Galatians 3: Can I Keep the Law If I Want To?

How God fulfills his promise to Abraham, according to Paul, through Jesus Christ.  He is the “offspring” which the original covenant promised.  By faith in Christ one becomes an heir of Abraham, as witnessed by the activity of the Holy Spirit.  Why would someone submit to the Law at this point since it is neither necessary nor beneficial?

My guess is that people want to submit to Law out of an honest desire to serve God correctly.  What are the responsibilities of those who are now in Christ?  This is an important question, and at least one answer to that question is to point to the already-existing body of commands found in the Torah.

Since the whole Law is not what the Galatians were doing, but rather the boundary markers, it is at least possible that the attraction was to define boundaries so that one could know who was “in” and who was “out.”  Again, the boundary markers of Judaism worked well to define a separate people, so perhaps they wanted to adopt these boundary markers in order to demonstrate that they are “in Christ.”

Marking boundaries is very important to humans.  Recall that when Jesus said that the second greatest commandment was to love one’s neighbor, he was asked exactly who was a neighbor.  We want to know the limits – think of a child who is offered a cookie.  The first question is usually “how many”? (a couple equals two, a few means three?) Take a kid to a store and they want to know “how much can I spend?”

But boundaries exclude as much as they include.  Maybe people are attracted to legalism not for making themselves appear like insiders, but so that they can exclude people they do not like.  Since you do not behave quite the way I define Christian behavior, you are “out” and I do not have to treat you like a brother in Christ anymore.  Or worse:  you are excluded for using the wrong Bible translation, or listening to the wrong type of music, or (gasp!) having a tattoo!  Defining spirituality by external appearances is always foolish.

One of the real problems with Paul’s view of “freedom in Christ” is that we do not like to be free.  We want the boundaries and rules, so we create more intense rules and regulations in order to separate ourselves out as spiritual. There is something comforting in a list of rules; I know my place if I am keeping up with the instruction manual.  But that is not what we are called to, we are children of God, not scouts trying to earn another merit badge.

Paul would likely have a few choice words for modern Galatians!

Jesus Outside Galilee: The Syro-Phoenician Woman

This story in Mark 7:24-30 (par. Matt 15:22-28) stands in contrast to the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.  They have seen the miracles of Jesus and remain unconvinced, despite being the religious leaders of Israel.  They are the ones that ought to have understood that Jesus was the Messiah.  This is a surprise to the reader, that the good Jewish religious people (disciples and Pharisees) miss out on who Jesus is claiming to be, yet the Gentiles and demons seem to have no trouble in understanding he is Messiah, son of God, even God himself!

Why is Jesus staying in Tyre?  He instructed his disciples who avoid Gentile cities, yet here he is in Tyre.  It is possible that he is traveling alone, seeking a place where he can have some privacy from the crowds.  I doubt he is staying with Gentiles, rather, Jesus has entered the home of a supporting Jew with the hope of privately teaching his disciples, perhaps hearing their reports from their own mission in Galilee.  A woman approaches Jesus boldly and requests that Jesus heal her daughter of an evil spirit. This crosses several cultural boundaries:  man/woman, Jew/Gentile.  For a Gentile woman to approach a Jewish teacher and healer is incredibly bold!   We are told that the woman is Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia.

There are some rather harsh comments by Jesus that it is not right to take the bread from the children (the Jews) and give it to the dogs (Gentiles)!  It is the usual practice of preachers to approach this passage by saying that Jesus isn’t really as harsh as he sounds.  The word for dog, for example, is a diminutive – a puppy.  Jesus is testing the woman’s faith, not telling her to get lost! The fact is that the words are harsh and exclusivist.  Jesus calls her a gentile dog.  This is not a cute puppy begging table scraps, but rather a filthy scavenger.  The diminutive is not used to make the dog a “cute” puppy, but rather a little rat-like dog that steals the scraps from the garbage.  Jesus is also using a diminutive (“little dogs”) to refer to the woman’s child.  Jesus essentially says that it is unethical to take food away from the true child and give it to the dogs.

Jesus does not deny that the dogs will get their food, but it is after the true children have eaten their fill that the dogs will receive their crumbs. This condition is deleted from the Matthew version of the story.  Many take this to mean that Gentiles will experience salvation, but the gospel goes first to the Jews, then to the gentiles (not unlike Paul in Romans 1:16-17).

