Saint Paul rebukes Saint Peter in Galatians chapter 2. Some people say this is an example of someone correcting a false teaching of the institutional Church and how the truth came into the Church in contradiction to the teachings of Saint Peter. They believe this justifies dissent from the Pope.
This article will examine both a literal interpretation of this passage, and another interpretation that Saint Jerome says is a better and more reasonable one in light of several difficulties that the first one presents.
A LITERAL INTERPRETATION
Peter is accused of acting hypocritically. To act hypocritically is to say one thing and then to act contrary. This passage necessarily implies that while Peter’s actions were wrong, his teachings were all the while correct.
THE INTERPRETATION OF SAINT JEROME
Saint Jerome advances a different interpretation (in his Letter 112, sections 4-18, 404 AD) that he says he received from the Fathers of the Church. And he implies that he does not know any Father who supports the literal interpretation. People that Saint Jerome considered "Fathers" of the Church would obviously be people who are much closer to times of the Apostles and therefore people who had much closer contact to the thoughts and traditions of the Apostles themselves and what was really intended by Paul and what really happened in Antioch. Certainly, people who knew the Apostles, or who new the followers of the Apostles, where privilege to more information than just what was recorded in Sacred Scriptures. For example, the Bible does not give Peter’s response to Paul or Peter’s explanation for his actions.
Saint Jerome, one of the greatest thinkers of the early church, gives several problematic difficulties that a person encounters when he assumes a literal understanding of Paul’s words, and thereby assumes a sin on the part of Saint Peter. Jerome points out how that is was to Saint Peter that the Lord revealed that the Gospel was open to the uncircumcised Gentiles in Acts chapters 10, and 11. Jerome also points out how it was much later in chapter 15 that a dispute arose among others in the Church over whether the Gentiles needed to be circumcised.
At this point we must examine what happened in Acts 15 and after that return to the discussion of how to interpret Galatians.
We read in Acts 15:2 "…it was decided that Paul, Barnabas… should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and presbyters about this question." At the Council in Jerusalem it is reported that Acts 15:7 "After much debate had taken place, Peter got up and said to them, 'My brothers, you are well aware that from early days God made his choice among you that through my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe...' " Immediately after Peter gives his decision we are told "The whole assembly fell silent..."
Who had more authority in the Council of Jerusalem, Peter or James ? Some say that the reference to James’s "judgment" in Acts 15:13-21 indicated that he had more authority.
Acts 15:13-14, 19-21 "After they had fallen silent, James responded, ‘My brothers, listen to me. Symeon has described how God first concerned himself with acquiring from among the Gentiles a people for his name… 19 It is my judgment, therefore, that we ought to stop troubling the Gentiles who turn to God, but tell them by letter to avoid pollution from idols, unlawful marriage, the meat of strangled animals, and blood. For Moses, for generations now, has had those who proclaim him in every town, as he has been read in the synagogues every sabbath."
However, it should be noted that James begins his discourse with a specific reference to Peter and his declaration. James assents to what Peter proclaimed, and then he just offers his best pastoral judgment on how to implement Peter’s decision.
Also, Peter’s voice was not just one of many because we are told that he gave his decision "after much debate" which implies that the debate was over when Peter took the floor. Furthermore, Peter doesn’t just voice his decision, we are told that he rose up to do so. By standing Peter adds a certain affirmation and enforcement to what he is about to declare. The fact that the "whole assembly fell silent" after Peter had spoken showed the attitude of the Church after the Rock had issued his judgment. The attitude of the Council might well have been characterized by Saint Augustine’s famous quote "Rome has spoken, the cause is finished." (Sermo 131, 6:10 in 417 AD.)
Another observation comes to light when we compare the above text of Galatians and Acts 15. It is worth noting that it was the people who " came from James" that had difficulty accepting the Gentiles in Galatians 2: 12. (see above.) Cf. Acts 11:2-4 Since it was the members of James’s own community that had the trouble of accepting the Gentiles, it would have been significant to them that Luke recorded James’s decision to follow Peter. Presumably, James’s community would have been left with no other decision but to get in line behind Peter as well.
