The traditional interpretation of Paul’s public denunciation of Peter’s withdrawal from table fellowship with the Gentile Christ believers in Galatia centers on the Kashrut (Jewish dietary laws). This reading argues that when Paul, Barnabas, and other Jewish Christ believers shared common meals with the Gentiles in the Galatian church, this action was a clear witness to Paul’s rejection of the ongoing validity of Torah observance for Gentiles and Jews alike and his promotion of a “law-free” gospel. Peter — a Jewish Christian visitor to the missionary church — initially joined Paul in these mixed meals. But under pressure from “those of the circumcision” — who apparently argued that Gentiles could only be included in the Christ community if they first submitted to Jewish proselyte conversion with the ultimate act of commitment in physical circumcision — Peter and other Jewish Christ believers ultimately withdrew from table fellowship with the Gentile believers, thus reaffirming the dietary demands of Torah observance and rejecting Paul’s” law-free” stance.
A major problem with this interpretation is that the issue in the Galatian confrontation is not what one eats, but who one eats with. The Jewish dietary law is not the main concern here. Table fellowship is. And this must be understood against the central role that table fellowship – the invitation to all regardless of rank, social acceptability, or even moral uprightness to dine together – played in the ministry of Jesus.
The practice of table fellowship with all was the most offensive element to his contemporaries in Jesus’ ministry prior to his cleansing of the Jerusalem Temple. His opponents regularly attacked this practice over all others. This open table fellowship was also the clearest “object lesson” of Jesus’ teachings of the nearness and even presence of the kingdom of God. For Jesus, in the “age to come,” the kingdom of God that was already dawning in the present, “many would come from the east and west and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” – a great and final act of table fellowship.
This ultimate symbol of inclusion of all in God’s kingdom is not a new idea, but rather is a clear fulfillment of the Hebrew prophets’ expectation that at the end of the age God would restore Israel and “the law would flow forth from Zion” to all nations and peoples. In the age to come, Gentiles would make pilgrimages to Jerusalem bringing with them gifts and be accepted as part of the people of God. This is nothing short of the fulfillment of God’s covenant promise to Abraham that through him and his family (Israel) “all the nations of the world would be blessed.”
Inclusive table fellowship in the ministry of Jesus was the clearest indication that the “age to come” was dawning, Israel was being restored, and the ingathering of the Gentiles had begun. It is precisely this eschatological framework that Paul — the apostle to the Gentiles — used to explain how “Jews as Jews” and “Gentiles as Gentiles” are brought together into the people of God. The “middle wall of partition” has been torn down, Paul argued. God’s people — who had been separated and divided – are now, at the end of time, one body, one building, one loaf.
When looking at the Antioch incident, it is important to remember that this eschatological “re-visioning” of Jews and Gentiles together was not just Paul’s way of thinking. The verses that directly precede Paul’s confrontation of Peter in Galatians 2 speak specifically of how James and the Jerusalem church shared this understanding of Gentile inclusion in God’s end time action. These words clearly parallel — and may actually referred to — the decision of the Apostolic Council in Acts 15 where Paul and Barnabas tell of their ministry among the Gentiles who clearly experienced the same outpouring of the Spirit enjoyed by the Jewish Christian believers, yet without submitting to Jewish proselyte conversion.
This testimony of God’s actions among the Gentiles is followed by the affirmation of God’s end time inclusion of the Gentiles by the two strongest voices in the Jerusalem church — and in a sense, the representatives of all Jewish Christ believers – Peter and James, the brother of Jesus. The Apostolic Council concluded with the wise saying of James that “no greater obligation” –that is, Jewish proselyte conversion and full Torah observance – should be demanded of the Gentiles who God had now so clearly included in the people of God by the actions of the Holy Spirit among them.
Let me say this again. Paul was not the only one who embraced the eschatological vision of the Hebrew prophets and the teachings and practices of Jesus of Nazareth. The church at Jerusalem, the “mother church” of Jewish Christ believers, and its two most prominent representatives — Peter and James — also shared this view of the end time inclusion of the Gentiles.
This brings us back to the incident at Antioch. Paul places a “date stamp” on the timing of this confrontation – at the arrival of certain “men from James.” The traditional reading identifies these men with “those of the circumcision,” later referred to by Paul as demanding Jewish proselyte conversion, culminating in the physical act of circumcision as prerequisite for Gentile Christ belief. But this directly contradicts the preceding verses which make it clear that James and the Jerusalem church recognized — even endorsed — Paul’s ministry to the “Gentiles as Gentiles”, making no demands of full Torah observance of these non-Jews.
Here I would propose that the “men from James” and “those of the circumcision” in Galatians 2 may not be the same people at all. Rather “those of the circumcision” are better identified with those “false brothers” that “have infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom that we had in Christ Jesus and to make the slaves” (Galatians 2:4). Clearly, this group is demanding full Torah observance of Gentile believers — that is, full Jewish proselyte conversion including circumcision – as a requirement for entering the Christ community.
It is the pressure of this group – and not necessarily the “men from James” — that led Peter and the other Jewish Christian leaders to withdraw from table fellowship with Gentile believers. In turn, it is this action – withdrawal from ongoing table fellowship of Jewish and Gentile Christ believers — that launches Paul’s ire against Peter. Paul is not attacking “those of the circumcision” here in Galatians 2 (although he certainly has many choice words for them elsewhere). Rather he is attacking the “hypocrisy” of Peter and the other Jewish believers who had openly shared table fellowship with Gentile believers, but now withdrew.
These Jewish leaders had clearly affirmed the new eschatological understanding of the inclusion of “Gentiles as Gentiles” as part of the people of God in the dawning age to come. They had acted on this belief by regularly partaking in a mixed table fellowship, following the example of Jesus himself. But now, under outside pressure, Peter had “caved in” to the complaints and withdrew from the symbolic meal of unity.
For Paul, this is nothing short of an open denial of the entire inclusion of the Gentiles that Paul knew Peter and the “men from James” shared with him. Paul did not charge them with “heresy,” but with “hypocrisy” — that is, acting in a way inconsistent with what you know and believe.
The damage done by Peter’s withdrawal from table fellowship with Gentile believers had nothing to do with the Jewish dietary laws. Rather, it undermined the entire theoretical framework upon which the mission to the Gentiles was built, the entire inclusion of “Gentiles as Gentiles” in the people of God — a belief commonly affirmed by Paul, James, Peter, and the Jerusalem church. Even worse, Peter’s actions lent credibility to those who demanded Jewish proselyte conversion for Gentile Christ believers.
Paul was therefore compelled to react so strongly against such “hypocrisy” and the credence it allowed his opponents in the Galatian church who were demanded full Torah observance for Gentile Christ believers. In short, Paul was defending the validity of his Gentile mission and the theoretical framework on which it stands.
[Having said all this, several questions are left unanswered. Was the shared meal in the Galatian church one that a Torah observant Jew could eat without violating the Jewish dietary laws? Did Paul, Peter, James, and the members of the Jerusalem church continue to be Torah observant? The witness of the book of Acts certainly implies that Jewish Christians remained Torah observant even though the full weight of Torah obligation was never placed on Gentile converts. When Paul tells his hearers to “remain in the calling in which you were called” (I Corinthians 7:17-24), does this mean that Gentile Christians should live "as Gentiles" (not under Torah obligations) and that Jewish Christians as natural and ethnic Jews are to continue Torah observance which is part of their original “calling”?]