(Acts 21:26) Did Paul make a mistake in bringing a sacrifice to the Temple to appease Jewish believers?

CLAIM: Luke records,

“Therefore do this that we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; 24 take them and purify yourself along with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads; and all will know that there is nothing to the things which they have been told about you, but that you yourself also walk orderly, keeping the Law. 25 But concerning the Gentiles who have believed, we wrote, having decided that they should abstain from meat sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication.’ 26 Then Paul took the men, and the next day, purifying himself along with them, went into the temple giving notice of the completion of the days of purification, until the sacrifice was offered for each one of them” (Acts 21:23-26).

Paul was previously against the necessity of following the Law (Gal. 2; Acts 15). Moreover, the author of Hebrews considers animal sacrifices as a case of apostatizing from Christ. Did Paul succumb to pressure in offering this sacrifice at the Temple?

RESPONSE: The “vow” (Acts 21:23) most likely refers to the Nazarite Vow (Num. 6:1ff). If an individual wanted to take the Nazarite Vow, he would voluntarily give up wine, grapes, raisins, haircuts, and going near dead bodies (Num. 6:3-6). After he grew out his hair, he was to bring a one year old lamb and one ram (Num. 6:14). He would also bring food, grain, and drinks to offer (Num. 6:15). Then the priest would offer his sin offering before the Lord (Num. 6:16). Afterwards, the man would shave his head and offer this on the fire (Num. 6:18). The Nazirite would receive back some of the sacrifice (Num. 6:19). The rest of the sacrifice was to be a “wave offering” before God (Num. 6:20).

The Nazarite Vow was not a standard sin offering. For one, it is a “special vow” that a Jewish person could make to “dedicate himself to the LORD” (Num. 6:2). Josephus mentions the practice of the Nazarite Vow in his writings (Jewish War, 2.15.1 §313; Antiquities, 19.6.1 §§293–94).

What do we make of Paul’s involvement regarding this vow and purification ceremony?

OPTION #1: Paul could be contextualizing for the sake of evangelism

First, under this view, Paul was engaging in a theologically neutral ceremony. Paul did this for the sake of Jewish evangelism in Jerusalem. Earlier in Acts, Paul opposed the necessity of circumcision for salvific purposes (Acts 15), but he was fine with circumcision for contextual purposes. For instance, he circumcised Timothy immediately after the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 16:3). This would also fit with Paul’s teaching regarding contextualization: “To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law… To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:20, 22).

Second, James refers to contextualization in the context (v.25). James reminds Paul that they decided to restrict the Gentiles for purposes of evangelism to Jews (v.25; Acts 15:19-20). James could be asking Paul to repeat this principle in this context. Longenecker writes, “In effect, they were saying to Paul, ‘We can accept this gift from the churches and so identify ourselves openly with your Gentile mission, if you will join with these men and identify yourself openly with the nation.’ Thus they were protecting themselves against Jewish recriminations while at the same time affirming their connection with Paul and his mission.”[1]

Third, Paul himself may have performed a Nazarite Vow earlier. Luke records, “In Cenchrea he had his hair cut, for he was keeping a vow” (Acts 18:18). However, nothing is mentioned about Paul performing an animal sacrifice—only the cutting of his hair. It could be that there wasn’t an animal sacrifice involved here. After all, the entire book of Hebrews considers the return to animal sacrifices as directly in contrast to God’s will in the new covenant (Heb. 10:10, 14, 18).

Fourth, by paying for the sacrifice, Paul was showing solidarity with the Jewish believers as an ethnically Jewish man. Longenecker explains, “To pay the charges for Nazirite offerings was considered an act of piety and a symbol of identification with the Jewish people (cf. Josephus, Antiquities, XIX, 294 [vi.1]).”[2] Howard Marshall writes, “This was an accepted act of Jewish piety; Josephus relates that Herod Agrippa I directed many Nazirites to have their heads shaved, the implication being (according to Bruce, Acts, p. 393 n.) that he paid their expenses.”[3]

OPTION #2: It could be that it was wrong for James and Paul

Under this view, Paul and James went too far in trying to contextualize. After all, the Greek term for “sacrifice” (v.26) is prosphora, which the author of Hebrews uses to refer to the ultimate “offering” in Jesus’ death (Heb. 10:10, 14, 18; cf. Eph. 5:2). It can be rendered as a “sacrifice” (NASB; NET; NLT) or an “offering” (ESV, NIV). Of course, Paul uses this term to refer to his non-literal “offering” of Gentile evangelism (Rom. 15:16), but in the context of Acts 21, any non-literal usage seems strained. Therefore, an animal sacrifice seems to be implied here.

If Paul did offer an animal “sacrifice” (v.26), which was required in Numbers 6:14-16, then this would go too far in contextualization. Remember, when we read narratives in Scripture, these are descriptions—not necessarily prescriptions. Paul and the apostles couldn’t err when they wrote Scripture (1 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:20-21). However, they could err in their everyday lives—just as Peter erred in his judgment (Gal. 2:11-14).

Nothing in the text suggests that this was a wise move. It doesn’t lead to Jewish evangelism, and in fact, a lynch mob stops this event from happening.


We simply do not have enough detail about the nature of this sacrifice and purification ceremony to make a judgment about Paul’s decision. For one, the Nazarite Vow was a “special offering,” not a standard animal sacrifice. If an animal sacrifice was included in this ceremony, then we could resolutely say that Paul made a mistake in trying to contextualize this far. However, it’s also possible that the animal sacrifice was left out, and the four men merely brought their hair as the sacrifice. Whatever the case, God seems to have interrupted this event, perhaps showing that Paul shouldn’t have put himself in this situation in the first place.

[1] Longenecker, R. N. (1981). The Acts of the Apostles. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: John and Acts (Vol. 9, p. 520). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[2] Longenecker, R. N. (1981). The Acts of the Apostles. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: John and Acts (Vol. 9, p. 520). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[3] Marshall, I. H. (1980). Acts: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 5, p. 364). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.