During the period which concerns us, many Jews, no doubt a growing proportion within the Jewish territories, must have believed their distinctive religious and national prerogatives were under increasing threat. The long, drawn out crisis provoked by Caligula's insistence that a statue of himself be set up in the Jerusalem temple is well known (AD 40). And later, after the death of Agrippa in AD 44, the situation deteriorated rapidly under a succession of weak Roman procurators. Cuspius Fadus (AD 44-46) demanded that the vestments of the High Priest be returned to the Romans for safe-keeping (Josephus, Antiquities 20.1.1 §6) and had to act against the threatened rebellion led by the self-styled prophet Theudas (Antiquities 20.5.1 §§97-9). Tiberius Julius Alexander (AD 46-48) crucified James and Simon, the sons of Judas the Galilean, presumably because, like their father, they were engaged in fomenting unrest against Roman rule on account of its threat to their faith (Antiquities 20.5.2 §102). Under Cumanus (AD 48-52) things went from bad to worse, with a near riot in Jerusalem resulting in thousands of deaths (20,000 or 30,000 according to Josephus - Jewish War 2.12.1 §§223-7; Antiquities 20.5.3 §§105-12), and a succession of disorders involving zealot bands in Samaria and elsewhere (Jewish War 2.12.2-5 §§228-38; Antiquities 20.5.4-6 §§11-24). Josephus reports that "from that time the whole of Judea was infested with bands of brigands" (Antiquities 20.6.1 §124) - 'brigands' being Josephus' way of describing the Zealots."
The followers of Yeshua within Palestine would not have been unaffected by these mounting pressures. The death of Stephen and the subsequent persecution (early or middle 30s) presumably had the effect of ensuring that those followers of the Nazarene who had been exempted from the persecution, or who had returned to Jerusalem thereafter, would take care to show themselves good Jews, loyal to their religious and national heritage. Agrippa's execution of James (brother of John) in or before AD 44 is presumably also to be explained against this background; Luke notes that 'it pleased the Jews' and encouraged Agrippa to move against Peter (Acts 12.1-3).
Furthermore, we should bear in mind that such pressures towards conformity with the mainstream of nationalistic Judaism were experienced as much within the infant Christian communities as from without. It is not simply a matter of coincidence that in the preceding episode involving Peter prior to his arrest, Peter had been criticized by the circumcision party for eating with an uncircumcised Gentile (Acts 11:2-3). We need to understand that nowhere in the Torah is the Jew commanded not to eat with the Gentile; however, several Commandments from the Laws of Moses and the Laws of Noah deal with the requirements for food and table fellowship. This is the issue here and not just simply eating with non-Jews. The subsequent controversy over the necessity of circumcision clearly indicates that many Jewish believers took it as axiomatic that Gentiles must be circumcised if they were to have a share in the Jewish heritage, and were prepared to exercise considerable advocacy and missionary endeavor to ensure that that heritage was neither diluted nor endangered.
In Acts 15:1 we have the statement that "certain men which came down from Judea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses ye cannot be saved".
In Acts 15: 5 we have the statement that "But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying 'That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses'".
These are just two examples of the Jews trying to preserve and protect their faith from dilution which they expected would happen once the flood gates were open to the acceptance of the non-Jews on such a wide basis. This was an effort to keep their faith sanctified, although wrong in some ways. The Jews, the Messianic Jewish Community within Judaism, could not continue to require and put circumcision upon the non-Jew because God never commanded it in the Laws of Noah. But again we must be smart enough to understand that certain Laws in the Covenant of Noah are not negotiable and are required of all non-Jews who come to saving faith in God. It was some of these Laws which Paul has relaxed in his efforts to win the non-Jews to "his" gospel. So when the men from James came and rebuked the condition of table fellowship as they saw it Paul defends his indefensible position by stating:
4 And that because of false brethren unawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage:
5 To whom we gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour; that the truth of the gospel might continue with you.
Let us not forget that these "false brethren" were the authorities from the Jerusalem Church and they were not there to remove any liberty that the non-Jews had in God through the ministry of Yeshua, but only to make sure that obedience to the Commandments of God was being enforced within that relationship which came to them through the instruction of ministers of the Jesus' movement. Paul is sure right in one thing; he would give then no submission for his stance was etched in stone. You must understand that Paul's "truth" which he wanted to continue with his followers is not the "truth" the Jerusalem Church of Yeshua wanted to continue at all!
Paul would even stoop so low as to call these "pillars" in the Jerusalem "dogs" in Phil. 3:2 where he warns his readers that these ambassadors for Christ were in reality "evil workers" and "dogs". Remember with me that it is these Apostles and disciples of Yeshua in Jerusalem who not only opposed Paul and "his" gospel which in many ways opposed the true gospel of Yeshua and his church, but dogged him during his travels to undue the errors that he was teaching. It is these same Jews that followed Paul and were responsible at time for his stripes, beatings, and persecutions which Paul mentions in his epistles. Think on that for a minute! These were those who knew Yeshua personally who were diligent to make sure that they could undo the problems created by Paul.
