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Gal. 2:11-21 – "This Passage Says That the Apostles Had Ceased to Live as Jews."

 by Michael Bugg

On the contrary, the Emissaries continued living Jewish lives, and under their teaching and example, those Jews who believed in Yeshua were zealous for the Torah (Acts 21:21ff).  What we see in Paul's calculated insult to Peter is a rebuke based on their different traditions within Judaism:  Rabbi Sha'ul, as a Pharisee, kept to the strictest interpretation of the Torah, while Sh'mon Kefa, the Galilean, was more relaxed in his observance.  Paul's point was that if Peter wanted to distance himself from others based on "how Jewish" they were, he was liable to the same treatment by Paul!

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. But when I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel, I said unto Peter before them all, If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?

We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is therefore Christ the minister of sin? God forbid. For if I build again the things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor. For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God. I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.  I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.

Galatians is probably the most misused and misunderstood book in the Bible.  It is thematically parallel to Romans, but far shorter and as a result fails develop its thoughts as fully as Romans does.  My personal opinion is that Paul wrote it hurriedly to counter a sudden growth of the Judaizing heresy and that many of the odder elements of the letter (like the strange allusion to Sarah and Hagar) were written to counter specific arguments the Judaizers were using—arguments which were not preserved for us, giving us only half the picture.  That doesn’t make Galatians incorrect—but it does mean that Paul was writing a very high contextual document, one in which he expected his listeners to be aware of a number of facts, including his own oral teachings, so we have to be careful about how we quote and use it.

Now, what was the Judaizing heresy?  In most churches through history, it has been taught that the essence of Judaizing is enjoining others to keep the Torah.  However, as we have already seen, Paul taught that faith in the Messiah does not mean that we make void (annul) the Torah, but rather that we should uphold it instead (Rom. 3:31), so that makes no sense. 

Rather, the essence of the Judaizing heresy can be found in Acts 15:1 & 5:  “And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’ . . . It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses."  We address that council’s reasoning and decisions elsewhere.  In summary, the apostles understood that to force Gentiles to become Jews to receive full fellowship was to deny God’s promises to the Gentiles and deny the evidence of the Spirit.

Now, with that in mind, let’s look at the situation between Paul and Peter.  Peter ate freely with the Gentiles, as Paul did.  This was a sign that he considered them “part of the group/family,” having full fellowship, especially in the Jewish culture of the day.  Some men come up from James and tell him something.  We don’t know what.  If this was before the Jerusalem Council, it may have been informing him about the controversy back home.  It may have been to warn him that the Zealots were assassinating Jews who they considered to be “too close” to the Gentiles (cf. Leman, Paul 42).  Paul doesn’t tell us, and the incident isn’t recorded in Acts, so we don’t know—though we do know from Acts that James was on the side of the Gentile believers (15:19ff, 21:25), so this most certainly does not represent a rift in the Apostles on the subject, whatever the controversy may have been.

As a result of this message, Peter withdraws from eating with the Gentile believers.  This becomes a public statement, from the actions of an apostle, that there is a separation between the “more holy” Jews and the “less holy” Gentiles in the Ekklesia.  Paul knows that if this is allowed to continue, either a hierarchy of “holiness” will develop along ethnic lines, or worse, the Gospel that the Messiah came to redeem men of all nations will be subsumed into a “gospel” of, “You can be saved in the Messiah—if you’re Jewish.”  So he confronts Peter openly and publicly shames him (this in a culture where honor was paramount—a very dangerous action on Paul’s part).

Now, let’s look at the specific statement:  First, “If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews?” (Gal. 2:14).  Commentators for centuries have taken this to mean that Peter had given up Torah-observance, but this can hardly be the case.  In the very same letter, Paul writes, “And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law” (5:3).  And in Acts 21:20ff, we learn that the Jerusalem church was zealous to keep the Torah, and that James and Paul rejected a rumor that Paul was teaching Jews not to keep the Torah and remain Jews (circumcised).  Nor is there any hint of an anomian ("against the Law," or "without the Law") attitude in Peter’s letters or anywhere in the book of Acts. 

What then does Paul mean?  There’s a double-meaning being employed here, I believe.  First, Paul was actually insulting Peter’s Galilean upbringing to make his point!  There was a rivalry between the Judeans, who were more prone to be concerned with the minutiae of the law, and the Galileans, who kept the written Torah but who were less concerned about oral traditions, fences, or rulings:

The Galileans were fiercely loyal to Judaism.  They undoubtedly were meticulous in fulfilling the essential demands of Judaism, such as Sabbath observance.  The Pharisaic scholars of Judaism, centered in Jerusalem in Judea , found the Galileans insufficiently concerned about the details (emphasis mine) of Jewish observance—for example, the rules of Sabbath rest.  The Talmud says that Yohanan ben Zakkai, a great Pharisee of the first century, was assigned to a post in Galilee during his training.  In eighteen years he was asked only two questions of Jewish law, causing him to lament “O Galilee, O Galilee, in the end you shall be filled with wrongdoers!” ( Jerusalem Talmud Shabbat 16:7, 15d).  The Pharisaic criticism of Galileans is mirrored in the New Testament, in which Galilean religious passion in [sic] compared favorably against the minute concerns of the Judean legal scholars.  There was rivalry between Galilee and Judea , the former representing a passionate approach to religion, the latter an intellectual approach.  (Wylen, Jews 64; Davies likewise alludes to the differing levels of strictness in Paul 74)

