Galatians 1: Paul and Judaism

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In Galatians 1:13 Paul claims that he had excelled at the practice of Judaism more than any others in his age group. The word for his development in religion is the same word applied to Christ in Lk. 2:52 where it is said he grew in wisdom and stature.  He may be referring to his age contemporaries, or his social equals, other Pharisees, indicating how quickly he advanced through the religious ranks.

Paul highlights two things in verse 14.  He is born a Jew and that he excelled in the practice of Judaism more than others his own age.  By this Paul says that he was part of the Covenant by birth, and he was doing everything which was required to stay a part of that Covenant.  We can compare this self-description to Philippians 3, where Paul describes himself as a  “Hebrew of the Hebrews” and circumcised on the eighth day. Paul’s ethnicity makes him a part of the covenant, the practice of his family ensured his part in the covenant from the very beginning, and his continued practice of that covenant kept in the covenant.

As Ed Sanders has said, Second Temple Period Judaism was about election (what got you in) and practice (what kept you in).  For Paul, neither of these things matter.  That one is born a Jew does not make one right with God (via God’s gracious election) nor do the distinctive practices of Judaism make one right with God. Only the grace of God as revealed through the death and resurrection of Jesus makes one right with God.  Ben Witherington agrees, although he does not make the connection to Sanders explicit”  “On Paul’s view, birth or ethnic identity is not sufficient, indeed it is not necessary, to make one a true member of the people of God” (Galatians, 98)

Paul is therefore laying the foundation for a discontinuity between the people of God in the Old Covenant and the people of God in the New Covenant.  As we will see, some members of the Jerusalem church disagree and see a continuity between the people of God, the New Covenant is for New Israel, if Gentiles come into that covenant, they must do so as new Israel.  This is really the source of the troubles with the “agitators” in Jerusalem – who are the people of God?

Does this mean that Paul has ceased to be a part of Judaism?  It is at least possible that Paul did not see things that way.  He might very well have understood  his Law-free Gospel as God’s new revelation for the salvation of the Gentiles in this messianic age.  If so, then it might be possible to talk about Paul’s theology as a kind of Judaism.  More on this after the weekend.