Sundays With St. Paul: What Happened At Antioch?

This is part of a series I’m writing for Near Emmaus. Feel free to read it there or read other posts by other bloggers.

Our class discussion this week led us to the incident at Antioch as Paul describes in Galatians 2:11-14:

“But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?’”[1]

Our ultimate goal was to figure out what happened at Antioch, why Paul was so upset, and also figure out what Peter’s perspective might have been. Essentially, I said both Peter and Paul were quickly realizing they didn’t have a unified definition of what a Jesus follower looked like – whether they continue practicing the law and retain their Jewish identity or surrender it all (or certain elements) to intermingle with the Gentile Christians. For as Dunn highlights, “The point is that earliest Christianity was not yet seen as something separate and distinct from Judaism. It was a sect, like other sects within first-century Judaism. The first Christians had some distinct and peculiar beliefs about Jesus; but their religion was the religion of the Jews.”[2]

Dunn’s point is something I grew up not even knowing about. Instead, I was oftentimes confused as to why Peter would return to Jewish customs after experiencing life with the risen Jesus. I had assumed he became “Christian” right at the beginning of Acts. Of course, given Peter’s track record in the Gospels (e.g. rebuked by Jesus, failure to stay awake with Jesus, denied knowing Jesus, etc.), I simply understood the Antioch incident as another one of Peter’s blunders. Yet if we understand that there wasn’t much distinction between Christianity and Judaism in his time, then it actually seems quite understandable that he would return to Jewish customs.

And this leads us to the next point in thought: What were those customs? Was it circumcision? Or was it food laws that divided Peter from the Gentiles? If Acts 10:14 can be of any use here, it suggests Peter was still struggling in surrendering Jewish ways, but particularly regarding food; “But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’”

A scholar named Mark Nanos argues that “[a] change of diet certainly would be a less threatening option, and one that non-Jewish men should be expected to accommodate more gladly than the alternative of circumcision – but that is not what Paul states to be at issue.”[3] As Nanos states earlier in his article, he’s in direct disagreement with Dunn, who argued that it was dietary laws (as well as circumcision) that retained their Jewish identity – particularly in response to anti-Jewish riots and turmoil stirring in other parts of the Roman Empire.[4] It means those “certain people from James,” as Dunn argues, were on a mission in reaction to that rising anti-Jewish threat.[5]

Thielman says if Paul had withdrawn from the Gentiles (as Peter had done), he would have violated “the ‘law of Christ’ of [Gal.] 6:2, a law that incorporates the Mosaic injunction to love one’s neighbor.”[6] Given Paul’s strong focus on Christ, I find this stance most convincing – that whether it was dietary laws or circumcision didn’t matter. What mattered was fellowship through faith in Christ. Yet both Peter and Paul began to recognize consequences of such a new identity. However, Peter seemed to have erred on the side of what was comfortable to him (continuing on as a Jew) whereas Paul erred on the side of what he believed the gospel meant (unity in Christ).

What do you think the issue at Antioch was about? Do you think Peter was in the wrong as Paul suggests or do you sympathize with Peter considering his Jewish identity? What other elements do you think belong in the conversation?


[1] All Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version

[2] James D.G. Dunn, Jesus, Paul and the Law (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990), 131, emphasis his.

[3] Mark D. Nanos, “The Myth of the ‘Law-Free’ Paul Standing Between Christians and Jews,” Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations v. IV, Issue #1 (Center for Christian-Jewish Learning, 2009), 11-12.

[4] Dunn, J.P.L, 135

[5] Dunn, J.P.L, 136

[6] Frank Thielman, Paul and the Law: A Contextual Approach (InterVarsity Press, 1994), 142

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Jeremy

Cherokee / Whovian / Sherlockian / Aspiring Auror / Lover of Jesus, Scripture, and creativity / MATS Student at George Fox Seminary.

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