Roman Catholic apologists often let us know how crucial it is to have an infallible magisterium and church Tradition in order to interpret the Bible correctly. With so many Catholic apologists now commenting on sacred scripture, I thought it would be interesting to provide their commentary on the Bible.
Let’s see how they’ve been able to rightly divide the word of truth, in this instance, Galatians 2:11-16.
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles; nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.
According to Pope Benedict, this text shows the perspectives of the two apostles were different, not contradictory. Both Peter and Paul were trying to protect the faith of those in either the Jewish or gentile groups. The Pope stated, “For [Peter], the separation of the pagans represented a way to teach and avoid scandalizing the believers coming from Judaism. For Paul, it constituted, on the other hand, the danger of a misunderstanding of the universal salvation in Christ offered as much to the pagans as to the Jews.” Peter and Paul didn’t contradict each other: “For [Peter], not losing the Jews who had embraced the Gospel, for [Paul], not diminishing the salvific value of the death of Christ for all believers.” In other words, it appears Peter and Paul misunderstood each other. Benedict holds this confrontation “showed itself to be a lesson both for Peter and for Paul. Only sincere dialogue, open to the truth of the Gospel, could guide the path of the Church.”
Dr. Robert Sungenis, the director of Catholic Apologetics International, strongly disagrees with this interpretation: Pope’s Exegetical Blunder on Peter/Paul Conflict in Galatians 2 (pdf). Dr. Sungenis took the opportunity to correct Pope Benedict’s interpretation of Galatians 2:11-16. Here are some choice excerpts:
“Although I admire Pope Benedict XVI, to be very honest, I believe he is quite incorrect in his analysis of the conflict between Peter and Paul in Galatians 2:11-16. I don’t know anyone in the history of the church who has taken his side on this passage. Previous exegesis has taken the thesis-antithesis approach wherein Paul presents a thesis, and Peter’s antithesis is not only wrong but it is akin to perverting the Gospel.”
“I’m afraid to say that the pope’s understanding of this passage falls right in line with the liberal hermeneutic that we have seen so often in the last forty years. It is the theological version of the Hegelian synthesis. Not surprisingly, the pope’s interpretation of Galatians 2 is the precise way Protestant liberals,following Hegel, had interpreted the passage.”
“Why is it, also, that Pope Benedict seems to have no qualms about scandalizing faithful Catholics by having an unconverted Jewish rabbi speak to the hundreds of bishops at the current Synod on Scripture, yet he allows for Peter to claim that the Jews would be scandalized by seeing Peter eat with Gentiles? I submit there is a double standard working here. It seems that the pope’s criterion in both cases is how the scene affects the Jews, not how it affects Gentiles.”
“Unfortunately, here the pope makes another exegetical blunder, for he is mixing very different contexts, Romans 14 and Galatians 2.”
Now in case you’re confused as to which personal interpretation to follow, here’s an interesting related comment from Thomas Aquinas on the same passage. Note his description of Jerome’s fourth argument, that Paul only pretended to rebuke Peter. This certainly is not an example of the “previous exegesis” that has “taken the thesis-antithesis approach.“
Thomas Aquinas commenting on the Disagreement between Augustine and Jerome with respect to Paul’s rebuke of Peter:
Thirdly, they disagree on the sin of Peter. For Jerome says that in the dissimulation previously mentioned, Peter did not sin, because he did this from charity and, as has been said, not from mundane fear. Augustine, on the other hand, says, that he did sin-venially, however-on account of the lack of discretion he had by adhering overmuch to one side, namely to the Jews, in order to avoid scandalizing them. But the stronger of Augustine’s arguments against Jerome is that Jerome adduces on his own behalf seven doctors, four of whom, namely, Laudicens, Alexander, Origen, and Didymus, Augustine rejects as known heretics. To the other three he opposes three of his own, who held with him and his opinion, namely, Ambrose, Cyprian, and Paul himself, who plainly teaches that Peter was deserving of rebuke. Therefore, if it is unlawful to say that anything false is contained in Sacred Scripture, it will not be lawful to say that Peter was not deserving of rebuke. For this reason the opinion and statement of Augustine is the truer, because it is more in accord with the words of the Apostle.
“Fourthly, they disagree on Paul’s rebuke. For Jerome says that Paul did not really rebuke Peter but pretended to do so, just as Peter pretended to observe the legal justifications, i.e. just as Peter in his unwillingness to scandalize the Jews pretended to observe the justifications, so Paul, in order not to scandalize the Gentiles, feigned displeasure at Peter’s action and pretended to rebuke him. This was done, as it were, by mutual consent, so that each might exercise his care over the believers subject to them. Augustine, however, just as he says that Peter really did observe the justifications, says that Paul truly rebuked him without pretense. Furthermore, Peter really sinned by observing them, because his action was a source of scandal to the Gentiles from whom he separated himself. But Paul did not sin in rebuking him, because no scandal followed from his rebuke [St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Saint Paul?s Epistle to the Galatians, trans. F. R. Larcher, O.P. (Albany: Magi Books, Inc.1966), Chapter 2, Lecture 3, pp. 51-52].
A faithful Roman Catholic can choose either the interpretation of the pope, Sungenis or neither. There probably isn’t anything infallible as to who is right, so the text can be interpreted as one sees fit. For all the talk about having an infallible authority, a Roman Catholic can still read this text however he wants to, even coming up with something similar to Jerome’s interpretation.
As David King points out in Holy Scripture, The Ground and Pillar of Our Faith Volume 1:
Let us be clear. In exercising private interpretation, Sungenis is not exempt from the charge of uncertainty to which he strongly objects. He leaves his reader with the mistaken impression that his own exegesis of Scripture is an accurate reflection of official Roman Catholic teaching on the passages he adduces. But where are these official interpretations? In reality, the communion of Rome condemns and thus precludes any certainty in the exercise of private exegesis. In contrast to Sungenis, Roman Catholic scholar, Raymond Brown, informs us that: “Roman Catholics who appeal explicitly to Spirit-guided church teaching are often unaware that their church has seldom if ever definitively pronounced on the literal meaning of a passage of Scripture, i.e., what the author meant when he wrote it. Most often the church has commented on the on-going meaning of Scripture by resisting the claims of those who would reject established practices or beliefs as unbiblical [pp. 90-91].