This is another in a series of questions on the Bible.
Question: In Acts 21, Paul is described as partaking in Jewish rituals to show the Jerusalem Church that he has not strayed from the Law of Moses. Gerd Luedemann takes this as evidence that the early Church was essentially Jewish in nature and thus that there was a division between early Jewish Christianity and Pauline Christianity. It would seem then that we are given Paul’s version of Christianity which differed from other versions of Christianity.
In reply, there are several points:
First, it is true that in Acts 21 Paul goes to Jerusalem, encounters the church there, and begins a purification ritual. The part of the question that says he did it “to show the Jerusalem Church that he has not strayed from the Law of Moses” is an opinion that is read into the text. The passage simply says that Paul began the ritual; it does not say why he did it. Unfortunately for this question, Paul is arrested before he can finish the ritual, meet with the church, and address the issue…..or at least Luke does not record for us anything else Paul said on the matter before he was arrested.
Second, in the passage, v.21 and v.25 tell us much of what the church leaders were thinking and discussing. It is clear from these two verses that the church leaders in Jerusalem were making a distinction between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians. The accusation against Paul was that he was telling the Jewish Christians that it was not necessary to circumcise children nor “walk according to our customs.” In v.25, the Jerusalem church leaders repeat the response given at the church council in Acts 15:21, speaking to Gentile Christians.
Therefore it is clear that the early Jewish Christians in Jerusalem were from a thoroughly Jewish culture. That their church would reflect such a culture is no surprise. That they had to be corrected by Paul is also no surprise, as shown in Galatians (see below). This only shows that the Jerusalem church, made of primarily Jews and the starting point of the early church, is Jewish. Even today, many Jewish Christian churches still hold to their Jewishness…….they call themselves Jewish, meet on Saturdays, keep Jewish traditions, and have church services which have a distinct Jewish flavor. This is not a division in the church.
Third, Acts 15 – 16 give us a clue as to Paul’s thinking. In Acts 15, there is a discussion about circumcision as it relates to salvation, v.1. That it relates to salvation is the key, for Romans 14 tells us that there are some issues we should not divide fellowship over. Salvation, however, is an issue to divide over if a view is heretical. So most of Acts 15 have the story of this council, saying it is not necessary for Gentiles to be circumcised. Yet immediately after, in 16.3, Paul circumcises Timothy “because of the Jews who were in those parts.” They had just had a council that said people like Timothy did not have to be circumcised, yet Paul immediately circumcises him. Why? It was so that unimportant things like circumcision did not get in the way of the more important message of salvation in Jesus. Paul says in 1 Cor. 9:20 “To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law.” Therefore it is clear that Paul was trying to not make minor issues a stumbling block, and was allowing people to keep cultural things in their church practices, as long as they did not affect important things like salvation, the resurrection, the true God, and the nature of Jesus. Paul says clearly and plainly that he is not under the law. Therefore he would not teach other Jews that they were.
Fourth, the book of Galatians addresses this exact issue and does so with force and vigor. In it, Paul confronts the apostle Peter in front of the church and corrects him about his practices that would lead both Jews and Gentiles to think they were obligated to keep the law of Moses or any legalistic requirement. Over and over in Galatians, Paul makes it clear that no one, Jew or Gentile, is obligated to be circumcised or keep the law. That neither Jew nor Gentile is required to keep these practices is enforced over and over again in most of this book, including most of chapters five and six. We cannot take one passage in Acts 21 and have it override the rest of the New Testament, including Galatians.
Now, I grant that in Galatians it mentions that even Barnabas was taken in by the hypocrisy, as we see in 2:13. Many people hold that here Paul was indeed by himself in the view he teaches, and the other Jews were incorrect. But Galatians and Acts 15-16 are in the holy scriptures, as are the passages where Peter tells us Paul’s writings are inspired scriptures (2 Peter 3:16). It is no surprise to say that Paul had disagreements with the Jewish leaders about the requirements of the law, for the Bible tells us they did. But the Bible also tells us that the Jewish leaders ultimately all agreed with Paul that circumcision and the keeping of the law are not required for salvation. Jewish Christians apparently still kept some of the practices, as did Paul in Acts 16:3, but this was to keep from making minor issues a stumbling block.
In Galatians 1:18 to 2:10, Paul describes how he went to the apostles at Jerusalem on two occasions and checked with them whether his teachings were correct. They all agreed, including Peter, James, and John.
So we can conclude that the only first century church that was Jewish was the ones filled with Jews, which is the same as today. There were disagreements about what was required, but in the end, after much debate, all the church leaders agreed that for salvation, no Jewish law or customs were required. In Acts 21, the Jewish leaders of a primarily Jewish church had issues with Paul about circumcision and customs, not about salvation issues. Paul responded by doing what he always did, “to the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews.” Paul had no issue with confrontation with church leaders over this same issue, as he did without hesitation in Galatians 2:14. Here he did not, since it was not an issue over salvation. Over time he would have educated them about how to teach practices and requirements, but was arrested before he could do so.