Galatians – Part 3 – Confrontation with Cephas (Peter)

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.

Galatians 2:11 (ESV)

I can not help but read this verse and wish Paul and Cephas were available for further questions.  I definitely wish there was a corresponding account of this anywhere else in the New Testament, preferably from Peter to hear another perspective.  Unfortunately, we just don’t get another side of this story, so we have to do the best we can to decipher it from where we sit today.

Up to this point, within his letter to the Galatians, Paul has recalled his testimony including his interaction in Jerusalem with the beit din of James, Cephas, and John.  Paul has assured his readers that he was given the “right hand of fellowship,” to continue his ministry.  In simplest terms, Paul is telling the readers that the authoritative beit din in Jerusalem has agreed with his teaching.  In typical rabbinical format, Paul provided a testimony, his credentials or under what authority he can teach (beit din approval), and is now going to give a story to start his teaching.

For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.

Galations 2:12 (ESV)

In my opinion, this verse is skipped over all too quickly when evaluating this passage.  By stopping to evaluate and absorb what Paul wrote, the rest of his story regarding Cephas is much easier to explain and there is no need to guess or infer meaning to the passage.

Jewish sages and rabbis had developed laws or instructions in addition to the Torah (Laws of Moses).  These are referred to as “fence laws.”  The idea was that by developing additional laws, it created a barrier or fence around the Torah.  If one were to break one of these additional laws the original, God-given law would still be protected.  We see evidence of this issue throughout scripture.

And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’

You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

Mark 7:5-8 (ESV)

These Pharisee leaders were bothered that Yeshua’s disciples were not following the fence laws.  While there is nothing directly wrong with these additional laws, the problem is that these Pharisee leaders, considered the “traditions of the elders” as important as the God’s laws.  Yeshua actually referred to a passage in Isaiah 29.

And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men,”

Isaiah 29:13 (ESV)

The full passage in Isaiah deserves an entire lesson by itself, but the leaders that Yeshua was talking to, knew exactly what was prophesied by Isaiah and would have understood the point, which was to not elevate the teaching, instructions, or commandments of men to an equal or higher standard than the teachings of instructions from God.

For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace.

Ephesians 2:14-15 (ESV)

Many use this verse to focus on the “One New Man” concept, which I am not going to get into in this study.  What I want to draw attention to is Paul’s use of the phrase, “abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances.”  Paul is not referring to the Torah.  In this instance, Paul is discussing the man-made ordinance regarding Jews and Gentiles in worship.  There was typically a wall, curtain, or some kind of physical separation in synagogues designed to segregate Jews from non-Jews.

This is the crux of Paul’s message, which I’m going to delve into much deeper as I get further into the letter to Galatians.  To simplify for now, Paul was working to break down the barrier that had been built, not just physically but a psychological barrier of prejudice that Jews were saved and Gentiles were not.  Jews had developed a mentality and teaching that the only ticket to salvation was to be Jewish or to convert through Jewish ritual circumcision.

For there are many rebellious people who engage in useless talk and deceive others. This is especially true of those who insist on circumcision for salvation.

Titus 1:10 (NLT)

Paul’s message in this letter was not to abolish the need to follow the Torah.  His message in this letter was to abolish the man-made teaching that Jewish conversion was the only path to salvation.  Jewish conversion was commonly referred to circumcision within Paul’s writing.

But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. 

Galatians 2:3 (ESV)

The specific point that Paul made was that circumcision or Jewish conversion was not necessary for salvation.  This point will be made more evident as I dig through the letter to the Galatians.

How does this apply to the topic at hand regarding Paul’s dramatic account of his confrontation with Cephas?

For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.

Galatians 2:12 (ESV)

Paul’s accusation was that Cephas had no problem eating with the Gentiles until the circumcision party came for a visit.  The “circumcision party” was a group or sect of Judaism, at the time, that believed salvation was only attained by being circumcised as God commanded Abraham in Genesis chapter 17.  Paul’s position was that salvation was attained by Abraham before he was circumcised, which he will mention later in this letter.