This same rivalry is reflected especially in John’s Gospel account, where he constantly refers to the Ioudaioi as opposing Yeshua.  Ioudaioi (Ιουδαιοι) can be translated “the Jews,” as in world Jewry in general, and is thus translated in most Bibles, but it can also be translated “the Judeans,” and I think this is the Galilean apostle’s intent, contrasting Yeshua’s popularity among the Galilean common-folk with the antagonism He experienced at the hands of the Judean leadership.

This rivalry explains Paul’s attack:  The Galileans were seen as being almost Gentile because they rejected Judean halacha (traditional rulings).  Normally, of course, Paul didn’t care in the least about such things, but since Peter was making a show out of disassociating himself from the “less ritually pure” Gentiles, Paul reminded him that by the standards of Pharisaic ritual purity, neither should Paul or the other Pharisees (and there were quite a few Pharisees who were believers; Acts 15:5) associate with Peter! 

As I said, there is a double-meaning here, and it is this:  Paul says that Peter lives like a Gentile (Gr. ethnikoos zes, εθνιως ζης).  When we come to v. 19, we read, “For I through the law died to the law that I might live (zesoo ζεσω) to God.”  I believe that Paul was not only gigging Peter on the basis of his ritual purity as a Jew to show the foolishness of assigning a hierarchy based on one’s “Jewishness,” but was also reminding Peter that he was saved as the Gentiles were:  Not by his own ability to keep the righteous requirements of the Torah, but by being crucified with the Messiah, so that the Messiah lived in him (v. 20).  Therefore, there was no reason to call the Gentile believers anything but brothers, for “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

What does Paul mean then when he says, “For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God”?  Saying that this means that he no longer felt the need to follow the Torah doesn’t work, since again he elsewhere establishes that the Torah should be kept.  Moreover, consider the practical outworkings of such a teaching:  There is no distinction between the “ceremonial” law and the “moral” law in Scripture; this is an artificial division that we developed to explain why we obeyed the commandment not to commit bestiality or marry our close relatives (which I use as examples because it is nowhere specifically reiterated in the NT) but not the commandment to observe Passover.  If being dead to the law means that we are free to flaunt it, then go out and steal, have sex with whatever you wish, and kill those who get in your way!

David H. Stern takes the Greek in this passage, Ego gar dia nomon nomou apethanon, (Εγο γαρ δια νομου νομω απεθανον) to mean, “For I through Torah to legalism died.”

A good general rule of interpretation is that if a word appears more than once in a passage, its meaning stays the same throughout the passage.  Here we have an exception . . .  I know that because Sha’ul (Paul) avoids the natural Greek word order in order to place two forms of the word “nomos” side by side.  This signals the reader that something unusual is going on, specifically, that the sense of the first “nomos” differs from that of the second.  My expanded translation[, “For it was through letting the Torah speak for itself that I died to the traditional legalistic misinterpretation,”] brings out that the first “nomos” is the true Torah, the Torah understood properly as requiring trusting faithfulness; while the second is the perversion of the Torah into a legalistic system.  (Commentary 542)

The reason why Paul would have used nomos for both the true Torah and legalism is because 1) Nomos was the translation of the word Torah used in the Greek Septuagint translation, and widely in use at the time (just as “law” is today), and 2) there is no Greek word that differentiates law-keeping from legalism (see ibid. 536-537, where Stern quotes C.E.B. Cranfield, The International Critical Commentary, Romans, 1979, p. 853 and E. Burton, The International Critical Commentary, Galatians, 1921, p. 120).  Paul therefore employs the above odd construction and coins a couple of phrases to denote the idea of trying to please God by legalistically keeping the Torah “in just the right way” rather than by trusting the Messiah Yeshua to cover all our sins:  Erga nomou (εργα νομω), “by the works of the law,” and upo nomon (υπο νομον), “under the law.”  The former has the connotation of trying to work for God’s freely offered grace, an exercise in futility, while the latter refers to being pressed down by the law as if by a horrible burden.  That is, the Torah was a burden because of the condemnation it pronounced against those who broke it—and we are all lawbreakers, every last one of us.

So then, does this passage teach the doing away of the Torah?  If it does, it contradicts several other passages, including Paul’s own words in Romans and his own actions in Acts.  On the contrary, the issue was ethnicity and the division of believers along artificial lines of ritual purity and the “correct” way of Torah-observance.  But by letting the Torah speak for itself, instead of filtering it through traditions, whether Jewish or Christian, which are not correct, we see the Messiah Yeshua clearly revealed within it, and our need to have our myriad sins covered by the blood of His grace.


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