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Acts 21:  Paul’s Nazrite Vow

Re-examining the Apostles’ Relationship to Torah and the Temple

by Michael Bugg

Acts 21 is a troubling passage for many Christian commentators, since it implies that both Torah-observance and Temple worship were the norm for 1st Century Jewish believers.  However, the standard way of explaining this passage away—that Paul and James were only making a show for social/political purposes, both puts the Apostles in the position of hypocrites and fails to explain why Paul was completing a Nazrite vow that he had taken a year or more before while among the Gentiles.


The assumption that there is a tension—or even a direct contradiction—between keeping the Torah and being “under grace” runs deep in Christian Theology.  For example, Thomas Aquinas, considered among the greatest of Christian theologians, writes,

Just as it would be a mortal sin now for anyone, in making a profession of faith, to say that Christ is yet to be born, which the fathers of old said devoutly and truthfully; so too it would be a mortal sin now to observe those ceremonies which the fathers of old fulfilled with devotion and fidelity.  (Summa, Ia Iiae Q 103 Article 4, quoted in Kinzer, Post-Missionary 206)

Though his argument, originally derived from Augustine, is ultimately a weak one (see Kinzer, ibid. 207), it nevertheless reflects the majority view of the Christian Church for the last two thousand years.  Indeed, the history of Christianity is full of the rejection and even persecution of Jews who professed the Messiah Yeshua while desiring to maintain their Jewish identity and their observance of the Torah.  The vast majority of Christians today, of course, reject the persecution of Jews, or anyone else, for their faith; however, they still believe that Jews who come to faith in a Jewish Messiah should cease to follow the Torah of Moses and follow instead a new “Law of Christ.”  But is that in line with what the Apostles taught?

The common Christian answer is to cite the book of Galatians: 

So then, those who are of faith are blessed with the faithful Abraham.  For as many as are of the works of the law are under a curse. For it is written, “Cursed is everyone who doesn’t continue in all things that are written in the scroll of the Torah, to do them.”  Now that no man is justified by the law before God is evident, for, “The righteous will live by faith.”  The law is not of faith, but, “The man who does them will live by them.”  (Gal. 3:9-12)

The implication seems to be that trying to keep “the law” is not of faith.  If this is indeed true, then Messianic Judaism is a terrible heresy, “another gospel,” and should be condemned.

However, there is good reason to believe that Galatians, which was written to deal with a very specific issue—that is, “Do Gentiles have to become circumcised (Jewish) and keep the whole Torah as a prerequisite to salvation?” (cf. Acts 15:1, 6)—has in fact been popularly misunderstood.  This is due to a failure to interpret the writings of the Apostles through the lens of the lives of the Apostles.  This article will attempt to show that the lives of the Apostles—and indeed, the Jewish followers of Yeshua in general—reflected a great passion for the Torah even thirty years after the Cross.

Paul’s Return to Jerusalem

In Acts 21:17-26, we read about Paul’s return to Jerusalem after an extended missionary journey through Galatia and Greece.  The passage can be summed up as follows:

  1. Paul returns to Jerusalem and reports to Jacob (James) and the elders.
  2. They rejoice that Paul’s mission has been so successful.
  3. However, they tell Paul that there is a rumor that he is telling Jews to stop keeping the Torah, to no longer circumcise their sons, and to stop living according to the traditions of the Jewish people, and that this will cause a problem with the many thousands of Jewish believers in Yeshua who were zealous for the Torah.
  4. They suggest that Paul join for others in taking a Nazrite vow—the only vow involving shaving the head in the Torah—to demonstrate his fidelity to the Torah.
  5. At the same time, they assure him that this is not a reversal of the Council’s decision as given in Acts 15 regarding the Gentiles.
  6. Paul agrees and goes to the Temple to do so the next day.

It is our contention that properly understood, this passage destroys the idea that the Jewish followers of Yeshua had abandoned Torah.

Zealous for the Torah

Verse 20 in the above passage has a very peculiar mistranslation that appears in virtually every English version of the Bible:  “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Judeans of those who have believed . . .”  The Greek word translated “thousands” here is muriades (μυριάδες), which means not “thousands,” but “tens of thousands.”  If only “thousands” were intended, the word chiliades (χιλιάδες) would have been used instead.  (You can see the two terms used together in Rev. 5:11.)

