“Mirror Reading” Galatians

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.

Mirror ReadingThis 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?

20 thoughts on ““Mirror Reading” Galatians

  1. Thanks for including several good resources to help “short-cut” gaining important background. Can’t say I’ll have time to pursue them for a while, but intend to some day. However, I DID just spend 30 min’s or so just yesterday reviewing a bit of SGF Brandon’s “Jesus and the Zealots”, which has lots of summary of relevant backgrounds to the late 2nd Temple period, the Jewish-Roman war, etc. I haven’t double-checked Brandon much yet, but what I have read of his work seems to be on pretty solid ground… and confirm him as a careful, competent scholar, tho I know his conclusions were often not broadly accepted.

    As to your ending q., yes I think including Acts is fair… but with the caveat you alluded to… that of Luke’s clearly theological agenda and how it certainly colored his inclusions and exclusions and the conclusions he was leading towards. (Another issue I haven’t seen discussed, though it probably is in more than one volume, is how Luke’s “first volume” (Gospel) should be seen as relating to his 2nd. They are somewhat different genres, to be sure, but he doesn’t ever address what was MEANT to be historically accurate in Jesus’ story, reports events around his crucifixion and purported resurrection, etc., over against the more fully “historical” approach in Acts. In other words, Luke seems to pick up in Acts, with a brief intro connecting the works, as if there IS no difference in focus, method, purpose, etc. (genre). I find that his picture of what was happening in Jerusalem soon after the resurrection and then the ascension is way out of sync with a literal reading of all the Gospels, but particularly Matthew, on what the crucifixion events were (mid-day darkness, major earthquake with saints raised, walking around town, temple veil torn top to bottom, etc.) Why apparently no reference to any of this when the Apostles start getting opposed, persecuted and then “defended”, supposedly, by Gamaliel?

    I know this may not be the best or full explanation, as Luke WAS a good writer, but it’s almost like he either didn’t think his audience knew about or took as literal those kinds of miracles, or he FORGOT what had been written, much of it by HIM!

    Yes, he has Peter rehearsing the trial/crucifixion but it’s as if all the surrounding miraculous stuff (as given by him and the other Evangelists) caused NO stir or major “buzz” among the very miracle-conscious and highly religious Pharisees, the “establishment” Saducees, priests (mixed as to status and affiliation), and “man on the street.” The latter had included tens or hundreds of thousands of Jewish pilgrims from all over the Diaspora gathered for Passover…. They didn’t take these “events” back home as news??

    It’s almost like the Apostle’s healing miracles in the Temple area “started from scratch” as to demonstrating that something new was going on (affirmed by the nature of Gamaliel’s quoted remarks)… and all that other stuff DIDN’T?

    Now, the massive attention on “Pentecost” and 3000 supposedly converted on that day in a geographically small city had also just happened (per Luke), 50 days after the crucifixion. Peter and John’s healing (and others) were seemingly within weeks or at most only months… but it’s as though none of the crucifixion/resurrection events, then the ascension and Pentecost, had any currency or memory any more, except as Peter’s speeches called them to mind. What? How can that be?

    Didn’t the obvious and “in your face” rending of the vital and heavily symbolic Temple veil get the people, including at least some of the priests, scribes, etc. asking tons of questions of Jesus’ followers and of God? But according to Luke it was only the miracles of Pentecost, the preaching of Peter, and subsequent healing miracles that got their attention and either some openness (some conversions and Gamaliel’s reasoned stance), or else opposition.

    I know this has gone a bit off the main trail, but such issues are indeed germane to how we should be treating Acts as a source and what kind of input to expect from it.

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  2. Mirror Reading is a fascinating idea. The fact that so many are unaware of the need for this sort of study when reading the Bible is a terrifying thought. We have a two-fold danger: on one hand we have Bible ignorance, and on the other we have the Bible being read with ignorance to the background. The Bible is often read a complete face value without any of the circumstances being taken into account. This can be quite dangerous too. Some might found their theology on a half understanding of a Biblical passage. Still others may dismiss the book as being incomprehensible and no longer relevant. The Bible takes a lot of work to understand at times, but it is of the utmost importance to do so and I very rewarding.

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  3. As you are almost certainly aware, John Barclay authored an important article on the topic of mirror-reading: “Mirror-Reading as a Polemical Letter: Galatians as a Test Case.”