Does this story indicate that Jesus’ ministry is being broadened to include Gentiles at this point? The thrust of this series of stories (including the blind man and the feeding of the 4000) is often described as an indication that the message of Jesus’ gospel was inclusive of the Gentiles, or at the very least was looking forward to the inclusion of the Gentiles in the Kingdom of God.  Many commentators will often link these stories with the later Gentile mission.  There is some merit to this, since the Lord associates food laws with Gentile ministry in Acts 10 in Peter’s Vision in the rooftop.  If Peter is the source behind Mark, then there is certainly cause to think that he is reflecting on his own involvement in some kind of Gentile ministry.

This may not be the case, however.  As Samuel Sandmel notes, the references to Gentiles in Jesus ministry are not the norm, but exceptions.  Gentiles are not replacing Israel, but rather some Gentiles may join Israel.  That the Gentiles would come into the kingdom was an expected part of the Kingdom of God, so it not unusual that some Gentiles might come into the kingdom via Jesus’ ministry. If these stories are conversion stories, that is.  It is entirely possible that the Gentiles that experience miracles in this section are no more converted to Jesus mission than the Jews in the previous sections.  It is highly unlikely that they convert to Judaism at this point!.  However, it is possible that there are “seeds planted” in the ministry outside of Galilee that will be a harvest later when Paul preaches a gospel apart form the law.

The point of Mark’s narrative is not that Jesus has “gone over to the Gentiles” after being rejected by the Pharisees.  Tyre and Sidon have benefited from Jesus’ ministry already (see 3:8).  Mark is writing about 40 years after these events, well into a period of Gentile ministry (quite possibly after Paul’s death!)  There is no need to “comfort and encourage” gentiles, they are the dominate element in the Roman church by the time Mark writes.  These stories of Gentile ministry serve as an ironic contrast to the lack of faith in Israel, and as such stand along side the testimony of the demons as to the true identity of Jesus.  He came to his own (Israel) but his own did not know him.

The child is healed immediately.

Bibliography:  Gene R. Smillie “‘Even The Dogs’: Gentiles In The Gospel Of Matthew,”  JETS 45:1 (March 2002): 73-97.

SBL Greek New Testament for Logos 4

Here is another great reason to use Logos 4.  The SBL Critical Edition of the Greek New Testament is available free.  Michael Holmes edited this critical edition.  Logos has tagged the links to lexicons and parsing guides work perfectly.

According to the preface, there are some 540 differences from the standard editions. This text as a data base the 6,928 variation units, disagreed with Wescott and Hort 879 times, Tregelles 1227 times the NIV Reader’s Edition 616 times, and Maurice Robinson and Willaim Peirpont’s Byzantine Textform 5959 times.  Starting with Wescott and Hort, Holmes worked through every variant with these three editions and evaluated each instance. Holmes explains his method in detail in his article, “Reconstructing the Text of the New Testament,” in The Blackwell Companion to the New Testament (ed. David E. Aune; Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 77–89.

This is not a critical edition like the UBS4 or NA 27.  Holmes does not cite manuscript evidence, rather he collates editorial decisions.  For example, in Eph 2:11, the SBLGNT reads ποτὲ ὑμεῖς, following the WH Tregelles and NIV Reader’s GNT, against Robinson and Peirpont’s Byzantine Text which flips the word order.  The NA27 text does not list this as a variant, but does report the replacement of Διὸ at the beginning of the verse with δια τουτο in F G.  This does not appear in the SBLGNT presumably because all four critical editions agree to reject the evidence listed in the NA27. Neither variant appears in the UBS 4.    The value of the SBLGNT is in collecting these four GNT versions into a single source.  I would rather evaluate the actual textual evidence myself, so I will stick with the UBS and NA texts, but for many readers Holmes’ method will be enough to show what variants exist.

Logos also has an electronic version of Robinson and Peirpont as well as Westcott and Hort.  Both are included in “bundles” such as the Scholar’s Edition.

An XML version is also available, with an iPhone app listed as “coming soon.”


The Tradition of Corban (Mark 7:9-13)

Exodus 21:17 “Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.

Leviticus 20:9 “‘If anyone curses his father or mother, he must be put to death. He has cursed his father or his mother, and his blood will be on his own head.

Deuteronomy 27:16 “Cursed is the man who dishonors his father or his mother.” Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”

Corban is an Aramaic word that refers to a sacrifice, oath, or gift to God.  There is a tension between the command to honor one’s parents and the commands to honor oaths, especially to oaths to God.   One could potentially make an oath to the Lord to give a gift to the temple and avoid using the money / property for the care of parents.  It appears that the gift could be given as a “trust” so that the giver could earn an income from the gift, and it was still considered a corban.  There is therefore a benefit as a gift and as an investment, and the giver avoids using the funds to support parents.   This was a potential loophole in the Law that the Pharisees appear to have exploited.

