Reicke on the Jerusalem Council and the Antioch “incident”

Thursday evening, while waiting on my lovely wife to come home from work, I moseyed through Bo Reicke’s insightful essay on the background to the Jerusalem Council and the Antioch “incident” noted in Gal 2.1-14. This essay comes from Reicke’s book, Re-examining Paul’s Letters: The History of the Pauline Correspondence (2001), 16-25. Given the date of the book, we might be allured into thinking that Reicke’s take on this issue is relatively new and thus relevant for current scholarly discussions. In truth, however, this essay is merely a translated reprint of the German original which was a part of a Festschrift in 1953,¹ and it has received minimal attention since then.

After a general search, I could only find a small number of scholars who interact (to varying degrees) with Reicke’s proposal–namely, Traugott Holtz (1974), Marcel Simon (1978), Richard Bauckham (1979), D.A. Carson (1986), Ronald Fung (1988), and Johann Kim (2009).² For whatever reason, James Dunn (1993), Paul Tarazi (1994), Kenneth Boles (1997), Roy Ciampa (1998), Philip Kern (1998), Yon-gyong Kwon (2004), Ben Witherington (2004), Atsuhiro Asano (2005), D. François Tolmie (2005), Andreas Du Toit (2007),³ Brendan Byrne (2010), Martinus de Boer (2011), and Ian Levy (2011) all say nothing, which is surprising given their respective discussions on the importance of the Antioch incident. Moreover, those who do say something about Reicke’s take do so only in passing or in a relegated footnote. This, for me, is rather unfortunate.

Reicke attempts to understand the infamous Antioch incident not primarily in terms of harmonizing Acts with Galatians but in the light of political and religious pressures in and around the time of the incident. Specifically, Reicke argues for a rise in religious fanaticism within particular sects of Judaism (i.e. the Zealots and Sicarii) in the light of political changes that seemed to threaten the integrity or sanctity of the Jewish identity.

In particular, there was a deep concern of not only Roman culture and ideology being imposed on Judaism but also Judaism being “tainted” by Gentile proselytes. Reicke contends–rightly, in my opinion–that this tension began in Judea with the appointment of the Roman procurator Ventidius Cumanus (48-52 CE) and became more acute leading up to and during the time of Antionius Felix (52-60 CE). Reicke also shows that the fervor for maintaining Jewish identity (at all costs) was not exclusive to Palestine; traces can be found in regions outside of Palestine, namely Alexandria (Egypt), Syria, and Asia-Minor (i.e. Turkey).

Vital to Reicke’s hypothesis–and again, I agree with him on this–is the assumption that the Jerusalem Council (of Acts 15) took place either on or just prior to 48 CE. This is significant because prior to 48 CE, the historical evidence suggests a relative peace or concord between Jews and Gentiles (take that Baur)–especially Gentile converts to Judaism (and the Jesus-people). Thus, the decision of the Council occurred during a time when it was “safe” to make such a decision, which, I should point out, is not to downplay the overall need for the decision.

Now, as Acts 15 tells us, both Peter and Paul were present at this Council and naturally in support of the decision to accept Gentiles into the εκκλησια (i.e. the community of Jesus-people) without needing circumcision–to which the Gentiles said, “Thank you very much!”. Thus, when we read Gal 2.11-14 we can appreciate–or at least understand–Paul’s surprise with Peter/Cephas, who is now (post-Council) apparently bowing to certain Jews demanding that Gentiles be circumcised in order to be counted as God’s people. How do we account for this (apparent) sudden shift in Peter’s commitment to the Council’s decision? Also, is Paul reacting wrongly or is there merit to his rebuke?

Reicke’s hypothesis stresses the importance of being aware of not only time lapse between the Jerusalem Council and the Antioch incident but also the religious changes that occurred during that interim. Conservative estimates place the Antioch incident shortly after Paul’s return from his so-called second missionary journey (see Acts 18.22), a return dated to c. 53 CE. As noted above, specific Jewish resistance to outsiders and Gentile influences gained momentum around this time and made itself known in regions outside of Palestine. Moreover, this resistance movement was not characterized by civil dialogue and pot-luck dinners; it was–in many cases–quick, decisive and violent, and no sending flowers afterward.

