Some people question why the apostle Paul did not refer to the decision of Acts 15 in his letter to the Galatians or in his account of the dispute with Peter in Antioch. One possible explanation is that the events of Acts 15 had yet to take place. Some claim that the second visit to Jerusalem by Paul that he mentions in Galatians 2:1 is the visit of Acts 11. However, this seems to me to stretch the chronology to breaking point, particularly when we try to fit the events of Acts 12 into the picture (the death of Herod, for example). I believe that the traditional position that Galatians 2:1 refers to the events of Acts 15 is the more tenable.
Another explanation is that Galatians was written after the Jerusalem council, but Paul was not satisfied with the decision of the council, believing that converted Gentiles did not need to abstain from blood and from things strangled. I do not find this position persuasive either. My suggestion is that the issues addressed by the council of Acts 15 and the issues in Antioch and Galatia are different.
How might the Judaizers of Acts 15 have arrived at the position that Gentiles needed to be circumcised in order to be saved? Surely the Judaizers would have known that Gentile God-fearers outside of Israel had been accepted throughout the old covenant era. One did not have to become a proselyte in order to be accepted by God.
It seems to me that the Judaizers might have arrived at their position of Acts 15:1 with the following sort of reasoning. Circumcision was a necessary element of Israel’s dedicated status. Circumcision was only important when God was in the camp. When one lived outside of Israel circumcision was unnecessary. Moses’ son was not circumcised until he returned to Egypt from Midian in Exodus 4. The people of Israel also went uncircumcised during their wanderings in the wilderness, only needing to become circumcised just before the Angel of Lord entered the camp before they were about to go into the Promised Land (Joshua 5).
Circumcision served as a protective mark for those who were to draw close to God’s presence. In this respect it can be seen as playing a role similar to the mark that God gave to Cain in Genesis 4:15, although circumcision was designed primarily to protect people from God’s vengeance, rather than man’s. Circumcision involved the cutting off of the flesh and was essential for those who were about to partake of the Passover meal and enjoy a greater degree of access to God’s presence. If the flesh was not cut off in circumcision, God would cut off the flesh in final judgment, as He did in the flood.
Circumcision was only necessary for entry into the zone of God’s particular presence. One was safe to walk about as a believer without the mark of circumcision, provided you did so outside of this zone. However, there were times when God’s presence came in a particular way upon a broader group of people than just Jews. In such cases circumcision was essential for salvation. One thinks of the case of the first Passover. Only circumcised people were permitted to partake of the Passover feast. Being a partaker of the feast in a house covered by the blood was an essential part of the salvation of the first Passover. Rahab’s celebration of a Passover-like ritual in order to be saved in the destruction of Jericho is also an example that the Judaizers might have put forward.
A Judaizer might have reasoned that circumcision was necessary if one was to enter into God’s particular presence in the new covenant. Given the broader scope of the new covenant God’s particular presence would not be limited to the narrow zone that it had been limited to in the old covenant era and all Gentiles would have to be prepared for it. Gentile converts would need to be given the protective mark of circumcision if they were to be preserved when God’s judgment came. I see no reason whatsoever to believe that the Judaizers held the belief that adherence to the Law earned salvation. This seems to me to be an imposition upon the text. I have written at more length on this matter elsewhere.
The Jerusalem council dealt with this problem directly, teaching that God had recognized the Gentiles and purified their hearts by faith (Acts 15:9). There was no need for the application of circumcision as a protective mark, as God had already established His gracious presence among the Gentiles.
The decision reached by the Jerusalem council was that Gentiles did not need to be circumcised in order to be saved, and only needed to adhere to a few basic practices, rather than the long list of dietary requirements imposed by the Mosaic Law. This decision did not, I believe, directly cover the situations that Paul faced in Antioch and Galatia. Following the Jerusalem council the question of how Jews and Gentiles were to relate together within the Church was in many respects still an open one.
Certain Christian Jews may well have been happy to acknowledge Gentiles as fellow Christians from a distance, whilst retaining a degree of separation from them on the basis of the Law and its practices. They might have held that God accepted Gentiles and Jews alike, but that Jews had a more important place within the Church, a place that necessitated their maintaining of a higher degree of purity by means of strict adherence to the Torah and its requirements. According to such a position, Jews and Gentiles both belonged to the Church, but they needed to preserve distinct identities. Christian Jews had a special priestly status in the Church that went beyond that enjoyed by believing Gentiles.
Paul’s argument in Galatians is that strict Torah-adherence is of no consequence when it comes to our right status with God. Those who act as if some higher status before God can be gained by adherence to the requirements of the Torah are seeking to live in terms of a covenant order that has been condemned to be torn down following the death and resurrection of Christ. The flesh has finally been cut off in the death of Christ (the circumcision of Christ — Colossians 2:11) and so the proleptic flesh-cutting of circumcision is rendered unnecessary and devoid of soteriological significance. The protective hedges established by the Law are only necessary within a fleshly Adamic order. If we are in Christ we are no longer in the flesh and the protective hedges / boundary markers of the Law are no longer necessary.
Whilst the issue of the necessity of circumcision for salvation was central in Acts 15, in the book of Galatians and the dispute of Antioch the issue of the irrelevance of circumcision for fellowship and status in the people of God is prominent. For this reason Paul’s arguments are focused on the character of the family promised to Abraham and the fact that there are neither Jews nor Greeks in Christ, the true Seed. I believe that this goes beyond the points made in Acts 15, which might leave open the possibility that Torah-adherence granted one a slightly better position within the Church, even if it was not necessary for salvation. It might also leave open the option of a Church divided by the Torah, where uncircumcised Gentiles were regarded as members, but as something less than full heirs of Abraham.
Peter and Barnabas in Galatians 2:11-13 may well have regarded their withdrawing from table fellowship with Gentiles as not being inconsistent with the declaration of the Jerusalem council. I see no reason why their withdrawing, although obviously hypocritical when regarded in the light of their earlier practice, constituted any sort of denial of the points made in Acts 15. The response of the apostle Paul was to press for a far more consistent outworking of the principles of the gospel. He does this by outlining in detail the temporary role of the Torah and exactly it was intended to achieve. He then explores the promise to Abraham and how Gentiles fit into this picture. Galatians and Romans are essentially about the doctrine of the Church. What boundary markers have a place within the life of the Church and which boundary markers have no place? Are there two distinct classes of Christians within the Church? The questions of Galatians and Romans are largely questions of the character of the Church and the structure of Christian table fellowship. The questions of individual soteriology had largely been settled by the Jerusalem council.