Paul told the Galatians of a time in Antioch when he “condemned” Peter “to his face” for failing to “walk straight toward the good news.” He attributed Peter’s change of mealtime behavior to a hypocritical effort to escape pressure from “the ones for the circumcision” (Gal 2:11-21). For before “certain ones came from James,” Peter “was eating with the Gentiles” but afterwards he “drew back and separated himself.
-Mark D. Nanos
“What Was at Stake in Peter’s ‘Eating with Gentiles’ at Antioch?” pg, 282 (pages 282-318) in The Galatians Debate. Edited by Mark Nanos. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2002.
So begins Nanos’ article on a topic I’ve been exploring recently, the Messianic community of Jews and Gentiles in the “Synagogue of the Way” in first century CE Syrian Antioch, and more specifically, what is known as “the Antioch Incident” which involved the activity chronicled by the apostle Paul in Galatians 2:11-21.
While this article was included as a chapter (fifteen) in the book The Galatians Debate: Contemporary Issues in Rhetorical and Historical Interpretation, it also functions as a stand-alone paper which we can examine and from which we may be able to draw certain conclusions.
I’ve covered this material in two previous blog posts, both based on chapters from Magnus Zetterholm’s book The Formation of Christianity in Antioch: A Social-Scientific Approach to the Separation between Judaism and Christianity (See Zetterholm, Ancient Antioch and Today’s Messianic Judaism and Zetterholm, Ancient Antioch, and the Problem of the Gentiles). There is only one more chapter left in the Zetterholm book, which describes his perspective on the split between the Jewish and Gentile groups within the Messianic Antioch ekklesia (and ultimately all believing communities of that era), but someone suggested that I might want to review the Nanos paper on this topic first, since it may provide some clarification as to the actual problem between Paul and Peter as related to Gentile community and social status in this Jewish religious stream.
What Was at Stake in the Antioch Incident?
Nanos defines two “interpretive elements” that are “central for determining what was at stake” in “Peter’s eating or not eating with these Gentiles (pg 283):”
- What did the ones for the circumcision, whom Peter feared, find so objectionable about Peter’s eating with Gentiles?
- What did Paul find so objectionable about Peter’s decision to withdraw and separate from these mixed meals?
Keep in mind all this is from Paul’s point of view, so we don’t have the perspectives of Peter, the other Jewish believers (and unbelievers?) present, and particularly the Gentiles who were impacted by the incident.
According to Nanos, there are three possibilities as far as what the “ones advocating circumcision” could have found objectionable or offensive about Peter eating with the Jesus-believing Gentiles:
- The food served was objectionable according to Jewish dietary norms.
- Peter was violating halachah in even eating with Gentiles at all, even though the food was acceptable.
- It was the way Peter was eating with these Gentiles, rather than having a meal with them as such (and with the food being acceptable).
In trying to select an appropriate response, we also have to take Paul’s reaction into consideration. Which of these circumstances was most likely to elicit his offense and outrage and why?
Traditionally Paul has been understood to be upset because he maintained that faith in the gospel obviated continued regard for eating according to Jewish dietary regulations. But for Paul, did observing a Jewish diet compromise in principle “the truth of the gospel”? Or did he perhaps object instead to the degree of Jewish dietary rigor necessary to comply with the standards of those whom Peter feared? Or again, in a different direction, could it be that Paul understood that Peter’s withdrawal and separation undermined the identity of the Gentiles as equals while remaining Gentiles?
-Nanos, pg 284
At the church I currently attend (and I suspect at most or all Evangelical churches just about everywhere), it is assumed that the first and traditional Christian interpretation is obviously correct. Jesus canceled “the Law” including kashrut and Peter was eating ham sandwiches and shrimp scampi with his Gentile buds until other Jews who were “still under the Law” showed up and embarrassed Peter. Peter caved in to peer pressure and pulled away from eating trief with the goyim. Clearly for Evangelicals, the issue at hand was the food.
But before we get into whether this is actually supported by scripture or not, we need to identify the players. I used to think there were only two interest groups outside of Paul, Peter, Barnabas, and of course, the Gentiles present:
- The “certain men from James” who represented the “party of the circumcision” (Gal. 2:12 NASB).
