Understanding our Christian origins...
The question Ian seeks to address this week may seem a departure from the present series looking at the earliest post-resurrection origins of the Jesus Movement. However, the story behind the first written text that was to be preserved in the New Testament is a sequel to those events described in last week's commentary. The text in question is Paul's letter to the Galatians, written around 50 CE., probably within a matter of months after Paul's bitter split with Peter, Barnabas and the James party at Antioch (Gal 2:11-14). The reason why Paul wrote to the Galatians is one of the most intriguing questions in biblical scholarship, and demonstrates afresh how significant for New Testament interpretation is the understanding that early Christianity was a diverse phenomenon.
Having departed Antioch (c. 50 CE) Paul began what was to become the most productive phase of his mission as Apostle to the Gentiles. For the next decade, Paul traveled extensively around the Aegean Basin, establishing churches amongst the major Gentile communities of Asia Minor and Greece. Paul's letter to the Galatians, however, bears ample testimony to the fact that his departure from Antioch did not mean an escape from controversy and dispute.
Paul's letter to the "churches in Galatia" (1:2) is a short and passionate document, which is perhaps the most polemical of all the Pauline correspondence. In this letter we find Paul vehemently defending his gospel and his right as an apostle to preach this gospel among the Gentiles (1:16; 2:8) against accusations to the contrary advanced by missionaries who he accuses of having "bewitched" (3:1) and "unsettled" (1:7; 5:12) his Gentile converts at Galatia. Paul calls these interlopers "agitators" and "troublemakers" (1:7; 5:10, 12), and he charges them with preaching a "different gospel" (1:6), which he characterises as a perversion of the gospel of Christ (1:7).
But who were these "troublemakers" and where did they come from? Paul never explicitly identifies them and he does little but signal that they were from outside the community.
The Troublemakers at Galatia
While the original situation cannot be reclaimed definitively, it is certainly clear what Paul knew of the situation and those troublemakers who had caused it. We can infer from Paul's statements about his opponents at Galatia that he thought that they were Christian missionaries from outside the community. There are two significant statements that confirm this analysis.
First, Paul upbraids these troublemakers for preaching a gospel message that was clearly at odds with the one he preached (1:6-9) and, second, he suggests that their motive in doing so was to avoid being persecuted for Christ (6:12).
As to the precise content of their message, it seems that Paul thought that the gospel they preached was a Christian-Jewish gospel, which entailed a demand for circumcision (5:2-4; 6:12-13); or, put more accurately, they apparently preached the necessity of circumcision as the only means of entry into covenant relationship with God. Accordingly, they taught that the Mosaic Law was divinely ordained as the only means to maintaining moral order and restraining the impulses of the flesh (5:16, 24). And, in a manner akin to the situation at Antioch, the Christian-Jewish missionaries at Galatia attempted to force the Gentile converts to adhere faithfully to the whole Law (3:10), including the observance of the Sabbath and the Jewish feast days (4:8-11).
As to the basis of the missionaries' warrant they appear to have resorted to two avenues of authority. First, they apparently appealed to Scripture, particularly the story of the Abrahamic covenant (3:6-29; 4:21-31), at which the institution of circumcision was imposed on God's chosen people (Gen 17:1-27). In this, they probably also claimed, as further basis for their authority, to represent more fully the position of the church at Jerusalem.
The fact that Paul finds it necessary to detail his relationship with the apostolic authorities at Jerusalem implies that these Christian missionaries were asserting a direct commission from the Jerusalem church. A significant aspect of their message must have been the record of the events surrounding Paul's early association with the Jerusalem apostles, Peter, James and John, including the Council at Jerusalem. Why else would Paul need to provide his version of these events?
There would seem to be here a clear allusion to possible claims by Paul's opponents at Galatia that Paul, like they, had similarly received the gospel by way of Jerusalem. There is also here a further implied charge that Paul had failed to preach that gospel correctly, abridging and adulterating the import of message that he had received at Jerusalem.
