetorical skills in action such that this issue might finally be resolved.
… As we travelled up to Jerusalem, passing through Phoenicia and Samaria, in every group of believers we stayed with Paul and Yosef had told everyone about their mission to the Gentiles. And everyone had been gladdened by their report. Of course, I knew that in other houses along that same route, the Pharisaic believers were putting their own spin on things, as they too made their way back to Jerusalem to put their case to the apostles and elders.
… And then once we reached Jerusalem, when the apostles had welcomed us, Paul had lost no time by telling them all about it, too. Part of me felt that he was not being fair to our opponents, that he was getting in first and thereby tipping the debate in his favour. But the rest of me was pleased: perhaps in the battle to come we would need every advantage we could get! Sure enough, as soon as the Pharisaic believers had arrived, they too had made their position known: Gentiles must be circumcised and obey the Law of Moses. My stomach had sunk a little when I saw how many people had been nodding their heads in agreement.
By now there is silence in the room. Yakov, frowning a little, speaks in a clear voice. (Yakov speaks in Aramaic, which is being quietly translated into Greek by someone near me, for the benefit of those who do not understand that language. The undercurrent of murmuring, it has to be said, is a little distracting.) “Brothers, we’re here to decide on an extremely important issue, no less than the necessary requirements for Gentiles to enter the Kingdom of heaven. I’m sure that you’re aware of the options set before us. On the one hand, some have said that simply believing the message concerning Yeshua is enough.”
At this a number of people begin grumbling; I see one or two men on the other side of the room from me opening their mouths to offer a rejoinder. But Yakov continues speaking more loudly, “On the other hand, based on the rites necessary for Gentile proselytes, being circumcised and taking on the Law is required. I trust and pray that as we discuss this issue today, we will all be attentive to the promptings of the Spirit.” With that, Yakov raises his eyes to the ceiling and prays, “Lord, give us wisdom this day. May you direct our deliberations so that we might come to the right decision. We are overjoyed that the Gentiles are turning to you for salvation from the immorality and idolatry that is so prevalent in this dark world. May we know what you require of them that they might attain full membership in the family of faith. Amen!”
There is an answering chorus of “Amen!”
“Right then,” Yakov says. “Who will speak to this issue first?”
I look at Paul. Even from behind I can tell that he is simply bursting to speak. But Yosef puts a restraining hand on Paul’s arm. Clearly he feels it better to wait; give the other side their chance to speak and then we will be in a better position to counter their arguments.
As I turn my attention to the rest of the room, I wonder who will be first to speak. On my side of the room stand many men (and a few women) who I know have been involved in mission in regions outside of Judea. On the other side of the room, however, are men who have mostly remained in Jerusalem and Judea: believers who were once Pharisees; some who were priests in the Temple. Then, in the middle of the room, a handful of the Twelve, including Kephas who is seated on a stool to the right of Yakov.
There is movement from the other side of the room. From out of the midst of the Pharisaic believers steps a very elderly man. I recognise him immediately, although I have not seen him for more than a decade. It is Nikodemus, a secret disciple of Yeshua before the crucifixion, now an elder of the Jerusalem church. He turns first to Yakov. “Esteemed brother of our Lord and Saviour.” Then he turns to the rest of us, his voice quavering with age. “Brothers, we are living in dangerous times. It is not even a year now since many of our countrymen and women were slaughtered during Passover right here in this the most holy of cities. Some of you were even there when that despised heathen dared to bare his buttocks at the crowd and taunt their most excellent piety with his uncircumcised filth! The riot that erupted may have been fanned into flame by those among our people who are zealous for the Law. And such a tragedy it is that the Romans chose to side with that agent of Satan by putting the city to the sword rather than disciplining him in a manner appropriate to the impropriety of his actions. Their punishment cannot come soon enough!”
