19 Aug 2019

Peter and the “Heavy Yoke,” Acts 15.10 … Law of Moses or Pharisaic Tradition

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Acts, Exegesis, Hebrew Bible, Hermeneutics, Jewish Backgrounds, Luke, Patternism

Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?” (Peter in Acts 15.10, NIV)

I thought about calling this “Context and Context” like K. C. Moser’s old column in the Gospel Advocate in the 1930s. Historical context is as essential to the correct interpretation of a passage in the Bible as literary context.

We need to recall something quite basic here. Peter did not live in, and Luke did not write with, the 21st century USA in mind. Peter had a very specific history that was shared by others present at the Jerusalem Council. And that history was known to them even if it is not to most today. This is extremely important for Acts and most texts in the Bible. We call it historical context.

Typical Interpretation of Acts 15.10

Acts 15.10 reads, “why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?”

This passage demands careful reading in its literary and historical milieu, but these rules are often neglected. Readers who come to this text with an already negative disposition towards the Hebrew Bible and Judaism, in particular, naturally think Peter is simply talking about the Law of Moses itself. In fact in most cases this is simply assumed to be the case without any attempt to establish it as so. J. W. McGarvey is fairly typical of the old line Protestant interpretation of Acts 15.10.

“[T]o put on the necks of these Gentile converts the yoke of the law, which no generation of Jews had been able to bear, would be, in the light of the preceding fact, tempting God; that is, trying his forbearance by their own presumption … In affirming that the law was a yoke that the Jews had not been able to bear, he meant they had not been able so to keep it as to be saved by the perfection of their obedience to it” (J. W. McGarvey, New Commentary on Acts, vol 2, pp. 63-64).

For McGarvey, Peter was clearly talking about the burden of the Law of Moses, which he supposedly found intolerable.

Such an interpretation has serious historical difficulties however. There is little evidence that Israelites, much less biblical writers, imagined the Torah was an unbearable burden. It is a Protestant caricature of the Hebrew Scriptures and Judaism, when we imagine Jews as supposedly running off 613 commandments in their minds as they go through the day. The vast majority of “laws” applied only under certain, and very specific, circumstances, and many of those were for priests and Levites not “ordinary” Israelites.

Moses and the prophetic tradition clearly never dreamed that 613 commandments were tagged on individual people.

And now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God demand of you:
Worship the LORD and do all he commands.
Love him,
serve him with all your heart,
observe the LORD’s commands

What commands does Moses then explicitly mention?

Circumcise your hearts, and do not be stiff necked
You are to love the alien, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt

This is Deuteronomy 10.12-22. The exact words do not appear there be the substance appears throughout the Hebrew Bible as Micah states

He has showed you, O man, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God
” (Micah 6.8; See also Psalm 15 and 24)

The Bible declares God’s torah to be like honey and joyful.

The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul.
The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.
The precepts of the LORD are right,
giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the LORD are radiant,
giving light to the eyes
” (Psalm 19.7ff)

I shall walk at/in LIBERTY,
for I have sought your precepts …
How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than the honey to my mouth …
Your words are a lamp to my feet
and a light to my path …

(Psalm 119.45, 103, 105, etc)

This language is difficult to construe as a “burden.” Psalm 1 and all of 119 and many other texts can be added to this citation. The apostle Paul himself calls the Law … a gift of grace (Romans 9.4)!

What if Peter was NOT Talking about the Law of Moses?

But there are good historical grounds for seriously doubting that Peter is referring to the “Old Testament” in general or the Law of Moses in particular. Rather Peter is referring to historical events regarding the Pharisees in the aftermath of the Maccabean revolution.

Peter is explicitly responding to the “party of the Pharisees” (15.5, 7, 10). It was not the Jerusalem church that had attempted to bind on the Gentiles certain requirements of the Torah. After Cornelius had responded to the good news of the Jewish King, he was not told to get circumcised. There was controversy as Acts 10-11 demonstrate but after Peter’s “defense” there is no record in Acts of the Jerusalem church seeking to impose circumcision and additional requirements on people like Cornelius. It is the “party of the Pharisees” who are putting God to the test. When Peter says “why do you try to test God …” the “you” is the Pharisees, not Jewish believers as a body.

Knowing that Peter is talking to the Pharisees is of monumental importance. There is precedence for the Pharisees action here, not on Gentiles but upon “our fathers.”