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  4. Mirror reading from what I read in this article is they are only seeing one side of the story. It would be helpful to see things from the opposing side though as well. I think it is fair to include acts as a background to Galatians because it seems like they bounce off of each other and could follow up with Galatians. Jewish writings should still be used as supplementary materials for understanding this letter because it will clear information that is directly from the Jewish writings so it is not lost information. The dangers of this approach that I see are wrongly transferred information that is not correct.

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  5. I have never heard of the term “mirror reading” before this article, but the concept makes tons of sense. As a reader of the Bible, it is incredibly important to understand the concept of “mirror reading” and consider the need for more background. After reading Galatians, it is evident that we only get Paul’s side and perspective of the times and the story. Paul makes it evident that the opponents of Galatia have an effect on Paul and his life/ministry in Galatia (Gal 1:7). It is important for Bible students to engage in the materials that are available to them to help understand and describe the background of the situation during these Bible times. Mirror reading is not inadequate because the content still comes from the Bible. That being said, the more information and perspectives that can be understood, the better. Imagine if we were able to experience the perspective of the Galatians in terms of what was going through their mind when they had opponents trying to penetrate their minds, as well as Paul speaking out against these opponents. Things like this are let to be desired by Bible students, but we can turn to the resources discussed above to build a more accurate picture of the background of the situation. This will allow for a more insightful, engaging study of that passage. Some of these resources are unknown/not common by the regular Bible student. That being said, Grace professors and the Bultema Library are excellent resources to gain an understanding and get a better grasp of the situation in the Bible.

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  6. Whether or not the reader of the Bible has all the information or does not, such in the case of mirror reading, they should still be able to take away God’s truth from the passage. With that being said, having more information and context to understand the passage and the author’s thoughts more clearly is always helpful. When a reader has more knowledge and more understanding of a text allows decreases the chances for misinterpretations. There is great confusion for many people while reading the Bible because they do not understand what the author is talking about or referencing. I agree with your point about about how students should engage with as many resources as possible. The Bultema Memorial Library is a great source (shameless plug from a library student staff member) of information that students and the community can use. Being removed from the culture and context that Paul was writing in can cause a huge disconnect with the modern reader. Using materials that can help create a better understanding in the mind of someone who is from an outside culture.

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  7. When it comes to researching the other side of Galatians to find out why Paul would write a letter. We need to check if the resources are credible first. That’s the question we need to ask every time we look into a source of anything that has another side to it. That is essential for research. We can’t just trust everything we read.
    we need to look into resources that give us the background of why Paul would need to write a letter to the Galatians and From what this blog says, it sounds like the book of Acts is a possibility of what happened to Galatia and why would Paul need to write a letter to them. Acts were written by Luke and “Luke and Paul generally agree on how the Galatian churches got there and what the opponents were teaching in Paul’s churches(p 3.)” so we can use acts as a potential resource given that they both agree on whats going on. There are some concerns with Luke’s theological agenda, but this shouldn’t affect the reason behind what the opponents were saying to the Galatians. Some scholars question Luke’s theology, but it’s what Paul and Luke agree on when it comes to what the opponent of Galatia have been teaching.
    the potential danger with using other resources outside of the bible is whether what was said is legit or not. not only does it need to be credible, but was it written for the topic?
    I feel that it is appropriate to use outside sources when researching the other side of the mirror. these resources need to be credible and legit to be used as facts for what the opponents were saying to Galatia that would lead Paul to write a letter to them.

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  8. During reading this blog post what comes to mind is how sometimes we go through life not always having the information that we need. When people tell us stories about what they have experienced, they tell it from their perspective and we just assume that that is how it happened. We do not doubt them, usually it would be people that we trust. In Galatians Paul shares from his point of view and we must trust that. I believe God called him to minister and equipped him with what to say most times. I trust that these other sources listed are helpful in giving another perspective. There is also an Introduction to Galatia video that was shared with the online students where a gentleman gives the perspective of what took place with the topic of circumcision and who all was involved. Along with Professor Long’s Galatians: Freedom through God’s Grace where he gives his perspective on what took place in Galatians along with what Paul’s journey was like.
    In Thinking Through Paul, we are given an abundant amount of scripture from Galatians that is promising of Paul’s journey. Near the end of Galatians where he shares about how love should be the goal for mankind, it brings to light what God has poured into Paul. We are called to love one another and through the discussion in Galatians Paul makes that evident. “The responsibility that Paul highlights is this: “serve one another humbly in love” (Longenecker 102). Following this Longenecker shares that in Greek it is more ironic that English translations to permit, saying that serve is used to denote slavery previously in Galatians. My point of this is that the support of Greek language is being used and can be used to bring in another perspective. I believe that Acts can be used to support Paul’s journey in Galatians. Acts 15 discusses the conflict of circumcision and expresses opinions from others rather than just Paul. “But some believers who had belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”

