Conference in Jerusalem: Confrontation in Antioch (2:1–2:14)
The famous and notoriously difficult reports of Paul's two face-to-face confrontations with the leaders of “Jewish Christianity” must be understood in the light of an overall construction of Pauline thinking. The crux of the matter, to my mind, is the question of when (or indeed whether) Paul argued that circumcision and observance of such commandments as the laws of kashruth were abrogated not only for ethnic gentiles but for ethnic Jews as well. I suggest that for the logic of Paul's theology, which was complete in its entirety from the first moment of his revelation, there was not the slightest importance to the observance of such rites for Jews or gentiles. This does not mean, however, that such observances and their historical meanings are coded by Paul as “bad.” They are simply lower on the hierarchy of values and thus sacrificeable to a higher cause. My interpretation is somewhat different in nuance from that of Davies, who writes: “Nevertheless, although the universalism that we have noticed was implicit in the depth of Paul's experience of God in Christ from the first, its explicit formulation in thought was a slow process, and its strict logical expression in life was never achieved” (1965, 58). Davies further regards the “inconsistencies” of Paul as engendered by unresolved personal conflicts: “In fact, both in life and thought, the Book of Acts and the Epistles of Paul reveal a conflict between the claims of the old Israel after the flesh and the new Israel after the spirit, between his ‘nationalism’ and his Christianity. It is, indeed, from this tension that there arose most of the inconsistencies that have puzzled interpreters of Paul; and it is only in the light of the Judaism of the first century A.D. that this is to be understood” (59). I would argue that Paul's “universalism” was complete from the first moment, and that Galatians, one of the earliest of his letters, demonstrates this. On the other hand, his dual valorization of both spirit and body did not allow him to discount entirely the claims of the literal, physical Israel according to the body. I will make a similar case in Chapter 8 vis-à-vis gender also. In my view, the tension is not a residue of unresolved inner conflict in Paul so much as a necessary tension of his ontology, hermeneutics, and anthropology—even his christology—which are, for me, all strongly parallel.
Owing, therefore, to Paul's conviction that literal observance was merely irrelevant, being only in the flesh (i.e., it was not sinful striving for works-righteousness à la the Lutheran tradition), he was willing to allow Jews to continue observing such commandments if they chose to, until such observance conflicted with the fundamental meaning and message of the gospel as Paul understood it, namely, the constitution of all of the Peoples of the world as the new Israel (Segal 1990, 215–16; Sanders 1983, 178; compare Davies 1984, 139). Paul says as much when he writes in 1 Corinthians 7:19 that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything. The practices themselves are adiaphora; it is their interference with the one-ness of the new Israel that disturbs the apostle. The two most obvious such conflicts possible would be any attempt to suggest to the gentiles that in order to be full members of the People of God they must observe the commandments of the Law, such as circumcision and the rules of kashruth, or any observance on the part of Jewish Christians which would lead to a social split and hierarchical structure for the relations between ethnic Jews and gentiles within the Church, thus defeating Paul's whole purpose. In the light of this consideration I think we can read the accounts of Jerusalem and Antioch confrontations with Peter and his associates.
At stake at the Jerusalem conference was the first of the two possible threats to the integrity of Paul's gospel, namely, the claim of the Jewish Christians that gentiles must be circumcised (which alone counts as conversion to Judaism) in order to join the People of God. Yielding or losing this point would, indeed, have resulted in his having run in vain, just as losing the analogous point now with the Galatians would also result in his and their having run in vain (cf. 3:4), because the whole content of Paul's gospel, as I have understood it, is that the physical observances that constitute the physical Israel as the People of God have been transmuted and fulfilled in the allegorical signification in the spirit, thereby constituting the faithful gentiles as Israel in the spirit. This is why it is absolutely vital for Paul that he prove that he has not given in on the question of circumcision as a conversion ritual and requirement, and the ocular proof of Titus's uncircumcision makes that point as no other could: “Yet not even Titus who was with me was compelled to be circumcised” (Galatians 2:3).
