Paul’s View of the Law: A Freedom from (or End to) Jewish Law?

paul's view of the law

In this second of a two-part article (read Part 1 here) adapted from Understanding the Jewish Roots of Christianity: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Essays on the Relationship between Christianity and Judaism, David Rudolph continues to explore the sometimes hotly contested debate about Paul’s view of the law.

The excerpt about Paul’s view of the law begins with a third text Rudolph believes Paul used to “set the record straight” as to whether he was championing a new freedom from—or end to—Jewish law.

3. Acts 21:17–26

The third weighty text is Acts 21:17–26. This passage does not represent a rule or a ruling but a public testimony before witnesses, on the level of an oath, to set the record straight concerning Paul’s view of [the] law.1

Luke writes:

When we had come to Jerusalem, the brothers received us gladly. On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. And when they heard it, they glorified God. And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law, and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs. What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. Do therefore what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law. But as for the Gentiles who have believed, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality.” Then Paul took the men, and the next day he purified himself along with them and went into the temple, giving notice when the days of purification would be fulfilled and the offering presented for each one of them. (Acts 21:17–26 ESV)

This passage is the most explicit statement in the New Testament that Paul lived as a Torah-observant Jew and taught fellow Jews to remain faithful to Jewish law and custom. Luke included this narrative to resolve controversy over this matter in the ekklēsia of his day and to provide a crucial frame of reference for how Paul’s teachings should be interpreted.2

According to the text, Paul arrives in Jerusalem, where he is informed about a rumor that he taught diaspora Jews not to circumcise their children or keep Jewish customs. While Pauline scholars today often echo this law-free image of Paul,3 Luke portrays James and the Jerusalem elders as rejecting the rumor.

The 4 Nazirites

These leaders attempt to clarify everything by asking Paul to purify himself in the temple among four Nazirites and to pay for the sacrifices the Torah requires to complete their vows (Num 6:1–21).4

The purpose of this public testimony in James’ words is to demonstrate that (1) “there is nothing in what they [the members of the community] have been told about you” (Acts 21:24b)—that is, the rumor that Paul taught Jews not to keep Jewish law was false; and (2) “you yourself also live in observance of the law” (21:24c)—that is, Paul himself remained a Torah-faithful Jew like those “zealous for the law” in Jerusalem (21:20). The prearranged testimony was to communicate this negative and positive message.5Without objection, Paul follows the plan.

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[Acts 21:17–26] is a lodestar text. To begin with, the presence of James and the elders in Acts 21:17–26 communicates to the reader that this is a “setting the record straight” text. James is the brother of the Messiah, a pillar apostle, head of the Jerusalem Council, leader of the mother congregation, and known as “the Just” (according to Hegesippus; see Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 2.23.3–4). Luke brings James into Acts when there is a need to resolve a major controversy.6

In early Christian tradition, James is a Nazirite (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 2.23.5), a Jew set apart for the Lord who maintains a level of Torah observance that is beyond reproach. “James, whose authority as a law-abiding Jew is not questioned in the early Church, can serve as witness to Paul’s faithfulness to the law.”7

Similarly, the elders represent, next to the apostles, the highest level of ecclesial authority in the community of Jesus believers. This is the case in Acts 15 and 16 where Luke identifies “the apostles and elders” as the halakhic decisors who drew up the apostolic decree, a ruling binding on all gentile believers (Acts 15:22; 16:4; 21:25). By bringing the elders into Acts 21:17–26, Luke communicates that it is a matter of utmost importance with implications for the whole Church. The elders’ support for Paul attests to his covenant fidelity.8

The four Nazirites in Acts 21:17–26 also serve a narrative role in corroborating that Paul is a Torah-faithful Jew and does not preach a law-free gospel to Jews. Bart Koet notes:

After the accusations in Acts 18:12–13 about Paul not being law abiding enough, this vow, and the suggestion that it is a Nazirite vow, shows the reader that Paul is even more than law abiding, he is doing more than what is strictly necessary. . . . By connecting Paul twice with the phenomenon of Naziritism as an answer to critics on his attitude towards the Law, Luke demonstrates the importance of Paul fulfilling even supererogatory rituals to show his law abidingness.9

