Did St. Paul and St. Peter Fake a Fight? [Akin]

jimmyakin.com/wp-content/uploads/stpeterstpaul-builtchurch-640-300x256.jpgIn Galatians, St. Paul says at one point:

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

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.

And with him the rest of the Jews acted insincerely, so that even Barnabas was carried away by their insincerity.

But when I saw that they were not straightforward about 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?” [Gal. 2:11-14].

What are we to make of this?

Some among the Church Fathers thought that this was a fake disagreement that Paul and Peter engaged in for teaching purposes.

For example, in his Commentary on Galatians, St. Jerome states:

Now, if anyone thinks that Paul really opposed Peter and fearlessly insulted his predecessor in defense of evangelical truth, hewill not be moved by the fact that Paul acted as a Jew among fellow Jews in order to win them for Christ. What is more, Paulwould have been guilty of the same kind of dissimulation on other occasions, such as when he shared his head in Cenchrea,when he made an offering in Jerusalem after doing this, whenhe circumcised Timothy and went barefoot-all of which are*clearly aspects of Jewish religious ritual.

Later, he writes:

Just as people who walk normally but pretend to limp do nothave a problem with their feet, though there is a reason whythey [pretend to] limp, so also Peter, aware that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision matters but only keeping the commandments of God, ate beforehand with Gentiles but for atime withdrew from them to avoid alienating the Jews from theirfaith in Christ. Paul likewise employed the same pretense as Peter and confronted him and spoke in front of everyone, not somuch to rebuke Peter as to correct those for whose sake Peterhad engaged in simulation. Now, if anyone is not convinced bythis interpretation, that Peter was not in error and Paul did notrashly rebuke his elder, he must account for why Paul criticized*another for doing the same thing he had done.

St. John Chrysostom has the same interpretation here, and Jerome reports that Origen held it as well, though it does not appear in his surviving writings.

The Church Fathers were far from unanimous in this opinion, however, and it seems that Jerome and the others were in the minority.

The majority view, represented by St. Augustine, was that the two apostles had a real difference of opinion about the appropriateness of Peter’s actions. St. Augustine, in particular, points out that Jerome’s theory would involve the two apostles in lying.

A while back, I was reading one of Pope Benedict XVI’s audiences, where he weighed in on the subject:

[LEFT]Here the other epicenter of Mosaic observance emerges: the distinction between clean and unclean foods which deeply separated practicing Jews from Gentiles. At the outset Cephas, Peter, shared meals with both; but with the arrival of certain Christians associated with James, “the Lord’s brother” (Gal 1: 19), Peter began to avoid contact with Gentiles at table in order not to shock those who were continuing to observe the laws governing the cleanliness of food and his decision was shared by Barnabas.[/LEFT]

[LEFT]This decision profoundly divided the Christians who had come from circumcision and the Christians who came from paganism.[/LEFT]

[LEFT]This behavior, that was a real threat to the unity and freedom of the Church, provoked a passionate reaction in Paul who even accused Peter and the others of hypocrisy: “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Gal 2: 14).[/LEFT]

[LEFT]In fact, the thought of Paul on the one hand, and of Peter and Barnabas on the other, were different: for the latter the separation from the Gentiles was a way to safeguard and not to shock believers who came from Judaism; on the contrary, for Paul it constituted the danger of a misunderstanding of the universal salvation in Christ, offered both to Gentiles and Jews.[/LEFT]

[LEFT]If justification is only achieved by virtue of faith in Christ, of conformity with him, regardless of any effect of the Law, what is the point of continuing to observe the cleanliness of foods at shared meals? In all likelihood the approaches of Peter and Paul were different: the former did not want to lose the Jews who had adhered to the Gospel, and the latter did not want to diminish the saving value of Christ’s death for all believers.[/LEFT]

[LEFT]It has been noted that the fact that, after describing his rebuke of Peter, Paul does not immediately say, “And I won, and Peter agreed with me!” is a sign that he actually lost the argument.[/LEFT]

[LEFT]If so, it may have given him cause for further reflection, which may have led him to consider situations in which some accommodation to Jewish practices was warranted–even if the situation in Antioch was not one of them. Pope Benedict noted:[/LEFT]

[LEFT]It is strange to say but in writing to the Christians of Rome a few years later (in about the middle of the 50s A.D.), Paul was to find himself facing a similar situation and asked the strong not to eat unclean foods in order not to lose or scandalize the weak: “it is right not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother stumble” (Rm 14: 21).[/LEFT]

[LEFT]The incident at Antioch thus proved to be as much of a lesson for Peter as it was for Paul.[/LEFT]

[LEFT]Only sincere dialogue, open to the truth of the Gospel, could guide the Church on her journey: “For the kingdom of God does not mean food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rm 14: 17).[/LEFT]

[LEFT]It is a lesson that we too must learn: with the different charisms entrusted to Peter and to Paul, let us all allow ourselves to be guided by the Spirit, seeking to live in the freedom that is guided by faith in Christ and expressed in service to the brethren General Audience, Oct. 1, 2008].[/LEFT]

Thus Paul might have regarded Peter as wrong in the Antioch incident but have been led to more closely consider situations in which accommodating Jewish practices was permissible and even needed.

