Galatians 2:11-14: The Political Climate

[The audio for this week’s evening service is available at, as is a PDF file of the notes for the service. You should be able to download the audio directly with this link, if you prefer (right-click, save link as….)]

The political situation in Judea is a major factor in the Antioch Incident. This fact is often overlooked, although most recent commentaries point out that in both Judean and Diaspora Jewish communities, there was a growing sense of nationalism which resulted in a commitment to the “boundary markers” of Judaism.

  • About A.D. 40 the emperor Caligula demanded that the Jews place his statue within the Temple itself (J. W. 1.10.1-5, Antiq. 18:8.2-9; Tacitus, Hist. 5.9).
  • When Herod Agrippa I died in A.D. 44 Judea was ruled by increasingly inept Roman procurators.  Cuspius Fadus took the high-priestly garments into Roman custody in order to prevent the High Priest from using his office to foment rebellion.  This act had the opposite effect.
  • About the same time, several “messianic pretenders” and other revolutionary movements developed. Theudas (Antiq. 20.5.1) was killed by Fadus (44-46) and Tiberius Julius Alexander executed the two sons of Judas the Galilean, James and Simon some time in A.D. 46-48 (Antiq. 20.6.1).
  • During the rule of Cumanus (48-52) there was a riot in Jerusalem which killed twenty to thirty thousand (Antiq. 20.5.3, J.W. 2.12.1).  Josephus says that these riots were caused by the Zealots.  He goes on to describe the development of “brigands” (Antiq. 20.6.1) after these riots.  These are the social bandits / zealots which lead ultimately to the rebellion against Rome in A.D. 66.
  • Diaspora Jews also dealt with dangerous political situations.  There were riots in Alexandria in A.D.38 primarily because the government began to infringe on Jewish customs (Philo In Flaccum, 41-54).  Claudius expelled many Jews from Rome in A.D. 41 because of rioting over “Chrestus.”  In A.D 39-41 there were a number of anti-Jewish riots in Antioch and the rights of the Jews to keep their traditions were under attack.

We have been describing the evidence of hostile and unfriendly men, who seek to injure us with such artifice, that even when injuring us they may not appear to have been acting iniquitously, and yet that we who are injured by them cannot resist with safety to ourselves; for, my good men, it does not contribute to the honour of the emperor to abrogate the laws, to disturb the national customs of a people, to insult those who live in the same country, and to teach those who dwell in other cities to disregard unanimity and tranquillity. (In Flaccum, 52, Yonge, The Works of Philo, 729.)

Remember that when Paul returns to Jerusalem in Acts 21:20-21 (about A. D. 57), James tells him that there are many Jewish Christians in Jerusalem who are zealous for the Law, including Priests and Pharisees.  Paul is considered by that time “a renegade and menace” to the Jewish faith! (Dunn, “The Antioch Incident,” 205).

As James Dunn said, the Christian Jews living in Jerusalem at the end of the 40’s needed to demonstrate that they were “good Jews.” (Dunn, “The Antioch Incident,” 205).  Perhaps this is the motivation for individuals from Jerusalem insisting that Jewish Christians even in Antioch keep the traditional boundary markers of circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath.

Dunn points out that the followers of Jesus would have still considered themselves Jews and thought of the Jesus movement as a “development and reform” of the Jewish faith. For James, following Jesus is not a new religion, it is a sect within Judaism.  Peter and Barnabas would have agreed with this, as would Paul!

Dunn’s second point is less secure.  He thinks that the authority of the Jerusalem Pillars was “generally acknowledged” by all, including Antioch and Paul.  It seems to me that Galatians is making the point that Paul has an authority equal to the Jerusalem apostles, since he too was called by the resurrected Lord and commissioned to be the apostle to the Gentiles.  In matters of Gentile practice, Paul seems to claim primacy.

The political and social situation of Judea and Jews in Diaspora is very difficult.  There are serious tensions between Jews and Gentiles, and the Jewish followers of Jesus find themselves in an extremely hard place – if they continue to practice their Faith as Jews, how can the fellowship with Gentiles believers?  In Judea, these tensions will erupt into the Jewish Revolt in 66 and 135, further riots occur in Alexandria, Egypt.

When Paul describes Peter as “afraid” of the Circumcision party, his fear may have been genuine fear of persecution at the hands of his own people who were “zealous for the Law.”

2 thoughts on “Galatians 2:11-14: The Political Climate

  1. the link for the pdf file goes to last week’s handout. is there a more current document?

    • Thanks Jeff. Not sure how I did that, but I have it fixed now. Hope all is well.

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