Dr IAN ELMER…
This is a "catch-up" commentary from Dr Ian Elmer. It went astray somewhere in cyberspace between Brisbane and the Blue Mountains before Christmas. We insert it now as this series is also being followed by students in various tertiary institutions as part of their reading. The dispute Paul was involved in with Peter, James and the leaders at Jerusalem was complex and scholars are still seeking to fully understand it with various explanations being put forward. The thrust of this commentary is, as Dr Elmer concludes, "[i]n a very real sense, it was this dispute that gave birth to Paul's quintessential mission as the 'Apostle to the Gentiles'".
Two distinct forms of faith emerged...
As the dust settled on the final conflict at Antioch, an important chapter in the history of the early Church drew to a close. What had begun as a dispute between two wings of the nascent Jesus movement in Jerusalem, the Hebrews and the Hellenists, had given birth to two, distinctly different forms of faith in Jesus Messiah. The first, led by Peter and the Twelve and centred in Jerusalem, held tenaciously to its Jewish heritage and continued to operate within the ambit of Jewish custom. The second movement drew its initial membership from Diaspora Jews and, eventually basing itself primarily in Syrian Antioch, embarked on a program that sought to convert Gentiles without demanding circumcision or obedience to the Mosaic Law.
Despite numerous attempts by the mother church in Jerusalem to rein in its wayward offspring in Antioch, the Gentile mission flourished and spread into Cyprus and throughout the Roman Province of Galatia in Asia Minor. However, the rise of Jesus' brother James to a position of authority at Jerusalem signalled the beginning of a new offensive on the part of the Law-observant faction to gain control of the situation in Antioch.
Through a series of envoys James and his circumcision party achieved what Peter and the previous administration at Jerusalem were unable to do. They brought the troublesome Hellenists to the conference table at Jerusalem. What the immediate outcome of this meeting was is unclear. But the one thing that is clear is that neither James nor the Jerusalem church agreed to allow the Antiochene community to continue its independent Gentile mission.
Paul's subsequent account of the incident at Antioch indicates that James was ultimately successful in imposing strict Law-observance on the Hellenists' community at Antioch. Only Paul resisted this disturbing development; but he was fighting a losing battle. As a consequence, he found himself marginalised and forced to leave Antioch in search of new missions further afield of the widening reach of James' circumcision putsch.
Paul's Watershed Moment…
It is generally accepted that this series of conflicts between Antioch and Jerusalem marked not only a watershed in the history of the early Church, but also in the career of Paul (Dunn, 1990, 56; Watson, 1986: 56). Nothing seems clearer than the fact that Paul lost the battle to James at Antioch. While he resolutely champions his defiance of James' people and affirms the legitimacy of his position, Paul admits that his actions left him in the minority, as Barnabas and the whole Jewish constituency at Antioch defected to the pro-circumcision putsch.
Paul's account of the conflict ends abruptly with no explicit report of its conclusion. This implies that he was unable to win any of his erstwhile collaborators back to the cause of the Law-free gospel. As a result of this calamity, it appears that Paul immediately departed Antioch and embarked on a mission to Asia Minor and Greece. This is confirmed by Acts (15:36-41), which presents Paul as undertaking this second missionary journey without his former companion Barnabas.
Luke says nothing of Paul's clash with Peter and James' people at Antioch. The split between Barnabas and Paul is occasioned by a dispute over the inclusion of John Mark in the missionary team. But the finality of the split is apparent in the fact that from this point onwards in Acts Barnabas fades from the story of Paul.
It is likely that Paul never again returned to Antioch, even though Acts (18:22-23) suggests one further visit. Some scholars accept the historicity of this additional visit to Antioch, and they suggest that this must indicate a later rapprochement between Paul and the Antiochene church (Taylor, 1992). However, Paul himself says nothing of this and, in view of the bitterness that pervades Paul's account of the incident at Antioch, it is highly improbable that he would have returned to renew his association with the Antiochene community.