All of these points show that is was Peter who had the supreme authority at that first Council.
Returning back to the discussion Galatians and Paul’s "rebuke" of Peter we note that Acts 10 -15 show that even before Paul, Peter came to see that the ceremonial laws were no longer in effect. And further more "Peter was the prime mover in issuing this decree" for the rest of the Church.
The context of Galatians shows that Paul regarded Peter of such a great authority it is hard to imagine Paul literally rebuking Peter. Saint Jerome quoting Galatians 1:18; 2:1-2 writes,
Then after quoting Galatians 2:11-14 Jerome writes," ‘Then, after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days.’ In the following context, again, he adds: ‘Then, fourteen years after, I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, and took Titus with me also. And I went up by revelation, and communicated unto them that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles;’ proving that he had not had confidence in his preaching of the gospel if he had not been confirmed by the consent of Peter and those who were with him. The next words are, ‘but privately to them that were of reputation, lest by any means I should run, or had run, in vain.’ "
Peter, like the Good Shepherd, was going to those who were weak in their faith out of fear that he might lose them. Peter knew that he could clarify things to the Gentiles later. It seems as though Paul, in anticipation of what he knew would be Peter’s response, provided Peter with an opportunity to clarify his position to the Gentiles. Paul did this by "rebuking" him, in a figurative sense, because he was wrong, if his actions were to be understood that the ceremonial laws were still binding."No one can doubt, therefore, that the Apostle Peter was himself the author of that rule with deviation from which he is charged. The cause of that deviation, moreover, is seen to be fear of the Jews. For the Scripture says, that ‘at first he did eat with the Gentiles, but that when certain had come from James he withdrew, and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision.’ Now he feared the Jews, to whom he had been appointed apostle, lest by occasion of the Gentiles they should go back from the faith in Christ; imitating the Good Shepherd in his concern lest he should lose the flock committed to him."
If a person takes the words literally and says "Yes, Peter was wrong" he is faced with an even more difficult example in Paul’s own life for which there would be no valid explanation. Saint Jerome writes, "As I have shown, therefore, that Peter was thoroughly aware of the abrogation of the law of Moses, but was compelled by fear to pretend to observe it, let us now see whether Paul, who accuses another, ever did anything of the same kind himself."
Jerome quotes Acts 16:1-3 "He (Paul) reached (also)
Derbe and Lystra where there was a disciple named Timothy… and Paul wanted
him to come along with him. On account of the Jews of that region, Paul
had him circumcised, for they all knew that his father was a Greek."
(Note: The Greek word #4942 "sunupokrinomai" in Galatians 2: 13 is translated in various English editions as "acting hypocritically," "acted insincerely," and "dissembled." To dissemble is to dissimulate.)
And then Jerome adds,
In addition Jerome quotes Acts 18:18 where Paul cuts his hair in accordance to the Nazirite vow and comments,"O blessed Apostle Paul, who has rebuked Peter for dissimulation, because he withdrew himself from the Gentiles through fear of the Jews who' came from James, why art thou, notwithstanding thine own doctrine, compelled to circumcise Timothy, the son of a Gentile, nay more, a Gentile himself (for he was not a Jew, having not been circumcised)? Thou wilt answer, ‘Because of the Jews which are in these quarters.?’ If, then, thou forgiveth thyself the circumcision of a disciple coming from the Gentiles, forgive Peter also, who has precedence above thee, his doing some things of the same kind through fear of the believing Jews."
Jerome also quotes Acts 21: 18-26 where Paul gives instructions for four men to have their heads shaved, which was according to the Nazirite vow, and then purified himself with them and made an offering in the temple, all in accordance with the Old Covenant ceremonial laws."Be it granted that he was compelled through fear of the Jews in the other case to do what he was unwilling to do; wherefore did he let his hair grow in accordance with a vow of his own making, and afterwards, when in Cenchrea, shave his head according to the law, as the Nazarites, who had given themselves by vow to God, were wont to do, according to the law of Moses ?"
