It is the Decision of the Holy Spirit and Us….On the Council of Jerusalem and the Catholicity of the Early Church


In the first reading at Today’s Mass we have recounted for us the Council of Jerusalem which scholars generally date to around the Year 50 AD. It was a pivotal moment in the history of the Church since it would set forth an identity for the Church that was independent from the culture of Judaism per se, and it would open wide the door of inculturation to the Gentiles. This surely had significant impact upon evangelization in the early Church.

Catholic Ecclesiology is Evident here: in that we have reflected here a very Catholic model of the Church in terms of how a matter of significant pastoral practice and doctrine is properly dealt with. In effect what we see here is the same model the Catholic Church has continued to use right to our own time. What is evident here, and in all subsequent Ecumenical Councils, is a gathering of the Bishops presided over by the Pope which considers a matter and may even debate it. If necessary, the Pope resolves debates where consensus cannot be reached. Once a decision is reached, a letter is issued to whole Church and the decision is considered binding.

All these elements are seen here, though somewhat in seminal form. Let’s consider this First Council of the Church in Jerusalem of 50 AD, beginning first with the remote preparation –

1. Bring in the Gentiles! – The Lord, just before he ascended gave the Apostles the great commission: Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19). Hence, the Gentiles are now to be summoned  and included in the ranks of discipleship and of the Church.

2. But it looks like the Church was mighty slow in beginning any outreach to the Gentiles. It is true that on the day of Pentecost people from every nation heard the Sermon of Peter and 3000 converted. By they were all Jews (Acts 2). In fact, it seems the Church did little, at first, to leave Jerusalem and go anywhere, let alone to the nations.

3. Perhaps as a swift quick in the pants the Lord allowed a persecution to break out in Jerusalem after the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7). This caused the gospel to begin a northward trek into Samaria at least. Samaritans however are not usually considered Gentiles, since they were a groups that had intermarried with Jews in the 8th Century BC. There is also the Baptism of an Ethiopian Official but he too was a Jew.

4. Fifteen Years?! The time line of Acts is a bit speculative. However if we study it carefully and compare it to some of what Paul says (esp. in Galatians) it would seem that we are dealing with close to 12 or 15 years before the baptism of the first Gentile! If this is true then it is a disgrace. There were, of course, strong racial animosities between Jew and Gentile that may explain the slow response to Jesus’ commission. It explains, but does not excuse it.

5. Time for another kick in the pants. This time the Lord went to Peter who was praying on a rooftop in Joppa, and, by means of a vision, taught him that he was not to call unclean what God had called clean. The Lord then sent to Peter an entourage from Cornelius, a high Roman military official who was seeking baptism. He, of course was a Gentile. The entourage requests that Peter go with them to meet Cornelius at Cesarea. At first he is reluctant. But then recalling the vision (kick in the pants) that God had given him, he decides to go. In Cesarea he does something unthinkable. He, a Jew, enters the house of a Gentile. Peter has learned his lesson and been guided by God, as the first Pope, to do what is right and just. After a conversation with Cornelius, and the whole household, and signs from the Holy Spirit, Peter has them baptized. Praise the Lord! It was about time. (All of this is detailed in Acts 10)

6. It is a  fact that many were not happy with what Peter had done, and they confront him on it. Peter explains his vision, and also the manifestation of the Holy Spirit and insists that this is how it is going to be. While it is a true that these early Christians felt freer to question Peter than we would the Pope today, it is also a fact that what Peter has done is binding even if some of them don’t like it. What Peter has done will stand. Once Peter has definitively answered them, they reluctantly assent and declare somewhat cynically: “God has granted life giving repentance even to the Gentiles!” (Acts 11:19)

7. Trouble Brewing – So, the mission to the Gentiles is finally open. But that does not mean trouble is over. As Paul, Barnabas and others begin to bring in large numbers of Gentile converts, some among the Jewish Christians begin to object that  they were not like Jews, and began to insist that they must be circumcised and follow the whole Jewish Law; not just the moral precepts but also the cultural norms, kosher diet, purification rites etc. That is where we picked up the story in yesterday’s Mass.

