The Rejection of Pascal's Wager
Get the Book!

The Incident at Antioch

After the "Jerusalem Council" an incident occurred at Antioch [a] which was to sever the ties forever between Paul and the Jerusalem Church.

  • We first see what Paul as a participant in the event has to say about the incident at Antioch.

  • Given what we know about them, James and Peter would have interpreted the events differently.

  • We can see that the event had severe consequences for the relationship between Paul and the Jerusalem church and to the future of Christianity both in its Jewish-Christian [b] form and its "law-free" Gentile version.

  • As an excursus, we note that Acts too contain an account of the same incident but that account had been "doctored" to water down the seriousness of the break.

Paul's Account of the Incident

The incident in Antioch is pivotal in the subsequent development of the relationship between Paul and the Jerusalem Church headed by James. Paul gave an eyewitness account of the incident in his Galatian epistle. The account, in full, is given below:

Galatians 2:11-14
11 But when Cephas came to Antioch I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he ate with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13 And the rest of the Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, "If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?"

Read in a straightforward prima facie manner, it is quite easy to take Paul's side. After all it was Peter who broke the accord forged in Jerusalem. And Paul comes out looking like the righteous apostle that he claims to be, accusing Peter of hypocrisy regardless of the latter's status. However a closer inspection of his account of this incident reveals many things which perhaps Paul was trying a little too hard to conceal.

We have to remember, of course, that although Paul was an eye-witness, the context of the letter of Galatians was one in which his law-free mission to the Gentile was being threatened in Galatia and his recalling this incident was part of an apologetic defense of his work. As we will see elsewhere, there is every reason to believe that Paul's opponents in Galatia would be in a position to expose his account if he had simply fabricated the story. Thus while we would expect Paul would try to present his side in as favorable as possible, we would not expect outright fabrication in this account. In other words, we can assume that Paul's account is basically historical.

Our task now is to discover not only what Paul wants us to know, but what he tries not to reveal but comes out anyway in the retelling of the incident.

Back to the top

The Probable Position of James and Peter on the Incident

Let us begin with Peter's actions. He had initially accepted the hospitality of the Gentiles without much question but retreated when emissaries from James came advising him that his actions are contrary to the requirements of the Mosaic laws. There is no doubt from the account that initially Peter wavered weakly [c] in his position. However whether his behavior and those of Barnabas, the rest of the Jewish-Christians at Antioch and (presumably) James could be fairly described as "hypocrisy" is another matter.

It is important to note that Paul's accusation of Peter, that he "lived liked a Gentile", could not be taken to mean that Peter was consuming pork or that he was drinking wine offered to idols. Coming so soon after the Jerusalem council where Peter (together with James) had, perhaps reluctantly, just accepted uncircumcised Gentiles as converts; it is unlikely in the extreme that he would then swing to total disregard of the Mosaic laws. As some scholars had noted, the accusation was just the type a sectarian Jew might make of another who is seen as not adhering as strictly to the law as he should. Thus the incident that triggered it was Peter sharing a table during a meal with Gentiles. [4]

Paul called the action of Peter and the rest "hypocrisy", yet we can see that the action of James in calling for Peter's withdrawal was completely consistent with their interpretation of the accord that was reached in the Jerusalem council. Indeed the fact that separate missions , however "separate" may be interpreted, was called for in the accord implies that, at least in the views of the Jerusalem Church, the division between Gentiles and Jews are still valid and the dietary restrictions still holds! From their point of view it could easily be Paul that was inconsistent, since he had expected Jewish-Christian to relax their dietary restrictions in the association with Gentile-Christians. [5]

Furthermore we cannot rule out the fact that the "men from James" convinced Peter by theological arguments that removing himself from table fellowship with Gentiles was the right and proper thing to do. Indeed the fact that Barnabas [Paul's missionary companion!] and all the Jewish-Christians took Peter's side means that they felt some powerful principle was involved. This means that it is quite probable that Peter made a principled stance after being shown his mistake by James's emissaries. [6] [d]

It is likely that the incident involved more than just Peter withdrawing from table fellowship with Gentiles. For Paul accused Peter of compelling Gentiles to Judaize (i.e. "live like Jews")(Galatians 2:14). Whether this mean that he was demanding that Gentiles be circumcised or asking for some kind of minimal adherence to Mosaic Laws (such as the Noachide Commandments or the rules governing Gentiles in Leviticus 18-20) from them we cannot know for sure. However this does show that the group of James did not consider Gentiles "out of bounds" for their "gospel of the circumcision." [7]

Back to the top

The Consequences of the Incident

The most obvious question to ask about the incident is: Who prevailed at Antioch? Paul was a skilled rhetorician, a quick reading of his account leaves us with the impression that he prevailed. Indeed it used to be a widespread belief that Paul had the last word in the standoff. [8] But a careful reading shows us otherwise.

