In the year 48 CE Paul was in Antioch (now called Antakya, in Turkey), and he was trying to get Jews and Greeks to sit down for a meal together. It was proving difficult.
Antioch was one of the largest and ethnically diverse cities in the eastern Roman Empire, and there were many Greeks – not least the descendants of the Macedonians (Alexander the Great’s team) who founded the city in 300 BCE. For centuries Antioch was the capital of the Seleucid (read Greek) Empire, which in time crumbled to Rome. Under Rome, Antioch housed three legions to keep the Eastern borders (and those Parthians at bay).
Jews had lived in Antioch from its beginning, and the Jewish quarter was one of the largest in the Mediterranean world.
Paul grew up down the road in Tarsus. He was a Pharisee – that is a liberal, an innovator, not a conservative! The Pharisees developed a system of adaptive Torah interpretation designed to enable them to live viably among the Gentiles. When Paul joined the Jesus movement, and felt called to spread the Good News among the Gentiles, this meant for him bringing the Gentiles into the Jewish Jesus movement on equal terms.
But not much came of it. For the first 13 years of his ministry in Damascus, Syria, and Cilicia, using Antioch as a base, there was nothing to show for it. No ‘churches of Paul’ developed.
The story of Paul in Antioch is picked up in our readings today. Note firstly they are talking about the same events. Note secondly it is Galatians, an authentic Pauline letter, which is the prime source. The Acts passage, written some 50+ years later, is based on the Galatians passage and styled by Luke to fit Luke’s ideological/theological agenda (namely Jesus was Jewish but the Jews rejected him so Peter and Paul took the message to the Gentiles and now we are all one happy post-Jewish family).
Paul (after those first 13+ years of ministry) founded a Christ community in Galatia on the premise that Gentiles could join without the males being circumcised. But after Paul had left Galatia others had come and insisted circumcision was necessary. In response Paul writes the letter we have today. To get Gentiles in, Paul has lowered the bar and it seems to have worked. Maybe in those first 13 years he had insisted on circumcision and got little response?
In the late 40s Paul went to Jerusalem to talk to the leaders aka ‘pillars’ (James, Peter, and John) of the Jesus movement and he took with him an uncircumcised Greek called Titus (a visual aid?). There was a debate, but in the end Titus was not required to be circumcised. Paul would be an apostle to the uncircumcised; and Peter to the circumcised (note that Luke changes Peter’s mission here).
But Paul’s vision was bigger than just concentrating on the uncircumcised. He had a vision beyond division. He wanted Jews and Greeks to sit at table together. This wasn’t a complete novelty. Sure the menu would have needed to be kosher. But everyone likes lamb… so no problem? Eating together happened.
Then Peter shows up, and being a good guest he joins in the mixed dining. But at some point some other Jesus folk from Jerusalem turned up and all hell broke loose. Mixed table fellowship they pointed out was a ‘no no’. Peter withdraws from the mixed dining, as does Barnabas. Was the problem that they’d broadened the menu in a non-kosher direction?
Actually the problem was the history. If we think of the 1980s and Northern Irish Presbyterians dining with Irish Roman Catholics…; or the 1990s and Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians dining together… ; then we might get a picture of what’s at stake here.
Let’s start with Alexandria, in Egypt, founded in 331 BCE by the armies of its namesake, dear old Alex the Great. Jews arrived there soon afterwards and as the Ptolemaic Empire developed from Alexandria they were employed as garrison troops. And, like in Antioch there was a Jewish ‘quarter’ that over the years prospered economically, politically, and culturally.
It was though primarily a Greek city and its kings and queens were of Greek ancestry. When Rome conquered the last Ptolemaic leader (Cleopatra VII – she of ‘asp’ and Shakespeare fame) and made Alexandria is capital of the Egyptian province, all this started to change. The Greek assembly disbanded. Greek fortunes sank. But the situation of Jews remained relatively unchanged. Like all empires the Romans played off this: Greek resentment was not directed towards Romans but towards Jews.
In 37 CE Gaius (also known as Caligula) became the Roman Emperor. The Roman prefect in Alexandria was Flaccus, of whom Gaius was not a fan. Among Gaius’s friends was Herod Agrippa (a young Jewish ne’er-do-well playboy aristocrat) and Gaius appointed and sent him to a small realm in Northern Galilee. But Herod decided to go via Alexandria where he entered the city under the cover of darkness with a gang of well-armed bodyguards. Flaccus was alarmed. So when three prominent Greeks approached Flaccus offering to protect him from whatever Gaius was planning he was interested. All he had to do was deliver the Jews into the hands of the Greeks. But why turn to the Greeks?
