This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Galatians

Galatians – Part 2

By Brian Franco  (Used with permission)

But when Peter came to Antioch, I withstood him face to face, because he stood condemned. Before certain men came from James, he ate with the Gentiles. But when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the other Jews, likewise, joined together in hypocrisy with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy.

But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, “If you, being a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, why do you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” 2:11-14

Here, another (tangential) issue emerges. That is, the hypocrisy of Peter while eating with Gentiles. It would appear that initially, and fearfully, Peter would separate himself from the Gentile believers because of the judgment of other Jews. Paul confronted him publicly about the issue (knowing that there were many others following in his footsteps) as this gave an incoherent and distorted image to those around him. In the original Greek, the usage and contrast of the “being a Jew/the Gentiles” words (Ioudaios and ta ethnē respectively) implies a context that should be read more accurately as “if you, a Jewish believer, can live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel Gentile believers to become Jews?” On top of that, the usage of the second instances (“live like a X”) use the words that more directly relate to the customs of each ethnicity (Ioudaïkōs and ethnikōs respectively).

In other words, considering the context of the situation here, Paul is implying that Peter (a Jewish believer) is behaving with the customs of a Gentile during his table fellowship rather than his own customs as a Jew, i.e. not following the dietary laws of Torah. There would only be a handful of other customs a Christian Gentile would differentiate from in comparison to a Christian Jew (the portions of the law that are generally labeled as the “ceremonial” laws) but seeing as how the scene involves eating, it is probably that custom Peter is being hypocritical about upon the presence of the incoming men of James.

This would be opposed to those who teach that what Peter was actually doing was just “breaking oral law” which looked down upon fellowship with the Gentiles at all. Although it is true that was a thing some Jews had at the time, it is not part of the context that Paul has established here. We’ll expand on that in a moment, for now we can observe a fairly summarized version of the issue at hand: compelling Gentiles to live like Jews.

We are Jews by nature, and not Gentile sinners, yet we know that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ. Even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, rather than by the works of the law. For by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.

If, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found to be sinners, is Christ therefore the minister of sin? God forbid! For if I build again the things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor.

For through the law I am dead to the law, that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God. For if righteousness comes by the law, then Christ died in vain.


Dr. Constable’s commentary on Galatians makes an interesting note with verse 15:

Unsaved Jews regarded Gentiles as “sinners.” Paul ironically referred to them as that since Peter was discriminating against them by behaving as he had.

“This characterization at once focuses attention on the sharp distinction between Jew and Gentile, for what made the Gentiles sinners in the estimation of the Jews was not only that they did not observe the law but also that they did not even possess it and consequently lacked the possibility of obtaining righteousness through it.”

That being said, Peter knows better than that (especially considering his own experience with Cornelius!) in that Christ came for everyone, as we are all sinners who need justification through Him. Justification does not come by works of the law. This issue was important to Paul, because by Peter’s actions he not only caused other Jewish believers to stumble along with him, but he also set a scenario that basically diminished his Gentile brethren to some lower, “incomplete” class of Christian, that wasn’t worth or welcome to partake in fellowship with the Jewish believers unless they (the Gentiles) became more like the Jews.

Once again, with both groups already under the understanding of Christ and his saving grace, the things the Gentiles would have to do to be “accepted” as “true” brethren would have to be the extra “ceremonial” customs found in Torah. This obligation to the Gentiles is not part of the true gospel, and hence we can better understand Paul’s harsh rebuke to observing Peter and company’s behavior.

Paul’s dead to the law imagery is better elaborated in Romans 7 so I won’t go into the details for this post, but what Paul is doing is setting up a contrast and how now his life for God is one lived through faith in Christ.

works of the law

It is also worth clarifying and elaborating on this phrase: the works of the law here are exactly what they sound like. In other words, it is not works (actions/effort of your own part) of the (Mosaic) law through which we receive justification. Verse 15 makes a clear distinction between the Jew and Gentile, and as Constable states that difference is primarily the Mosaic law. I point this out as there are other doctrines that would like to change the context (and therefore meaning) of what’s being said here, despite the lack of any other contextual evidence indicating anything of the sort.

