Galatians 3: Why Abraham?

That Abraham “believed in God and was declared righteous” is an important point for Paul. But it is critical to Paul’s point to know when Abraham believed. He trusted in God’s word before the sign of the Covenant was given, in Genesis 15 not 17. What is more, Abraham believed in God well before his great demonstration of faith in Genesis 22. The reader of Galatians needs to know the whole flow of the Abraham story in Genesis 12-24 in order to grasp the full impact of Paul’s point.

Paul also uses Abraham as an example in both Romans and Galatians. Why select Abraham as the model of faith? It is possible the agitators themselves have been using Abraham in their teaching, since Abraham was a Gentile who believed God and that belief was “credited to him as righteousness.” Paul’s opponents in Galatia may have argued the Gentiles now coming to Christ are in the same category as Abraham, and Abraham was circumcised as a sign of his covenant with God.

Gen 22God credited this belief to Abraham. The verb חשׁב refers to considering an internal thought which “reckons” or considers something. It is an evaluation or something-“to reckon” not in the sense of counting numerically but of evaluative assessment” (TLOT, 480).

Righteousness is a key theological term in both the Old and New Testament. Christians tend to hear “righteousness” as personal holiness. Although this is certainly part of what the term can mean, modern reductions to “sinlessness” miss the rich use of this word to cover all sorts of activities from honesty to justice.

But in the Old Testament, righteousness is usually associated with one’s actions with respect to a standard, such as the Law. If one keeps the Law, then one is “righteous,” which implies a moral standard. But “sin” in the Old Testament is far more than moral offenses against God, physical uncleanliness separates one from God, so a woman (for example) who has given birth is “unclean” and needs to make a sin offering. Giving birth is not a moral problem, but a change of physical status.

In Galatians 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 in history, Abraham should be considered a Gentile, at least by the rules imposed by the agitators in the Galatian churches. He was uncircumcised and the food and Sabbath laws have not yet been given. 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, in the apocryphal book Sirach, Abraham is described as having kept the “law of the Most High,” so God entered into a covenant with him and “certified the covenant in his flesh” (Sirach 44:19-21). Paul does not rewrite Scripture like so much of the literature of the Second Temple Period did. He considers 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 Law and The Curse

The first two chapters of Galatians dealt directly with the relationship of Paul and the Jerusalem Church. In these chapters Paul has claimed that he was commissioned directly by God to preach his gospel to the Gentiles (1:1-2, 11-12) and that he is not under the authority of the Apostles in Jerusalem (1:13-24). In fact he consulted Jerusalem only when his success among the Gentiles raised the question of circumcision of converts (2:1-10). The pillars of the church at Jerusalem agreed with Paul that Titus ought not be circumcised. Later, Paul confronted Peter publicly for breaking from table fellowship with Gentiles. Clearly Paul is independent of the Jerusalem church.

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, they described this salvation as a “conversion” to the God of Israel. The nations will come to Zion to worship, but (presumably) they will keep the Law as members of Israel. In the present age, however, Paul argues that 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.

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 model of Abraham’s faith shows that it is only through faith that one can be accounted as righteous.

The reader of Galatians needs to know the whole flow of the Abraham story in Genesis 12-24 in order to understand 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.

How does understanding the “curse of the Law” as an allusion to Deuteronomy’s “Blessing and Cursing” change the way we understand Paul in this passage?

Peter the Hypocrite – Galatians 2:11-14

Paul says that Peter’s actions are nothing less that hypocrisy. Peter has changed his attitude and behavior toward Gentile Christians after the visit from the “men from James.” The first verb (ὑποστέλλω) is a military term and has the sense of retreating to an “inconspicuous position” (Witherington, Galatians, 154). In Acts 20:27 Paul uses the verb to describe what he did not do – he did not “shrink back” from preaching the gospel in Ephesus in the face of persecution. The second verb (ἀφορίζω) has the separating into groups (the sheep and the goats in Matt 25:32, for example). Witherington takes this to mean that the word has a sense of ritual purity, and I might add it has an eschatological sense. At the end of the age, the Lord will separate those who will enter the kingdom from those who will not. If we are right that the political and religious situation in Judea was becoming increasingly apocalyptic, it is possible that these “men from James” were encouraging a separation of the Jews and the Gentiles in anticipation of a coming judgment.

The reason for Peter’s withdrawal from table fellowship is fear from the circumcision party, those Jews who insisted on circumcising Gentiles. There is at least the possibility (based on Galatians 6:12) that some Jews, such as the Zealots, were willing to use force to ensure Jewish traditions were being observed. If this is the case, then perhaps Peter’s fear is a real fear of persecution by the more zealous wing of the Jerusalem church.  This is not a case of “the pastor is coming over, quick hide the beer bottles”! Peter and Barnabas may have withdrawn from fellowship to avoid a potentially violent reprisal from the “zealots” within Jewish Christianity.

Peter’s actions therefore are out of character and not in line with his beliefs nor the agreement which he reached with Paul in Galatians 2:1-10. Paul thinks Peter and Barnabas have “shrunk back” out of fear and are in need of correction. While Peter is a hypocrite, Paul describes Barnabas as “led astray.” The verb συναπάγω has the sense of “carried away,’ he was fooled by the rhetoric of the “men from James.”

