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The Gorilla in Early Christianity

About the year 55 C. E., there was an important meeting between James, Peter, Paul . . . and this gorilla 

In Acts 15, there is a famous incident in which the leaders of the early church discuss a controversy between the Jews and gentiles in the early church. To what extent must the gentiles obey the Jewish law, especially the law regarding circumcision of males? James finally announces the decision at Acts 15:29. The gentiles in the church must only obey four prohibitions: (1) against blood, (2) against "things strangled," (3) against things offered to idols, and (4) against fornication.

But what exactly does this mean? What is James talking about? In The Lost Religion of Jesus, I suggest that by "blood" James (in the historical situation) was referring to shedding blood, specifically human or animal blood, as in the case of meat-eating or animal sacrifice. However, Eric Mader argues otherwise in an otherwise very flattering review (thanks, Eric!):

James' verdict is not nearly as mysterious as Akers implies. The prohibition against "blood" is clear in the context of Judaism. One need only turn to various passages in Leviticus, or to the following in Deuteronomy [cites Deuteronomy 12:20-25].

He also argues that Iíve made the apostolic decree hopelessly redundant:

When one looks at the final results of Akers' reading, he has managed to make three of James' four injunctions into arguments for vegetarianism, almost as if James were saying that pagan converts needed to abstain from:

1) unchastity,

2) meat sacrificed to idols,

3) the meat of fish, and

4) meat

It's hard to believe the leader of the Jerusalem church would find it useful to be so redundant.

Generally, I donít like polemics, because itís hard to get anyone to read them except two very excited protagonists.  Also, this review is actually pretty positive about my book, so I can't really complain.  So, since he's probably the only who's going to read this anyway, hi, Eric!  

I'll also admit right off that he makes some valid criticisms as well, like I don't talk about the Didache or the book of James, and the less-than-nuanced view of Paul.  However, because this point of view about the Jerusalem conference is so widespread ó most scholars in this area accept something like Ericís argument ó I thought Iíd take the chance to provide my defense that, in fact, James intended to prohibit the shedding of blood, not just the consumption of blood.

The Curious Incident of the Gorilla

What this decree means depends on the context. Even though scholars are pretty much in agreement that Acts was written at least 50 years after the event, is heavily edited, is written with a theological and historical agenda in hand, they almost invariably accept the context of Actsí depiction of the apostolic council at face value. That is, they accept that it is intended to describe those items of Jewish law which gentile converts must follow. By accepting this context, they have completely missed the gorilla in early Christianity. Let me explain.

There is a celebrated video which is often used to demonstrate the nature of human perception. This video is about 25 seconds long. Itís introduced by someone saying something like, "we want to test your perception, so weíre going to show you a video of two teams dribbling and passing the basketball to each other. One team is in white shirts, the other is in black shirts. We want you to count how many times the team in white shirts successfully pass the ball to each other. Dropped passes, or passes to or from the people in black shirts, donít count." (You can see this video here.)

Then the video is shown, and at the conclusion, the audience is asked: "how many of you saw the gorilla?"

Invariably, many or even most people donít see the gorilla at all. At about 10 seconds into the video, a woman in a gorilla suit strolls slowly in between the players, waves and pounds her chest, and then slowly strolls off stage. When told there is a gorilla, and on being shown the video a second time, some people even insist that they are seeing two versions of the video, one with and one without the gorilla.

If you havenít been "coached" to count the passes between the people in white shirts, the gorilla is obvious. But with the "coaching," you might very well miss it. You have been told that the important thing is the passes between the people in white shirts. What the people in black shirts are doing is unimportant. There is not one but two basketballs, and the gorilla suit is "black" and youíve been trying to ignore the confusing actions of the people in the black shirts.

In fact, if anyone is interested, there would be an interesting counter-experiment with this video: ask people to count the number of passes between the team with black shirts.  I'd bet that most of these people would see the gorilla, because the woman in a gorilla suit, in peripheral vision, looks just enough like someone in a black shirt so that they would have to notice her.

