An Apostolic Smackdown.

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step 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 force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” – Galatians 2:11-14 ESV

When Paul had left Jerusalem, he had done so on good terms, having received “the right hand of fellowship” (Galatians 2:9 ESV) from his fellow apostles: Peter, James and John. But when Peter came to Antioch to get a first-hand look at Paul’s ministry, it didn’t take long before a confrontation took place between the two men. Upon his arrival, Peter was interfacing and even eating with the Gentile believers in the church in Antioch. But when a group of believing Jews arrived from Jerusalem who were of the opinion that Gentiles must be circumcised before they were truly Christians, Peter succumbed to peer pressure. Paul accused him of hypocrisy, because he drew back and separated himself from the Gentiles. The Greek word Paul uses carries a powerful punch. It is same word used by Luke when writing of an incident in Ephesus when Paul had been preaching in the synagogue there. He had been doing so for three months and had seen many come to Christ. The Luke records, “But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him” (Acts 19:9 ESV). He separated himself from them because of their unbelief. It seems that Paul is accusing Peter of treating the Gentile Christians as unbelievers because of the pressure he felt from the Judaizers. His behavior had radically changed when the Jews from Jerusalem had arrived in town. And his actions had negatively influence the Jewish Christians in Antioch to follow his lead. Even Barnabas, Paul’s companion in ministry there, had been led astray by Peter’s actions. Suddenly, there was an unhealthy and uncalled for division in the church. And Paul would not tolerate it.

Paul made a very condemning assessment, saying, “their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14 ESV). Their decision to separate themselves from the Gentiles Christians because they had not been circumcised was unwarranted and not in keeping with the message of the gospel. There was no requirement of circumcision tied to the message of the good news. There was no missing “next step” that had to be taken in order for these Gentiles to be fully saved or deemed legitimate Christians. And the idea that there were somehow Jewish Christians and Gentile (incomplete) Christians was in direct opposition to the message of the gospel. Rather than unity, the message of the Judaizers was causing division.

A little later on in this same letter, Paul writes of the unifying nature of the gospel.

So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. – Galatians 3:24-29 ESV

Peter’s actions were divisive. Whether he meant to or not, he gave the impression that the Gentile Christians were somehow deficient in their justification before God. His decision to distance himself from them was based on the teachings of men, not the law of Moses. In fact, in the book of Acts, Luke records the encounter between Peter and Cornelius, a Roman Centurion who was “a devout man who feared God” (Acts 10:2 ESV). God had spoken to Peter in a vision and commanded him to go to Cornelius. In his vision, Peter had seen “the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat’” (Acts 10:11-13 ESV). Appalled at the very thought, Peter had refused. But God commanded him a second time to eat, and then said, “What God has made clean, do not call common” (Acts 10:15 ESV). When Peter woke up from the vision, he obeyed God and went to see Cornelius and said to him:

“You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.” – Acts 10:28-29 ESV

It is interesting to note that the unlawfulness to which Peter referred had nothing to do with the law of Moses. According to the Benson Commentary, the term, “anyone of another nation” refers to “A stranger, and an uncircumcised Gentile. This was not made unlawful by the law of God, but by the precepts of their wise men, which they looked upon to be no less obliging. They did not indeed forbid them to converse with Gentiles, in the way of traffic or worldly business, but to eat with them. With such scorn did the Jews look upon the Gentiles” (Benson Commentary on the Old and New Testaments).

Peter’s aversion to the Gentiles was based on man-made rules and regulations. And it is important to remember that Jesus, a practicing Jew and keeper of the law of Moses, ate with tax collectors and sinners, a practice for which He was derided by the Pharisees. In doing so, He was breaking their laws, not the law of God. And so, when Peter allowed the pressure from the Judaizers to cause him to pull away from the Gentile believers in Antioch, he was violating the very message God had given him in his vision: “I should not call any person common or unclean.”

Peter was wrong and he deserved to be confronted for his behavior. Paul, never one to pull any punches, was more than willing to call his brother on the carpet and demand that he rethink his actions. The gospel was too important. The unity of the church, too vital.


4 thoughts on “An Apostolic Smackdown.