This also provides us with an explanation of the difficult expression at 2:6, that “what they were makes no difference to me, God does not show partiality.” I emphatically endorse, with Betz,
the position of a long line of scholars who believe that Paul means to refer to the life of the apostles before Pentecost: they may have had fellowship with the historical and, in particular, with the resurrected Jesus-Messiah; they themselves or others may base their reputation upon that fellowship; or James may even be a relative of the [“Christ according to the flesh”] (cf. 2 Cor 5:16), [yet] God did not pay attention to these historical qualifications when he called Paul. (Betz 1979, 93)
The operative word here is “historical,” because history—to be sure, the concept is somewhat anachronistic—for Paul has the same valence as “according to the flesh.” Israel according to the flesh appealed to history to validate its claim that it alone was the People of God, so once more, as above, were Paul to accept the claim of superiority on the part of Peter and James owing to knowledge of the historical Jesus, and even worse to genealogical connection with him, he would have completely undermined and destroyed the point of his whole mission and spiritual life. Again we see Paul's cultural/religious politics and his political struggles converging brilliantly at a single point, the point of distinction between that which is merely κατὰ σάρκα and that which is κατὰ πνεῦμα.
In the incident at Antioch we see the conflict over the other possible threat to Paul's gospel of inclusion of the gentiles qua gentiles in the People of God, that is, the disruptiveness of Jews and gentiles having different and inherently divisive food practices, when they are living together in the same community as they are at Antioch. According to the narrative that Paul presents, Peter himself had realized this originally, and he also had eaten together with the gentiles, which certainly means he had eaten the non-kosher food of the gentiles. Otherwise, there would have been no violation at all of Jewish Law. As Betz puts it, “he [Peter] had the same theological convictions as Paul, but he did not dare to express them” (Betz 1979, 108). This provides strong evidence in my view that Paul himself had not ever agreed (at least not in his heart) that there were really two gospels, one to the circumcision (and preaching circumcision) and one to the uncircumcision (and preaching uncircumcision). His statement about the Jerusalem conference to the effect that there were two gospels simply reflects the compromise agreement that he made and not his true theological understanding. Else, how could he possibly object to Peter, the apostle to the circumcision, continuing or returning to the performance of Jewish rites? Since Paul's concern was to include the gentiles and not to disabuse the Jews of their outmoded notions, he was able to conclude the agreement on those terms, as long as it did not threaten his mission (Engberg-Pedersen 1992, 688–89). Peter, by acceding to the demands of the “people from James” that he return to Jewish food practices, provided that threat (cf. the excellent formulation of Betz [1979, 112]), and Paul met it vigorously.
“It is not by works of the Law that all flesh will be justified”
We who are Jews by birth and not sinners from Gentiles know that a human being is not justified by works of the Law except through faith in Christ Jesus. So we have also come to believe in Christ Jesus [καὶ ἡμεῖς εἰς Χριστὸν 'Ιησοῦν ἐπιστεύσαμεν], in order that we might be justified by faith in Christ [ἐκ πίστεως Χριστοῦ] and not by works of the Law, since it is not by works of the Law that all flesh will be justified. If, however, we who are seeking to be justified in Christ are also found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? This can never be. For if I establish again what I have dissolved, I set myself up as a transgressor.
This passage is only intelligible, in my view, if it is addressed to Peter. It is irrelevant to me whether it was actually said to Peter at Antioch or whether it is a hypothetical speech reconstructed by Paul for the benefit of the Galatians, but its implied addressee is certainly Peter. He is using the language of Jewish Christians to argue against them, for Paul himself, of course, does not regard the gentiles as essentially sinners as opposed to Jews. He thus states: You and I were born Jews and under the Law. That is, according to Jewish theology as we have known it until now, we already possessed the means to salvation. We had no need of justification by faith, according to that very theology. But we, you and I, came to the realization that that theology was mistaken, and that by works of the Law, no one would be justified. Therefore, we turned to faith in Christ Jesus (Hays 1985, 85). Now, if you by your actions imply that we have been sinners in abandoning the Law, that very Law which you and I have confessed is inadequate to redeem, then is our faith in Christ the testimony of sin? Clearly not so! However, by reestablishing that which you have dissolved—namely, by returning to the observance of the Jewish food rituals and taboos—you have confessed yourself to be a transgressor, have “set yourself up” as a transgressor by doing so. As for me, it is the very opposite.
