The Incident at Antioch (Box 16.5)

The crisis at Antioch, reported by Paul in Galatians 2, was sparked by the issue of table fellowship: representatives of James (brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem church) encouraged the Jewish Christians in that community to observe Jewish dietary laws, even though this required them to separate themselves from the gentile Christians when the community shared meals together, including, we might assume, celebrations of the Lord’s Supper.

Such a policy probably was presented as a mediating “separate but equal” position: let the gentiles who become Christians live as gentiles, and the Jews who become Christians live as Jews. Paul would have none of it, rejecting both parts of that proposal as hypocrisy (Gal. 2:13).

Let the Gentiles Who Become Christians Live as Gentiles

Paul thinks that it is hypocritical to claim that the policy of separate tables allows gentiles to live as gentiles, because the actual effect is to “compel the Gentiles to live like Jews” (Gal. 2:14). He does not explain exactly why that is the case, but the point may be that the policy marginalizes gentiles within the community and puts social pressure on them to become law-observant like the respected church leaders who eat at the Jewish Christian table.

Let the Jews Who Become Christians Live as Jews

Paul claims that Jews who become Christians actually live as gentiles in the only sense that matters: they live as people who have been justified by faith in Jesus Christ, just as the gentiles are (2:15–16). It is hypocritical for Jews to live as gentiles in this sense (trusting in Christ for justification) and still claim to be living as Jews just because they keep dietary laws.

The book of Jubilees, written around the time of Jesus (give or take fifty years), offers this advice to Jews:

Compared to that standard, Paul’s opponents probably thought that they were being generous in sharing a meal with gentiles, albeit at separate tables. But Paul thought that “the truth of the gospel” demanded that Jews and gentiles eat together without any distinction (Gal. 2:11–14; see also 3:28).