The issue in the Antioch Incident is table fellowship. But this is not simply Jews and Gentiles “eating together.” Table fellowship in Judaism was more than food. An additional problem with purity laws was table fellowship. The importance of table fellowship in often underestimated by the modern reader. But in the ancient world, to share the table with another person was making a social statement about yourself and about your guest.
Table Fellowship in Judaism was a complex and important issue for the observant Jew, especially those of the Pharisaical party. Jacob Neusner studied the rabbinical traditions that appear to come from the Pharisees. He notes that of the 341 rulings that go back to the Pharisees, 229 concern to table fellowship. For this reason, Neusner suggests the Pharisees were something like an “eating club.”
There are several examples of separation from the unclean in the Gospels. Jesus’ association with “unclean” often confused the Pharisees. He even shared meals with tax-collectors and other “sinners” (Matthew 9:10). Jesus understood what it meant socially to sit down and eat a meal with someone, therefore when he ate with someone that was a part of the “underclass” he was crossing a social boundary in order to meet a spiritual need.
If those who insist on Gentile circumcision are related to these “men from James” who insist on separation of Jews and Gentiles at mealtime, then it is not implausible they are Pharisees who would have never shared a meal with a Gentile in the first place.
This shared-meal includes communion, the celebration of the Lord’s table. Imagine the ramifications of a portion of the early church refusing to share in the celebration of the Lord’s death and resurrection with another portion. This would imply the excluded group was sub-Christian and not truly followers of Jesus.
Dennis E. Smith, “Table Fellowship”, in ABD 6:302-303.
B. B. Blue, “Food Offered to Idols and Jewish Food Laws,” in DPL 307-310.
James Dunn, “The Incident at Antioch (Galatians 2:1-18)” in Jesus, Paul and the Law (Louisville: Westminster / John Knox, 1990), 129-182.
Jacob Neusner, From Politics to Piety: The Emergence of Pharisaic Judaism (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1973), see also his “Two Picture of the Pharisees: Philosophical Circle or Eating Club,” Anglican Theological Review 64 (1982): 525-57.