Paul, Part 7: Living Like the Gentiles
In Galatians 2:11-21, we see a little bit of drama between Paul and Peter. There are some parts of this passage that, if not properly understood, could lead to some faulty beliefs. Let’s take a closer look.
In Galatians 2, Paul had been explaining a meeting he had with the “pillars”—James, Cephas (Peter), and John—and how just as Paul had been called to the Gentiles, they went to the Jews. He continues in verses 11-12: “But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision.” What was the big problem with Peter eating with Gentiles? Who is the party of the circumcision, and what do they care about who Peter associates with? In those days, Jews had strict regulations against associating with Gentiles. At that time and place in history, if someone wasn’t Jewish then in practically every case they were involved in idol-worship. To avoid becoming defiled by associating with an idolater, Jewish tradition stated that eating with Gentiles was forbidden. Peter, however, had special reason to ignore this rule when he associated with Gentile believers in Yeshua (Jesus). He had been the first of the apostles to fellowship with a Gentile (Acts 10:9-11:18). In Acts 10, Peter receives a vision from the Lord: a sheet with both clean and unclean animals on it is lowered before him, and the Lord tells him to kill and eat the animals. Peter replies, “Surely not, I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” This happens three times. The vision ends with God saying, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” Many people say that this vision is God telling Peter that he no longer is obligated to observe the kosher food laws. The problem with this interpretation is that the passage is not talking about food, and Peter himself does not interpret the vision to mean that he has been liberated from dietary prohibitions. The key to understanding this passage is verse 28: “And he said to them, ‘You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean.'” The issue being addressed is not animals, but men.
Now we can return to Galatians with a proper understanding of why Paul took issue with Peter’s behavior. Since Peter had been the first of the apostles to eat with God-fearing Gentiles, he knew for a fact that this was not an impure thing. Paul tells us that the reason Peter acted against his convictions was out of fear of the “party of the circumcision.” This was a group of people who believed that Gentiles needed to be circumcised (formally converted) in order to achieve salvation and be accepted into the community of believers (Acts 15:1). This is the false gospel which Paul is opposing all through Galatians (Galatians 2:3-5). The circumcision party could have been believing Jews preaching circumcision for all, or they could have been Gentiles who had been circumcised and converted to Judaism themselves who were trying to convince other Gentiles to do the same. Whoever they were, apparently Peter and the others felt intimidated by them, and so they concede to their beliefs (verse 13). Paul is not going to let this slide, and so he calls Peter out in front of everyone: “But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, ‘If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?'” (verse 14). He reiterates that this has to do with the “truth of the gospel.” Paul’s gospel to the Gentiles had to do with the fact that they did not need to be formally circumcised and undergo conversion to Judaism in order to share in reaping the blessings of Israel, including the Holy Spirit and the gift of salvation through the Messiah of Israel, Yeshua. Therefore those who were teaching a false gospel were preaching otherwise, sharing the opinion of those in Acts 15:1.
What does Paul mean that Peter is living like the Gentiles? The most common interpretation is that Peter had originally abandoned the Torah, but now he was trying to convince Gentiles to come under its heavy burden, and this is what Paul was rebuking him for. This interpretation, however, does not make sense considering the catalyst of the argument, which was regarding table fellowship with Gentiles, which is not even mentioned in the Torah. So what does it mean that Peter was living like a Gentile, and in what way was his current behavior compelling the Gentiles to “live like Jews?”
Within the context of the passage, we see that Peter had been living like a Gentile in the sense that he did not rely on Torah-observance or physical heritage to receive justification (verses 15-16). This doesn’t mean he didn’t still keep Torah, since it is the standard God has given His people to live by (Psalm 19:7-11). Just as Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles, Peter was one of the apostles who was called to their fellow-Israelites, as Paul explained earlier in the chapter. Although this is the case, Peter recognized that Gentiles who believe in Yeshua do not need to be circumcised and convert to Judaism, as he demonstrates, for example, in Acts 15:7-11. So when he separates himself from eating with the Gentiles in order to appease those of the party of the circumcision, he is essentially agreeing with them in saying that the Gentile believers are impure before God unless they become circumcised, thus “compelling the Gentiles to live like Jews.” The phrase “live like Jews” is from the Greek word Ioudaizein, which is sometimes translated as “Judaize.” The use of this word doesn’t mean keeping God’s commandments, but rather implies becoming Jewish, thus falling back to a “salvation by works,” where salvation is attained by being physically Jewish through heritage or converting to Judaism through circumcision. This is the big problem in Galatia that Paul is trying to put down. Paul is not rebuking Peter for teaching Gentiles about God’s commandments, but because of Peter’s eagerness to turn his back on the Gentiles in order to preserve his reputation before some influential people.
