15 Jan 2012

Paul the Jew, His Nazarite Vow and Restorationist Response to It

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Acts, Church, Jewish Backgrounds, Paul, Restoration History

The episode recorded by Luke in Acts 21.17-26 is one of his most fascinating vignettes. It certainly is a “bump” in any patternistic hermeneutic. The thought of Paul (James and the Jerusalem church does not usually bother anyone but perhaps would if we actually understood it) actually taking a vow, offering a sacrifice in the temple (with instruments) and undergoing purification causes no little stress! That the text is meddlesome is evident by the way Stone-Campbell restorationists have wrestled with the text. I think our reactions to this passage in Acts also sheds light on our attitude toward the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament in general and the Jewish context of the first century church in particular.

All of the interpretations surveyed have an abiding anti-Jewish prejudice at their root. Anti-Judaism was (and remains) common in Protestant biblical interpretation.

I have not found a discussion of Acts 21 in Alexander Campbell’s writings. If someone has a reference please let me know. In his Acts of the Apostles Campbell offers only the briefest of notes and mostly of a translation nature. His most extensive comment is whether or not Paul was arrested during or after the period of the vow (Acts, p.144).

Robert Milligan and J. W. McGarvey seem to have provided the grist for most restoration thought on Acts 21 in the late 19th and going into the 20th centuries. I will summarize Milligan first. Milligan published his Analysis of the New Testament in 1874. Volume one covers only the Gospels and Acts (I do not know if volume 2 was ever published).

For Milligan there are three possible explanations of Paul’s behavior in Jerusalem in Acts 21. First, we can simply affirm that Paul acted ignorantly. In spite of having written Galatians he still was not aware that the Law of Moses was no longer binding. The second possible interpretive move for Milligan is that Paul’s action falls in the same category as Peter’s in Galatians 2. He acted out of fear of his Jewish brethren and thus not wholeheartedly. The third possible interpretation is that Paul was simply bowing to Jewish weakness and prejudice. (See Milligan, Analysis, p. 392). Milligan shows no interest in the fact that the Jerusalem church under the leadership of James, and Luke the writer, have no apparent qualms with this course of action nor that this seems “normal” for the church.

Milligan’s interpretation is picked up by B. W. Johnson in his People’s Notes on the New Testament, Vol 1. In Johnson’s Notes God gradually lead the church into understanding that the Old Testament had been done away with, “God taught the church lesson by lesson, but up to this time that at Jerusalem had not yet learned that they were freed from the obligation to keep the law of Moses” (Vol 1, p. 511). Johnson suggests, in line with Milligan, that Paul took James advice for the sake of “peace and unity” (p. 512). But in Johnson’s own view “we cannot be certain that the advice was just, or that Paul did just right to comply” (ibid). Johnson follows this up by quoting “Pres. Milligan” (without giving the source but it is his Analysis quoted above) and opts for his third suggestion as the “best.” This was Jewish prejudice and “even Paul evidently at this time thought of the sacrifices as, like circumcision, a matter of indifference.” It was the next generation, Johnson states, that grasped the real truth of the matter.

J. W. McGarvey has the most extensive discussion on the episode and does so twice in his Original Commentary on Acts (pp. 258-261) and in his New Commentary (vol 2: 204-209). McGarvey confesses that Acts 21 “to be the most difficult passage in Acts to fully understand, and to reconcile with the teaching of Paul on the subject of the Mosaic law” (Acts, 258).

McGarvey argues that Paul had repudiated the obligation of the law but not the innocence of observing it as cultural ideal. Colossians 2.14, along with Ephesians and Hebrews (which Paul wrote according to McGarvey) clearly indicate that the repudiation of the “authority of the law” as obligatory on Christians.

Holy days and food was one thing, for McGarvy, but sacrifices were another. It is clear that James and the Jerusalem church thought continued sacrifice was “innocent” and approved the course of the four men and Paul himself (p. 259). Like Milligan, McGarvey postulates that perhaps Paul was in error like Peter in Antioch. But “Peter finally discovered that he was wrong in that matter, and Paul at length discovered that he was wrong in his connection with the offerings of these Nazarites” (p. 260). Other than supposing that Paul went on to write Hebrews no proof is offered for Paul’s recognition of his error in Jerusalem. In the final analysis, McGarvey, says that the actions by Paul in Acts 21 “was inconsistent with the truth as finally developed by the apostles, but not with so much of it as was then understood by Paul” (ibid).