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  9. Reflecting on the fact that every story has more than one side, we may not have every side to what is written in Galatians by Paul, but we should remember that Paul, himself, is credible. The danger of looking to outside sources that are not directly from Paul, the Galatians, or the agitators is that we would not be getting information from direct sources, but we would be hearing it “through the grape-vine.” Yes, other sources could be reliable, but I would rather get the information from a direct source: Paul. It is true that we don’t get the full context of what Paul is writing to the Galatians, but I think the author of the book “Thinking Through Paul: A Survey of His Life, Letters, and Theology” does a great job at diving deeper into Paul’s perspective, rather than seeking perspective elsewhere. We might as well look further into the perspective that we already have before us in Galatians, and get more information that way, rather than seeking it elsewhere. Also, we must acknowledge the fact that we are getting the information we have (as little as it may be) from an apostle. In “Thinking Through Paul” by Bruce W. Longenecker, the author writes about how Paul speaks of Christ being in Him. This is a trait that all who believe in Jesus and accept Him as their Savior obtain, but Paul takes it a step further by writing, “From now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (Galatians 6:17). Longenecker responds to this by writing that the stripes on Paul’s back are “physical imprints of honor and should cause others to think twice about challenging his worthiness as an APOSTLE” (Longenecker, 94). In conclusion, the source and little information that we have is trustworthy, inspired by the breath of God, and worth diving deeper into understanding. We may not have all corners of perspective, but we have one that we can trust and that is Paul’s God-breathed writings.

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  10. It is interesting how many different viewpoints that derive from the book of Galatians, and the Bible itself. Whether or not it was actually written before, during or after the Book of Acts, there is a decent amount of overlap and references that could be applied to Galatians. There are varying views dependent on Acts 15 and the places set in both Acts and Galatians, but to me it seems like they are clearly linked to the book of Acts (Longenecker, 92). There was Roman territory, like Derbe and Lystra, that were taken account in Acts 13 and 14, which shows the strength of the argument that Acts can help us understand aspects of Galatians. According to N.T. Wright, there is a divide of belief between it taking place in Northern or Southern Galatia, and many people from either America or Germany have a similar belief of Northern Galatia, and that it was written in the middle of Paul’s journey. This goes back to the idea that there are different views of when and why Paul wrote this letter (Wright).
    Just like mentioned above with the article of Josephus, other Jewish writings can be beneficial for understanding the historical and theological context too. It can be dangerous due to the bias and the credibility of the author, but just like we have to do with sermons and teachings today, we should discern the information we are taking in, and be content with never knowing the full truth. The writings of Josephus may not all be accurate, but there can be some enlightenment through the information given and might contain an idea of context to a specific area in the book of Galatians that we may have never seen before. All that to say, I do not believe outside sources is a bad idea, because if anything, it will grow and stretch the capacity of the reader.

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  11. I had a Bible teacher in high school that used to always say, “the rule of context is context rules.” As cheesy as a phrase that is, he wanted to instill in us the importance of understanding context when reading, teaching, and studying the Bible. He used the word ‘context’ as a broad concept to encompass all areas including: cultural, historical, literary, narrow, and broad context. We looked at what was happening from every angle to interpret scriptures from the authors intent, rather than form our own conclusions. By keeping that in the forefront of my brain, it helps me to read the Bible without misinterpreting it. Studying the situation and context surrounding Scripture can allow for a broader picture and better, more accurate understanding.

    I believe that Galatians is no different. Using other Scriptures (such as Acts) and Jewish writings can be a great way to get a broader understanding and clearer picture of the context. To some degree, Acts is linked to Galatians (Longeneckker 92) and finding where they relate helps to know what was happening during the time that Paul was writing. Other Jewish writings can do this too, however people who study them must be aware in the differences in authority. We know that ” All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17). We can trust Acts as an accurate resource because that is what God’s word promises. Other Jewish writings and letters may also be a good resource, but we must keep in mind that they are not guaranteed to be accurate, truthful, and inerrant as the Scriptures are.