To put a timeline on this event, some scholars believe that the original letter to the Galatians was actually written before the Jerusalem council recorded in Acts 15. The passage in Galatians 2:1-10 speaks of a journey to Jerusalem, but due to conflicts of details, it is unsure if this is the trip where the council took place or if it is a separate occasion. Up until that decision, the common consensus was that Gentiles would become legally Jewish upon professing faith in Yeshua. Paul did not agree, and eventually, according to Acts 15, the rest followed suit. So if it is the case that this happened before the Jerusalem Council, there was no established doctrine on how Gentiles were to be accepted.
Paul links this belief about circumcision with the phrase “works of the Torah,” (Galatians 2:15-16). This phrase has been somewhat misunderstood over the years, and after reading Paul’s fiery criticisms of those who rely on the works of the Torah, some have been led to believe that one who attempts to walk in line with God’s commandments is seeking to be justified by the works of the Law. In this passage, however, we see that Peter was not trying to force Gentiles to keep any specific commandments, but rather his behavior was insinuating that Gentiles needed to physically convert to Judaism in order to be accepted into the body of Yeshua and fellowship with the other believers. The Dead Sea Scrolls shed some light on this phrase. One of the scrolls is entitled “Selection on Works of the Torah.” Discussed within are various religious rulings, mostly regarding ceremonial purity. Paul may or may not have known about this document, and perhaps this phrase was used in other contexts as well. But bearing this in mind, we see that Paul was applying the term “works of the Torah” to mean specific traditional commands, particularly those which mark a person as legally Jewish, and saying that a person is not justified by observing these. This fits with the overarching theme of conversion and acceptance of the believing Gentiles that is the main focus of Galatians.
Paul’s dialogue against Peter ends in verse 21: “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Torah, then Messiah died needlessly.” If we achieved salvation by merely becoming circumcised, then there would have been no need for Messiah to die. But this is not how we are saved, and it is not how anyone was saved prior to Yeshua. Everyone who is righteous before God is not so on account of things they have done or their lineage, but because they have faith in God to forgive their transgressions when they earnestly repent (Ezekiel 33:12-16, Daniel 9:18-19, Hosea 14:1-4). Even before Yeshua was born, those who lived by faith were trusting in Him, even if they didn’t understand it fully (John 8:56, Hebrews 11:13).
To summarize, this passage in Galatians recounts a slight altercation Paul has with Peter. While some understand some of the phrasing to mean that Peter had been living outside of the Torah, this passage says nothing of Peter turning from Judaism and living like a pagan. He had not turned from Judaism, but was living the way the vision of the sheet had revealed to him. This meant he was open to fellowship with Gentile believers, which up to that point in history was taboo for a Jew. After some men came to the community who did not believe the same way, he changed his tune. If we consider the fact that Galatians may have been written before the events of Acts 15, there was still no hard and fast rule at the time of this event about how Gentiles should be included. The party of the circumcision could have been Jews, but it is also possible that they were Gentiles who had already become legally Jewish and were trying to convince other Gentiles to do so as well. Paul was not anti-Torah, but he was bringing the teachings of the Judaism of his day that related to Gentiles forward in his teachings against those who taught that the only way for a Gentile to be justified was by legally becoming a Jew. To Paul, “works” refers to attempts at earning justification through conversion to Judaism and the various extra laws which rest upon a person once they go through such a conversion. He was not opposed to Gentiles being obedient to God according to the commandments within the Torah that apply to them as Gentiles. His main goal was instructing Gentiles that they did not need to become Jewish in order to be justified before God.