Paul's Mission to the Gentiles and the Noahide Laws

In Judaism there is a teaching regarding what are called the Noahide Laws. These seven laws were believed to be binding upon all of humanity, a minimal and universal moral ethic for Jew and Gentile alike. Where the Jews, given their unique vocation, were to obey the entirety of the Torah, Gentiles were only obligated to keep the minimal, Noahide requirements. A Gentile who kept the Noahide Laws was considered to be a "righteous Gentile" and would be given a place in the world to come.

What are the Noahide laws? They are:

  1. Do not deny God. 
  2. Do not blaspheme God. 
  3. Do not murder. 
  4. Do not engage in illicit sexual relations. 
  5. Do not steal. 
  6. Do not eat from a live animal. 
  7. Establish courts/legal system to ensure obedience to said laws. 
When we encounter righteous Gentiles in the gospels we can assume they are identified as such not because they are Torah-observant but because they are keeping the Noahide Laws.

When in the book of Acts Paul starts taking the gospel message to the Gentiles the issue of morality and law-keeping becomes an issue. Are the Gentile supposed to convert to Judaism and become Torah-observant? Or can the Gentiles stick to the Noahide code? Some have argued that this is the question being debated in Acts 15 and that the outcome of that debate seems to be that the Gentiles just need to keep the Noahide laws.

Here's the letter the Jerusalem Council sends to the Gentile churches (Acts 15.23-29):
The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings.

Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth.

For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality.

If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.

Some see the Noahide Laws at work in this letter. (Some scholars don't.)

First, while not every Noahide Law is given here, it seems to be a safe bet that the authors of the letter assumed that the unlisted Noahide Laws were understood as givens: Do not murder, do not steal, do not deny God, do not blaspheme. The seventh law listed above--the creation of laws--wouldn't have been applicable to individuals.

The rules that are given in the letter, it is argued, seem to flow out of the Noahide Laws and are listed here by the Jerusalem church because these laws might not have been known by a Gentile convert: abstaining from blood (which flowed out of Law 6 above) and sexual immorality (Law 4 above). The exhortation about not eating meat sacrificed to idols can also be understood as a clarification about what it meant to not deny God (Law 1 above) and to not blaspheme God (Law 2 above).

The point that's made here is that an understanding of the Jewish Noahide Laws helps the letter in Acts 15 seems less random in its moral recommendations.

That may be helpful, but the other pushback here is that Paul in his love ethic (see 1 Cor. 13) pushes his churches toward a moral vision far surpassing the Noahide Laws.

Perhaps the Jerusalem Counsel had ethical minimums in mind, but Paul certainly did not.

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