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By Acts 15, there appear to have been some Jewish Christians that did not like the implications of Gentile salvation that Paul was preaching.  Individuals from this group went into churches established by Paul and taught that circumcision was required for converts to Christianity.  Who were these opponents of Paul?

The traditional answer to the identity of the opponents of Paul is that they are Jewish Christians that desire to impose the law on Gentile converts – Judaizers.  The term appears in the New Testament only in Gal 2:14 (although a form appears in  but is found in a number of secular sources (Plutarch, Cicero 7:6; Josephus JW 2.17.10; Ignatius, Magn 10.3) with the basic meaning of  “to  live as a Jew in accordance with Jewish customs.”

As early as 1831, F. C. Bauer (from the Tübingen school) suggested that there was a split within early Christianity.  Based on 1 Corinthians, he understood that there were two major parties, a Peterine party (which included the “Christ party”) and a Pauline party (which included the Apollos party).  Those that followed Peter claimed to be “of Christ” since their leadership had been followers of Christ in his earthly ministry, while Paul and Apollos did not know Jesus directly.  The Jerusalem Christians were of the Peter division, a party that was unable to counter Paul’s argument for a gentile mission, but were not particularly pleased with it either.  The opponents at Galatia were the radical elements of the Peterine division.  The serious problem with this view is that it makes Peter the Judizing element in Galatians, despite his rather conciliatory speech in Acts 15.

A real problem with the view of Bauer is that it makes Paul an independent apostle who is the only one that fully understood the teaching of Jesus and the mission to the Gentiles.  While this is quite similar to the view of Paul in some more conservative Dispensationalist circles, it does not reflect the variety of thought in the Jewish element of the church.  The situation was not “either Peter or Paul.”  Peter seems more moderate than James, Barnabas and Silas are a step further towards Paul.

Bauer also seems to have thought that Paul was in continual conflict with the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem.  This does not seem to be the case, although one might describe the situation as “cool” between the Gentile mission and the Jerusalem church based on Acts 21.

In 1865 J. B. Lightfoot argued against Bauer and the Tübingen school.  The Judaizers were not authorized at all by Peter or the Jerusalem church, although the Jerusalem church were slow in stopping them.  The Jerusalem Church wanted to find a way to compromise between the radical teaching of Paul and the traditional teaching of the Judaizers.  J. F. A. Hort suggested that these Jewish opponents of Paul were lead by James, although mistakenly so.  James himself did not authorize the teaching in direct opposition to Paul, but his followers took James’ example of a Law-keeping Jewish Christian to the logical extreme and forced Gentiles to keep the law.

More recently, Robert Jewett argued that the Jewish opponents of Paul in Galatia were from the growing Zealot movement of Palestine [1].  The Zealot movement was a rather radical anti-Rome movement that sought strict obedience to the Law for all Jews.  Any Jews that were “Gentile-sympathizers” were the enemy.  These teachers sought to supplement Paul’s teaching, according to Jewett, by teaching a form of perfectionism to counter the libertine paganism from which they were converted.

It is perhaps the statement made by Paul in Galatians 6:12-13 that gives us an insight into who the false teachers may have been. They are people that think that by compelling Gentiles to be circumcised they might avoid persecution for the cross of Christ.  Likely Jewett’s theory has some merit; some Jewish Christians thought that by making Gentile Christians conform to the basics of the Law they might avoid persecution by the growing radical elements of Judaism.

Galatians 6:12-13 It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised—only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh.

Who were the Judaizers, then?  Jewish Christians, likely Pharisees according to Acts 15, who, with good intentions, sought to supplement Paul’s gospel by requiring that the basics of the Law be followed: circumcision and food laws. Perhaps the real issue at stake here is the status of the Gentiles within the people of God.  Could an uncircumcised Gentile be part of God’s people along with Israel?  Could a person be faithful to God and not keep the key elements of the covenant?

Paul reversed this argument in Galatians:  can a Gentile be a member of the people of God and allow himself to be circumcised?  Can a Gentile be “free in Christ” and keep the Jewish laws concerning food, festivals, etc.?  The answer in Galatians is a resounding no.

A potential problem here is the value of Galatians for contemporary Christians.  If the Judaizers were solely interested in converting Gentiles fully to Judaism, then what is the contemporary application of the book? How do we get from Judaizers to “Church Legalists,” as most contemporary preachers do with this passage?

[1] Robert Jewett, “The Agitators and the Galatian Congregation.” NTS 17 (1971) 198–212.  See also Howard, G. Paul: Crisis in Galatia, 1–19.

[NB:  This is a re-post of something I wrote in 2009 as part of a survey of the book of Acts.  Since Acts 15 and Galatians 2 both concern the Judaizers, I  have re-posted my earlier essay with little change other than the final paragraph.]

