Applauded for Acts of the Apostles book
A local Catholic has received good reviews for his book on “the meeting that changed the world”.
Congleton man Michael Knowles, who lives on a Howey Hill with his wife Jane, has written a book about the Council of Jerusalem, described in the Acts of the Apostles, which committed Christianity to offering to gospel to all of humanity and which he says is still relevant today.
The decisions taken in 49AD, after some 15 years of fierce debate and division, enabled Christianity to become a worldwide religion open to all cultures and its membership open to all nations.
Mr Knowles’s book, published earlier this year, discusses how the commitment to universalism made by the council remains a challenge for the Church today and asks of it questions about its own life and practice that “cannot be ignored” if the Church wants to remain “credible” in its relationship with its own members, other faiths and the world.
Mr Knowles interprets the ruling of the Jerusalem Council as “brushing away centuries of elitism and misogyny”, and along the way he makes a strong case for women’s full admittance to church ministry.
John-Paul Sheridan of The Furrow, a monthly journal for the contemporary Church, wrote in his review: “Knowles’s book is unique in his approach to the Council of Jerusalem, especially his thorough study of the main tensions in the Acts of the Apostles that led to the meeting in Jerusalem.”
Reviewer Susan Thorne wrote: “The writer’s main thesis is that the events of the early chapters of Acts lead to a pivotal point in early church history effecting a radical change, so that the emergent Church ceased to be a sect of Judaism but became a faith in which all Jews, Gentiles, men and women are welcomed equally ‘a city without walls, open to the whole of mankind’. It tackles an issue — ‘do Gentile Christians need to keep the law?’ — that many have judged unimportant today but Knowles makes it abundantly clear that it is important for all of us.
“It is evident early on that Knowles is a Roman Catholic with some traditional views but this should not frighten off those from other denominations. Knowles is refreshingly able to think beyond the confines of his own denomination or ideology, his thoughts and language are startlingly blunt on occasions.”
She said Mr Knowles interpreted the ruling of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) as brushing away centuries of elitism and misogyny, and “along the way he makes a strong case for women’s full admittance to church ministry. He also makes the only convincing argument for universal salvation (not just for fully paid-up Christians) I have ever read.”
She said the final chapter made the claim that change was not just for that time and place but for now, and the first Christians, all Jews, had to relinquish their culture, customs and traditions in order to bring their faith fully to birth.
“We must be willing to move with the times, as society and culture change around us,” Ms Thorne wrote.
”Knowles challenges traditional attitudes to divorce, euthanasia gene-therapy contraception, celibacy Papal infallibility, homosexuality and men-only priesthood, (commenting) “male genitals are far urination, copulation and procreation, not ordination.”
She added: “This book is not perfect; no human writing is … all Christians should read this book.”
Mr Knowles said: “This council was the most important meeting in the whole history of Christianity. Without it there wouldn’t be any Christianity at all, and the Jesus-of-Nazareth-movement would never have been anything more than a small Jewish sect that would have just withered away with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD70, and the dispersal of the Jewish people that followed.
“Without it there would have been no Christianity and the whole history of humankind would have been very different.
“But that’s not all. The decisions the council took, what those decisions represented and demanded of the Christians, though it took place 2,000 years ago, are all immediately and urgently relevant for Christianity today, especially for the Catholic Church, which accounts for 53% of all Christians.
“The Jerusalem council was the meeting where Christianity recognised and established itself as a religion separate and distinct from any other, even from the Judaism from which it came. The meeting took place some 16 or 17 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was held by his first disciples, men and women, all of them Jewish and all brought up to believe fervently in the Jewish religion. That they were devout and dedicated Jews is of immense importance.
“The decisions they made at this council took the form of a pronouncement contained in a very short letter, a mere 107 (Greek) words long, to be found in chapter 15 of Luke’s Acts of the Apostles.
“The letter was sent to three church communities in Syria and Asia Minor (modern Turkey).
“Its declaration was that membership of the Christian Church was open to the people of all nations and cultures and was not restricted to Jews. It declared that any non-Jews who came to believe in Jesus were under no requirement to live in accordance with the practices of the Jewish religion. They could continue to live in their cultures and retain their national and cultural identities.
“That decision will sound just obvious to us today, but it took long and fierce argument within the Jews who up to that moment made up the Christian Church alone.
“Primarily it was about the theology of God’s grace, a theology of salvation propounded by Peter and then taken up and developed by Paul in Galatians and Romans and gloriously expressed by the authors of the letters to the Colossians and the Ephesians.
“All the council participants had been brought up to believe that God restricted his love and concern just to their nation; that their nation, and it alone, had a covenant with him and that obedience to the regulations of their Judaism such as circumcision, and about food, festivals and social relationships such as marriage was the only way to God.
“Salvation was dependent on living according to their Jewish way of life. That was what they had been brought up to believe. It was their identity; it was their very psyche; it was what they all were.”
He said the decision they took made it possible for Christianity to integrate with all the other cultures of humanity.
He added: “The Church is still the biggest non-political, non-governmental, voluntary organisation both in history and in today’s world.
“It has immense potential to do what Jesus is described by Peter as doing, namely ‘going about doing good’.
“To mention two things: it has always done an immense amount of good in the provision of health and in education, but the world today needs more than that.
“War, political strife and unrest, religious persecution, famine, climate change and the trafficking of women are all creating immense and widespread cruelty, suffering and deprivation.
“’Doing good’ today, as Jesus did in his way in his time, is crying out for Christianity to speak and act with all the international power it can call upon.
“But for it to be able to do that it must be modern and not be attracted just to a past culture. It must be where people today are at — it must cease to alienate them.”
Mr Knowles is a biblical theologian and writer. He studied philosophy, theology and sociology in Dublin, Poona, Cambridge and London and taught sociology at a London secondary school and the philosophy of religion together with early church history at Crewe FE college.
He is a former secretary of the Hackney Trades Union Council and assistant secretary of the London Federation of Trades Councils as well as founder and chairman of the Save the Walthamstow Marshes Campaign (1978-1983), which resulted in the marshes being declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest. He has also been a Labour Party councillor on Congleton Town Council.
● The Meeting That Changed The World: The Council of Jerusalem AD49 by Michael Knowles is available from Sacristy Press, £19.99,sacristy.co.uk