Suddenly, his voice takes on a strength that belies his age. “But I ask you, brothers, how could such a one as that be brought to salvation without his uncleanness being dealt with! The thought of that pagan’s foreskin coming within sight of the Temple of the Most Holy One fills me with a righteous abhorrence that renders me nigh unto a state of physical sickness. And yet there are those among us, yea, even in this very room, who have the gall to overturn the clear teaching of the Scriptures on this matter: ‘This is the ordinance of the Passover. No foreigner may share in eating it. But everyone’s servant who is bought for money, after you have circumcised him, may eat it. A foreigner and a hired worker must not eat it. It must be eaten in one house; you must not bring any of the meat outside the house, and you must not break a bone of it. The whole community of Israel must observe it. When a foreigner lives with you and wants to observe the Passover to the Lord, all his males must be circumcised, and then he may approach and observe it, and he will be like one who is born in the land — but no uncircumcised person may eat of it. The same law will apply to the person who is native-born and to the foreigner who lives among you.’ How much clearer do you need the Most Holy One to be?
“And so I beseech you, brothers. Yes, the Gentiles can come to the Most Holy One, but only by the way instituted in the Law of Moses: through circumcision and obedience to the Law.”
As Nikodemus makes his unsteady way back to his seat among the Pharisaic believers there are many cries of “Amen!” from that side of the room. However, our side is much quieter. When Yakov looks in our direction, I wonder if this will be Paul’s moment. But again, Yosef restrains him.
Instead, another man comes forward. It is Nikolas, one of the Seven; originally a Gentile from Antioch, he converted to Judaism before later coming to faith in Jesus. I understand that he has been living in Jerusalem these past years (apart from a period of time in Antioch, following the martyrdom of my good friend Stephen), assisting with the distribution of food to those needy believers among us. It also occurs to me that Nikolas is a good person to speak, given that he has been circumcised. He is therefore a model of the position that Nikodemus has just put forward, although not quite in the same order of events.
When silence descends again, he begins speaking in Greek. “Brothers, I feel I should respond to my honourable brother in Christ, Nikodemus. I thank you, brother, for your wisdom and your evident love of the Scriptures. And I assure you that I don’t want to argue against your understanding of the Law; I’m in no way qualified to do so. But I feel I should give my perspective to you all as a proselyte to Judaism who subsequently came to faith in Jesus.
“As you all well know, I am a Gentile, born in Antioch of Greek descent. My father became a free man before I was born. He wanted me to have the advantages in life that had been impossible for him as a slave, so he provided for me to be educated in the Roman fashion. My tutors instilled in me a desire for self-mastery — the attainment of complete self-control over one’s emotions and desires — which is the ultimate goal of philosophy. But I found it difficult. I confess that my base desires proved to be unmanageable and I spent much of my youth in debauchery and immorality, to my shame and the shame of my parents.
“When I reached my majority, I tried to settle down with the wife that my parents found for me. But my striving for self-control over my passions was fruitless and I ended up in the bed of prostitutes regularly. Then somehow I heard about the way of Judaism, how there were those who sought to master themselves by taking on the yoke of the Law of Moses. I began attending a synagogue and I was greatly attracted to what I saw. Jewish people were sober and controlled; they avoided certain meats that would inflame the passions; and their men were circumcised which I came to believe would do much to curtail the desires that I so struggled with.
“So I decided to become a proselyte, not because of a wish to participate in the Passover, but because I wanted to attain self-mastery. I even went so far as to be circumcised — a procedure, I might add, that I would not wish on my worst enemy. But, alas, it was to no avail. As soon as the healing was complete I was right back where I was before. The removal of my foreskin had done nothing to curb my desires. And what was worse, my new knowledge of the Law revealed to me how very wrong my actions were. I was trapped: I didn’t do what I wanted to do, but I did what I hated. I wanted to follow the Law and do good, but instead there was an evil inside of me that had the parts of my body captive to a law of sin. Oh what a wretched man was I! Could anyone rescue me from this body of death?
“Thanks be to God, someone did. As you know, I was in Jerusalem for Pentecost; I was in that crowd when Kephas spoke about Jesus; and I responded that very day and was baptised. And with the laying on of hands I, too, received the Spirit, which set me free from the law of sin and death! For with the Spirit comes self-control. What the Law had been powerless to do, the Spirit of God living in me has been able to do: give me control over my sinful desires. And all it took was faith in Jesus!
“So, brothers, I hold that there is something entirely different at work here, something new. Circumcision and the Law was not the answer; but faith in Jesus, and the consequent gift of God’s Spirit, is the answer.”