The Nazirite exceeded the standards of God’s law and was a symbol of Torah-observant Israel (Amos 2:11–12; 1 Macc. 3:49).10 As Koet puts it, James “(who himself is depicted as a lifelong Nazir and as an example of law abidingness in Eusebius’ Church History; see Book II XXIII 4–6) suggests to Paul to pay for four Nazirites as a proof of his law abidingness. By paying for the expenses of the sacrifices of those men Paul associates himself with their law abidingness.”11

In the context of Acts 18:18—where Paul takes a Nazirite vow12—and Acts 21:17–26—where Paul pays for four men to fulfill their Nazirite vows13—Luke portrays Paul as a Messiah-confessing Jew who is both law-abiding and encourages fellow Jews to be law-abiding.

The temple

The location also serves to validate Paul’s testimony. The temple was regarded in Israel as a “holy place” where people took oaths to resolve controversy.14 In Acts 21:26, Paul publicly testifies in the temple, before God and altar, that the rumors about him are unfounded and that he remains a Torah-observant Jew. His ritual actions in this sacred place are the equivalent of a sworn testimony to set the record straight on this issue once and for all.

The timing

The timing of Acts 21:17–26 is key. It is the third month of the Torah’s calendar and the Jewish world is celebrating the pilgrimage festival of Shavuot (Pentecost).15 Josephus records that on the “arrival of Pentecost … a countless multitude flocked in from Galilee, from Idumaea, from Jericho, and from Peraea beyond the Jordan” to present festal offerings (J. W. 2:42–43). Paul was one of these Jewish pilgrims “in a hurry to reach Jerusalem, if possible, by the day of Pentecost” to “offer sacrifices” (Acts 20:16; 24:17).

In Acts 21:17–26, Paul (surrounded by Nazirites who drew crowds because of their piety and lion-like appearance) bore witness in the temple on Pentecost that he remained a Torah-observant Jew, and Jewish pilgrims from around the world, including many of Paul’s detractors, witnessed this public declaration (Acts 21:27–28). James’ plan was for this picture of Paul to be widely seen and shared: “Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law” (Acts 21:24).

The rumor that Paul taught Jews to abandon Jewish life spread to Jewish communities throughout the Mediterranean world and resulted in numerous occasions like Acts 21:21, where Paul had to defend himself. Acts 21:17–26 may be seen as the center of a trajectory of seven defenses in Luke’s narrative aimed at responding to this false rumor and convincing the reader that Paul remained a Torah-observant Jew (Acts 16:3; 18:18; 21:17–26; 23:6; 24:14, 16; 25:8; 28:17). This is a major theme of Acts. As Isaac Oliver puts it, “It seems likely that Acts was written precisely to counter the rumors circulating among Jewish followers of Jesus and Jews in general that Paul was an apostate.”16

Leading up to Acts 21:17–26, Luke informs his audience that Jews in Corinth accused Paul of “persuading people to worship God in ways that are contrary to the law” (Acts 18:13). The narrator addresses the false charge by placing it between Paul’s circumcision of Timothy in Acts 16:3 and Paul taking a Nazirite vow in Acts 18:18—two sacred rituals that demonstrate Paul not only observed the Torah but went above and beyond the call of duty to the Torah.17

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A nail in the coffin regarding Paul’s view of the law

Acts 21:17–26 then puts the nail in the coffin of the slander. In the chapters following Acts 21:17–26, Paul confirms four times that he keeps the Torah and that he has done nothing against the law or the customs of his people:

  1. Confirmation 1: “Brothers, I am [present tense] a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees” (Acts 23:6 ESV; see Acts 26:5).18
  2. Confirmation 2: “But this I admit to you . . . I worship the God of our ancestors, believing everything laid down according to the law or written in the prophets. . . . I do my best always to have a clear conscience toward God and all people” (Acts 24:14, 16 NRSV).
  3. Confirmation 3: “I have in no way committed an offense against the law of the Jews, or against the temple, or against the emperor” (Acts 25:8 NRSV).
  4. Confirmation 4: “Brothers, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our ancestors, yet I was arrested in Jerusalem” (Acts 28:17 NRSV).

