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
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
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:
2) meat sacrificed to idols,
3) the meat of fish, and
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
July 31, 2009
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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
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