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  12. There are certainly some assumptions that you can make about Paul’s opponent’s arguments directly from the text. For example, Paul might have chosen to discuss the passages from Genesis and Deuteronomy in Galatians 3 because those texts could have been used by Paul’s opponents to argue their points. However, these clues in the text only get us so far. As far as additional text, I think that Acts would work well. I do not see any problems big enough with Acts that would warrant doubting its credibility as a background for Paul’s ministry. Jewish writings of the time would also be an excellent source. Whereas these writings would not be directly correlated to Paul’s letters like Acts would be, they do give great insight to the Jewish culture and worldview of the time. After all, not only are Paul’s opponents in Galatians Jews, but so were the rest of the apostles and most of the first Christians. Just because a first century Jew believed Christ was the Messiah and was raised from the dead does not mean in any way that they would just abandon the method of thinking about the scriptures and spiritual life. Looking at what Jews believed before Christ came to earth (as well as non-believing Jews after Christ’s resurrection) gives an understanding of how early Jewish Christians may have chafed with Paul’s radical teachings in a way that we would not understand otherwise.

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  13. While reading this post I kept thinking about what I learned in my Bible study methods and application class, that while reading the Bible it is incredibly helpful to know past history and culture in that time period for a better understanding of a passage. To answer P. Long’s question of if we should use other Jewish writings for context, I would say yes because it helps with understanding. When we arrive in Galatians, where we experience that mirror reading, it is helpful to read other Jewish literature because it can give us valuable background on that day’s culture. It also can be useful to fill in historical gaps. For example, reading the Enoc writings and the Apocrypha and Josephus writings can add some historical knowledge and cultural information that can really help with understanding why people reacted the way they did or the problems of that age. The danger in this is making false assumptions, taking things out of context and taking something as scriptural when it really doesn’t belong among Scripture. As for the question, is it fair to use Acts as background to Galatians, I would say yes also because Acts has the recording of the start to Paul’s ministry. The beginning of his missionary journeys. As P. Long said that Galatians was Paul’s first letter, I would think it would make sense for Acts to be a reliable source to gain a better understanding of the story behind the writing of Galatians.

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  14. I think that It would be fair to use Acts as a background for Galatians as long as it was with fine detail and caution. I don’t think it is ever good to assume anything, if we assume that Acts is a background for Galatians we might start to create ideas that weren’t meant to be there. Although, the reason I say it is fair, is because it is in the bible and we know that it is the truth. Therefore, the truth in Acts may be able to help us when it comes to understanding Galatians. 2 Timothy 3:16 says that, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.” This tells me that it is possible to use Acts when it comes to better understanding Galatians. However, when it comes to using other Jewish writing as supplemental material, I think we should try to avoid that approach all together because those other writings could be incorrect, and they are not inspired by God, therefore, could be misleading when it comes to interpreting a book of the bible. I do think it is good to take a look at outside sources but we need to be extremely cautious with how we use outside sources when it comes to interpreting the bible. It is important that everything we interpret in the bible, coincides with the truth of the bible.

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  15. Seeing that we are all humans ( I hope ) then naturally we are all curious. I know that for a fact having only one side to an argument is hard to understand. When something does not make sense we seek the answer till we find it. Then, if this does not happen then usually people come up with an explanation any just to ease their mind and the mind of others. However, there we have to be okay with the fact that there will be days, equations, questions, and experiments etc.. that just does not make sense. If everything in this world made sense to us then where would God play a part in our daily lives. Why, would we need Him if we could rely on ourselves for the answer. Proverbs 3:5 tells us we are meant to rely on God with all our heart. Another piece of scripture that we can look at is Job 38:4-7 when God is rebuking Job about when he does not show humility. We have to ne okay at times when things do not make sense. The only one who should and does have all the knowledge in the world is God. So, when we are asked whether or not Acts should be used to help understand Galatians, then the answer is no. The danger that can come from this is having a misinterpretation within the text. Each letter and passage in the Bible is usually written to a specific, church, group of people, culture, and place. Galatians should be left as it is and not be meddled with. Having a little bit of curiosity is okay, but when it comes to the point where we try to MAKE something fit, then that is where we have gone too far.

