10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
Referring to this passage Scott McKnight suggests that,
“The quest in the early church was for a “fellowship of differents,” that is, of people who are not the same but who transcend and celebrate differences by fellowship in Christ (McKnight, A Fellowship of Differents).”
He goes on to say that,
“We are looking here at the single most significant point of contention in the first generation of the church: Do gentile believers in Jesus observe the Torah as do the Jewish believers? Their Bible and Paul’s stated explicitly that circumcision was the covenant requirement for all, including gentiles, and it was an “everlasting covenant” (Genesis 17:1–14). Furthermore, full converts (proselytes) to Judaism were required to be circumcised, so a clear precedent was already at work. Yet, in neither of the gentile conversion stories told by Luke, the eunuch in Acts 8 and Cornelius in Acts 10, was circumcision required. Think of circumcision as the single act that demonstrated a full commitment. The rite signaled to the Jewish community one’s full commitment to Torah observance and that one had crossed the threshold out of paganism into Judaism.”
This underscores what we find in nearly the entirety of the NT. This is the question that forms the central concerns of its writers and figures. Here he outlines the big 3:
“First, Peter. He reminds them of his experience of being the first to gospel the gentiles with Cornelius where he and those who turned to Jesus received the Spirit and God “purified their hearts by faith” (15:9), which means without circumcision. Peter pushes even harder against the Pharisee Christian position by stating that none of them had been able to bear the requirements to follow the law of Moses, so why ask the gentile converts to attempt it (15:10). I consider this statement one of the most radical statements one can find in the entire New Testament. Salvation, he tells the congress, is “through the grace of our Lord Jesus” (15:11). His answer then to the Pharisee Christians is “No!”
Second, Barnabas and Paul (notice the order) must have made quite an impression because Luke says “the whole assembly became silent,” which is often language used when listening to powerful orators (15:12). In this case, the preeminent troublemakers! They told stories about “signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them” (15:12). Their voice is reduced to one verse.
Third, James, the brother of Jesus and the major leader of the church in Jerusalem. Noticeably, he affirms Simon (Peter), not Barnabas and Paul, whom God used first to gospel the gentiles (15:14). Rhetorically it appears he wants to affirm (1) the gentile mission, (2) Peter as the fountain of that mission, and therefore (3) Paul as simply one who continued that divine initiative. James, too, knows like modern evangelicals that he needs some biblical support, so he appeals to Amos 9:11–12’s explicit prediction that in the future God would save gentiles (Acts 15:15–18).”
He then poses an interesting question regarding Jamss cutting through the middle of disputes between Peter and Paul.
“Two sides are in dispute: Paul claims total freedom from the law, and the Pharisee believers claim the necessity of law observance. James proposes (1) to “not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (15:19) and (2) proposes that they be required to observe what gentiles who lived in the land of Israel were to observe. Either James is appealing here to Leviticus 17:8–14, which is built on Genesis 9:4–6, or he is pushing in various ways against idolatry (Gaventa, Acts, 221–224).”
I have long thought that this is why James’ letter appears so distinct, and perhaps why I was once resisted I history. Part of what opens up James for me is actually seeing his use of the Genesis language, and so it’s interesting to consider his letter in line with the literary structure of leviticus if this theory is correct. I suspect that he is actually using that to speak to the idolatry of their day and that his highly considered jewishness sometimes gets missed in light of later writers seeing him in opposition to Paul.