- The rest of the Jews (Gal. 2:13 NASB) who “joined him (Peter) in hypocrisy.”
However, Nanos draws a distinction between the Jewish men from James and the advocates of circumcision as representing two different groups of Jews. Paul obviously knew the particulars and presumably, so did the intended audience of his epistle (Gentile believers in the Messianic synagogues in the area of Galatia), but because that understanding was assumed, this narrative doesn’t contain a lot of information to help us figure out who’s who.
“The rest of the Jews” probably isn’t a terribly significant group, according to Nanos. They could be local Jesus-believing Jews, or Jews who accompanied Peter from Jerusalem/Judea to Antioch (Peter’s personal disciples?).
More critical to grasp are the two other groups. From verse 12, the Greek describing the contingent from James is best translated, again according to Nanos, as ”certain/some ones came from James,” (pg 286) but doesn’t absolutely delineate whether James actually sent them or if they came from James but weren’t specifically his representatives.
This is important because in my previous blog posts citing Zetterholm, it was thought that Paul and James disagreed about the status of Gentiles in the Messianic Jewish community and even that James advocated for a total “bilateral” separation of Jewish and Gentile believers, while Paul supported covenant and social inclusion. It makes a difference if James sent this group to “spy out” the doings in the Antioch synagogue vs. this group was associated with James but didn’t directly represent his views.
The third group (pp 286-7), the ones Peter was actually afraid of (I guess this would mean he wasn’t afraid of the group from James), is simply identified as “circumcision” (Jews) as opposed to “foreskinned” (Gentiles). Why did Paul call this third group only “circumcision?” What did he mean? Were they believing or non-believing Jews?
It would seem odd, at least to me, for Paul to call this Jewish group “circumcision” in order to differentiate them from believing Jews (although according to one Pastor I’ve spoken with who represents the traditional Christian viewpoint, Paul was advocating against believing Jews becoming circumcised, though this should have happened when they were eight-days old, or having their male children circumcised). In Galatians 3:28, Paul wrote that Jews and Greeks are all “one in Christ” but he still differentiates Jews and Greeks, even as he differentiates men and women “in Christ.”
This would mean (and Nanos speaks of this on pg 287), that Paul and Peter self-identified as “Jews by birth” (v. 15…also see Rom. 9:3-5, 11:1; Phil. 3:3-5, and by inference, 1 Cor. 7:17-20), thus a Jew becoming a disciple of Messiah Jesus (Yeshua) did not remove the status of “Jew” from the Jewish person. In other words a Jesus-believing Jew and any other Jew are both considered Jews, with no distinction relative to their ethnic or (Sinai) covenant status. So Paul and Peter are just as Jewish as any other Jewish individual. Being called “circumcision” is only to differentiate Jews from the “foreskinned” Gentiles.
Citing Dunn (Dunn, “Echoes,” 460-61; see also, Dunn, Theology, 123, where he cites Rom 4:12; Col 4:11; Titus 1:10), Nanos states (pg 288):
…but an interest group specifically distinguished from other groups of circumcised Jews as advocates of circumcision.
Given the rhetorical context dealing with Gentile associates, the likely connotation of this particular advocacy is proselyte conversion.
The “circumcision” then are a group of Jews (believing or non-believing) who advocate for Gentiles in the Jewish religious space to gain equality with the “Jews by birth” only through the proselyte rite which includes circumcision.
This group represented the dominant viewpoint of Jewish communal norms (see Acts 15:1) relative to full Gentile inclusion in Jewish religious/communal space. Gentile God-fearers were attendees or guests in that space but were hardly considered of equal status to Jews in the synagogue and in Jewish society at large and they absolutely were not included in covenant.
Nanos presents what appears to be a new perspective (from an Evangelical Christian point of view) regarding the issue at hand. Paul considered the believing Gentiles as having equal status in the Jewish “Way,” both in terms of social status and covenant blessings, while still remaining Gentiles. In fact, Paul required that the Gentiles retain their status as Gentiles lest “Christ be of no benefit” to them (Galatians 5:2).
The problem was not food, and it was not a general ban of Jews eating with Gentiles (since in diaspora communities, the halachah for such mixed-meals would have to allow for some social intercourse), but rather non-proselyte believing Gentiles being treated as social and covenant equals within the Jewish community.
