Here's a little discussion guide for Acts 15 that I feel might be helpful for Messianic fellowship groups or for your personal study:
THE TWO MOST IMPORTANT QUESTIONS TO UNDERSTAND
(1) Why is it so important to interpret Acts 15 correctly?
ANSWER: because misinterpreting Acts 15 has led to the false teaching that non-Jews are (1) excluded from Israel and (2) exempt from keeping G-d's instructions for righteous living contained in Sinaitic Torah.
(2) Why is it so difficult to interpret Acts 15 correctly?
ANSWER: Because of the difficulties inherent in understanding/performing (1) text criticism; (2) legal analysis; (3) lexicology; (4) Theology (specifically covenantal membership) and; (5) context.
Bible translations that are not text-critical (i.e. that do not base their text on the oldest and most reliable textual witnesses) offer versions of Acts 15 that contain anti-Judaic, non-original, scribal additions which radically alter the meaning of the entire passage. Specifically, the Western textual tradition (1) distorts the fourfold decree itself which results in a rule that the Council did not intend (2) distorts the letter contained in Acts 15:23-29, adding a phrase that, again, results in a rule that the Council did not intend. In both cases, it changes the rule from "Non-Jews (and Jews) are not required to be circumcised and keep Mosaic Torah for salvation" to "Non-Jews are not required to be circumcised and keep Mosaic Torah...period."
Legal opinions seldom come right out and state the rule for the case at hand. This means that the typical way one extracts a rule from a case summary is through a process of reverse engineering, examining whether the issue is factual or legal, uncovering the logical propositions contained in the arguments made to the court, evaluating the interrelationship of the court's rationale(s), holding(s), and dicta.
For Acts 15, this means that one must ask, at a minimum, the following questions:
- What were the conflicting views that gave rise to the dispute at Antioch?
- Does Acts 15:1 state the issue that resulted from the dispute at Antioch?
- Does Peter's argument shed light on the nature of the issue?
- What rationales does James offer before rendering his decision?
- What is the interrelationship between the fourfold decree and the dicta of v. 21 regarding the teaching of Moses? What do these two things have to do with the issue before the court?
What is the "yoke" to which Peter refers? Is it the same "yoke" referred to in Galatians 5, the impossible yoke of works-based justification?
What might the phrase "pollutions of idols" (ton alisgematon ton eidolon, v. 20) and "meats offered to idols" (eidolothutos, v. 29) tell us about the context for the decree?
Why did certain Pharisaic Believers think that non-Jews could not be saved unless they were circumcised? Is there any documentation for this type of position in the first-century? What reasons did Peter and Paul have for disputing this position?
Peter seems to refer to the Cornelius episode during his speech before the Jerusalem Council. How does the Cornelius episode relate to the issue stated in Acts 15:1?