Applying Acts 15: James as judge?

You don’t even have to be a good test-taker to get this question!

See?  That wasn’t difficult.  You got it right, didn’t you?

This much is plain to me:  whatever we can apply from Acts 15, it can’t be identical to that which the 1st-century believers applied.

Moreover, the letter/message written at the time and circulated to gentile churches is like many other NT letters in at least this respect:  the letter was written because of, and into, a specific set of circumstances.  Because of the situational nature of a letter, a hermeneutical misfire often occurs when one tries to make out of it a prescriptive example for all time.  The happenings related in Acts 15 are not to be construed as constituting a grand example for all time.

I noticed tonight that in many English versions, Acts 15:19 has James almost banging a gavel and pontificating, stating his verdict, i.e., “I have determined that . . .”  But the tense of the verb is not the perfect.  Here, James’s grammar doesn’t denote a process that emphasizes the end result.  It is a simple present tense, and synonyms for “judge” might be “discern,” “determine,” or “consider.”

I do, however, find that the word “judge,” (κρινώ | krinō) is a term

  • with legal connotations
  • that can involve a process of cognition, of “taking into account”
  • that can mean considering, making a selection, and deciding

I also note that, in Acts 16:4, the perfect tense of this same verb is used:

Now while they were passing through the cities, they were delivering the decrees which had been decided upon by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem, for them to observe. (16:4, NASB)

Initially I’d staked a claim on Acts 15:19’s not implying a legal stance taken by James.  The situation, which includes the fact that the Jerusalem/Jewish establishment was intent on including and encouraging gentiles, would seem to conflict with seeing the Jewish James as a pre-pope pope who speaks ex cathedra.  Yet I must admit that some quasi-legal aspect may be present in this text.  That possibility may be supported by the presence in the chapter 15 event of rhetorical devices such as exordium, narratio, and probatio,¹ which might be roughly translated “opening argument,” “narration,” and “proving of the point,” respectively.  

Epilogue
After class, a man to whom I was introduced was talking about a recent, African safari hunt.  One in his group had some connections to South African Dutch ancestry—I’m not sure how strong a connection.  Apparently, the S. African man asked an honest question of another believer, earnestly seeking an opinion on whether or not black-skinned people would be in heaven.  I kid you not.

Now there’s a closer parallel than anything else I’d considered in a long time:

  1. Jews in 1st-century Israel were being caused to consider whether non-Jews were to be included along with them in the church.
  2. Some South African descendants of apartheid-ists apparently also have real difficulty with whether or not today’s blacks are to be included along with them.

The so-called “Jerusalem conference” was not about trivial issues like church carpet color or mundane differences of opinion held by “separate but equal” churches.  The matter then at hand amounted to a cataclysmic shift from Jew-centered faith to all-are-welcome faith.

B. Casey, 10/7/15

P.S.  For more on the matter(s) of Acts 15, see this prior post.


¹ Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles:  A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 456-7.

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3 thoughts on “Applying Acts 15: James as judge?

  1. John Eoff 10/08/2015 / 8:50 am

    Brian, Since James had obviously surpassed Peter as at least the spokesman, if not more, of the Jerusalem church (yes, such a position would indicate that the believers had indeed formed an entity over which he would wield authority) it is not impossible that this decision was based upon some authority he had assumed. Remember, he bragged about how the many thousands of Jews who had believed (in Jesus) were zealous still for the law. Such were the ones who persecuted Paul everywhere he went. Paul compared “Jerusalem that now is” (current Jerusalem) with the slave woman Hagar and her son, rather than with Sarah and the true heir of the promise.

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    • Brian Casey 10/08/2015 / 5:30 pm

      Well stated, John. I’d have to agree that “it is not impossible,” and I’ll even go further: I think it’s *likely,* given human nature and need, that James did have some status or authority. I just don’t like to think about how authority has run amok in many cases since then, so I also think there’s a possibility that James was less authoritative (and surely not authoritarian) than the English Bibles seem to make him out to be in Acts 15:19. This doesn’t mean he wasn’t recognized as a wise leader; it only means I don’t see him banging a gavel and demanding that everyone listen up. 🙂

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