If Peter had primacy, why did James make the decision on circumcision? (Acts 15)

I encountered an Orthodox Priest who told me Peter was not the head of the Church because it was James who got up and made the decision in Acts 15, regarding the circumcision.

Acts 15 and the Leadership of Peter

We are told of a crisis in the church of Antioch. Having returned from their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas find that:

"Some who had come DOWN FROM JUDAEA were instructing the brothers, 'Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.' Because there arose no little DISSENSION and debate by Paul and Barnabas with them, it was decided that Paul and Barnabas, and some of the others, should GO UP to Jerusalem to the Apostles and presbyters about this question."

The Scripture says that Paul and Barnabas were DISSENTING. Yet, it reveals that those who were pushing for circumcision were IN AUTHORITY over Paul and Barnabas (who were the younger colleagues at this time). And they were in authority because they came from Judaea/ Jerusalem -- seat of the magisterium. So, what's happening is that agents of the magisterium are coming to Antioch and preaching something that doesn't seem right (i.e, "the spirit of Vatican II" ;-). Therefore, Paul and Barnabas are going to check to see if the Jerusalem magisterium is really teaching this.

It does say that they were going to see the "Apostles and presbyters." It does not say that they were going to see Peter. However, there's a good reason. They probably DIDN'T KNOW that Peter was going to be there! Or, possibly, they knew that all the Apostles were gathered there (probably for Mary's funeral / Assumption).

In Acts 12:17, Peter had fled Jerusalem "for another place" (which Tradition tells us is Rome -- both Eusebius and Jerome count Peter's episcopacy in Rome from this time, which was AD 42). However, the Council of Jerusalem took place in AD 49 and, strangely enough, Peter just happens to be there having disappeared from the narrative of Acts since chapter 12. Why so? Well, as we know from Seutonius, all the Jews were expelled from Rome by Emperor Claudius in AD 49 (same year as the Jerusalem council) and their expulsion was because of a riot over someone named "Chrestus" (i.e., "Christus" or Christ). So, Peter was among the refugees which is why he was back in Jerusalem (thereafter to go on to Antioch, after the Council, and then back to Rome after Claudius' death, when Jews could return).

So, Peter was at the Council. And, here's how the Council operated:

"The apostles and presbyters met together TO SEE about the matter. AFTER MUCH DEBATE HAD TAKEN PLACE, PETER got up and said to them...."

And Peter's teaching on the matter is conveyed through the next several verses. Thereafter, when Peter finishes, it says:

"The whole assembly FELL SILENT..." (That is, the other Apostles and presbyters) ... "...and they LISTENED while Paul and Barnabas described the signs and wonders God had worked among the Gentiles through them."

So, did the Jerusalem Council operate like the Orthodox model of an Ecumenical council? Or rather like the Catholic model? Here's how it worked:

  • The bishops met TO EXAMINE the matter. They DEBATED.
  • Then, Peter -- after listening to the debate -- gave HIS TEACHING (vox Petros).
  • After this, the Council FALLS SILENT (a la, the Tome of Leo).
  • Then, Paul and Barnabas were permitted to tell about their first missionary journey so as to back up Peter's teaching with signs from the Holy Spirit (e.g. as in the Immaculate Conception dogma backed up by the miracles at Lourdes).
  • And, thereafter, James gives a ruling. And, THIS is the only thing that seems unCatholic to some.

However, whereas it does say (in verse 13) how Paul and Barnabas "fall silent," allowing James to respond, this does not take away from the entire assembly "falling silent" after Peter's teaching in verse 12. Why? Because we are dealing with 2 Greek words. In 13, the verb is "sigesai" (infinitive aorist: meaning that Paul and Barnabas finished talking). In verse 12, it's "esigese" (past tense aorist usage -- meaning that the assembly REMAINED SILENT after Peter's address). And, indeed, after Peter speaks, all debate stops. The matter had been settled.

So, why does James speak? We think there are three reasons:

  1. He's the bishop of Jerusalem. Peter was just a visitor.
  2. What he says, he ...like Paul and Barnabas ...ties into Peter's declaration: "Brothers, listen to me. SYMEON has described how God..." etc.
  3. And, most importantly, because James was the leader of the Church's "Jewish wing." Remember, in verse 1 and 2 how Acts 15 describes:

"Some who had come DOWN FROM JUDAEA were instructing the brothers, 'Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.'