The Pharisees had, once before, imposed their halakah (oral interpretation of the law) on the populace of Judea. F. F. Bruce in his Commentary on Acts hints that 15.10 may be “the details of legal tradition” (p. 291) but sadly does not pursue the exegesis. But it is precisely the tradition OF THE PHARISEES, the halakah, that Peter is indeed protesting in the face of the Pharisees themselves.

Josephus, who was himself a Pharisee, tells us that that the Pharisees received civil power to impose their interpretations on the people (see Antiquities of the Jews 13.408-409; Jewish Wars 1.108-12; 2.262). This was regarded as a heavy burden by the general population and drew considerable ire. In fact there was considerable backlash against the Pharisees. This was very “recent memory” for Jews in the first century. Salome Alexandra was Queen from 67 to 63 BC. So we read in Josephus,

So Alexandra [Salome], when she had taken the fortress, acted as her husband had suggested to her, and spoke to the Pharisees, and put all things into their power, both as to the dead body and as to the affairs of the kingdom

So she … permitted the Pharisees to do everything; to whom also she ordered the multitude to be obedient ...” (Antiquities of the Jews 13.16, p. 267, Whiston edition)

And now the Pharisees joined themselves to assist her in the government. These are a certain sect of the Jews that appear more religious than others … They banished and reduced whom they pleased; they bound and loosed people at their pleasure; and, to say all at once they had the enjoyment of the royal authority … While she [Salome Alexandra] governed other people, and the Pharisees governed her.” (Wars of the Jews, 1.5, p.434, Whiston edition).


In fact the Pharisees exacted retribution on many of their enemies during Alexandra’s short reign. Pharisaic halakah (interpretation) became the law of the land in Judea. Schaper notes “Salome gave the Pharisees a free hand in reshaping their role under her reign and ordered the populace to heed their instructions” (See Cambridge History of Judaism vol 3).

The “burden” that “yoked” Jews, it seems to me, in the Luke-Acts context, refers to just those Pharisaic rules that both Peter, and everyone else present at the Council, knew had been rejected by their “ancestors.” Peter does not believe the Gentiles can bear the Pharisaic halakah any more than his grandfather.

This understanding is supported, I believe, by the actual direction of the Council takes. Acts 15 envisions that Jewish believers will continue to observe the Law of Moses itself (as opposed to the Pharisees “yoke” or interpretation). Second, the requirements for Gentile behavior are based upon the Law of Moses itself, and James says “gar [for/because] Moses is preached” as the basis for the Gentiles behavior. In the rest of Luke-Acts observance of the law (as opposed to Pharisaic tradition) is portrayed in a very positive light (cf. Acts 22.12, etc see the whole discussion in Jacob Jervell’s works on the Law in Luke-Acts). I will just quote Jervell here,

Commentaries speak of the Gentiles’ liberation from the law. This is not the whole truth. Luke knows about a Gentile mission without circumcision, not without law. The apostolic decree enjoins Gentiles to keep the law, and they keep that part of the law required for them to live together with Jews. It is not lawful to impose upon Gentiles more than Moses himself demanded. It is false to speak of Gentiles free from the law … Luke does not champion any justification by law … but this is never contrasted with adherence to the law” (Luke and the People of God, p. 144).

The “unbearable burden” was human religious tradition that Pharisees demanded adherence to in order to be right with God.

My understanding of Acts 15.10 is Peter is objecting to the Pharisees doing what they had already done ninety years ago. And the Jews nearly revolted against them … in fact the Pharisees paid a heavy price as they lost political power (many ended up being crucified in fact!).

For genuinely biblical views on torah see Psalm 1; Psalm 19.7-14; and all of Psalm 119.

Specific Resources in addition to those in the text

Markus Bockmuehl, Jewish Law in Gentile Churches (Baker 2000), pp. 49-83, 152-153, 164-167.

David J. Rudolph, A Jew to The Jews: Jewish Contours of Pauline Flexibility in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, 2nd Edition (Pickwick, 2016), pp. 198-201

2 Responses to “Peter and the “Heavy Yoke,” Acts 15.10 … Law of Moses or Pharisaic Tradition”

  1. Dwight Says:

    Considering your argument, it makes sense. The Pharisees doubled the Law, by having rules within the Laws in an attempt to define and refine the Law for the masses due to perceived inferences. The Law wasn’t sinful as it was from God. This is something we shouldn’t miss as we go about trying to do the same thing in reading between the lines to make what is said better for righteousness sake.

  2. Andrew B Says:

    Jesus agrees with this interpretation.
    Matthew 23:1-3
    Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: all therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.

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