Showdown at Antioch: What Was Really at Stake?


In a letter to the church in Galatia the Apostle Paul mentions a public confrontation he had with the Apostle Peter (Gal. 2:11-16). Describing this incident, he writes,

“Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, “If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews? We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.” (NKJV)

This traditionally has been understood as saying that James’ emissaries were Judaizers who would have got away with dragging the Gentile church back into legalistic observance of Torah (were it not for the heroic Paul) by dragging them entirely back into the Old Covenant. According to this view, Peter and the Judaizers would have negated Jesus’ sacrifice by going back to a kind of works-righteousness based on appeasing God by keeping His law.

The fact that Jewish and Gentile Christians had been eating at the same table until the arrival of the Judaizers has been taken as a sign that Paul had cast off all vestiges of his former Jewishness in favour of promoting a new, improved Gentile Christianity. No more would he distinguish between “clean” and “unclean” in matters of food. In this view it is obvious that if Gentiles are eating with Jews, “unclean” foods are on the menu and that the “old restrictions” of Torah no longer apply.

In an article written for the journal Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations entitled “The Myth of the ‘Law-Free’ Paul Standing between Christians and Jews” Mark Nanos makes the case that Paul was still a Torah-observant Jew who was convinced that both Jewish and Gentile believers were equals in the sight of God. Therefore, within the church there must be no discrimination between the groups.

Nanos simply states that the food would have been Torah-approved without saying why. My own theory: There would have been very little by way of Gentile taboos against eating “clean” meats. There were, however, Torah restrictions on the meat that Jewish people could eat. Rather than requiring Jewish believers to eat unclean meats, basic hospitality would dictate that the food be Torah-approved so that all could partake in good conscience. This common-sense approach fits in neatly with the flow of Paul’s argument against Peter’s “hypocrisy.”

He also points out that the Judaizers are not necessarily identified as “certain ones from James.” He cites as evidence verses 1-10 of the same chapter, which identifies James and the other leaders (including Peter) as people who agreed with Pauls ministry and his interpretation of the gospel as indicating equality of Jew and Gentile believers. If these were official emissaries from James, they likely were not the Judaizers. Their arrival indicates the timing of the problem rather than the cause.

For Nanos, this brings us to the reason Paul accuses Peter of hypocrisy rather than apostasy or heresy. A hypocrite is what you are when you do not practice what you preach. For whatever reason, Peter has stopped eating with Gentile believers at the common meal. Maybe they were afraid of a general Jewish persecution if their equality were made general knowledge. Perhaps they thought there were spies from the larger Jewish community among the emissaries who would report back to the Sanhedrin.

Whatever the reason, Peter’s hypocrisy was sending the wrong message to Gentile Christians: You are not really one of us. This is the very opposite of what Paul, Peter and James had ageed to in Acts 15, which Paul refers to in verses 1-10. It was hypocrisy because Peter knew better, and so, probably, did James’ emissaries. Dr. Nanos does not mention this, but perhaps Paul expected a negative report to go to Jerusalem via those same emissaries if the discrimination were not dealt with immediately and forcefully.

Getting back to Nanos’ observations, he writes, “The issue Paul addresses concerns with whom Peter was eating, and what his withdrawal from eating with them implies about their standing… However, in this group, which was eating according to Jewish dietary norms, there was something about their eating together that was distinctive. They sought to demonstrate through their table fellowship together as equals, Israelites and members from the other nations, that the awaited “age to come” had dawned in Christ, that the messianic banquet had begun in their midst. Thus they likely arranged the seating and distributed food and drink according to non-hierarchical arrangements, whereas it was likely normal in Jewish groups, as well as Greco-Roman groups in general, to discriminate in such matters according to rank.”

In other words, Nanos suggests that what disgusted the “Judaizers,” whoever they were, was the treatment of non-Jews as full equals of the fully Torah-observant Jews at the supper table.

When Peter separates from the Gentile believers, he is sending a message that contradicts that of the Gospel: All believers, whether Jew or Gentile, are equal in God’s and one another’s sight. No proselyte conversion by circumcision is required to be a believer. You do not need to renouce being a Gentile to be a Christian.

Paul was drawing a line in the sand: discrimination ends here. The gospel is not a gospel of any nation or people lording it over others, but of common fellowship that shares love and concern for the oppressed of all nations, peoples and cultures.

How might Paul apply that today? A modern church might be convinced that Jewish converts to Jesus Christ must entirely renounce their Jewish culture or Torah observance in order to be Christians.

“Not so!” Paul likely would thunder. “Stay in whatever state you were in when you were called. Were you a slave? Were you free? Were you a Jew? A Gentile? Canadian? American? Czech? Male? Female? Any race or colour, any national or ethnic origin, all are equal at the banquet table of the Lord.”

In addition, any theology that discriminates on the basis of dietary preferences, worship day preferences, or Torah observance (or non-observance) violates the unity of the Holy Spirit and sends a wrong message both to believers and non-believers.

This includes any ideology that claims that believers who observe some of the things found in Torah automatically divide the church or are automatically Judaizing. Paul’s response, “Let each be fully convinced in his own mind.” (Rom. 14:5-23)

Diversity does not divide the church.

The pursuit of discriminatory uniformity is what divides the church.

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About John Valade

I facilitate and teach in Wascana Fellowship. I have been married to Wanda since 1984. M.Div. from Briercrest Seminary, SK in 2011 and B.R.E. Canadian Bible College (now Ambrose University College) in 2000.
This entry was posted in Faith, gospel, Religion and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Showdown at Antioch: What Was Really at Stake?

  1. Dear brothers and sisters,
    Greetings!Timothy 4;4 For every creature of God is good and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanks giving.For it is sactified by the word of God and pryer.
    Thank you God bless you.

    • John Valade says:

      Dear brother,

      Greetings! Romans 14:20 (NIV) Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble.

      God bless you.

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