But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision. And the other Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation. (Gal. 2:11-13).
When Peter stayed at Antioch, he first eats quietly and communicates with the Gentiles, knowing that Christ calls everyone to His Kingdom and does not despise any people. When Christians from Jerusalem come, he distances himself from the common meals forbidden by the Law of Moses. Is it true that the Apostle Peter who had already had the experience of Pentecost, who was already filled with the Holy Spirit, who had already received the revelation of God not to regard as unclean what God makes clean, could fall so low as to act against the truth of the Gospel? Did Paul reproach him fairly for this? What is the meaning of this passage, after all?
There have been various interpretations of this passage, and it remains a controversial subject among Christians even today. The idea that the Apostle Peter might have contradicted the Gospel was so implausible and audacious that there even appeared a conjecture that Paul rebuked some other Peter, not Cephas. This theory, according to Eusebius of Caesarea, was followed by Clement of Alexandria (Eusebius. The History of the Church 1, 12, 1). However, this interpretation did not take root in the Church tradition. Blessed Augustine believed that Peter had fallen into error and defect, temporarily submitting to the party of the Judaizers, and Paul rightly reproaches and corrects him in public. Augustine is surprised at Peter’s humility and willingness to tolerate the public reproach of the “younger shepherd” (Augustine of Hippo, Commentary on Galatians 15), but does not give any grounds to explain the behavior of Cephas. Both Jerome and Chrysostom strongly disagree with the exegesis of Augustine. Let’s take a closer look at St John’s point of view, for it resolves all perplexities.
Could Paul reproach Peter? St. John Chrysostom thinks it’s unlikely. First, as St. John puts it, the Apostle Paul “was not only a servant of Peter, the supreme one among those saints, but also of all the apostles in general, though he exceeded all in his labors” (St. John Chrysostom, Homily in the old church on the words of the apostle “But when Peter came to Antioch, I personally opposed him”). Paul considered himself to be the least not only among the apostles, For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle (1 Corinthians 15:9), but also of all Christians, Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given (Eph. 3:8). Secondly, in spite of the fact that Paul always upheld his apostolic status and the Church honored him with the title of a prince of the apostles, the former persecutor of the Church had a great respect for such spiritual beacons as Cephas, James and John. Paul “knew the privilege that Peter was supposed to have, and respected him more than all men, and in general treated him as he deserved” (Ibid.). We know from Paul’s own words that he had specially gone to Jerusalem to meet Peter in person and stayed with him for fifteen days (Galatians 1:18).
Stewardship of the Apostles
Thirdly, how could Paul reproach Peter for his alleged hypocrisy if he himself, when necessary, unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law (1 Corinthians 9:20)? We know that he circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:3) and also shaved his head on one occasion by vow (Acts 18:18) so as not to compromise his mission among the Jews. If Paul’s reproof was meant for Peter personally, shouldn’t he, in accordance with the Lord’s commandment, have rebuked Peter first in private, and if the latter did not repent, then in the presence of witnesses and finally in front of the entire congregation (Matthew 18:15-17)? Fourthly, Paul could not reproach Peter, because Peter adhered to the same doctrine as the apostle of Gentiles and the two apostles together defended this truth at the Apostolic Council. These arguments led Chrysostom and Blessed Jerome — another prominent and authoritative exegete — to the conclusion that there was no dispute between the apostles and there couldn’t be any (Chrysostom goes so far as to be indignant at such a suggestion: “God forbid”), but that the dispute was fictitious and was meant by the two apostles to make the Judeo-Christians understand the truth.
The Apostles’ Plan
What did the First Apostles do? Why was it Paul, the teacher of Gentiles, who instructed those who came from James — and not Peter, who was called by the Lord to preach to the Jews? Peter could not do this explicitly at that time, for he himself had to keep the commandments of the law for the sake of the Jewish Christians, who were still weak in faith, and who, having come to believe in Christ, could not immediately put aside what they were used to. If Peter had continued to eat with the Gentiles, he would have caused many to be taken aback, because it would contradict his previous behavior. Paul’s blunt criticism of the Jews, however, would not have had any effect on them, for he was neither respected nor honored as an apostle by many zealots, who considered him a disgrace to the traditions of their ancestors. Thus, Peter “arranged it so that Paul might rebuke and reproach him severely, so that this fake reproof” (ibid.) might help him to correct the shortcoming of Jewish Christians. Chrysostom emphasizes that Peter “remains silent and does not object because he knows the intention with which Paul rebuked him; and therefore, Peter corrected everything by his silence, because his silence taught the Jews not to cling to the prescriptions of the Law anymore” (Ibid.).
Peter was silent, and Judeo-Christians accepted the fairness of Paul’s reproach. Their weakness and imperfection in faith was cured. For the same reason, Paul mentions this incident and his victory over Peter in his Epistle to the Galatians. In fact, it was their common victory and the victory of the Gospel. Let us learn from Paul’s wisdom, as well as Peter’s prudence and humility, and praise God, who gave us such a great preacher as Saint John Chrysostom.