Galatians 2:11 and the Primacy of Peter

Image of Peter-and-Paul“Gotcha! Paul says in Galatians 2:11, ‘But when Cephas came to Antioch I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.’ See? You Catholics say Peter was the first Pope and yet Paul puts him in his place. The catholic Church is not scriptural!”

This is one of my personal favorites in the “gotcha” lineup… when an anti-Catholic uses this verse to “seemingly” prove that either Peter wasn’t “prime” over the other Apostles, pastor of the entire Church, or that Peter (as all Popes have) didn’t enjoy the infallible charism of teaching on faith and morals because he acted hypocritically, it gives the Catholic a great opportunity to share one of Christ’s gifts to the His Church, St Peter and his successors, in a way that the non-Catholic has never considered before.   There are other verses a non-Catholic would cite in their arguments, for instance 1 Peter 5:1 where Peter calls himself a “a fellow elder”  rather than a bishop, or even a pope, however, we will see that neither this verse, nor any others, bear the context that the non-Catholic thinks they do.   So, does this somehow mean Peter was not “first among Apostles?” Was he really just one of many “elders” and no one special?  Does Galatians 2:11 prove that Peter couldn’t have possessed any special charism because, “clearly”, he was fallible… right?

Before we dig into this passage, let me digress for just a moment. When you get to the heart of the matter, its really not about Peter himself, or whether or not he is special apart from his brother elders and apostles. Rather, its about authority!  Due to our sin nature, people simply dislike the notion of submitting their wills to those placed over them, we simply can not tolerate authority. Instead, we want to retain complete control over our lives, including our faith and religious practices.  Like Sinatra, we want to “do it our way!” Of course it doesn’t help when those who have been given authority abuse it through their personal sin and hypocrisy, however, the principle stands, you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Our Lord gave us many examples of this principle in the Gospels, among them He said in Matthew 23:2-3, ”The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice.

This should raise a question in our minds. Who gave this authority to them; God or man? God, clearly! So, if God has given them this authority, and they abuse it through personal sin and hypocrisy, do we have the right to ignore their authority, to act independently from them due to their hypocrisy?  No, clearly we do not!  In fact, have you ever asked yourself why Jesus was condemned to die by the High Priest and his co-conspirators in the Sanhedrin?   What was it that Jesus did or said that put the proverbial nail in the coffin (pardon the pun)?  If you read Mark 14:53-65 you will see how Jesus stood silent through all the false accusations laid against him by the many witnesses, never once responding.  It wasn’t until after Caiaphas asks Him directly “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” in verse 61 that Our Lord speaks in His own defense. Even though Caiaphas was a hypocrite, being the High Priest “that year” (John 18:13), and clearly about to commit a grave personal sin, Jesus submits His will to the authority placed over Him by the Father.  Instead of defending Himself, Jesus gives them what they wanted, a direct statement in verse 62, “I am; and you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”   It was at this point that they pronounced the sentence of death, not before.  If Jesus had remained silent, never responding at all, I wonder if the outcome would have been the same. Maybe, but, it’s obvious that obedience plays a significant role in the salvation of mankind… obedience, even to sinful men.

Let’s take another example, fast forward to the moment Jesus’ life hung in the balance, when the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate seemed to be desperate to release Him, yet tempting Him to fall short of the moment of our salvation in weakness. “Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” 11 Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above’ (John 19:10-11).”  Question; Why would Jesus submit His will, allowing Himself to be executed so horrifically, to a sinful politician when He could have called down twelve legions of Angels to defend Him (Matthew 26:53)?  The answer, as St. Paul would state it in Philippians 2:8, is obedience, the very thing Adam, and his descendants seem to be most incapable of. “And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” Ok, so what is the result, the fruit of  Christ’s obedience even unto death? The answer is found in the very next verse, verse 9…. “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name… !”  If Our Lord would submit His own will to those sinful, hypocritical, men placed in authority over Him, then why do we struggle so much to submit our wills to those He has placed over us?  Just how much “Christ-like” are we willing to become if it is no longer “we” who live, but, Christ who lives in “us” (Galatians 2:20)? Now back to the our regularly schedule passage!

Galatians 2:6–16 (RSVCE) 6 And from those who were reputed to be something (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those, I say, who were of repute added nothing to me; 7 but on the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised 8 (for he who worked through Peter for the mission to the circumcised worked through me also for the Gentiles), 9 and when they perceived the grace that was given to me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised; 10 only they would have us remember the poor, which very thing I was eager to do.

