Confrontation at Antioch (Gal. 2:11-21)

June 11th, 2013

This article is a free sample from The New Interpreter's Bible, (Vol. XI) included in a subscription to the Ministry Matters Premium Library.

Up through Galatians 2:10, it looks as though all is well. Paul has emphatically claimed the authority of divine revelation as the source of his preaching, and he has recounted a major triumph in the Jerusalem meeting: The “false brothers” were defeated, and the leaders of the Jerusalem church affirmed their approval of Paul's mission to the Gentiles. In the next section of the letter, however, the plot of Paul's narrative takes a sharp turn; the unity achieved at Jerusalem was shattered by a subsequent conflict at Antioch. The account of this conflict (vv. 11-21) is the climax toward which Paul's story has been building.

Paul highlights his confrontation with Cephas (Peter) because it provides the background against which he views the present controversy in Galatia. The issues in the two situations are not identical, but they are closely parallel. Thus Paul can frame his account of his speech to Peter on the former occasion (vv. 14b-21) as a programmatic statement that speaks indirectly to the Galatians as well. Indeed, this speech can be seen as a concise summary of the themes of the letter as a whole.

Translations and commentaries often place the termination of Paul's address to Peter at the end of v. 14 (as in the NRSV) and treat vv. 15-21 as a separate unit. It must be remembered that ancient Greek manuscripts did not employ the convention of placing quotation marks around quoted direct discourse; therefore, the question of where Paul's speech ends is a matter of interpretive judgment. This commentary will argue that the speech extends through v. 21 (as in the NIV; cf. NRSV footnote). There is no indication in the text of a change of addressee until 3:1, and the first-person plural pronouns in vv. 15-17 show that Paul is continuing to address a Jewish audience (i.e., the Jewish Christians at Antioch), not the Gentile Galatians. Consequently, vv. 11-21 should be treated as a single coherent unit. Indeed, several obscurities in Paul's highly compressed language in vv. 15-21 can be clarified if they are understood in relation to the dispute over table fellowship in Antioch.

At the same time, Paul artfully narrates this story in such a way that it serves as a transition into his direct address to the Galatians in 3:1. A movie director making a film of this text might reproduce the effect in the following way: The scene opens in a public meeting of the church at Antioch with Paul confronting Peter; as Paul speaks (vv. 14b-21), the camera pans in on his face so that the members of the Antiochene church gradually disappear from view after v. 18. Then, at 3:1, as Paul says, “O foolish Galatians,” the camera pans back again to reveal Paul in an entirely different setting, pacing the floor and dictating the letter to his secretary. The desired effect is that the Galatians will hear the speech to Peter as being addressed to their situation as well.One result of this rhetorical technique is that Paul never finishes the story of the Antioch controversy; we do not find out how Peter responded to Paul's challenge, and we do not hear how the Antiochene church decided to resolve the dispute. Almost certainly this means that Paul lost. If he had, in fact, convinced Peter and the other Jewish Christians to accept his arguments, he surely would have said so in this letter, just as he did in the preceding narrative of the Jerusalem meeting (vv. 1-10). Regardless of the outcome, however, the telling of this story allows Paul to articulate the theological principles that undergird his present response to the Galatians.

The major theme of the unit is that the gospel mandates the formation of a new community in which there is no division between Jew and Gentile, a community in which Jews and Gentiles eat at one table together, not two separate tables.The speech of vv. 14b-21 supports this claim by arguing that right relation to God depends fundamentally on “the grace of God” (2:21), and not on observance of the ethnically particular signs of covenant membership (circumcision and food laws). This grace has been made effective through the death of Jesus Christ, which avails for Jew and Gentile without distinction (cf. Rom 3:21-31). Consequently, Peter's withdrawal from table fellowship with Gentile believers at Antioch was, as Paul sees it, a symbolic rejection of God's reconciling grace.


If you are a subscriber to Ministry Matters’ Premium Library, read on for commentaries about: Galatians 2:11-14 (Paul's Rebuke of Cephas), and Galatians 2:15-21, (Jews and Gentiles Alike Are Rectified Through Christ's Death)

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