Often, when reading about the events that Paul mentions in his letter to the Galatians I am told that Paul’s confrontation in Antioch with Peter occurred after the Jerusalem council. The reasoning behind this is that Paul addresses Peter’s own words that salvation rests not in works but in faith alone. Notice:
Acts 15:7-10 KJV And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe. (8) And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us; (9) And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. (10) Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?
Observe that Peter claims the gentiles obtained mercy through faith, that is, their works (which were none) did not bring them salvation, but faith did. If Peter contends with the more conservative believers by saying: “why tempt God to put a yoke upon the disciples,” he implies that no such yoke was necessary. Therefore, gentiles and Jews obtain salvation by the mercy of God through faith—without works. This is what Peter claimed in Jerusalem at the council there concerning the men sent from James.
Some New Testament scholars contend that Peter traveled to Antioch not long afterward and had a relapse in his thinking and/or behavior due to the visitors from James. According to them, it is the stand that Peter took in Jerusalem for the gentile believers that Paul addresses in Galatians. Notice:
Galatians 2:14-16 KJV But when I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel, I said unto Peter before them all, If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the gentiles to live as do the Jews? (15) We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the gentiles, (16) Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.
In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, his confrontation with Peter (Galatians 2:11-14) occurs after his remarks about the stand Peter had taken in Jerusalem in favor of gentiles not having to be circumcised (Galatians 2:1-10). The two incidents are connected with a “but”, or in other words: Peter supported justification by faith alone in Jerusalem but when he came to Antioch his manner belied his claim. At first this seems to be the logical framework for the circumstances that took place. But, is it?
One has to put all this in the context of what was taking place in Jerusalem at this time and the events that led up to it. The Jerusalem Council took place cir. 49 CE, but the Peter / Cornelius event took place cir. 40 CE. From Stephen’s execution in 34 CE to about the time Peter met with Cornelius, the Hellenist Messianic believers were persecuted and virtually expelled from Jerusalem. Paul was preaching in Syria-Cilicia in communities about that same time. The persecution of the Hellenist believers had paused (Acts 9:31) due to events sparked by Caligula that would set up an image of himself in the Temple at Jerusalem. Rome and Jerusalem were at the brink of war. The Syrian governor, Petronius, had sent word to Caligula containing the Jews plea not to do this thing to their Temple. Petronius’ men were stationed at Ptolemias just north of Caesarea where Peter met with Cornelius.
Long-story-short, Caligula was assassinated in January of 41 CE and Herod Agrippa was appointed by Claudius to reign as king over Judea. The Apostles new message after the Cornelius incident was justification by faith alone; circumcision was not necessary for the gentiles. James, the brother of John and one of the sons of thunder, was probably one of the most vocal about the new understanding. With this in mind, Matthias, the high priest in 43 CE and son of Annas the high priest, probably influenced Herod to execute James. He did so and when he saw it pleased the Jewish authorities, he planned to kill Peter. We know that Peter escaped, and from this point on until the death of Herod, the Apostles were expelled from Jerusalem. It was a new persecution, now involving both the moderate and liberal believers—or the Apostles and the Hellenist Messianic believers.
Therefore, Paul doesn’t need Acts 15 to know Peter’s stand on circumcising the gentiles and table fellowship between gentile and Jewish believers. Peter was at the time of his confrontation with Paul in Antioch eating with the gentile believers there, just as he probably had done with Cornelius . As far as the sequence of events in Galatians 2 is concerned, we have all explained an event that had taken place and then proceeded to speak of the circumstances that caused the event in question. In other words, we often explain things out of sequential order and those who are listening to us understand what we are doing. They are not confused with the lack of sequential order. Often, however, someone may come along and read what we said and, not understanding the context, might not know the events are out of sequential order. Therefore, I believe Paul confronted Peter just before the Jerusalem Council took place in 49 CE, probably in the early spring or late winter (February to April) in the middle of the Sabbatical year.
Why, therefore, did Peter have a relapse? Peter was between a rock and a hard place. The men from James were probably very influential men from Jerusalem and men who practiced separation from those they considered unclean. They may even have been false brethren, and Paul speaks of such in his letter to the Galatians (Galatians 2:4) in the context of the Jerusalem council. What was probably going in Peter’s mind was that he mustn’t offend these “brethren” from Jerusalem. They could cause trouble there, if they were offended. Peter probably felt uncomfortable leaving the table-fellowship of the gentiles to make these Jerusalem Jews feel comfortable in Antioch. Barnabas, who had been Paul’s partner in not only preaching in Antioch, but on the mission field in Galatia as well, went aside with Peter, implying that these men were powerful Jews in Jerusalem, perhaps members of the Sanhedrin.
With the Apostles expelled from Jerusalem, James and the conservative wing of the Jesus’ Movement was all that was left in Jerusalem to preach the Gospel there. Remember, Jerusalem was the most important church in the world at this time for preaching the Gospel. Pilgrims from all over the world came to Jerusalem to celebrate the annual Holy Days. The Jerusalem church had a vast mission field right there in their home town. This is how the Gospel spread so quickly throughout the empire and even into the east. Jews made pilgrimages to Jerusalem and found Jesus. They returned to their home synagogues and brought Jesus with them and preached him there. Without doubt, the Jerusalem church had to be preserved for as long as possible.
This was probably going through Peter’s mind when he separated himself from the gentile believers in favor of those men who had come from Jerusalem. Nevertheless, wrong behavior doesn’t reflect the image of God and isn’t worthy of the Gospel. When confronted, the Scriptures indicate both Peter and Barnabas repented immediately. Often when we try to protect something important to us, we don’t see the full extent of what we are doing in order to guard what is vital. This is what I believe occurred in Antioch, and the Jerusalem council transpired as a result of this controversy.