8. The Council of Jerusalem – Luke is a master of understatement and says “Because there arose no little dissension and debate….” (Acts 15:2) it was decided to ask the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem to gather and consider the matter. So the apostles and some presbyters (priests) with them meet and,  of course,  Peter is there, as is James who was especially prominent in Jerusalem among the apostles, and would later become bishop there. Once again Luke rather humorously understates the matter by saying, “After much debate, Peter arose” (Acts 15:7).

In effect Peter arises to settle the matter since, (it would seem), that the apostles themselves were divided.  Had not Peter received this charge from the Lord? The Lord had prophesied: Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded to sift you all like wheat but I have prayed for you Peter, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers (Luke 22:31-32). Now Peter fulfills this text, as he will again, and every Pope after him. Peter clearly dismisses any notion that the Gentiles should be made to take up the whole burden of Jewish customs. Paul and Barnabas rise to support this. Then James (who it seems may have felt otherwise) rises to assent to the decision and asks that a letter be sent forth to all the Churches explaining the decision. He also asks for and obtains a few concessions.

So there it is, the First Council. And that Council, like all the Church-wide Councils that would follow, was a gathering of the bishops, in the presence of Peter who works to unite them. A decision is then made, and a decree, binding on the whole Church,  is sent out. Very Catholic actually. We have kept this Biblical model ever since. Our Protestant brethren have departed from it for they have no Pope to settle things when they dispute. They have split endlessly into tens of thousands of denominations and factions. When no one is pope every one is pope.

A final thought. Notice how the decree to the Churches is worded: It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us (Acts 15:28). In the end, we trust the Holy Spirit to guide the Church in matters of faith and morals. We trust that decrees and doctrines that issue forth from Councils of the Bishops with the Pope are inspired by and authored by the Holy Spirit Himself. And there it is right in Scripture, the affirmation that when the Church speaks solemnly in this way it is not just some bishops and the Pope as men, it is the Holy Spirit who speaks with them.

The Church – Catholic from the Start!

28 Replies to “It is the Decision of the Holy Spirit and Us….On the Council of Jerusalem and the Catholicity of the Early Church”

  1. I’ve read some speculation that Luke was actually a Gentile. From the level of detail in the Gospel and Acts, it seems clear that, even if he were not present at all the events he writes about, he obtained first-hand information from those who were, including I would think speaking to Mary herself about the infancy of Jesus. How early did he become a disciple and companion of Paul?

    Likewise, some of the Roman soldiers that tradition says were early followers, including the one who confessed Jesus as the Son of God at the Crucifixion, “St. Longinus,” who pierced His side with the spear, and probably the centurion whose servant was healed by Jesus.

    In any event, I see it as quite natural that the Apostles would think that they would get an easier reception in the various Hellenistic-Jewish communities — no need to have to explain the whole background of Salvation History, simply explain how Jesus fulfills the scriptures (which explains why the Gospel of Mark, thought to be targeted toward a Gentile audience, doesn’t get very deep into Jewish matters). Perhaps that is also why there was the Diaspora in the first place, to send out and scatter God’s “chosen people” to prepare the soil throughout the world for the time when the Apostles would come plant Christian seeds in those Jewish communities and from there, to the rest of the world.

    1. St. Anne Catherine Emmerich states that Abenader as well as Cassius (Longinus) among many others were there converted based on what they witnessed at Calvary. Later they went to the disciples who had hidden in the Garden and told them of what happened, asking to be preached to. She also claims Simon of Cyrene was a pagan, not a Jew and that Cassius (took the name of Longinus when he became a Christian) was afflicted with several ills, mainly to his eyes, and was healed when he pierced the side of Jesus.

  2. Beautiful post Father!

    From the Catholic Encyclopedia —

    St. Luke does not tell us whither Peter went after his liberation from the prison in Jerusalem. From incidental statements we know that he subsequently made extensive missionary tours in the East, although we are given no clue to the chronology of his journeys. It is certain that he remained for a time at Antioch; he may even have returned thither several times. The Christian community of Antioch was founded by Christianized Jews who had been driven from Jerusalem by the persecution (Acts 11:19 sqq.). Peter’s residence among them is proved by the episode concerning the observance of the Jewish ceremonial law even by Christianized pagans, related by St. Paul (Galatians 2:11-21). The chief Apostles in Jerusalem — the “pillars”, Peter, James, and John — had unreservedly approved St. Paul’s Apostolate to the Gentiles, while they themselves intended to labour principally among the Jews. While Paul was dwelling in Antioch (the date cannot be accurately determined), St. Peter came thither and mingled freely with the non-Jewish Christians of the community, frequenting their houses and sharing their meals. But when the Christianized Jews arrived in Jerusalem, Peter, fearing lest these rigid observers of the Jewish ceremonial law should be scandalized thereat, and his influence with the Jewish Christians be imperiled, avoided thenceforth eating with the uncircumcised.

