In the previous two daily notes (June 29, 30), I surveyed some of the New Testament passages, and other references in early Christian tradition, which mention Peter and Paul together. Today, I will look a little more closely at the primary New Testament reference—Paul’s narrative of the episode at Antioch in Galatians 2:11-14.
By all accounts, the Antioch episode with Peter took place some time after the meeting in Jerusalem (between Paul & Barnabas and the “pillars”) described in Gal 2:1-10. Most scholars hold that Gal 2:1-10 generally refers to the same events as Acts 15:1-19, though some would question this. More difficult is the relationship between the account in Acts 15:1-19 and the letter from James in vv. 20-29—some commentators believe that these occurred at different times, but have been combined/conflated by the author of Acts. In spite of what may be implied in Acts 15:30ff, there is no indication by Paul in any of his epistles that he knew of this letter (Paul may have first become aware of it later on, as suggested by Acts 21:25). Interestingly, however, Acts 15:1-19 and Gal 2:1-10 deal primarily with the question of circumcision, while Acts 15:20-29 and Gal 2:11-14 both seem to refer more specifically to dietary regulations.
Unfortunately, the brevity of Paul’s narrative in Gal 2:11-14, and the rhetorical force of it, makes it difficult to know for certain what took place between Peter and Paul. There are three main interpretative issues:
- The exact nature of the dispute
- The identity and role of the “men from James” (v. 12a)
- The force and significance of Paul’s statement in v. 14b
Paul frames the dispute with two expressions in verse 11:
- “I stood against [a)nte/sthn] him according to (the) face [kata\ pro/swpon, i.e. face-to-face]”
- “(in) that [i.e. because] he was known/recognized (to be at fault) by (his conduct) [kategnwsme/no$]”
The first verb (anqi/sthmi, “stand against”) is often used in a military or political context (i.e. “oppose, resist, withstand”); but it can also refer specifically to opposing/exposing an imposter (as Peter withstood Simon Magus in tradition [see below]; cf. also Acts 13:8; 2 Tim 3:8). The second verb katagi–g—nw/skw literally means “know against/concerning (someone)”, in the sense of forming an opinion or judgment against a person; as a technical legal term, it can mean “bring a charge against”, “decide a case against”, i.e. “judge, condemn”; it can also carry the nuance of “find fault with/against”, “think poorly of”, “despise”, etc. Here the sense of the perfect passive of the verb is probably something like “clearly in the wrong or at fault”, though perhaps catching a bit of a legal connotation as well, i.e. “recognized or judged to be at fault”, perhaps even “(already) judged/condemned”.
In verse 12, Paul states that (prior to the arrival of “men from James”), Peter was “eating with” (sunh/sqien) the Gentiles (presumably Gentile believers of Antioch); the imperfect form of the verb sunesqi/w (“eat [together] with”) suggests repeated, or habitual, action. Peter apparently was willing to forego the Jewish dietary regulations in order to have fellowship with Gentile believers, or similarly to disregard other religious scruples about associating with non-Jews. Paul’s statement in verse 14, that Peter had “begun (to live) under [i.e. according to the manner of] the nations [i.e. of the Gentiles]”, would suggest a significant shift away from strict observance of the Law (including the dietary regulations, etc). An association of Peter with such issues surrounding Jew-Gentile relations (and the Law) in early Christian tradition is confirmed by:
- The Cornelius episode in Acts 10-11, a key narrative in the book as it sets the stage for the early mission to the Gentiles (Peter refers to it again in Acts 15:7-8). The vision of Acts 10:9-16 effectively abolished the dietary requirements established in the Old Testament Law; while it is nowhere specified that Peter ceased to observe the regulations, it is clearly allowed (even required) for Jewish Christians to do so for the purpose of missionary work among Gentiles. Acts 11:1-18 shows that Peter had to defend or explain his actions in this regard to other Jewish believers. For more, cf. Parts 13 and 14 of the series “The Speeches of Acts”.
- At several points in the so-called Pseudo-Clementine literature (prob. early 3rd century), writings which preserve certain kinds of Jewish-Christian tradition, Peter is depicted as defending himself against “false” claims that he taught the abolishment of the Law of Moses (on this, see my earlier note). Many critical scholars see “Simon (Magus)” in the Clementine writings as a cipher for Paul (and his teachings). Indeed, Gal 2:11 is alluded to in the Clementine Homilies XVII.19.4, effectively reversing Peter’s position in relation to Simon (Paul).
Following the arrival of “men from James”, Peter’s response (and shift in behavior) is described by three terms:
(a) he “withdrew” (u(pe/stellen, literally, “he set/placed [himself] under”), in a concrete sense he “pulled back”
(b) he “separated himself” (a)fw/rizen e(auto/n) i.e. from the Gentiles; the verb a)fori/zw fundamentally means “to mark (someone or something) from (another)”, that is, to create a distinction or boundary; here the idea is that Peter marked himself off (in some way) as a Jewish believer, apart from the Gentile believers with whom he had been associating.
(c) he was “in fear” (fobou/meno$) of the ones “of the circumcision” (e)k peritomh=$); this latter expression could simply mean “other Jewish Christians”, but Paul may also be identifying them (in part) with the “false brethren” of Gal 2:4, who had, it would seem, argued that Gentile converts should be circumcised (v. 3, cf. Acts 15:1).