It is also vital to stress that during the period between the Council and the incident (i.e. 48-53 CE), Paul was spreading the message of the gospel in Asia-Minor, Macedonia and Achaia; Peter, on the other hand, presumably remained in Jerusalem for a time before making his way north to Syria-Antioch. In other words, Paul was on the move over vast stretches of land and usually a few steps ahead of specific Jewish opposition; Peter appears to be more confined in movements and right in the midst of the opposition. The spell in Antioch seems to be his first respite, yet it is one that fails to endure (as is the habit of respites).

In Antioch, Peter is communing with Gentiles–ostensibly in the comfort of the Council’s decision (not to mention the divine command from Acts 10)–when the opposition arrives, an arrival that causes Peter great fear, and this fear causes him to behave hypocritically, and this hypocritical behavior brings down upon him the rebuke of Paul. If Reicke’s hypothesis is true, then the specific Jewish opposition that Peter encounters at Antioch is not simply a group well-meaning of Jews wanting to debate theology; the opposition is a band of sword-wielding loyalists determined to preserve the sanctity of the Jewish identity no matter the cost.

Since these loyalists come from Jerusalem, the assumption is that they already exerted their influence in a similar manner over the εκκλησια in Jerusalem, where James (Jesus’ brother) is in charge. As a result they now carry out their wider mission ostensibly with the sanction of the Jerusalem εκκλησια. The deck certainly appears to be stacked in their favor. Reicke’s hypothesis suggests that Peter’s actions are not motivated by theological dishonesty but self-preservation–an impulse that is completely understandable in such circumstances.

Paul’s rebuke, however, seems to be aimed at Peter’s self-preservation at the expense of theological honesty. In other words, from Paul’s perspective, Peter was not behaving Christ-like. While being tried, beaten, punched, spat on, verbally abuse and mocked, and with the knowledge of death by crucifixion looming, Jesus didn’t say, “You know what guys, I was only kidding about this Messiah stuff; I’m really just an average person and I’m sorry for all the trouble I caused. What do you say we call it a day?”

Moreover–albeit to a lesser degree–after being imprisoned, beaten beyond remembrance, whipped severely (5 times), beaten some more, a storm of rocks chucked at him, shipwrecked, stalked by evil people, foodless and drinkless, and constantly chased by his opponents, Paul didn’t bend and say, “Maybe I should forget this Jesus-stuff and go back to my old ways; it would certainly make my life easier.”

Just as Christ endured what he did for the sake of the world (i.e. he remained theologically honest, which cost him his life), so too Paul endured what he did for the sake of the congregations of Jesus-followers he helped establish (i.e. he remained theologically honest, knowing that his life was at stake). Peter, on the other hand, apparently caved to external pressure and sacrificed theological honesty in order to preserve his own life.

Thus, it would seem that Paul’s frustration is not simply with Peter’s actions or even a possible shift in teaching (i.e. Peter is now saying Gentiles have to be circumcised); the frustration appears to be with the inconsistency between life and faith in the gospel, an inconsistency that can radically affect the believability of the gospel message. In other words, if those on the “inside” who proclaim this stuff don’t live by it, why should anyone else?

¹ Bo Reicke, “Der geschichtliche Hintergrund des Apostelkonzils und der Antiochia-Episode, Gal. 2.1-14,” in Studia Paulina in honorem Johannis de Zwaan septuagenarii (Haarlem: J. Bohn, 1953), 172-87.
² Reicke’s article is mentioned first in Günter Wagner’s helpful bibliography for scholarly works on Romans and Galatians (1996: 296).
³ Admittedly, both Tolmie and Du Toit mention Reicke, but it is in reference to entirely different works and subjects.

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