Paul and Barnabas went up to Jerusalem cir. spring of 49 CE to discuss the matter of gentile circumcision with James and the other elders of the believing community there. This was Paul’s second visit to Jerusalem, since his meeting with Jesus on the Damascus road, and he and Barnabas came not only to discuss the issue of circumcision with the church elders, but also to bring the gentile famine-relief offering for the poor in Judea (see HERE and HERE for the details).
The folks in Judea were not only coming out of a bad harvest season in 48 CE, but they were in the middle of a Sabbatical year (autumn of 48 CE to autumn of 49 CE) when no reaping of the fields could be done. Folks just lived day to day off what the land produced, but they couldn’t reap the fields to store reserves for later. The church’s funds and storehouse were greatly depleted, and the leaders in Jerusalem sought aid from the gentile churches, because the Jewish believers knew those same churches were laying aside grain and funds for this very occasion.
The timing of God could not have been more appropriate. While the leaders of the Way were privately debating the theological issue of whether or not the believing gentiles needed to be circumcised (i.e. become Jews) in order to be saved or even to have table fellowship with believing Jews, the practical event of the believing gentiles sharing the bounty of their table with believing Jews, and probably saving some of their lives, was taking place just outside the doors where that private meeting was being held.
Luke skims over the controversy that erupted in Antioch after the visitors from James arrived, but Paul tells us in his letter to the Galatians, that this visit to Jerusalem occurred 14 years after Paul’s conversion and was also made under the authority of a revelation from God (Galatians 2:1-2). The only revelation we know about that would fit into this period is the prophecy of Agabus in Acts 11:28-29, whereby the gentile churches began storing funds and grain for the predicted famine that would strike Judea particularly hard.
Both Barnabas and Paul headed the group of gentile believers hauling the needed resources to the waiting Jerusalem church. On the way they told the churches of Phoenicia and Samaria what God had done through them in raising up assemblies in Galatia comprised of mainly gentile believers. Everywhere they went the churches welcomed them, but these groups of believers were the fruit of the labors of the fleeing Messianics who were persecuted after the death of Stephen (Acts 15: 3; cp. 8:4). Even the Jerusalem church welcomed the team (Acts 15:4), but did their welcome denote a sense of full satisfaction with what Paul and Barnabas were doing among the gentiles (Acts 15:5)?
Here’s the problem. Josephus tells us that about this time there was a resurgence of a number of hostile Jewish groups who were zealous for independence from Rome. Each new procurator seemed to be preoccupied with more and more unrest and gorilla type seditious activity. In fact Tiberius Alexander, the Roman procurator about the time of the great famine, had crucified the sons of Judas the Galilean who raised up a revolt just after the birth of Christ (cp. Acts 5:37; also see JOSEPHUS: Antiquities of the Jews 20.5.2) for their own part in seditious activity. Such men thought nothing of setting whole villages on fire or mingling with the multitude during the Jewish Holy Days and killing Jews they suspected to be Roman sympathizers (see Antiquities 20.9.10).
The point is, if the Jewish Messianic community were known to welcome gentiles into their group without any requirements with respect to the Mosaic Law, they could be seen as traitors and were in danger of suffering persecution at the hands of people, such as the two robbers/murders who were crucified alongside of Jesus, or Barabbas, in whose stead Jesus was crucified. These were dangerous times and the idea was, “with a little cooperation from our gentile brethren, perhaps we can escape such harsh treatment.”
Was that too much to ask? Of course, the problem wasn’t that simple, and its solution would not be either. In fact, the official reply from the Jerusalem church leaders may have come as a surprise to many conservative Pharisaic believers, especially coming from James, the most conservative of all the Messianic leaders at Jerusalem, but more about these matters in later blog-posts.