Jesus however sees this as a breaking of the Law and a grave sin.  This word for “transgress” is a fairly rare word in the New Testament, used only here and in Acts 1:25 for the sin of Judas, and once in 2 John 9.  It literally means “go along the side of…”, or “pass over…neglect.”

Jesus calls the Pharisees as hypocritical condemns them by quoting the words of Isaiah:  “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.” Isaiah 29:13 is speaking about the corruptness of the people of Israel at the time of Hezekiah.  The people worshiped, but their hearts were corrupt and self seeking.

Usually Evangelical Christians chuckle about the hypocrisy of those “Pharisees.” Contemporary preaching really scores points at the expense of the traditions of the Pharisees.  But is this really fair?  The goal was to keep the Law of God, and to correctly interpret that Law.  How is corban any different than a Christian finding a way around head-covering (1 Cor 11:2-16) or Paul’s command to keep women silent in the church (1 Cor 14:34-35)?   When we find some exegetical warrant to set these things aside, are we not dismissing the commands of God?

The Tradition of Hand Washing (Mark 7:1-8)

In Mark 7:1-5 the Pharisees question Jesus over his lack of attention to the tradition of “hand washing” before meals.  This is “markan sandwich,” since hand washing will return in 7:14-23, with the material on Corban in the center (7:6-13)

While the crowds are growing larger and the miracles are increasing in number and intensity, the Pharisees are growing increasingly angry with Jesus because he does not observe their traditions concerning ritual purity.  “Unclean hands” refers to the state of ritual impurity, therefore the Pharisees are accusing Jesus of behaving in a way that would make him unclean with respect to their traditions.

Mark provides a short explanation of the sorts of washings that the Pharisees use to ensure that they are always ritually pure, making the section accessible to the non-Jewish reader.  Jesus uses this attack as an opportunity to preach against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, including the very difficult verse in which Mark interprets something that Jesus says as declaring all foods to be clean  (7:19).

As Neusner has pointed out, the Pharisees tried to create the conditions of purity required in the Temple.  It is critical, however, to realize that the Pharisees were in fact a popular group in the first century among the common people (JW 2.162-163, 166, cf. Antiq. 13:172 and Antiq. 18.12-15).  They were the interpreters of the Torah for many of the common people, although they were criticized for their traditions by the Sadducees and Qumran community.  They did not seek to impose their tradition of hand washing on all the people, only their own group.

What is Jesus doing here?  Is he intentionally ignoring the tradition of the Pharisee because it is not biblical?  Was this a “mission strategy” intended to draw the sinner into a relationship with Jesus?   Is he trying to challenge these traditions, or is he simply eating a meal with sinners?  When Jesus ate at the house of a Pharisee, did he wash his hands as we expected?  Maybe we can consider this a case of “all things to all men.”

A more interesting question (to me) is why the Pharisees think that Jesus ought to submit to their tradition of hand-washing.  I think that Jesus was teaching things which resonated most with the Pharisees and there is at least a possibility that they thought he was “one of them.”  Jesus is described as discussing the Law with Pharisees and weighing in on issues like a Rabbi (divorce, for example).  But he was not a Pharisee in that he did not attempt to maintain Temple purity at all times.  Theologically he was “conservative” but socially (from the Pharisee’s perspective) he was permissive.

Is it possible to use either of these perspectives as a model for modern ministry?

Galatians 3: Why Abraham?

[Sorry for the delay in posting this week’s notes.  Just a bit busy early this week.  In other blog news, the last post was post #200, a milestone I did not think I would reach when I started.  As usual, the audio for this week’s evening service is available at, as is a PDF file of the notes for the service. You should be able to download the audio directly with this link, if you prefer (right-click, save link as….)]

Paul uses Abraham as an example in both Romans and Galatians.  Why select Abraham as his model of Faith?  It is possible that the agitators have been using Abraham in their teaching.  But the experience of the Galatian believers is not unlike that of Abraham, who believed and “it was credited to him as righteousness” (Gal 3:7-9).   Paul is creating a biblical argument, focusing on the phrase “credited as righteousness” in Genesis 15.  In this story, Abraham believed in the word of God as revealed to him and God considered him “right with God” as a result.

At this point, Abraham must be considered a Gentile, by the rules imposed by the Agitators in the Galatian churches.  He was uncircumcised and Food and Sabbath laws have not been given yet.  Since he believes in the God who called him out of his father’s land, he a “converted pagan,” just like the Galatian believers.

This is in contrast to other views of Abraham in Judaism of the Second Temple Period. For example, Sirach 44:19-21, Jub. 23.10 and CD 3.2 all make the promise contingent on his obedience to God’s command, specifically circumcision.