Witherington suggests that Barnabas found himself in a bad place because he was originally sent to Antioch by Jerusalem, he could not go against the “orders” of the church who sent him to Antioch in the first place (Galatians, 157). His loyalty was to Jerusalem, the group with which he was associated from the earliest days (Acts 4), rather than to Paul and the Gentile mission. The Gentile mission is not Barnabas’ commission, it is Paul’s. All of the Jews in the Antioch church join with Peter and Barnabas in withdrawing from fellowship with the Gentile believers. This indicates that there is a church-wide split caused by the “men from James.”

Paul publically confronted Peter because his “conduct was not in line with the truth.” This confrontation was “before them all,” which may mean that Paul waited until the church assembled. Parallel to the private meeting in Jerusalem, Paul chose to bring this issue to the whole assembly. The accusation against Peter that he is not living in accordance to what he knows is the truth, the agreement of Gal 2:1-10, for example. The agitators in the Galatian church, on the other hand, were described with military terms. They are spies and agitators who are outside of the truth of the gospel to begin with. Peter knows the truth and is not acting in accordance with it, the agitators do not even know the gospel.

Paul’s point is that if Peter and the Jewish Christians withdraw from the Gentile Christians, then there is no unity in the body of Christ. As Paul will point out later in the later, there is no Jew or Greek in the Body of Christ, we are all members together “in Christ.” To separate into two bodies, a Jewish and a Gentile one, totally misses the point of a “joint-body” as Paul describes in Ephesians 2.

What is at stake here is the nature of the Gospel. If Paul loses this argument, then Gentiles will continue to be “second class believers” in the eyes of some conservative Jewish believers.

Although the issues are different, how does contemporary churches create boundaries which push some types of Christians out of fellowship, or consider them as second-class Christians? Perhaps some of the boundaries are important (the men from James thought circumcision was critical to being a follower of Jesus), but others may not be. How can we disagree on the boundaries without compromising the unity of the Body of Christ?

What is Paul’s Gospel in Galatians 1:11-12?

At the beginning of the letter to the Galatians, Paul must clarify his relationship with the Jerusalem church. If Paul is under the authority of Jerusalem, then it is at least possible that the “men from James” could claim that Paul has not been authorized to preach a gospel to the Gentiles which frees them from the Law.

Image result for ladder of divine acentAt issue here is not the Gospel that Christ died for our sins, was buried, and that he was raised on the third day, according to the scriptures (1 Cor 15:3-5). Paul clearly states this tradition was passed along to him as the primary core of the gospel. It is also clear the preaching of Christ Crucified can be found in the apostolic preaching from the beginning. What Paul is going to argue in the first two chapters of Galatians is that although his Gospel is Christ Crucified, when the death and resurrection of Christ is applied to the Gentiles, they are not “under the Law.” For Paul, Gentiles are not converts to Judaism by rather adopted children of God and therefore not required to keep the Law. As Ben Witherington puts it,

Paul is referring to his Law-free Gospel for the Gentiles which focuses on and is based on faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross which provides one with right standing before God. This distinctive Gospel message about Christ Paul admits is not the sort of thing human beings could have come up with on their own. It had to be revealed by God for it to be known at all. (Galatians, 92)

According to Galatians 1:11-12, Paul’s Gospel was revealed to him by Jesus Christ. At this point in the letter Paul begins to use the first person. He is not writing on behalf of a ministry team (as in 1 Thessalonians or 1 Corinthians), he is presenting his own testimony of how he encountered the grace of God.

First, Paul’s claim is that he was not evangelized by other apostles. We know from Acts that Paul was in fact a bitter opponent of the gospel in Acts. As I read Acts, Paul was came into contact with the gospel in the Synagogue of the Freedmen, where Stephen was preaching. His reaction to Stephen’s preaching was violent and led to his mission to Damascus to round up Christ-followers.

Second, Paul did not learn his gospel from the other apostles. After his encounter with Jesus, Paul did not have a period of discipleship in order to learn the basics of the gospel. He will state that he did not encounter the Apostles until well after he was given a revelation from Jesus. He does not claim to be “one of the Twelve” or even under the authority of the Twelve. He is an independent apostle commissioned directly by God.

Third, the noun apokalypsis (ἀποκάλυψις) is the key to understanding Paul’s point in Galatiansi 1:11-12. The noun appears in Paul’s letters thirteen times, and as might be expected, the word has the connotation of God’s decisive actions in history to bring salvation into the world. This is in fact the title of the final book of the New Testament, the “Revelation of Jesus Christ.” Paul is not saying he has discovered his gospel from careful exegesis of the Hebrew Bible or through crafty application of rabbinic rules of interpretation. He claims in Galatians 1:11-12 that God pulled back the curtains and revealed to him something which has not been known before, what he will call a mystery in Ephesians 3:1-6.

This revelation stands in contrast to receiving a gospel from other humans. Rather than being informed by others of a “Law-free Gospel” for the Gentiles, God revealed it to him through Jesus.

How do you think this claim would have been heard by the Twelve in Jerusalem and the community of Jewish Christian believers who had been following Jesus since his time in Galilee? What kind of resistance to Paul’s claim do we see in either in Galatians or in Acts?

“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?