Why is this word mistranslated in virtually every English translation?  Of the score of translations I had readily at hand, the only one that translated the term properly as “tens of thousands” was the Complete Jewish Bible.  A handful of others rendered the term simply as “myriads”—accurate, but still obscuring the full number of Jewish believers.  As Stern notes (Commentary 301), Luke is in all other instances very precise when recording numbers, so “the burden of proof falls on those wanting to discount the word’s literal meaning.” 

The only reason that this word should be so routinely mistranslated that presents itself is because admitting the full number would cause problems for the traditional narrative that “the Jews” rejected Yeshua while “the Gentiles” came to Him.  The KJV translators, following the Vulgate, fudged the number, and other translations, despite claims to be translated from the ground up, have followed their error.  (We see another such error in Heb. 4:11.)

So what is the significance of “tens of thousands” of Jewish believers in Jerusalem?  This is no tempest in a teapot.  There are two possible ways to understand the passage:

  1. Jacob was referring to the number of Jewish believers who were a normal part of the Jerusalem assembly.  Since Jerusalem had a non-pilgrimage population of about eighty thousand (Stern, ibid., citing pp. 10-15 in Biblical Archeology Review 4:2 (1978)), this would imply that well over a quarter of the Jews living there had come to believe in Messiah.
  2. Jacob was referring to the number of Messianic Jews who had made pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Feast of Shavuot (Pentecost) from all over the known world.

The first option would be devastating for the Christian narrative that “the Jews” rejected Yeshua, since if over a quarter of Jerusalem’s population believed in Him, this would far outstrip the percentages of Gentiles who came to believe anywhere else in the world.  However, it seems unlikely that Jacob was referring to Jerusalem’s nominal Messianic population, given that this took place during a pilgrimage feast:  Why would he not include the pilgrims in his number?

The second is equally devastating, but for a different reason.  While it “thins the soup” somewhat, we note that the sacred Scriptures report to us that all of these tens of thousands of Jews from all over the world were zealous for the Torah.

It is sometimes assumed by those not familiar with Jewish circles that all Jews are as zealous for the Torah and keep it as strictly as the Orthodox (the successors to the Pharisees) do.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  The Orthodox represent only 7% of the Jewish people.  The remaining 93% is made up of Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and outright secular Jews.  Likewise in the 1 st Century, a Jew might be a Pharisee or an Essene, zealous for keeping the Torah according to the strictest possible standard, but in the Diaspora, he was far more likely to be a Hellenist, far more lax in both the Torah and the traditions and in most things following the ways of the Greeks.  Indeed, as close-by as Galilee, the standards for keeping the Torah and the zealousness for its minutiae were far less than in Judea (see Wylen, Jews 64, cited our article on Gal. 2:11-21). 

Paul himself reports on the double-standard that some Jews had regarding the Torah: 

You who glory in the law, through your disobedience of the law do you dishonor God?  For “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,” just as it is written.  For circumcision indeed profits, if you are a doer of the law, but if you are a transgressor of the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision.  (Rom. 2:23-25; see notes here)

As many as desire to look good in the flesh, they compel you to be circumcised; only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Messiah.  For even they who receive circumcision don’t keep the law themselves, but they desire to have you circumcised, that they may boast in your flesh.  (Gal. 6:12f)

This means that Jacob is not just reporting something so matter-of-fact as to be extraneous, but gives witness to a remarkable phenomenon:  Of the tens of thousands of Jews coming up for the Feast from all over the world, men from diverse backgrounds and different levels of previous practice, all of them were now zealous for the Torah. This implies that the level of Torah-observance went up, not down, in 1st Century Jews who became followers of Yeshua.

What Was Paul Teaching?

Next we note the specific accusation against Paul that was circulating among these Torah-loving Messianic Jews:  “[T]hat you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs.” 

Come to think of it, doesn’t the Church make the same accusations against Paul today?  What do Christians say about the Law of Moses?  “The Jews despised the Gentiles because they considered themselves better than Gentiles.  ‘We have the Law of Moses,’ they said. . .  Jesus’ solution is to take away the Law . . .” (Stedman, Riches 115).