In his recent book on the early church, James Dunn observes that Luke devotes about one-quarter of his book to the arrest and trials of Paul (Beginning from Jerusalem, 958). This tells us a great deal about Luke’s agenda in the book of Acts – his interest is in Paul as the apostle responsible for the westward expansion of the church. He spends more time describing Paul’s “passion” than he does any other character in the book, including Jesus! We have a chapter on Stephen the first martyr, a brief notice of John the Baptist’s death, and only a line on James the apostle. The fate of the other members of the apostolic community are simply not mentioned by Luke.

In his trials in Acts 21-28, Paul fulfills his commission to be the light to the Gentiles, bringing the message of Christ the Gentiles, kings and sons of Israel (9:15-16, repeated in 22:15-21, 26:18-19). He will stand before the people of Jerusalem, Roman governors (Felix and Festus), and the King of the Jews, Agrippa II.

But what is it that happens in Jerusalem? The Jews report that there are extremists among their church that think that Paul has “apostisized”, that he is teaching that Gentiles should turn away from the Law (vs. 21). Is this true?

It is true that Paul taught that Gentiles were not under the law, in fact, in Galatians he is quite strong in his condemnation of these same zealots who were teaching the Gentiles to keep the law. With respect to Jews, it is true that we do not have a text which clearly indicates that he told Jews to continue keeping the law and traditions of Israel. It may or may not be the case that Paul considered ceremonial law and traditions matters of indifference.

Based on Paul’s behavior in Acts, it may well be he would have told the Jews to continue keeping the Law. He required Timothy be circumcised, for example, and he had made a vow while in Corinth. Later he will claim that he has continued to keep the law, although one wonders to what extent he kept the boundary markers of the Law these conservatives Jews would have expected from him.

Ben Witherington seems to allow for more possibility that Paul taught that traditions were not required (Acts, 648). Certainly Galatians could be read as a repudiation of the Law, although it seems that Paul only has in mind Gentile converts. In the end, that may still be the heart of the problem – what Paul has created is something new and different. People are converting to a belief in Jesus as savior apart from Law rather than converting to Judaism or converting to a particular messianic conviction within Judaism.

Peter reports his experience with Gentile salvation and argues that requiring Gentiles to keep the Law is placing an unnecessary yoke upon them (Acts 15:7-11). Peter briefly reminds the assembly of his encounter with Cornelius, a conversion which was confirmed by evidence from the Holy Spirit.  At the time this was a shock to Peter and his companions, as well as to the Jerusalem community.  Cornelius received the Spirit before he converted to Judaism.  In hindsight, this may be the reason that the Spirit comes upon him even before baptism, so that there can be no question that Cornelius was saved apart from conversion.

When Peter describes the Law as a “yoke” on the Gentiles he is not necessarily criticizing the Law.  In Judaism, the idea of being “yoked” to the Law is a positive image, although there is often the implication of completeness – if you are yoked to the Law, you are required to keep it all.

Sirach 51:26 Put your neck under her yoke, and let your souls receive instruction; it is to be found close by.

m.Aboth 3:5 R. Nehunya b. Haqqaneh says, “From whoever accepts upon himself the yoke of Torah do they remove the yoke of the state and the yoke of hard labor.  And upon whoever removes from himself the yoke of the Torah do they lay the yoke of the state and the yoke of hard labor.”

m.Ber 2.2 Said R. Joshua b. Qorha, “Why does [the passage of] Shema precede [that of] And it shall come to pass [if you keep my commandments]? So that one may first accept upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven and afterwards may accept the yoke of the commandments.

Peter therefore seems to be saying that God saves both Jew and Gentile by faith, but that God has only given the Law to Israel.   He agrees with Paul’s claim that Gentiles are not converts to Judaism, but rather Jews and Gentiles both are converts to something new, a new people of God, a new “body of Christ” (Eph 3:1-6).  He is not saying that Jews ought to disregard Law, but only that Gentiles ought not be given this additional burden.  Peter’s speech emphasizes the freedom of the Gentiles from the law, which is remarkable when paralleled with Galatians 2.  When Peter seems to be advocating some separation from the Gentiles, Paul publicly confronts him and accuses him of hypocrisy (Gal 2).

Barnabas and Paul report that God did miraculous signs even among the Gentiles (verse 12).  This is obviously the briefest of summaries of what was said.  Likely Paul recounts all of the events of chapter 13-14, since we (the readers) know what happened Luke does not repeat anything. The point Paul would make here is that the gospel to the Gentiles was accompanied by the same signs as the gospel to the Jews in Jerusalem, or to Hellenistic Jews in Judea, Samaria, Caesarea or Antioch. His Gospel to the Gentiles is approved by God – therefore the Jewish believers ought not object.

The possibility exists that the Jewish believers could have explained this as false miracles, like the Pharisees claiming that Jesus cast out demons in the power of Beelzebub. There is no evidence that I can see that anyone in Jerusalem thought this, but I suppose it was at least possible.

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