Looking for the "Jewish Context"

Scholars of Acts are in a similar situation. They have allowed Acts to "coach" them to look only for the items that relate to issues of Jewish law. Those watching the basketball video are told "pay close attention to the passes by those in white shirts!  The black shirts don't matter!", so Acts is in effect saying, "Count how many references there are to Jewish rituals! Pay no attention to other controversies!"

Letís suppose you had a different context. Letís suppose that you had the bare text of the same decree: a prohibition on blood, things strangled, things offered to idols, and fornication. And letís suppose that in Acts we see a very different sort of context provided. Suppose that the whole dispute at Antioch was introduced like this:

"But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brethren, ĎAn idol has no real existence, and there is no God but one. Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience.í [Lifted from I Corinthians 8:4, 10:25.]  And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate over this matter, it was decided to go up to the elders in Jerusalem about this question." [Patterned after Acts 15:1-2.]

And suppose that James, in announcing the apostolic decree, had said something like this:

"It is well-pleasing to God to abstain from the table of devils, not to taste dead flesh, not to touch blood. [Lifted from Homilies 7.4.] And so, let everyone abstain from these four things: from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell." [Patterned after Acts 15:28-29.]

Obviously in this case you wouldnít be looking for Jewish rituals. Youíd be faced with a controversy that was clearly about meat consumption. James doesnít like meat consumption. We have a pretty good case that the historical James was not only a vegetarian, but was raised as a vegetarian, based on Hegesippus, so it's not like such objections would be out of character for James.  It would also be clear that while this might be related to ritual matters within Judaism, that itís not just the kosher objections to blood that are at stake, it is something deeper. It is dead flesh which is an issue. It is idolatry which is an issue.

Of course it may be objected, "Sure, if Acts said those things, that would provide the context you want to argue that the apostolic decree was about vegetarianism. But Acts didnít say those things; youíre just making this up."

Well, not quite.

Itís not in Acts, but it is in the Recognitions and Homilies, which offer precisely this interpretation. More importantly, it is also in the letters of Paul.

Paul provides precisely the context for the dispute which I have supplied for my "pseudo-Acts." It is Paul who discusses at some length the table of demons and things sacrificed to idols ó arguing that we can eat anything sold in the meat-market without raising questions of conscience. It is Paul who discusses the vegetarian question ó arguing that whether we eat or whether we abstain, we still honor God.

We have to give absolute priority to the historical information in Paulís letters over anything else in early Christianity. Paulís letters were not only written at least a half-century before Acts, but at least several decades before the gospels. Unlike the murky evidence that Jesus said this or did that in the gospels, and unlike the heavily-edited version presented us nearly 50 years after the fact in the book of Acts, we have direct evidence by a contemporary eye-witness to the disputes: Paul.

Is James Concerned about Kosher?

The first problem with the view that James is talking about the kosher laws is that this has no support in the letters of Paul, which are the earliest and most direct account of early Christianity that we have. My interpretation, by contrast, is directly supported by Paulís letters. According to this interpretation, we should find Paulís opponents objecting to meat and food offered to idols. Thatís precisely what we find in Romans 14 and I Corinthians 8-10. So we are dealing with two theories: one is supported by Paulís letters, the other isnít. Which one should we go with?

But thereís a second problem: the objection to meat offered to idols. While the apostolic decree rejects meat offered to idols, Paul specifically accepts such meat-eating. He goes into this at same length in I Corinthians 8-10. "Eat anything sold in the market place without raising questions of conscience," says Paul, excusing both meat-eating in general and the meat offered to idols in particular. Yet Acts portrays Paul as accepting precisely the opposite position. It seems clear that the historical Paul rejected the apostolic decree, exactly the opposite impression we get from Acts 15, where Paul not only accepts the decree but then helps spread the news about it. 