In literary context, each of these four confirmations points back to Acts 21:17–26.19 One may ask what more Luke could have included in his narrative to express that Paul was a Torah-observant Jew. Acts is replete with statements that describe Paul as faithful to Jewish law and custom; statements to the contrary are consistently identified as false rumors.

A more detailed examination of the text of Acts 21:17–26, the chief defense, adds lexical and contextual support to the above conclusions:

1. James maintains that Paul “observes the law” (phylassōn ton nomon [Acts 21:24]). The language (in the present active tense) refers to careful observance of the law as a whole (see Gal. 6:13; Rom. 2:26):

Many NT occurrences of phulassō speak of observing the law or commandments (used thus also in the LXX). The basic idea of “keeping a law, etc. from being broken” (BAGD s.v. 1.f) yields the meaning “observe, follow, keep.” Initially this refers to observance of the Torah, the law as a whole (nomon: Acts 7:53; 21:24; Gal. 6:13), the commandments (entolas: Mark 10:19; Matt. 19:17; Luke 18:20), or individual provisions among them (dikaiōmata: Rom. 2:26). In the Synoptics as in Acts and Paul this usage is linked with criticism of Jewish observance of the law (a significant exception is Acts 21:24, where Paul is presented as being in agreement with the Jewish Christians).20

Phulassō . . . serves esp. to express the divinely required attitude of man to the divine covenant, Exodus 19:5 etc., and to the cultic statutes, laws, commandments, admonitions and warnings; in this sense it becomes a tt. [terminus technicus] in the legal traditions from Exodus to Deuteronomy.21

Phulassō . . . to continue to keep a law or commandment from being broken.22

2. Luke’s use of covenant imagery—zealous for the law, Moses, circumcision, Nazirites, ritual purification, temple, sacrifice, Pentecost season (when the law was given)—adds to the covenant-keeping connotation of phylassōn ton nomon in Acts 21:24.23

3. The kai in alla stoicheis kai autos (Acts 21:24) is emphatic,24 as in the ESV (“you yourself also [kai] live in observance of the law”), and identifies Paul with the antecedent—the thousands of Jesus-believing Jews in Jerusalem who are “zealous for the law.”25 Paul’s identification with frum Jews is also vividly expressed in the picture of him leading the four Nazirites (the most zealous of the zealous) into the temple (“Then Paul took the men … he entered the temple with them” [21:26 nrsv]). Here Paul is numbered among the “zealous for the law.” James’ plan is for the Jewish world to know that Paul, whom Luke describes as “a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees” in the present tense, continues to “observe the law” like the “zealous for the law” and teaches in a way consistent with these convictions (Acts 21:20, 24; 23:6).26 Luke’s positive emphasis on Paul being “zealous for the law” may explain why the Muratorian Canon (ca. 170 ce) comments that “Paul had taken [Luke] with him as one zealous for the law.”27

4. The use of stoicheis in Acts 21:24 (see Rom. 4:12; Gal. 5:25) suggests a consistency of lifestyle.28 It can be variously translated: “live in” (ESV) or “live in conformity with” (NET). James’ point is that Paul walked the walk of a Torah-faithful Jew.

