The Western Text of Acts and the Council of Jerusalem

(Listed under Speculations)

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13 Aug 2020 (modified 23 Aug 2020)

N.B. This page does not yet have a “Simplified English” version. Automated translations are based on the original English text. They may include significant errors.

Two versions of Acts

A fact that comes as a surprise to most Christians, though not to those familiar with the history of the New Testament texts, is that there are two distinct versions of the Acts of the Apostles. But before anyone gets into a panic about this, let me explain…

Both versions are substantively the same and the work of the same author. It is not at all unusual for small differences to arise between copies of ancient documents, as the originals long ago became illegible and were discarded, through wear, tear and decay. Sometimes copyists made errors. Sometimes they, or other students, would make notes on the page correcting errors, clarifying the meaning, etc.. And sometimes such notes might get treated as part of the text by a subsequent copyist.

In the case of the New Testament texts so many ancient copies have survived that we can document thousands of such minor variations and use these to construct a ‘family tree’ of the texts. This helps scholars work out both where and when a particular document was made, and to deduce with greater accuracy the precise wording of the original.

The ancient copies of Acts contain their fair share of variations of the above sort. But it is clear, from the documents themselves and quotations from early church writers, that two versions of Acts existed from a very early date. These are commonly referred to by scholars as the ‘Alexandrian’ (‘short’ or ‘Antiochian’) and ‘Western’ (‘long’) versions. In practice, despite the widespread citation of the Western text amongst early church writers, it was the Alexandrian text that ultimately gained the wider acceptance; and the majority of modern bible translations, including the Authorised Version, mainly follow the Alexandrian text .

The puzzling thing is that there are quite a number of differences that have the appearance of deliberate alterations; yet most of these are of trivial doctrinal or historical importance (with one very important exception, which we will discuss shortly).

By way of illustration, here are the first eleven verses of Acts, compiled as a composite text in 1923 by Canon J. M. WILSON, D.D.. Text in bold type is from the Western version: underlined text is from the Alexandrian. Plain text is found in both:

The former treatise I made, O Theophilus, concerning all that Jesus began both to do and to teach, until the day in which he was received up, after that he had given commandment through the Holy Spirit unto the apostles whom he had chosen, and ordered to proclaim the gospel: to whom he also shewed himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing unto them by the space of forty days, and speaking the things concerning the kingdom of God: and, being assembled together with them, he charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which ye heard, saith he, from my mouth: for John indeed baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit, and which ye are about to receive after these not many days until the Pentecost.

They therefore, when they were come together, asked him, saying, Lord, dost thou at this time restore the kingdom of Israel? And he said unto them, It is not for you to know times or seasons, which the Father hath set within his own authority. But ye shall receive power, when the Holy Spirit is come upon you; and ye shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea and Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth. And when he had said these things, as they were looking, a cloud received him, and he was taken away out of their sight. And while they were looking stedfastly into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel; which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye looking into heaven? this Jesus, which was received up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye beheld him going into heaven.

Could one of these be a draft copy?

None of these alterations make any significant difference to the narrative – indeed it still makes good sense without any of them. It is relatively rare for this to be the case when lines or phrases are omitted accidentally. And the distribution is strange – with the Western text having four additional snippets in the first paragraph and the Alexandrian two in the second. Typically, the Western text has more additional material, making it about 6.5% longer and causing it to be known as the ‘long’ version.

Why would anyone deliberately add or delete these words when they are of so little consequence? Probably the most plausible explanation that has been offered for this is that one of these versions represents Luke’s first draft. Then, when Luke was preparing the master copy that was to be circulated to the churches, he may well have made minor editorial changes to improve the text and omit non-essential detail. But there is one major difference that is not so easily explained…

The Council of Jerusalem

I’ll start by quoting again from Canon Wilson’s composite text, starting with the final words of James’ summing up:

Wherefore my judgment is that we trouble not them which from among the Gentiles turn to God: but that we enjoin on them to abstain from the pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from what is strangled and from blood: and that whatsoever they would not should be done to them ye do not to others. For Moses from generations of old hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.