Sirach 44:19–21 Abraham was the great father of a multitude of nations, and no one has been found like him in glory. 20 He kept the law of the Most High, and entered into a covenant with him; he certified the covenant in his flesh, and when he was tested he proved faithful. 21 Therefore the Lord assured him with an oath that the nations would be blessed through his offspring; that he would make him as numerous as the dust of the earth, and exalt his offspring like the stars, and give them an inheritance from sea to sea and from the Euphrates to the ends of the earth. (NRSV)

Jubilees 23:10 For Abraham was perfect in all his deeds with the Lord, and well-pleasing in righteousness all the days of his life; and behold, he did not complete four jubilees in his life, when he had grown old by reason of the wickedness, and was full of his days.

CD 3:2-3a Abraham did not walk in it, and was counted as a friend for keeping God’s precepts and not following  the desire of his spirit.

The Apocalypse of Abraham makes Abraham out to be the perfect proto-Jew. The first seven chapters of the book are a narrative of Abraham’s realization the gods his father Terah crafts are nothing but wood and stone. His father asks him to sell five idols of Marumath, but Abraham loses three in the river.  Later, while cooking his father’s dinner he sarcastically asks the god Barisat to watch over the cooking fire while he went to ask his father what he should cook.  When he returns, the fire was still going an the god was burning himself. Abraham and Terah argue over this; Abraham says the god is nothing and says the gods are only honored because Terah made them well.  Abraham is pondering the gods when a voice from heaven calls to him and says he is the God of gods and commands him to leave the house of Terah (chapter 8).

Paul does not rewrite scripture, as much of the literature of the Second Temple Period did.  He reads Abraham as a Gentile who was made right with God by faith in what God told him, not by works (either circumcision or the Law).  Abraham is therefore the perfect model for Paul to use since he was justified before the Law:  he was justified by faith not by the act of circumcision.

Galatians 3: The Faith of Abraham

Beginning in Chapter 3, Paul will begin to create an argument from Scripture which shows that God is doing something new in the Gospel.  While the prophets of the Hebrew Bible often foresaw the salvation of the Gentiles,  In the present age, however, Gentiles are able to be right with God apart from the works of the Law.  This is Paul’s contribution to salvation history – something which he has already called a “revelation from God” in 1:11-12.

This is a scriptural argument.  Paul alludes to or quotes several texts from the Hebrew Bible to make his point that the Law did not make a person righteous, rather, those who live under Law are always “under a curse.”  The model of Abraham’s faith shows that it is only through faith that one can be accounted as righteous.

Paul packs together several texts from the Hebrew Bible to make this point, and requires a great deal from his readers.  They need to now only know what these verses say, but also the context in which they are found.  That Abraham believed is important, but when he believed is critical to Paul’s point: it was before the sign of the covenant was given (Gen 15, not 17) or before his great demonstration of faith in Gen 22.  The reader needs to know the whole flow of the Abraham story in Genesis 12-24 in order to have the full impact of Paul’s argument.  Similarly, the quotation of Habakkuk 2 calls to mind a whole collection of events: the fall of Jerusalem and the Exile are the context of Habakkuk’s “complaints.”  In response to the obvious fact that Israel and Judah have fallen under the curse of the Law, in Habakkuk they “righteous” must live by faith.   Even to say that those under the Law are “under a curse” requires more of a reader than the single line from Deuteronomy cited by Paul.  Paul’s argument is based on the whole deuteronomic theology of curse and blessing.

The density of this argument leads to a question concerning what is happening in Paul’s Galatian churches.  If Paul is addressing pagan converts to Christianity, then would they appreciate the rhetorical impact of this scriptural argument?  Possibly.  But based on Paul’s speech in Acts 14 and 17 (clearly pagan audiences) and the letter to the first  Thessalonians (with very little reference to the Hebrew Bible), it appears that Paul would not have made an argument based on the Hebrew Bible to a recently-converted from paganism congregation.

Two possibilities remain to explain Paul’s scriptural argument in Gal 3, although they are not mutually exclusive.  First, Paul could be addressing God-fearing Gentiles, people who were already practicing a form of Judaism and were now being advised to fully convert to Judaism in order to be right with God.  Second, Paul may be using these scripture because they are the texts used by the agitators in his churches.  If Abraham were a proto-typical Gentile  convert to Judaism, then perhaps one could argue that the sign of the covenant with Abraham was circumcision, therefore a present-day Gentile convert ought to following in Abraham’s faith and fully convert.

Paul’s solution is to show that “Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness” before the ritual of circumcision, not after.  If Paul is using the words of his opponents, he is turning them around on their head – Be like Abraham, Paul says, was was declared righteous before circumcision or Law!