As Nikolas makes his way back to where he had been standing, someone from the other side of the room calls out, “Does that mean you wish you’d never been circumcised?”
Nikolas stops and turns to the speaker, one of the Pharisaic believers who, I note, is not looking angry, just curious. After thinking for a few moments, Nikolas replies, “No. No, I don’t regret that decision, for the fact that I’m circumcised allows me to interact freely with you Jewish people. Those who might otherwise have had nothing to do with me will accept food, or allow me to partake in table-fellowship with them. For those reasons, I don’t begrudge having taken that particular step, painful though it was.” With that, he returns to his place.
The discussion goes back and forth for a while. To me, it does not seem as though either side of the debate has made much headway. And judging from some of Paul’s frustrated movements, I can tell he feels the same way. But Yosef remains calm.
Then, after a lull in which no one steps forward to speak, Kephas stands up. There is instant silence.
“Brothers, I’ll be brief.” Interestingly, Kephas has chosen to speak in Greek. “You’ll remember that some time ago God called me to take the word to a Gentile household in Caesarea Maritima. I went willingly, having been convinced by the Lord himself that all men are clean, irrespective of their ethnicity. As I spoke to them, Cornelius and his family responded in faith. And God, who knows the deepest secrets of the human heart, poured out his Spirit on them, just as he did on us the day of Pentecost that Nikolas spoke of earlier. God made no distinction between them and us. He cleansed their hearts by faith, just as he also cleansed our hearts by the same faith.”
Kephas then turns and addresses those on the other side of the room. “So then, brothers, do you know better than God? Why are you wanting to place so heavy a yoke on the neck of the Gentile believers that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to carry? We’re not saved by the Law; no, we’re saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, the same as they are.”
Abruptly, Kephas returns to his stool. The Pharisaic believers look stunned. Then, before one of their number can respond (and yet, who would want to gainsay Kephas?) Yosef stands up and moves into the centre. Paul, I notice, is bristling with indignation; he has been impatiently biding his time at the insistence of Yosef, only to have Yosef get up first after all!
But Yosef is a good speaker. He recounts his and Paul’s experience of ministry among the Gentiles. I have heard their report before; in fact, it is still something of a sore spot for me. For after I abandoned them in Perga, God went on to do wondrous things through them, starting in Pisidian Antioch where the Gentiles responded with great faith after the Jews rejected their message. Similarly, in Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. And to think that I might have been a part of that, if I had not abandoned them for theological reasons that I have since spurned!
“In every case,” Yosef is saying, “the coming of the Spirit upon the new believers was the sign of their faith in Yeshua.”
As Yosef is returning to his seat at the conclusion of his speech, I can see that the Pharisaic believers are reeling at the double testimony of Kephas and Yosef. But then Paul is on his feet, quickly walking past Yosef, who has stopped in his tracks and is looking at Paul warily. I can tell that he is wondering what Paul could possibly say to add to what he has just said. But Paul looks determined, so Yosef turns with an almost imperceptible shrug and sits down on his stool.
We do not have to wait long to find out.
“Brothers, we began this discussion with the Law. With all due respect to my brother Pharisee, Nikodemus, allow me to suggest that the Law actually supports the experience of our brothers Kephas and Yosef.” I realise that Paul is about to present the intriguing argument from the Law that convinced me that Gentiles need not be circumcised. “You see, this discussion has been about the respective roles of faith and circumcision. But consider our ancestor Abraham. Was he declared righteous because he was circumcised? No. For as the Law says, ‘Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ It is at this point in the account that Abraham is declared righteous, because he believed what God had said to him. Now I ask you: was he circumcised at that time? No! This was said of Abraham well before he was circumcised. Only later did he receive the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. In this way he is the father of all those who believe, including those who’ve never been circumcised, that they too can have righteousness credited to them. So I put it to you, my brothers and sisters, that even the Law testifies on our behalf in this matter.”
