Great Moments in Catholic History

Fr. Jacques Monet, S.J.


The Council of Jerusalem


Break between Christianity and the Jewish faith

The “Council” of Jerusalem is the term frequently used for a gathering of
the Apostles and other Christian leaders which took place in the Holy
City at the end of the fifth decade of our Christian era. It was at this
meeting that the early Church officially broke out of the womb of the
Jewish tradition, to reach out to all people regardless of race,
language, or cultural background

At the beginning, the early followers of Jesus considered themselves to
be fulfilling their Jewish inheritance. They did have practices that were
typical of their new beliefs — Baptism, the celebration of the
Eucharist, prayer directed to Christ as God –, and they lived in a
companionship of love which, across the centuries to this very day, still
appears as ideally beautiful. But they appeared to all to be a Jewish
sect. They lived as Jews; they participated in Jewish worship; they
practiced the traditional Jewish forms of piety; and they observed the
ancient Jewish law that had come down from Moses

They were also growing. And, inevitably, on at least two occasions, they
had admitted into their community persons who did not share their Jewish
background. The first was an important official in charge of the treasury
of the Queen of Ethiopia. He was travelling in Palestine when he was
instructed and baptized by one of the new deacons. This Ethiopian, whose
name remains unknown, was “the first-born of the pagan world,” in the
words of the early historian Eusebius. The second “convert” was the Roman
Centurion, Cornelius, who was received into the Church by St. Peter.

These conversions, as well as the believers’ insistence on preaching the
divinity of Jesus, soon led to open conflict with the authorities of the
Jewish faith, especially the Pharisees. Twice the followers of Jesus were
commanded to desist from their way of life. When they refused, they were
put to death. The first persecution, which took place in the mid-30’s,
led to the stoning of the deacon Stephen; the second to the execution of
the Apostle James the Elder about the year A. D. 44.

Meanwhile, the young Church had spread, and especially to the important
metropolis of Antioch, the capital city of the Roman Province of the East
and an important centre of Greek culture. It was in Antioch that the name
of Christian was first given to the believers. And it was there that
people of many religious backgrounds, Greeks especially, but also
Cypriots and Romans, came to accept the teaching and divinity of Christ.
For the first time — about the years A.D. 42-45 — the Church began to
appear as more than just another Jewish sect. It was becoming “Catholic.”

This posed a problem. The great majority of Christians were Jews. In
Antioch as in Jerusalem, they considered themselves bound to
circumcision, to their dietary laws, and to the customs that forbade
their eating with Gentiles. Since the Eucharist took place on the
occasion of a meal, the Jews considered it impossible to celebrate it
together with their new Gentile brethren. And for an Apostle like St.
Peter, the difficult dilemma was to decide whether he, a Jew, should
refuse to share communion with Gentiles; or, as an Apostle, should rise
above such distinctions; or again whether he should insist that the
non-Jewish Christians, a small minority living among Jews and well aware
of Jewish prescriptions at the time of their Baptism, submit freely to
Jewish ritual and law.

To many, the matter seemed clear. Christ had commanded His disciples to
spread His Good News to all nations. Yet, to pious Jews, the Baptism of
non-circumcised members into the Church was an act of treason towards
Judaism, while St. Peter’s lodging and eating with them was even more
shocking and contrary to the law.

The matter had to be settled, especially since both Jewish and Gentile
converts were coming under intense and disruptive pressures from
extremist Jewish nationalists who were now persecuting Christians for
betraying their heritage and country.

The Apostles met in Jerusalem Historians argue about the date, their
various theories ranging from A.D. 48 to 52. Scripture scholars wonder
whether the assembly described in chapter 15 of the Acts of the Apostles
refers to one meeting or two. But no one disagrees that the assembly was
one of the great moments in the history of’ the Church.

The leading Apostles were there: Peter and Paul, John, and James the
Less. So were their close assistants and companions, Barnabas, Silas,
Titus, and others. Many, especially those of the Pharisees’ party in
Jerusalem, insisted that the Gentiles should be circumcised and
instructed to keep the prescriptions of the law of Moses. Others,
especially Paul and Barnabas, argued against them. St. Luke tells us that
the discussion went on a long time. In the end the issue was settled: no
conditions arising out of the Jewish law were to be imposed on converts
to the young Christian Church.

The decision of the Council was of course a vital one. It marked the
break between Christianity and the Jewish faith. The Christian faith
would be represented henceforth and preached in a variety of traditions.