Rare moment in the NT We can compare two independent accounts of the same event. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians speaks of encounters – and disagreement -- centered on the circumcision question. So does Acts 15. But there are important differences. Which can give us insight into the purposes of Acts.
Paul’s account in Galatians (written in mid ’50s) Apparently someone (from Jerusalem) has persuaded the Galatians that they should observe circumcision, keep kosher. And Paul is furious. Insists first on the absolute independence of his proclamation of gospel: 1: 16. “I did not confer with any human being.” Only later did I briefly confer with Cephas (Peter) and James. Then 14 years later he went up to Jerusalem. Paul insists that he is the one who has brought the gospel to the gentiles. In a “private meeting” he spelled out his gentile gospel for the “acknowledged leaders” [Jerusalem leaders, presumably James, Peter, John]. Paul didn’t back down for a second on the circumcision issue. And finally James, Cephas/Peter, and John made up with him and let him go to the Gentiles, while they work with the Jewish believers (“the circumcised”).
But now the agreement has come unraveled Cephas, Paul says, has acted hypocritically on the issue of kosher food; he ate non-kosher before, but now he’s afraid of the circumcision group. So how can they demand kosher and circumcision of gentiles, when Cephas has lived like a gentile? So now the Jerusalem people, or at least Cephas, have apparently backed away from the previous agreement on circumcision. And want the Galatians to accept circumcision. “You foolish Galatians!” What are you thinking?! Paul forbids them from accepting circumcision. It’s belief, faith, that matters, not fulfilling Law.
The opening to the gentiles Historically this was Paul’s work. But the narrative of chapter 10 of Acts assigns the opening to Peter. Story of Cornelius – does it make us recall the centurion of the gospel: Luke 7: 1-10? Caesarea, a Roman seaside town, Joppa a Jewish town. Double visions. Peter’s is a vision of non-kosher food. Peter goes to Caesarea (as Jesus had accompanied the centurion’s men), but now enters a gentile house. Peter announces that Jesus appeared “not to all the people” but only to disciples. But now all the prophets testify that everyone who believes receives forgiveness. And gentiles are baptized! A first in Luke’s account of things.
Luke’s revisionist account Opening to gentiles is embodied in a story of two visions, that of Cornelius and that of Peter. Peter’s vision is understood to end the role of the Law and to open The Way to gentiles. Peter is the leader in this new direction (10: 34ff, 47ff). Peter defends the new position to Jerusalem authorities (“circumcision believers” 11: 2). And retells the narrative of his vision: 11: 4ff. And they easily accept his interpretation: 11: 18.
Paul and Peter Acts 15 tells of a meeting in Jerusalem, presumable the same event reflected in Galatians. Paul and Barnabas have “no small dissension” (15:2) with Judean group insisting on circumcision. And in Jerusalem “some believers... Pharisees” agree with Judean group (15:5). But Peter easily agrees with Paul’s position (15: 10-11). And James makes the final statement: 15: 19. Only requirement is abstention from “things polluted by idols,” fornication, and “whatever has been strangled and from blood.” No requirement of circumcision. Everything concluded peaceably.
The effect of Luke’s retrospective account The “opening to the Gentiles” is now initiated by Peter, and only secondarily by Paul. Paul’s anger is reduced to one verse (15: 2) and placed before the summit in Jerusalem. Barnabas and Paul simply tell their story (Acts 15: 12). Paul’s role in the council in Jerusalem is diminished – it’s Peter who speaks, James who decides. Barnabas and Paul simply sent off with confirming delegation of Jerusalem people (15: 22ff) and a letter confirming decision. But in Galatians, Paul’s anger had continued – no sign that he ever made up with Peter and others who wanted circumcision. Look at Galatians 5: 12. Paul wishes the circumciser’s knives might circumcise themselves – and worse! Luke has given readers a story of the resolution of a tense history, one that reduces Paul’s role – and his bitterness and anger -- in favor of a narrative of smooth unfolding of the “opening to the Gentiles.” In Chapter 16 Luke even says that Paul had Timothy circumcised as a concession to Jewish believers. Does the Paul of Galatians suggest he would ever make such a concession?
Significance of Galatians Begins with the issue of circumcision, kosher. But moves to larger theoretical question of the nature of identity, faith and law. Works toward a larger universalism. “No longer Jew and Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male and female” (3:28). “Law” – the Law of Israel – is no longer binding on believers: 3:10-18. The original purpose of Law: Paul’s intellectual challenge. It was added “because of transgressions” But temporary – “until the offspring” (Christ).
But the divisive character of Paul’s position His “allegory” at 4:22-26. How does this revise the actual Genesis story? Israel takes it descent from Abraham and Sarah -- not from Hagar! This allegory would be deeply offensive to Jews – and Jewish Christians. And Paul himself will later revise it when he re-uses the allegory in Romans 4:1-25. (See also Romans 11, where he reconciles himself to Israel’s salvation.)
Acts and the “historical Paul” Acts seems to tame or reconcile the Paul of Galatians. He has to share his role as apostle to gentiles with Peter. And he is shown to make up with Peter and the Jerusalem group. But perhaps this is what Paul himself will do in his letter to the Romans.