“When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.” Galatians 2:11-13
Who are these men that came from James? Are they the opposers that Paul has had difficulty with in Galatia? Are they the Judaizers – the ones who push for the adherence to Jewish practices? Are they the false brothers mentioned in Galatians 2:4? The text isn’t very clear and scholars don’t really know. The fact that they came from James is troubling. James, the reputed pillar of the Jerusalem church and the brother of Jesus as well as one of the leaders that had extended the right hand of fellowship to Paul, sending men to spy or heavily influence Peter to change his behavior along with other Jewish Christians seems incongruous to his character. Did they come under orders because of rumors that James heard about Peter and his practices? Did they come to check on the status of those in the church at Antioch? Did they take their mission too far and go beyond what James requested? In other words, would James have disagreed with their actions? These verses are full of questions and reveal the struggles within the early church.
Peter probably came to Antioch from Jerusalem. Based on these verses, I think Paul wasn’t in Antioch when Peter arrived. Paul would have confronted Peter and these ‘certain men from James’ much sooner than the text implies if he had been in Antioch. Antioch was the first place that followers of Jesus were called Christians (Acts 11:26). Paul would have ensured that these men upheld the example that this church had been setting in their community. Paul’s use of this example in his letter to the Galatians was to encourage them not to be swayed by the pressure of the opposers to follow the practices of the Mosaic law, namely circumcision.
With the honor/shame culture in mind, Paul must have felt he was on equal footing with Peter in order to take him to task publicly. This “bold attempt [by Paul was] to shame Peter into rethinking his actions. This sort of action would cause one or another of these two to ‘lose face.’ If Peter did not respond to the challenge he would lose face, unless it was the view of the Antioch church that Paul was Peter’s inferior, in which case Peter could probably ignore the challenge as not touching his dignitas, and so shame Paul in the process. If Peter responded negatively, and his fellow Jewish Christians approved, Paul would also lose face in Antioch. This action on Paul’s part was a gamble in any case.” The Greek for the phrase ‘to his face’ in Galatians 2:11 “means literally ‘according to face’ or just ‘to (the) face’, …it has the idiomatic sense of ‘face to face’. In other words we are talking about a ‘face off’ in which someone will lose and someone will gain face.” I would find all of this strategic challenging of honor difficult to maintain. How about you? Paul made this bold attempt calling Peter out because he truly believed that God didn’t like what Peter had done. Bear in mind that Paul was the man who persecuted followers of Jesus, some even unto death, because they blasphemed and didn’t adhere to the Mosaic law. Utterly astounding how God can transform someone, isn’t it? Paul took a risk that he was willing to lose or gain all for the sake of the gospel of grace.
Prior to these men from James arriving in Antioch, Peter ate with Gentiles. The verb “is in the imperfect and suggests that Peter was regularly eating with the Gentiles ….” Law-observant Jewish Christians would have frowned upon this behavior by Peter because Jews didn’t eat with Gentiles. Peter had been criticized for this type of behavior prior to Antioch (Acts 10:24-11:28). When Peter withdrew, his actions indicated his willingness to be inconsistent to what he truly believed. The two Greek verbs used in Galatians 2:12b “give a clearer picture of what happened. They suggest a gradual, perhaps even a reluctant or uneasy withdrawal on the part of Peter.” H.D. Betz suggests that with the first verb used “Paul views Peter’s action as pragmatic, or a tactical maneuver, not one based on convictions. The second verb… may be a Jewish technical term coming from the discussion about ritual purity and referring to separating from unclean persons or things.” After Peter returned to a more Torah-observant lifestyle and withdrew from eating with the Gentiles, the other Jewish Christians at Antioch followed suit. Barnabas was eventually also led astray. Barnabas, perhaps followed the example of Peter, because he had such strong ties with the Jerusalem church.
“When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then , that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? “We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.” Galatians 2:14-16
A subtle precedent was being set in the church. Jewish Christians were continuing Jewish practices of the Mosaic law and Gentile Christians were following a gospel of grace, no law necessary. Which side was the better side? Which side was more faithful? Paul wanted to stop these comparisons in their tracks. In this honor/shame culture, the tendency to compare which type of Christian was better would be tempting. The tendency also to regard Gentiles as unworthy unless they go through proper practices to be right before God would also have been difficult to shake due to thousands of years of conditioning. Paul saw Peter drifting. He knew that Peter knew that only grace saved, not the practices of the law. Paul wanted to stop the downward spiral before it went further. Therefore, Paul chose to confront Peter during an assembly when all were in attendance. Paul was making a statement that the new church of Jew and Gentile, together, would be built and united on grace in Jesus Christ. H.D. Betz rephrases the matter addressed in Galatians 2:14 this way;““by attempting to preserve the integrity of the Jewish Christians as Jews, Cephas [Peter] destroyed the integrity of Gentile Christians as believers in Christ.”” For the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians not to break bread (communion) or share a meal together, they forfeited the unity of the body of Christ in Paul’s estimation. As Galatians 5:3 will make clear, “Paul’s view is that the Law is a package deal,”. Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, rhetorically indicates that “Peter left the Gentiles no choice if they wanted to have fellowship with him and other Jewish Christians than to act like Jews if they wanted to be fully accepted as Christians. Paul’s objection to this is fundamental because he does not see Christianity as simply a subset of early Judaism. He sees it as involving the creation of a new eschatological community.” In essence, “[one]might say that [Paul’s] sectarian views amounted to admitting that Christianity came out from Judaism, but was not of it, because it was not under the Mosaic covenant.”
We don’t know what happened after this confrontation. We don’t know who won this battle. Scripture is silent on the topic. The question that will need to be answered and that these early leaders of the church confronted is whether or not Gentiles had to become Jews in order to be considered full-fledged Christians. An idea to ponder is whether or not the Jerusalem pillars of the church, Peter, James, and John, understood the implications of Paul’s message of grace when they extended him the right hand of fellowship and endorsed his ministry to the Gentiles. They pulled back when placed under pressure and perhaps that hints at their unpreparedness for the full scope of what Paul meant by Jew and Gentile united in Christ. “For Paul, grace is what breaks the cycle of endless honor challenges or cycles of competition to gain more face than one’s neighbor, or to protect one’s own and one’s family’s honor. Grace is the great equalizer which relativizes the importance of all natural bases for establishing human hierarchies, whether they are based on race, gender, social status, wealth or other factors…. In the Christian community, or as we would say, in the church, Paul carefully tries to tear down and do away with societal values that he sees are at odds with the Gospel. In Paul’s view, Christ on the cross and the Spirit in the church are the basis of human freedom, and nothing not even God’s former revelation in the form of the Law of Moses, should be allowed to curtail that freedom or reestablish barriers between one group of persons and another.” Living in community with other Christians is messy just like the early church was. Sometimes, we compromise and give sway to peer pressure in order to gain the approval of others. Our daily goal should be to try and live as consistent a Christ honoring life as we can. Paul called the Galatians to task to follow his example by risking peace, family relationships, isolation, loss of status, and suffering all for the privilege of following Jesus.
References: Grace in Galatia A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians Ben Witherington III; The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians William Barclay; Life Application Study Bible New International Version; blueletterbible.org