To Whom Is Moses Preached? The Four Prohibitions and Gentile Synagogue Attendance in Acts 15:21

Acts 15:21 has puzzled many interpreters, to the point that Martin Dibelius calls it “one of the most difficult verses of the New Testament.” Coming at the conclusion of James’s speech during the so-called Jerusalem Council, this verse ostensibly corroborates James’s choice of four prohibitions for gentile believers to follow in lieu of the demands of those promoting circumcision as a salvation requirement (15:1, 5). The logic of verse 21, however, is unclear. What does the preaching of Moses have to do with the four prohibitions, and how is that relevant to gentile followers of Jesus?

Scholars have proposed various solutions to this problem. Some, for instance, suppose that Acts 15:21 demonstrates that the four prohibitions comprise the Torah’s laws for non-Israelites, and that other Jews would recognize them as such. The problem is that the Torah enjoins many additional laws upon non-Israelites, and there is no evidence that first-century Jews would recognize James’s four laws as uniquely applicable to gentiles. Others suggest that our verse highlights the need for gentile Jesus-followers to follow certain Jewish scruples to avoid offending Torah-observant Jews. This, however, fails to explain why James selected only these four laws, failing to address other potentially offensive gentile behaviours. Yet other scholars think that James here consoles the Pharisees, assuring them that Torah observance among Jews will suffer no harm by the council’s decision to exempt gentiles from it. If that were James’s point, however, Acts 15:21 would be a rather awkward way to say this, where the focus is not on Torah observance but on the Torah’s availability through public Scripture reading. These and other proposed solutions falter under a lack of explanatory power that renders them unpersuasive in various ways.

Building on the interpretation of Isaac Oliver, Eyal Regev, and others, this paper argues that Acts 15:21 conveys James’s expectation that gentile believers learn Torah through public synagogue reading. First, Luke depicts Jesus and his followers throughout Luke-Acts as continuing to meet in synagogues. Even when Luke describes believers gathering in homes or other venues, this supplements rather than replaces synagogue attendance. Second, Luke specifically singles out gentile attendance in almost every mention of Diaspora synagogues in Acts. Thus, Luke has no trouble depicting synagogues as a resource available to gentiles. Third, we cannot rule out the possibility that, for James (and Luke), the term “synagogue” includes assemblies of Jesus-followers (as it does in James 2:2). Moreover, the practice of public Scripture reading is something that Jesus-followers continued to practice as well. Thus, Acts 15:21 is best understood as an explanation of how gentile followers of Jesus are to grow in their knowledge of Scripture beyond the minimal requirements of the four prohibitions. While the four prohibitions provide a baseline of Torah observance for non-Jewish believers, the availability of Torah reading in every city will ensure that gentile believers have the opportunity to learn more.