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In the second chapter of his letter to the Galatians, Paul recounts how on a visit to Antioch he publicly rebuked Peter’s “hypocrisy” in withdrawing, under pressure from a delegation of the Jerusalem church, from table fellowship with Gentile believers. The New Testament scholar James D. G. Dunn contends that for Paul this event resulted in a decisive break with the church that had sponsored his original missionary journey. Significantly too, it was in this context—as an answer to the social problem of relations between the circumcised and the uncircumcised in the church and not as a solution to individual guilt and fear of judgment—that Paul first wrote the formula, “justification by faith and not by the works of the law” (Galatians 2:16). Dunn concludes, “The Antioch incident was probably one of the most significant events in the development of earliest Christianity. It shaped the future of Paul’s missionary work, it sparked off a crucial insight which became one of the central emphases in Paul’s subsequent teaching, and consequently it determined the whole character and future of that young movement which we now call Christianity.”

It is a large claim, but Dunn actually underestimates how widely Paul’s stinging rebuke reverberated, for its echoes produced an earthquake that finally left the ancient world in ruins. Toward the end of Economy and Society, Max Weber cites Galatians 2 and Peter’s participation in ritual meals with Gentiles to highlight the differences between the antique and the medieval cities. Ancient cities, Weber notes, were socially structured by a separation between those who made a claim of descent from the founding clans (patricians) and those who could make no such claim (plebeians), a separation often spatially represented by the isolation of plebeians either at the foot of the sacred hill of the polis or in ghettos clustered at the walls.

This dualism of the ancient city had a definite religious coloring, since the distinction of patricians and plebeians was equivalent to that between those who had access to the sancta and those who did not. As Henri Fustel de Coulange has shown, the polis was a religious as much as a political entity; rights came by participation in the city’s rites. Weber observes, “The cities of Antiquity were religiously exclusive not only toward the outside, but also internally against everyone who did not belong to one of the constituted sibs—that is, against the plebeians, and for this reason they remained compartmentalized into initially very exclusive associations.”

By late antiquity, this caste system had already declined, and Pierre-Simon Ballanche has argued that the history of antiquity is the story of an ultimately successful plebeian struggle for initiation into political, cultural, and religious privilege. It was, as Weber and Ballanche agree, in medieval Christendom that the religious exclusions lost their political centrality. Weber cites the Antioch incident as an example of the fading of religiously based political exclusiveness. Later, Southern European cities, with their Capulet-Montague feuding, more closely resembled ancient cities than did those of Northern Europe. But even in Italy social and political boundaries, under the impact of Christianity, were stripped of much of their religious legitimation.

The medieval city, for all its real inequities and flaws, was a partial realization of a social order ritually imagined in Christian baptism. Baptism, as the church fathers, early medieval theologians, and scholastics consistently noted, confers a participation in the priesthood of the Priest, Jesus Christ. In contrast with the Old Testament priesthood, which was confined to the descendants of Aaron, the Christian priesthood encompasses the whole people of God. All the marks of induction into the Aaronic priesthood—anointing, investiture, participation in the sacrificial meal—were included in Christian initiation. Certainly no one denied the necessity of an ordained ministry in the church, but at the same time liturgists insisted that the dignitas of priesthood was conferred by baptism and its accompaniments.

While theologians normally elaborated the priesthood of the faithful by typological contrast with the priesthood of the Mosaic order, baptism held similarly revolutionary implications for the order of the Greek and Roman world. Fustel de Coulanges notes, “What manifestly separated the plebeian from patrician was that the plebeian had no part in the religion of the city. It was impossible for him to fill the priestly office.” Christian baptism as baptism into priesthood ended all that. Baptismal water was the universal solvent not only of traditional religious distinctions within Judaism but also of the foundation stones on which the ancient city rested; for the church, it was the sole initiation and was not confined to a single family, clan, race, or social class. Everyone within the watery walls of this city participates in the rites and shares in the sancta; holy things are for holy people, but all the baptized are saints.

Politically, the democratic implications of eliminating ancient religious exclusions are obvious; less evident but no less spectacular were the economic consequences. Instead of subordinating artisans and entrepreneurs to the founding aristocracy, as the ancient city had done, the medieval city was ruled by a combination of grand bourgeoisie and small capitalists. Here, it seems, Weber put his finger on a stronger connection between Protestantism and capitalism than his flawed conjectures about election and the Protestant work ethic.

It was in Protestantism that the radical implications of Christian baptism were most dramatically worked out in opposition to a late medieval system that had hardened the division of priesthood and laity. Catholic apologist Joannis Moldonati, polemicizing against the Lutherans, actually defended the distinction between priest and laity by appealing to analogies with ancient Rome’s patricians and plebeians, perpetuating in ecclesial guise the structures of antiquity. Meanwhile, Luther was blanketing Europe with tracts announcing, with an oddly traditional recklessness or reckless traditionalism, that every baptized Christian was priest and cleric, thereby sparking liberation from a captivity that began, almost literally, in Babylon. It is surely no accident that renewed Catholic attention to the priesthood of the laity has in our century been followed by an unprecedented Catholic endorsement of the free economy. To put it simply: No Congar, No Novak.

Paul’s insistence that Jew and Greek share a common table was the symbolic founding of the Western city. Over the modern megapolis, over its indifferent financial districts and bustling marketplaces, flutters a banner so defaced as to be all but illegible and so ignored as to be all but forgotten, but once inscribed with another stirring passage from Paul’s letter to the Galatians (3:27-28): “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute. He is the author most recently of Gratitude: An Intellectual History. His previous articles can be found here.

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