Jerusalem conference

Hyam Maccoby h.z.maccoby at
Thu Aug 22 13:54:18 EDT 2002

In order to understand the Jerusalem Council, one must take into account the
existence of the Noahide Laws, which formed a kind of Torah for Gentiles, by
which they could be counted as belonging to God.  These laws do not include
any requirement for circumcision, which was required only for Gentiles who
wished to become converted to full Jews.  Various versions of the Noahide
Laws exist in the sources but none of them includes circumcision.
    The question before the Jerusalem Council was whether Gentiles could
belong to the Jesus movement without becoming full Jews, but merely by
becoming 'God-fearers', i.e. Noahides (benei Noach).  This was a difficult
question, since the Messiah was regarded as the King of the Jews, and it was
doubtful whether non-Jews could come under his jurisdiction.  In other
words, could Noahides belong to a Messianic movement, thus becoming subjects
to a Jewish king,  or must they retain their own nationality under their own
    The decision of James was to admit Noahides, or 'God-fearers' into the
Messianic movement of Jesus merely on the basis of their adherence of the
Noahide Laws (a version of these laws is actually given in the narrative of
the Council).  This meant that they could become Jesus-followers without
undergoing circumcision.  So fear of circumcision as a dangerous operation
is really irrelevant to this topic.
    James did not change his mind about this decision at all.  What he did
do was to send out emissaries to continue to try to persuade Gentiles to
become full Jews by circumcision, which would give them higher  status in
the coming Messianic kingdom.  The Jews are 'a nation of priests' whereas
the God-fearers (Noahides) are the laity. This was not a breach of the
decision of the Jerusalem Council, which was simply to allow Gentiles a
choice in the matter.  James had given  no undertaking to cease
proselytising activities, but had undertaken to accept uncircumcised
Noahides as well as circumcised converts to full Judaism.
    Paul. on the the other hand, had a different view which he concealed at
the Jerusalem Council.  This was that the Jewish Torah had been abrogated,
and therefore the distinction between Jews and Noahides was no longer valid.
He therefore took the view that he had a monopoly on the conversion of
Gentiles and that Jamesian missionaries were trespassing on his territory.
He was therefore furious with the Jamesian missionaries whom he regarded as
competitors for converts, though this was not their intention at all.

Hyam Maccoby


Dr.Hyam Maccoby
Research Professor
Centre for Jewish Studies
University of Leeds
Direct lines: tel. +44 (0)113 268 1972
                   fax +44 (0)113 268 0041
e-mail: h.z.maccoby at

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