Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Butterfly Effect in History: How a Dinner in Antioch, 50 AD, Changed the World

One of the most fascinating things about history is how small events can change the world. It is, after all, typical of complex systems to be sensitive to small perturbations: it is the story of the butterfly that starts a hurricane. And, these perturbations may come from single persons who take a specific, often ill-fated, decision. Do you remember when a man named George W. Bush became obsessed with the idea of invading Iraq?

One of those small events that changed history may have been a dinner that took place in Antioch perhaps on 50 AD at the home of Saul of Tarsus, also known as Paul the Apostle. It is an event described in detail in Paul's "Letter to the Galatians," normally supposed to be one of the earliest, still-extant documents related to the origin of Christianity.

Let's go back to that remote year. In 50 AD, Yeshua Bar Yusef, later to be known as "Jesus Christ," had been executed for sedition by the Romans some twenty years earlier. But his memory of prophet and healer still lingered. Jesus's brother, Yaʻaqov (James) was the leader of a Jerusalem based group - or sect - of Jewish people who followed Jesus' teaching. The sect had also started proselytizing among the Goyim (non-jews, or Gentiles).

One of the members of the Jesus sect was a Jew who was also a Roman citizen, something very rare at that time. He was Saul of Tarsus, who also used the romanized name of Paulus, today known as "Paul". He tells us that he had been persecuting the followers of Jesus but that a mystical experience or a vision ("hit by lightning on his way to Damascus") made him change his mind and become a follower of Jesus. He visited Shim'on bar Yona (Peter) and received a sort of initiation from him. Afterward, he was charged with preaching the Gospel ("the good news") to the Gentiles.

It seems that Paul was successful at proselytizing, so much that a split within the sect developed. Jews and Gentiles had different traditions, different ideas, different languages. They were also geographically separated, with the Jews mostly located in Palestine, whereas it seems that Paul operated mainly in Asia Minor. Then, there was the question of Jewish dietary habits and, perhaps more important, that of circumcision. It may be that most of the Jewish members of the group wanted that the male Gentiles who joined to be circumcised. That was, obviously, a tough requirement and considerable obstacle for the expansion of the sect.

The split came to a head during that fated dinner that Paul tells us about in his letter to the Galatians. We don't know exactly what precipitated a quarrel between Paul and Peter, the latter having come to Antioch to visit Paul. It may have been about the appropriateness of the food served, or the fact of true Jews sitting together at the same table. Or, it may be because Peter had come to Antioch - perhaps sent by James -  to tell Paul that his male followers should have been all circumcised. Later on, some unidentified "agents from James" appeared at the dinner. That precipitated a strong verbal reaction from Paul who insulted his former mentor, Peter, and proclaimed that he had received the Gospel directly from God and that salvation came to followers by following Christ as a divine person, not the Judaic law which imposed special dietary rules and circumcision.

And there we go: the origin of the split between Christianity and Judaism that affected so much the history of the world may have originated at a dinner table in Antioch, a little less than 2000 years ago.

Is it possible? Maybe, and maybe not. We cannot be completely sure that the letter to the Galatians we read today is exactly what Paul wrote, although most scholars think it is. But this is just one of the different possible interpretations of the text of the letter to the Galatians. Finally, even though Paul was the person who catalyzed the break, it would have probably occurred anyway because the reasons for Gentile Christians and Jews to separate were many and deep and there were surely other occasions for that to happen.

Yet, if it is true that Christianity originated with a quarrel at a dinner in Antioch, then we have a truly impressive case of "the "butterfly effect" that led Christianity to expand until, today, it counts more than 2 billion adherents! It is one of those fascinating flashes of how history is made, that elementary flavor of history that Jorge Luis Borges found in the words of a Saxon King reported by the Icelandic Scholar Saxo Grammaticus.


This post originates from the book by Eric Zuesse "Christ's Ventriloquists". Not a very good book in many respects, mainly because it is overlong and terribly repetitive. More than 350 pages discussing a couple of pages of a single letter by Paul are really too much. Then the book is focussed on demonstrating that Paul was a liar and a traitor, projecting on him evil intentions which he may or may not have had. Finally, its bibliography is very limited, the author doesn't seem to consider, or even admit the existence of interpretations different than his. 

But it also a good book in the attempt it makes to shed light on an episode that may have had enormous consequences on the whole human civilization. More than all, its saving grace is that it is a book. One of those books that you read in one afternoon sitting on a comfortable chair, flipping the pages one by one, because you understand that the author cares about what he writes and does his best effort to write it. Reading a paper book is an experience that we are losing nowadays, but we shouldn't let it happen. As Walt Whitman wrote in "So Long" "This is no book. Who touches this, touches a man". And this is true also of "Christ's Ventriloquists" with all its defects and shortcomings, it touches something human. 


  1. It's true that the incident at Antioch precipitated a split in the early church. But it wasn't circumcision, it was meat and animal sacrifice that caused the incident. See my book Disciples (Apocryphile Press, 2013), chapter 13.

    Galatians 2, Romans 14, I Corinthians 8-10 are relevant here. Galatians 2:3 shows that James and Peter were willing to reach an accommodation on circumcision (Titus does not have to be circumcised). Galatians 2:11-14 indicates that "eating with the gentiles" was the problem -- it had meat offered to idols on the table. Paul answers in Romans 14 and I Corinthians 8-10, by responding at length that eating meat (even meat sacrificed to idols) is all right: "eat anything in the meat-market without raising questions of conscience" (I Corinthians 10:25). Some fellow Christians felt that not only was eating meat wrong, but that all Christians should abstain from meat, a view which Paul attacks in Romans 14 ("the weak man eats only vegetables," etc.). But to avoid conflict (these are the leaders of the church he is arguing with), Paul says "I will never eat meat, lest I cause my brother to fall" (I Corinthians 8:13).

    Paul’s own letters indicate that this was a conflict over meat and meat sacrificed to idols, not over circumcision (as it appears in Acts). Jesus was killed after disrupting the animal sacrifice business in the temple (John 2:13-17 and parallels), and his Jewish followers felt this was central to his message.

    1. Yes, as I say there are more than a single possible interpretation of Paul's letter to the Galatians. Zuesse makes a strong case that it was about circumcision rather than dietary matters and I would tend to agree, but it is also true that we'll never know exactly what was said around a dinner table in Antioch 1967 years ago!