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The Collection for the Saints as a Polite Bribe: An Effort to Humanize Paul

Scholars have puzzled a great deal over this collection. One group understands it in analogy to the temple tax, which every Jew had to pay annually, while another group points out that with it the promise of the pilgrimage of the nations is fulfilled. Finally in 2002, inspired my pal Tom Hall, I have coined the phrase that the collection was “a polite bribe” on Paul’s part.

By Gerd Lüdemann
Emeritus Professor of the History and Literature of Early Christianity
Georg-August-University of Göttingen
Visiting Scholar at Vanderbilt University
January 2016

Given the way Christian groups were drifting apart in the early period, conflicts were pre-programmed. For the Aramaic-speaking Jerusalem community, the Torah was still valid. Anyone who was baptized in the name of Jesus – whether Jew or Gentile – was not free to dispense with the law. Jesus had come to fulfill the law, not to destroy it (Gal 5:17).

The Jerusalem conference, reported by Paul in Gal 2 and Luke in Acts 15, was a crucial attempt to resolve this crisis. We shall keep to the account of the eyewitness Paul.

The discussion concerned the requirement that Gentile Christians should be circumcised in order to be able to become members of the Christian community (Gal 2:3). It was directed against the practice of accepting Gentiles into the community without circumcision. This decision had not been made just prior to the conference, but some time earlier, specifically in the community of Antioch into which those whom Paul calls “false brothers” had crept in order “to spy out” the freedom of the Christians there.

Immediately after that, Paul goes up to Jerusalem with Barnabas. In a provocative act, he also takes with him the Gentile Christian Titus, in order to obtain in principle the assent of the Jerusalem leaders and the community there to his own practice.

Two different sets of negotiations can be distinguished in Paul’s account in Galatians: one within the framework of an assembly of the community (verse 2a), the other with the “pillars” in a small group (verses 2b, 6-10). The chronological relationship between the discussions is not clear.

After tough discussions and excited arguments, Paul is able to wring from the “pillars” an agreement that the Gentile Christians need not be circumcised. At any rate, Paul’s Greek companion, Titus, was not forced to be circumcised (verse 3; cf. verse 14; 6:12). Nevertheless the agreement was fiercely fought for; indeed, it must be assumed that at least initially the “false brothers” had considerable support in the Jerusalem community for their demand that Titus be circumcised. They probably also continued to have “the pillars” at least partly on their side.

Nevertheless, Paul had in principle the assent of the Jerusalem community to his mission to the Gentiles without circumcision. The reason for sealing the agreement with a solemn handshake as a sign of their equality was evidently the mission’s success. To this the Jerusalem Christians could not close their eyes. Also the readiness of the Gentile Christian communities or their representatives, Paul and Barnabas, to seal the agreement with a gift of money may have carried a good deal of weight.

The Christians of Jerusalem probably adopted an ambivalent attitude towards Paul: on the one hand his action was obviously inadequate, since those who had been converted by him did not observe the Torah. Indeed, it was even dangerous, since their example constantly prompted Jews to transgress the law. On the other hand, it was better than nothing, since Christ was being preached (cf. Phil 1:18) and centers were being founded in which the work could be continued – and perhaps corrected by delegates from Jerusalem.

Assuming that these reflections are accurate, the generous gesture on Paul’s part was perhaps what won them over, all the more so since from the gift they might infer certain legal requirements. Certainly Paul is restrained in describing this aspect of the conference when he asserts, “Those who were of repute added nothing to me” (Gal 2:6). But then follows another clause, “only they would have us remember the poor, which was the very thing I made it my business to do” (Gal 2:10). “Therefore the most important resolution of the conference was the least apparent: the pledge of a collection for the Jerusalem community; and Paul’s further efforts for this collection were among the most important of his activity.”[1]

Scholars have puzzled a great deal over this collection. One group understands it in analogy to the temple tax, which every Jew had to pay annually, while another group points out that with it the promise of the pilgrimage of the nations is fulfilled.[2] Finally in 2002, inspired my pal Tom Hall, I have coined the phrase that the collection was “a polite bribe” on Paul’s part.[3]

As we have no primary sources for the view of the Jerusalem community, all this must remain uncertain. Yet, one thing seems sure: the negotiating partners from Jerusalem and Paul seem to have understood the collection in different ways, or to put it more cautiously, the agreement allowed them to interpret the collection in different ways. The Jerusalem leaders considered the agreement to call for some degree of legal observance. Paul, on the other hand, disguised or even ignored any legal implications of the support.

Rom 15: 25-26

(25) At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem with aid for the saints. (26) For Macedonia and Achaia have decided to raise a gift of partnership for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem.

At any rate, even during the Conference, considerable tension remained between Paul and the leaders of the Jerusalem community from whom he was able to extract an agreement. Furthermore, despite the concordat with the apostle to the Gentiles, the “false brothers” continued to belong to the Jerusalem community, and must have contested the agreement as much as they could. In any case, their open hostility to Paul is to be presupposed as an operative factor during the council and afterwards.

If these reflections are not too far from the historical truth, we may also assume that “the false brothers” indirectly influenced details of the results of the negotiations, despite their defeat over the question of circumcision. This assumption is confirmed by a close examination of the formula of the agreement in Gal. 2:9 which displays a legal character: “We to the Gentiles, they ... to the Jews.” The mission field is divided. From now on the mission to the Gentiles is the task of Paul and Barnabas, and the mission to the Jews that of James, Cephas and John, based in Jerusalem. The very wording of the phrases “to the Gentiles” or “to the Jews” points to an exclusive definition of the two groups. This implies that in either case only Gentiles or exclusively Jews are the focal point of the mission. But that means that the agreement on a union was at the same time an agreement on a division or even separation of the two churches, one bound to the law and one free from it. (Of course this distinction was hardly absolute, for the Gentile Christians were strictly speaking not free from all law; if they were, they would be libertinists.) The unifying formula mentioned above certainly assured Paul the unqualified right to engage in mission to the Gentiles. But it could also be used to reverse a mission to Gentiles and Jews. That is, the regulation did not exclude the possibility that in the future non-observant Jews living in a Gentile Christian congregation could be obliged to observe the (complete) law. Here we find a development which is by no means rare in history, namely that a concern for unity at almost any price (and therefore really of no use) revives the opposed forces which had first sparked off the conflict. This obviously became true in the Pauline communities, which were invaded by Jewish Christian missionaries after the Conference.


[1] Rudolf Bultmann. “Ethical and Mystical Religion in Primitive Christianity,” Die Christliche Welt 34 (1920: 725–731: 730.

[2] See Isa 2:2–4; 60:3, 11–22, etc.

[3] Cf. Gerd Lüdemann: Paul: The Founder of Christianity (Amherst: NY, Prometheus Books, 2002), 42; Robert Orlando: Apostle Paul: A Polite Bribe (Cascade Books, 2014).