Body and Blood of Christ


The Incident at Antioch
Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, OP


At the meeting in Jerusalem Peter had been fascinated by what Paul told him of Antioch-on-the-Orontes. Up to this point Peter had always lived among Jews. The Christian community in the Holy City was made up predominantly, if not exclusively, of converts from Judaism. Peter in effect had never left home.

Antioch, on the contrary, was a mixed community roughly divided between converts of Jewish and pagan origins. As such it was inherently unstable. Its survival depended on continuous striving to maintain a delicate compromise that respected the sensitivities of both groups. Loving one’s neighbour was a high priority at Antioch. 

The culture of the time demanded that the unity of the Christian community be expressed by shared meals. For pagans the problem was minor. They simply had to accept the food that Jews served them, which would have been prepared according to the dietary laws. Jews for their part had to trust that pagans would serve them food that conformed to Jewish law.

Peter had never experienced anything like this creative tension. His curiosity was stimulated. He felt that he must see for himself.  Sometime during the winter of AD 51-52 he made a visit to Antioch. At the beginning he made a great effort to live like the Jewish members of the church. He ate with pagans, and for the first time got a sense of what a mixed community was all about.

Then messengers arrived from James in Jerusalem. He had agreed with Paul in order not to dilute Jewish identity at a crucial moment in the history of his people. Paul should have foreseen the other side of this coin, namely, that James would want to strengthen the Jewish identity of converts from Judaism.

This was James’ justification for interfering in Antioch. He felt that he had the right to demand a much higher standard of Jewish observance from the Jewish converts there. Above all they were not to trust pagans and, in consequence, could no longer eat with them. Only in isolation could Jews preserve their traditional values. Peter and Barnabas were swept into this movement.

A meeting in AntiochTheir motivation is much less important than Paul’s reaction. He went ballistic. He saw clearly that, if the unity of the community was to be maintained, pagan converts would effectively have to become Jews. This was not what had been agreed on in Jerusalem. Paul’s intense anger at what he considered betrayal brought him to two key decisions that marked a major turning-point in his life.

He could no longer belong to a church that had departed so far from the Christian ideal. When he left Antioch after the snows had melted in the high country in the late spring of AD 52, he vowed never to return. Up to this point all Paul’s missionary work had been carried out under the auspices of Antioch. It had commissioned him as an apostle. Now he repudiated that commission.

In the two letters to the Thessalonians that Paul had written prior to his break with Antioch he just gave his name. He knew who he was, as did everyone else. After refusing to represent Antioch any longer, Paul had to find a new accrediting authority for his mission. Thus, in letters written after the break he reaches back to his conversion experience and presents himself as ‘an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God’.

Paul’s second important decision concerned his attitude towards the Jewish Law. He had already gone through several stages. As a teenager Paul had been ambivalent. As a Pharisee he had been totally committed. After his conversion he tolerated the Law as a source of ethnic customs for Jewish converts. The incident at Antioch, however, showed Paul that if the Law, and in fact law in general, were given the slightest foothold in a Christian community it would eventually take over. The Law was a rival to Christ. When he left Antioch Paul had become radically antinomian.

Many years later this was thrown in his face by James, when he recounted the attitude of Jerusalem Jews to Paul, “they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews that are among the Gentiles to forsake [the Law of] Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs” (Acts 21:21).

Paul’s acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah might have been accepted as an aberration by tolerant Jews. His rejection of the Law unequivocally made him an apostate and a traitor. He was fully aware of this. When he planned his last visit to Jerusalem, he begs believers in Rome to pray that “I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea” (Romans 15:31). He had good reason to fear for his life.


Acknowledgement: Conversion of St Paul by Caravaggio



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A meeting in Antioch





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