Nanos refers to v. 13 in terms of Peter and the other Jews as “masking their true conviction,” which will be seen as significant because:
Therefore, the Christ-believing Jews try to mask their convictions that these Gentiles are not regarded among their subgroups as mere “pagan” guests, but at the same time not as proselyte candidates either, by withdrawing from eating with Gentiles to distance themselves from meals symbolizing this nonconforming “truth.”
-ibid, pg 289
The “nonconforming truth” is that, through faith in Messiah, the Gentiles are considered equal co-participants in Jewish covenant and community while remaining Gentiles and with no intention of them ever participating in the proselyte rite. Something about the way Peter was eating with the Gentiles, indicated to outside Jewish observers, that Peter and the Jews with him considered the believing Gentiles as social/covenantal equals to the Jews, something that non-Jesus-believing Jews (or maybe Jesus-believing Jews from a different faction) found offensive and unsustainable.
Peter’s hypocrisy then, was pretending the Gentiles did not have equal social standing with the Jews of the Way when just previously, he had been eating with them as equals. Peter then included Barnabas and other Jews in his hypocrisy when his example resulted in their following his lead.
Nanos supports something that I’ve believed for a while now. The “offense of the cross” for non-believing Jews wasn’t Jesus himself, but rather Paul’s insistence that Jesus-believing Gentiles be included in the Jewish community as equal co-participants while remaining Gentiles.
A classic example of this occurred at Pisidian Antioch. In Paul’s first appearance and “sermon” there on Shabbat, the Jews and Proselytes were quite interested in Paul’s message of the good news of Messiah and wanted him to return the following Shabbat to say more (Acts 13:43). However, the following Shabbat, it was apparent that the Gentile God-fearers, present the previous week, had “spread the word” to their Gentile families and friends, most likely not God-fearers, but “straight up” pagans and idol worshipers, because “crowds” of Gentiles showed up at the synagogue (v. 45) resulting in “jealousy” among the synagogue leaders, and with them responding to Paul with “blasphemy” and evicting Paul and his companions from the synagogue and the entire district.
Getting back to the two groups, the ones from James and the advocates of circumcision for Gentiles, Nanos states that we don’t know how they are related or what the timing of the arrival of the first group has to do with the presence of the second group. It could be a coincidence, but in the Bible, I tend to think there is no such critter.
That describes a great deal about the situation but doesn’t answer the question about what was at stake in Peter eating with and withdrawing from the Gentiles at Antioch.
J.B. Lightfoot argues that before the withdrawal Peter “had no scruples about living [like a gentile],” that is, without observing Jewish dietary restrictions (“discard Jewish customs”), for the vision of Acts 10 “taught him the worthlessness of these narrow traditions.” Lightfoot assumes that this change is the logical result of the desire to “mix freely with the Gentiles and thus of necessity disregard the Jewish law of meats.”
-ibid, pg 293
This is an example of the traditional Christian interpretation of the matter, but as I’ve stated here and in many other blog articles, this just doesn’t jibe with the overall presentation of Paul relative to the Torah as well and Jewish and Gentile status, and it certainly is inconsistent with Messiah’s interpretation of his own mission in terms of continued Torah observance by believing Jews (Matthew 5:17-19).
Nanos presented examples of the opinions of other New Testament scholars who support the traditional view and then more “recent trends in interpretation.”
As E.P. Sanders makes exceptionally clear, there is no reason to believe that observant Jewish people and groups did not eat with Gentles given the right conditions.
-ibid, pg 296
There is no reason to believe that many, if not most, observant Jews, certainly those living in the Diaspora, would not and did not eat with Gentiles without compromising their Jewish dietary norms to do so.
-ibid, pg 297
However, other Jewish groups may have feared that such mixed meals between Jewish and Gentile “equals” would somehow lead to Jews ”eating of inappropriate food according to Jewish dietary norms, inclusive of the food and drink associated with idolatry.”