McGarvey does not alter his conclusions much in his New Commentary. He concludes his discussion in his New Commentary saying,

“That which renders this proceeding a more striking exhibition of Paul’s present attitude toward the law is the fact that in it he participated in the offerings of sacrifices, which seems to be inconsistent with his repeated declaration of the all-sufficiency of the blood of Christ as an atonement of sin. I think it must be admitted that subsequent to the writing of the epistle to the Ephesians and more especially to the Hebrews, he could not have consistently have done this …” (Vol 2., p. 208).

F. L. Rowe and John A. Klingman take up McGarvey’s views in work entitled The Bible in Questions and Answers (1924). I was not even aware of this book until I discovered it in a used bookstore in Milwaukee of all places. Rowe and Klingman reproduce a whole paragraph from McGarvey (without a citation btw).

So far, most of the interpreters have concluded that Paul was simply ignorant, fearful or suffered from vestiges of Jewish prejudice and likely a combination of all three. E. G. Sewell was asked about Paul’s strange behavior too. For Sewell Acts 21 was simply “a case of human weakness, like Peter.” It was absolutely “certain [Paul] was not acting under inspiration” at the time he had this lapse in judgment. Sewell tells his solicitor that “it was almost impossible to convince the first Jewish Christians that they were to entirely lay aside the customs of the law.” As such “the action of Paul was not an act of the Spirit of God in contradiction to itself, but simply a specimen of Jewish prejudice and weakness.” (Sewell’s article is easily available in Questions Answered by Lipscomb and Sewell, edited by M. C. Kurfees, pp. 389-390). Again the practice of the Jerusalem church, the authority of James, nor Luke ever seems to be even reflected but they are as involved in this as Paul.

One thing that never occurred to Milligan, McGarvey, Rowe or Sewell is that they may have misunderstood Luke and Paul, rather than the other way around. Another question that never seems to have been raised is why Luke, the inspired writer, would not have indicated that Paul and the Jerusalem church were in error. The Spirit guided decision of the Jerusalem Council does not seem to be taken seriously by many.  But when Acts is actually read in its entirety Paul’s actions and those of the Jerusalem church seem quite consistent with the narrative – this is not the first vow Paul makes, cf. 18.18.

Another question that seems not to have been raised is when is an “apostolic” example actually approved? Clearly James approved of it. Clearly Paul also approved of it. And it would seem that Luke approved of it … three inspired men have approved it. Just when is the early church a source for “pattern?” Is it only pattern when it behaves in a way you already believe? This seems to have been normal procedure for James and the Jerusalem church. But it is a typical Protestant unspoken assumption that Paul is often the only real apostle.  A subtle Marcionism that has infested Protestant theology. But James, the church and Luke have to be explained as much as Paul.

Yet we have routinely called Paul and Jerusalem church mistaken? They were simply prejudiced or ignorant! Another question that seems to have escaped notice is “What if the prejudice is not Jewish but Gentile in this case?” The only mistake seems, in my opinion, is the application of a false presupposition and judging the Lord’s brother and an apostle on the basis of a restoration hermeneutic. What happens when our theory of hermeneutics conflicts with the actual biblical text??

At any rate this is most interesting to me how this particular episode in Acts is excised from our theology.

For an examination of Paul’s (and James’s) sacrifice within the narrative agenda of Luke in Acts and conversant with contemporary biblical scholarship see the linked article.  Paul remained a Jew, indeed a Pharisee, for his whole life.  Acts: A Jewish Story, James & Paul’s Animal Sacrifice .

Bobby Valentine

13 Responses to “Paul the Jew, His Nazarite Vow and Restorationist Response to It”

  1. Chyntt Says:

    The problem seems to go away when one realizes that in the Tanakh there were several types of sacrifices, not just atonement sacrifices.

    Jesus was our atonement sacrifice. If we offer other sacrifices as atonement sacrifices, we declare his atonement sacrifice as insufficient.

    But offering a vow-ending sacrifice or a thanksgiving sacrifice does not detract from the atonement sacrifice made by Jesus.

    I’m not versed well enough in the sacrifices of the Tanakh to know how many different types there are or for what purposes, but I’m comfortable in believing that Paul’s sacrifice is quite acceptable to God as a type not of the atonement variety.