When we read Galatians today we may puzzle over the bitterness of Paul's words. It was a letter born amidst a torrid conflict over the very fundamentals of what would later constitute "Christianity". In a very important sense, Galatians set the tone for the debate that would shape most of the other New Testament documents. How could a devotee of Jesus demonstrate his or her devotion to Jesus aside from faithful adherence to the Jewish Law — circumcision, Sabbath observance, Temple worship, as well as the purity and dietary proscriptions?
Paul's opponents at Galatia, who must have been agents of the Jerusalem apostles, argued that both scripture and tradition demanded Law observance and Paul's negative interpretation of both amounted to a diminution of the Gospel and the apostolic commission Paul had been granted by the Jerusalem apostles.
Against such claims, Paul asserts that he first went to Jerusalem in order to get "acquainted" with Peter (1:18), not to be "taught" or "receive" the content of the gospel he preached (1:12) or the "call" to preach it (1:15-16). Both his gospel and his apostolic commission (1:15) are the products of the revelation (1:12) he received three years prior to his initial meeting with Cephas and James (1:15-17) and fourteen years before the Council meeting that recognised the legitimacy of his apostleship among the Gentiles (2:1-10).
Next, he tries to turn the scriptural arguments of his opponents to his own ends by demonstrating that the Gentile converts at Galatia are Abraham's children and the descendants of Isaac, despite being uncircumcised, by virtue of being 'in Christ'. Paul makes the distinction between the promises made by God directly to Abraham on the one hand and, on the other, the Law that was mediated to Moses via the agency of angels (3:15-25). Moreover, Paul argues that relying on the Law as the conditional grounds for entry into the covenant negates the efficacy of Christ's salvific death on the cross (2:20-21; 6:14-15). It is for this reason that Paul can accuse his opponents of perverting the "truth of the gospel" (2:5, 14).
Paul reminds his readers that if they let themselves be circumcised, then Christ will be of no value to them, and they will be obliged to obey the whole Law (3:2-3). Finally, such is the depth of Paul's hostility towards his opponents at Galatia that he resorts to the lowest level of argumentum ad hominem. He suggests that not even those who are circumcised keep the Law (6:13). He claims that the members of the pro-circumcision putsch are only acting in the interests of self-aggrandisement (4:17). He equates adherence to the Law-observant gospel with the yoke of slavery (5:1; cf. 4:7, 2-24, 30-31), comparing it to the slavery that his Gentile converts once experienced prior to their conversion (4:8-11). And he expresses the wish that the agitators at Galatia might go the whole way in the act of circumcision by castrating themselves (5:12).
It has been noted that Paul's doctrine of justification by faith alone appears for the first time here in Galatians. It will become a linchpin for his later letters as well, especially Romans. During the Reformation, Paul's doctrine will become crucial to Luther's critique of Catholic soteriology. But perhaps we need to take a step back and consider the original historical context in which the letter was composed. For far too long we have considered Paul to be in the only one in the right here. But if we are correct in assuming that Paul's opponents represented the position of the Jerusalem apostles, where does that leave Paul? Was he truly as influential and significant within early Jesus Movement as we so often assume? Many of his contemporaries considered him an apostate and a maverick who acted with no legitimate authority. Were they correct? Moreover, we must look again at Paul's "Gospel". Do you think that his arguments in support of the Law-free gospel are persuasive? Why is it that Paul's gospel eventually triumphed? Certainly, there is here in Galatians much food for further thought and debate.
Bibliography and further food for the journey:
Ian Elmer is a lecturer in New Testament at ACU National (formally Australian Catholic University). He is also a member of the Centre for Early Christian Studies, and was recently admitted into ACBA (Australian Catholic Biblical Association). His research specialities are Paul and First-Century Christianity. He is the author of published articles in the Australian Ejournal of Theology and in Prayer and Spirituality in the Early Church (a publication of the Centre for Early Christian Studies). He is currently completing a doctoral thesis, entitled Paul, Jerusalem and the Judaisers: The Galatian Crisis in its Broader Historical Context.
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©2006 Ian Elmer