11 But when Cephas came to Antioch I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he ate with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13 And with him the rest of the Jews acted insincerely, so that even Barnabas was carried away by their insincerity. 14 But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” 15 We ourselves, who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, 16 yet who know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified.

Let’s look at the verse in context, take a moment and read the entire letter. You can usually get through the entire book of Galatians in under thirty minutes, which is always a great way to see the big picture of any passage you’re studying, and get its fuller context.  It’s clear that St. Paul was upset, struggling to fend off those elements within the Church that were leading the faithful astray, back to the “law” that Christ fulfilled.  The “law” was the custodian of the Israel of God until the Messiah came to fulfill it. Now the old “law” has passed and faith in Jesus, the Word taken on flesh, is our new “law” (Galatians 3:24-29). Unable to be with them in person, St. Paul writes this letter in the tone of a father chastising his children and exhorting them to hold fast to the Gospel that they received (Galatians 1:9).  As you read through this letter, you get the sense that St. Paul really wanted to grab a hold of them and shake them into sense, he was clearly frustrated that he could not be there in person to fix these errors (Galatians 4:20).  In another one of my personal favorite verses in scripture, St. Paul writes in Galatians 3:1, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified!”

So when Peter comes to Antioch, and seems to act in a hypocritical fashion by eating with Gentiles one day, then refraining from Gentiles and eating with the Jewish Christians (the “circumcision party”) the next, it presents St. Paul with a golden opportunity for fraternal correction on his fellow Christians, and setting the record straight on the “law”.   On the surface it comes across as Paul really putting Peter in his place. After all, if Peter really was “Pastor of the entire Church” then how dare anyone speak to him in this way… right? As we asked at the outset, is Peter acting as a hypocrite here? Does this mean he is not “first among Apostles?” The easy answer is no. Rather than detract from Peter’s status, this passage emphasizes it.  If Peter were truly just another “elder”, then why would it be anything special to rebuke him? If Peter had no authority in the entire Church, then why would would the Antiochians care either way that Paul set this visiting “elder” in his place, “before them all?” In order for this action to have the kind of effect Paul intended, the “shock and awe” of rebuking even Peter publically, Peter would have to be someone of very special authority within the Church, otherwise it doesn’t make much sense.

If you go back to chapter 1 verse 18, you read  how, after three years from his “road to Damascus conversion” Paul spent fifteen days alone with Peter, presumably to have his Gospel, and his apostleship, verified.  He even states in chapter 2 verse 2, “I went up by revelation; and I laid before them (but privately before those who were of repute) the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, lest somehow I should be running or had run in vain.” So who are the “those who were of repute?” If you skip down to verse 9, Paul tells us, “… James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars…”, Cephas (Peter) clearly being listed there. Why, if Peter was just a regular “elder” would he go out of his way to tell us that, out of all “elders” to choose from, he spent fifteen days with him alone? Why would Paul verify his Gospel, and be confirmed as a true apostle of Jesus from Peter (and James and John), if Peter was just one of many “elders?”  In order for this to make any sense whatsoever, Peter would have to be someone with very special authority in the Church for Paul to feel that he (peter) could verify or confirm him.  After all, didn’t Paul receive his apostleship from Jesus Himself? Well, according to Galatians 1:11 he did, therefore, the magnitude of Peter’s confirmation of Paul should speak volumes to us about the authority and position that God has given to him (Peter). How could Peter confirm anything Christ has established unless it was God’s will for him to do so? Certainly Paul recognized this fact, and respected the authority God has placed over him even if that meant subjecting his will to sinful, hypocritical men… this was truly Christ-like!

