This blog, by Richard Fellows, discusses historical questions concerning Paul's letters, his co-workers, Acts, and chronology.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Was Paul worried that his collection would be rejected by Jerusalem?

Paul writes
"join me in prayer ..... that my ministry to Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, so that by God's will I may come to you with joy ..." (Rom 15:31-32).
"ministry"(διακονία) here probably refers to the collection, at least in part, given Rom 15:25. Many conclude from this that Paul thought that his collection might be rejected by the Jerusalem church. The theory is that the Jerusalem Christians might refuse to accept the money because it came from uncircumcised men.

This interpretation, which is very common, is one of the pillars of the view that Paul and the Jerusalem church leaders were in conflict over the place of Gentiles in the church. Here, however, are some counter arguments, not all of which have equal strength.

1) It would have been immodest for Paul to write "join me in prayer .... that my gift to Jerusalem may be impressive to the saints". He may therefore have chosen the phrase "acceptable to the saints" for modesty. When people give money they often underplay its potential impact by saying things like, "I hope it will make a small difference", when they actually mean "I hope it will make a big difference". Therefore, isn't it possible that Paul was hopeful that the collection would be a spectacular success, but worried that it might merely be a OK? The text need not be telling us that Paul was contemplating the possibility that the collection would be a failure or be rejected.

2) If Paul's ministry in Jerusalem is indeed "acceptable to the saints" he will come to Rome "with joy" (ἐν χαρᾷ). Paul's choice of words here shows that he was more optimistic than is often supposed. If he was hoping that the collection would be merely acceptable we would expect him to write "with relief", not "with joy".

3) There is no hint of foreboding in Rom 15:28-29
So, when I have completed this, and have delivered to them what has been collected, I will set out by way of you to Spain; and I know that when I come to you, I will come in the fullness of the blessing of Christ.
Nor is there any foreboding elsewhere. Indeed, in 2 Cor 9:11-15 Paul seems confident that the collection will be well received.

4) Why do commentators assume that the donors' foreskins were the only possible impediment to the triumph of the collection? Are there not other things that could have taken the shine off the collection? Perhaps Paul worried that the Jerusalem believers might think that the quantity of money, though generous, was not consistent with Jesus' radical teaching on giving. Perhaps he was concerned that there might be disputes about how he distributed the money. Perhaps the recipients might grumble that they had expected the collection earlier. Perhaps he worried that the amount of poverty in the Judean churches was more than he expected and that the funds would then be insufficient. There are all sorts of reasons why it was impossible for Paul to predict how successful the collection would be. The commentators' assumption that theological disputes were at the front of Paul's mind say more about the commentators' interests than about the text, in my opinion.

5) Jews often received financial support from gentiles, without objection. Indeed, the Jerusalem church leaders had asked Paul to "remember the poor" (Gal 2:10), so it is hard to imagine that they would have objected when he did so.

6) Those in poverty do not quibble about the ideology of those who offer them aid. Has anyone cited a precedent for this kind of thing?

7) Only the most uncompromising, vehement, opponents of Paul's theology would even consider rejecting his collection. It is at least questionable whether Paul would use the word "saints" to describe such people. Paul uses the word only in a very positive sense.

8) It is far from certain that there were any Christians in Judea who opposed Paul's inclusion of uncircumcised Gentiles. There were many who were zealous that the Law be observed by Jews, but we have no evidence that they wanted Gentile Christians to observe the Law too (Acts 21:20-21).


  1. Hi Richard:

    I think that it's true that Paul was worried because he had opposition. Perhaps Romans 3:8 give us a clue:

    "And why not jdo evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying."

    And what about Acts 21? You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all szealous for the law, 21 and they have been told about you that you teach all tthe Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, utelling them vnot to circumcise their children or wwalk according to xour customs...

    We have four men ywho are under a vow; 24 take these men and purify yourself along with them and PAY THEIR EXPENSE.

    I think it was paid with the money of the collection.


  2. Thanks for mentioning these passages, Xabier. In Rom 3:8 Paul says that some people were criticizing "us". But who was doing the criticizing and who was "us"? We do not know whether Paul is referring here to a) himself and his partners such as Timothy, b) himself and the members of the church of Rome, c) all Christians. I think that b) and c) are more likely than a). The people who were criticizing them could be non-Christian Jews, Pagans, or other Christians. There is no evidence here that Jerusalem Christians were criticizing Paul, is there?

    Interestingly, the zealous believers in Acts 21 do not complain that Paul was allowing gentile believers to remain uncircumcised. Indeed, we have no evidence that they opposed Paul's teachings. The problem arose because they had been badly informed about Paul.

  3. Concerning point 1, Rom 15:30-31 seems to be following Plutarch's advice on how to avoid appearing boastful. De se ipsum citra invidiam laudando (on praising oneself inoffensively).

    Plutarch writes, "it is agreed that to speak to others of one's own importance or power is offensive", and advises: "But those who are forced to speak in their own praise are made more endurable by another procedure as well: not to lay claim to everything, but to disburden themselves, as it were, of honour, letting part of it rest with chance, and part with God. For this reason Achilles did well to say 'Since I by Heaven's will have slain this man' .... Best of all is what Python of Athens did. After killing Cotys he had come to Athens and the speakers were outdoing one another in extolling him to the assembly. Noticing that some persons were jealous and disaffected he came forward and said: 'This, men of Athens, was the doing of some god; I did but lend my arm.'" Paul likewise attributes the possible (future) success of his Jerusalem visit to God, by asking his audience to pray for it.

    Plutarch goes on, "For it is with reputation and character as with a house or an estate: the multitude envy those thought to have acquired them at no cost or trouble; they do not envy those who have purchased them with much hardship and peril." Similarly, Paul's mention of the dangers from non-believers of his visit to Jerusalem (Rom 15:31) may serve to encourage the believers in Rome to give Paul credit for this enterprise. The church of Rome, now knowing that Paul is risking his life to deliver material aid to fellow-believers, will feel obliged to provide material aid to him for his onward journey to Spain (Rom 15:24, 28). Paul expected his readers to know that those who do a good thing deserve to have the same thing done for them (1 Cor 16:15-16).

    So, it seems to me that 15:30-32 is worded to avoid offensive self-praise. The phrase "acceptable to the saints" therefore may well be a modest understatement of Paul's expectation for the success of the project.

  4. In a lecture last week Scot McKnight suggested that Paul was encouraging the church of Rom to make a collection for Judea (Rom 15:26-27). He pointed out that here Paul seems to cite Macedonia and Achaia as examples for the Roman believers to follow, in much the same way that he used Achaia as an example for the Macedonians and Macedonia as an example for the Achaians (2 Cor 8-9).

    If Scot is correct, and I think he is, then it is unlikely that Paul reveals in 15:31 that the believers in Judea might not accept his collection. Paul's encouragement to Rome to give would be undermined by an admission that the beneficiaries were reluctant to accept gifts.