What was so significant about Cephas eating with Gentiles?  Why would he not want to be caught? This was an ordinance of man, tradition of the elders, or a fence law.  The dietary instructions in the Torah are very specific.  There are also specific guidelines that must be kept in order to be considered ritually clean.  At that time, because these instructions and guidelines were not adhered to by a typical Gentile, Jews feared that they would become ritually unclean or defiled by unknowingly coming in contact with a Gentile that was unclean.  Therefore a fence law was established that Jews could not enter a Gentile’s house or eat with Gentiles.  These segregation laws were established to protect a Jew from unknowingly becoming unclean.  Take the time to read Acts 10:1 – 11:18.  Peter is under fire from the circumcision party because he went to visit a Gentile home.  He defends himself and interprets a vision he had that God tells him “What God as made clean, do not call common.”  Contrary to some popular beliefs, this vision is not about food, it is about Jews considering Gentiles unclean or common.  Peter defends himself in Acts 11 and in verse 18 said, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” Peter has already dealt with this issue and defended himself on the issue, yet he still feared retribution from leadership.

The entire basis of Paul’s confrontation with Cephas is to set aside this man-made law to exclude Gentiles from fellowship and ultimately salvation.  Paul’s argument was consistent with Peter’s defense in Acts 11, which was (is) to include Gentiles into fellowship, as God includes them into salvation without requiring Jewish circumcision.

Paul continues his argument with Peter, but I’m going to split that into another post, as this has already become a lengthy post in itself.

Final footnote: The English Standard Version places quotation marks at the end of verse 14, ending Paul’s conversation with Peter.  Other major translations place the quotation marks at the end of verse 21.  Upon reading carefully, Paul’s use of “we” and “our” in verses 15, 16 and 17, in reference to Jews, it does appear that he is still talking to Peter.  Although the placement of the quotation marks may seem insignificant, it is a valid point to make when evaluating this particular passage.  I disagree with the ESV’s placement of the quotation marks and agree with the other translations, placing the end of the conversation after verse 21.

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5 thoughts on “Galatians – Part 3 – Confrontation with Cephas (Peter)

  1. Hi Terry,

    This is such a difficult area! Being “unclean” wasn’t (necessarily) a sin because everyone but the High Priest was expected to bury their dead and the common bodily functions that rendered a Jew unclean didn’t mean they were in a sinful state (I’m sure you know this, but most Christians do not). Ritual purity and a Jew’s standing with the Temple (that ostensibly held God’s presence) meant they needed to know if they had come into contact with, for example, death. Given the practices of the Gentiles at that time (keeping their dead inside their homes), Jews would likely experience inadvertent defilement. It wasn’t just food issues, since they could easily avoid the wine and meat of Gentiles (which would most likely have been offered to idols and improperly slaughtered).

    The more I study, the more I doubt 1st Century Jews were thinking in terms of “salvation” as we think of it. The Pharisaic party, and arguably the other Judaisms active at that time, were concerned with how to properly LIVE.

    Because of our constant spiritualizing of the Bible text, we often neglect to consider the perspectives of Jews, who were given the specific requirements of Torah on how to LIVE in the Land, and yet by the first century they had already experienced exiles and were still, under Gentile occupation, which we forget, is indicative of judgment from God for not obeying Torah!

    So, if they (Pharisees and other sects) believed they had the right interpretation of how Jews were to LIVE, then they would be trying to get other Jews to go along with their interpretations to avoid exile again, and to get out from under Gentile rule. That’s one reason they adopted the idea that they should eat in a state of ritual purity, mimicking the Temple practice and requirements of the High Priest. (Jacob Neusner is a good source)

    Glad to see you are continuing to write out your thoughts Terry, this is territory we need to keep studying!

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  2. I follow exactly what you’ve written. My intent in posting this information is to introduce anyone reading this to a different perspective of Galatians than they’ve probably read before. The honest reality is that most typical Christians studying Galatians do not view the writing from a 1st century Jewish culture. Instead, this letter has been completely misunderstood and frankly is the basis for many theological arguments attempting to support the concept of forsaking the Torah and embracing faith only. That isn’t what Paul was writing at all, which is obvious to you and I.

    There are a plethora of books written now that can help someone studying to understand the correct 1st century perspective, but most do not take the time, and chose to ignore any contextual history lessons. My hope is that some that study this will take enough time to get a taste for something different, and then go do their own research in order to move them along.

    If we’re really honest, most people that read the account of Peter’s vision in Acts are convinced that God was telling him all food is clean, despite the fact that Peter interprets the vision as something completely different.

    I think that the large majority of typical Christians do not understand the words “law or ordinance” within the New Testament can refer to the Torah (Law of Moses) or to extra biblical Jewish law and understanding the context of how to apply the correct meaning changes the meaning of entire epistles. Any time the word law is read, the automatic interpretation is “old covenant law” which was done away with.

    As always, thanks for your input. I hope my simplistic study of Galatians keeps you interested. The next post is going to be an entire study on Paul’s use of the phrase, “works of the law.”

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