5. Acts 21:17–26 is the mirror text of Acts 15. James anticipates Paul’s concern that his public testimony may be misinterpreted by gentile believers to mean that they, too, should be fully Torah observant. He reassures Paul that the gentile believers will not misunderstand because “as for the Gentiles who have become believers, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication” (Acts 21:25 NRSV).29

Here James restates the Acts 15 Jerusalem Council decision that exempted Jesus-believing gentiles from circumcision and other Jewish-specific requirements of the Torah: “James parallels the necessity of Jews keeping the law with the necessity of gentiles to keep the Apostolic decree (21:25).”30 This mirroring between the Jerusalem Council decision and Acts 21:17–26 is reinforced by Luke’s reference to Moses in Acts 15:21 and 21:21. There is also a parallel use of phylassō in Acts 16:4 and 21:24.31 Matthew Thiessen sums up the significance of Acts 21:17–26 in relation to Acts 15: “While both Paul and the Jerusalem assembly believe that Jews ought to continue in their observance of the law, both agree that gentiles should not, a decision of the Jerusalem Council that Luke reiterates here (21:25). . . . Not only does God not require Jewish Christ followers to abandon law observance,32 he actually requires them to continue in law observance.”33 Paul’s testimony in the temple in 21:26 confirms that he is in accord with this view.

In sum, Luke’s portrait of Paul in Acts 21:17–26 makes clear that Paul remained a Torah-observant Jew after becoming a follower of Jesus and taught in a way that was consistent with these convictions. The text represents Luke’s attempt to (1) resolve controversy over this important matter in the ekklēsia of his day and (2) provide a vital frame of reference for how Paul’s teachings on the law in relation to the Jewish people should be interpreted.34 There is no evidence that Acts 21:17–26 is an example of Paul becoming a Jew to the Jews to win the Jews, as some scholars suggest.35 Rather, Paul’s actions were intended to set the record straight that he lived as a Torah-observant Jew and taught fellow Jews to remain faithful to Jewish law and custom. His attempt to settle the matter once and for all was the equivalent of a sworn testimony given in the temple courts, before God and altar, and before myriads of strictly Torah-observant Jews who understood the meaning of his actions.

So . . . what was Paul’s view of the law?

The debate about Paul’s view of the law has been going on since the first century. On the one hand, some have maintained that Paul viewed Jewish law as something that was superseded, ended, and made superfluous in Christ. On the other hand, some have held that Paul regarded Jewish law as a matter of indifference, expediency, and freedom in Christ.

This essay has argued for a third possibility—a Paul who regarded Jewish identity and law observance as a matter of calling and covenant fidelity. Moreover, I have proposed that this is the perspective of the three weightiest texts in the New Testament that address the issue of Paul and Jewish law: 1 Corinthians 7:17–24 (Paul’s rule); Acts 15:22–29 (the Jerusalem Council ruling); and Acts 21:17–26 (Paul’s public testimony before God and witnesses in the temple courts).

These passages cry out to set the record straight that Paul lived as a Torah-observant Jew and taught fellow Jews to remain faithful to Israel’s law and custom.

Read Part 1.

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Image source: Jean Valentin Le Valentin, St. Paul Writing his Epistles, between circa 1618 and circa 1620, commons.wikipedia.com.

