Acts 15 and the Law in the Church

Acts 15, which presents the proceedings of what has become known as the Council of Jerusalem, that apostolic gathering which became the paradigm for future church councils, is considered to be the central passage in the New Testament to an understanding of how the apostles viewed the continued relevance, or irrelevance, of the Law to the life of the church.  A group of pharisees who had become embraced Jesus as the Messiah were putting forth the argument that the Gentiles who were by that time entering into the nascent Christian church should be subject to not just the Old Testament Law, but to their pharisaic interpretation thereof.  The gathered apostles, prominently Ss. Paul, Peter, and James, found against this party, and issued a letter in which only four broad commandments were to be applied to the new Gentile believers.   This event, and the passage which described it, has become a rhetorical tool for arguments of all kind that wish to marginalize Old Testament texts of all kinds, in particular, in recent times, regarding human sexuality.  We are told that the Council of Jerusalem decided that ‘the Law doesn’t apply any more’ for Christians.

First of all, context is necessary.  The apostles were in agreement that Gentiles coming to worship the God of Israel was the result of an act of God in the Holy Spirit, they affirm as much in their statements in this chapter, and that that act was prophesied in the Old Testament scriptures.  St. James quotes here from Amos, but the inclusion of the Gentiles is prophesied throughout the Old Testament prophetic books, beginning with the prophecy regarding Noah’s sons Shem and Japheth in Genesis.  It is, for example, a major theme in Isaiah, as in 56:3-7, 58:6-12, 60:1-3, and 66:18-23.  In addition to all that they had already seen fulfilled in Christ, the apostles were now seeing these prophecies fulfilled in their time as well.  So the question facing the apostles, given that these events were described in scripture, was to determine how scripture had characterized these events.  Specifically, did the Gentiles coming to worship Israel’s God mean that all of these people would become Israelites.  That idea is not without precedent in the Old Testament scriptures, as prominent figures like Caleb, Rahab, and Ruth all came from outside the people of Israel but ended their lives as Israelites.

In order to understand the apostles understanding of the Law in this case, it is perhaps best to begin with the four commandments issued by this council as applying to the entire Christian community, whether Jew or Gentile.  Often when Acts 15 and the Council of Jerusalem are referenced rhetorically, these commandments are ignored, considered quaint, or otherwise not seriously considered.  After all, it is said, two of them, concerning blood and meat with blood in it, are ignored by contemporary Christians, and they argue that St. Paul waffled on food offered to idols (he didn’t, but that is a topic for another time).  This leaves for them only the fourth of the commands, sexual immorality, which they then see as suitably vague and malleable.  These four commandments, however, are not arbitrary, cultural, or selected without particular reason.

Leviticus 17-26 is often referred to as the “Holiness Code”.  It represents a series of commandments, directed to the forming nation of Israel, that if kept will allow the people of Israel to continue to dwell in their new land rather than being vomited out of it like the Canaanites before them.  These sections of commandments are, for the most part, prefaced with the Lord telling Moses to ‘Speak to the sons of Israel, saying…’  These are commandments for the people of Israel, the keeping of which will separate and distinguish them from every other nation on earth.  The Israelites are never commanded to enforce these commandments on the other nations of the world.  Rather, by keeping them, they are to serve as a light to the other nations, which will draw them to also worship Israel’s God.  And so, the dietary laws of Leviticus 11 are never applied to those who are not Israelites, nor the laws concerning childbirth in Leviticus 12.

There are, however, a few passages within the Holiness Code which reflect something different.  The eating of blood is discussed within the context of sacrificial regulations, and therefore within a context of pagan worship in Leviticus 17.  When the eating of blood, or meat with blood in it, is discussed in verses 10-14, the commandment is given to the house of Israel, and to the foreigners who dwell among them.  Anyone from either group who violates the commandment will be cut off.  There is no prohibition in Leviticus 11 of foreigners eating unclean animals, but there is here a strict command against those foreigners eating blood.  Likewise, Leviticus 18 gives a variety of commandments regarding human sexuality.  At its culmination, these commandments are again applied to everyone of the Israelite nation, and to foreigners who dwell among them.  Further, the reason for this extension of the commandment is given that sexual immorality defiles the land itself, and therefore the land will vomit them out if this sin is tolerated within it (v. 26-28).  Again in chapter 20, regarding idolatry in general and Molech in particular, the commandment is given to the sons of Israel, and the foreigners who dwell with them (v.2-5).  Within Leviticus, these four commandments are singled out as applying not only to Israelites, but also to anyone who is going to dwell among them.

After reading Leviticus closely, we can see that the apostles were doing the exact opposite of saying that the Law doesn’t apply to Christians.  Rather, they were proclaiming that a very close reading of the Law will be the basis for the formation of the church community just as it was the basis for the formation of the nation of Israel.  The Gentiles who come to worship Christ do not become a part of the Jewish nation.  They remain Greeks or Romans or Egyptians or Syrians.  But in order to dwell with God’s people and not draw the wrath of God down upon the community, they must refrain from all idolatry and sexual immorality.  Further, the close reading here means that what is meant by sexual immorality in this apostolic proclamation is not vague or subject to interpretation, but is laid out in some detail in the book of Leviticus.  St. James does not feel the need to elaborate further because, as he says after listing these commands, the Law has been proclaimed in every city of the world, and so the Gentiles who receive his letter will know and understand what this entails (Acts 15:21).