Then it seemed good to the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to choose men out of their company and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, Judas called Barabbas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren. And they wrote a letter by their hands containing as follows. The apostles and the elder brethren unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greeting: Forasmuch as we have heard that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls; to whom we gave no commandment; it seemed good unto us, having come to one accord, to choose out men, and send them to you with your beloved Barnabas and Paul, men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ in every trial. We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who themselves also shall tell you the same things by word of mouth. For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; that ye abstain from idol sacrifices, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication and whatsoever ye would not should be done to yourselves, ye do not to another. From which if ye keep yourselves ye do well, being sustained by the Holy Spirit. Fare ye well.

This decision of the council was one of the key turning points in the history of the church: yet the Western version omits the words, ‘and from things strangled,’ whilst the Alexandrian version omits, ‘and whatsoever ye would not should be done to yourselves, ye do not to another.’ How could these two versions, which at a cursory glance appear to be so fundamentally different, be the work of the same author? It looks like a death blow to this theory.

But if these versions really are radically different, then we still have to ask which is the right one, and why?

However, before we do this we should also point out that, whichever version we accept, there is another curious anomaly. Neither version directly addresses the original question that was brought before the council; which was, ‘Should gentile Christians be circumcised?’ (See Acts 15:1-2 and 5-6, below.)

And certain men came down from Judaea and were teaching the brethren, saying, Except ye be circumcised and walk after the custom of Moses, ye cannot be saved. And Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and questioning with them, for Paul spake strongly maintaining that they should remain so as when they believed; but those who had come from Jerusalem, charged them, Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them, to go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders that they might be judged before them about this question.

… But those who had charged them to go up to the elders, being certain of the sect of the Pharisees who believed, rose up saying, It is needful to circumcise them, and to charge them to keep the law of Moses.

And the apostles and elders were gathered together to consider of this matter. …

It can be seen from the composite text that both versions agree that circumcision was the primary issue: yet the council’s response does not mention it directly, concentrating instead on the secondary issue of how far gentiles should go in their observance of the Jewish laws.

Why? Well, we have to consider who it was that proposed the final wording of the decree. It was not Peter, who had been the first one chosen by God to preach the gospel to the gentiles: but James the brother of Jesus. James had become the de facto leader of the Jerusalem church in the absence of the apostles (c.f. Acts 12:17) and earned such great respect for his diplomatic handling of Jewish-Christian relations (even from non-Christians, such as the Jewish historian Josephus), that he became known as ‘James the Just.’

Now we know from the letters of Paul and the later chapters of Acts that the issue of circumcision was deeply entrenched in Jewish thinking and didn’t just go away. Jewish law prevented uncircumcised Christians from joining their Jewish brethren in the inner court of the temple (see Acts 21:27-9). And even Peter and Barnabus vacillated over whether or not Jewish Christians should eat in the company of uncircumcised Gentiles (Gal 2:11-13). So, when we look at the decree itself, what we are seeing is a classic political compromise statement, proposed by one who was extremely skilled at handling these tricky cultural issues. It makes a bold declaration on those aspects of the discussion on which agreement is possible, whilst implying an acceptance of the idea that Gentile Christians do not have to be circumcised in order to be saved; yet without going so far as to explicitly say that they shouldn’t be.

Now let us look more closely at the differences between the two versions:

The Western Version

This version reads, ‘abstain from idol sacrifices, and from blood, and from fornication and whatsoever ye would not should be done to yourselves, ye do not to another.’

This looks like a fairly straightforward statement of moral values. Idolatry and fornication were common problems in gentile culture and it is only to be expected that avoidance of these, along with observance of the ‘golden rule’ (based on Jesus’ explicit teaching in Mt 22:39) should be mandatory for any professing Christian. But the significance of abstaining ‘from blood’ is perhaps less clear. Is this abstinence from bloodshed (murder, etc.)1 or should it be taken to include avoidance of drinking blood (as was done in some heathen rituals) or eating meat from which the blood had not been fully drained?