    Related, Paul was a careful observer of the Law (Acts 21:24). I understand this to mean that Paul continued to be a Jew even as a Christian (just as the Pharisee believers were – Acts 15:5). But even though he kept the Law, he recognized that it was no longer binding. He had no qualms with keeping the law; what he had qualms with was seeking to be justified by the law. With this mentality, he would have no problem keeping Law-based vows and making Law-based sacrifices, provided he did not see this Law-keeping as making him justified or as invalidating the atonement provided by Jesus.

  2. Bradford L. Stevens Says:

    For those like me who believe that the Messianic age will begin when Jesus Christ returns to Jerusalem as promised in Zech.14:4; Acts 1:10-12 the thoughts of temple worship may not be so surprising. I suspect our “Gentile” rose colored glasses keeps us from understanding that while the blood of bulls and goats is inferior to the blood of the slain lamb, that the Messiah’s reign on Earth from Jerusalem (Isa.16:5; Rev. 20:4) may provide for worship for Israel so that they will “look on Me whom they pierced” and “mourn for Him” (Zech. 12:10). I see such worship being consistent with “truth and spirit”; and, more importantly, in line with the both the law and the prophets. Jer. 3:17. In this light there will be no inconsistency in the story in Acts. It is a hard teaching for us gentiles to comprehend what God is doing with Israel. I suspect He is not done yet; and, when they get ready to rebuild the temple in 3 days, we better get ready!

  3. Chyntt Says:

    Then again, looking at Numbers 6:13ff, it looks like there’s three animal sacrifices at the end of the Nazarite vow (along with grain and drink offerings): a male lamb as a burnt offering, a female lamb as a sin offering, and a ram as a fellowship offering.

    The female lamb as a sin offering seems to have been an “atonement” sacrifice, so my thinking in my first post above doesn’t seem to be valid. I guess maybe this is a bigger issue than I had thought.

  4. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:


    I am delighted you went back and looked closely at Numbers 6 – sign of a Berean.

    Concluding the vow was a complex and even costly affair. Indeed that cost could be prohibitive for poorer Jews wishing to fulfill the Nazirite Vow. It was most likely for this reason Paul is encouraged to pay for the four Christians to fulfill their vow in Acts 21.23-24.

    To conclude the vow a lamb or ram had to be offered as a fellowship/shalom offering, together with grain offerings and a drink offering (Num 6.14ff). The priest makes a “sin offering” (v.16). The shaved hair is placed in the fire of the shalom offering (v.18) the priest concludes the ceremony by making it into a wave offering (v.20). The whole affair is complex and very Jewish.

    As a side note all of these sacrifices would be to the tune of instrumental music … the sacred trumpets are played in burned offerings (Num 10.10).

    Bobby V

  5. Steve Says:

    Christianity has and hopefully always will be a religion that changes with time. Paul felt no inconsistency in expressing his desire to do good by the vow and probably no one else did either. Later on because of the destruction of Jerusalem and the changing times, the opportunity for such activity went away and most of the meanings associated with it lost to time. We should look to our roots for guidance and help. But it might not be a good idea to become first century Semites from around the Jordan.

  6. kingdomseeking Says:


    Certainly you would not be hinting that our Restoration heritage might in fact be guilty of forcing certain biblical texts to fit within the box of an (pre)assumed hermeneutic. That would never happen, would it?

    I’m being sarcastic but I don’t mean to put down our Restoration heritage. Rather this should remind us all to let the Bible speak as it wishes rather than trying to force scripture to speak as we wish.

    Grace and Peace,


  7. wisemanb Says:

    Every comment focuses on the sacrifices attending the conclusion of the Nazarite vow. There is still another question that can be asked: “What is the worth of a vow if one does not fulfill the conditions of that vow?” It seems these brethren were not Christians before taking the vow (maybe I’m forcing that view on the text). If they weren’t, then what becomes of the vow one made under the Law of Moses? If you don’t keep your vows made to God, what kind of person are you?

    I really don’t see the passage as one of soteriology, but simply one concerning faithfulness in one’s own walk with God. Would becoming a Christian release one from a Nazarite vow? I can’t think of any scriptural basis for such a statement. We’re freed from sin, not from vows to God.