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  1. See David J. Rudolph, “Luke’s Portrait of Paul in Acts 21:17–26,” in The Early Reception of Paul the Second Temple Jew: Text, Narrative and Reception History, ed. Isaac W. Oliver and Gabriele Boccaccini with Joshua Scott (London: T&T Clark, 2018), 192–205; Rudolph, Jew to the Jews, 53–73.
  2. Scholars who question the historical reliability of Acts 21:17–26 typically do so because Luke (1) depicts Paul as a Torah-observant Jew and (2) describes the rumors in Acts 21:20–21, 24 as false, not true. Luke’s Paul is regarded as an invention in light of the allegedly law-free Paul of the letters. Notably, the dismissal of Luke’s portrait of Paul in Acts 21:17–26 for these reasons indirectly attests to the reading of Luke’s narrative proposed in this essay: Paul remained a Torah-observant Jew and taught in a way consistent with these convictions. If Acts 21:17–26 is reliable, and this narrative reading is accepted, then the passage has significant interpretive value, since Paul’s testimony that he remained law-observant took place after he wrote Galatians, 1 Corinthians, and Romans. Modern exegetes often view Paul’s position on the law in these letters as consistent with the rumor described in Acts 21:20–21. See, e.g., N. T. Wright on Rom 14: “Paul did not himself continue to keep the kosher laws, and did not propose to, or require of, other ‘Jewish Christians’ that they should, either.” Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013), 359. However, if Luke’s portrait of Paul in Acts 21:17–26 is reliable and Paul ipso facto kept the Jewish food laws because he remained a Torah-observant Jew, then such readings of Rom 14 need to be reassessed, as I have argued elsewhere. See David J. Rudolph, “Paul and the Food Laws: A Reassessment of Romans 14:14, 20,” in Paul the Jew: A Conversation between Pauline and Second Temple Scholars, ed. Carlos A. Segovia and Gabriele Boccaccini (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016), 151–81. Given Luke’s emphasis on how Paul’s teachings have been misunderstood, Acts 21:17–26 seems to be aimed in part at prompting such reassessments. See Matthew Thiessen, Paul and the Gentile Problem (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 164–65.
  3. E.g., Michael F. Bird, An Anomalous Jew: Paul among Jews, Greeks, and Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 7–8.
  4. See Roger Tomes, “Why Did Paul Get His Hair Cut? [Acts 18.18; 21.23–24],” in Luke’s Literary Achievement: Collected Essays, ed. C. M. Tuckett (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1995), 191–92.
  5. “Rather than resorting to a textual (letter) solution with its attendant risks of mishandling both in terms of delivery and interpretation, James proposes a ritual (Nazirite) confirmation of Paul’s loyalty to the Jewish law (21:23–24, 26). As interpreters of Paul well know, letters can be ‘hard to understand’ (2 Pet 3:16); acts often speak louder and clearer than words” (Spencer, Acts, 200).