Let me say again that imposing such circumcision upon the non-Jew is totally out of step with the Covenant of Noah and the Laws of Noah. Racial hatred of the non-Jew was the reason why such stringent requirements were put upon the non-Jews by the Jews in hopes of keeping them at arm's length.
Here too, we may note the evidence of the Gospel of Matthew, which indicates the conservative direction the law and Israel took in preserving the nation and its faith:
17 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.
3 All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.
5 These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them, saying, Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not:
6 But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
24 But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
Wholly consistent with all this, and not at all surprising in view of it, is Luke's account of Paul's last visit to Jerusalem (probably in AD 57), where James describes the church in Jerusalem (and Palestine) as consisting of 'many thousands . . . who are all zealous for the law' and who know of Paul only that he is a renegade and menace to their Jewish faith and inheritance (Acts 21:20-1).
The threat to Jewish prerogatives was, of course, not confined to Palestine, nor were Jewish exertions to defend them. Philo gives a clear account of the riots in Alexandria in AD 38, provoked by deliberate attacks on the religious and civic rights of the considerable Jewish population resident there (Flaccus particularly 41-54; also Embassy to Gaius 132-7). Delegations to the Emperor, the first led by Philo himself, resulted in a reassertion of these rights by Claudius in AD 41. In the same year, according to Dio Cassius, Claudius deprived the Jews resident in Rome of their right of assembly (Dio 60.6.6), and eight years later, according to Suetonius, he expelled the Jews altogether because they were 'constantly rioting at the instigation of Chrestus' (Suetonius, Claudius, 25.4; cf. Acts 18.2). Since all the other Jewish unrest of this period largely centered on Jewish response to what they perceived as threats to their unique racial and religious status, it may well be that the trouble in Rome was caused by similar Jewish reaction to the success of evangelism in the name of Yeshua, like that against Stephen and that against Paul (Acts 6:9-14; 21:27-36; cf. 13:50; 14:2-5, 19; 17:5-7, 13; 18:12-15).
Whatever the precise details of these various incidents the overall picture is clear enough. During the period in which the Antioch incident took place Jews had to be on their guard against what were seen to be repeated threats to their national and religious rights. Whenever such a threat was perceived their reaction was immediate and vigorous. In Palestine itself more and more were resorting to open violence and guerrilla warfare. The infant Christian sect was not exempt from this unrest. Indeed we may generalize a fairly firm conclusion from the above review of evidence: wherever this new Jewish sects belief or practice was perceived to be a threat to Jewish institutions and traditions its members would almost certainly come under pressure from their fellow Jews to remain loyal to their unique Jewish heritage.
The question which such a conclusion leaves us is obvious:
Answer for yourself: To what extent was the Antioch incident the result of such pressures operating upon the infant communities in Palestine and Syria, pressures from Jews loyal to their heritage both without and within the sect itself?
Against this background the hypothesis becomes rather compelling that the open table-fellowship practiced at Antioch was perceived by the Jerusalem church (and perhaps by other Jews) as such a threat. The mission of the men from James would then have been their reaction to that threat. And the danger of diluting or abandoning Israel's heritage with its converse and powerful appeal to national and religious loyalty would have weighed heavily with Peter, Barnabas and the rest.
One thing must not be overlooked here. Just before the Antioch incident Paul had returned from Jerusalem after 14 years having "won" the round concerning "circumcision" and the Messianic Community no longer would make it required for Gentile followers of HaShem. Yet Acts 15:1 links "circumcision" to the salvation of the non-Jew. This must be understood as the zealous reaction of fellow Jews from Jerusalem who were keenly aware of the threat the non-Jew presented to Judaism at present and there was a fraction within even the Messianic Movement which did not agree with James. But this issue between James and Paul had previously been worked out before Paul's return to Antioch. In fact in Acts 15:24 we have James' own admission that neither he nor his men gave any such commandment to fact that the non-Jew had to "be circumcised or keep the Law [understood as the Law of Moses as in full conversion] to be saved". Yet however dear one James never absolved the non-Jews from the Laws pertaining to them within the Covenant and Laws of Noah! It would be Paul who would do that!
Thus already a fair amount of light has been shed on the Antioch incident from the broader background. We may summarize these preliminary observations thus.
With the broader background thus clarified we can now dig more deeply into that which most concerns us - the table fellowship at Antioch.
Answer for yourself: What was at stake in the Antioch church's practice of table-fellowship?
Answer for yourself: Within the context of Palestinian and Diaspora Judaism in the middle of the first century AD, how would the table-fellowship at Antioch have appeared? - as something unexceptional, as something very unusual, as a breach of Jewish practice and covenantal loyalty which posed a threat, or what?
Answer for yourself: We are accustomed to seeing the issue through the eyes of Paul (Gal. 2.11-18). But how was it seen through the eyes of the men from James?
This brings us to the next stage of our analysis.