That could explain Jerome’s question about Paul later did similar things himself.



I was reading Galatians the other day and wondered what was going on, I don’t think they faked a fight but it sounded like some sort of debate.

Another alternative reading is that the Cephas in Antioch was not the same person as the Apostle Peter. This also has patristic support.


I think Paul was writing from the context of authority. In telling readers of his confronting Peter on a point of Christian life he is claiming a certain level of authority. The fact that he chooses Peter to do this means that Peter has authority in the eyes of the early Church, not just in Antioch where Paul confronted Peter, but also in the eyes of the Galatians who Paul was writing to.

The obvious question for me is why does Peter have authority not only in Antioch, but Galatia also?

Although it is opposed by many, I believe the Gospel of Matthew was widely circulated in the Christian world at the time of writing of Paul’s letters. Whether you accept this or not, the fact that the authority of Peter is assumed to be accepted by the Galatians at this time has to be explained.

As usual Akin is excellent! Here is a quote from the Aquinas Study Bible that uses quotes from the Church Fathers and great Catholic theologians which is similar to the article and expands a bit on the passage.

**2:11 I withstood him to his face: **Paul must be admired because he believed that truth must be honored before everything, and for it he did not hesitate to oppose the most excellent and distinguished of the Apostles to his face. But Peter must be admired because, granted that he appeared to be convicted, nevertheless he remained quiet, bearing it all with silence. Though he was capable of asserting his primacy on the basis of many considerations, he treated his own affairs as of no importance and thought that people should honor truth above all. But their agreement in the time that followed has demonstrated that their dispute did not cause any division. (Theodore of Mopsuestia) **Because he was to be blamed. **It may be asked whether Peter was really blameworthy and was actually blamed by Paul. For many years there was a sharp dispute on this point between St. Jerome and St. Augustine, as may be seen in their epistles. Jerome, Chrysostom, Theophylact, Baronius answer in the negative, and hold that the rebuke was only theatrical. They argue that Peter, who had lawfully followed the Jewish customs at Jerusalem among Jews, lived as a Gentile among Gentiles at Antioch; when, however, the Jews arrived who had been sent to Antioch from Jerusalem by James, he withdrew from the Gentiles in favor of the Jews, lest he should offend those who had been the earliest to receive the faith (see ver. 9), and also that he might at the same time give Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles, an opportunity of rebuking him, that by yielding he might teach the Jews that the time for Judaising was past. On the other side St. Augustine maintains that Peter was really blameworthy, and was blamed by Paul, as the record distinctly declares. (Cornelius a Lapide)

2:12-14 fearing them: the Jews, not with a human or worldly fear but a fear inspired by charity, namely, lest they be scandalized, as is said in a Gloss. Hence he became to the Jews as a Jew (1 Cor 9:20), pretending that he felt the same as they did in their weakness. Yet he feared unreasonably, because the truth must never be set aside through fear of scandal. (St. Thomas Aquinas) In all likelihood the approaches of Peter and Paul were different: Peter did not want to lose the Jews who had adhered to the Gospel, and Paul did not want to diminish the saving value of Christ’s death for all believers. (Pope Benedict XVI St. Paul 6)

Why would the Apostles have, as we see Peter here, take up the old customs that were fulfilled by Christ in the New Law? St. Bede clarifies it when commenting on Acts 16:3 concerning Paul circumcising Timothy, saying, “This was done so that the Jewish Christians would not fall away from the faith because of the pretext of the Gentiles. Nevertheless, the old trace of the law was to be gradually removed for them, just as the depravity of the ancient ways was to be removed in the case of the Gentiles. For these traces of the law were used from time to time by the Apostles, as if they were at one time established by the Lord, in order to avert the lack of faith on the part of the Jewish Christians.”

For although Barnabas correctly believed that such laws had been abolished for both peoples, still with the same intention as Peter, he withdrew himself from the Gentiles and pretended to think just like the weak did. This hypocrisy was not helpful to the Gentiles, however, and that is why Paul rebuked Peter. (Peter Lombard) For unless Peter had been publicly corrected in this matter and thus confessed that he was in fact reprehensible, not only would Jews think faith was useless without the Law but Gentiles would as well. (St. Bruno)

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