Monday, January 28, 2008

The Antioch Incident: Scot McKnight’s View

I continue with my analysis of various proposals for understanding the Antioch incident. I turn to someone of whom I have great respect and am a fan, my colleague Scot McKnight, who is also the contributor to the blog Jesus Creed.

As a reminder I am pursuing three questions in my study of the incident which have significant import for understanding Jewish Christianity and Paul’s relationship to it. Those questions are (1) What is Paul’s issue with Peter? (2) What role does James play in the circumstances? and (3) Who are “those of the circumcision” ?
So to Scot's views:

(1) What is Paul’s issue with Peter?
The incident concerns Peter, the first apostle (Matt. 10:2). In its essentials, the event concerns Peter who, in the normal course of affairs, was willing to shed the identifying markers of Judaism (food and table restrictions), perhaps even circumcision and Sabbath observance, to enjoy a new-found fellowship with Gentile Christians, but who also abandoned such a stance when ‘certain men came from James’ (1995:99).
Scot assumes Peter ignored Jewish food laws prior to the arrival of the visitors from James—he quips: “Peter was probably eating ‘baby back” spare ribs or shrimp scampi”(1995:103)—but after the coming of the “more conservative Jews” he not only reverted to adherence of a strict Jewish kashrut, but he even began forcing Gentiles to be circumcised. He suggests that Peter’s conduct led to “two churches: a kosher church and a Gentile church” Scot concludes,

So what was Peter doing? He had previously enjoyed unrestricted social fellowship with the Gentiles, speaking their language, eating their food, drinking their wine, touching their children, and sitting in their homes. When the Jewish nationalists arrived, Peter, perhaps remembering his narrow escape in Jerusalem, reversed his behavior and withdrew from the Gentiles . . . in addition he then began to force Gentile Christians to be circumcised (and to follow Jewish social laws), to reduce the threat of persecution he was beginning to free from these ardent Jewish nationalists (1995:107).

As an aside it is interesting to note Scot’s explicit view of Paul and his practice vis á vis Jewish halakah. Here is an extended quote:

Paul was more than concerned with the ‘contradictory behavior’ of Peter. True, he changed his color, like a chameleon, but changing colors may be necessary at times (see 1 Cor 9:19-23). It is proper, when with Jews, to live like a Jew in order to reach such people. But, when with Gentiles, living like a Jew is wrong (1995:100, emphasis added).

(2) What role does James play in the circumstances?
Scot seems to think that James had very little if any influence in the circumstances that took place in Antioch. While he does think, as we will see, that the “men from James” are from Judea—perhaps identical to the “circumcision party—and represent a Jewish nationalistic faction within the early church, he, nevertheless, thinks it unlikely that they represented James’ true interests. He does think, however, that they have been in fact sent by James. He states,

The ‘men from James,’ may have been either Jewish Christians from Jerusalem who were either honestly or falsely representing the position of James, or they may be identical to the circumcision party, in which case they were not Christians. I suspect they were truly from James, though they may not have been representing James with full integrity (1995:104).