A cursory look through the Gospels tells a similar story.  Every time the twelve disciples are listed, Peter is always listed first and Judas is always listed last (c.f. Mark 3:16-19). Every time Jesus asks a question to His disciples it is always Peter who speaks first, and on their behalf, never with any discussion or debate from the others (c.f. Matthew 16:13-20).   Every time the twelve Apostles were in a boat and Jesus came calling, it is always Peter who rushes, “headlong into the wind”, leaping out of the boat to go to Him (c.f. Matthew 14:22-33, and John 21:4-8).  Of all twelve, it was Peter who proclaimed to Jesus “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” in Luke 5:8, thus receiving his surname “Peter”, which means “Rock” and was only used as a title for God in the Old Testament. Among all the apostles Jesus choses Peter, James, and John to take up the mountain of transfiguration (c.f. Matthew 17:1-13), and to witness his suffering, apart from the others, in the garden of Gethsemane (c.f. Mark 14:32-42).  In the upper room, of all His apostles, Our Lord prayed specifically for Peter that he (Peter) would strengthen his brethren after he returns to the faith (c.f. Luke 22:31-34).  It was Peter whom Jesus gave the “keys” of His Kingdom, establishing Peter’s authority to personally “bind and loose” (c.f. Matthew 16:13-20), setting him (Peter) up as a “father” to the inhabitants of the kingdom (c.f. Isaiah 22:15-25).  Of all twelve disciples, it was only Peter and John that followed Jesus all the way to his trial before Caiaphas (c.f. John 18:15). Among his brethren hiding in the upper room after the crucifixion, it was Peter and John that would rush to the tomb Easter Sunday morning, to the reports that Our Lord had risen from the dead (John waiting for Peter to enter first – c.f. John 20:1-10).  It was to Peter, and not the other Apostles, that Jesus first appeared after His resurrection (c.f. 1 Cor. 15:4). Among all his brethren, it was Peter whom Jesus commanded to “feed His sheep” setting him up as shepherd in the flock of Jesus Christ (c.f. John 21:15-19).   By far, Peter is mentioned more times than any other apostle in all four Gospels… is there any way he could just be some regular “elder?”  No, of course not!

It was Peter who “stood up” and called his brethren together to elect the successor to Judas, proclaiming “his office, let another take” (c.f. Acts 1:15-26). It was Peter who spoke out, on behalf of the twelve, and preached to those gathered from the “four corners of the earth”, baptising three thousand that day (c.f. Acts 2:14-42)!  It was Peter who judged, exercising the “Keys of the Kingdom” on, Ananias and Sapphire for their deceitfulness against the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1-11).  It was Peter’s shadow that the sick and possessed lined up to have it fall upon them as he passed by… and they were healed (c.f. Acts 5:12-16).  It was Peter who first spoke up, on behalf of the Apostles, to the High Priest and the council in defense of the faith (c.f. Acts 5:27-42).  It was Peter whom God first called to the Gentiles, entering the house of Cornelius and baptising his entire household (c.f. Acts 10:23-48). And of course, it was Peter who “stood up” at the first council of Jerusalem and pronounced his judgment among all the brethren on how the Church was to incorporate Gentiles, after which there was no debate (c.f. Acts 15:6-21)! But you’re right, “nothing to see here, he’s just an ordinary ‘elder’… move along, move along!”

I think we can admit that clearly Peter enjoyed a very special role in the Church, as we said earlier, one that Paul himself recognized and respected. So, getting back to Galatians 2:11, the next question we need to look at is whether or not Peter acted as a hypocrite in his actions.  To recap, Peter paid a visit to Paul in Antioch and while there, he openly ate and socialized with the Gentiles.  Then, when the “circumcision party” arrived from James, Peter stopped eating with the Gentiles and drew back causing others to do so as well.  St. Paul, noticing their insincerity to the Gospel boldly confronts Peter in verse 14, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” To Paul, this was a golden opportunity to make a huge impact in the community of the faithful who was struggling with what it meant to be “Christian” and no longer just “Jewish”. You can almost hear St. Paul’s thoughts turning around in his mind, “If when Peter”, who was focused on the Jewish Christians (Galatians 2:7), “separates himself from the Gentiles it causes many to follow his lead… then what will happen when Peter goes the other way?”  This is what Paul was counting on, what better circumstance could he ask for than to utilize Peter in this teachable moment?  In fact, St. John Chrysostom, writing in his commentaries on Galatians, goes so far as to say that Peter and Paul planned this together in order to effect change without ostracizing a portion of the flock.