Acts 21:18-26 "The next day, Paul accompanied us on a visit to James, and all the presbyters were present. He greeted them, then proceeded to tell them in detail what God had accomplished among the Gentiles through his ministry. They praised God when they heard it but said to him, "Brother, you see how many thousands of believers there are from among the Jews, and they are all zealous observers of the law. They have been informed that you are teaching all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to abandon Moses and that you are telling them not to circumcise their children or to observe their customary practices. What is to be done? They will surely hear that you have arrived. So do what we tell you. We have four men who have taken a vow. Take these men and purify yourself with them, and pay their expenses that they may have their heads shaved. In this way everyone will know that there is nothing to the reports they have been given about you but that you yourself live in observance of the law… So Paul took the men, and on the next day after purifying himself together with them entered the temple to give notice of the day when the purification would be completed and the offering made for each of them."
In commenting on this passage Jerome says,
Jerome sums up his commentary in section 17 with"Paul, here again let me question thee: Why didst thou shave thy head, why didst thou walk barefoot according to I (the) Jewish ceremonial law, why didst thou offer sacrifices, why were victims slain for thee according to the law? Thou wilt answer, doubtless, ‘To avoid giving offense to those of the Jews who had believed.’ To gain the Jews, thou didst pretend to be a Jew; and James and all the other elders taught thee this dissimulation. But thou didst not succeed in escaping, after all. For when thou wast on the point of being killed in a tumult which had arisen, thou wast rescued by the chief captain of the band, and was sent by him to Caesarea, guarded by a careful escort of soldiers, lest the Jews should kill thee as a dissembler, and a destroyer of the law; and from Caesarea coming to Rome, thou didst, in thine own hired house, preach Christ to both Jews and Gentiles, and thy. testimony was sealed under Nero's sword."
At this point we must give the challenge that Jerome makes in section 4 of his letter."…for I say that both Peter and Paul, through fear of the believing Jews, practiced, or rather pretended to practice, the precepts of the Jewish law; whereas you maintain that they did this out of pity, ‘not with the subtlety of a deceiver, but with the sympathy of a compassionate deliverer.’ But by both this is equally admitted, that (whether from fear or from pity) they pretended to be what they were not. As to your argument against our view, that he ought to have become to the Gentiles a Gentile, if to the Jews he became a Jew, this favors our opinion rather than yours: for as he did not actually become a Jew, so he did not actually become a heathen; and as he did not actually become a heathen, so he did not actually become a Jew. His conformity to the Gentiles consisted in this, that he received as Christians the uncircumcised who believed in Christ, and left them free to use without scruple meats which the Jewish law prohibited; but not, as you suppose, in taking part in their worship of idols. For ‘in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, but the keeping of the commandments of God.’ "
"If any one be dissatisfied with the interpretation here given, by which it is shown that neither did Peter sin, nor did Paul rebuke presumptuously a greater than himself, he is bound to show how Paul could consistently blame in another what he himself did." It seems as though Paul learned from Peter’s good example in Galatians chapter 2 and imitated it in order to shepherd those weak in their faith.
Regardless of which interpretation we give to Galatians chapter 2 we have to accept that the text does not allow us believe that Paul corrected a false teaching of the Apostle Peter. Therefore this passage cannot be used to justify dissent from the successor of Saint Peter, the Holy Father, the Pope.
At the end of Saint Jerome’s discussion of Galatians (section 18 of his letter), he seems to try to bring some levity to the whole misunderstanding. Jerome gives a slight poke in the ribs to his friend when he concludes with, "I ask you, therefore, and with all urgency press the request, that you forgive me this humble attempt at a discussion of the matter; and wherein I have transgressed, lay the blame upon yourself who compelled me to write in reply…"