Tuesday, March 11, 2008

My Proposal for the Antioch Incident, Part Two: What role does James play in the circumstances; and who are “those of the circumcision”?

I assume few readers even remember that I am working on a series of posts on Jewish Christianity and the study of the Antioch Incident was a complementary aspect of a study of James and his role in the incident. This investigation seemed necessary given the long standing view that Galatians 2:11-14 represented the point when Peter (and James) and Paul’s ministry “parted ways” with the two pillars of early Christianity never again being reconciled. This division was seen as a figure of speech for the two opposing streams of early Christianity: Jewish and Gentile Christianities.

After thinking about the Antioch incident, I have come to the conclusion that the two questions of (1) James’ role and (2) the identity of the circumcision party are in all events less crucial for the interpretation of the incident than many have admitted. I have come to this view for two reasons.
First, the two entities “people from James” and “those of the circumcision” are enigmatic references which allow for multiple interpretations as the secondary literature bears out. It appears at least that while these entities are unknown to modern readers they were nevertheless evident to those who first heard the letter since Paul feels no need to define them for his reader. While it is useful to attempt to reconstruct both the identity and the role played in the incident, perhaps the wisest approach is one that is not dependent on a definitive interpretation of these characters in the story.
Second, the focus of the plot is not on either of the two parties and their role in this brief vignette is within the framework of the story’s setting. While it appears quite clear that Paul characterizes the circumcision group with negative shades, given their relationship to Peter’s behavior, the “men from James” are neutral and flat. It is possible that the reader is to group them with the circumcision party, but the connection is not made for the reader by Paul and their function in the narrative can be construed diversely.

In the end, I don’t think the Antioch Incident provides much useful information for our understanding of James. The story does not emit a quantity or quality of evidence needed to develop an understanding of James’ role in the event and I think this fact needs to be more readily acknowledge by interpreters. There is no reason to assume James was apprehensive about the Gentile mission in Antioch such that he sent a delegation to investigate. The text says neither that the “men from James” actively pressured Peter “to draw back” from associating with Gentiles, nor that James sent them for this purpose.
What’s more, it seems best to leave open the question of the identity of the “circumcision party” without overly specifying the referent historically. They are no doubt a group of circumcised males—perhaps Christ believers, perhaps not, perhaps Judeans, but perhaps Antiochean Jews—who disagreed with the practice of associating with Gentiles in their social space. Their disagreement with the intimate association influenced Peter to behave in a way contrary to the truth of the Gospel.


Marc said...

Hi Joel,

The Judeans were believers.

You have to consider the halacha in Judea compared to the more lax halacha in the Diaspora.

Peter being brought up in the more lax halacha of associating with Gentiles took on the more strict Judean halacha since he took residence in Jerusalem after the resurrection.

When in Antioch Peter kept the more lax halacha for the Diaspora.

When the Judeans came Peter resorted back to the more strict Judean halacha of 'table fellowship' with Gentiles.

This is what Paul called Peter on.

The Judean halacha with Gentiles was accepted. Paul didn't have a problem with the Judeans because Paul knew the halacha.

Paul had a problem with Peter because as soon as the Judeans came he resorted to Judean halacha which he wasn't necessarily accustomed too.


Richard Fellows said...


I think Marc is right that those of the circumcision of Gal 2:12 were probably from Judea. Jews in Antioch incorporates Gentiles into their community, as Josephus says. Many Christian Jews in Judea, on the other hand, were more strict, including some who came from Judea to Antioch (see Acts 15).

You wrote, "It appears at least that while these entities are unknown to modern readers they were nevertheless evident to those who first heard the letter since Paul feels no need to define them for his reader."

This logic does not follow. The fact that Paul does not give details on something does not show that the readers already knew the details. It may simply mean that the identies of the men from James and those of the circumcision were irrelevent to the point that Paul was trying to make. Also, the fact that the exact nature of Peter's crime is not specified simply shows that it was not important to Paul's purpose. What IS specified all too clearly is the Paul opposed Peter. He says that he opposed Peter "to his face" and "before them all". With these words Paul demonstrates that he preached Gentile liberty out of conviction and not merely to please Peter. While WE are interested in the identities of the people and the exact nature of Peter's offence, these were not Paul's concern here. Paul was rather declaring that his gospel was independent of Peter (and James). Paul has to make this claim because Peter and James were the apostles that Paul DID visit during his first post-calling Jerusalem visit.

Joel Willitts said...


As for both Marc's and your view, I am fine with it, but I don't think it can be demonstrated clearly from the context. Again I think it is just as likely that these could be Antiochean Jews. Since it is not clear to me that Judeans would not have associated with Gentile God-fearers in the Land, although some no doubt would have had a stricter halakah. It is not assured and certainly not right to assume wholesale that the diaspora was more liberal in their halakahic practices. That some Israelites in the diaspora did have a strict Jewish lifestyle is also likely in light of the fact that many of these were motivated to returned to the Land and Jerusalem in order to be unhindered in their practices (Acts 6). Still, I think we could go round and round about this. My point is simply that the identity of "those of the circumcision" should remain open.

Thanks too for your comments about my point concerning what is referred to as the "authorial audience". I think I agree more or less. However I don't agree that the "logic does not follow". It may not be the case, but I think it does follow and note I wrote "it appears" leaving some wiggle room for further reflection. I think it is probable that the enities were known to the readers/hearers as Peter surely was. Yet, I agree that it is irrelevant to Paul's point. I still think in view of the story and its function, the parties were LIKELY known.

Geoff Hudson said...

Galations is a document heavily edited to suit a later time in the church's history when there were problems between Jews and Gentiles. The bone of contention in the original document was an entirely Jewish one - was a person cleansed by animal sacrifices (the priest's view) or by the Spirit (the prophet's view)?

The original letter was to Judeans, not Galations, sent from Rome, e.g. 3.1-3:

You foolish Judeans! Ananus has bewitched you. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by sacrifice or by obeying the Spirit you heard? Are you so foolish? After BEGINNING with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your cleansing by sacrifice?