Acts 15 is, as we’ve noted before, a widely-misunderstood passage of Scripture. Most Christians, reading it through the filter of two millennia of tradition, think that it is a repudiation of “the law” as an avenue of salvation. However, that view is falsified by the fact that whether Jews should continue to keep the Torah is not even on the table–the question at hand is simply whether Gentiles must be circumcised and keep the Torah in the manner of the Jews in order to be saved. I’ve dealt with this subject before, but I’ve not dealt sufficiently with a key element: Why does Luke choose the quotation of Amos 9:11-12 as the key verse that turned the tide of the Council?
Reconstructing the Variants
Let’s first look at a distinction between the quote as it appears in the Hebrew Tanakh (OT) and in Acts:
|Amos 9:11-12||Acts Quote|
|In that day I will raise up the tent of David who is fallen, and close up its breaches, and I will raise up its ruins, and I will build it as in the days of old; that they may possess the remnant of Edom, and all the nations who are called by my name,” says the LORD who does this.||‘After these things I will return. I will again build the tabernacle of David, which has fallen. I will again build its ruins. I will set it up, That the rest of men may seek after the Lord; All the Gentiles who are called by my name,|
The portion in bold looks disturbingly different, but isn’t actually that much of a problem. During the Babylonian captivity, the Jews picked up certain Aramaic spelling conventions, such as using the yod to indicate “ee” and “ey” vowels, and the vav to indicate “oo” and “uh” vowels. (Before this, such vowels would have simply been inferred from context; the Masorites would later use various dots and dashes to indicate the proper vowel sounds during the Middle Ages.) As a result, the spelling of some Hebrew words changed during the Exile.
“Adam” in Hebrew is Aleph-Dalet-Mem (אדם). Edom is spelled the same, but with an extra vav to carry the “o” sound: Aleph-Dalet-Vav-Mem (אדום). However, before the Exile, they would have been spelled exactly the same, Aleph-Dalet-Mem (אדם). The editor of Amos’ prophecy doubtless saw a connection between Amos 9:11-12 and the many prophecies that spoke of Jacob taking possession of Esau/Edom’s domain (e.g, Obadiah, Ezekiel 25:12-14, Isa. 11:14), added the extra vav to “clarify” the prophet’s intent. While all of the Hebrew manuscripts we have today say “Edom,” the original meaning of “Adam/mankind” is preserved for us in the New Testament and Septuagint.
Likewise, the word “they shall possess” (yyirshu, יירשׁו) is physically very similar to “they shall seek” (yidreshu, ידרשׁו). It would be very easy for a smudged dalet (ד) to be mistaken for a yod (י).
The point is that the Acts 15 council was probably working from a variant Hebrew text that has since been lost to us, but the meaning of which has been preserved in the Septuagint and the New Testament. And in the original meaning, the point is that a remnant of mankind comprised of all the nations would seek the Eternal Creator and as a result be called by his Name.
Isaiah 11:10-12, says, “It will happen in that day that the nations will seek the Root of Jesse (the Messiah, vv. 1-5), who stands as a banner of the peoples; and his resting place will be glorious. It will happen in that day that the Lord will set his hand again the second time to recover the remnant that is left of his people . . . He will set up a banner for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.”
Note the order: First the nations come to the Messiah, then Hashem regathers Israel from exile “again the second time.” We see the same order reflected in Isaiah 19:24f, which says that “in that day, Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth;
Isa 19:25 because the LORD of Hosts has blessed them, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance.’” Israel is not destined to be the third in pre-eminence, obviously. Rather, Israel is saved third, only after Egypt and Assyria, representing the Gentile world, become known as Hashem’s people and the work of Hashem’s hands. Interestingly, the ethnic Assyrians and original ethnic Egyptians (the Copts) are predominantly Christian, though they are overshadowed politically today by the Arab Muslims who long ago conquered their lands.
We see this played out in prophetic type as well: Joseph, prototype or remez of the Messiah, saved the Egyptian (Gentile) world from starvation some time before his brothers came seeking food, and certainly long before the final reconciliation between them took place. Likewise, the only two of the generation of the Exodus who were faithful and entered the Holy Land were Joshua (an obvious type of the Messiah Yeshua; cf. Heb. 4:8) and Caleb–but Caleb was a Gentile, whose father was a Kenizzite (Jos. 14:6), one of the nations occupying the Land Israel was to conquer (Gen. 15:19). We see again in the story of Ruth that only after Ruth the Moabitess was joined to Boaz (another Messianic type) was Naomi’s land restored to her.
Doubtless all of these prophecies and types were discussed by the Jerusalem council, though Luke only records the quotation of Amos for us.
The Council’s Decision
How does this affect our understanding of the Jerusalem Council’s decision in Acts 15? When taken together, it is very clear that they did not regard their decision as being an annulment of Israel’s prophesied role and promises–on the contrary, they saw the Gentiles coming to faith in God, and even being called by his Name (something which would require a radical conversion in the hearts of the former pagans) as being a necessary prerequisite to Israel’s ultimate restoration. Small wonder that they spent their lives and spilled out their blood to bring the Gospel to the nations.
Paul tells us that “the Good News of Messiah . . . is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes; for the Jew first, and also for the Greek” (Rom. 1:16). Yet, ironically, while the Jews heard the Gospel first and it is truly Good News for Israel, it was necessary for God’s plan that the Greek, the Assyrian, the Egyptian, and all other nations receive it first. The decision of the Acts 15 Council was that the nations should receive the Gospel while still being of the nations so that in the end Israel could receive it while still being Jewish.