(3) Who are “those of the circumcision”?
Scot leaves open the possibility that the enigmatic group “the circumcision party” could be either believing or non-believing Jews, although he is quite sure that they are not Jewish Christians in Antioch. What he does see as clearly evident is that these folk are “a group of law-abiding Jewish zealots bent on ‘forcing’ Gentile converts, to either Christianity or Judaism, to convert fully if such converts wished to be under the umbrella of Judaism. They are a “group of ardent Jewish nationalists, based in Jerusalem, who urged all groups in Jerusalem and Judaism to live faithfully according to the law”(1995:104). Furthermore, he seems to closely associate, if not equate, the “men from James” with this group: “The presence of the ‘men from James’ and their words that the nationalists were upset were enough for Peter to change directions” (1995:105).
Scot’s interpretation, while I think is an evenhanded treatment as well as a good representation of traditional interpretations of the passage, is grounded on a certain type of metanarrative of the New Testament story—and especially of Paul—that, while can be convincing at one level because of its appearance of coherence, has significant weaknesses—weaknesses which I think are exposed in this context. . With respect to the first question on the nature of the conflict between Paul and Peter, Scot’s reading assumes two significant points: (1) the verb “eating with” (sunesthio) means eating the same thing, and (2) that Gentiles were not accommodating their lifestyle when eating with Jews. In regard to the first issue, that is “eating with” means eating the same food, Scot assumes this to be the case, but cannot support it in the text beyond noting that the activity of eating something took place with the Gentiles. Nowhere however in this context does it state explicitly that Peter and the Jewish believers in Jesus when eating with the Gentiles were breaking kosher law. I don’t believe an appeal to Acts 10—11 provides a foundation for this view either since the issue in the Cornelius story is not what Peter ate, but with whom he associated himself over a meal as here. In Peter’s own interpretation of the vision in both Acts ten and eleven, Peter explicitly interprets the vision as relating to table fellowship and not food: “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate or to visit with anyone of another nation; but God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean” (Acts 10:28; cf. 11:3-12 [esp. 11:12: “making no distinction”]). Thus the clean and unclean food on the sheet in his vision was an analogy for people and the Lord was teaching Peter that God does not make distinctions so neither should he.
Second, his assumption that the Gentiles were not accommodating their own lifestyles for their Jewish brothers overlooks the historical reality of Diaspora Judaism generally and Antioch’s situation particularly. Given the large Jewish population in Antioch, there would have undoubtedly been regular contact between Jews and God-fearing Gentiles in the Synagogue. This contact would have spilled no doubt outside the Sabbath meetings and into homes. It was not entirely uncommon for Gentile God-fearers to respect the Torah and accommodate their lifestyles when fellowshipping over meals with Jews. Practically this would simply mean serving foods that were kosher and idolatry free. Of the latter they were on the whole probably already accommodating their lifestyle if we assume that something along the lines of the Noachide commandments were recognized in the first century which is very likely. Hays and others [see comments from earlier post] agrees when he states, “It seems unlikely that such flagrant violations of Jewish norms would have been practiced at Antioch, particularly if the Gentile converts were primarily from the ranks of the “godfearers”, who presumable would have already assimilated to Jewish dietary practices.”
It is possible to take the last two questions together and reflect on McKnight analysis. McKnight is compelled for some reason to assert that while the “certain ones” were in fact sent from James, the supposed influence they exerted to cause the incident was not sanctioned by him. I don’t find this explanation very convincing. If for the sake of argument one assumes (1) that these were sent by James and (2) that they were the reason Peter “drew back” from table fellowship then it seems to me to be a much more consistent and convincing case to say, as many do, that James was ultimately the force behind situation. Both of these points are gap fill and are arguable. Yet if one brings them into the text then I can’t see how James is acquitted of some or all responsibility. As for the circumcision party, I am yet to be convinced of this hypothesis that Jewish nationalists were on the loose around the Diaspora causing trouble. The context strongly favors a view of “the circumcised” whom Peter is in fear to be either the Jerusalem-based circumcised church—this is consistent with the role James may have played in the above reconstruction—or non-believing circumcised folk to whom previously Peter was said to have been sent (2:7), whether they be circumcised by family or by conversion. I personally find the latter to be more likely since it is not explicit that either James or those who arrived from James were the motivation for Peter’s withdraw.
I will attend to Mark Nanos' view in the next post.
Works Cited
McKnight, Scot. 1995. Galatians. NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.


Richard Fellows said...

Hi Joel. Thanks again. Three points/questions:

1. If the men from James were not the motivation for Peter's withdrawal, why does Paul mention them?

2. You write that you are "yet to be convinced of this hypothesis that Jewish nationalists were on the loose around the Diaspora causing trouble". Yet Acts 15:1 does show that there were Judean believers who visited Antioch and caused trouble by teaching circumcision. While we have little evidence that men from Judea caused trouble in other parts of the Diaspora by preaching circumcision, we DO have evidence for them doing so in Antioch at the time in question, don't we?