The third problem is that the whole concept of "legalistic" Jewish Christians maintaining loyalty to the kosher laws runs right up against both the evidence of the later Ebionites and the evidence of Paul. 

The later Ebionites donít seem to be very concerned about matters of Jewish ritual. The only rituals which the Recognitions and Homilies express significant concern about is the ritual of baptism. Baptism in flowing water (rather than in standing pools, as at Qumran) was an innovation of John the Baptist adopted by Christians and Mandaeans but pretty much rejected by other Jews.  

By contrast, the Ebionites are willing to toss out much of Leviticus with hardly a thought. "They blaspheme the legislation," says Epiphanius ó "certain texts they reject" ó specifically mentioning the animal sacrifices. Jesus came, according to the Ebionites, to abolish the ritual sacrifices.

Paul, moreover, reports that the Jewish Christian leadership of James, Peter, and John, are quite happy to forget about another ritual matter, the question of male circumcision. "Nor was Titus compelled to be circumcised, though he is Greek," comments Paul (Galatians 2:3). Paul would love to cast the whole debate in terms of circumcision, as he in fact does rhetorically at several points, because this is an issue he clearly feels he can win within the early church, so this admission is doubly significant. The only time he reports that the specific question of circumcision was an issue, he indicates that the leaders of the church actually agree with him. It is on the question of food, not on the question of circumcision, that the leaders fall out (Galatians 2:11-14).

The fourth problem is that we are left with no explanation as to how to frame Jamesí decree. In Acts, this decree is expressed as the minimum standards for gentile converts to the Jesus movement. Remember that in Acts, the whole reason for the apostolic council is circumcision. While the decree does not directly address the question of circumcision, Acts frames the issue so that circumcision is addressed indirectly, by relating the decree as merely the minimum requirements on gentile converts. Do such converts need to be circumcised? The answer now becomes: no, they only have to abstain from blood, things strangled, things offered to idols, and fornication.

If it really means just abstain from drinking blood, or to abstain from non-kosher meat, then what happens to all the other commandments besides circumcision? What about lying, cheating, and stealing, just to mention three? Lying, cheating, and stealing are not mentioned by James. They are, however, prohibited by the ten commandments. There is no indication that Paul would have disagreed, either ó Paul specifically lists commandments which he feels everyone in the Jesus movement should be bound by (Romans 13:9).

Itís as if James, in response to this dispute, is saying, "Guess what, everybody! Not only do you not have to be circumcised, we donít even care if you lie, cheat, and steal."  So the whole framing of this dispute is, in short, fictitious, or we are quickly reduced to absurdity.

Fifth, the sequence of events within the history Christianity now doesnít make sense. Letís suppose that the apostolic decree against blood was intended merely to support at least this aspect of the kosher laws. This is what weíre left with:

1. There is a serious division in the early church. Some Christians object to meat-eating (Romans 14) and some Christians object to things offered to idols (I Corinthians 8-10).

2. The apostolic council comes together and decrees that kosher laws should be observed (Acts 15:29, and the phrase "against blood," we presume).

3. However, this decree is promptly forgotten by both the gentile Christians (who deny any need to adhere to any Jewish rituals at all) and the Jewish Christian Ebionites (who make the more radical demand of vegetarianism), and we never hear of it again. 

Surely it must be odd that this demand, to obey the kosher laws, is not mentioned by anyone before the fact, and is promptly disregarded by everyone else after the fact. It was a "compromise" of some sort, but then it was immediately rejected by both sides. Basically, this version of history just doesnít make sense.


What about the charge of redundancy? James is not, in the three items relating to food, forbidding three different things, meat, meat offered to idols, and the meat of fish.  He is forbidding one thing, using three arguments.

The first argument is that you shouldnít eat land animals because that is bloodshed. But in ancient times, many didnít think that fish had blood.  Thatís why thereís no ritual slaughter method for fish, they are killed the way sea animals are typically killed ó by asphyxiation. Thus there needed to be a second argument: you donít eat things strangled. Thirdly, he wants to indicate what kind of an offense this is. It is not just a question of ritual; it is idolatry, because by eating slaughtered creatures, you are worshiping demons.

