What did Paul mean in his rebuke of Peter in Galatians 2:11-14? (Q&A)

Q:  I’m almost finished reading your Jewish Roots of Christianity book. I’ve appreciated learning so much history that I never knew, but it makes me sad to think that people who have called themselves by the name of Christ have acted so horrendously… It helps me to understand a little better the anti-Semitism that we saw (and were SHOCKED by) in Ukraine.

I’m meditating on the thought that you bring forth in the book that Messianic Jews still need to follow the law… What do you do then with Paul’s remarks in Galatians 2:11-14, where Paul calls Peter on the carpet for reverting back to following the laws when the circumcision party shows up in Antioch? Paul certainly talks here, and in other places, like he is not following the dietary laws at least…

I am trying to wrap my brain around both ideas (them required to follow the law, or not follow the law) and am having a hard time going with one or the other… Does the 2nd covenant annul the 1st one…? If they have to do some of the laws, then why wouldn’t they have to follow ALL of the laws, but like I said, Paul seems to make the case for not having to follow the law…

I would like to know your thoughts on Galatians at least… --Sarah P.

A:  This was also a very difficult concept for me when I first arrived in Israel and was challenged by some of the beliefs and practices of the Messianic Jews there.  But Christianity’s thinking, beliefs, and even Bible translations have been influenced by the thousand plus years of anti-Semitism that you have read about in the book.  It takes some doing to get beyond this, but that’s what finally happened to me as I studied the relevant passages in the original languages from the point of view of the culture of the time. 

It’s important to remember that when Peter had his vision of the sheet descending in Joppa (before the events in Antioch, but also quite some time after Jesus’ resurrection), he said, “ I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean” (Acts 10:14).  Never in his life.  This clearly tells us that he had never stopped obeying the Law, and specifically the dietary laws, either during his time with Jesus or in the time since Jesus’ ascension.  So whatever happened in Antioch did not involve him suddenly returning to the Law after having abandoned it previously. 

We also need to consider Paul’s visit to Jerusalem, which led to his imprisonment.  This is after the events at Antioch.  He had come up specifically to celebrate one of the Jewish feasts in Jerusalem (Pentecost):  a requirement of the Law of Moses (Acts 20:16).  When he arrived, he was introduced to the “tens of thousands...among the Jews of those who have believed [in Jesus], and they are all zealots for the Law” (Acts 21:20).  This attachment to the Law is not condemned.  It is mentioned as a way to warn Paul about the false report that had gone out about him, “that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles [i.e. outside of Israel] to forsake Moses [i.e. the Law], telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs” (Acts. 21:21). 

So what was the advice to Paul of the brothers [believers in Jesus] there?  “We have four men who are under a vow [Messianic believers under a Nazirite vow, also a part of the Law, Num. 6, which Paul had also observed as a believer in Jesus, Acts 18:18], take them and purify yourself along with them [this is Jewish ritual purification, also according to the Law], and pay their expenses in order that they may shave their heads [as part of the Nazirite rite:  paying the expenses of Nazirites was considered a meritorious deed in Judaism], and all will know that there is nothing to the things which they have been told about you, but that you yourself also walk orderly, keeping the Law” (Acts 21:23-24).  In other words, they told him to do these things in obedience to the Law so that everyone could see that the stories about him teaching against the Law were completely false.  Did Paul follow this advice?  Yes he did, the very next day (Acts 21:26).

This same false charge of disobeying the Law had earlier been leveled against Stephen, if you remember, in Acts 6:  “And they put forward false witnesses who said, ‘This man does not stop saying things against the Holy Place [the Temple] and the Law; for we have heard him say that this Nazarene, Jesus, will destroy this place and will alter the customs which Moses handed down to us” (Acts 6:13-14).  Notice that it was the false witnesses who said that Stephen and Jesus before him were opposed to the Law of Moses.

And of course there can be no better witness than Jesus himself who clearly said, “Do not suppose that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets, I did not come to abolish, but to fill [or fulfill] them” (Matt. 5:17).  To make his meaning as clear as possible, he added that not even the smallest stroke of the Law will pass away until it is all accomplished (Matt. 5:18), and that anyone who annuls even one of the least of these commandments of the Law will be the least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them will be great in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:19).  Since the Law includes many prophecies about the endtimes that have not yet been fulfilled, clearly from Jesus’ point of view, the Law of Moses is still in place. 

But the big mistake that many Gentile believers make when they read and finally understand passages like these is to assume that the Law must then apply to all believers in Jesus.  This is a false assumption and was the whole reason for the council in Acts 15, where it was decided that Gentiles could become believers in Jesus without coming under the Law of Moses as Jews.  This distinction of callings is what Paul is talking about in 1 Cor. 7:  that if you are called as a believer in Jesus as a Gentile (uncircumcised), you should remain a Gentile (uncircumcised).  If you are called as a Jew (circumcised and in obedience to the Law of Moses, which is what circumcision symbolized), you should remain a Jew (1 Cor. 7:18-19).  “Each in the calling in which he was called, let him remain in this calling” (1 Cor. 7:20).  For Jewish believers, this means following the whole Law of Moses, as the Messianic believers in Israel do.  For Gentile believers, this means following the Law of Messiah (the New Testament), which the Jewish believers must also follow. 

So what is going on in Gal. 2:11-14?  For most of us, it’s difficult to tell the difference between the Law of Moses, which Jesus strongly upheld, and the Oral Law of the Pharisees, which Jesus had some deep and serious problems with.  Remember when he told his disciples to “beware...of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matt. 16:12)?  Or when he argued in favor of his disciples eating the grain in the field on a Sabbath (Matt. 12:1-8)?  There is no place in the Law of Moses where it says that you cannot pick heads of grain for a snack on the Sabbath.  So why did the Pharisees say that the disciples were doing something unlawful (Matt. 12:2)?  Because it was against the Oral Law of the Pharisees.

The same thing is going on in Gal. 2.  If you notice carefully, it was not what they were eating that was the problem.  It was that they were eating together with the Gentiles (Gal. 2:12), in other words, sitting side by side with them.  This was not against the Law of Moses.  This was only against the Oral Law of the Pharisees.  And this is why Paul got upset.  For God had revealed to him that Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus are together the one body of Messiah, even though we still have individual and distinct callings (Eph. 2:11-22).  To eat separately would break this fellowship, and that he could not stand for. 

So what happened at Antioch in its origins had nothing to do with obedience to the Law of Moses.  It had only to do with the Pharisees’ oral additions to the Law, which Jesus often did not support.  Nevertheless, it raised the whole issue of the role of Gentiles in the body of Messiah which was then resolved at the council in Acts 15. 

I hope this is helpful to you.  If not, I would recommend reading back through the first part of the book again, which might come across differently now that you’ve heard the larger story.

(For more on this topic, see the index category Paul.)

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