A Meeting in Jerusalem
Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, OP
After a year and a half of intense labour Paul left Corinth in September AD 51. He had set out from Antioch-on-the-Orontes some five years earlier. It was time to return and report.
On his way back Paul dropped off Prisca and Aquila in Ephesus, a port on the west coast of Turkey and the capital of the Roman province of Asia. They were his advance party. No longer was he going to accept the burden of getting established in a strange city. It was up to them to find accomodation and get their business started again, and in general to have everything nice and ready when Paul returned the following summer.
Paul had decided to settle in Ephesus for the foreseeable future. All his foundations needed maintenance. Not only was Ephesus the centre of a circle circumscribing them all, but it offered him excellent communications.
Paul’s welcome in Antioch-on-the-Orontes was not as warm as he had expected. Influential Jews had come from Jerusalem to say that his concept of mission was completely wrong, and some at Antioch had listened. For Paul conversion was a very simple matter. Pagans had simply to confess their faith in Jesus Christ and submit to the rite of baptism. Jewish believers wanted it to be much more complicated. Pagans had first to become Jews through circumcision, and only then could they become members of the church.
Paul was profoundly shocked by this attitude. The basis of his life-work was under attack. The Antiocheans were less interested in what he had done than in the question of whether he had the right to have done it.
The visitors from Jerusalem had very strong arguments. Jesus had been circumcised, and obeyed the Law by going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Furthermore, he had proclaimed the eternal validity of the Law, and commanded obedience to it. If Jesus had been so scrupulous about the Law, the Jerusalemites argued, his disciples could not do otherwise.
Paul could not dispute these arguments, and did not try. His perspective was so different that to him they were completely irrelevant. Since Jesus was the Messiah, it was blindingly clear to him that the Law no longer had any authority.
Both sides shouted more and more loudly, and neither listened. This could not go on. Eventually the leaders of the community at Antioch decided to send Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to ask the mother church for a decision.
Paul had not been in Jerusalem for 14 years. The last time Peter had been in charge, and he had agreed with Paul’s vision of a Law-free mission to pagans. No doubt Paul took his support for granted this time. It must have come as a shock to find that Peter was no longer in a position of unrivaled authority. He was now but one of a committee headed by James the brother of Jesus. For Paul this would not have been a good sign.
James could not but be fully cognizant of the arguments that his people had brought to Antioch. The facts about the attitude of Jesus to the Law were indisputable. Yet he and his companions agreed with Paul and Barnabas. The reasons must have been political not theological.
The Jews had rights which were defined by Roman law. In the 15 years preceding the meeting in Jerusalem these rights had been infringed several times and Rome had taken no action. On certain occasions the Roman authorities themselves were responsible for antisemitic attacks. Anyone could see the Jews would have to fight back in the not too distant future. Rome, of course, would win. Jewish survival demanded enhanced unity and commitment.
This was not the time, James and others argued, to dilute Jewish identity by making a mass of pagan Christians nominal Jews. They had no loyalty to the Jewish people, and were unlikely to make sacrifices to support them against the might of Rome.
Whatever his personal inclinations, historical circumstances conspired to make James want to find justification for not circumcising pagan believers. This need made him receptive to Paul’s personality and arguments. No more than he had fourteen years earlier, could he doubt the sincerity with which Paul explained the implications of the way he himself had been converted. Nor could he deny the grace manifested in the number of pagans who accepted the Pauline gospel.
With obvious complacency Paul records the outcome of the meeting, “James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship” (Galatians 2:9). They had been completely vindicated. Their churches were safe.