Many, on a superficial reading of this part of the Epistle, suppose that Paul accused Peter of hypocrisy. But this is not so, indeed it is not, far from it; we shall discover great wisdom, both of Paul and Peter, concealed herein for the benefit of their hearers. …

But when some came from Jerusalem who had heard the doctrine he delivered there, he no longer did so fearing to perplex them, but he changed his course, with two objects secretly in view, both to avoid offending those Jews, and to give Paul a reasonable pretext for rebuking him. For had he, having allowed circumcision when preaching at Jerusalem, changed his course at Antioch, his conduct would have appeared to those Jews to proceed from fear of Paul, and his disciples would have condemned his excess of pliancy. And this would have created no small offence; but in Paul, who was well acquainted with all the facts, his withdrawal would have raised no such suspicion, as knowing the intention with which he acted. Wherefore Paul rebukes, and Peter submits, that when the master is blamed, yet keeps silence, the disciples may more readily come over. Without this occurrence Paul’s exhortation would have had little effect, but the occasion hereby afforded of delivering a severe reproof, impressed Peter’s disciples with a more lively fear. Had Peter disputed Paul’s sentence, he might justly have been blamed as upsetting the plan, but now that the one reproves and the other keeps silence, the Jewish party are filled with serious alarm; and this is why he used Peter so severely. Observe too Paul’s careful choice of expressions, whereby he points out to the discerning, that he uses them in pursuance of the plan, (ὀικονομίας) and not from anger.

 – John Chrysostom. (1889). Commentary of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Epistle of St. Paul the Apostle to the Galatians Anonymous & G. Alexander, Trans.). In P. Schaff (Ed.), A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series, Volume XIII: Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus, and Philemon (P. Schaff, Ed.) (18). New York: Christian Literature Company.

Certainly, Paul is scandalized by the actions the “circumcision party” were taking among his flock, and would spend his life fighting vociferously to correct those errors in every community in which he laboured, as is evident in all of his letters.  However, on the other hand, the “circumcision party” were also scandalized by what they saw as an affront to the “law” of God by the actions of Paul, and Peter, eating with the Gentiles and not enforcing circumcision among their converts. They were Christians too, however misguided, and God desires that all be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4).  So, was Peter wrong, generally speaking? Did Peter act hypocritically in his choice to separate himself from the Gentiles? Let’s not forget that it was to Peter whom God revealed through a vision that not only were all foods clean, but also, that Gentiles too were to be incorporated into the one Church through Baptism (c.f. Acts 10:23-48).  Accepting Christianity meant major worldview alterations for these Jewish Christians, and it would take time for them to truly set in.

Acts 10:44–48 (RSVCE)

44 While Peter was still saying this, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. 45 And the believers from among the circumcised who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 For they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, 47 “Can any one forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.

Let’s look at his from St. Peter’s perspective. If you were Peter, “Pastor of the flock of Christ”, and you had Jewish Christians (who made up the majority of the early Church until it began to spread throughout the Roman Empire) who inappropriately hung onto the old “law”; how would you have dealt with them?  Would you have excommunicated them?  Casting them out of the body of Christ? Or, perhaps, Like a father, having to always find the balance among his children, you, a pastors of souls, too must always “father” the flock towards God, and not away from Him. Only when absolutely necessary would you utilize excommunication as remedial punishment with the hope of the ultimate conversion and repentance of your “children.” So, if Peter had not withdrawn from the Gentiles, only after the “circumcision party” arrived, how do you think the Jewish Christians would have reacted? How long do you think they would have remained “Christian” if they were constantly being scandalized by what they felt were inappropriate actions?  (Read the book of Hebrews… it’s a plea to these Jewish Christians to NOT return to the temple but to remain true to Christ and the NEW Israel!) If your goal was to both welcome the Gentile converts, and to pastor the Jewish Christians towards further conversion and Christian understanding… what would you have done? It’s not either the “Circumcision Party” or the Gentiles you want… it’s both and!

Like a good father, Peter gave to each of his children what they needed at that moment, while at the same time, in silence, allowed Paul to use him in order make maximum use of this moment for the building up of the body of Christ, falling on his proverbial sword.  In fact, St. Paul himself taught in his letter to the Romans, which he wrote after he wrote his letter to the Galatians, that he would not be a “stumbling block” to the Jewish Christian who clung to outdated food laws even though he was free to eat whatever he wanted.

Romans 14:1–4 (RSVCE)

1 As for the man who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not for disputes over opinions. 2 One believes he may eat anything, while the weak man eats only vegetables. 3 Let not him who eats despise him who abstains, and let not him who abstains pass judgment on him who eats; for God has welcomed him. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Master is able to make him stand.

