May 19, 2010

Talbert on the Jerusalem Decree in Acts 15

Charles Talbert makes some interesting points concerning Luke's view of the Law based on the Jerusalem decree in Acts. Rather than try to summarize his argument, I have included it in toto.

"The Jerusalem decree raises questions about Luke’s view of the law. Two observations focus the issues: (1) no specific appeal is made to the law as the basis for the four prohibitions of 15:20, 29; (2) not all, but only selected portions, of Leviticus 17–18 are used. Why? The larger context within which an answer must be sought is decisive. Multiple groups in middle Judaism were all laying claim to the Scriptures of ancient Israel. Each group read the same Scriptures in a different way. Two examples suffice. (a) Rabbinic Judaism's prioritizing of the covenants was very different from that of Paul. Whereas for the Pharisaic tradition the Mosaic covenant is central and the Abrahamic covenant is understood eschatologically, for Paul the new covenant is central and is appealed to in connection with the covenant with Abraham. The Mosaic covenant is transcended. These two stances would give radically different readings of the same Scriptures. (b) At Qumran, Scripture is understood both as legal prescriptions and as prophetic promise. It is this community's belief that the prophetic promises are being fulfilled in the life of their group. The Pharisaic tradition regarded Scripture primarily legally and as only incidentally prophetic. Prophetic fulfillment is a future hope. Messianists saw the Scriptures primarily as prophetic oracles that were being fulfilled in the salvation history that runs from John the Baptist through Jesus to the church. These differing perspectives would inevitably yield widely disparate readings of the common Scriptures at the same time that all groups would hold to the formal authority of the same Scriptures. The question is how does the author of Acts read them?

"It is clear that Luke reads the Scriptures as prophecies that are being fulfilled in Jesus and his followers. There is a new covenant in place (Luke 22:20; Acts 2). Soteriological benefits flow from the exalted Christ, not from the law (Luke 24:46–47; Acts 5:31; 10:43; 13:38–39). As a result, the repentance demanded of Israel and of Gentiles alike has to do with one's response to Jesus as Messiah (Luke 12:8-9; Acts 3:22-23). The ethnic dimensions of the law are still appropriate (Acts 21:20), though not demanded (Acts 10:28, 48), for ethnic Jews. They, moreover, have no soteriological benefits even for Jews (Acts 15:11). The only ethnic aspects of the law applicable to Gentiles are certain of those designed to facilitate social interchange between ethnic Jews and Gentiles who live among them (Lev 17–18; Acts 15:20, 29). These have no soteriological benefits for the Gentiles who observe them (Acts 15:11). Their observance by Gentile Messianists is not because of the authority of the law. It is rather because these customs are the minimalist concession that communal spirit demands to enable ethnic Jews and Gentiles, all of whom have become believers in Jesus the Messiah, to live together in unity. They are chosen not because they are a direct obligation of the law but because they are what is likely to be a source of controversy between Jewish and Gentile Messianists living together (Blomberg, 53–80; Seifrid, 39–57)."

Charles H. Talbert, Reading Acts: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, rev. ed. (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2005), 135.

I am inclined to agree with Talbert. Talbert's point is even stronger for me because I do not see the prohibitions as originating in Leviticus 17-18 (see my article "A Reexamination of the Prohibitions in Acts 15," Bibliotheca Sacra 161 [2004]: 449-68).

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