Galatians 2:11-21: Some notes on the logical flow of the argument
2:11 But when Cephas came to Antioch I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 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. 13 And with him the rest of the Jews acted insincerely, so that even Barnabas was carried away by their insincerity.
In Acts 10, Peter has a vision in which he is told to eat unclean food for a Jew, which he does after objecting. He then goes to the house of Cornelius and explains himself to a pious Gentile, how God commanded him to eat unclean food, since nothing is unclean to God. Now he backs down from the personal vision he received. He is possibly afraid for his life, after fleeing Jerusalem. Or just plain hypocrisy. There was at the time a huge Jewish population in Jerusalem.
There are levels of “Judaizing” for a Gentile:
• Keeping the Sabbath
• Table-fellowship, or eating together
• Moral obligations
• Rejecting idolatry
• Circumcision, the apex of becoming a Jew and symbolizing the keeping of the entire law
These five are the process by which a Gentile would Judaize, or become a keeper of the Law.
2:14 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?” 15 We ourselves, who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, 16 yet who know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified.
Here, “living like a Jew” refers not to circumcision, but to table-fellowship. Peter is not living like a Jew when he shares the table with Gentiles, so how can he require Gentiles to live like Jews? Paul accuses Peter here of forcing Gentiles to Judaize, after he has not obeyed the precepts of the law himself. Part of this may also be that Gentile wine was forbidden to Jews, which Peter may have been partaking of.
Paul sets up an important dichotomy that was common at the time between “Jews by birth” or by nature, and “Sinners from the Gentiles.” This was how the Jews divided up the world. You had two kinds of people: Jews by nature, who lived under the law, and Sinners, which included all who were outside the law. They were usually simply called “sinners,” or sometimes, “sinners from the Gentiles.” “Sinners from the Gentiles” had no hope of salvation, as opposed to Jewish sinners, who could turn back to the Torah and find salvation again. A “sinner” usually refers to anyone who is not a good covenantal Jew, anyone outside the covenant.
Paul makes the distinction between Sinners – all those outside the covenant, who don’t keep the whole law – and Jews by Nature – those who keep the whole law and live under the covenant. That was the normal view. Jews are “righteous;” Gentiles are “Sinners.” The Law is what separates Jews from Sinners. However, once the wall that is the Law is broken down, Peter and Paul now become “sinners.” If there is no law, according to all good Jews, all are now “sinners,” since the Law alone keeps people from being “sinners.” That is what sets up the next few verses.
Nathan O'Halloran, SJ