Read through Galatians 2:11-14 again. In 2:14 all that Paul claimed to have done was that he confronted Peter "before them all" and accused him of being a hypocrite. Paul did not say anywhere whether Peter accepted his reprimand and admitted his error. We can be certain Peter did not. It is important to note that the epistle to the Galatians was written to defend Paul's "law free" gospel to the Gentiles. And here, as Ernst Haenchen wrote:

And how triumphantly Paul would have shown the power of his gospel, had he been able to write: "Peter, Barnabas and the other Jewish Christians confessed that I was right, and ate once again with the Gentile brethren"! Here the argumentum e silentio is justified for once, as everything urged Paul to speak if he could. And his silence shows success was denied him. [9]

The argument is compelling, had Paul prevailed he would not have failed to mention it. It was Peter who had the last word at Antioch. [10] And as Bruce Chilton noted it was Paul, not the Jewish Christians, who had to leave Antioch (Acts 15:22-41). [11]

Not only did Paul lose the confrontation with Peter, the consequences for his mission was a lot more serious than he had intended to let on. We note that it was not only Peter who separated themselves from the Gentiles but also Barnabas and the rest of the Jews. {Note Galatians 2:13 "And the rest of the Jews joined him in this hypocrisy") In other words, the whole Jewish Christian community in Antioch deserted Paul and took Peter's side. Furthermore there is no hint of reconciliation between Paul and the Jewish Christians either in the rest of Galatians or in his later epistles. Thus we have every reason to believe that the conflict between Paul and the Jewish Christians headed by James was lasting. [12] [e]

The incident also shows us that whatever was agreed upon in Jerusalem, it was understood differently by both parties. Indeed as far as Peter, Barnabas and the rest of the Jewish Christians were concerned, the agreement was spelled out in terms stipulated by James and not Paul. [13] As S.G. F. Brandon pointed out, it was a major setback for Paul's mission:

[W]hatever degree of acceptance Paul may have thought he succeeded in gaining at Jerusalem was completely negatived by the subsequent events at Antioch, and that henceforth in fundamental policy and basic sympathy he stood professedly apart from James and Peter, and in the issue was even deserted by his erstwhile companion, Barnabas. [14]

This incident also allows us to get a glimpse of the theology of the Jewish-Christianity headed by James around 50 CE, as summarized by Bernheim in his book James, Brother of Jesus:

It is the incident at Antioch which reveals most clearly the differences between James, Peter, Barnabas and the great majority of Jewish Christians on the one hand and Paul on the other. For the former, the Christians, or, to use their terminology, the Nazarenes or those who follow the Way, were first and fore- most Jews who had acknowledged Jesus. They formed the true Israel, the eschatological assembly of Israel. We may doubt whether they described baptized pagans as Nazarenes. They were only the god fearers, who would be saved. They were not integrated into the true Israel, but only associated with it. By refusing to share a table with them, the Jewish Christians were showing that they did not think them complete Christians. If they wanted to be fully integrated into the community of the Nazarenes, they had to be circumcised and live according to the law of Moses. Doubtless that is what Paul was referring to when he was criticizing Peter for forcing the pagans to Judaize. [15]

Paul's isolation forced him to reinterpret his theology and how he viewed his own status as an apostle. Bruce Chilton puts it thus:

The radical quality of Paul's position needs to be appreciated. He was isolated from every other Christian Jew (by his own account in Gal. 2: 11-13 : James, Peter, Barnabas, and "the rest of the Jews"). His isolation required that he develop an alternative view of authority in order to justify his own practice. Within Galatians, Paul quickly articulates the distinctive approach to Scripture as authoritative which characterizes his writings as a whole. His invention of the dialectic between grace and law, between Israel as defined by faith and Israel after the flesh, became a founding principle in the intellectual evolution of Christianity in its formative period. [16]

With this as background information we will be able to understand better the opposition Paul faced in his mission to the Gentiles.