    His conduct made a great impression on the other Jewish Christians at Antioch, so that even Barnabas, St. Paul’s companion, now avoided eating with the Christianized pagans. As this action was entirely opposed to the principles and practice of Paul, and might lead to confusion among the converted pagans, this Apostle addressed a public reproach to St. Peter, because his conduct seemed to indicate a wish to compel the pagan converts to become Jews and accept circumcision and the Jewish law. The whole incident is another proof of the authoritative position of St. Peter in the early Church, since his example and conduct was regarded as decisive. But Paul, who rightly saw the inconsistency in the conduct of Peter and the Jewish Christians, did not hesitate to defend the immunity of converted pagans from the Jewish Law. Concerning Peter’s subsequent attitude on this question St. Paul gives us no explicit information. But it is highly probable that Peter ratified the contention of the Apostle of the Gentiles, and thenceforth conducted himself towards the Christianized pagans as at first. As the principal opponents of his views in this connexion, Paul names and combats in all his writings only the extreme Jewish Christians coming “from James” (i.e., from Jerusalem). While the date of this occurrence, whether before or after the Council of the Apostles, cannot be determined, it probably took place after the council (see below). The later tradition, which existed as early as the end of the second century (Origen, “Hom. vi in Lucam”; Eusebius, Church History III.36), that Peter founded the Church of Antioch, indicates the fact that he laboured a long period there, and also perhaps that he dwelt there towards the end of his life and then appointed Evodrius, the first of the line of Antiochian bishops, head of the community. This latter view would best explain the tradition referring the foundation of the Church of Antioch to St. Peter.

  3. I would add one more thing about the Apostolic Council.

    When Peter finished speaking, all were kept silent.

    And all the multitude held their peace; and they heard Barnabas and Paul telling what great signs and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them. “ Acts 15:12

    Then the other apostles spoke in support of Peters definitive teaching.

  4. Perhaps you should retitle your post, “…On the Council of Jerusalem and the Orthodoxy of the Early Church.”

    The Council of Jerusalem actually resembles Orthodoxy, where matters of faith are determined by ecumenical councils of bishops, rather than Catholicism, where matters of faith are determined by popes alone.

    Peter actually deferred to the council, which was led, as you suggest, by James, the brother of the Lord.

    Papal primacy developed over 2,000 years, and papal infallibility developed over the last 200 years.

    No reputable historian or theologian would suggest that either was fully established in the early church.

    1. By my read the text indicates that, after much discussion (which implies something of a stalemate) Peter rose and resolved the stalemate, then Paul and Barnabbas affirm his decision and James defers to Peter’s decision or at least gives further assent. I see no evidence that James led the Council. As for Orthodoxy’s ecclesiology, how’s that working out for them? They seem like a pretty divided group. I remember how ugly the divisions were in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

      Your sense of the history of Papal primacy is flawed because it ignores that it was largely in place right from the start, the Fathers provide an early witness to it, as does Scripture.

      And you know better than to say that matters of faith are determined by popes alone, simplifications such as yours do not advance the topic. Dogma is a rich interplay between Councils and the Pope, as is evident in this passage. The Pope surely ratifies them and helps to resolve logjams, but your simplistic description is wrong due its simplicity.

      As to your last point, it seems you have failed to read my article closely wherein I describe the Catholic Conciliar model as present in “seminal form” Either you missed it or don’t know what is meant by the term “seminal?”

      1. Though I love aspects it and especially it’s writings, Orthodoxy cannot and will never be the first among equals. Rome evangelised the world, Constantinople succumbed to the Muslims.

