Treachery at Antioch

All this blog-talk about the Gentile mission has prompted me to revisit the Antioch incident of Gal 2:11-14, which has plagued me for years. After reading the article by Paula Fredriksen (via Goodacre), I think the last part of the puzzle just fell into place.

What was Antioch about? Two points are crucial. First, it was about circumcision rather than dietary laws. The men from James were saying that Gentiles had to become circumcised converts in order to share table-fellowship on an equal basis with Jews. To my knowledge, only Philip Esler and Mark Nanos have recognized what Gal 2:12 makes plain: that Antioch centered on the question of circumcision -- that is, full conversion to Judaism -- rather than food laws, as if to imply that something "less drastic" than circumcision was being imposed by way of compromise. As Esler notes, "modern notions of fair play" have hindered scholars from interpreting the Antioch incident correctly (Galatians, p 137).

This leads to the more disturbing second point. If Antioch was truly about circumcision, then the pillars had revoked their own agreement: in Jerusalem they had agreed to leave Gentiles free of any obligation to become circumcised (Gal 2:7-10). Why the about-face at Antioch (Gal 2:11-14)? The immediate answer has to do with honor and revenge. Esler should be cited at length:
"[Paul] had extracted an agreement from the Jerusalem leaders without giving away anything himself. True, he had consented to remember the poor...but his point ['I was eager to do so'] is that he would have done it even without any action taken by the pillars, so that they really got nothing in return for the promise of fellowship..." (pp 135-136)
Not only did Paul get the better of the pillars, but of outside factions, like the "false brethren" of Gal 2:4-5. Esler goes on:
"The defeat of the circumcision group in Jerusalem would have left them steaming with the desire for revenge. Their honor had been besmirched by Paul's very obviously getting the better of them, and in this culture we expect that they would seek to turn the tables on Paul, just as Israel did on Ammon in II Sam 10-12... When Paul left Jerusalem, he would have been well advised to watch his back... Persons in this culture who are shamed to this extent do not forgive or forget... With Paul and Barnabus, and later Peter, out of the city they would have been left with James and John upon whom they could exert pressure to revoke the agreement." (pp 132,136)
To western readers, this kind of back-biting seems to make the pillars dishonorable liars, but actually the opposite is true. Lies and deceptions are quite honorable (and expected) of people in these cultures. As rival apostles, the pillars were under no obligation to keep any "promises" made to Paul, and indeed they would have been childish to do so. Paul, for his part, would have been under no delusions about how much weight, and for how long, the Jerusalem agreement carried.

I've always wondered how Paul managed to get the better of the pillars, as Esler claims, without giving up anything in turn. Now, having read Paula Fredriksen's article, I can better understand why. Paul's position had been their own for almost twenty years now. In the earliest days of the movement, any Gentiles would have been accepted as equals without halakhic conversion requirements. That's what the apocalypse was about: Gentiles being saved as Gentiles. (Mark Nanos has emphasized this too.) So by agreeing to Paul's demands they were only endorsing their own past practice and keeping things status quo -- despite increased misgivings, and increased pressure from outside groups, as time went on.

But the pillars broke their promise (and years of past practice) for the sake of their tarnished honor. In the end they probably saw themselves as keeping the church functional in the context of wider Judaism, in a present age which was promising to stretch on indefinitely. Paul, of course, could not accuse Peter of breaking his promise -- he would have made a fool of himself (so Esler, p 138). He had no right to expect the pillars to keep their word to begin with. The best he could do was accuse Peter of "hypocrisy" or inconsistency. But Antioch was about more than mere hypocrisy. It was about back-biting: treachery pressed into the service of an attempt to update beliefs and practices, as all millenarian movements eventually do.

The irony of the Antioch incident is that an apostle who never knew Jesus was keeping his savior's tradition, while those who walked by Jesus' side were now attempting change. Christ wasn't coming again, after all. Or at least, he wasn't coming as soon as they originally expected -- as Paul still expected.


Allison, Dale: Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet, Augsberg Fortress, 1998.

Esler, Philip: Galatians, Routledge, 1998.

Fredriksen, Paula: "Judaism, the Circumcision of Gentiles, and Apocalyptic Hope", JTS 42, pp 532-564, 1991.

Nanos, Mark: "What Was at Stake in Peter's 'Eating with Gentiles' at Antioch?", The Galatians Debate, pp 282-318, 2002. 

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