The gathering of the Jerusalem church under the leadership of apostles and elders reported in Acts 15.4–29. The meeting took place after unnamed Judeans raised questions in Antioch concerning the status of converted gentiles and the need for their circumcision and observance of Mosaic law. Paul and Barnabas came to Jerusalem as representatives of the Antiochene church, probably in 49/50 CE. A discussion among the apostles and elders takes place in front of the assembled church. Peter apparently settles the question by appeal to his own experience: converted gentiles had already received the Holy Spirit apart from the Law (cf. Acts 10.1–48). James supports this position with prooftexts from the prophets, but then suggests a set of minimum obligations that gentile Christians ought to observe. This proposal is formally adopted by the whole church and incorporated into a letter (the Apostolic Decree) addressed to the churches of Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia. The majority text tradition presents these requirements as “abstinence from idolatry, blood, meat that is strangled, and sexual immorality,” which probably reflects the requirements placed on aliens residing in Israel in Leviticus 17–18. Whether these practices would have been sufficient to facilitate fellowship between gentiles and Jews among Christians is unclear. They may represent the practices of the author's largely gentile community at a time when most Jewish Christians had been forced out of the synagogues. A later text tradition drops the reference to strangled flesh, probably takes “blood” to mean “murder,” and adds the golden rule, thereby converting the requirements to a minimal moral code without reference to the issues separating Jews from gentiles within the church.

The Apostolic Council should almost certainly be identified with the events reported by Paul in Galatians 2.1–10, although the differences between the two accounts have led some interpreters to posit distinct events. For historical reconstruction, Paul's account is to be preferred since he was a participant, though hardly a neutral observer. Paul reports a less formal meeting with Peter which settled the question of circumcision. Some scholars prefer to connect this meeting to Paul's visit to Jerusalem reported in Acts 11.29–30. Paul places the dispute concerning table fellowship in Antioch and seems to indicate that his differences with Peter on this issue were not resolved (Gal. 2.11–14).

Debate continues concerning the possibility that one or more early sources lie behind the report in Acts. The placement of the Apostolic Council at the center of Acts underscores the importance of the theological issues raised by the success of the gentile mission. It reflects the author's interest in the relationship between Israel and the Christian church, and it integrates the Pauline mission into the larger picture of the spread of the Christian faith from Jerusalem to the rest of the world. The Apostolic Council is portrayed as affirming gentile freedom from the Mosaic law while making social relations between Jews and gentiles possible within the church.

Robert Stoops