The Letter of Paul to the Galatians Online Commentary (8)

In the first entry in the Bible Junkies Online Commentary on Galatians, I discussed introductory matters concerning the founding of the churches to the Galatians, the situation when Paul wrote to them, when the letter might have been written and the type of letters which Paul wrote, based on the common Greco-Roman letters of his day. In the second post, I considered the basic content and breakdown of a Pauline letter. I noted the major sections of the formal letter structure and, in the context of each section, outlined the theological and ethical (as well as other) concerns of Paul, including some Greek words which will be examined more fully as we continue with the commentary. In the third entry, I looked at the salutation, which is long for Paul’s corpus (only Romans 1:1-7 is longer) and briefly commented on the lack of a Thanksgiving, the only letter of Paul’s which does not have one. The fourth entry discussed the opening of the body of the letter, a significant part of the letter especially in light of the absence of a Thanksgiving. In the fifth entry, I examined the beginning of the opening of the body of the letter, in which Paul describes his background in Judaism and I placed this in the context of Judaism in the Hellenistic period. In the sixth post in the online commentary, I continued to look at Paul’s biographical sketch of his life, this concerning his earliest life as a Christian. In the seventh post, I examined what Paul says about his subsequent visit to Jerusalem to see the apostles and the Church in Jerusalem. In this, the eighth entry, Paul confronts Cephas about his hypocrisy in Antioch.

4. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians  

Advertisement

d) Body of the Letter (1:13-6:10):

iii) Paul's Background in the Church 3 (2:11-14):

11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; 12 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. 13 And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 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?" (NRSV)

Part of Paul’s perceived dismissal or disparagement of the other apostles (Galatians 2:6, see entry 7) might find its origin in the event Paul describes here with Cephas (Peter) in Antioch. Paul says that he “opposed him {Peter} to his face” (Galatians 2:11) because he was “self-condemned” (kategnôsmenos).[1]The reason for this condemnation Paul tells us is that “until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles” (Galatians 2:12). When these Jewish Christians, “from James,” came, Peter would not eat with the Gentile Christians in Antioch “for fear of the circumcision faction” (Galatians 2:12). There are three issues to sort out here: What was the problem with Jews eating with Gentiles? What sort of fear did Peter have with the “circumcision faction”? Were the “circumcision faction” the same as the people “from James”?

To answer the first question, the basic issue with Jews eating with Gentiles, which in itself was not forbidden, had to do with food which was not slaughtered properly or offered in sacrifice to another god, so this concerns animal flesh, and often Gentile wine, which was considered impure due to how it was produced. Leviticus 11 and 17 outline the animals which were forbidden to eat and the blood of kosher animals, which was also forbidden to eat. One can examine how these guidelines were interpreted and applied in later rabbinic documents, such as Mishnah Avodah Zarah or Tosefta Avodah Zarah, which outline what kind of production might lead to (otherwise legal) food and wine being forbidden.

This indicates that the Christians in Antioch were eating food that was not kosher in itself (a forbidden animal), had perhaps been offered to a pagan deity before being purchased and consumed, or was kosher meat but not slaughtered according to the kosher rules. It seems that the Jewish Christians of Antioch, such as Paul, had no problem with eating “forbidden” food, but that when the people came “from James,” that is, Jerusalem, Peter became worried. Is this because the Jerusalem Council did not outline a response to what foods were now able to be eaten by Christians? According to Acts 15:20, the Gentile Christians are told, “to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood.” Apart from “fornication” (porneia), everything listed here instructs Gentile Christians not to eat meat that was sacrificed to idols or slaughtered improperly (“strangled,” which might also be for pagan sacrifice), or “blood” (outlined for Jews in Leviticus 17). What is not clear in Antioch is if the Christians there are not adhering to these regulations or if Peter and the people “from James” believe that they must go farther than these regulations and follow all of the Laws of Moses, since they are still Jews.