3. You are right to say that "there would have undoubtedly been regular contact between Jews and God-fearing Gentiles in the Synagogue." As I mentioned before, Josephus writes of the Jews of Antioch, "they were constantly attracting to their religious ceremonies multitudes of Greeks, and these they had in some measure incorporated with themselves" (BJ 7.45).

Joel Willitts said...


Thanks as always.

(1) The mention of the arrival of the men from James is neutral from my reading of the text especially since Paul has shown that he is in good graces of the "pillars" in the previous context. The emphasis of the accoun is not on them really at all expect in relationship to when Peter withdrew: it was about the same time. Peter is Paul's concern and the arrival of the men from James are part of the setting, but exactly what function they play is not at all specified, so my view would be to say little about them, since Paul does.

(2) The "for the sake of arguement" comment above address your question I think. I think a consistent reading along the lines often suggested would best support a "men from James" = "circumcision group" and that would then fit your Acts 15:1 reference: Jewish believers in Jesus from Judea at the behest of James. My comment that you quote, is more a reference to the point sometimes made and made by McKnight (perhaps first suggested by Jewett, although I have not hunted this down) that Jewish nationalists (Jesus beleivers or otherwise) were being sent from Jerusalem to crack down on the Diaspora comumunities and their engagement with non-Jews.
(3) good quote from Josephus.

Geoff Hudson said...

"The Jews had the greatest multitudes in Antioch by reason of the largeness of the city"? (War 7.3.3). Now somehow I don't think that was correct. It may have been true of Aexandria, but much more likely it was originally a reference to Rome. The 'Antioch' text of War 7.3.3 looks suspiciously like garbled anachronistic (earlier) text that was originally about Jews of Rome, especially in relation to fires in the city as during the reign of Nero.

Geoff Hudson said...

In 12 BCE, Augustus confirmed the right of Jews to send their annual Temple tax to Jerusalem.

Thus I suggest that in War 7.3.3, "Antiochus called Epiphanes" was, in Josephus' original account, Octavian called Augustus who "did restore all the donations that were made of silver" (not the editor's brass), "to the Jews of Jerusalem" (not Antioch) "and dedicated them to their temple" (not their synagogue), "and granted them equal priveleges of citizens with the Greeks" - In 6 CE, Augustus formally annexed Judaea to the Roman Empire.

Geoff Hudson said...

If you continue to read War 7.3.3 you will see "temple" referred to explicitly. It wasn't succeeding "kings" who "treated them after the same manner" ("them" being Jews in general), but succeeding emperors. So much so, that, "they (Jews) both multiplied to a great number, and adorned their TEMPLE gloriously by fine ornaments, and with great magnificence, in the use of what had been given them."

And here's the rub - "They also made proselytes of a great many of the Greeks perpetually, and thereby AFTER A SORT brought them to be a portion of their own body." One has to wonder what did the editor conceal in his words "after a sort"? Well how did Jews bring proselytes to be a portion of their own body? I suggest it was after circumcision.

Good quote from Josephus Richard.

The next questions are: Who was newly sailed to Syria? And who was the next "Antiochus"? - two Antiochus's in the same passage, now come on!

Marc said...

What Paul's issue with Peter was in the diaspora the halacha with fellowshipping with Gentiles was alot more laxed that in Judea.

After the resurrection Peter made his home in Judea. Remember Peter wasn't from Judea.

When those from Judea came to visit Antioch Peter reverted back to Judean halacha. Again remember Peter was from Galilee where table fellowship was more laxed than the strict Judean halacha.

This is what Paul meant by his comment, to paraphrase....

"Peter why are you now living by Judean halacha when you are really from Galilee".