This will, inevitably, alter everything you understand in Galatians, so let’s focus on this to make sure we have a solid foundation for the rest of this book. Again, your whole understanding of Galatians is basically hinged on the definition of this phrase, so I urge for a fair assessment of what the evidence best supports.

As far as I’ve been able to gather, the primary, alternative doctrine seems to teach that the works of the law here is in reference to the oral law (i.e. the Talmud, a superset of man-made laws added onto the Mosaic law with apparent equal, or even greater, authority) and not the Mosaic law. The only “evidence” I have come across for redefining it this way apparently relies on 2 reasons: the first because of the allusion in 1:14 where Paul mentions how he was “…more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers.” and the second is a manuscript from the Dead Sea Scrolls (4QMMT). I’m going to focus on what Galatians has to say first, and address the document toward the end, hopefully demonstrating how weak of a support piece both end up being when we simply allow scripture to interpret scripture.

Contextual definition

It is interesting to note that this is actually the first instance of the exact phrase works of the law, if we think of the NT books chronologically (most sources state Galatians was written before Romans, which is the only other book that uses the phrase like this). Not only that, but Galatians is actually the book that contains 4 of the 5 instances of it! In other words, if for some reason the meaning of works of the law is unclear or questioned (which I personally think is impossible without, unfortunately, some form of eisegesis in play), Galatians should definitely be the primary book to define it for us, if at all possible, before having to resort to any other documents.

Using this approach, let’s first look at verse 14 in context, that being that the verse is in the middle of a clear biographical portion of the letter. What is the purpose of this portion? To claim the single verse is meant to set the context of the rest of the book is an enormous jump in logic and is ripping the verse out of its context for another purpose. It is a single verse in a large set of verses, with no clear emphasis to indicate any importance regarding the specific claim that works of the law is works of the oral law. What is emphasized in this portion should be easily recognized:

  • v16b-17 I did not immediately confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me
  • v19-20 I saw none of the other apostles except James, the Lord’s brother. In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!
  • v22 and was unknown by face to the churches of Judea which were in Christ.
  • 2:6 But of these who seemed to be something—whatever they were, it makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality to anyone—for those who seemed to be something added nothing to me.
  • 2:10 Only they requested that we should remember the poor, which I also was eager to do.

In the first 3 items we see the emphasis that Paul’s message was not altered by anyone, as he was initially very secluded and at most met with 2-3 disciples. The latter 2 items conclude the biography by emphasizing that after meeting with the 2-3 (and eventually some more), his message was still not altered, but rather he was accepted as-is (minus the reminder about the poor, which wasn’t in regards to his actual message). The only reason Paul even bothers mentioning his zealousy in verse 14, as far as we can tell by the text, is to apparently create the sharp contrast of how this “super Jewish” life he had before (where he persecuted Christians) has now been replaced with his new Christian life, where he is now preaching to make more Christians across the world. Quite the transformation!

I find this to be a much more harmonious reading between the 2 chapters, as do numerous commentaries. If the emphasis was on setting the context for the rest of the letter, and to redefine the works of the law phrase, then why are there no other supporting verses in the context? We have to jump from v14 in chapter 1 all the way to v16 in chapter 2 with no repetition, confirmation, or reminder (which we just demonstrated with his “nothing added to me” point) that these works are of the traditions spoken of previously.

On that note, why does Paul even bother referring to it as law when he had already established them as traditions of my fathers beforehand? He could of easily repeated this phrase to avoid any confusion for someone to “mistake” it with the Mosaic Law (which I think is indisputably the first thing that comes to mind when reading, and probably what came to mind to those who heard the letter at the time too). In fact, is there even any verse in the NT that clearly equates the law (nomos in the greek) to the oral law? As far as my searches have indicated, every instance of the oral law is referenced as “(your) tradition(s) (of men/elders/fathers)” by Paul or Christ, and never simply as nomos. If nomos is ever used for anything other than Mosaic Law (and I’m aware it is, at times), there is always some context or indicator to denote it in the very same verse.

Hopefully, that provides a sufficient case as to why v14 does not alter the context of the phrase works of the law since the portions are completely separate to begin with.

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