It seems to me that a major interpretative issue has been often missed in the commentaries on Galatians, to wit, answering the question of why Paul is reciting here the entire narrative of the conference in Jerusalem and the confrontation at Antioch. To my mind, this lengthy narration is only intelligible if it is intended as a sort of parable or analogy of the situation in which the Galatians now find themselves. The application of the present verse to the situation of the Galatians is crystal clear. If you now take on yourself the obligations of the Law, you are then declaring that until now you have been sinners, and thus undermining completely the doctrine of justification by faith, and it will have all been in vain. The crucial issue for Paul is not the theological question of what pleases God, but rather is the relations of the Jews and the Nations (Hays 1985, 84). Paul is convinced that the Jewish-Christian doctrine of justification by faith, which he assumes as a given both by him and his “opponents,” provides the answer to this question, for in faith, all people are one, while in practices they are divided into different tribes. Accordingly Paul argues with Peter: Since you have come to the realization that these works are insufficient for justification and that what is necessary is faith, why, then, do you continue to insist (or allow yourself to be bullied into insisting) that works are necessary? You thus defeat the whole purpose of Christ's coming, which was to free us from the practices of Israel in the flesh by teaching us of their allegorical meaning for Israel in the spirit, through his crucifixion which revealed his own dual nature and thus figured our transformation.
It is really only at the very end of his letter that Paul reveals the application of the Antioch parable to the Galatians situation: “It is those people who wish to make a nice appearance in the flesh that compel you to be circumcised—only so that they may not be persecuted because of the cross of Christ. For not even the circumcisers themselves keep the Law, but they want you to be circumcised, in order that they may boast in your flesh” (6:12–13).
This is absolutely the key passage to the understanding of Paul's opponents in Galatia. It has to be read in the context of Paul's narration of the events at Antioch, which as I emphasized above (not originally, of course) is recited by Paul as an analogy, almost a typology, of the events in Galatia. Paul's opponents are not actually Jewish Christians who insist on circumcision for salvation but essentially are in consonance with Paul's theology; they hold that circumcision is not necessary. When pressed, however, by the contemporary antitype of the “men from James,” they have their gentile proselytes circumcised in order to escape persecution, that very persecution that Paul himself alludes to when he writes, “But if I, my brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted?” (5:11) These men, themselves, do not keep the Law, nor do they intend that their converts will keep the Law—they are essentially in agreement with Paul—but they cave in to pressure from the conservative wing of the Jerusalem church. The analogy with Peter's behavior in Antioch is perfect, as well as with Paul's charge against Peter: How can you ask these people to be circumcised when you do not yourself keep the Law? The charge is not of hypocrisy, but of not standing firm in that which is absolutely essential to the Christian message in Paul's view (Cosgrove 1988, 132–39). As I have already observed, the term “boast” in Paul is often better translated “have confidence in” or “rely on” than “boast about.” Paul is adamant in his integrity. If the Galatians accept circumcision, the whole purpose of the Christ event is destroyed. It will all have been in vain. When Paul tells them, “Look, I, Paul, tell you that if you become circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. I testify again to every man who has become circumcised, that he is obliged to do the whole law” (5:2–3), his point is that by becoming circumcised they reject the message of the Law of Faith or the Law of Christ, which he goes on to detail in the next and final chapter. Willy-nilly, they will be acceding to the Jewish Christian doctrine of James and his followers that only through entrance into the Law (that is, conversion to Judaism) can anyone be saved. By showing their lack of faith in the power of the cross to save, they give up their right to salvation by the cross, as opposed to Paul himself who writes, “But far be it from me to boast [again, to have confidence in] anything but the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which [the cross] the world has been crucified to me and I to the world” (6:14). Paul ends his letter on a note of absolute insistence: “For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything, but a new creation” (6:15). Only by entering into the new creation of Christ's spiritual body, that is, into the New Israel that came into existence with the crucifixion of his fleshly body, is anyone saved. When that fleshly, Jewish body (born of a Jew, under the Law) was crucified, then the new spiritual universal body was created, thus erasing the difference between the circumcised and the uncircumcised.