There has been some support of the idea that God-fearing Gentiles remained polytheistic (M. Zetterholm, S.J.D Cohen), probably as a convenience since they had to continue to interact with individuals, groups, and businesses that were part of the diaspora pagan cult. If Jews witnessed other Jews and Gentiles eating (kosher food and wine) together as equals, they may have assumed that this represented a significant risk, based on their experience with and understanding of God-fearers. The only way they could be reasonably sure that such mixed meals weren’t “risky” was if the Gentiles involved were participants in the proselyte rite. The Jewish observers objecting to mixed meals didn’t “know,” they just assumed what was going on.
Nanos says Paul’s reference to the “truth of the gospel,” to which the circumcision advocate objected, was the way Gentiles were treated by Jews at the mixed meals, that is, the Gentiles were treated as full equals in the Jewish subgroup.
It pronounced these Gentiles full members of the people of God apart from the traditional conventions for rendering them such. Thus the pressure is specifically said to be from “advocates of circumcision.” And the reaction of Peter and the other Jews was to “withdraw” and “separate” in order to “hide” their conviction with behavior that does not exemplify “the truth of the gospel,” instead of dismissing the Gentiles as though they agreed in principle with those who brought the pressure…
ibid, pg 301
But what about this?
I said to Cephas in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?
–Galatians 2:14 (NASB)
The issue of Peter “living like a Gentile” is traditionally assumed to mean that Peter gave up a life of Jewish Torah observance, including keeping the laws of kashrut, and felt free to live life as a Gentile, eating and drinking pretty much anything with disregard of Jewish norms. Also, and this is less clear in Christian thinking, Peter was somehow compelling the Gentiles present to live like Jews.
In Peter’s withdrawal and separation from the Jesus-believing Gentiles present, he was indicating that Gentile status in the Jewish ekklesia was not equal after all and that, by appearing to side with the Jewish circumcision advocates, he was implicitly saying that for the Gentiles to be considered equal, they had to participate in the proselyte rite and become Jews (compelling the Gentiles to live like Jews). This was Peter’s hypocrisy, because he actually believed the Gentiles were already equal co-participants due to their discipleship in Christ.
Did Peter compromise his Jewish identity by eating with the Gentiles (living like a Gentile)? The issue at hand relates to identity, both Jewish and Gentile:
The question before these Gentiles, as Paul sees the matter, is one of identity, not behavior per se, although it is Peter’s change in behavior — because of his desire to maintain the privileges of identity on terms that no longer should dictate behavior of members of this coalition — that provoked the incident around which Paul constructs his case.
-Nanos, pg 311
Peter wasn’t “living like a Gentile” in the sense that he had abandoned his Jewish identity and affiliation, but he was behaving in a manner that was not dependent on absolutely separating himself from equal co-participation in the ekklesia, including mixed Jewish/Gentile meals, in order to maintain and affirm his Jewish identity. Jews and Gentiles could maintain distinct identities and yet, in terms of social behavior, they could be co-equals in fellowship within the Messianic Jewish ekklesia.
Peter’s behavior, when seen by Jewish outside observers, was criticized as violating Jewish social norms and thus Jewish identity (living like a Gentile) by the circumcision party, but they were unaware or they didn’t accept the new status of the Gentiles relative to Jewish community.
Nanos adds dimension to this by re-translating the relevant scripture in this way:
If you Peter, remain Jewish yet are identified now as a righteous one (justified) in the same way as are these Gentiles (by faith in/of Christ) and not by virtue of the fact that you were born a Jew, how can you decide to behave in a way that implies that these Gentiles are not your equal unless they become Jews too?
-ibid, pg 315
The mindset required here is a shift from Jewish privilege as justified by being born Jewish, to justification through faith in/of Christ in exactly the same manner as the Gentiles.
I found the following quote revealing:
The salient difference is the claim of this subgroup to live “in Christ” as equals before God and one another, as “one,” whether Jew or Gentile. Claiming that the end of the ages has dawned, this coalition seeks to exemplify this “truth” by living together without discrimination according to certain prevailing conventions of the present age (cf. 1:3-4; 3:27-29; 6:14-16).
-ibid, pg 316
I’ve mentioned previously, citing D.T. Lancaster (see the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermons and What About the New Covenant lectures), that the Messianic Age or Kingdom was inaugurated with the death and resurrection of Christ but will not be brought to fullness until the return of Messiah as conquering King. In the meantime, we believers, Jewish and Gentile, have received a “downpayment,” or a “guarantee” that the Messianic promises of the New Covenant will indeed reach fruition in their appointed time.