  1. No….this is not at all what was going on there…this is not accurate and it makes we wonder what you’re objective is in presenting things this way. You don’t seem to have a proper understanding of the halachic tensions at play in the period, and you are making several wrong assumptions in your presentation of this story

    • David, I respectfully disagree. You seem to be coming at this from your own point of bias. It would seem that a great many commentators, biblical schalars and theologians would also be inaccurate according to your views. I really do not believe that I am misconstruing the “halachic tensions at play.” It would seem to me, based on looking at your own blog posts that you promote a more Hebrew-centric interpretation of the Bible. In fact, in one of your blogs you state, “The truth is, people simply don’t understand the Bible. They don’t understand the context, the social factors, or the religion of the men who wrote it.” While I might agree, in part, that some are guilty of these things, I think what you are really saying is that if someone does not interpret a passage the same way you do, they don’t understand it. From reading your blog posts, it appears that you believe that the keeping of the Torah is essential. If that is a true assessment, then I would have to say that I do not agree. You state that I am making several wrong assumptions in my presentation of the story. That is, according to your viewpoint. I would simply say that you are reading the story from a Torah-focused perspective. I am not. Dr. Daniel C. Juster writes, “With the coming of the New Covenant, there is a change of relationship between the circumcised and the uncircumcised. Since the New Testament teaches specifically on the relationship of Jew and Gentile in the new reality of the body of believers, we cannot simply transfer the practices of pre-Yeshua times into the New Covenant period.”

      Yes, Jesus was a Jew. He kept the law – perfectly – something no other Jew had ever been able to do. But nowhere in His teachings does He call those who place their faith in Him to keep Torah. Yes, Paul was a Jew. But his letters make it perfectly clear that his understanding of the gospel did NOT include keeping of the Torah. Those Jews who did come to faith in Christ continued to follow the law of Moses. Many, if not most, continued to attend the synagogue. But this does not mean that they believed Torah observance was a mandatory part of the gospel. I think we are going to have to agree to disagree on this one. You and I have distinctively different viewpoints based on vastly different understandings of the gospel.

      One of the most telling statements from one of your blogs that illustrates our different viewpoint is: “God is pleased and credits righteousness to us if we live in this manner, but if we draw back from living in obedience to God and pursue our own way, He ‘has no pleasure in us.'” Any righteousness that God credits to us is based on faith in Jesus Christ and Him alone. It has nothing to do with us living in a particular manner (keeping Torah). Any pleasure God finds in us is based on the righteousness imputed to us by Christ. His pleasure is not based on my efforts. So as you read the remainder of my posts on Galatians, there is no doubt that you are going to be frustrated by what you encounter. That does not bother me. It does not make me angry. But my views are not going to change. And I am certain yours will not either.

  2. Thanks for you thoughtful response. I will try to respond in kind, and not leave your points unattended.
    Dan Juster is a good man and I have studied under him.
    First things first, I will address my challenge to your post. The first objection I have is your tone. “Apostolic smackdown” is a horrible view of this passage. You have advocated the position in previous posts that Paul got his gospel from God and by implication you suggest that it mattered little to him whether the apostles at Jerusalem approved of it or not. This is simply not true. James was the head of the Jewish believers, and by extent the church. Paul was under his authority. This is why at the beginning of Galatians, Paul mentions that he went up to Jerusalem and states “…I submitted to them the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but I did so in private, for fear that I might be running, or had run, in vain.” This means that if James and the Council disapproved of Paul’s gospel, that he would have stopped preaching it. He was a man under authority. Peter, as a member of the Council, was also over Paul in authority. Paul’s confrontation with Peter was not a “smackdown”, and nor did it have anything to do with theology.
    The issue in question was table fellowship between Jews and Gentiles. The halachic rulings from the rabbinic authorities was that it was forbidden for Jews to eat or even associate with Gentiles. This was extra-biblical, but we know this from Jewish sources and also from Peter’s own testimony in Acts 10. Peter went to the house of Cornelius by the Lord’s leading, and he needed to answer for this, which he did. Yet in the situation in question, Peter cowtailed to pressure from Jewish believers to withdraw from eating with Gentiles, even though they were believers. This drove Paul wild because it was the wrong message to be sending the Gentile believers who were drawing near to God through the Messiah. The issue was halacha, not whether or not Peter considered the Gentiles to be “unbelievers”. You misportray the story.