All these arguments are directly supported by our knowledge of the Ebionites.  The first two are also supported by the fact that Paul is arguing with vegetarians in the early church. O. K., the third argument, about idolatry, is a bit of a stretch if you restrict yourself to Paul's letters. Itís clear that forbidding idolatry would forbid eating meat offered to pagan idols, but the later Ebionite position goes considerably deeper.

The pseudo-Clementine literature argues that it is bloodshed itself that allows you to be possessed by demons. The demons are allowed, by God, to enter only those who have committed bloodshed in some way, or who eat at the table of demons ó which is essentially any table where the demon-worshipers are found. Peter will not eat with Clement, before Clementís conversion, because before Clement is baptized, Clement could be possessed by demons, and this would give power to the very real metaphysical powers of darkness.

It's interesting that earlier in Acts, in the speech of Stephen in Acts 7, we have the same type of argument: that Jewish ritual slaughter in the temple is idolatry just like that of the worship of the golden calf in the wilderness.  Here it is crystal-clear that observing Jewish ritual does not free you from idolatry: in fact, observing Jewish ritual sacrifice actually is idolatry.  No wonder Stephen was stoned!  

This speech, as Hans-Joachim Schoeps has pointed out, bears a remarkable resemblance to James' speech in the temple in Recognitions 1.  This does not prove that the Jewish Christians used this argument (that meat-eating is idolatry) in the first century; but it does mean that this argument existed at an early stage, and that the later Ebionites used it.  

Now today we would regard the idea that "eating with those possessed by demons, means that you are going to be possessed by demons," as superstitious nonsense. But the accusation of being superstitious is very different from the accusation of being solely concerned about Jewish ritual observance. Letís call a spade a spade.

Paulís letters do not directly support the idea that his opponents used this precise argument.  However, Paul does discuss the table of demons; and Paul also reports that Peter withdrew from eating with "gentiles" after being reprimanded by James.  This behavior would be explained by the pseudo-Clementine prohibition against eating with unbaptized gentiles ó not because they are not Jews, but because they are not baptized and therefore likely are possessed by demons.

So what the apostolic decree represents is actually three arguments against meat-eating: (1) bloodshed is wrong, (2) asphyxiation is wrong, (3) eating slaughtered animals is not just a ritual infraction, it is idolatry. I canít prove this argument in just a few paragraphs, but that is the outline taken from my next book (if itís ever published), The First Followers of Jesus.

In Summary . . . 

We therefore have five reasons for believing that "blood" in the apostolic decree refers to the shedding of blood, not just the kosher laws.

1. Paul talks about vegetarianism and animal sacrifice at length; he never discusses the kosher laws.

2. Paul specifically rejects one of the elements of the apostolic decree, namely the command to abstain from things offered to idols.

3. There is no evidence, outside of Acts, for any legalistic Jewish Christians. (Ireneaus' brief paragraph on the Ebionites does not contradict anything in Epiphanius.)  The historical Jewish Christian Ebionites are opposed to much of the Jewish law.

4. The framing of the decree as the only items gentile converts need to obey doesnít make sense ó it would allow gentile converts to lie, cheat, and steal, for example.

5. The historical sequence doesnít make sense. We would have to assume that a decree was issued to obey at least some elements of the kosher laws, but that neither gentile Christians nor Jewish Christians paid any attention to it.

This is not to say that we now know everything we need to know about this dispute in the early church. Itís easy for the opponents of Jewish Christianity to go back and say later, "oh, they were just getting bent out of shape over nothing." Thatís essentially what both ancient opponents of the Ebionites (e. g. the editors of Acts) were doing, and itís also what modern scholars who dismiss the Ebionites are also doing (e. g. Crossan and Borg).  To describe the Ebionites in this way is just another form of polemics against the Ebionites; it does not take the Ebionites seriously.  Crossan and Borg are not scholars, they are partisans for gentile Christianity.  

