As Thomas Schreiner points out in his recent commentary on Galatians, when he wrote this letter, Paul did not need to explain the situation and background to his readers (p.31). They knew what the situation since it concerned them. We are therefore at a great disadvantage when we pick up the letter to the Galatians because we have to infer the situation from what Paul says in the letter itself.
This process of inferring a background for a letter like Galatians is known as “mirror reading.” We only have access to one side of the story. It would be ideal if we were able to read documents written by the opponents of Paul, or a letter from the Galatian churches explaining what the problem was and asking Paul for advice. In the case of Galatians, we have only Paul’s side of the story as he describes it in Galatians.
I think that there are a few other “resources” for reading the situation in Galatia that resulted in the letter Paul wrote to his churches. The book of Acts is an obvious candidate for a source, although sometimes Luke’s theological agenda forces scholars to wonder about his accuracy. In the case of Galatians, for example, there are some chronological problems, but Luke and Paul generally agree on how the Galatian churches got there and what the opponents were teaching in Paul’s churches.
There are other resources that help us to accurately mirror read is the literature of the Second Temple period. Some of these are Jewish, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Psalms of Solomon. There are hundreds of documents that collect Second Temple Jewish literature to help us understand the Jewish world view reflected by Paul’s letters. While Josephus may not always be accurate (especially when talking about himself), his Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews are essential reading for understanding this period in history. I might recommend Paul Maier’s Josephus: The Essential Writings (Kregel, 1988) as a good entry point for students wanting to know more about Josephus.
Other resources are Greco-Roman. These might be less helpful, since they often reflect popular misconceptions of how Judaism was practiced in the first century. There are several excellent collections of this kind of material that save the student from having to sift through the hundreds of Loeb volumes looking for good background material. My favorite is Jewish Life and Thought among Greeks and Romans edited by Feldman and Reinhold (Fortress, 1996). Fortress also recently published Documents and Images for the Study of Paul edited by Elliott and Reasoner (2011). I have also enjoyed Robert Louis Wilken’s The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (Yale, 2003).
While it would be ideal for a reader of Galatians (or a student of Pauline theology) to have letters from the opponents, I think that there is sufficient data to support Paul’s description of the situation in Galatia as accurate.
Is it “fair” to include Acts as background to Galatians? Should we use other Jewish writings as supplementary materials for understanding this letter? What are the dangers of this approach?
4 thoughts on “Is “Mirror Reading” Helpful for Reading Galatians?”
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“Is it “fair” to include Acts as background to Galatians?” (P. Long, blog: Is “Mirror Reading” Helpful for Reading Galatians?) I think it is fair to include Acts as background to Galatians. I think that we can glean a lot of information from Acts about Paul’s journeys and what happened in the various locations he went to. We can also infer some background based off of Paul’s response to the Galatians’ situation. Adding Jewish historical books to the mix for information may give some more history; but we need to be careful to not take the historical books for truth, especially when we know the Bible itself is true! The context of each part of Scripture is super important for us to understand as we seek to read and understand as accurately as we can. Some context clues for Galatians come straight from the book itself, while others come from the records of Paul’s missionary journey in Acts. Paul writes a lot of fundamental theology in Galatians, which makes it a very helpful and valuable letter to us today. “The very fact that this is Paul’s most ‘raw’ letter, where he exposes his most fundamental theological impulses in their most stark fashion, makes this letter invaluable in recovering the essence of Paul’s theological vision” (TTP, 89).
I believe it is fair as well. I like how the person above said that we cannot take these historical books for exact truth, but they help us understand the truth in the Bible a little bit more. We need to learn to take these ideas with a grain of salt and meditate on whether we should look further into those types of ideas or readings. There are going to be certain areas that are not going to be clear as day, of course. We have to be understand and somewhat open-minded to certain ideas, but we have to learn discernment as well. “Several things about Paul’s Galation letter are unclear, and scholars are likely to debate them indefinitely” (TTP 91). Even the book explains that we will never be fully understanding of what is being said in the letters, but scholars have tried to give their input on the interpretation. I believe that is okay, as long as we are taking it like an idea instead of a fact.
Including Act as background to Galatians does not hinder anyone from learning something new. Just by skimming through the book itself rather quickly, one can infer that the believers were facing persecution. Acts states “A great wave of persecution began that day, sweeping over the church in Jerusalem…” (Acts 8:1) The chapter then goes on to express that Saul was the one attempting to destroy the churches. A few chapters later, one is able to see Paul (Saul became Paul after his conversion) explaining to the Jews “…But since you have rejected it and judged yourselves unworthy of eternal life, we will offer it to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46b). It is obvious that there were quite a few wrong beliefs being trusted from both Jews and Gentiles. Acts is a great source in first understanding that the problems addressed in Galatians are in fact, severe. By truly understanding that, one can then use other Jewish writings to infer what was considered severe in that time period. Carefully using other Jewish writings to help understand the historical background at the time Galatians was written, cannot be placed on the same line as playing with fire. If one understands that other writings are not the inspired Word of God and are solely to be used as aids, other writings are being used as they should. Expecting a reader to understand the historical background while only looking at a book which states the response to the historical background, is like expecting someone to know what the back of a quarter looks like while only allowing them to look at the front.