The core of this understanding, that idolatry and sexual immorality in particular cannot be tolerated within the Christian community, can be seen in the practice of the Christian communities throughout the history of the Orthodox Church.  It lies behind the emphasis on virginity and the withdrawal from pagan public life in the early persecuted church.  It lies behind St. Constantine’s dismantling of the public sacrificial system as one of his first acts after his conversion.  It lies behind the de-paganization of the empire begun under Theodosius.  It lies behind the prohibitions of sexual immorality in St. Justinian’s Nomocanon, which explicitly uses the language of the land vomiting out the people if it is defiled by these sins.

Far from proclaiming that the Law no longer applies to Christians, the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 directly, strictly, and literally applies the Law to the life of the Christian church.  The Law is not here rejected, but here established.  The dispute which was here ended was not between a pro-Law and an anti-Law party, but a dispute over how the Law should be rightly interpreted, understood, and applied in light of the revelation of Jesus Christ.



  1. So what of places where blood is consumed? I’ve tried blood–pig blood, of all things–in China and wasn’t a fan, but they seem to like it. We don’t kosher slaughter here, so there’s always some blood left in our beef, at least. Is this only in relation to specific pagan cultic practices, or is it a general prohibition?

    1. In the original context of Leviticus, the prohibition against drinking or eating blood comes not with the dietary laws related to food, but within the context of sacrificial regulations. In the context of apostolic Christianity, the Gentile Christians to whom the Council’s letter was addressed would have encountered meat primarily in the context of city meat markets, which were stocked with meat from sacrificial animals. So on a practical level at the time the letter in Acts 15 was written, the commandments regarding blood had less to do with how to slaughter and prepare meat and more to do with the other commandment regarding meat offered to idols. So on a literal level, what was in view in both Leviticus and Acts 15 is not participating in pagan ritual. While gross idolatry, such as offering prayers or incense or sacrifice in a pagan temple, was very obviously off limits to Christians, participation through the eating of this meat was more subtle, and do to its seriousness, needed to be stated.

      At the deeper level, we’ve become so accustomed to Christ’s words concerning the Eucharist, and to the idea of drinking his blood both in that context and in John 6, that we lose the force of it when originally communicated to a Judean audience steeped in this commandment. To their ears, it would have sounded like Christ was commanding them to commit an abomination. But reading backwards, we can see that the ideas established in Leviticus that blood is sacred, and that it contains life, were laying the ground for understanding Christ communicating his life to us in the Eucharist, similar to the way in which the role of blood in the Day of Atonement ritual laid the groundwork for understanding Christ’s shed blood at the cross.

      As a last note, both the dietary laws and St. Paul’s position on food offered to idols will be the subjects of subsequent posts in this series.

  2. Father,
    I am quite interested in the prohibition to eat blood, as well. In particular, since you mentioned Leviticus, the passage (NKJV) reads: “You shall not eat the blood of any flesh, for the life of all flesh is its blood. Whoever eats it shall be cut off.” I have not had a chance to look at patristic commentaries yet, but, at least on the face of it, it seems the prohibition to eat blood has to do with something intrinsic to the blood itself, not to sacrifices. Again, that is just my impression and I would love some more detail on this topic.

    Thank you for your work on this blog.

    1. I dealt with this a little in my response to the question above. Also, there’s going to be a subsequent post in this series dealing with the sacrificial system and its ongoing application in the life of the Church. But to expand a little on my comment at the end of that above response, there is a particular pattern established here in terms of the role of blood in sacrifice. I specify that because blood has different relevance in different ritual contexts in the Old Testament. For example, the blood on the doorpost at the Passover, the blood sprinkled on the people at the ratification of the covenant, and the blood smeared on the horns of the altar on the Day of Atonement are not identical in meaning.

      In the context of sacrifice, not only here in Leviticus, but in the context of pagan ritual understandings, blood is seen to carry life within it. This connection was not only true in blood consumption rituals related to sacrifice in the ancient Near East. In the Greco-Roman practice which would have been more familiar to the Gentiles addressed in Acts 15, while blood wasn’t drained in toto from sacrificial animals, they were generally killed by having their throats slit, and a quantity of blood was drained. This blood was poured out on the graves of heroes, generally located within shrines inside or adjacent to pagan temples. The general Greek view of the afterlife had been that after death, a shadow of the dead person lived in the realm of Hades, and existed there for as long as his memory endured. In conjunction with a commemoration to perpetuate the hero’s collective memory, blood would be ‘fed’ to the deceased in order to help keep their shade alive. This is what is going on with Odysseus and the black sacrificial goats in his journey to Hades in the Odyssey, the sacrificial practice is being mimicked and explained.

      So, the prohibition for the Jewish people against consuming blood, and the requirement to drain the blood completely from sacrificial animals, rules out and prevents any of these or similar ritual practices. In the practice enjoined by the Law, the blood of sacrificial animals is poured out at the base of the altar, into the ground. It is not coincidental that St. John sees the souls of the martyr under the altar in heaven in Revelation 6:9. But as mentioned above, I think the purpose of this identification of blood with life is not to make a biological or mystical point regarding physical blood. Rather I think the New Testament and the Fathers see this identification as laying the groundwork for our understanding of the Eucharist, and receiving Christ’s life within ourselves by drinking his blood.

        1. It is interesting what finally helps us make connections. Putting things into their historical context and your words about the Greeks using blood to feed the shadows somehow helped me connect the sacrificial lamb and the blood of the Old Testament. It finally occurred to me that they are understood in the same way: neither can do what it is supposed to do (take away sin or have life in it) except by being a foreshadowing of the one Lamb and His precious Blood.

  3. Once again you’ve demonstrated the importance of reading scripture within the appropriate historical and cultural context in which it was written. Before we can apply the lessons of a sacred text to our own time, we must understand how that text was used in the time it was first written.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *