“That’s no way to talk to the Pope.” This gratuitous and immature comment was my lame attempt at humor, whispered in the middle of Mass to my young organist colleague, before whom I should probably strive to be a better example. The occasion was the reading of the notorious incident in Syrian Antioch, narrated by St. Paul in Galatians 2:11-14, Paul upbraiding Cephas.

Precisely what happened in that historic standoff and what precipitated it inspire endless speculation and debate because, well, we don’t have access to every detail. What we know is what was reported by only one of the participants in an especially fraught context. We have Paul’s account, and one can be forgiven for wondering how St. Peter might have described the occasion. Nonetheless, we have the basic idea. Apparently, Peter had been sharing table fellowship freely with Gentile disciples of Jesus, but, under the influence of “some from James,” he backed down from that recent policy of open commensality and reverted instead to a much more ancient custom of dining separately.

New Testament scholars puzzle over the historical details, but perhaps even more interesting than the text’s invitation to speculative reconstruction is the way it beguiles those wishing to set the incident to theological use — almost always at Peter’s expense. It turns out that this snippet of primitive Christian history “proves” a surprising number of things — or should I say a number of surprising things? It shows that Peter could not have been a pope, since, well, Paul had the authority — by a divine vocation, no less — to call him out. Or maybe Peter was the pope, but the text proves that even popes can make mistakes (let the reader understand). Or someone might note that the patron saint of Protestantism — Paul, of course, wielding the pure gospel — was better than the obsequious founder of Catholicism, whose concern for appearances and rules were but harbingers of what would become creeping formalism and dead orthodoxy (by the way, New Testament professors not infrequently discover that we have been inadvertently misleading students who surmise that if the New Testament has “Catholic epistles,” then Paul’s must be the Protestant ones!).

More serious, and in some ways more abiding, was the extraordinary narrative that the nineteenth-century Neuetestamentler and early Christian historian, F. C. Baur, founder of the “Tübingen School,” would spin out of this event. For Baur, the Antioch event (supported by the “I am of Cephas, I am of Paul” partisanship in Corinth) was but the most visible fissure in early Christianity’s deeply divided foundation, a kind of skeleton that tumbled out of the closet before the canon could slam the door shut. Baur would influence succeeding generations of scholars to read the story of the New Testament as this fundamental clash between Peter and his ilk, conservative Jewish Torah-loyalists, and the rather more Hellenistic Paul, the cosmopolitan libertine of a sort. According to the story, this conflict would eventually resolve in a compromising — and more importantly for Baur, a compromised — “early Catholicism,” which, be assured, was no triumph of the Spirit leading into all truth, but the death by institutionalization of something that otherwise could have been pretty cool (to paraphrase Baur). Subsequent research has shown this whole picture is profoundly flawed for making far too much of too little, buttressed by a whole set of discredited assumptions about Judaism and its ancient cultural milieu. To believe Baur’s skepticism any more requires a certain willful credulity.

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But the discredited story lives on in various neo-Marcionite permutations. More recently it has been taken over by a version in which Paul, no longer Baur’s religious genius, has become the villain who, by effacing the simple purity of the Jesus movement with his dogma and polemics, once again suffocated by institutionalization something that could have been pretty cool. In other words, the Baur story has been turned on its head and replaced by an account no more plausible but even more alluring to persons invested in the scandalous origins of the Christian religion.

What almost everybody misses — Papists and Paulinists, skeptics and believers, alike — is that Galatians is Paul at his “Catholic” best. Paul’s take-no-prisoners screed, in which he declares his cussed indifference toward the ecclesial hierarchy (“those supposing to be pillars”), asserts justification by faith apart from works of the law — this supposed Protestant Manifesto, Luther’s beloved Katie von Bora: this rough and ready essay lays the foundation for a catholicism much earlier than anything Baur could imagine. When Paul insists that the community’s para-eucharistic fellowship must be at a single table and that baptism makes Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female alike the seed of Abraham, by having been incorporated into the single Seed of Abraham, he rises early to confess one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church and stays up late to see her live what she confesses.

And for at least one fateful day in Syrian Antioch, Paul was more Catholic than the pope.

The image above of Pope Francis is from the Flickr stream of Catholic Church (England and Wales). It is licensed under Creative Commons. 

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