What about circumcision?  “[I]t is true the apostle taught that circumcision was abolished, and that it was nothing; yea, that to submit to it as necessary to salvation, was hurtful and pernicious; but as a thing indifferent, he allowed of it among weak brethren; and in condescension to their weakness, did administer it himself . . .” (Gill on Acts 21:21). 

And what about the customs, which is to say rabbinic tradition?  I could fill whole pages with the insulting condescension Christian commentators have heaped on the rabbis.  (See here for a summary on Messianic Judaism’s relationship to the Talmud and Jewish Law.)

Christian commentators responding to Acts 21 fall into two broad camps:  Those who believe that Paul was only humoring the outdated views of the Jews, and those who believe that Jacob and Paul actually acted in error.  Matthew Henry (Commentary on Acts 21:15-26) sums up the two views in detail, concluding,

They believe in Christ as the true Messiah, they rest upon his righteousness and submit to his government; but they know the law of Moses was of God, they have found spiritual benefit in their attendance on the institutions of it, and therefore they can by no means think of parting with it, no, nor of growing cold to it. . .  This was a great weakness and mistake, to be so fond of the shadows when the substance was come, to keep their necks under a yoke of bondage when Christ had come to make them free. . .

They saw it was in vain to think of pleasing men that would be pleased with nothing else but the rooting out of Christianity. Integrity and uprightness will be more likely to preserve us than sneaking compliances. And when we consider what a great trouble it must needs be to James and the presbyters, in the reflection upon it, that they had by their advice brought Paul into trouble, it should be a warning to us not to press men to oblige us by doing any thing contrary to their own mind.

And yet, if rejection of the Torah was indeed the substance of Paul’s teaching, he sure seems quick to run away from it.  We have a word to describe those who teach one thing and do another, or who change the substance of their teachings to insinuate themselves with various groups:  Hypocrite.  If Paul indeed believed that the Torah had been done away with by Yeshua, and that further obedience to it was detrimental to receiving God’s saving grace—never mind circumcision and the traditions of the rabbis—now was the time to say so.

He didn’t.

The importance of this passage cannot be overstated.  There are only two options:  Either

1) Paul was a great hypocrite and a liar, in which case his works must be expunged from the Scriptures, or

2) Paul really, truly, and honestly believed that Jews who believed in Yeshua should be zealous for the Torah, continue to circumcise their sons (and, by extension, raise them to be distinctively Jewish), and keep the traditions of their people. 

And if Paul really, truly, and honestly believed that Jews should be zealous for the Torah, then he could not have been teaching that the Torah was in opposition to Grace, or a yoke of slavery—and all Christian teachings based on that presupposition are to one extent or another in error.

The view that Paul continued to practice Pharisaic Judaism and believed that Jews should continue to keep the Torah and their traditions is not a new one, nor unique to the Messianic movement.  W. D. Davies, former Professor of New Testament Studies at Princeton University, wrote six decades ago,

Moreover, Paul observed the Law, and that in the pharisaic manner, throughout his life.  In I Cor. 7.18 he implies that obedience to it is his duty; to conciliate the Jews he even agreed to the circumcision of Timothy, who was born of a Greek father, and Acts 21.21f. make it clear that he regarded the observance of the Law as incumbent upon all Jewish Christians.  We are faced with a dilemma.  The Apostle who first turned to the Gentiles on the ground that salvation could be received apart from the Law, himself lived and died ‘a Pharisee’.

Various explanations of this ‘inconsistency’ have been proposed.  Anderson Scott has claimed that the Law for Paul meant two things, “the Law as a system whereby men could secure or thought they could secure righteousness by merit, and the contents of the Law, the divine requirements as to the character and conduct of men”.  In the former sense the Law had come to an end.  In the latter sense it remained valid for Jews and Christians, though not valid in quite the same sense for both.  (Paul 70, emphasis mine)

Dr. Davies also responds to those who believe “that for Paul the Torah had really become a matter of indifference”:

But this is precisely what the whole life of Paul forbids us to believe.  It is the seriousness with which the Apostle to the Gentiles still remained a Pharisee which is to be explained . . . (p. 71)

To Dr. Davies’ view, we would add two points:  First, that it has always been the teaching of Judaism that salvation comes only through God’s gracious grace (see our commentary on the Amidah).  Obedience to the Torah is the duty of the redeemed, not the way to redemption, just as God first redeemed Israel from bondage in Egypt and then brought us to Mt. Sinai to teach us His Torah.  And second, that while there arguably may be commandments that Gentile believers are not required to keep, it was the clear intention of the Apostles that the Gentiles would learn and grow in the Torah over time.