Back to the top

Excursus: More Lukan Spin doctoring

The account of the Incident at Antioch in Acts is substantially different from Paul's. We give the full text from Acts below:

Acts 15:36-41
36 And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, "Come, let us return and visit the brethren in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are." 37 And Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. 38 But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia, and had not gone with them to the work. 39 And there arose a sharp contention, so that they separated from each other; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and departed, being commended by the brethren to the grace of the Lord. 41 And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

We can be reasonably certain that Luke is referring to the same incident because of the following similarities between the two accounts:

  • Both accounts of incident happened immediately after the council of Jerusalem (Galatians 2:1-10 & Galatians 2:11-14; Acts 15:1-29 & Acts 15:29-41).
  • Both took place in Antioch (Galatians 2:11; Acts 15:30).
  • Both involved a sharp dispute (Galatians 2:14; Acts 15:39).
  • In both cases there was a fallout between Paul and Barnabas (Galatians 2:13; Acts 15:39).
The story told in Galatians 2:11-14 is clearly the original source behind Luke's account. But the story told in Acts is a lot less disturbing (to the Christian Luke) than that told in Paul's epistle to the Galatians. For in Acts the disagreement was purely personal; a quarrel between Paul and Barnabas about John Mark. This is far less serious than a dispute about the position of uncircumcised Gentiles in the Christian Church. [17]

Let us note how Luke had changed the account about the Incident at Antioch. First Luke again presented the major facts about the events. This would include Paul's fallout with Barnabas at Antioch. Luke probably could not have avoided mentioning this since in all probability the memory of this was still alive at Antioch when he wrote Acts. Second note again that Luke has "watered down" the dispute as best he can. Instead of a serious theological dispute, it became a personal dispute about John Mark.

Also note how the most serious issue at Antioch, the quarrel between Paul and Peter, was omitted by Luke. Indeed any reference to Peter was completely erased from Luke's account.

When we compare how Luke treated the Jerusalem Council account earlier, we find similar methods.

  • In these two cases, Luke did not invent the story from whole cloth. He could not omit certain major facts that were probably well known to his audience. In the Jerusalem council it was the issue of circumcision. At Antioch it was an argument which led to the parting of ways between Paul and Barnabas.
  • But he had a tendency to put a positive spin on events, or, at the very least, to make it look less bad than it actually was. This he did by either adding to or changing the details of the story. In the Jerusalem council it was the reconciliatory speeches of Peter and James. Here the argument became a personal one rather than a more serious theological one. This is also consistent with what we have found elsewhere, that Luke tried to present Paul's relationship with the Jerusalem apostles as one of collegiate unity-a clearly unhistorical portrayal.
  • Thirdly he tended to consistently and completely omit contentious issues. In the Jerusalem council he omitted all references to Titus. Here, he omitted all references to Peter. There was no trace of Titus at Jerusalem and no trace of Peter at Antioch.

Back to the top


a.Some critical scholars have suggested that the events given in Galatians 2:1-10 (Jerusalem council) and 2:11-14 (Incident at Antioch) although given in that order may not have happened in that sequence chronologically. Gerd L�demann in his book Paul Apostle to the Gentiles: Studies in Chronology argues that the structure of Galatians corresponds to that of apologetic speech in ancient rhetoric. Identifying the portion of Galatians as a narrative section, L�demann showed that the rules of ancient rhetoric requires only that the presentation be used to convince the reader and there is no strict requirement for chronological verity. He then argued that some of the events that triggered the Antioch incident could parallel those that sparked off the Jerusalem council.[1]

The first half of L�demann's argument is almost certainly correct: there is no requirement for chronological verity in the rules of ancient rhetoric. Yet this could only mean that the incident in Galatia could easily have happened before or after the Jerusalem council. That is, it still remains to be proven that the Antioch incident happened before the Jerusalem council. [2]The argument given by L�demann, that the events are similar, is extremely weak. The incident in Antioch was about table fellowship between Jews and Gentiles while the one that triggered the Jerusalem council was about the legitimacy of the mission to the Gentiles (without circumcision).

