In Galatians 2.11-21 Paul homes in on the crucial issue between him and Peter in Antioch: what does it mean, in practical terms, to be a member of God’s people? The discussion only makes sense if we assume that the Christian community in Antioch has been living as in some sense the renewed Israel, and that they now face the question of whether or not uncircumcised Gentiles count within that company, or whether they belong at a separate table. Verses 14 and 15 indicate that the question, ‘What does it mean to be a Jew?’, lies behind the argument: ‘If you,’ Paul says to Peter, ‘though you are a Jew, live in a Gentile fashion rather than a Jewish fashion, how can you force Gentiles to Judaize?’ Peter, by separating himself from uncircumcised believers, is implying that if they want to belong to God’s people they must take on themselves the identity of ethnic Jews by getting circumcised. There then follows the first ever statement of Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith, and, despite the shrill voice of detractors, it here obviously refers to the way in which God’s people have been redefined. ‘We,’ affirms Paul, ‘are by birth Jews, not “gentile sinners”; yet we know that one is not justified by works of Torah, but through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah; thus we too have believed in the Messiah, Jesus, so that we might be justified by the faithfulness of the Messiah and not by works of Torah, because through works of Torah no flesh will be justified.’
There is enough there to keep us going all day, but let me simply spell out three points. First, I have translated pistis Christou* and similar phrases as a reference, not to human faith in the Messiah but to the faithfulness of the Messiah, by which I understand, not Jesus’ own ‘faith’ in the sense either of belief or trust, but his faithfulness to the divine plan for Israel. … Second, the passage works far better if we see the meaning of ‘justified’, not as a statement about how someone becomes a Christian, but as a statement about who belongs to the people of God, and how you can tell that in the present. That is the subject under discussion. Third, the point of ‘works of Torah’ here is not about the works some might think you have to perform in order to become a member of God’s people, but the works you have to perform to demonstrate that you are a member of God’s people. These works, Paul says, simply miss the point, as Psalm 143.2 has indicated, partly because nobody ever performs them adequately, and partly because, here and elsewhere, works of Torah would simply create a family which was at best an extension of ethnic Judaism, whereas God desires a family of all peoples, the point which is repeatedly emphasized in Galatians 3.
Paul by N.T. Wright
* Editorial note: Most modern English renderings of this phrase appear as “faith in Christ” or the equivalent (cf. NASB, NIV, NLT, etc.). However, N.T. Wright renders the phrase “faithfulness of Jesus.”