Instead of enjoying his freedom in Christ, he rather instead, out of love for those whom Christ died, abstain for their sakes. He would go on to say in verse 15, “If your brother is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died.”  I tell you what, if St. Paul were standing in front of me today I would say, “Gee St. Paul… this sure does sound an awful lot like what St. Peter was doing back there at Antioch… you know, when you opposed him to his face… in front of all!” Maybe it could be that if anyone learned anything from that exchange in Galatians 2:11, it was St. Paul rather than St. Peter.  We really only have one side to the story after all. Or, perhaps, it’s as St. John Chrysostom laid it out (St. Jerome as well for that matter), and Peter and Paul, truly a dynamic duo, conspired together for the benefit of the souls in Jesus’ flock.

In any case, it has no bearing on whether or not St. Peter enjoys a primacy among his fellow Bishops, or whether or not Peter could speak infallibly on matters of faith and morales. , All Bishops are first “elders” (the Greek word for “elder” is presbyteros which is the word where we get the English word “priest”), only unlike the “elders”, Bishops (“overseers”) enjoy the fullness of the sacrament of ordination. The church doesn’t teach that Peter and his successors were impeccable, rather that God has given them the “keys”, the authority to personally bind and loose in His (God’s) Kingdom.  If any of the gifts God lavishes upon His children depended upon personal holiness, we would be utterly starved for His attention!  Furthermore the gift of papal infallibility was not given for his (the pope’s) sake, rather it is given to protect the Church from the Pope. Everyone of the successors of Peter have been fallible human men, filled with weakness and sin. A small number of them have even been down right scoundrels, yet not a single one officially taught error… that should say a lot considering all that the Church has gone through in two thousand years of history!

CCC 889 In order to preserve the Church in the purity of the faith handed on by the apostles, Christ who is the Truth willed to confer on her a share in his own infallibility. By a “supernatural sense of faith” the People of God, under the guidance of the Church’s living Magisterium, “unfailingly adheres to this faith.”

CCC 891 “The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful—who confirms his brethren in the faith—he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals.… The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter’s successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium,” above all in an Ecumenical Council. When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine “for belief as being divinely revealed,” and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions “must be adhered to with the obedience of faith.”420 This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself.

Catholic Church. (2000). Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd Ed.) (235–236). Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference.

We, like the “Disciple whom Jesus loved”, should follow Peter (c.f. John 20:20-23). Not because Peter is a perfect, sinless Christian, rather because Peter, and the successors after him, is the one whom Our Lord has established to be His Vicar on earth giving to him the “Keys” of His Kingdom. We should follow Peter out of obedience to Jesus, because it is Christ who lives within us, and Christ is always obedient to the authority that the Father has established.  It is never easy to submit our wills to others, however, as I often like to say, you don’t have to like it, but, you do have to do it!  Galatians 2:11 is not a “gotcha” verse that proves the Catholic Church is wrong, rather it is a verse that displays the enormous task that St. Peter, and his brother Bishops, had in sharing the Gospel with a world full of “stiff-necked” sinners where everyone had an opinion, and everyone was offended by something. Good thing our Bishop’s today don’t have to deal with anything like that, hu?  My Bishop, Cardinal DiNardo, once said that his primary task, as Archbishop of Galveston-Houston, was to keep the archdiocese in communion with the successor of Peter. This is a good insight into the challenge every “pastor of souls” must face, keeping all of his “children” in the family, because we are so eager to divorce one another and “do it our way!”  If anything, Galatians 2:11 is a shining example of how two monumental figures of early Christianity worked together to call the “Israel of God” to further conversion, keeping the family together, while sharing the “Good News” with all the world.  This dynamic duo would go on to witness to the world, even down to our age, the Christ-like necessity of obedience, even unto death when they were joyfully martyred in Rome. Let us join with the early Church in singing the praises of these great Saints and the lasting legacy they have left for the Body of Christ, the family of God!

“Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre- eminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.”   Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3:3:2 (A.D. 180).

About the Author:

Joe McClane – The Catholic Hack! – is the director and events coordinator for Fullness of Truth Catholic Evangelization Ministries, as well as an a Catholic New Media producer & Evangelist. He is married to his lovely wife Michelle and they have five children. The Catholic Hack | Catholic Apologetics, Theology & More!