Walking in Faith by Learning and Keeping Torah

Jacob was quick to add that the policy towards Gentiles established by the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 had not changed.  This deals another blow to the classical interpretation of Paul’s letters, since it had been recognized at that Council that both Jew and Gentile were saved the same way:  By God’s grace provided in the Messiah Yeshua (v. 11).  If both Jew and Gentile were saved by God’s grace rather than works, and yet Jews were expected to be zealous for the Torah, then this destroys all argument that the Torah was in opposition to grace.

As we saw in our article on Acts 15,

Some propose that these items were meant to be the only requirements on Gentile Christians forever, but if so, by what right did Sha’ul tell the brethren to stay away from theft and contentiousness or to honor their parents and send monetary support to Jerusalem? Why did Ya’akov command support of the poor and not favoring the rich? None of these items were on the list!

Therefore, it is understood by those of us on the Messianic side that the four commandments were never meant as an end, but as a starting-point. By separating the Gentile believers from idolatry (and this would have its own social consequences), they would become "clean" enough to enter the synagogues as God-fearers to worship and learn about the G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob alongside their Messianic Jewish brethren. This is why Ya’akov concludes with, "For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day" (v. 21).

The idea was that since the Holy Spirit was being given freely to the Gentiles who believed, that the Apostles would trust the Spirit to finish what He had started in His own time. However, even within that expectation, we see the Apostles exhorting the churches, giving specific commands, and even passing judgment on those who sinned, so it was not expected to be an automatic or smooth process. But it was one that they ultimately trusted in God to bring to completeness.

Jacob’s recommendation, and Paul’s actions, in Acts 21 demonstrates the correctness of the above view.  We see this again in Romans 4:16, where Paul speaks of “not only those who live within the framework of the Torah, but also those with the kind of trust Avraham had” (CJB).  Those “who live within the framework of Torah,” lit. “those who are from the Law,” are the Jewish believers, educated and raised in the keeping of Torah from a young age.  Those “with the kind of trust Avraham had” are the Gentile believers.  Just as Abraham left the idolatry of Ur of the Chaldees on God’s say-so without knowing his destination, so the former pagans of the Ekklesia had left their idolatry and started following Yeshua to a destination that they didn’t yet know.

 The Jews were not to “escape” from the Torah; the Gentiles were to follow the Spirit in learning from the Scriptures and changing their lives to fit, all without fear that the One who had redeemed them would cast them out.

Why a Nazrite Vow?

The final nail in the coffin of the idea that Jacob and Paul either sinned or else only pretended to zealousness for the Torah for what amounts to political expedience is the nature of the demonstration of Paul’s fidelity that they chose.  Why did they choose a Nazrite vow as the vehicle for dispelling the false rumors of Paul’s apostasy? 

The answer comes in Acts 18:18:  “Paul, having stayed after this many more days, took his leave of the brothers, and sailed from there for Syria, together with Priscilla and Aquila. He shaved his head in Cenchreae, for he had a vow.” 

There is no lead up to Paul shaving his head, nor is there any explanation which follows.  Luke simply throws the fact of Paul’s vow involving shaving his head—which must certainly be a Nazrite vow—into the middle of his narrative of the Apostle’s journey home to Jerusalem, leaving us to ponder why he considered this important enough to record.

There is no word, nor even a letter, of the sacred Scriptures that is unimportant.  Even if we did not believe in the inspiration of the Spirit—and we do—the fact is that writing materials were simply too expensive to waste on extraneous details.  The fact that Luke inserts this event without any explanation is mean to make it pop out at us, to make us ponder its meaning.  The only link that would enable us to explain Luke’s choice to record this event is the Nazrite vow that Paul undertakes in chapter 21.