  6. Jacob Jervell, Luke and the People of God: A New Look at Luke–Acts (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1972), 185–87, 195–96, 199.
  7. Kalervo Salo, Luke’s Treatment of the Law: A Redaction-Critical Investigation (Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1991), 266.
  8. This section is partially adapted from David J. Rudolph, “Luke’s Portrait of Paul in Acts 21:17–26,” in The Early Reception of Paul the Second Temple Jew, 192–205. See Rudolph, Jew to the Jews, 53–73.
  9. Bart J. Koet, “Why Did Paul Shave His Hair (Acts 18, 18)? Nazirate and Temple in the Book of Acts,” in The Centrality of Jerusalem: Historical Perspectives, ed. M. Poorthuis and Ch. Safrai (Kampen: Kok Pharos, 1996), 141. See Stuart D. Chepey, Nazirites in Late Second Temple Judaism: A Survey of Ancient Jewish Writings, the New Testament, Archaeological Evidence, and Other Writings from Late Antiquity (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 66, 173–74.
  10. Cf. Num 6:1–2; Judg 13:7; 16:17; 1 Sam 1:11; Luke 1:15. See Markus Bockmuehl, Jewish Law in Gentile Churches: Halakhah and the Beginning of Christian Public Ethics (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), 36–48.
  11. Koet, “Why Did Paul Shave His Hair (Acts 18, 18)?” 139.
  12. Neusner argues that Paul himself was under a Nazirite vow in Acts 21 and that James advised Paul to fulfill his obligations with four other Nazirites (Jacob Neusner, “Vow-Taking, the Nazirites, and the Law: Does James’ Advice to Paul Accord with Halakhah?,” in James the Just and Christian Origins, ed. Bruce Chilton and Craig A. Evans [Leiden: Brill, 1999], 81). While the scenario is possible, Luke’s narrative indicates that Paul had already concluded a Nazirite vow in Cenchreae (Acts 18:18) and presented Nazirite offerings during a prior trip to Jerusalem (Acts 18:21–22). This conclusion is supported by the Western text of Acts 18:21 and Luke’s use of anabainō in Acts 18:22. For this reason, the nrsv translates Acts 18:22, “When he had landed at Caesarea, he went up to Jerusalem and greeted the church, and then went down to Antioch.” In Acts 18:21, Codex Bezae and the majority of Byzantine manuscripts insert, “I must at all costs celebrate the coming feast day in Hierosoluma” (Josep Rius-Camps and Jenny Read-Heimerdinger, The Message of Acts in Codex Bezae: A Comparison with the Alexandrian Tradition III [London: T&T Clark, 2007], 384). The case for the Codex Bezae insertion is defended in J. M. Ross, “The Extra Words in Acts 18:21,” Novum Testamentum 34 (1992): 247–49. Against the Western addition, see Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (London: United Bible Societies, 1975), 465; W. A. Strange, The Problem of the Text of Acts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 47, 163. It would appear that Paul was only in need of ritual purification in Acts 21.
  13. The four in Acts 21:24, 26–27 were in need of purification, perhaps due to corpse defilement which necessitated the seven-day purification ritual described in Num 19:1–13 (cf. Num 6:9–12; 31:19; m. Naz. 7:3; Philo, Spec. Laws 3.205; Acts 20:9–10). Josephus mentions that Jews ritually purified themselves to enter the enclosure of the temple and that it was required of pilgrims who came to offer sacrifices (Ant. 12.145; J.W. 1.229; cf. Lev 23:17–19; Acts 20:16; 24:17–18; John 11:55). For a discussion of the possible reasons for purification in Acts 21:17–26, see Roy E. Gane, “The Function of the Nazirite’s Concluding Purification Offering,” in Perspectives on Purity and Purification in the Bible, ed. B. J. Schwartz, et al. (London: T & T Clark International, 2008), 9–17; David E. Aune, “Paul, Ritual Purity, and the Ritual Baths South of the Temple Mount (Acts 21:15–28),” in Celebrating Paul: Festschrift in Honor of Jerome Murphy-O’Connor and Joseph A. Fitzmyer, ed. P. Spitaler (Washington, DC: The Catholic Biblical Association of America, 2011), 290–318.
  14. Acts 6:13; 21:28; 1 Kgs 8:31–32; 2 Chron 6:22–23; Neh 5:12; cf. Matt 23:16.
  15. Acts 20:16; cf. Lev 23:15–21; Deut 16:9–11, 16.
  16. Acts 20:16; cf. Lev 23:15–21; Deut 16:9–11, 16.
  17. Acts 20:16; cf. Lev 23:15–21; Deut 16:9–11, 16.
  18. Acts 20:16; cf. Lev 23:15–21; Deut 16:9–11, 16.
  19. Acts 20:16; cf. Lev 23:15–21; Deut 16:9–11, 16.
  20. Acts 20:16; cf. Lev 23:15–21; Deut 16:9–11, 16.
  21. Acts 20:16; cf. Lev 23:15–21; Deut 16:9–11, 16.
  22. Acts 20:16; cf. Lev 23:15–21; Deut 16:9–11, 16.
  23. Acts 20:16; cf. Lev 23:15–21; Deut 16:9–11, 16.
  24. Acts 20:16; cf. Lev 23:15–21; Deut 16:9–11, 16.
  25. Acts 20:16; cf. Lev 23:15–21; Deut 16:9–11, 16.
  26. Acts 20:16; cf. Lev 23:15–21; Deut 16:9–11, 16.
  27. Acts 20:16; cf. Lev 23:15–21; Deut 16:9–11, 16.
  28. Acts 20:16; cf. Lev 23:15–21; Deut 16:9–11, 16.
  29. Acts 20:16; cf. Lev 23:15–21; Deut 16:9–11, 16.
  30. Acts 20:16; cf. Lev 23:15–21; Deut 16:9–11, 16.
  31. Acts 20:16; cf. Lev 23:15–21; Deut 16:9–11, 16.
  32. Acts 20:16; cf. Lev 23:15–21; Deut 16:9–11, 16.
  33. Acts 20:16; cf. Lev 23:15–21; Deut 16:9–11, 16.
  34. Acts 20:16; cf. Lev 23:15–21; Deut 16:9–11, 16.
  35. Acts 20:16; cf. Lev 23:15–21; Deut 16:9–11, 16.
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