After what must have been the shortest speech in Paul’s life, he resumes his seat next to Yosef, who reaches out and puts his hand on Paul’s shoulder. I look over to those on the other side of the room. There are a few frowns, but most have a puzzled expression on their faces. Perhaps they are thinking through Paul’s argument, looking for faults; perhaps they are trying to come up with a suitable response. But to my mind, the triple testimony of Kephas, Yosef and Paul is insurmountable.
I look over at Yakov, but his face does not betray his thoughts. Then, there is a small sensation in the room. Turning, I see that Nikodemus has stood up and is making his way forward again. When he reaches the front, he turns to face us. He is silent for a few moments, clearly gathering his thoughts.
“Brothers,” he says eventually, with his eyes downcast, “I must acknowledge my error in this matter.”
This statement results in quite a stir. Those on our side of the room are turning to look at one another, smiling; those on the other side are still, their eyes fixed intently on the old man.
When it is sufficiently quiet, Nikodemus continues, “It is clear to me now that the Most Holy One is at work in a new way. I confess that I have been slow to see that. Then again, I have never been quick to grasp the work of the Most Holy One. When I came to Rabbi Yeshua at night, many years ago now, he told me, ‘Truly, truly I say to you, unless a person is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of heaven.’ I did not understand him. I thought he was talking about having to be physically born a second time. But our Lord went on to explain, ‘Unless a person is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.’ At that time I still did not understand. But after Pentecost I understood: the coming of the Spirit upon great and small alike has changed everything. So to hear that the Spirit also falls upon Gentiles is proof enough that the Most Holy One accepts them without the need for circumcision. I hereby withdraw my opposition.”
There is a loud chorus of “Amen!”, even from those on the other side of the room.
But Nikodemus has not finished. He raises his arms for quiet. “However, I do not feel it right that the entire Law is set aside. There is much in the Law that is still of great relevance to the Gentiles. For there are grievous sins that are readily accepted by Gentile society at large. I think we would do well to inform them of those things that the Most Holy One objects to, yet they accept without question.”
“Do you have something specific in mind?” asks Yakov.
Nikodemus turns towards him. “Yes, I do. In the Levitical scroll there are those laws which are specifically addressed to foreigners living in the midst of our people: Firstly, ‘Any man from the house of Israel or from the foreigners who reside in their midst, who offers a burnt offering or a sacrifice but does not bring it to the entrance of the Meeting Tent to offer it to the Lord—that person will be cut off from his people.’ Secondly, ‘No person among you is to eat blood, and no resident foreigner who lives among you is to eat blood.’ Thirdly, ‘Any person who eats an animal that has died of natural causes or an animal torn by beasts, whether a native citizen or a foreigner, must wash his clothes, bathe in water, and be unclean until evening; then he becomes clean. But if he does not wash his clothes and does not bathe his body, he will bear his punishment for iniquity.’ Fourthly, there’s a long list of sexual immoralities after which it says ‘You yourselves must obey my statutes and my regulations and must not do any of these abominations, both the native citizen and the resident foreigner in your midst.’ And that’s just off the top of my head…”
Suddenly, Paul is on his feet. “But where will it stop? You’ll end up reciting the entire Law if you keep that up!”
Yakov stands up quickly and speaks loudly. “Saul, this is not your turn to speak. Be quiet!”
Paul bows his head and sits down again.
Yakov turns back to Nikodemus. “Thank you for your wise words. We will consider them.”
Realising he has been dismissed, Nikodemus slowly makes his way back to his seat in the midst of the Pharisaic believers. There is silence for a few minutes. Yakov appears to be gathering his thoughts.
“Brothers, listen to me.” It is hardly necessary for Yakov to say this since everyone in the room is hanging on his every word. “Based on the testimony we have heard today, it’s clear that God is selecting from among the Gentiles a people belonging to his name. And the words of the prophets agree: as it is written, ‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the fallen tent of David; I will rebuild its ruins and restore it, so that the rest of humanity may seek the Lord, namely, all the Gentiles I have called to be my own, says the Lord, who makes these things known from long ago.’ Therefore I conclude that we should not cause extra difficulty for those among the Gentiles who are turning to the Most Holy One. Circumcision is therefore not to be a requirement of faith.
