Galatians 2 – What Motivated Peter?

Paul says that Peter’s withdrawal from table fellowship with the Gentile is nothing less that hypocrisy. The problem Paul has with Peter is his change of attitude and behavior after the visit from the “men from James.” The first verb Paul uses (shrink back) is a military term and has the sense of retreating to an “inconspicuous position” (Witherington, 154). In Acts 20:27 Paul uses the verb to describe what he did not do – he did not “shrink back” from preaching the gospel in Ephesus in the face of persecution.

The second verb (separate) has the sense of separating something into groups, as in separating sheep and goats in Matt 25:32. While this does refer to ritual purity (clean and unclean), there is an eschatological sense here as well. At the end of the age, the Lord will separate those who will enter the kingdom from those who will not. If I am right that the political and religious situation in Judea was becoming increasingly “apocalyptic,” it is possible that these “men from James” were encouraging a separation of the Jews and the Gentiles in anticipation of the coming judgment.

Peter and PaulThe reason for Peter’s withdrawal from table fellowship is fear from the circumcision party – those Jews who insisted on circumcising Gentiles. There is at least the possibility (based on Gal 6:12) that some Jews, such as the Zealots, were willing to use force to ensure that Jewish traditions were being observed. During the Maccabean period circumcision of new-born sons was enforced (1 Macc 2:24-26). About 125 B.C the Hasmonean king of Judea John Hyrcanus forcibly circumcised an Idumean village in order to “convert” them to Judaism (Josephus, Antiq.13.9.1).

If this is the case, then perhaps Peter is afraid of real persecution by a zealous wing of the Jerusalem church. This is not a case of “the pastor is coming over, hide the beer bottles”! Peter and Barnabas may have withdrawn from fellowship to avoid a potentially violent reprisal from the “zealots” within Jewish Christianity. Paul himself sought to correct what he understood to be a false teaching about the messiah (Acts 8:1-3). It is impossible to be certain of the source of this persecution, but like pre-Christian Paul, this group was concerned about Diaspora Jewish Christian communities maintaining proper beliefs and practices.

While Peter is a hypocrite, Paul describes Barnabas as “led astray.” This is a different word which has the sense of being “carried away” by something. Perhaps Barnabas was fooled by the rhetoric of the “men from James.” Barnabas was originally sent to Antioch by Jerusalem and perhaps he was under some additional pressure by these men. His loyalty was to Jerusalem and was associated with the apostolic community since the earliest days (Acts 4). The Gentile mission is Paul’s commission, it is not Barnabas’s.

Peter’s actions, then, are out of character. He is not living out his beliefs nor is he keeping the agreement reached with Paul in Gal 2:1-10.

4 thoughts on “Galatians 2 – What Motivated Peter?

  1. I can see how Peter not eating with the Gentiles could come out of a fear. It seems to me that a lot of Peter’s decisions are either of extreme faith or extreme fear. In one moment Peter can walk on the water (Mat. 14.22- 36) and at others he can deny Jesus to a child (John 18.13-27). Peter may not have been afraid for himself or of persecution though. What if he was afraid he would not be able to minister to the Jews because he was associating with the Gentiles? People may not listen to a man associating with people different than themselves. His mission was to the circumcised not necessarily to the Gentiles (Gal. 2.8). In order to reach the people he was called to, he backed away from the extras.
    On a side note, how does your Maccabees reference point to newborn circumcision? I see that Matthias burned for the law, as Phinehas did. This seems to be a good thing since Phinehas praised for it in Sir 45.23-24 and Num. 25.6-15. I just don’t see anything about circumcision and was wondering where/how we know that is what it was about.

    • That is a good question. Prior to the revolt, there were some parents who refused to participate in the ritual. Since it was hard to hide the fact you just had a child someone would turn up at your home with a rabbi and a knife and encourage you to keep the tradition.

  2. In the first two chapters of Galatians, Paul is bewildered because the people were following a different gospel and he had to defend his message and authority (1:6-2:10). Paul points out the fact that he was commissioned by the risen Jesus (Acts 9). When Paul told the Jewish apostles that he was not requiring the gentiles to practice certain laws of the Torah, such as circumcision, they supported it (Acts 2:9). Paul called Peter a “hypocrite” because Peter agreed with Paul regarding the Torah laws. I agree that it is possible Paul felt pressure from the zealous Jewish party and that is why he would not eat with the non-circumcised gentiles the second time. This is not the first time that Peter has behaved against his previous better judgment. Peter was pressured to say he did not know Jesus after Jesus’ death three times, which Jesus told Peter he would do (Luke 22:34).

Leave a Reply