Clashes in the Book of Acts (Part 3)

peter-and-paulWe now turn to the city of Antioch as we track Jewish-Gentile clashes in the Book of Acts. But before we delve into the relevant texts, I want to point out that ancient Antioch is where present day Antakya is in Turkey, situated about 60 miles west of Aleppo, Syria. Due to the influx of Syrian refugees into this region, there have been strains and stresses which, as you can imagine, have led to various clashes between ethnic groups. This is a good reminder to see how small level clashes usually take place in a much larger context of political conflict which tightens the tourniquet. In the case of Syria, tragically, the displacement of entire groups is fraught with tensions.

unnamedAntioch started as a Greek military city, and by the early Roman era it was the third largest city in the Roman world with a half million people. There was a strong Jewish presence there (which later ebbed and flowed through the centuries), and it is not surprising that this city became a major center for early Christianity. In fact, the very word ‘Christian’ was first coined at Antioch. One of the ironies of Antioch (named after Antiochus) is how the word means ‘stubborn’ or ‘resistant’, literally ‘against (anti) support (oche)’. And so in the very name we have a negative element juxtaposed to the openness and trust that is necessary for any good resolution process.

Both Paul and Peter traveled there more than once, and on one occasion they clashed at Antioch (as narrated by Paul in Galatians 2). Peter had been fine with fellowshipping with Greek Christians, but when an envoy of Jewish Christians came from Jerusalem, Peter pulled away and only ate with the Jews. For Paul, this triggered two issues. First, Paul exposed the behavioral hypocrisy of Peter’s double-standard. One can feel the deep entrenchment of this issue, for “even Barnabas was led astray.” Before a large audience Paul said to Peter, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?”

unnamedAt stake was whether male Greek Christians needed to be physically circumcised in order to be ‘proper’ Christians. Paul’s second issue has to do with the theological status of all Christians. It is by faith and not by a social dictate that establishes one’s genuine connection with God, and this essentially places all Christians on equal footing. This social concern launches Paul into a lengthy discourse on law and faith which climaxes with the famous verse, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Some scholars debate as to whether this episode predated or followed the Jerusalem council, which likely happened in 50 AD. I favor the predated scenario for the following reasons. The conflict over the necessity of circumcision appears to have started in Antioch, since the start of Acts 15 explains very clearly that Jewish Christians from Jerusalem were going to Antioch to instruct Christians that salvation hinged on becoming a proper Jew through circumcision. “This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them” (vs. 2). My sense is that Paul had already developed his broader position on the issue, and thus the Peter-incident came at the front end of this conflict. Also, in Acts 15 we see that Peter is back in Jerusalem and his viewpoint has aligned with Paul’s.


The phrase “sharp dispute and debate,” in another translation, reads “commotion and no small discussion”. The first Greek word is used elsewhere in Acts for a potential riot situation, and the second term is used in Timothy and Titus regarding controversial conversations that one ought to avoid. We have, then, very strong language for how the circumcision issue led to an escalation of emotional energies that widened the gap between two clashing positions. In the world of mediation and conflict resolution, positions are emphatic statements or demands which seemingly give no wiggle room for other options. What we find, though, in the forthcoming Jerusalem council is a process where both sides moved from positions to interests. In other words, they explored the deeper needs and concerns at stake and found a solution that made both sides satisfied.

unnamedPaul and Barnabas, with others, were appointed by the Antioch church to go to Jerusalem to deal directly “with this question (zetematos).” I like Luke’s use of this word. It suggests both a neutrality and an inquisitive openness in how a resolution process is framed. A formal council is set up with the apostles and elders in Jerusalem. When the Antioch contingent arrived, they were welcomed by everyone, and at the front end “they reported everything God had done through them.” It is easy to miss the power of what is going on here because we usually want to jump ahead to the meat of the controversy. But note how positive discussion preceded the dialogue about the difficult issue at hand. Paul and his group talked about their experiences along their southward route where more Gentiles become Christians. On one level, this would seemingly raise more angst and tension, but what we read hear is that “This news made all the believers very glad” (vs. 3)  This is a bridge-building moment which in the context of any large group effort toward conflict transformation is essential to set the stage for civil dialogue. Common ground is affirmed and this helps greatly to reduce the negative undercurrent emotions that are present within people.

Staging is vital and never to be taken for granted. Next time we will see how a Dialogue-driven process was more important than a Settlement-driven process, and how this actually led to a richer settlement!

Contacting Ted Lewis

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  1. And so we see the hand of God at work once again in Acts, providentially orchestrating and arranging circumstances in such a way that the gospel is advanced and so that the proclamation of the gospel among the Gentiles is assured and assisted.

    • Ted Lewis says

      Thanks for this, Mark. And part of what makes Luke’s writing so amazing is that he blends the providential work of God with the courageous and wise choices of early church leaders. Luke pays special attention to the very manner in which leaders made key choices to resolve tough situations, showing the reader how those choices contributed to the broader advancement of the gospel in the Mediterranean world. Ted

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