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 by the Romans for sedition some twenty years before. 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 an unusual 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, but also in more remote regions of the Empire. Then, there was the question of Jewish dietary habits and, probably 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. Apparently, 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" came to tell Paul the same thing, appearing at a dinner where Paul and Peter were present. 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 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 flavour 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.