Peter and Paul in Conflict? Pt 1, Origin of a myth

Lately, I have heard a number of discussions from those in academia about how 1st century Christianity has “evolved.” One of the things that is often brought up in these discussions is that Peter and Paul taught two very different types of Christianity (sometimes this is alternately discussed in terms of Paul and James having a disagreement with Peter either being in the middle or siding with James), and it is usually intimated that Paul changed Christian teachings at this time.

This theory goes back to the nineteenth century, when it was formulated in terms of the “Bauer Hypothesis,” formulated by Johann Christian Bauer, and was the foundation for the “Tubingen school” of New Testament Studies. Bauer sought to combine the study of the New Testament with ideas that were current in nineteenth century philosophy, most notably Hegel.[1]

Bauer sought a thesis/antithesis basis on which the New Testament was written, and he thought he had found one in Galatians 2:11-21, when Paul confronted Peter at Antioch. Bauer then assumed that this was the crucial conflict upon which later Christianity was developed, and he dated most of the New Testament to a period between the late second and late third centuries on the basis of his perceptions of how this conflict was settled along Hegelian lines.[2] The Bauer Hypothesis, and the Tubingen school of theology were later overturned with the publication of Lightfoot’s work on the Apostolic Fathers. Lightfoot basically demonstrated that the Apostolic fathers who quoted the books of the New Testament were older than the dates assigned by Bauer to the New Testament books themselves, and the entire school of thought died an unceremonious death as it was placed on the rubbish heap of history.

To be fair, there was a notable controversy at this time that ended in the council of Jerusalem and a schism with the first Christian heretical sect – a group known as the Ebionites. Yet, while this controversy is central to the controversy between Paul and Peter (and Galatians as a whole) there is little actual evidence that Peter and Paul were actually in a theological disagreement, even if there was a serious question of Peter’s practice. As to the Galatians 2:11-21, we will discuss this next time, as we demonstrate how this is an insufficient basis for positing that Peter and Paul were in a long-term conflict.

            [1] Hegel hypothesized the ideas developed and changed as they were brought into conflict with other ideas; Hegel’s dialectic is often simplified, (perhaps overly simplified) into an idea known as a thesis, in opposition to its opposite, known as the antithesis, and the two eventually form a synthesis, which becomes a new thesis.

            [2] Francis Schaeffer is famous for noting that the theological left was founded on Hegelian thought. Many modern theologians who reject historical Christianity but somehow feel their ideas are Christian in some sense object to this, noting that they have come a long way from Hegel. Yet, Hegelian assumptions underlie a great deal of non-believing New Testament and Old Testament scholarship, even if it does not interact with the theologies of heretics like Tillich, Barth or Bultmann. When moderns discuss sources for the gospel, (such as Q, M, and L) or sources for the Torah (J, E, D, and P) they are building their views on what is ultimately a Hegelian foundation, and in this sense Schaeffer is more correct than his critics.

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