Peter and Paul: Confrontation at Antioch
Paul corrects Peter: an early exercise in Collegiality?
By Arthur Wells
Of the ancient Churches of apostolic foundation, the Church of Rome is the only one traditionally marked as having a dual foundation: that of the Apostles Peter and Paul. The nub of this essay is to consider the relationship between the men themselves in apostolic times: to consider – as far as we can know - the relationships between these two senior Apostles and their colleagues in the early Church and what lessons may, or should be, applied in the third millennium. This essay begins with what is known of the relationship between Peter and Paul in the New Testament. One historian described it as ambiguous. Paul acknowledged Peter as the leader, but that did not prevent a confrontational meeting at Antioch crucial for the infant Church. Paul’s view prevailed. His foresight about the essential development of Christianity convinced Peter and the others present.
Peter and Paul in Scripture
Peter was clearly the leader of the twelve called by Jesus during his life and ministry. With the exception of Peter, Paul, James and John, the other Apostles faded fairly quickly from the pages of the New Testament. All were Jews, but unlettered men. Paul’s case was different. Perhaps like Peter, he was called to follow Jesus in a special way. As a highly educated Pharisee, he was initially a guardian of the all-important Jewish law and a noted persecutor of the new aberrant ‘sect’, not yet called Christians. Paul’s standing as an apostle rests not just on his eventual acceptance by the other Apostles and disciples, but by the depth of his intellect and theology. As the earliest author in the New Testament, his writings if “read back”, as it were, to the reality of his conversion on the Damascus road, confirm his account of the events he experienced. From all the accounts of the Resurrection, there appears a consensus, which is recorded, of those to whom Jesus appeared that they had indeed seen the risen living Lord. Paul’s experience was different, and yet, he came to be accepted by the others. The written record suggests that discussion between the disciples was not frequent, but we cannot know. The fragment of Galatians above, however, is one example of open discussion between the disciples, which surely was sufficiently outspoken and important to merit recording. It is an instance from the earliest times that Peter himself was not always right. Peter’s successors also have been wrong as well as right. Judged to have been the first Christian theologian, Paul saw that while the Jewish heritage was important and while much of that heritage must be incorporated in Christian life, rigid adherence to Jewish Law did not fit with Jesus’ message. The particular issue at Antioch was circumcision, but there were other issues also. The whole of Paul’s letter to the Galatians should be read, and much else. What we know of the early Church, of subsequent Church history and the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council should make us beware of false absolutes.
If the twelve Apostles called by the Lord and who walked with Him were all unlettered men, a view of the first Christian theologian, Paul, is important. Paul was a Pharisee and Rabbi, (Jewish theologian and teacher) he was initially intent on eliminating the followers of Jesus, seen by the Jewish establishment as heretics. But on the road to Damascus to persecute the infant Christian communities, he was converted by a direct call from the Lord. Initially met with a certain suspicion by the Christian disciples, he considered himself an Apostle (particularly with a mission to the Gentiles) and was accepted as such by the twelve. We owe the greater part of the New Testament to his writing and his doings are prominent in Acts. So much seems certain. Much less certain is the little that is known of the time of Peter and Paul in Rome. Prof. Eamon Duffy writes: “Luke tells us enigmatically only that Peter sent word of his escape [from prison] to James….and then “….departed and went to another place.’ Of his subsequent career the New Testament has nothing more to say.”(1) Duffy continues that there is nothing directly indicating a papal theory in the New Testament, or when a single bishopric in Rome emerged (seemingly a false absolute?): “Yet [Duffy writes], it is hard to account for the continuing interest in Peter in the Gospels and in Acts unless Peter’s authority continued to be meaningful after his death.” However, as a further example of uncertainty about the early Church, it may be added from Chadwick: “That he [Peter] was in Rome for twenty-five years is third-century legend” (2). In order to connect the relationship between Paul and Peter, with the development of the early Church it is helpful to visit the New Testament chronology.
The New Testament Chronology
Assuming a commonly accepted date for the crucifixion as 30 AD, the persecution of Christians by Nero in Rome traditionally marks the date of the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul as c. 64 – 67 AD. Paul’s major epistles were thought to be written some dozen years prior to his death and are the earliest parts of the New Testament known to us. Galatians was therefore probably written about 51 .AD. For completeness, the synoptic Gospels, in which Peter features so strongly, appeared between, say, 70 to 90, with St John’s Gospel coming later c.95-100. Scripture scholars may provide an opinion concerning on which of their travels Paul and Peter met at Antioch. Ronald Knox suggests two possibilities: one of which would make Galatians the earliest epistle written by Paul at c.51 AD and Knox would suggest that date, 51 AD, for the meeting of the two apostles. Whether this counts as the earliest recorded exercise of informal collegiality is a much deeper question. Clearly Paul did not mince his words: but the essence is that Peter and the rest came to agree with Paul.
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.…But when I saw 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?’ (RSV Gal.2:11,14)
- Saints and Sinners – A History of the Popes,
Eamon Duffy; 1997; Yale University Press. pp.4-5).
- The Early Church, Henry Chadwick; Penguin;1967, p.18