Dining disaster in Galatians

Nov 24, 2015 by

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Sitting at the table continues to be a metaphor for communing with other human beings. When we dine with others, we hear their stories, and we gaze into their eyes trying to see things as they see them. Table fellowship, as it is often called, implies that real human beings are engaged in friendship. But we all know that these shared experiences can go wrong.

Perhaps you’ve attended a dinner where your only role was to be a silent advocate for a friend was wronged by another chair at the table. The awkwardness of this scenario is trumped by the empowering love you offer simply by humanizing someone you care about to another who has dehumanized him or her. Then, as you may well know, there are those dinning disasters that feel like a table set for wartime negations. The tensions, high. The expectations, variegated. The situation, volatile.

Unfortunately, something goes awry that sends the relational dynamic on a trajectory that has ongoing implications for both the parties involved directly in the meal and those who have a stake in its outcome. Beyond that, the ongoing way the story gets told from varying points of view frames how it is interpreted among those affected by the disastrous outcome. The result being further alienation unless the parties come back together to get honest and ask, what actually went wrong?

A dinner party in the first century also went wrong. It was a volatile world, to be sure. Roman imperialism was firmly established as the norm. Subjugation was expected. Identity was blurred — especially for non-Judaeans. Everyone within the Roman Empire was expected to continue to worship their local deities (often built into dinner parties) but also to adopt various aspects of imperial religion. At times, this included the worship of the imperial family, but could also include honoring gods like Roma (female embodiment of Rome), Pax (peace of Rome), Victoria (victory) and numerous others. They even had festival calendars for honoring local and imperial gods and goddesses, celebrations of which often were connected to one’s patriotism. Even at meals libations could be poured on behalf of the emperor. To adopt this system wasn’t hard, in fact it was quite natural for most regions of the empire: all but one.

For the ancient Judaeans, those who counted their homeland as Judaea (basically, modern Israel/Palestine), this system didn’t work. Their culture was unique in its conviction that there was literally only one God worthy of worship. All other deities, including those of their conquerors, were off limits. Fidelity to their Lord, the God who they believed created and sustains the cosmos, was their highest aim in all aspects of life. They were zealous for the traditions of their people, including their multiple customs (often named under the shorthand descriptors “the law” or “Torah”). And fortunately, Rome understood this early and allowed them special concessions.

Now, add to this picture the fact that within both of these groups, the “Nations” (which modern New Testaments wrongly translate as “gentiles”) and the Judaeans, there came to be some who adopted a crucified and resurrected Anointed One as the world’s true Lord. This Jesus not only was raised back to life after being executed by the most excruciating method of Rome, but was embraced as Israel’s truest representative: even to the Nations. How would these two groups learn how to relate to one another? What we discover in correspondence that we have from Paul of Tarsus (the Judaean author of a large portion of the Christian Scriptures) is that reconciling the different customs of the Nations and the Judaeans—specifically those who endorsed the Lordship of Jesus — was quite difficult. Perhaps the most famous example comes to us in Paul’s letter to the Galatians:

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was wrong. He had been eating with the Gentiles before certain people came from James. But when they came, he began to back out and separate himself, because he was afraid of the people who promoted circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also joined him in this hypocrisy so that even Barnabas got carried away with them in their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they weren’t acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of everyone, “If you, though you’re a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you require the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Galatians 2.11-14 CEB)

This single dining disaster and its ramifications (as explored by Paul in Galatians) have shaped the ongoing discussion of Christian theology for two millennia. Even to this day, confusion and assumptions abound, so perhaps it’s wise to ask, what actually went wrong?

The disaster from a traditional perspective

The traditional answer to this question has to do with what happened after a Judaean adopted Jesus as Lord. Christian theology, as a whole, sees this dinner as demonstrating that Cephas (Peter) followed Jesus out of “Judaism” and into Christianity. The same was true of Paul and any other Judaean-turned-Christian. The Law was a placeholder for the fullness of God’s revelation of grace: Christianity.

So, when Paul says that Cephas lived like a “Gentile” (Nations-person) only to coward backwards with the demand that Gentiles now live more like Jews — the traditional perspective sees a stark dichotomy between the Law of the Judaeans and the Grace of Jesus. Both Judaeans and the Nations should now be able to dine together because Jews no longer follow the Law and Gentiles no longer worship idols. The merging of peoples is like an American melting pot (blending together of cultures to make one dominant identity) as apposed to a mosaic (the celebration of unique cultures coming together to create a multifaceted identity). This has had numerous ramifications for Jewish/Christian discourse, too much to adequately cover here.

The pressure that Cephas (Peter) felt from the men from James, in this model, is that perhaps he was giving up too much. Perhaps by not having these Gentiles be circumcised, they were not adequately equipped to enjoy the full status of family members. Thus, eating with them was still an unclean act. Peter, in this moment of weakness, chose to revert back to a Law + Jesus gospel than the radically liberating gospel of Jesus + nothing. This Law-versus-Grace model dominates Christian teaching up to the present day.

