Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, in his Paul: A Critical Life, put the Jerusalem Conference and the confrontation with Peter (Galatians 1 and 2) at a turning point in Paul’s ministry. Before this Paul had operated under the auspices of Jerusalem and Antioch. Afterwards he introduced himself as one not sent by or through human agency (Galatians), but as an apostle by the will of God (1 and 2 Corinthians) or a servant of Jesus Christ (Philippians and Romans). More controversially, he thought Paul turned into a radical antinomian after the Peter incident and sought to root out Torah observance as a requirement in his churches.
This came about historically as follows:
There were disturbances at Antioch in about the year 40 because of the threat by Caligula to desecrate the Temple. Christians got blamed. That is why the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch. Christian was a derogatory name used to call followers of Christ trouble makers. The original founders of the community fled a severe persecution. Into this chaos, the Jerusalem community sent Barnabas to encourage and renew the church. He chose Paul as his partner.
The community at Antioch eventually commissioned Barnabas and Paul to extend their type of mixed Jewish/Gentile community into areas further west.
When Paul finished about eighteen months of work in Corinth, he seems to have been called back to Antioch.Acts 15:1-2, although out of order, is essentially accurate about the situation. Paul and Barnabas argue with agitators from Jerusalem. Eventually the community sends them to Jerusalem as delegates from Antioch to come to an agreement on circumcision for Gentiles with James, Peter, and John.
The important point here is that the Jerusalem Conference is a negotiation between two churches, the one at Antioch and the one at Jerusalem. The missions of Barnabas and Paul were seen as extensions of the Antioch community.
Paul’s account in Galatians distorts this because Paul doesn’t want to appear as representing the church at either Antioch or Jerusalem. He actually did represent Antioch before. But now he has declared his independence. He says that he went to Jerusalem in response to a revelation. The revelation may have happened, but that does not exclude the reality that Paul and Barnabas represented Antioch.
Murphy-O’Connor asked why James and the others agreed to support Paul. The opponents of Paul probably had the better argument based on the Law and tradition. But the political situation in the year 51 and the policy of Claudius toward Jews, made it expedient for the Jerusalem church to take a less rigorous stance toward Gentiles.
Paul says that at Jerusalem he undertook to raise a collection from his churches for the saints at Jerusalem . However, the actual agreement for financial support probably was between the church at Antioch and the church at Jerusalem. Paul was not personally obligated to do this. But he did so anyway as a matter of conscience and a gesture of good will. The need for financial help from the churches under Antioch’s umbrella was another reason the Jerusalem church took a moderating position on the circumcision issue.
However, the final agreement at Jerusalem was probably ambiguous enough for Paul’s opponents to feel justified in sending envoys to Paul’s congregations to persuade Gentiles to accept circumcision.
Sometime after Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch, another controversy arose there–this one about Jewish food laws.
Peter was visiting Antioch and had no trouble eating at Gentile house churches until some “people from James” (Galatians 2:12) came. But then Peter became conflicted and withdrew. This threatened the mixed character of the assembly as other Jews and even Barnabas wavered. If Peter had a special mission to Jews, he may have done what he did to avoid undoing the good he was doing with them. It is harder to understand Barnabas. The political situation with Jewish nationalism and the desire not to appear unpatriotic may have come into play.
For Paul, though, this was a turning point. He saw that he couldn’t give the Law any hold at all in his congregations or else it would crowd out the gospel. After his confrontation with Peter, he no longer saw himself as dependent upon either Jerusalem or Antioch, but as an independent envoy from God representing the gospel of Christ. He now took a radical antinomian stance.
To call Paul a radical antinomian goes too far, I think. His Galatian letter informs the Galatians about the incident with Peter. So his original preaching to them was before the incident. Yet Paul insists that he is preaching the same gospel after the incident that he did before.
On the one hand, I believe Paul’s theology developed and is not consistent throughout his ministry. On the other hand, it seems to me Murphy-O’Connor suggested that Paul broke with Judaism and Jewish Christianity more profoundly than his later writings and practice show. So I am going to see how this gets unpacked as I continue to read the book.