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Paul’s Mixed Reception at Jerusalem

18 May

One might expect, given the reason for Paul’s visit to Jerusalem was to bring an offering from the gentile churches scattered across Europe and Asia for the Judean poor, that he might have been received more cordially by the Jews in the Holy City, but this was definitely not the case. Moreover, all the blame cannot fall simply upon the unbelieving community. In fact, Luke hardly makes mention of the offering, pointing it out only in passing at Acts 24:17.[1]

Here’s the scene at Jerusalem, according to the text. Paul arrived in the city and was received gladly by the brethren (Acts 21:17), but does this mean the Hellenistic brethren at the home of Mnason[2] the Cypriot only (Acts 21:16), or does it include James and the elders of the Jerusalem church (Acts 21:18)? Luke claims Paul visited James and the elders the day after he arrived at Jerusalem. Does this mean the Judean believing community snubbed Paul’s arrival, or does Luke merely refer to a more formal meeting on the day following? Luke’s meaning is not entirely clear, and one could understand him either way.

In any case the church authorities gladly received the reports of Paul’s work among the gentiles (Acts 21:19-20a). However, it was reports of his work among the Jews—the Diaspora community—that concerned James and the elders. According to a strictly literal understanding of the text, the believing community at Jerusalem praised God concerning Paul’s work among the gentiles, but they were deeply concerned over how Paul was understood by the Jews at home, especially some of the believing Jews, zealous for the Law. We, of course know this isn’t true, but the Jews at Jerusalem didn’t have the benefit we have of reading Acts and Paul’s letters. Among these Jews, i.e. the believing Jews who were zealous for the Law, it was rumored that Paul was teaching the Jews of the Diaspora to forsake the Law of Moses (Acts 21:20-21). There is reason to believe that these rumors took the form of instruction, that is, it was acted upon as though all doubt was removed, and the zealot community taught or informed all Jewry that Paul was indeed a renegade.

The atmosphere during the mid-fifties of the 1st century had changed greatly over what had been the case during the thirties. Notice:

Jerusalem was not what it had been in Acts 2: tensions are rising and the temple sicarii, or assassins, are murdering aristocrats suspected of collaborating with the gentiles. Jewish nationalism is on the rise, and nationalism’s exclusivity makes it intolerant of supposedly faithful members of its people who have fellowship with members of other peoples. Thus it is incumbent on Paul to prove the integrity of his Jewishness; he cannot compromise the gentile mission, but he will intentionally affirm his Jewish heritage at any cost short of unbiblical exclusivism.” [see Keener, Biblical Background Commentary, page 386].

Thus, clearly this asserts that the mid-fifties of the 1st century would not occasion the more friendly relations between Jew and gentile that would warrant the fulfillment of Zechariah 8:20-23. Josephus describes this period as a time of “intense Jewish nationalism and political unrest”.[3]

The church at Jerusalem was clearly between a rock and a hard place. They obviously were not about to renege on their former ruling about the gentile mission (Acts 21:25), but their mission was with the Jews, specifically. Paul’s reputation, which a literal understanding of the text would have the Jerusalem church standing on the side of Paul’s integrity, was hindering their effort to reach their own people. No matter what we believe about Paul’s reception at Jerusalem, or whether or not the decision to have him participate in a Jewish rite to clear his name was a wise one, something had to be done both for the Gospel effort among the Judean Jews and Paul’s good name among his people in order to avert a complete severance of relations between the home and the Diaspora believing communities.


[1] Luke may not have made a point of mentioning the offering for one of two reasons: 1) Theophilus as a member of the Annas family was well aware of the fact that his father was behind much of the problems affecting the poor and the offering, if mentioned pointedly, could have been an embarrassment to the ruling family; 2) the failure of the offering to have a better affect upon the relationship between the Judean and Diaspora believing communities could have been an embarrassment that Luke didn’t wish to purposely lay bare for commentary.

[2] The Western Text has Paul staying with Mnason on the evening of the 1st of the two days journey from Caesarea to Jerusalem, but the more difficult reading is that Paul and company had to stay with a non-Judean Jew while at Jerusalem. Moreover, a natural reading of the text would also give the impression that Mnason’s house was at Jerusalem.

[3] see The Acts of the Apostles by Ben Witherington, page 643-4

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