Or rather, the vow that he had previously taken and now went to the Temple to complete.

Since Jacob mentions Paul’s alleged apostasy from Jewish tradition as well as the Torah, it behooves us to find out just what Jewish law has to say about the Nazrite vow.  Since shaving the head required the accompaniment of three animal sacrifices, a drink-offering, and a grain-offering at the Holy Place (Num. 6:13ff), it could not be completed outside of Jerusalem.  But what happens if one took a vow outside of the Land, as Paul evidentially did?  Both of the houses of Hillel and Shammai agreed that the very soil of pagan lands was defiled because of idolatry (and, one imagines, because Gentiles were, and are, prone to bury their dead within their own cities), so that a person who took an oath outside of Israel had to complete it inside—the only dispute was whether the whole period of the vow had to be observed all over again or whether a period of thirty days sufficed (m. Nazir 3:6).  In addition, it was agreed by all, on the basis of Num. 6:9, that one who had become defiled by a corpse during the period of the vow had to shave his head, offer the proper sacrifices, and start all over again (see m. Nazir 6:5 and 7:2).

Therefore, two possibilities present themselves to explain Paul’s shaving his head in Cenchreae:  Either, he had come into contact with a corpse unintentionally, or he had originally taken a vow intending to be in Jerusalem to complete it, but had come to the end of the period while still outside of the Land.  In the latter case, since he would be presumed to be unclean, it would be appropriate for him to shave his head just as he would have in being defiled by a corpse, so that no one would think that he had intentionally taken a longer vow.

Whichever is true, the point remains:  Paul, on his own and with no social/political pressures on him, took of his own accord a Nazrite vow, and was serving it out in accordance with both the Torah and Jewish law. 

This explains why Jacob and Paul chose the particular “test” that they did.  If Paul had simply made a point of being extra-conscientious in his Torah-observance while in Jerusalem, his enemies would have made the same accusation that Christian commentators have ever since: that he was only keeping the Torah because Jewish eyes were on him.  However, since he had taken a Nazrite vow—a perfectly voluntary vow, since there is no requirement in the Torah that anyone need take it—on his own in the Diaspora and was completing it under Jewish law, this would disprove the assertion that he was ignoring the Torah and tradition when among the Gentiles.  And since he would have to explain to the priests the need for purification and sacrifice, the fact of his vow would become widely known.

Why then would Paul also pay for the sacrifices of the four other men, if the above would prove his own fidelity to the Torah?  Most likely, these four believers were poor men who could not afford their own sacrifices, but had taken the vow in faith that God would provide a benefactor to help them complete it, which was allowed by Jewish law (m. Nazir 2:5-6).  Since the rumor stated that he was teaching other Jews to break from Torah, helping these four complete their vows would prove that he not only kept the Torah and Jewish law himself, but was active in helping other Jews to do so. 


Even nearly three decades after the ultimate Sacrifice of the Messiah on a Roman cross, the Jewish believers, including the Apostles, demonstrated through their lives and actions that keeping the Torah had become more important to them, not less.  They even kept a part of the Torah that was purely voluntary and which required openly sacrificing animals in the Temple. 

The standard Christian response that this event demonstrated a moment of weakness in Paul and James simply does not bear up under scrutiny:  This was not a Nazrite vow taken on the spur of the moment as a political show, but the completion of a vow that Paul had taken on his own a year or more earlier while under no outside pressure that Luke sees fit to relay to us.  Furthermore, these were the actions of two of the very Apostles that the Church depends on to receive its sacred writ; if Paul and Jacob were confused about the Gospel and the relationship between Law and Grace, what hope do those who must develop their theology from their writings have to sort it out?

Rather than filter Paul and Jacob’s actions through centuries of later Church doctrine and tradition, we should rather filter their writings through their actions, so that we can properly understand both.  When we do so, we find that they never taught that the Torah was in opposition to Grace, but rather the misinterpretation of the Torah that was in opposition to the Gospel.  Paul’s mission and letters were aimed at restoring the correct understanding of the Torah—that salvation came by trust in Messiah, but that this trust should lead us to live as He did—not to “freeing” us from those portions of it, like the Feasts, that are the greatest of blessings to keep.



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