In answer to the second question, it seems that the “fear” Peter had emerged from not knowing what the standards were for eating and whether he was breaking either the Church’s own guidelines as determined by the Jerusalem Council or whether he ought to follow the Law of Moses fully. It is an odd scene in light of Acts 10-11, which indicates that Peter had a vision in which Jesus declared to him that all foods were clean and that Gentiles ought to be accepted as Gentiles into the Church; these chapters in fact form a major impetus for the calling of the Jerusalem Council in the narrative of Acts of the Apostles. So maybe Peter had no problem with eating any food, but with being judged by some of his fellow Christians.

And that leads to the third question: was the “circumcision faction” the same group as the people “from James”? It seems they must be in this case, though, I think it is important to distinguish them from the “false believers” or “false brothers” of Galatians 2:4, who demanded the circumcision of the Gentile Christians. According to Acts 15, James agreed that Gentile Christians did not need to be circumcised, but he sent a letter with guidelines regarding expectations for eating food and for sexual behavior. Circumcision did not seem to be an issue for the Christians in Antioch. There were Christians in Jerusalem, though, described in Acts 15:1 and 5 who demanded that Gentile Christians had to be circumcised and follow the entire Law of Moses. The people who influenced Peter in Antioch seem to be Christians who felt that perhaps Gentiles did not have to follow the Law of Moses, but that Jewish Christians still had to do so. What this indicates is that the Jerusalem Council might not have fully explored the implications for the Church of table fellowship among Jewish and Gentile Christians. The people “from James” might have had one interpretation of what this meant – separate tables – while Paul interpreted it otherwise – we all eat together. The “circumcision faction” might be then the people “from James,” or more inclusively the people “from James” with those Jewish Christians who joined with them in Antioch to eat apart from the Gentile Christians.

This seems to be supported by Galatians 2:13, when it says that “the other Jews joined him {Peter} in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.” Paul names it as “hypocrisy” and so he clearly felt it, being betrayed, it would seem, by his good friend and co-worker Barnabas. It is entirely possible, though, that Peter and Barnabas felt this was the right thing to do according to the Jerusalem Council, or even a proper compromise in light of the people “from James” and their views, or, as Paul said earlier, perhaps it was genuine “fear,” whether of insulting their visitors or of doing the wrong thing or just being cowardly. Paul sees it as a misreading of the Gospel theologically and a division of the Church sociologically, as a separation of who can eat with who would ultimately lead to a divided Church, with Gentile Christians not even being considered true Christians.

Paul accuses Peter and the others of “not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14). The verb Paul uses here, orthopodousin, means “walking straight,” so Peter is “not walking straight with the truth of the Gospel” or we might say, Peter is “walking away from the truth of the Gospel.” In Galatians 2:4-5, Paul had spoken of the “freedom we have in Christ Jesus” and the “truth of the Gospel,” which he sees as incongruent with forcing Gentiles to follow the Law of Moses or making them feel that they are not genuine or full Christians.

As a result Paul challenges Peter publically: “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?’” This is a strong public declaration of Paul’s understanding of the Gospel to defy Peter in front of their fellow Christians. Paul is clear, however, that the Christian life does not demand the Law of Moses, whether one is a Jewish Christian or a Gentile Christian, and that Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians can eat together regardless of the food they are eating.

Next entry, works of the Law or faith in Christ?

John W. Martens

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @Biblejunkies

I encourage you to “Like” Biblejunkies on Facebook.

This entry is cross-posted at Biblejunkies



[1] “Self” does not actually appear in the Greek – “he stood condemned” or “he was condemned” is the more literal reading.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

It has more to do with prophecy than politics.
Jonathan MerrittDecember 11, 2017
iStock photo
A federal judge wrote that it is unlikely church officials would be able to prove that their constitutional rights were being violated.
Michael J. O’LoughlinDecember 11, 2017
The ‘chaos candidate’ is now our pyromaniac president.
Margot PattersonDecember 11, 2017
At first Father Flanagan rejected the idea of a film, but he signed on after he saw a script that he liked.
Kevin LawlerDecember 11, 2017