    2. Benedict says:
      “Papal primacy developed over 2,000 years….”

      Say what??? I invite you to download Credo Bible Study from and learn a little more about the Catholic faith.

      Mt. to Rev. – Peter is mentioned 155 times and all other apostles combined are 130 times. Peter is always listed first but for two obvious exceptions to the rule (1Cor3:22; Gal2:9).

      Mt 16:16; Mk 8:29; Jn 6:69 – Peter is first among the apostles to confess the divinity of Christ.

      Mt 16:17 – Peter alone is told he has received divine knowledge by a special revelation from God the Father.

      Mt. 16:18 – Jesus builds the Church only on Peter with the other apostles as the foundation and Jesus as the Head.

      Mt 16:19 – Only Peter receives the keys, which represent authority and dynastic succession to his authority.

      Jn. 21:15-17 – Jesus tells Peter to “feed my lambs” “tend my sheep” “feed my sheep”. Peter feeds all, including apostles.

      Mt 17:24-25 – Peter is asked for Jesus’ tax. Peter is the spokesman for Jesus. He is the Vicar of Christ.

      Gal 1:18 – Paul spends fifteen days with Peter before beginning his ministry, even after Christ’s Revelation to Paul.

      Act. 1:20-26 – By word of Peter, a new bishop/apostle is chosen by lots under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

      Act. 5:1-6 – Peter passes judgment on Ananias and his wife for their incorrect behavior as disciples.

      Act. 15:7-12 – Peter resolves a doctrinal issue. After Peter spoke, all were silent. Paul and Barnabas speak in support.

    3. Benedict,

      The early church fathers disagree with you…

      “The church of God which sojourns at Rome to the church of God which sojourns at Corinth … But if any disobey the words spoken by him through us, let them know that they will involve themselves in transgression and in no small danger.”
      Pope St. Clement of Rome, 1st Epistle to the Corinthians (96 AD).

      “… the Church which presides in the place of the region of the Romans, and which is worthy of God, worthy of honour, worthy of the highest happiness, worthy of praise, worthy of credit, worthy of being deemed holy, and which presides over love…”
      St. Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Romans (110 AD).

      ” [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre- eminent authority…”
      St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies (180 AD)

  5. Msgr. great article. It is always good to see the distincitve elements of Catholicism present in the early Church.
    Permit me a linguistic nit pick; in #6 are there such things as “false facts”??

  6. Just sadness.

    I wish I didn’t have to console my Presbyterian cousin who is now at a loss because his church has decided to ordain openly gay pastors. We wouldn’t have Harold Camping leading people astray. Just so many examples of the Protestant heresy. This is one thing I disagree with Prof Kreeft on. Bringing Protestants back to the Sacraments should play an important role in our lives.

    1. I had a parishioner tell me recently that a Protestant denomination she knew of recently took a vote on the Trinity. Likely this denomination was in the liberal wing of the Protestant denominations and was trending unitarian!

  7. Thank you for this explanation about the work of the Apostles; I had not realized they had a slow start.

    As for the early council, oftentimes we think everything is debatable and do not reflect on the need to work for and preserve the unity of the Church.

    A reminder to pray a novena to the Holy Spirit, beginning on the Friday after Ascension Thursday. EWTN has a collection of novenas to the Holy Spirit, including a very ancient one. I could not get this link to work:

  8. Msgr,

    In the letter that the council produces, they write:

    28 “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: 29 that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well.

    Some of these things (at least the abstinence from blood and what is strangled) seem to be disciplinary, since we do not abide by these rules today. Could the Council of Jerusalem’s judgments also be an example of the Church’s authority to bind, in the way that she asks us to do a Friday penance, fast on Ash Wednesday/Good Friday, attend mass on certain holy days of obligation apart from Sundays, etc?

  9. “So, the mission to the Gentiles is finally open. But that does not mean trouble is over. ”

    So, the Council of Jerusalem is authoritatively concluded and Peter travels to Antioch to see things first-hand. But that does not mean trouble is over.

    Time for another kick in the pants?

  10. I always like that statement: When no one is pope every one is pope. It’s a fundamental problem of Protestantism. They reject the idea of a Magisterium (one Free Church of Scotland minister on his website refers to it as a tyranny) but all they can put in its place is the infallibility of private interpretation. But we all know were that leads. Ecumenism is all very well but we must not forget that there is only one true Church.

