Acts and the Antioch Incident

Galatians 2:11-14 describes a serious confrontation between Paul and Peter. This incident takes place at Antioch some time before the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15. For Paul, Peter’s withdrawal from table fellowship is plainly hypocrisy. Peter has agreed Gentiles were not converts to Judaism and were fully saved apart from the Law. But under pressure from the “men from James” Peter withdraws from fellowship with the Gentiles. For Paul, this is nothing short of a breach of the agreement in the earlier private meeting (Gal 2:1-10).

Peter and Paul hugging 2The Antioch Incident has some far-ranging ramifications for Paul. First, it forces the issue of Gentile equality out into the open. No longer will a private meeting do. Paul must now go to Jerusalem to meet publicly with all the parties involved (Acts 15).

Second, the incident may represent a break between Paul and the Antioch church. He continues his missionary efforts, eventually spending eighteen months in Corinth and three years in Ephesus. By Acts 18, the center of Gentile mission shifts from Antioch to Ephesus. Paul’s mission is responsible for planting many churches in the Lycus Valley by the end of the first century.

Third, the incident points out what we already know about Paul from Galatians 1—he is not under the authority of the Jerusalem church. Paul was commissioned by the risen Jesus directly and will not tolerate being told to change his gospel by men allegedly from James.

Why does the book of Acts not record the Antioch Incident? It is possible Luke thought his inclusion of the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15 was sufficient to summarize the problem of Gentile salvation. Luke tends to emphasize the unity of the church, so the incident at Antioch may have been passed over in order to highlight the unity of the Jerusalem conference.

Are there on-going ramifications of this split between Paul and Peter/Barnabas? James Dunn, for example, suggested this even forced Paul to move away from Antioch as the center of his mission, eventually settling in Ephesus for several years. Are there other unexpected results?

4 thoughts on “Acts and the Antioch Incident

  1. Paul’s outright defiance of Peter is forthright. He challenged his action by stating “If you, though a Jew, llive like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (v. 14) Paul meant that Peter had believed that Gentiles were now included in the promise, but now, because of some ‘men from James’ he “drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.” (v. 12) After defying him, they separated, and there seems to be on-going ramifications that extend from Paul all the way to modern interpretation. Like you said, the issue exploded onto the scene, and Paul had to immediately re-teach that Gentile and Jewish Christians should hold fellowship together, telling “that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel.” (v. 14) This could be the very reason something along those lines is mentioned in Acts 11. Could those be the same ‘circumcision party’ from James? Perhaps not, but there was still the misconception about Gentile believers coming from the ‘circumcision party’, however in Acts 11, Peter defends the correct view. The modern exegetical question is whether or not the controversy was whether it was “motivated by the hope of earning salvation through good works” or “by the desire to maintain the covenant identity of the Jewish people…” the importance of which is understanding Paul’s view of his call and ministry. (TTP p. 99) The same should be asked of Disciples today: Do you live out the law to ‘feel’ saved, or because of your identity as a child of God?

  2. This incident is a striking example of the personal/interpersonal/inter-cultural tensions that often arise over religious beliefs and practices, with their cultural roots and implications… even with people who were with Jesus (Peter) or who claimed (Paul) direct revelation of him from God. I’m glad Paul doesn’t gloss it over as it appears Luke does!

    You say, “Luke tends to emphasize the unity of the church, so the incident at Antioch may have been passed over in order to highlight the unity of the Jerusalem conference.” Not meant in a trite or sarcastic sense, but “bingo”! This dynamic is at play all throughout Acts.

    The same approach and agenda is put on steroids with Eusebius, the first systematic “historian” (not sure if I think he’s worthy of the title) of the Church after Luke, under the employ (!) of Emperor Constantine, early 4th century. Both authors are focused on authority, unity, continuity… often to the exclusion or distortion of other data to the contrary.

    But I do think we can and should credit both Peter and Paul with doing their best.

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