“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” the risen Jesus told his apostles (Mt 28:19). The book of Acts chronicles how the apostles began to carry out this assignment, proclaiming the Messiah’s resurrection “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Ac 1:8). Their first disciples were fellow Jews. But God soon directed them to present the Gospel to Gentiles as well.
The earliest Gentile Christians, like Cornelius the centurion, were “God-fearers” (Ac 10:1-2, 22), Gentiles who were drawn to the God and Scriptures of Israel and to the synagogue, but who had not taken the final step of conversion to Judaism. Some Jewish Christians believed that God-fearers should take this step and embrace a fully Jewish lifestyle, including circumcision for men. As a result, a controversy ensued (Ac 15:1-5).
A council of apostles and elders convened in Jerusalem to consider the issue (v 6). Peter reported that God had given his Spirit to Gentiles like Cornelius without requiring that they be circumcised (vv 7-11). James, the brother of Jesus, observed that Peter’s experience was consistent with the words of the prophets. Prophecies like Amos 9:11-12 pictured a time when Gentiles would join with Israelites in following the true God while maintaining Gentile identities (vv 13-18). Not everyone in the messianic kingdom would be a Jew.
The council agreed, then, not to require Gentile Christians to convert to Judaism. It did specify, however, that these believers should “abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality” (v 29). This list has come to be known as the Apostolic Decree.
The four items in the Apostolic Decree are stated briefly, with no elaboration, in Acts 15 and Acts 21:25. We can, however, gain more insight with the help of the Bible and our knowledge of life in the first century.
For example, abstaining from blood can mean both not eating blood and not committing acts of bloodshed (Ge 9:4-6). Several types of sexual immorality are condemned in Scripture (Lev 18, 20; 1 Co 5:1; 6:9, 15-16). Idolatry was ubiquitous in the Greco-Roman world, and believers were to give no honor to false gods (1 Co 10:18-22; 1 Th 1:9; 1 Jo 5:21; Rev 2:14, 20).
The phrase “what has been strangled” is more obscure. The Greek word for this phrase, pniktos, occurs in the New Testament only in the Apostolic Decree. (A related word, pnigo, means to choke or drown: Mt 13:7; 18:28; Mk 5:13.) Outside of the New Testament pniktos is a term for tender meat from infant or unborn animals that have been smothered.(1)
The meaning of pniktos in Acts 15 depends on the meaning of the Decree as a whole.
One possibility is that the Decree gives food preparation guidelines so Jewish and Gentile Christians could share meals in harmony. In this case, Gentile Christians hosting a meal should not serve meat offered in a pagan sacrifice and should ensure the animal’s blood had been drained properly. In addition, no sexual immorality should take place, including the common Greco-Roman practice of offering prostitutes to guests after dinner.
In the setting of a meal, avoiding pniktos could mean not serving meat from a smothered infant animal. Or it could mean not butchering an animal by slitting its windpipe. An animal killed in this manner would effectively suffocate, and its blood would not drain correctly.
A second possibility is that the Decree lists basic moral requirements.
The three sins of idolatry, shedding blood, and sexual immorality are often listed together in the Bible (Eze 33:25-26; 16:36) and later rabbinic literature. In Jewish tradition, these are sins that should not be committed even if one’s life is at stake (e.g., b. Sanhedrin 74a).
Rabbinic lists of the above three sins often add a fourth like slander, neglecting a sabbatical year, unwarranted hatred, or robbery—in order to emphasize the seriousness of the fourth item. In the Apostolic Decree, “things strangled” would be the fourth sin added making a good case for interpreting pniktos as the killing of unwanted infants by smothering.
In favor of this interpretation of pniktos is that infanticide was widely practiced in the Greco-Roman world.
When a baby was born, the head of household decided whether to accept the baby into the family. Rejected babies were either smothered or left outdoors to die. Infanticide was commonplace in that culture but vocally opposed by Jews and Christians. It was condemned by Jewish writers like Philo and Josephus and in early Christian works like the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas.(2)
The identification of pniktos with infanticide in Acts 15 is supported by an interesting parallel in a Jewish work from the first century BC. In Book 3 of the Sibylline Oracles, lines 757-766 describe God as instituting a law for all people, Jews and Gentiles. Three precepts from that law are mentioned—prohibitions of idolatry, sexual immorality, and infanticide.
There is another possible parallel in Leviticus 17-20, where four laws intended for both Israelites and resident aliens are introduced with the word “whoever” (ish ish in Hebrew). They deal with unauthorized worship (17:8), consuming blood (17:10), forbidden sexual unions (Lev 18:6), and killing children in worship of Molech (20:2-5)—a combination remarkably close to the Acts 15 list.
The Apostolic Decree seems to have been designed for application to table fellowship and universal morality. Further, since the word pniktos can relate to both smothered animals and smothered human infants, reading the Decree as a prohibition against infanticide serves to highlight the consistent, historic pro-life positions of Christianity and Judaism.
(1) See David Instone-Brewer, "Infanticide and the Apostolic Decree," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 52 (2009), pp. 301-321.
(2) See Instone-Brewer, pp. 301-304.
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