  11. Great article. I would bet this is one of those sections of the bible that Protestants gloss over and never truly “see” it. And yet, it is a very impotant and unique event in the NT Scriptures. As you well pointed out, it proves the Early Apostolic Church was set-up in a Catholic manner with leaders and a chief (Peter/pope). And when they spoke, they considered it the same utterance as the Holy Ghost. (Infallable).

  12. It is strange Msgr. that Peter spoke only four verses, James eight and James ends by saying “My verdict is….”(Acts 15:19); Luke does not appear to see James as carrying less weight than Peter. If Peter had “settled the matter” Luke would not have quoted James saying, authoritatively, “My verdict is…” and speaking for longer.

    In addition, it was “the Apostle and elders…gathered together to consider this matter” (Acts 15:6); there was no mention of priests and not only that but in verse 22 it becomes clear that the whole Church was there “then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas.”

    So we have the first Council being truly conciliar with Apostles, elders and the whole Church in Jerusalem present together sending “Judas called Barsab’bas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren, with the following letter.” (Acts 15:22-23)

    At some stage the Councils changed, but conciliar Councils occurred even as late as the Council of Constance which began in 1414 and if the conciliar reforms enacted at this Council had been enforced the Protestant Reformation would probably not have occurred.

    1. Your observations are not without merit. I want to emphasize that we have here the doctrines in seminal form. Hence they do not square with the fully developed form. But here are the roots and the shoots, so to speak. Peter did seem to quell the debate for all fell silent. That James says, “it is my judgement (verdict)” does seem to indicate he decided, not Peter, but that is not necessarily so. James may simply be saying that he concurs with Peter’s verdict already stated.

      As with any scripture passage, Catholics are not left with the text alone, like the Protestants, rather, we are able to see its meaning by the light of tradition and the practice of the faith. Hence, to merely reason from the text alone, while perhaps necessary when talking with a Protestant, is not a Catholic approach. Rather we see it by the light of our experience of the lived word of God in the Tradition and the lived practice of the Church.

    2. Brencel, one mark of this council being a true council is the presence of Peter, even if James (wasn’t he the local bishop?) had an important role in the deliberations. Without the clear approval or disapproval of Peter’s successor, how would it be possible to distinguish between, say, the Council of Chalcedon and the robber council of Ephesus?

  13. I have had Protestants say that because James made the final statement of “policy”, it shows that Peter was not the first Pope. They, however, overlook the fact that it is Peter who settles the matter. James only puts “motion” before the council. It is understandable, though, since they are grasping at straws in an effort to show legitimacy.

    Thank you for a wonderful article, Msgr. Pope. I, like so many others, did not realize that it took that long for the evangelization of the Gentiles to get started.

  14. Dear Msgr,

    Thanks so much for this reflection. I was actually reading the blog of a friend of mine, who writes a lot about the vocation of women in the Church (and vocation in the broader sense of the word… who are we called to as beloved of Christ — not just as a single, married, or religious woman). At any rate, she also had a great reflection on how this discernment of the early disciples can also be applied to the situation in which the Church finds Herself today with respect to the more ‘marginalized’ groups within the church who do not feel they have as much of a voice.

    I give you the link here for your enjoyment.


    1. A very, very disturbing article. There are two types of Catholics: obedient and disobedient. Your friend falls into the latter category for sure.

  15. It seems that a “structure” in the Holy Trinity has been illustrated here. God the Father decided and delegated; God the Word (who became God the Son) conducted the mission and left 40 days after the passion then God the Spirit, who descended 10 days later fulfilling the 50 meaning from 40 days of penta which means 50, conducts the Apostles through the implementation stage.
    Perfect teamwork …….. of course.
    So, we celebrate the Pentecost as 40 days but, is it 50?
    Dunno but I know it’s one of my favourite Mysteries. Shear and obvious beauty – to me anyway. Seems like both.

  16. Did anyone read these rather strong Open Messages to Pope Benedict ? It says that the Vatican was supposed to have released the 3rd Secret of Fatima 50 years ago along with the hidden documents about the True Jesus which are apparently stored underneath the Vatican.

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