  8. Keith Brenton Says:

    Then again, there’s nothing in scripture that says when you become a Christian, you stop being a Jew (or a Gentile!). Paul’s advice in Romans 14 seems to take the tack that what we do as a matter of custom, we do to God. It would not be acceptable to bind Jewish custom on Gentiles (nor vice-versa), but acceptable indeed to observe our own customs out of respect for God. Sacrifices might not atone for sin any longer in Paul’s day, but they were still part of Jewish ritual and something God had asked to be done. Paul surely knew by the fact the temple was still standing that Jesus’ prophecy about its destruction had not come to pass. So the theology of redemption was in a time of transition. We wouldn’t expect Jewish Christians to stop celebrating Passover today, even though a much greater deliverance and sacrifice and loss of firstborn has taken place. Should we bind our judgment in Paul for remaining a Jew in order to reach Jews – something he confesses to doing?

    When and how did we Restoration folks become so all-fired consumed with judging others, anyway?

  9. Douglas Young Says:

    Bobby… I get the sense that Paul is also being rather pragmatic in light of James’s requests. James is wanting him to act in a manner that will not ruffle the feathers of Jerusalem church leaders. To me, that is immensely interesting.

    Patternists have to advocate that Paul erred by doing what he was doing (That was my position at one time.), and yet to suggest such forces one to also contend that James sinned as well.

    To make these two assertions, the patternist must then wrestle with why Luke would allow us to believe there was nothing wrong here. All of a sudden, a point behind what would make “an example binding” or not crumbles. If they erred, it was up to Luke to reveal it. Yet he never suggests such!

  10. Jerry Buckley Says:

    “Whether we ever came to any conclusion – that’s another matter. Still, it’s the arguing that counts. It’s things like that, that stand out in life. Nothing’s been quite so vivid since. It’s the philosophers, it’s the scholars,” he continued “they’re the people who pass the torch, who keep the light burning by which we live” … Virgina Woolfe

  11. Gardner Hall Says:

    I think the terminology of Hebrews 8:13 helps with this point. The last part of the verse reads in the NAS, “…becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear.” The writer didn’t say it had already disappeared when Christ died on the cross but was in the process of becoming obsolete and was “ready to disappear” at least as far as Jewish Christians were concerned.

    My own “unscholarly” belief on the basis of this verse is that God gave Jewish people in particular a “winding down period” regarding the sacrifices. Of course such practices would soon become impossible anyway with the destruction of the temple. Wonder what Campbell, Milligan, etc. had to say about Hebrews 8:13?

  12. Robert Dozier Says:

    I’ve often noticed that the passages we say are “difficult” to us are only difficult because we have a misunderstanding in another area that distorts or limits our consideration of possibilities regarding the “difficult” text. Before we accuse Paul of not understanding the law, being weak, and even sinning, we might want to
    try and figure out why the simple facts of a text are difficult to us. Paul did no wrong, in fact acted wisely, showing respect for the Jewish law and demonstrating himself to be no enemy of the law but rather to understand its fulfillment. The difficulties lie within us due to our hermeneutical systems, reactions to some errors which cause us to take a text out of context in order to have a proof text. A text out of context can then take on a life of its own and by the time we are done, simple texts expose our erroneous systemic thought, interps, and systems as being the “difficult” thing.

    Robert Dozier

  13. Joshua L. Pappas Says:

    Brother Bobby,

    I am interested in a follow-up post to this one explaining what you understand to be the application of Paul’s actions in the present day church. If you’ve already written something, please point out the way. I’m interested in what you’re writing, but this post just leaves me wondering where you’re going. I’ve read from some of those you mentioned, and heard others say the same things in person, namely that Paul made a mistake, but that’s just out of the question in my opinion. My thoughts are that as long as the Temple system God set up was still in existence it was perfectly right for it to function. No one had a right to step into the Temple and say, “This all has to stop,” except God himself. Ultimately, in fulfillment of the 70 weeks prophecy, I believe God stepped in and did exactly that. I understand what you mean with the IM comments, but fail to make the connection you seem to make, which is your prerogative, and I’m not judging you, brother, but I just don’t see the fact that Paul worshiped with IM and blood-sacrifices in the Temple as having a great deal of practical application to our synagogue-style worship in the post-second-Temple period church. I’m open to correction, and am genuinely very interested in your pursuing this subject further, because even though I haven’t had a s much trouble reconciling Paul’s actions to my understanding of the Christian system as some brethren have, it’s still something I wouldn’t be so arrogant as to say I have fully settled in my mind.

    Thanks for writing, brother. —JLP

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