In what sense did Peter “fear”? It is likely that Paul is framing the issue in the sharpest possible terms—Peter’s ‘fear’ may have been nothing more than the result of his feeling social pressure, touching upon his older religious habits and practice. His behavior among the Gentiles might suddenly seem problematic when viewed by (observant) Jewish Christians. Even Paul, in his letters, cautions against believers in the exercise of their Christian freedom, lest they trip up “weaker” brethren (i.e. those who still feel bound by certain religious scruples). At any rate, Paul saw the matter as serious enough to take bold action, “standing against” Peter “face to face”. This probably implies two things: (i) he expressed his objection directly to Peter, and (ii) it took place publicly, likely in whatever leadership/council setting was current among believers in Antioch (see v. 14). Such a meeting may be summarized by Paul in verse 13, where he describes how the rest of the Jews (i.e. Jewish Christians of Antioch)—and even Barnabas—were swayed by Peter and/or the “men from James / of the circumcision”; the summary is governed by two, related, verbal expressions:
- sunupekri/qhsan au)tw=|—the verb sunupokri/nomai is a compound derived from u(pokri/nomai (“to judge/discern under[neath]”), which had the basic meaning of “answer, explain, interpret” (similar to the related verb a)pokri/nomai). The derived noun u(pokrith/$, “interpreter” came to be used widely in the technical sense of an “actor” (i.e. one who interprets an author/poet’s work); similarly, u(po/krisi$ (“explanation/interpretation”) came to have the meaning “play-acting”, and the verb u(pokri/nomai, in turn, to mean “play a role”, i.e. “pretend”—our English word “hypocrisy” is a morally-tinged transliteration of u(po/krisi$. The prefixed particle sun means “(together) with”; so the expression Paul uses means that the rest of the Jewish Christians “played the part together with him [i.e. with Peter]”; some translations fill in the meaning further—”(they) acted hypocritically, joined in the hypocrisy”, etc.
- sunaph/xqh au)tw=n th=| u(pokri/sei—Paul states that even Barnabas was “led away (together) with their play-acting [i.e. ‘hypocrisy’]” (the noun u(po/krisi$, cf. above). In modern English, we might say, “he was carried away (by it) and joined in their pretense”. The idea seems to be that (nearly) all of the Jewish Christians living and working (among the Gentiles) in Antioch were swayed by Peter and “the men from James”.
But who exactly are these “some [i.e. certain] (men) from James” (tina$ a)po\ )Iakw/bou)? At the time, James was the leading figure of the Jerusalem Church (as indicated in Acts 15, 21), and one of the three “pillars” (along with Peter and John) mentioned by Paul in Galatians 2. There are two possibilities here: (a) that they were genuinely sent by James, or (b) they only claimed to have been sent by James. For commentators eager to harmonize Acts 15 and Galatians 2, the latter is generally assumed; however, the former is actually much more likely, considering the influence they seem to have had over Peter. In any case, they certainly would have been prominent representatives of the Jerusalem church, known by Peter and probably many other leaders of the Antioch church as well. It is extremely unlikely that they are the same as the “false brethren” of Gal 2:4. There the issue was the circumcision of Gentile converts, and observance of the Law of Moses; here there is no sense that anyone is requiring Gentiles to conform to the Law, rather the pressure is on Jewish Christians to maintain their religious identity while working among Gentiles. No doubt observance of dietary regulations was a key point, but Peter’s “withdrawal” and “separation” implies something more than that. Paul appears to have recognized this; as he states in verse 14:
“But when I saw that they did not set foot [i.e. walk] straight/right toward the truth of the Good Message [i.e. Gospel], I said to Kefa’ [i.e. Peter] in front of (them) all…”
He identifies their Jewish religious observance as “not walking right” according to “the truth of the Gospel”—a striking statement, which may well have taken them by surprise! Like many Jewish Christians throughout history, they may have seen no conflict between preserving their Jewish identity (by conduct and association) while at the same time accepting Gentile believers as true Christians. However, in this situation, at least, Paul saw a different implication, as he goes on to say:
“If you, a Yehudean [i.e. Judean/Jew], are beginning (to live) under (the manner) of the Nations [i.e. of Gentiles], and not (in the manner) of Yehudeans, how do you constrain [i.e. make it necessary for] the Nations to become Yehudean [i.e. live as Jews]?”
The logic of this statement in verse 14b is somewhat hard to follow, but I would interpret it according to the following line:
- Previously, Peter was willing to associate and eat with the Gentiles (disregarding the dietary restrictions and other legal/religious scruples); in so doing, he was effectively living as a Gentile and not a Jew.
- Now, since the arrival of important Jewish Christians from Jerusalem, he is reluctant to associate with Gentiles in the same way; in so doing, he (perhaps without fully realizing it) is re-affirming a specific Jewish identity.
- The practical result is: in order for Gentile believers to continue associating again (fully) with Peter, they would need to adopt the same (Jewish) religious practices; effectively they would have to become Jews.
It is altogether possible that Peter did not see this last implication, or did not draw the connection as strongly as Paul. The specifics of the incident between Peter and Paul at Antioch are largely lost to us; what remains, and follows in Galatians 2:15-21, is one of the most extraordinary, and yet underappreciated, passages in all of the New Testament. It is to this passage that I will turn for the next series of daily notes, according to the following division:
- Vv. 15-16—Basic proposition regarding justification and the Jew/Gentile distinction
- Vv. 17-18—Rhetorical argument to show the problem with applying the Law to (Gentile) believers
- Vv. 19-20—Relation of the believer to the Law
- V. 21—Concluding argument regarding justice/righteousness