Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Paul's Letter to the Galatians

The "Life of Paul" class gets a lot of my attention these days. At the end of the last class session (on Monday), we broke with three questions: Who are Paul's opponents in Galatians? How does their "gospel" differ from Paul's gospel? And what do they say about Paul himself? The students were assigned to read Galatians on their own, and to come to class tomorrow with some answers to at least one of those questions.

Since I've given that assignment, I figure it might be a good idea to come up with some answers of my own. Here's what I've written down so far. I'd be glad for you to comment on or ask about any of this. It's a work in progress. What do you think?

At both the beginning and near the end of the Letter to the Galatians, there are clear indicators that Paul's message has its detractors among the churches he's writing to:
  • "Evidently, some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ" (1:7).
  • ". . . the one who is throwing you into confusion will pay the penalty" (5:10). From the other references to Paul's opponents, it's apparent that "the one" here means "anyone" or "everyone." Paul is not thinking of an individual here.
  • "As for those agitators . . . " (5:12).
So, who are these opponents of Paul? What sort of confusing messages do they teach? And what are they saying about the Apostle himself? A few passages give us a good bit of information that we can use to answer the second question: What do they teach?

For example, in 3:10-14, Paul speaks against any attempt to rely on one's observance of the law.

Later, in 4:8-11, he compares and contrasts "knowing God" with a very different experience in which the Galatian Christians, prior to their conversion, were enslaved by "those weak and miserable principles." Paul says he knows that the Galatians are now "turning back" because they are "observing special days and months and seasons and years." These would presumably include, above all, observance of the Sabbath, but also times like the Day of Atonement, New Moons, and the Passover, etc.

Finally, in 5:1-12, Paul argues against the requirement of circumcision for Gentile converts to Christianity. And, he makes a case against Gentiles themselves giving in to such demands.

So, it appears that the problem is, following Paul's establishment of the churches in Galatia, other Jewish Christians have arrived telling the new Christians that observance of Mosaic commands is not optional. Rather, it is mandatory. Scholars often call these teachers Judaizers, Jewish Christians who disagreed with what they regarded as Paul's overly-liberal teaching, and who contradicted that teaching.

The message of the Judaizers was news to the Galatians. Originally, they were told by Paul and Barnabas that the standard for everyone, both Jew and Gentile, was faith in Jesus Christ, and repentance and obedience towards God. This did not include biblical-traditional mandates such as Sabbath observance, circumcision for the men, and kosher dietary regulations.

Naturally, because of such differences, the Galatians would have been confused. They would have wondered which side was right. And they would have asked the judaizing teachers questions like, "If your version of the Christian message is true, then why did Paul teach us what he did, something that was very different?"

At this point, the Judaizers apparently answered by saying that Paul preached a different message because he was (a) confused and (b) driven by bad motives. From Paul's protests in the letter, we can "overhear" a handful of such accusations. It seems that Paul believes that his opponents have leveled the following charges against him:

1. Paul told you what he did because he is a people pleaser. He wants to be liked by others. And that is precisely why he lowered the standards for becoming, in Christ, a true Jew.

This seems to be what Paul is trying to deny in 1:10: "Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ." But the Judaizers didn't stop there. They also said something like,

2. Paul learned the gospel from other people. What he knows of the Christian message, he was taught by someone else.

In 1:11-12, Paul shoots back. The gospel I preached, he says, is not something I received "from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ." In 1:13-14, Paul recounts his previous way of life in Judaism. Why does he do that, and at this point in the letter? He seems to be asking the Galatians, "What could possibly have knocked me off of my determined course, other than divine intervention?" Also, by relating some of his early-Christian biography, even giving specific time periods, Paul clearly intends to distance himself from Jerusalem and the Apostles who lived there. His implication is that he could not have gotten his message from them because, following his conversion, it was a long time before he even met any Apostles. But the opposition wasn't through. Apparently, they also said things like,

3. Having been taught the true gospel in Jerusalem, Paul traveled to places like Galatia where he misrepresented the message he had learned from the real Apostles.

Paul is clearly responding to that sort of accusation in 2:1-10. Notice the implicit questions in this section. Paul wants to ask two things in particular:

a. If the Apostles at Jerusalem believe that circumcision is so important, why didn't they insist on it for Titus when he was right there with them? (2:3)

b. If the leaders in Jerusalem disagree with my gospel, then why did they extend to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when I reported to them exactly what I preach? (especially 2:2 and 9).
Yes, says Paul, there are differences between myself and Peter. But those differences have nothing to do with message. They are differences only in target audience. I have been given the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, while Peter, on the other hand, has been given the task of preaching the gospel to the Jews (verse 7).

But the Judaizers had another arrow to shoot at Paul. Apparently, there was a story making the rounds. According to some, when the Apostle Peter came to Antioch while Paul was there, the two of them had a heated discussion, some sort of falling out. The agitators took this story to mean that when Peter and Paul compared notes at Antioch, they discovered that they did not, in fact, preach the same message.

Is this what Paul is responding to in 2:11-16? It seems so. Paul appears to be offering an alternate interpretation of the story the Galatians have heard. According to Paul's version, yes, he had had a spat with Peter. But it wasn't because the two of them believed different things. It was because Peter "was in the wrong" (v. 11). He had come to Antioch, where he enjoyed table fellowship with Gentile Christians. However, when "men came from James" (v. 12) Peter distanced himself from his Gentile brothers because he was afraid of what the James people would think and say. Peter's actions, says Paul, were a practical rejection of "the truth of the gospel" (v. 14). Something had to be done! So, says Paul, "I opposed him to his face" (v. 11). I said to Peter, "You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?" (v. 14). "Peter was acting like a hypocrite," says Paul. "And that's the reason why we got into it at Antioch."

Okay, I know, there's so much more that can be said about Galatians. But I need to stop here. Thoughts? Observations? Questions? Help?


Keith Brenton said...

Mike Cope points out that Galatians is a terribly inconvenient epistle for folks who want to teach that "Jesus plus (something else) equals salvation."

Frank Bellizzi said...

He's right about that.