The Alexandrian Version

This tells the Gentile Christians to, ‘abstain from idol sacrifices, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication.’

The most obvious difference here is the omission of reference to the ‘golden rule’ that ‘whatsoever ye would not should be done to yourselves, ye do not to another.’ Surely that would be a requirement for any professing Christian? Yes, surely: but supporters of the Alexandrian version can legitimately point out that, since this is not what the original question was about, it really wasn’t necessary for the decree to state the obvious. But doubtless it was implied – and probably explicitly affirmed – in the lengthy discussions that took place.

What about the explicit reference to ‘things strangled?’ This is interesting, as it suggests that food laws were one of the main problem areas and that the Jewish party wanted it clear that the instruction to abstain from eating anything without first draining its life-blood was to be fully observed. Some see this as an attempt to bring in the whole concept of keeping the ceremonial law by the back door: but there was also a very practical aspect to it. How could Jewish Christians share fellowship meals with their gentile brethren if there was no guarantee that the food was at least ‘kosher?’

Evidence from the Early Church Fathers.

Irenaeus, citing this passage in detail (‘Adversus haereses,’ book 3, ch.12.14 – c.130AD) plainly follows the Western version, making no mention of ‘things strangled.’ Tertullian (‘De Pudicitia,’ ch. 12 – c.200) appears to cite the Western version: but omits the golden rule as well as ‘things strangled.’ Cyprian (‘Ad Quirinum testimonia adversus Iudaeos,’ book 3.119 – c.250) cites the Western version. But Jerome (‘Commentary on Galatians’ – c.388) in discussing Galatians 5 says:

“… the elders which were at Jerusalem, and the apostles, being together assembled, appointed by their letters that the yoke of the law should not be imposed upon them, nor further observed; but only that they should only keep themselves from things offered to idols, from blood, and from fornication; or, as in some copies it is written, from ‘things strangled,’ or ‘anything strangled.'”

What is the most plausible reading?

As far as the golden rule is concerned, it seems highly unlikely that anyone would deliberately delete it from the text. And, since it was not the point at issue there is no compelling reason why it should have been included in the decree at all. But, being such a central part of the teaching of Christ, and therefore plainly uncontentious, it is pretty much unthinkable that any scribe would have left these words out, if they were known to have been part of the original letter. And if they had been accidentally omitted, it is highly unlikely that the error would have gone unnoticed and uncorrected in later copies. So the fact that it is missing from many copies is a strong argument for it not having been an integral part of the original apostolic letter. But it is of course highly probable that it was explicitly affirmed during the discussions within the council; so verbal reports of the council’s decision may well have given rise to the impression that it was actually included in the letter.

The key question that the decree addresses is, ‘What, if any, additional requirements of the Jewish law are Gentiles also expected to observe?’ To this the answer is, ‘abstain from idol sacrifices, and from blood, [and from things strangled?] and from fornication.’ Why these? Because they are the key moral areas where Gentile cultures diverged most markedly from Judaism. Worship of false gods and various forms of sexual licence abounded. And life was cheap. To the Jew, even animal life was a precious gift of God and must be treated with respect; whereas many heathen religions delighted in the shedding of blood as a symbol of the subjugation of other lives to one’s own.

But whether ‘things strangled’ was formally written into the original decree or not written, but acknowledged to be implicit in the command to abstain from blood, – or else a later addition – is more conjectural.

It has been argued, based on Amos 9:11-12 (which James cites during his summing-up in Acts 15:16-17), together with Leviticus chapters 17-18, that all four of these requirements originally applied not only to the Jewish people, but also to foreigners who lived among them (see ‘The Book of Acts in its Palestinian Setting (The Book of Acts in its First-Century Setting, Vol 4),’ ed. Richard Baukham, ISBN: 978-0802847898, pp. 450 &ff.)

