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 Peter and Barnabas may have withdrawn from fellowship to avoid a potentially violent reprisal from the “zealots” within Jewish Christianity.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.

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?

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.”