A dispute so deadly, so long-lasting, and so bitter almost certainly had an origin linked to something much nearer and dearer to the hearts of the Jewish Christians than a matter of Jewish rituals. It most likely had to do with something that cuts to the very core of the Christian message ó the very cause for which Jesus was killed when he went into the temple and drove out the buyers and sellers of sacrificial animals.

Keith Akers
July 31, 2009

- - - - -

P. S.

Eric Mader also suggests that I should have discussed the Didache and James, which I donít even mention, and suggests I need a more nuanced view of Paul.

On the question of Paul, I agree. I think that Paul and the Ebionites were actually closer to each other than either was to later "mainstream" Christianity of the fourth-century and beyond. I would specifically mention these elements:

1. The value of simple living and sharing, rejection of wealth

2. Nonviolence towards other human beings

3. Adoptionist Christology

4. Belief in a spiritual resurrection

5. Rejection of the old written code

All of these were accepted by both Paul and the Ebionites, but all were rejected by the later church (although the first element was accepted in principle, and rejected in practice, by later Christianity). My only defense is that this was not a book about Paul, but about the lost religion of Jesus, and to provide a properly nuanced view of Paul would have made the book substantially longer.

On the question of the Didache and James, I also agree. The reason I didnít include the Didache and James is that it is hard to tell whether these are Jewish Christian documents are not. As I mentioned at the start of The Lost Religion of Jesus, I take a somewhat different view of the definition of "Jewish Christianity." In my view, it refers to a specific sect in early Christianity who were loyal to a different view of the Jewish law ó that view held, in their view, by Jesus. It does not mean what a lot of people take it to mean, "Christianity heavily influenced by Judaism."  All of Christianity was heavily influenced by Judaism, so such a definition doesn't help us.  

You could speak of Tibetan Buddhism in the same way: it might mean a particular school of Buddhist thought, or it could mean a Buddhist who was from Tibet. There might be Chinese Zen Buddhists (perhaps originally drafted into the army?) who would move to Tibet (but remain Zen students), or Tibetan Buddhists such as the Dalai Lama who leave Tibet, or their followers in America who have never been to Tibet.  Which of these are "Tibetan Buddhists"? It depends on whether you view this as a descriptive term, Buddhists who are from Tibet, or as a particular sect.

While the Didache and James were probably influenced by this sect, it is hard to tell whether these are outright productions of a Jewish Christian sect, or whether they were just influenced by Jewish Christianity or Judaism, or whether they represent heavily edited-down versions of Jewish Christian documents. Itís hard to say. Itís not just that James, for example, does not advocate vegetarianism. Itís that James doesnít really say much of anything distinctive at all that could really lead us to distinguish between Jewish Christianity and gentile Christianity. There are a few references to the law ó but Paul also talks about the law. There are a few references to the poor ó but Paul also talks about the poor. So it isnít that helpful.

In the same spirit, you could also ask whether the book of Matthew is a Jewish Christian document. Of course at some stage it probably was, but it has been so heavily edited that itís essentially unusable as evidence for or against any view of Jewish Christianity. For example, there are some outlandishly anti-Jewish comments in Matthew: the mob crying for Jesusí crucifixion says, "his blood be on us and on our children." So youíd have to determine, from other sources, what "Jewish Christianity" was like, and then go back and say, "all right, this passage is probably Jewish Christian, but this one clearly isnít, and here is some other stuff that we donít know about."

The same thing, basically, applies to the Didache and James. If I had mentioned them, I would have to go on at some length as to why, in effect, they were not reliable primary sources on Jewish Christianity. I would first have to build up my case for what the Ebionites thought, and then go back and try to decide whether this or that comment was influenced by the Ebionites. On that basis, I suspect that both are edited-down and revised versions of Jewish Christian documents, but that they arenít that helpful in determining what the beliefs of this sect were.