We are to live like partisans or freedom fighters resisting the current “King” in the present age, and living as if the “once and future King” were already here.
That’s what the mixed meals between Jewish and Gentile co-participants in the ekklesia as equals represents.
I say to you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven…
–Matthew 8:11 (NASB)
This is one picture of the Messianic Kingdom, when we Gentiles will indeed ”come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom.” That’s what was at stake in the Antioch incident, the recognition and acceptance of Gentiles as equal co-participants in the coming Kingdom which has yet to arrive but is already here.
When Peter pulled away from the Gentiles and caused other Jesus-believing Jews to do likewise, he was sending a clear signal (whether he intended to or not) that the Gentiles were not equal, and he was actually denying the “truth of the gospel,” the good news of the coming Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Messiah, and the reign of Messiah over Israel and the nations of the Earth in peace and unity.
Peter, in one simple but devastating act, denied that God had to power to bring about all He promised in the New Covenant times. No wonder Paul was so furious.
What I’ve gotten from Zetterholm so far is that in mid-first century CE in Antioch, and presumably influencing the rest of the Messianic communities (the “churches” Paul had “planted”), there was a dynamic “tension” between Paul and James, with Paul advocating for Jesus-believing Gentiles being included into the Jewish ekkelsia as equal co-participants socially and in covenant blessings, while James strongly thought the Gentiles should maintain their own separate and bilateral communities apart from the Jesus-believing Jews. This tension in my reading of Zetterholm so far, was never resolved, and the result was the ultimate schism between the Gentiles and Jews in the community of believers.
Nanos doesn’t paint quite so grim a picture, but he’s writing while strictly considering only Paul’s perspective in Galatians 2. The ones from James may have had something to do with the Antioch incident, but Nanos believes the ones Peter actually feared were a separate group, a group of believing or non-believing Jews who advocated Gentile inclusion in Jewish religion and fellowship only by circumcision and participation in the proselyte rite.
Paul continues as the advocate for Gentile inclusion which he sees as a sign of the emergent Messianic Kingdom symbolized by Jews and Gentiles sharing meals as equals rather than the Gentiles being subordinate in the Jewish space, either as pagan guests or God-fearers. Peter’s withdrawal punched a really big hole in the structure Paul was trying to construct, a portrait, an image of the future age coming into the world now. Peter not only rejected Gentile equality in the ekklesia, he denied the power of God to bring about unity in the Kingdom to come.
What implications can we draw for the modern Messianic Jewish (MJ) movement. The current MJ movement exists as separate or interrelated streams with different standards of Torah observance, halachot, and particularly, different viewpoints on Jewish/Gentile community interaction and participation.
Many of the questions Paul was addressing are the same issues we find in MJ today. For the most part, communal meals aren’t an issue, since in the communities in which I’ve participated, either kosher meals are available prepared and served in accordance with accepted Jewish halachah, or kosher meal requirements have been loosened (for instance, the elimination of the requirement that said meals must be prepared in a kosher kitchen) to allow for mixed Jewish/Gentile (kosher or kosher-style) meals.
However, the issue of bilateral ecclesiology very much continues to be at the forefront of the debates regarding Jews and Gentiles in the Messianic Jewish community. Should Messianic Jewish synagogues only allow Jewish membership or should Gentiles be included? If Gentiles are included as members in Jewish religious space, should they be considered equals (as Paul likely advocated) or should they have a lesser status (associate membership) with lesser privileges and responsibilities? Should non-Jewish kids participate in a Bar/Bat Mitzvah? Can Gentiles be called up for an aliyah to read the Torah on Shabbat? What about Gentiles being included or excluded from davening in a minyan?
We have no record in the Bible of these questions being answered, but we do, at least in my opinion, have strong indications, both Biblically and through historical records, that Gentiles did participate in Jewish communal life in diaspora synagogues. They did eat together as equal co-participants.
Taking all of this into account, where does the modern Messianic Jewish movement go from here and what part do we “Messianic Gentiles” play in it?
I hope to finish my final review of Zetterholm soon.