In fact, Lev 17:8-13 explicitly states that the law on not eating blood should apply not only to the Jews; but also to any foreigners resident among them. As already pointed out, this would inevitably be an issue whenever Jewish and Gentile Christians shared a fellowship meal together. Also, the primary reason for this injunction, given in Lev 17:11, is that the blood is representative of the animal’s life being offered up as an atoning sacrifice; and such an atonement could only be made in the manner prescribed by God himself. Therefore, if this was not possible, then the blood was to be poured out on the ground and not consumed (Lev 17:12-13).

Moreover, nowhere in the Old Testament is strangulation explicitly forbidden; rather, it is a logical inference from the above, since it prevents the blood from being properly drained. If the Old Testament law itself did not require a specific instruction against strangulation, why would it be considered essential to include one in the Council’s edict? Even though we know that there were these two versions of Luke’s account in circulation, it is notable that there is no evidence of serious dispute about the merits or demerits of strangulation. (Whereas, in contrast, there is ample evidence of discussion about precisely how far Gentile Christians should go in avoiding meat sacrificed to idols!)

Notice also that there is no suggestion in Leviticus that this requirement should be applied to Gentiles who were not living in Jewish-controlled territory. Nor does it appear that the Jews of Jesus’ day had any expectation that this law should apply to Gentiles under any other circumstances. Rather, as written Rabbinic sources appear in the years following the destruction of Jerusalem, we find emerging evidence of agreement that the only food law applicable to non-Jews is the ‘Noahide’ law forbidding the eating of a limb torn from a living animal.2 This leniency towards Gentiles living elsewhere helps explain why the prohibition of blood and strangulation caused so little controversy or concern in the Gentile churches. Outside of Israel, it was solely concerned with avoiding offence to their Jewish brethren.

Consequently, I think it fair to say that, given the instruction to abstain ‘from blood,’ the avoidance of ‘things strangled’ would be regarded as an implicit requirement, and therefore essentially non-contentious. However, the rabbinic teachings of Jesus’ day did make specific mention of this; and, as already noted, when Jews and Gentiles came together to eat it would have been important for the Jewish participants to be confident that their food was ‘kosher.’ Therefore it is quite possible that this was added as a codicil, for the avoidance of doubt.

When and how are these changes most likely to have occurred?

There would have been very little point in adding the ‘things strangled’ clause after the copies of the letter had already been distributed around the Gentile churches. So the most probable time for this would have been when the letter itself was being drafted at, or immediately after, the end of the meeting. Having already agreed to abstain from blood, this would have been unlikely to present any difficulty.

On the other hand, by far the most plausible explanation for the non-inclusion of the golden rule is that it was not considered necessary. If you did not follow Jesus’ primary teachings, you could not be a Christian anyway!

Did Luke get it wrong?

The possible explanation for these differences lies in the question, ‘At what point did Luke first have access to an actual copy of the apostles’ letter?’ The Alexandrian text generally seems to be a slightly abbreviated, more polished, version, leading to the conclusion that this was Luke’s finished edition and the Western text is more likely to be Luke’s original draft.

In the Alexandrian version, Luke himself first comes into the narrative at Acts 16:4-10, where he becomes part of Paul’s party at Troas. This is after Paul and Silas had finished delivering the decrees to the churches and just before they received the Lord’s call to the previously unevangelised area of Macedonia. Luke then appears to have remained behind at Philippi following the arrest and release of Paul and Silas (cf. Acts 16:16-17:1), finally rejoining Paul more than 4 years later as he returned through Philippi (c.f. Acts 18:11, 19:8-10 & 20:3-6) .

However, the Western version of Acts 11:27-28 reads, “Now in these days there came down prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch. And there was much rejoicing; and when we were gathered together one of them named Agabus stood up and spake, …” This implies that Luke was personally present on the occasion of Agabus’ visit; though whether Luke arrived with Agabus, or was already a member of the church in Antioch, or how long he remained there at that time is not known.3 But there is one other trivial detail in the Western version of Acts 12:10 that is of interest. When Peter was freed from prison by the angel, Luke adds that, on passing through the external iron gate, they ‘went down the seven steps.’ This information seems pointless to an outsider and is accordingly deleted from the Alexandrian version; but its inclusion in what appears to be Luke’s original draft suggests that he himself was intimately acquainted with Jerusalem’s streets.