They were coming FROM JAMES! They were HIS disciples! Therefore, he renders judgment on the matter for his Jewish party, not as a superior or equal of Peter at all. And, this is MOST clear in verse 19, where it says:

"It is my judgment, therefore, that WE ought to STOP TROUBLING THE GENTILES."

Who was "troubling" the Gentiles? Not Paul and Barnabas. :-) Not Peter and his disciples, who Baptised the first Gentiles without circumcision. So, who? ONLY the Jewish Christians under James. Therefore, it is NOT the whole Church, but only the "Jewish party" that James is giving a "judgment" to.

So again, the Council of Jerusalem was not an Ecumenical Council by Byzantine Orthodox definition. Rather, it was COMPLETELY based on the Petrine teaching office: the magisterium of the Church.

And so, let's address several Orthodox propositions:

  1. Peter is not acting as a "First Among Equals," but "In Persona Christi Capitas." The assembly which, at this time, was pretty much the same thing as an assembly to administer the Sacrament of Confession, needed a presiding minister. In the early Church, when one received the Sacrament of Confession, a penitent would confess before the entire assembly. However, in this, the presiding bishop gave absolution on behalf of the church -- acting "In Persona Christi CAPITAS." And so, at Jerusalem, we see Peter as Head of the Church, speaking for the Church, making decisions for the Church, acting unilaterally on behalf of the Church. He does not share this authority with other bishops. He does not participate in the debate. Rather, it says: "After much debate had taken place, PETER GOT UP ..." His teaching ENDS the debate. He acts as father (Pope) to all.
  2. Contrary to the Orthodox understanding that Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and Jerusalem all share equal authority, basing this on episcopal authority derived from their sees and the supposed equality of their sees -- It is interesting to note that, in Acts 15, Peter does not act as a bishop of a see. Rather, he is merely a visitor. Yet, his Petrine office and teaching authority are in place -- even over the resident reigning bishop (James). Therefore, the idea that the Pope of Rome's teaching authority is merely that of a bishop is not sensible. If, as the Orthodox maintain, the Pope of Rome is the successor of Peter, it therefore follows that he succeeds to Peter's unique ministry and to a teaching office that is superior to the rest of the episcopate. Therefore, even if the Schism was a 4 to 1 split, as the Orthodox say, they would still be the ones in error. As St. John Chrysostom puts it: "And if one should say, 'How then did James receive the throne of Jerusalem?,' this I would answer that He appointed this man (Peter) teacher, not of that throne, but of the whole world." (Chrysostom, In Joan Hom). That's a Papacy, my friend. :-)
  3. The incredibly revisionist Orthodox idea: "An Ecumenical Council can only be official if it's accepted by the laity..." SEEMS to be supported by Acts 15:22:

"Then the Apostles and presbyters, IN AGREEMENT WITH THE WHOLE CHURCH, decided to choose representatives and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. This is the letter delivered by them..."

Some Orthodox Christians will say that this is proof that the laity had to approve." However, Catholics would suggest that "together with the whole church" doesn't mean "church" (local church) or "Church" (universal Church). It means only the church of Jerusalem (small "c"). It refers to Jerusalem's magisterium and especially to those of the Jerusalem magisterium who were arguing FOR circumcision. The point of the verse is that all of those loyal to Jerusalem gave up the pro-circumcision position.

However, Catholics suggest that the verse DOES NOT refer to the laity in Antioch (who are being GIVEN a decision by the Council, a decision which could have gone the other way, if that was God's will). It also does not address how the council's decision was accepted by the faithful in Egypt, or Laodocia, or Cyprus. So, contrary to the Orthodox mis-reading, verse 19 is NOT speaking in an Ecumenical sense. We beliee it is referring to those faithful in the city where the Council was held, underscoring the idea that all of the Judean Christians under James held to it.

And, by that criterion, both Lyon and Ferrara-Florence are legitimate councils, since they were accepted by the faithful of those regions in the West. There would be no excuse, for example, if Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch and rejected the Jerusalem ruling because the laity there wouldn't accept it! :-) Far from it, Antioch would be in open disobedience of the Council! As were the Judaizers in Ephesus, and Corinth, and Rome (who Peter and Paul encountered later). And so it is with the East regarding Lyon II and Ferrara-Florence. We don't think this part of the Orthodox position can stand. It is open disobedience to the universal Magisterium.

Charis kai eirene (Grace and Peace)

Mark Bonocore

Lord Jesus, let Your prayer of unity for Christians
become a reality, in Your way.
We have absolute confidence
that you can bring your people together,
we give you absolute permission to move.
Amen