Well, again, history. The pattern of Jewish enclaves and loyal Jewish troops spread out across the Ptolemaic Empire inevitably led to their involvement in Ptolemy politics. In 145 BCE on the death of Ptolemy VI the Alexandrian Greeks supported one candidate for coronation and the widow of Ptolemy VI favoured another. She turned to one of the Jewish garrisons for support.
A similar scenario happened in 116 BCE; and again in 76 BCE onwards. This latter one though had the Jewish garrison supporting the Roman agenda for their puppet ruler, Ptolemy XII Auletes, to be on the throne – a puppet who was opposed by Alexandrian Greeks.
And then of course there is the famous Julius Caesar and Cleopatra VII episode – Caesar favouring Cleopatra for the throne, the Alexandrian Greeks her brother and co-regent Ptolemy XIII. And in the ensuing conflict guess which local troops sided with Cleopatra and were thus seen as ushering in Roman rule? Jewish troops.
So, Flaccus in 37 CE stood aside as the Greeks first hounded Herod Agrippa out of the city and then turned on the Jewish community instigating what has been called the first pogrom. Imperial images were put up in synagogues; then Jewish political rights were rescinded; movement restricted; then homes and synagogues looted and destroyed; then mobs attacking, killing, and torturing.
This ended in 38 when Gaius sent soldiers to arrest Flaccus. Gaius also invited both Jewish and Greek leaders to come to Rome and state their case. Alexandria was the bread basket of the Empire and peace in Egypt was critical. But Gaius, being Caligula, with all the bluster and vanity and rage, only listened to one side before making known his mind, and it wasn’t sympathetic to Jews.
News of these goings-on spread across the Empire. Jews began to worry. And the worry was well-founded. Gaius decided he wanted his image in the Jerusalem Temple and worshipped as a god, and the imperial legate at Antioch was to install it. Well the legate, Petronius, marched south with two legions but was met by (according to Josephus) tens of thousands of non-violent protestors; and Petronius capitulated. What happened next was massive rioting – in Antioch, in 40 CE, with Petronius back in town and sitting on his hands. There were firstly many Jewish deaths and then, courtesy of a militant priest and 30,000 armed men from Tiberius, many Greek deaths. Petronius finally did something: he went south, got Phineas, executed him, and put his head on a pike outside the city.
So for Jews living in Antioch in the 40s these events in both Alexandria and Antioch made them reassess their assumptions: the Greeks who surrounded them, and whom had been their neighbours for centuries, did not see them as equals but enemies. Fear, loathing, and mutual contempt now marked the Greek-Jewish relationship, with the Romans watching on.
And we hear no more from our sources for 30 years until Josephus writes following the Judean War of 66-70 that Jews in Syria “passed their days in blood, their nights, yet more dreadful, in terror”.
To return to Paul and mixed dining, we can now appreciate the magnitude of what Paul was suggesting and the reticence of some of his fellow Jews. In a city torn by ethnic strife, Paul found in the Jesus movement a framework, or perhaps just the courage, to reach across the ethnic boundaries hardened through political strife and violence. Someone in the early Jesus movement had styled a creed which said in part “In Christ there is no Jew or Greek”, and Paul took it, penned it, and sought to action it at the cultural and theological heart of Pharisaic Judaism and the Jesus movement: the dining room.
Could enemies become friends? Could you pray for those who persecute you? Could a Jew like Paul and a Greek like Titus be friends? Maybe Paul’s whole approach was not about what of the Torah should be followed and how, but was about building communities of reconciliation?
Paul was a Jew and remained so all his life. A lot of the doctrines sheeted back to Paul were originally arguments to include Gentiles. Justification by faith, for example, was not a theology about saving sinners, but a rationale for why Gentiles can be included in the movement without observing Torah, in particular the custom of circumcision.
Paul’s gospel was simple: love should someday conquer violence and hatred. And let’s start by trusting each other enough to eat together. Indeed let’s start the love revolution by trusting and eating and talking and listening.
Paul, unlike Acts, did not have a vision of creating a faith community that was no longer Jewish, but creating a faith community that would not endorse Jewish hatred of Greeks and Greek hatred of Jews. This had profound relevance in the 40s in Antioch and offered profound hope.
[i] This sermon has drawn significantly on the work of Stephen J. Patterson in The Forgotten Creed