I begin by commending his evaluation of the traditional as well as the more recent interpretative trends. I find myself in hearty agreement with much of his analysis here and his critique of the scholarly assumptions that the “ones from James” are identical to the “circumcision party” and that Jewish dietary practices were the central issue. With respect to the latter, the oft stated idea that Peter did not eat according to prevailing Jewish dietary norms prior to the arrival of the one’s from James and shortly thereafter withdrew from this practice and again followed a stricter halakah cannot be substantiated by details in the passage itself. Among other things Mark observes that “in this text Paul never mentions the food itself, and he does not identify those with whom Peter fears as ‘the ones for Jewish diet’ or ‘for a more rigorous diet’ . . . [furthermore] “food is never the topic of concern in this letter” (2002:303,04, emphasis added). More emphatically Mark avers:
There is simply no explicit statement in this narrative or the whole letter that the meals at which Peter and the other Jewish believers in Jesus—including Paul(!)—had been “eating with Gentiles” included food that was objectionable on Jewish dietary terms (2002:304).
In addition to his analysis of previous approaches I would also find sympathy with his claim that identity and the issue of the status of Gentiles within the inaugurated eschatological community were an aspect of if not the central concern of all parties involved. I agree with Mark that in the subsequent discussion (Gal 2:15-21)—whether a summary of Paul’s continued reprimand of Peter in the moment or a later explanation added on for the letter—the issue it seems as Paul understood it was what Peter’s association or disassociation meant for the identity of the Gentiles as Gentiles in the inaugurated eschatoloical community. The issue of food laws is wholly absent. The focus is not on halakah related to food laws, but halakah related to association with perhaps a caveat that the two are not altogether disconnected of course, but can be distinguished. Paul’s argument in Galatians 2:15-21 makes the point that both Jews and non-Jews are justified by Jesus Christ’s faithfulness [Ok I admit it: I take this as a subjective Gen.] and by their trust in (eis) that work of redemption just as the Gentiles are. Furthermore, I would add that the observation that this idea is reminiscent of Luke’s characterization of the Jerusalem perspective on the reception of the Spirit by non-Jews in Acts 10—11 and 15 is to me no coincidence. I will say more about this later.
The previous affirmation notwithstanding, there are still a couple of points that I would raise that still linger in my mind which leave me not fully convinced by Mark’s fresh explanation of the incident. The first relates to his interpretation of the collocation “the ones of/from circumcision”. First I am not yet convinced that the preposition ek implies the idea of “for” here. At the very least it would be an unusual use of the preposition. Had Paul wished to stress that the group in question “advocated” circumcision a more appropriate preposition was close at hand. While it is possible to interpret the group as those advocating circumcision—and on this point Mark is perhaps not far from the traditional view—it must be based on clear contextual clues and the preposition should not be forced into an inappropriate mold. Thus, Mark can assert that the group from out of the circumcision [i.e. Israelites] advocated proselyte circumcision thereby upholding the communal norms, but it cannot be sufficiently supported by the preposition.
Second, I am not so sure the preposition can bear the weight of the argument as Mark makes it. Once Mark establishes his reading of the ek early in the piece he then bases much of his reading of the incident on that point. Often he refers to the phrase “the ones for (or advocating) circumcision” to support a further step in his argument. For example, Mark states, “In fact, they are labeled by Paul according to their interest in the traditional way to negotiate the inclusion—not exclusion—of Gentiles seeking full membership among Jewish communities: ‘the ones for circumcision’” (2002:303, emphasis added). This strikes me as rather circular because it seems to me that the question of the identity of the group is precisely what needs to be argued for based on Paul’s reflection on the incident.
Finally, Mark thinks it obvious that Paul does not use the term “circumcision” to distinguish between believers and non-believers in Jesus since Paul, Barnabas and the rest of the Jews who are referenced in the passage would have themselves also been circumcised although believers. In this way they would be similar to all Israelites. He claims “the labels ‘the circumcision’ or ‘the ones from/out of circumcision’ by themselves do not sufficiently distinguish between Jews who believe in Christ and those who do not, but only between Jews and Gentiles” (Nanos 2002:288). However, he does further claim that the phrase can be employed “to distinguish among Jewish people” and in this way it would suggest an intra- or inter-Jewish group distinction. Mark thinks Paul here is distinguishing himself and the rest of the Jewish believers in Jesus in Antioch from this other Jewish entity. That being the case, one is naturally prone to ask, why couldn’t Paul refer to Jewish non-believers in Jesus with this term? This would fit the context where the previous use of the term in Galatians 2:7-8 is suggestive of this kind of distinction. The phrase ek peritomēs then would be employed to simply denote a group out of non-believing Israelites, the target of Peter’s mission (2:7-8). While this group may be advocates of proselyte circumcision as Mark thinks, this would have to be shown from the context and not from either the use of the term or the adverbial logic of the preposition. Having established the scope of Peter’s mission in the early context, we might then be able to assume that the fulfillment of his mission was the occasion for his presence in Antioch.
In sum, my own sense is that a more generic and general interpretation of the phrase is better. This view, however, does not necessarily undermine Mark’s thesis, although I do think he has over specified the referent given the limitations of the details in the text.
The second lingering question that leaves me not yet convinced by his reading is his assertion that the central issue in the Antioch incident was the manner in which the meals were conducted. It is not clear to me how Peter would have acted differently if he treated these Gentiles as mere “guests” in accordance with the presumed social norms. Mark does not develop this in any detail although he assumes that there would be a significant enough practice to reveal how Peter and the rest of the Jewish believers in Jesus regarded the Gentiles with whom they ate. This seems to be quite fundamental to Mark’s argument. And I would have wished that he developed this more beyond some vague educated guesses about how the conduct might have been different [he refers to possible seating arrangements and distribution of food and drink as potentially observable conduct (2002:316)]. It appears that there are no ancient sources upon which to draw for this part of his argument. How would these advocates of proselyte circumcision observe that the believers in Jesus regarded their Gentile associates as more than guests? What would their posture be? If these meals were conducted in Jewish social space as Mark seems to think, then what would be observable? I wonder rather crassly if there was something like a bouncer at the door of these meals who said not “Let me see your ID” but “Please drop your trousers.” Isn’t it true that from an outward appearance there would be little to distinguish a Diaspora Jew from a God-fearing Gentile?
In the end, there is much in Mark’s fresh reading that bears careful consideration and it has usefully advanced my own thinking on the subject. In a future post, I will suggest my own working hypothesis for the issue central to the Antioch incident, but before that I will look next at Philip Esler's view.