Does the Council of Jerusalem Disprove the Papacy?

There is a temptation for us Catholics to think that there cannot be any biblical evidence against the papacy. Sure, non-Catholics can argue that there is no scriptural evidence for it, but how could there possibly be any evidence against it? It’s not like the New Testament is going to straight up say, “Peter was not the first pope” or “The Catholic Church will one day come up with a false office called the papacy.” Looking for those kinds of statements is ridiculous, so the whole debate has to focus on the evidence we Catholics use to support the institution…right?

Well, not quite. There are a few passages non-Catholics often bring up to show that St. Peter could not have been the first pope, and we should know how to properly interpret them. So to that end, let’s take a look at one of the most challenging of these texts and see if it provides any real evidence against the papacy.

The Council of Jerusalem

In Acts chapter 15, the leaders of the Church gathered in Jerusalem to discuss whether Gentile converts to Christianity had to get circumcised and follow the Mosaic Law. St. Paul and his companion Barnabas argued that they didn’t, but a bunch of others argued that they did. Finally, after much debate, the text tells us that James, the bishop of Jerusalem at the time, spoke and came to this decision:

“Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the pollutions of idols and from unchastity and from what is strangled and from blood. For from early generations Moses has had in every city those who preach him, for he is read every sabbath in the synagogues” (Acts 15:19-21).

Then, in the very next verses, we read that the council sent out this same decision to Antioch to end the controversy there (Acts 15:22-31). Interestingly, the text also tells us that Peter was at the council, and he even gave his own opinion on the matter (Acts 15:7-11). But he did not make the final decision. The council’s final decree came from James, which is really strange if Peter was the first pope. If he really were the head of the Church, wouldn’t his comments have been the final word on the matter?

What’s more, look at the language James used. His comment starts with “Therefore my judgment is,” which implies that he was making an official decision, an official judgment about how the Church should decide this issue. So again, if Peter was the pope, why did James make the decision? It looks like James was the boss at this council, so Peter couldn’t have been the head of the Church. Case closed…right?

Peter’s Role at the Council

Not exactly. Let’s take a look at what this passage actually says about Peter’s role at the council:

“The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter rose and said to them…” (Acts 15:6-7)

The first thing to notice here is that the text doesn’t simply present Peter as taking part in the discussion. Rather, he spoke “after there had been much debate,” and that is really significant. After he spoke, nobody else gave a dissenting opinion. Paul and Barnabas gave their testimony (Acts 15:12), and then James gave his opinion (Acts 15:13), but they all agreed with Peter.

So if we really pay attention to the order of events here, it looks like Peter’s words effectively ended the debate. Once he gave his opinion on the matter, it was settled, and everybody who got up after him simply supported that decision. Sure, James gave some concrete recommendations for how to implement it, and the council decided to adopt those recommendations, but it looks like the most authoritative and influential voice here was actually Peter, not James.

“My Judgment”

But what about that phrase “my judgment is”? Doesn’t that show that James was making an authoritative decision for the council? Well, it may sound that way in English, but the original Greek tells a different story. The text literally says “I judge,” and the Greek verb for “judge,” krino, is used elsewhere in some very unofficial contexts. Here are a few examples:

“‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he forgave them both. Now which of them will love him more?’ Simon answered, ‘The one, I suppose, to whom he forgave more.’ And he said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’” (Luke 7:41-43)

“And when she was baptized, with her household, she besought us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.’ And she prevailed upon us” (Acts 16:15).

In both of these passages, the verb “judge” essentially means to make up your mind or figure something out for yourself, and it has nothing to do with an authoritative “judgment” about an official matter. So when we turn back to James’ words at the Council of Jerusalem, it becomes clear that his “judgment” wasn’t the official, deciding voice at the council. Instead, he was simply giving his opinion on the matter, just like everyone else (except Peter, of course).

So when we really look closely at this text, we can see that it doesn’t provide any genuine evidence against the papacy. In fact, if we pay attention to what it says, it actually seems to point in the opposite direction. Peter ended the debate by giving his opinion, and everyone who spoke after him, including James, simply backed him up. So even though he did not use his position to decide the issue entirely on his own, it definitely looks like he was the most authoritative and influential voice at the council, and that is exactly what we would expect if Peter really was the first pope.

Image: Shutterstock/Renata Sedmakova


JP Nunez has been a theology nerd since high school. He has master's degrees in both theology and philosophy (with a concentration in bioethics) from Franciscan University of Steubenville, and he spent three years in Catholic University of America's doctoral program in biblical studies before realizing that academia isn't where he wants to be. During his time in Steubenville, he worked for two years as an intern at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, where his responsibilities included answering theological questions and helping to format and edit their Journey Through Scripture Bible studies. He blogs at JP Nunez: Understanding the Faith Through Scripture.

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