Judaism in the first century was concerned with defining the limits of table-fellowship. The observing of these limits varied from Jewish community to Jewish community. It is reasonable to suggest that even among the Jewish communities of the Diaspora it was expected that good Jews would follow the halakic explanations of the purity laws. This may have been true at Antioch as well. While there was social interaction between Jews and God-fearing Gentiles, more scrupulous Jews would generally avoid table fellowship with Gentiles (Jubilees 22:16; compare Tacitus, Hist. 5.5.1-2). Jews who were more Hellenized, however, might feel free to participate with Gentiles in table-fellowship within certain limits. It is likely that the early church wrestled more intensely with this dilemma as more and more Gentiles entered the church (compare Acts 11:2-3).
Whatever the exact nature of the table-fellowship at Antioch, the dispute finds its core in 2:14 in Paul's rebuke of Cephas (Peter): "‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?" Here Peter is told that he lives like a Gentile in matters of table-fellowship. Again, this does not necessarily mean that Peter had abandoned entirely the laws regulating table-fellowship. What the "men from James" wanted was stricter observance of the food laws and purity laws. This effectively meant that unless the Gentiles decided to Judaize, the Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians could not have table fellowship together. This could and likely would compel the Gentile believers to Judaize, that is to embrace Jewish customs and laws to the extent that Gentile believers would be accepted at the table.
One reason that Peter may have withdrawn from table-fellowship with Gentiles was that he was told that such behavior was not Jewish, and as a Jew he ought to live like one. He had abandoned the ancestral faith. Indeed, his lifestyle in Antioch hindered the evangelization of other Jews.
Paul saw this withdrawal from the table as inconsistent with the gospel. Peter and his Jewish brothers were not on the right road. In complying with the demands of the church in Jerusalem, if indeed it was the church in Jerusalem or merely certain men claiming such authority, Peter built a wall of separation between the Jewish and Gentile believers it was a wall that denied the Gentile Christians full membership in the church; it denied their status as true believers, unless, of course the Gentiles were to Judaize, which meant becoming more like Jews. In so doing the covenant prerogatives would continue to remain in the hands of ethnic Israel.
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