    Now to respond to your comments about where you think I’m coming from. I don’t, in fact, believe that Gentile believers in Christ are obligated to a Jewish level of Torah observance. That is not true. Acts 15 makes it clear that this is not incumbent upon Gentile believers in Christ. However, Gentile believers in Christ have a higher obligation to God’s standards than merely “believing”. They are held to a higher standard than just the Noahide laws. They were expected to apply as much of Torah as was reasonable and applicable, short of taking on Jewish identity markers such as circumcism, ztitztit, formal prayer and halacha. They were expect to flee fornication and idolatry and align their behavior in such a way that was becoming of a follower of the king of the Jews. (This involved quite a bit of Torah, by the way.)
    So, while a Jewish-level of Torah observance was not expected of Gentiles, according to Paul’s gospel, and according to the Jerusalem Council, this did not absolve the Gentile from obeying God’s commandments. Being Torah-observant needs to be distinguished from obeying God’s commandments. (I can avoid killing people or committing adultery but this doesn’t mean I’m “Torah-observant”).
    It is not true that Paul did not advocate keeping the law of God. 1 Cor.7:19 is pretty explicit. The issue was taking on Jewish identity.

    In short, we are not in disagreement regarding a Gentile’s obligation to Torah observance, if that means living Jewishly and being converted to Judaism. We are completely in agreement in that case. But if you are to assert that merely “believing in Jesus” is sufficient for salvation, well I think James would take umbrage with that quite sharply, and so would Paul, by the way. The gospel starts by repenting from sin. This means to turn from our own way and take on the responsibility of aligning ourselves with God’s word. This means obeying Him. The terms of obedience are found in the Torah. It’s pretty straightforward, in that sense.

    “God is pleased and credits righteousness to us if we live in this manner, but if we draw back from living in obedience to God and pursue our own way, He ‘has no pleasure in us.’” This statement which you plucked from my blog is a direct quote (paraphrased) from Hebrews, so if you are trying to make a case against this notion, you’ll have to take it up with the writer of Hebrews, not me.

    Finally (and just to reinforce the fact that I’m quite pleased with your answer to me in this thread as I feel you really took the time to think about what you were saying. I hope I am honoring you in like manner) I should address your comment that most Christian theologians would take issue with some of the things I say. This is true. There is no denying this. But does this make my opinions invalid? I will challenge you on this as well, since you have gone out of your way to tell me that you don’t teach Replacement Theology and that you go out of your way to teach against it. You surely are aware that the vast majority of church theologians through the centuries have strongly advocated Replacement Theology, all the way back to Ignatius. So no, I don’t agree with them.

    However, it is hardly true that I stand alone, either. There is a growing number of top Bible scholars, from a variety of disciplines, who do agree with me. Here’s a short list of some of them who have influenced my views:
    Dr. David Flusser
    Brad Young
    Marvin Wilson
    Mark Nanos
    Paula Fredriksen
    David Woods
    Dr. David Rudolph
    James Dunn
    E.P. Sanders
    Magnus Zetterholm
    Kathy Ehrensperger
    Anders Runesson
    D.Thomas Lancaster
    Dr. Mark Kinzer
    Dr. Daniel Juster
    Ariel Berkowitz

    And the list goes on…this is just off the top of my head. Current scholarship continues to reveal more and more complexities of Second Temple Judaism and the life of Jews in the Roman Empire. The church’s traditional narrative of salvation being a juxtaposition of law vs. grace is insufficient to account for the text of the Bible in its fullness. It does not reconcile the promises God made to Israel, which if they are not secure than neither are the promises that a Gentile believer clings to.

    The religion of the New Testament is Judaism, not Christianity (as we know it today). Yes, Judaism has gone through some changes since then, but in the world of Orthodox Judaism these changes are not significant. Today’s Hasidic Jew has far more in common with the apostle Paul than the typical Christian minister. That’s just facts. So I make no apologies for having a Hebraic approach to the scriptures. I promote this fact without reservation on my blog.

    This does not mean that you and I will always agree. I think you and I simply need to be willing to think through our positions and be willing to evaluate them on their own merits as we go.

    I respect the work you are doing here and your efforts to bring forth a true depiction of the gospel. No we won’t agree all the time but please know that when I challenge you it is not meant to be contentious, but to bring clarity.

    Thanks again for responding. By the way, I don’t support or agree with Jews for Jesus and am not particularly interested in their take on things, but I appreciate the link just the same.

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