The dining disaster of a different kind

But what if something entirely different is at stake here? Could it be that the ongoing dialogue of the parties involved (those who would lead the way in early Christian theology up to the present) have been driven by misperception? It wouldn’t be the first time that an event in history was misunderstood.

Some scholars today are questioning some of the assumptions built into the traditional way of understanding this Antioch meal episode. For one thing, for reasons too complex to explore here, what if we imagine that being a Judaean adoptee of Jesus as Lord didn’t mean giving up one’s customs of Torah observance as a whole? Sure, modifications might be made here or there or even a change in worldview would have to be taken into account, but do we really imagine that Judaean Jesus-followers really forsook all things Judaean? If not, then the pressure that Cephas experienced probably wasn’t from Judaeans demanding that circumcision was the only way to become truly part of God’s “Jesus is Lord” community. The pressure came from Roman ideology.

Some scholars now believe a different scenario was at play. The men from James, the so-called Judaizers, were not trying to impose a Jesus + Law scenario on the Gentiles (“Nations”) so that they could finally find true salvation and full entrance into the community. Rather, the pressures from the Roman authorities in Antioch (which were more at play than in Judaea) led them to arrive at three basic scenarios:

  1. Gentiles could compromise and perform their civic customs while the Jews present abstained.
  2. Gentiles could become real Jews by means of circumcision.
  3. Cephas and the men from James must not eat with Gentile Jesus followers.[1]

Cephas chose option three. In doing so, Paul is enraged because he is confident that Jews and Gentiles (Judaeans and the Nations) belong at the same table together. Certainly this is risky; Paul is fully aware of the dynamic at play.

Perhaps Paul tried to protect the Nations (when he could) by bringing them under the concessions granted by the Romans that allowed the Judaeans to offer special sacrifices on behalf of Caesar, rather than risk committing idolatry. For Paul, from a Judaean perspective, anyone from the Nations that adopted Jesus as Lord and came to worship the one God must cease from all forms of idolatry: including nationalistic dinner practices. The calendar mentioned later in Galatians isn’t the worship prescribed by Torah, but by the Empire (see: Galatians 4.8-11). Yet, for other reasons such as remaining distinctly “non-Jews” who now have access to the same God, Paul is adamantly against circumcision.

So: no idols (which keeps the Nations safe, along with the Judaeans who don’t want to cause trouble with the authorities) and no circumcision (which would turn the Nations into Judaeans granting them the concessions that would keep everyone safe from imperial pressure). Idols and circumcision are both compromises to the gospel of Jesus that Paul preached that taught: now the Nations can adopt (as outsiders) the God of Israel by the grace granted to them through the faithfulness of Christ, without full Torah observance. Cephas’ options all violated that vision. Paul calls out this impulse toward other members of the Galatian community who seem to have allowed this scenario to tarnish their judgment regarding circumcision and the Torah: “Whoever wants to look good by human standards will try to get you to be circumcised, but only so they won’t be harassed for the cross of Christ” (Galatians 6.12 CEB).

The ongoing effects of this dining disaster

This dining disaster has been disastrously interpreted for most of Christian history. Nothing about the early Jesus movement that Paul advocated implies that forsaking the traditions of Torah was needed for Judaeans who adopted Jesus as Lord. Neither were the Nations to adopt Torah so they wouldn’t feel the pressure of the Roman authorities regarding imperial worship practices. This made dining a risk, perhaps even subversive, during the early years of the Jesus movement. However, Paul believed that compromise wasn’t an option. Galatians was written to demonstrate that conviction, even when it meant calling out James and Cephas, leaders he respected.

The ongoing perception that this dinner episode had to do with Jewish Law versus Christian grace continues to convolute our reading of this text. Even to this day, such a dichotomy has led to misreading Paul and perhaps to some unneeded tension in Jewish/Christian dialogue. What is more, the subversive nature of Jesus-followers is easily tamed by the traditional approach that ends up being more about piety than allegiance.

But, if this dining disaster really was because of external imperial pressure, perhaps we must ask the question: Why don’t we see more dining disasters in our day that are spurred on by conformist pressures? Maybe step one is to begin eating meals that both risk confrontation and liberation. Maybe the pressures of our day when it comes to empire, although different, might be framed differently if we had this new model of Antioch as our foundational paradigm.

[1] See: Bernard Brandon Scott, The Real Paul: Rediscovering His Radical Challenge (Polebridge Press, 86-88). He follows the work of Brigitte Kahl.

Kurt Willems (M.Div., Fresno Pacific) is the founding pastor of Pangea Communities, a movement of peace, justice and hope. The church plant, in partnership with the Brethren in Christ and Urban Expression, is based in Seattle, Wash. Kurt writes at the Pangea Blog and is also on TwitterFacebook and Google+.

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