This coming Sunday, we hear a story about a meeting that takes place in Jerusalem (Acts 11:1–18). In my view, what takes place in this meeting should be called the First Jerusalem Council. Quite often, the event recounted in the narrative of Acts 15 is identified as the first council of the church in Jerusalem. But in my mind, it is this gathering in Acts 11 that should have the title.
The council is necessary because of doubts raised in Jerusalem about Peter’s activities in Caesarea—specifically, that “the Gentiles received the word of God” (11:1). During this gathering, an accusation against Peter is raised from within the assembly for the first time. The meeting comes to a point of view that supports the radical action that Peter has taken. It is a watershed moment in the life of the early church, that confirms the place of the Gentiles alongside the Jews.
An apology. Those of the circumcision are critical of what Peter has done (11:3). In reply, Peter’s speech in Jerusalem (11:4-17) has the nature of an apology—a defence of the faith—although Luke refrains from employing the technical term (apologia) until the apologetic speeches that he includes in hellenistic settings, where Paul makes his later defence speeches.
In the last section of Acts, after his arrest in the Jerusalem Temple (21:23), Paul delivers a series of apologies: to the tribune and a large crowd in Jerusalem (Acts 22); before the High Priest Ananias, his lawyer, Tertullus, and Governor Felix, in Caesarea (Acts 24); and then two years later, still in Caesarea, before King Agrippa, his consort, Bernice, and the Roman Governor, Festus (Acts 26).
The rhetorical forms used in apologetics were designed to meet a criticism with a strong counter-argument that would win the day. The form was developed amongst Jews in the hellenistic period—that is, after the troops of Alexander the Great had taken control of Israel in the year 333 BCE.
It was used to good effect by Jews such as the historians Artapanus, Aristobulus, and Josephus; ethical writers whose work survives in Pseudo-Phocylides, the Sybilline Oracles, and the Wisdom of Solomon; and the philosopher and exegete Philo of Alexandria. Such individuals were concerned about the influence that Hellenism was having on the forms and beliefs of their faith. They wrote apologies which provided a defence of their faith in the face of these various hellenistic influences.
So Peter here offers an apologetic speech, setting out his defence in response to criticism concerning his breach of the food rules (11:2). The criticism comes from those of the circumcision (11:2); the use of the same phrase by Paul at Gal 2:9 suggests that it is James who is behind the criticism. Such criticism requires an explanation “in order” (11:4; NRSV “step by step”), in line with the overall Lukan programme (Luke 1:3).
An explanation. Accordingly, Luke has Peter explain events in order by turning first of all to the vision he saw in Joppa, and recounting it almost verbatim (11:5-10; cf. 10:9-16). This repeated account retains the essential elements. The detailed description of the vision of the animals, reptiles and birds is repeated (11:5-6, par 10:11-12); a reference to “beasts of prey” is added at 11:6.
The command to “kill and eat” (11:7) parallels 10:13. Peter’s objection on the basis of the food laws (11:8, par 10:14) is modified so as to emphasise the food law requirements, placing them first in his response.
The insistence that he must accept “what God has cleansed” (11:9, par 10:15), and the note that this happened three times before being “drawn up again into heaven” (11:10, par 10:16) are then repeated exactly. This full repetition but slightly changed order highlights Peter’s vision as the primary one; by contrast, he truncates his reports of the visit of Cornelius’ messengers (11:11-12; cf. 10:17-29) and the vision to Cornelius (11:13; cf. 10:1-8), as well as his own speech in Caesarea (11:14; cf. 10:34-43) and the subsequent giving of the holy spirit (11:15; cf. 10:44-48).
The Spirit. Yet Peter’s speech is not simply a shortened summary of what Luke has already reported in Acts 10, for it offers an interpretation of these events which stresses that they took place under divine initiative. In reporting the arrival of messengers from Cornelius (11:11-12), Peter notes simply that “the spirit said to me to go with them without criticism” (11:12; cf. 10:19-20). His omission of many details (character traits, travel details, conversation and personnel; even, surprisingly, the name of Cornelius) places the focus on the role of the spirit.
Cornelius remains anonymous when Peter reports the vision he saw in similar fashion, with a stark summary of what the angel had told him (11:13). The substance of Peter’s speech in Caesarea is summarised as “words by which you and your household will be saved” (11:14); rather than the content of the speech, the emphasis here is on the fact that Peter was given these words to speak by the angel.
Peter’s version of the outpouring of the holy spirit is short on factual reporting, as it were; he simply states that the spirit fell on them (11:15). His report abounds in interpretation of the significance of the event, however. The earlier narrative of this event has already noted that the spirit was given as a gift (10:45); Peter now reinforces the divine source of this gift as that which God gave them (11:17; see 10:45).
This gift fulfils the prophetic word of Jesus, that “John baptised with water, but you will be baptised with holy spirit” (11:16, quoting 1:5; cf. the similar, but longer, saying of John at Luke 3:16). Twice Peter parallels this act of the spirit on “them” (Gentiles) with the events that happened to “us” (Jews) at Pentecost, when he notes that the spirit “fell on them just as on us at the beginning” (11:15), and when he states that “God gave them the same gift that he gave us who believe” (11:17).
The place of God. The motif of necessity concludes Peter’s speech, with the rhetorical question, “who was I that I could hinder God?” (11:17). Such a question is a reminder of Peter’s unquestioning and faithful attitude expressed at 4:19-20 and 5:29.
Peter thus validates the events in Caesarea through his use of language about God. The turn to the Gentiles is authorised by God working through an angel and the holy spirit, as well as by the inexorability of Peter’s response to God.
This understanding (which is entirely Lukan) is further reinforced by the concluding summary (11:18) which follows, in which language about God defines the significance of what has taken place.
Peter’s audience have moved from criticism (11:2) to silence, before they now “glorify God” (11:18), a believing response seen already in Jerusalem (4:21). Glorifying God will recur later in Antioch (13:48) and Jerusalem (21:20); it has appeared often in Luke’s Gospel, as a response to Jesus (Luke 2:20, 4:15, 5:25-26, 7:16, 13;13, 17:15, 18:43, 23:47). The words of the audience concisely express Luke’s understanding of the occasion: “Surely God gave repentance to life even to the Gentiles” (11:18).
God’s prominent role, as the one who sent the angel, gave the gift of the spirit, and enabled the Gentiles to repent, validates what has taken place. An inclusive community has been established; this will provide a key model for preaching in the Dispersion, and for the nature of the church in the decades—and centuries—to come.
This blog is based on a section of my commentary on Acts in the Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, ed. Dunn and Rogerson (Eerdmans, 2003). I have also explored the theme of the plan of God at greater depth in my doctoral research, which was published in 1993 by Cambridge University Press as The plan of God in Luke-Acts (SNTSM 76).