Other scholars have suggested that Paul never completely severed his ties to Jerusalem, even though he may no longer have been based at Antioch (Brown and Meier, 1983). It is even assumed in some circles that, while Paul and the apostolic leadership at Jerusalem had their differences of opinion, especially with regard to matters of missionary strategy, such disagreements were neither fundamental nor irreconcilable. R. E. Brown and J. P. Meier (1983: 214), for example, state that "Peter, Paul, and James dealt with each other, keeping koinonia or communion, seemingly even when they disputed". However, such assumptions fail to appreciate the depth of the division that existed between Paul and Jerusalem following the controversies at Jerusalem and Antioch.
Paul, Jerusalem and the Gentiles…
It may be true that, in Galatians (2:1-14), Paul attempts to present his relationship with the Jerusalem Apostles as amicable; accusing the false brothers at Jerusalem and the people from James at Antioch as the real cause of the division. But Paul never completely exonerates James and Peter of the charge of having conspired with the pro-circumcision party at Jerusalem and Antioch; and he draws a connection between the apostolic authorities in Jerusalem with the troublemakers at Galatia.
In recalling these events at Antioch in his letter to the churches in Galatia, Paul accuses James of acting with duplicity in sending a delegation to Antioch to undo the agreement forged at Jerusalem. He cites Peter's hypocrisy in yielding to James' initiative, despite Peter's previous acceptance of the mixed table fellowship at Antioch. And he implicitly groups the "Pillars" with the Christian-Jewish missionaries at Galatia, charging them all with seeking to impose circumcision on the Gentiles out of fear of persecution and in the interests of their own self-aggrandisement.
There is yet another, often overlooked aspect of this conflict — the plight of the Gentiles who had previously converted to the Jesus Movement in Antioch. Such was the total success of James' intervention at Antioch that we must assume that many of these Gentile converts too were swayed by these events and chose to adopt Law-observance.
The foremost missionaries in the outreach to non-Jews had always been ethnic, Greek-speaking Jews from the Diaspora, like the Hellenists (Acts 11:19), Nicolaus of Antioch (Acts 6:5) and Philip (Acts 6:5; 8:4-13, 26-40), the Cypriot Barnabas and Saul of Tarsus (Acts 11:21-26; 13:1; Gal 2:1-14), Simeon Niger and Lucius of Cyrene (Acts 13:1). The Gentiles who owed their Christian faith to the ministry of these Hellenists were now left with a difficult choice. They could accept the new situation and either become Jewish proselytes or adopt some measure of Law-observance, which in effect meant a return to the status of God-fearers and mere associates to the full members of the Christian Jewish community.
The only other option open to them was to recant their Christian faith and return to their previous pagan practices. There is the slim possibility that some of the Gentile converts withdrew from the wider Antiochene community and held their own separate services (Taylor, 1992: 138). But this seems unlikely.
With the departure of Paul and the defection of Barnabas and the other Hellenists to James' pro-circumcision putsch, any surviving Law-free Gentile remnant would have been under immense pressure to conform to the new Law-observant policy. We see here the depth of the division wrought by James' intervention, and the destruction it brought vis-à-vis the unity of the nascent Christianity.
If Paul's polemic against the Jerusalem Apostles does not indicate a serious rift in koinonia, it is hard to imagine what else would be necessary before we could speak of such a schism (Hann, 1987: 341). In any event, it seems obvious that following the Jerusalem Council and the subsequent Antiochene dispute with Peter and the James' party Paul was deprived of the support of Barnabas and sanction of the Antiochene community. Henceforth, he appears to have acted as a freelance missionary with no connection to either Antioch or Jerusalem, returning to Jerusalem only after a decade of independent apostolic activity in Asia Minor and Greece. In a very real sense, it was this dispute that gave birth to Paul's quintessential mission as the "Apostle to the Gentiles".
Bibliography and Further Reading:
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©2009 Ian Elmer