It is also worthy of note that one of Luke’s chief sources of information for the opening chapters of his gospel was Mary, whom John had taken from the crucifixion site to a house somewhere in Jerusalem (c.f. Jn 19:27; 20:2; Acts 1:14; 8:1). Thus it is possible that Luke was in Jerusalem at the time of the council: though unlikely that he was present at the council meeting itself. It is also conceivable that he may have been in Antioch when Paul and Barnabus arrived back from Jerusalem with the copies of the decrees; but the use of the third person throughout Luke’s account of that period, right up until after the last of the copies of the decree had been handed out, makes this much less likely.

Thus, it is probable that, when Luke began to compile his history of the early church, his information concerning the Council of Jerusalem was based on verbal reports only. It is therefore very possible that no mention had been made of the non-essential detail concerning strangulation: but that he had been assured that, ‘of course,’ all Christians were expected to follow the golden rule. However, Luke was a stickler for factual detail; so before publishing the final version of Acts, he would naturally have sought to confirm the actual wording, if at all possible, by seeking out a written copy of the decree and amending his text accordingly.

Why was the Western text published?

It is likely that Luke’s draft was compiled during his journeyings. It is indeed noteworthy that those portions of the narrative where he uses ‘we’ instead of ‘they’ commonly contain more detail than those based on other people’s reports. But we are talking here about manuscripts: not word-processors. Once written, corrections were difficult and potentially confusing: hence the need for an improved and corrected final version, suitable for copying and general release.

But it is very plausible to suppose that Luke would have retained the original for his own reference. According to tradition, he died aged 84 in central Greece and was buried in Thebes. So if his draft passed into other hands, it is highly probable that it would have been preserved and subsequently copied, giving rise to what is now known as the Western text.

Conclusion

At first glance the differences in the accounts of the Council of Jerusalem seem destructive of the idea that the Western text was Luke’s first draft. But, when all the evidence is considered, this theory appears to offer the most plausible explanation for those very differences.

Footnotes

  1. Canon Wilson himself was strongly of the view that ‘blood’ should be interpreted as a moral prohibition against murder, rather than as a food law; and that the golden rule was originally part of the Council’s decree. (See here for a fuller presentation of his views on this matter and a lot of interesting additional observations.) However, if the golden rule had been included, there would be no need for a specific prohibition of murder; as that, slander and many other offences are all barred by that one rule: whereas fornication and idolatry were widely promoted as desirable activities in much of the Gentile world – just as they are today. ↩
  2. There were 7 ‘Noahide’ laws; which were deemed obligatory for all mankind since the time of Noah. The earliest complete Rabbinic list of these comes from the Tosefta Avodah Zarah 9:4, which says: “Seven commandments were commanded of the sons of Noah: (1) concerning adjudication (dinim), (2) concerning idolatry (avodah zarah), (3) concerning blasphemy, (quilelat ha-shem), (4) and concerning sexual immorality (gilui arayot), (5) and concerning blood-shed (shefikhut damim) and (6) concerning robbery (ha-gezel) and (7) concerning a limb torn from a living animal (eber min ha-hayy).” (Cited from ‘The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion’ by Marc David Baer et.al., pg. 591. © Oxford University Press, 2014.) The Tosefta dates from the 3rd century; but may reflect the conclusions of Rabbinic debate from as early as the late first century. Item (7) is based on Gen 9:4 , “But flesh with its life, its blood, you shall not eat.” Item (5), on the other hand, refers to murder: not food laws. For a fuller discussion of these, see Maimonides’ 12th century work, ‘Mishneh Torah, Sefer Shoftim, Kings and Wars,’ 8:10-9:14. ↩
  3. The Western text of Acts 11:27-28 is also of interest in revealing that Luke may well have been personally acquainted with Manaen, Herod’s foster-brother and best friend (Acts 13:1); thus giving him access to detailed inside information regarding the affairs of Herod’s court. ↩

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