“James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised” (Galatians 2:9).

The word translated “fellowship” is from the Greek koinonia which first appears in the New Testament in Acts 2:42:

“They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

I would like to know what “the right hand of fellowship” meant with regard to Paul back then, and what it means within the Christian faith today (Catholic and/or Protestant). Any historical references and/or information on modern traditions within the Church are welcomed.

2 Answers 2


I agree with your method of looking at the first occasion of a word appearing in scripture. I often find, in my own personal studies, that the first use of a word (in Hebrew or in Greek) is definitive and forms the basis of its continued use by the Holy Spirit in various contexts.

In that place, Acts 2:42, the teaching of the apostles comes first and, from that, there comes fellowship. Individuals, receiving the word of the apostles - and continuing in it - had fellowship with one another for they were of one heart and one mind.

The noun κοινονος koinonos means companion or partner. The verb κοινονια koinonia used twenty times in the Greek scripture [TR] is translated usually fellowship (in the KJV) but sometimes 'communicate' in the, possibly, financial sense of the word or it may be a broader sense of sharing in any way.

There is 'fellowship' in the Gospel Phil 1:5; fellowship of the mystery Eph 3:9; fellowship of the Spirit Phil 2:1; fellowship of Christ's sufferings Phil 3:10; fellowship with the apostles I John 1:3 ...

and, truly, says John the Apostle I John 1:3 our fellowship is with the Father.

But God is Light and in him is no darkness at all I John 1:5, therefore if we say that we have fellowship with him and walk in darkness I John 1:6, we lie and do not the truth.

But if we walk in the Light (as he is in the Light) we have fellowship one with another and the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from every sin.

I would say, myself, that all of the above is included when James, Cephas and John extended their right hands to Paul and Barnabas and clasped them warmly in a gesture of full and apostolic fellowship.

What unity ! What agreement ! What charity !


The origin (for our purposes) seems to go back to Leviticus 6:2 where "the giving of the hand" was an idiom for "fellowship" of some kind. The full import of what that might express specifically may be lost to history, however in the context of 6:2 it seems to have expressed something that could be betrayed.

Adam Clarke writes:

Giving the right hand to another was the mark of confidence, friendship, and fellowship. See Lev_6:2 : If a soul - lie unto his neighbor in that which was delivered him to keep, or in fellowship, בתשומת יד bithsumeth yad, “in giving the hand.”

KJV Lev 6:2  If a soul sin, and commit a trespass against the LORD, and lie unto his neighbour in that which was delivered him to keep, or in fellowship , or in a thing taken away by violence, or hath deceived his neighbour;


So what the right hand seems to express is trust as if to say that "Okay, we have confidence Paul, that you are, like us, committed to God and we believe that we can count on you to do the right thing and not betray our trust".

In modern culture we also perform the ritual of shaking hands but generally without understanding it to be a commitment. However, often it is viewed as a commitment even today and an agreement is often signaled by the ritual and we agree to "shake on it".

Conversely, if someone breaches trust one is generally loathe to extend our hand for a shake.

Update 2

It occurs to me that the gesture can be contrasted with this, largely opposite gesture:

Luke 9:5 And whosoever will not receive you, when ye go out of that city, shake off the very dust from your feet for a testimony against them.

Update 3

I found this interesting. Strong's G782 is translated in the KJV variously as in the following manner: salute (42x), greet (15x), embrace (2x), take leave (1x). It is also the word used above, in Luke 9:5: "whosoever will not receive you".

The etymology is what is so interesting:

ἀσπάζομαι aspázomai, as-pad'-zom-ahee; from G1 (as a particle of union) and a presumed form of G4685; to enfold in the arms, i.e. (by implication) to salute, (figuratively) to welcome:—embrace, greet, salute, take leave.

So the etymology paints a picture of someone "not folding their arms". That's kinda Zen! But the idea seems to be that if you have, for example, Christ in common you "open your arms" and if you have nothing in common, IE: do not have Christ in common with someone you fold your arms.

However, in Luke 9:5 the idea is "welcome" as in "welcome as a guest in their home" with the implication being that if they welcome Christ with open arms they receive his emissaries in the same way.

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