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  16. On the topic on if it is fair to include the book of Acts as a background to Galatians is an interesting and thought-provoking notion. P. Long mentions this within his post, that though there are some chronological problems Paul and Luke generally agree on how the Galatian churches got there. Another perspective that makes discovering the background of Galatians difficult is understanding the geographical difficulties regarding Galatia. This issue is addressed by Bruce Longenecker in his book Thinking Through Paul: a Survey of His Life, Letters, and Theology stating that scholars will continue to debate whether Paul’s letter of Galatians was written to Jesus groups in south Galatia or north Galatia, this also impacting the possibilities of dates that Paul’s letter was written (Longenecker, Pg. 92). Thus, understanding the background of Galatians can be rather difficult. However, I believe the book of Acts would be a complementary read in regard to the background of Galatians. P. Long also probes the question of if other Jewish and Roman writings during that time period would be helpful in understanding the background of Galatians. Upon that question I would answer yes to a certain extent, Jewish or Roman writings from that period, C. late 40’s – 50’s, will help give a broader historical and cultural background to Galatians. The dangers of reading such historical and cultural writings from that time period is bias. P. Long makes a clever hint within his post of how Josephus is not accurate specifically when he describes himself. This is a prime example of how historical writings can often times have biased or exaggeration within them so we must be careful in reading such historical documents. But, when read carefully, acknowledging possibly biased or exaggeration, such historical documents can still provide us with a broad sense of historical and cultural backgrounds for such a letter like Galatians.

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  17. Using other references to get a better understanding of another individuals narrative is sometimes necessary. I think the books in the Bible should be intermingled with each other because they provide support in vague areas. There could be certain things left out about Paul’s narrative in Galatia that can be explained through other books. As mentioned Acts gives us a good outline of Paul’s intentions and theological concerns in the region of Galatia. As we know he encountered many different problems in the regions he traveled to during his ministry. For instance, in Thessalonica Paul deals with sexual-immortality and agitators as for in Galatia he deals with circumcision in relation with agitators (1 Thess 4:3, Gal 5:2-6:18). Furthermore, the danger involved with using supplemental writings is that there could be misleading details that give a different interpretation of the situation. Not to mention there could be some bias opinions in the writings that can influence the readers perspective on the character. While taking history of the church I learned that a lot of what is known about characters in the Bible comes from oppositions. That being said the opposition might not be totally honest with some of the ideas in the narrative of a specific character. However, I guess using supplementary material can be beneficial but has to have some form of credibility giving from inside the Bible. Overall, I think if the writings presented outside the Bible aren’t controversial and have some credibility than yes the content can be used to shed light on the character.

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  18. I think it’s fair to include Acts as a background of Galatians because we know from the blog that Galatians only gives the background of Paul. If you were to read a little more into Acts would help you understand the context of Galatians and what is going on much better. Yes, there are chronological problems, but since Luke and Paul mostly agree on what the opponents were teaching and how the Galatian churches were formed, I would say it is a good resource for background. The message of Galatians is important So in my opinion, adding Acts to the equation is a fair idea because you can find a little bit more information on the whole situation itself.
    As far as using other Jewish writings, I think that you can use them but you have to be aware of the content they are presenting. You have to keep in mind that the writing is still Jewish so the bias could potentially be different. The essential readings that Josephus gives us is something that we can all learn from when it comes to understanding the Jewish side of the story. The risks of this approach are that some of this might not align with the Bible because Jewish perspective is probably going to be different than Christain side of things. Jewish writings can be supplements to understanding, but I believe that they should be read with discernment. If everything we read from any source is accepted as truth, we can be mislead on what the Bible passage we are studying is truly saying.

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  19. Acts and Galatians are complementary. They record major events in the life of Paul from different perspectives. Acts lays out a straightforward account of the events of the early church. However, the events in Galatians are told by Paul because of the theological implications for the gentile Christians (TTP, 98). Although there seem to be big differences in the accounts, they are not irreconcilable. Starting with Paul’s conversion and call on the road to Damascus, Paul went to Arabia according to Galatians 1:17. When Paul returns to Damascus, the events of Acts 9:20-25 occurred and he was forced to escape from Damascus and go to Jerusalem. This visit is recorded in both Galatians 1:18-22 and Acts 9:26-29. The next major event was ministering in Antioch with Barnabas. The events in Galatians 2:11-14, also known as the “Antioch Incident” could have occurred at this time or at the subsequent return to Antioch after the first missionary journey (Long, 66). It is hard to determine the time because Luke does not include the incident in his account. The complementary accounts end with the writing of Galatians from Antioch before the Jerusalem council recorded in Acts 15.
    I believe supplementary materials are helpful for understanding the context of scripture which will inform the interpretation of scripture. The danger with this approach, like any other scripture interpretation, is to assume that your interpretation is the only solution. Scripture interpretation must be conducted with prayer and humility.

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