“But I agree with my brother Nikodemus. I do think it necessary to warn the Gentiles from pursuing actions that we know to be abhorrent. However…” (Here he looks quickly in Paul’s direction.) “… I too don’t want to get stuck in a long debate as to precisely what. Let me say this, though. One thing is clear: Simon’s vision showed us that the Most Holy One has made all foods clean. Indeed, this is also the clear teaching of Yeshua himself when he said, ‘Nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him unclean, for it doesn’t go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body. No, what comes out of a man’s heart is what makes him unclean.’ Now you may not wish to eat foods forbidden by the Law, but we must not stand in the way of fellow believers who do not have such scruples.
“That being said, we should all avoid those things that do make a man unclean. So the evils of idolatry and everything associated with idols must be avoided. The same for sexual immorality and for murder. These things are obvious, even, I should think, for Gentiles who are turning to the Most Holy One, and might not even need to be mentioned. For are there not synagogues in every city where the Law of Moses is read every Sabbath? But the same cannot be said for the evil practice of disposing of unwanted infants. This is done by all, it seems, from the greatest to the least, without the slightest sign of bad conscience. While they choose to distance themselves from their actions by referring to such a practice as ‘exposing’ infants, I say let us describe its true nature: they smother their own children and then leave the bodies outside to be eaten by wild dogs. Our Gentile brothers and sisters need to know that such a thing is forbidden. Therefore, I propose that we write a letter to them, and send it out in the hands of those willing to go. But let this issue of circumcision be done with, here and now.”
Anyone not already on their feet stands up and there is another loud chorus of “Amen!” The floor of my mother’s house groans ominously, but, fortunately for us all, it does not collapse. As the meeting breaks up, Yakov catches my eye and gestures for me to come over. I squeeze past Paul and walk over to where Yakov is standing, talking quietly with Kephas.
“Yohanan,” he says to me, “are you willing to fulfil your duties as a scribe?”
“Indeed, Rabbi, I would be honoured.”
“Then fetch your things. I would that this letter be written as soon as possible.”
Bowing, I turn and push my way through the dispersing crowd and then make my way down the stairs. Below, I find my mother supervising preparations for the evening meal.
“Yohanan, I hear things went well.” While I had not seen my mother in the upper room, I know from personal experience that you can hear everything quite clearly if you sit half-way up the stairs.
“Yes, Mama. Now I must assist with the writing of a letter.”
“Oh well, don’t let me keep you. Your writing things are over there.” With a wave of her hand, she indicates a roughly hewn wooden shelf.
It takes a few minutes to mix up some ink. Once it is ready, I collect some papyrus and a pen, and make my way back up the stairs. I find that a small group has formed around Yakov; it appears this letter will be written by committee. Sighing, I take a seat on the floor and rest the papyrus on one of the low stools.
“I’m ready,” I say.
The letter takes a while to be written, the process being complicated by some people dictating in Aramaic, while I am writing in Greek. Everyone has what they think is the best way to say what is needed. But it gets written eventually. The only part that bothers me is the wording of the four requirements mentioned by Yakov. Instead of descriptive phrases, it is thought best to refer to each sin with a single Greek word, either for the sake of brevity or for literary effect. But with brevity comes the potential for ambiguity. Idolatry is summarised as “things offered to idols” which is reasonable, I guess. For murder, they choose to go with the word “blood”, and infanticide with the word “smothered things”. Only “sexual immorality” is immediately clear to me. However, since the letter is to be distributed by messenger, the bearers of the letter will be able to explain the intended meaning.
After it is done, Yakov instructs me to make a number of copies. But, he explains, there is no rush; the letters will only be sent out after we have returned to Antioch. Yakov thanks me for my services and then departs, as do the rest of the letter-writing committee.
In the end, our evening meal is a quiet affair: just my mother and those who are staying the night here, which includes myself, Yosef, and Paul. After the meal, I ask to speak with Paul in private. He agrees, but I can see that he is still unwilling to make eye contact with me. I apologise for not supporting him that day in Antioch when he confronted Kephas. Really, this is the least I can do, given that he has now been proved correct in what he had said that day. I also apologise for abandoning the mission in Perga. Paul looks somewhat mollified. But I sense there is still a wariness in him towards myself.
Turns out, my senses are well founded.