A decisive argument exists for placing the Antioch incident after the Jerusalem council. As Murphy-O'Connor pointed out in his book Paul: A Critical Life, accepting the sequence as proposed by L�demann would mean that Paul and Barnabas had a falling out in Antioch just before the Jerusalem council (Galatians 2:13). Yet in his description of the Jerusalem council in Galatians 2:1-10, Barnabas was clearly on the side of Paul (Galatians 2:9). [3]. This would have been impossible in the chronological scheme suggested by L�demann.

b.The term "Jewish-Christian" is open to misinterpretation and its uses and definitions vary tremendously among various authors. So it is important for me to note how I use this term. This term is reserved strictly for Christians (or perhaps more accurately, "followers of Jesus"-since the name "Christian" itself is an anachronism if used unreservedly for the pre-70CE church) who uphold the continued validity of the Mosaic laws. These refers to the rules and regulations found in the five books of Moses or Torah. The rules and regulations include circumcision, food taboos and calendar observances (Sabbath, holy days etc). Jewish-Christians are those who either insists on full or partial observance of the Mosaic laws by Non-Jewish converts to Christianity. By this definition, James and Peter were Jewish Christians and Paul was not.

c.Incidentally, Peter's behavior here shows that the account of Cornelius' conversion (Acts 10), with the visions provided by God to Peter about clean and unclean foods, is a largely fictional invention of Luke. Had that been the case Peter would have simply told off the men from James, since he had a higher authority telling him his behavior was acceptable.
d.Fundamentalist apologists, always eager to preserve their erroneous view of history have suggested many possibility arguments to account for this incident. One of the most popular is that James asked Peter to withdraw from table fellowship with Gentile Christians not on any principled ground but because he feared retribution from non-Christian Jews in Jerusalem! It is quite obvious that the only virtue of such a suggestion is that it serves an apologetic purpose: i.e. that it "showed" that James was not opposed to the law free gospel of Paul. But when we compare this explanation to what we know of the historical James the suggestion collapses completely. All our sources point to the fact that James was a highly devout Jewish Christian who upheld the eternal validity of the Mosaic laws. Indeed Josephus told us that when James was murdered in 62 CE, the Pharisees (!!) went out of their way and risked their own necks to seek justice for him. It is unlikely that a weasel with no conviction (which is how the fundamentalist have caricatured James to save their faith) could have held the respect of the Pharisees for around three decades. [18]
e.This is not to say that Paul did not attempt to reconcile himself to the Jerusalem Church. They were the one earthly link to the historical Jesus and despite his protestations to the contrary, Paul tried to keep within their good graces. Indeed his collection for Jerusalem attests to this fact.

Back to the top


1.L�demann, Paul Apostle to the Gentiles: p57-59, 75-77
2.Painter, Just James: p67
3.Murphy-O'Connor, Paul: p132
4.Bernheim, James Brother of Jesus: p176
L�demann, Heretics: p43-44
5.Bernheim, op. cit.: p176
L�demann, Opposition to Paul in Jewish Christianity:p38-39
Murphy-O' Connor, op. cit.: p151
6.Bernheim, op. cit.: p180
7.ibid.: p177
8.ibid.: p182
9.Haenchen, Acts of the Apostles: p476
10.Bernheim, op. cit.: p182
Bornkamm, Paul: p47
Murphy-O'Connor op. cit.: p158
11.Chilton & Neusner, The Brother of Jesus: p142
12.Armstrong, The First Christian: p89
Brown & Meier, Antioch & Rome: p24
Grant, St. Paul: p166
13.Bernheim, op. cit.: p180
14.Brandon, The Fall of Jerusalem and the Christian Church: p138
15.Bernheim, op. cit.: p181
16.Chilton & Neusner, op. cit.: p141
17.Armstrong, op. cit.: p89-90
Bornkamm, Paul: 47
Brandon, op. cit.: p132
Conzelmann, Acts of the Apostles: p123-124
Haenchen, op. cit.: p475-476
Painter, op. cit.: p72
18.Bernheim, op. cit.: p178-179

Back to the top

[Home] [The Central Thesis] [Christianity] [The Bible] [Jesus] [Paul] [God] [History] [Pascal's Wager] [Bibliography] [Links]
© Paul N. Tobin 2000

For comments and queries, e-mail Paul Tobin
Hosted by