Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Six Possible Interpretations of the Fourfold Decree (Schnabel, 2012)




So I was perusing the very latest exegetical commentary on Acts ("Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament", Schnabel, 2012).  In it, he describes the six different approaches to determining the rationale behind the fourfold decree.  In reality, there's more than six possible approaches.  But it's a good analysis and contains many insights.  Enjoy:

"The rationale for these four particular stipulations is disputed.  Six main interpretations have been suggested, the last two being the most likely.

(1) The four stipulations are practical measures meant to facilitate the (table) fellowship between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians as ‘ad hoc advice on how not to offend certain Jews.’  This explanation is not convincing since the stipulation that forbids idolatry does not fit the assumed concern for harmony between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians; rather, abandonment of idolatry was a fundamental part of the conversion of Gentiles.  Also, the matters related to idolatry, immorality, and the ingestion of blood are not mere intrapersonal offenses for Jews (which the Gentile believers should take into account), but offenses against God prohibited in the law.  James does not ask the Gentile believers to ‘respect’ the Jewish believers, nor does he ask the Jewish believers not to ‘force’ themselves on the Gentile believers.  Had this ‘ethos’ been James’s main concern, he would have had other linguistic means to make this point.
(2) The stipulations correspond to the Noahide commandments that the Jews regarded as normative for humanity.  The parallel is not striking, since the concrete specifications of the Noahide commandments in the rabbinic sources prohibit idolatry, blasphemy, murder, incest, stealing, perverting justice, and eating meat containing blood.  The stipulations of  v. 20 have only the first, third, fourth and seventh command (if ‘sexual immorality’ is understood as incest, and ‘blood’ as reference to murder).
(3) The stipulations correspond to the cardinal sins that a Jew was not supposed to commit under any circumstances—idolatry, fornication, and murder (blood).  This explanation cannot account for the prohibition of eating ‘what is strangled.’
(4) The stipulations come from the catalogues of vices and virtues that Jews used in teaching Gentiles when they became proselytes.  The apostles’ decision removed circumcision from such a list, but kept the other requirements.  While intriguing, this explanation cannot explain the phrase ‘what has been strangled,’ and it fails to see that by the removal of the requirement of circumcision, the Gentile converts were thus exempted from the necessity of becoming proselytes.
(5) The stipulations should be interpreted in the context of the Jewish diaspora on the background of the Old Testament polemic against idolatry; they direct the Gentile believers to refrain from participating in pagan cultic and other practices.  This interpretation suggests that the first stipulation concerns matters related to pagan idols; the term ‘sexual immorality’ refer to prostitution linked with pagan temples; the references to strangled animals and to blood refer to cultic practices of pagans.  This interpretation is valid in a general sense.  The first stipulation concerns idolatry, and as Paul’s discussion in 1 Cor 8-10 shows, Gentile believers were tempted to continue to attend banquets in pagan temples.  However, by itself this explanation is insufficient.  If the four stipulations only wanted to direct Gentile Christians to give up their former pagan practices and to worship the one true God, concerns regarding idolatry could have been formulated more clearly and without recourse to rare Greek words.  Also, the decree would not have said anything new and would therefore have been redundant, since the renunciation of pagan religious practices was a fundamental part of the message that missionaries preached among Gentiles.
(6) The four stipulations should be interpreted in terms of the regulations that Lev 17-18 formulates for Gentiles who live in Israel as resident aliens.  Prohibited are sacrifices that are not offered on the altar at the tabernacle, which means that consumption of meat sacrificed in other places to idols is prohibited (Lev 17:8-9); immorality, specifically sexual relations between blood relatives (18:10-18); eating meat from animals that have been strangled (17:13); and eating blood (17:14; cf. 18:26).  Understood against this background, these four stipulations have been explained as a (cultic-ritual) compromise aimed at facilitating the communal fellowship of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians in ‘mixed churches.’
      However, the pragmatic desire to facilitate fellowship between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians alone does not suffice to explain the selection of the four stipulations, particularly since other stipulations of the law for the resident alien are missing, as, for example, the Sabbath commandment.  It seems that the four stipulations in v. 20 are requested of Gentile Christians not only because they occur in Lev 17-18 but also because they are linked with the phrase ‘in the midst of them’ (Heb. Betokam; Lev 17:8-9, 10-14; 18:26), and that these stipulations for the resident alien living in Israel are connected via this catchphrase with the prophecies in Jer 12:16 and Zech 2:11 (MT 2:15) concerning the Gentiles joining the people of God and living in the midst of them.
     Thus, the provision in v. 20 is not an arbitrary qualification of the decision to admit Gentile believers into the people of God without requiring them to become Jewish proselytes.  Rather, the prohibitions follow with exegetical logic from vv. 16-18:  ‘If Gentile Christians are the Gentiles to whom the prophecies conflated in Acts 15.16-18 refer, then they are also the Gentiles of Jer 12.16; Zech 2.11/15, and therefore the part of the Law of Moses which applies to them is Leviticus 17-18.’  In other words, James’s exegetical argument created a link between the prophecy of Amos 9:11-12, quoted in vv. 16-18, and Lev 17-18, quoted in v. 20, by alluding to prophecies that announced the integration of Gentiles into the people of God (Jer 12:16; Zech 2:11).  James established that the law contains these commandments that explicitly apply to Gentiles living among Israel.”

“15:21  ‘For Moses has had those who proclaim him in every city, for generations, and he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath’…The last element of James’s speech is the rationale for the stipulations in v. 20.  These regulations are scriptural, a fact that is common knowledge to the Gentiles who have contact with synagogues in which the Mosaic law ‘is read’ and ‘proclaimed.’  The statement that the law is read and explained ‘in every city’ every Sabbath obviously refers to cities that had a Jewish community.  James argues that just as the conversion of the Gentiles and their admission into the people of God has been made known in the prophecy of Scripture a long time ago (vv. 17b-18, referring to Amos 9:12 and alluding to Isa 45:21), so the regulations that the Gentile believers should keep are not new inventions but an integral part of the Mosaic law that has been explained in the synagogues for generations.”

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