Gal. 2:12 – For before certain men came from James, he [Peter] used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group.
What was Peter afraid of and why? The verse doesn’t explicitly answer the question. According to D.A. Carson any answer to our question will inevitably involve “some sort of mirror-reading.” (“Mirror-Reading with Paul and Against Paul: Galatians 2:11-14 as a Test Case”, in Studies in the Pauline Epistles, Zondervan, p. 104) A “mirror-reading” is where an interpreter speculates on what the writer was responding to in the text.
The answer hinges, in part, on the relationship between the two groups mentioned in the verse. Are the “men . . . from James” and “the circumcision group” the same or different groups? The majority interpretation sees both groups as the same. The group arrives and Peter fears their opinion of him and what they might report back to James. He therefore withdraws from the Gentiles in order to make himself look better. There are variations to this interpretation but the common denominator identifies both groups as the same. John MacArthur would represent this position. He writes, “When Judaizers came, pretending to be sent by James, they lied, giving false claims of support from the apostles. . . . He [Peter] was afraid of losing popularity with the legalistic, Judaizing segment of people in the church, even though they were self-righteous hypocrites promoting a heretical doctrine.” (The MacArthur Study Bible, p. 1791. Note that MacArthur views those who came from James as pretenders. The NLT translates the passage as “when some friends of James came.” From this you can see there are other interpretive issues involved.)
But what if the groups are not the same? Who are they and what causes Peter’s fear? Carson offers three options: 1) false believers, 2) Jewish Christians, or 3) unconverted Jews. Of the three Carson thinks number three holds the most promise. He employs a battery of questions which force the reader to consider the implications of seeing Peter’s problem as a simple moral lapse prompted by a fear of what some might think of him.
“Does it make sense to imagine that the Peter who successfully defended his conduct with Cornelius to the church in Jerusalem (Acts 11) would now be frightened by what some voices in Jerusalem might now think? Does it make sense to suppose that the Peter whose interactions with Gentiles was so decisively changed by a threefold vision that centered on eating non-kosher food (Acts 10) should now be afraid of those who resist such revelations? . . . [D]oes it make sense to suppose that the Peter who knows that the teaching of the Lord Jesus makes all foods clean (Mark 7:19) wants to pit himself against his Lord? Does it make sense that ‘even Barnabas’ (Gal 2:13) could be led astray out of fear of what more traditionally inclined fellow believers in Jerusalem might think, especially when he was the man sent from Jerusalem to ensure that this mixed church in Jerusalem pulled Jews and Gentiles together, and therefore had occasion to think about those things for a long time?” (p. 106)
What does Carson think happened? What is his “mirror-reading” of the text? The emissaries from James came bearing a message for Peter. Peter was informed that there was a fresh outburst of persecution from the Jewish authorities. Many were put in prison, some beaten and some had been killed. These authorities have been particularly inflamed that Peter had been transgressing the food laws. Therefore, “a little tactical restraint might well go a long way to reducing the fury of our opponents.” (p. 109). The group that Peter fears are those who are “persecuting Jews in Jerusalem, and what he fears is the violence they are perpetuating on his fellow believers in that city.” (p. 109) The problem, Carson says, is not a theological one but a pastoral one. (p. 110) Nonetheless, Paul sees a problem in the manner that Peter responded to the message. “Paul perceives that what begins as a difference in pastoral theology . . . now threatens to do much greater theological harm.” (p. 111) “[H]e [Paul] sees the theological reverberations more clearly than do Peter and Barnabas. As for the pastoral judgments, Paul would say, as he says elsewhere, that if believers have to suffer for upholding the nonnegotiability of the exclusive sufficiency for the cross of Christ, then so be it: we are prepared to lay down our lives.” (p. 112)
For a more lay-friendly account of Caron’s case see his Love in Hard Places, Crossway, pp. 150-62.