(Gal. 2:1-10) Is this passage referring to the Council of Jerusalem (in Acts 15) or is it something else?

CLAIM: Some scholars believe that Acts 15 and Galatians 2:1-10 are describing the same event from two different perspectives, because these two events have so much in common.[1] First, both passages describe an important event in Jerusalem. Second, both passages have the same people involved (e.g. Paul, Barnabas, Peter, James and Judaizers). Third, both passages seem to be dealing with the same subject (i.e. Gentile acceptance and participation in both salvation and fellowship). Fourth, both passages mention that circumcision is not necessary for salvation. And fifth, both passages refer to the internal struggles of Christian believers. Are these passages describing the same event?

RESPONSE: While there are a number of similarities between Acts 15 and Galatians 2:1-10, they are not describing the same event for a number of reasons (instead, Galatians 2 describes Acts 11:28-30):

First, in Galatians, Paul only mentions two visits to Jerusalem. The book of Acts records three visits. Acts 15 is the third visit. Therefore, this “first” and “second” language in Galatians would line up with what we read in Acts (Acts 9:26-30; Acts 11:27-30) –not his third trip (Acts 15:1-29).

Second, Paul starts the debate in one instance, but it is already going on in the other. In Galatians 2, Paul starts the fight in Jerusalem, but in Acts 15, the fight was already going on, when he got there.

Third, one account is a private discussion, and the other is a public discussion. In Galatians 2, Paul says that he met with the pillars of the church in private. Acts 15 says that it was an open debate in public. Critics ask why Luke doesn’t mention Paul’s visit of Galatians 2:1-10 in Acts 11, but the answer is obvious. Paul’s visit was a private meeting, which wasn’t worth mentioning.

Fourth, one account calls these men false brethren, while the other calls these men Jewish believers. Paul calls the Jewish Christians false brethren (non-believers) in Galatians, while Luke seems to describe them as Jewish believers (or mistaken believers) in Acts.

Fifth, Paul doesn’t mention the apostolic letter of Acts 15. If Acts 15 had already occurred, then the Jerusalem apostles would have already been in public agreement on these issues. But, Paul doesn’t mention this letter or their agreement in Galatians. If he has no problem mentioning them to support his authority, then why doesn’t he use their corporate decision to help support his authority?

Sixth, in one account Paul is central, while in the other he is in the periphery. Paul is the central figure in Galatians 2, but he is a secondary player in Acts 15. In fact, he is only mentioned in one verse (Acts 15:12)! At this point in the book of Acts, Paul is Luke’s main character, and yet it seems like he isn’t a central figure in this debate. He had probably already done his debating with Peter on his second journey, so he didn’t feel it necessary to speak up here in Jerusalem (Acts 11).

Seventh, it is unlikely that Peter would theologically vacillate after Acts 15. Peter was a major player in the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:7ff). Are we to believe that he vacillated on his teaching so quickly? More importantly, why doesn’t Paul bring this up, when he rebukes him? Paul might have said something like, “Peter, you just helped write a letter against these Judaizers recently? Why are you siding with them now?!

Eighth, Barnabas vacillates, as well. Barnabas was at the Council of Jerusalem, but he falls into hypocrisy also. It doesn’t seem likely that he would vacillate so quickly (Gal. 2:13).

Ninth, Paul says that he came to Jerusalem because of a revelation. Paul says that he went up to Jerusalem, because of a revelation (Gal. 2:2). This would make sense of Agabus’ revelation in Acts 11:27-28. Agabus was given a revelation about a massive famine, which prompted Paul and Barnabas’ trip to Jerusalem in Acts 11 –not Acts 15. This would also make sense of Galatians 2:10, where Paul writes that he came to Jerusalem to minister to the poor (during the famine?).[2]

Tenth, Peter’s hypocrisy was table fellowship, which aligns with Acts 10 and 11. Peter’s sin in Galatians 2:11-14 was one of table fellowship. This would fit with his struggles in Acts 10-11. After he leads Cornelius’ family to Christ, Peter takes a lot of heat from the Jewish Christian community for dining with Gentiles (Acts 11:2). This would explain what was going on in Antioch. Peter may have been feeling pressure to remove himself from Gentile table fellowship.

Eleventh, Barnabas and Titus do not sway the argument in one way or another. Barnabas is mentioned in both Acts 11 and Acts 15 (compare with Gal. 2:1). Titus is mentioned in neither Acts 11 and Acts 15 (compare with Gal. 2:1). So, neither of these clues help decide. Luke and Titus must have been at odds with each other, because he doesn’t get mentioned at all in the entire book of Acts!

[1] James Montgomery Boice writes, “In the first place, there is the coincidence of geography. In both accounts, communications take place between Jerusalem and Antioch. The false brethren have their headquarters in the first city but cause trouble in the second. In both accounts, Paul and Barnabas apparently go to Jerusalem from Antioch and return to Antioch after the council. The time is the same, or at least not inconsistent. The participants are the same. There are the legalizers who are causing the trouble, Paul and Barnabas who are representatives of the church at Antioch, and the Jerusalem apostles primarily Peter and James. The subject of dispute is the same. The character of the conference is the same. Finally, the results are the same. In each case, the victory goes to Paul with the result that the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia are officially pronounced free from obligation to conform to Jewish customs and maintain the law.” Gaebelein, Frank Ely, Everett Falconer Harrison, W. Harold. Mare, Murray J. Harris, and James Montgomery Boice. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans through Galatians: with the New International Version of the Holy Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. House, 1976. 418.

[2] Ben Witherington writes, “Notice that Gal. 2:10 says literally that ‘this very thing I had been eager to do.’ The aorist verb clearly suggests that Paul had already been concerned about this matter before this request came, which comports nicely with the report in Acts 11:30 that Paul brought famine relief with him to this second meeting in Jerusalem.” Witherington, Ben. Grace in Galatia: a Commentary on St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1998. 16.