The Letter to the Galatians–9th book of the New Testament—A.D. 49-51
Optional Yearly Reading Schedule–January 14
7. Chief Persecutor Becomes Most Notorious Convert
In the midst of the persecution of the church of the mid-30’s under the Pharisee Saul of Tarsus, the church was rocked by the news that this very Saul had had a vision of Christ on the road to Damascus, and had been instantly converted. Naturally, most within the church were skeptical. What more perfect ploy than to infiltrate the movement called the Way to the very innermost heart of its leadership?
Barnabas—one of early Christendom’s (almost) invisible heroes
One man, however, believed Saul—the man called Barnabas, a name whose meaning fit him perfectly.
About Barnabas little is positively known beyond what is stated in Acts 4:36 where we first meet him by his original name: “Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.”
How his Cyprus background fits with other legend is uncertain. Barnabas has also been linked either as a brother or cousin to wealthy widow Mary, mother of John Mark, at whose Jerusalem home the young church often met. He was thus very early associated with the Jerusalem church, possessed a degree of status and means, was obviously, as a Levite, well educated, and was in all probability the male head of Mary’s household, and either Mark’s uncle or cousin (Col 4:10). Eusebius identifies Joseph/Barnabas as one of “the seventy” disciples of Jesus of Luke 10.
These connections also lead to the conjecture that it was in fact in the upper room of the home of Mary, Barnabas, and young John Mark, that the last supper took place, and that Barnabas himself may have been the “householder” Jesus referred to when instructing his disciples to make plans for the supper. If this is true, if furthermore the home of Mary and John Mark was the home of “family friends” of the Lord’s in Jerusalem, it is likely that Jesus and Barnabas knew one another, placing Barnabas in a position of intimacy not unlike that of James. All of this is mere speculation. But the possibility makes his subsequent role in the developing church all the more intriguing. That he and James had close association as men and church leaders throughout the 30s, 40s, and 50’s is clear. But might the relationship have been of even longer duration?
In any event, Barnabas first steps onto the pages of the New Testament in Acts 4:36, presumably within a year or two of the crucifixion, in Jerusalem.
Practical problems of a massive movement—people to feed
As the church grew, the practical logistics of what we must assume was some form of communal living arrangement in which Christians had all things “in common” brought obvious problems with it. The most practical matter was simply that there were a lot of people and they had to eat. It took money. It took provision. Some kind of structure very quickly became essential. The earliest forms of church “organization,” therefore, was prompted by the simple necessity of feeding people every day. Out of this most basic need, leadership and lines of authority slowly emerged.
Something else grew out of it too—something that would become increasingly significant in the development of the church, and that would reach a climax a decade and a half later. That was conflict between Jew and Gentile Christians. It time this led to the larger question of where Gentile converts stood in relation to Jewish Law.
Because of the initial problem with numbers, seven men were chosen to oversee the daily food distribution, among them a young man called Stephen. His appointment along with the others is recognized as the origin of the church office of “deacon,” and was the first move toward structure in the young church.
The problem between Jews and Gentiles is stated succinctly in Acts 6:1-3. It reads: “Now in those days when the disciples were increasing in number, the Helenists [Greeks] murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the body of disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty…”
Stephen’s eloquence and martyrdom followed, which you can read about in the Acts account, as did the persecution of the church and its dispersion, of which we have already spoken, and Saul’s increasing role in both. (Acts 8:1, 3; 9:1)
Saul begins to preach
After Saul’s astonishing experience on the Damascus road, still blinded from the vision, he made his way into the city. There he was taken in by a believer called Ananias. Within days he was preaching in the synagogues that Jesus was the Son of God. How long he remained in Damascus is unknown, but he quickly found that his preaching was placing him in danger. The same Jewish leaders he had been in league with a short time before were now plotting to kill him. Now it was Christians who saved Saul’s life by lowering him out of the city at night in a basket. Saul thus made his escape from Damascus and was not heard of for three years, Scattered reports, however, began to filter through the church that a man who had once persecuted the church was now preaching in and around Damascus (Arabia) that Jesus was the Son of God.
Suddenly Saul appeared in Jerusalem. There he attempted to join with the disciples. The year was approximately 38 a.d.
Because of the earlier persecutions, many of the original twelve apostles were no longer in Jerusalem. Only Peter and James are mentioned as still present in the capital. Despite the rumors they had heard of Saul’s preaching, most of the Jerusalem believers were suspicious and fearful. It was Barnabas who now stepped forward and brought Saul to Peter and James. He explained about his vision and gave his personal validation to the reality of Saul’s conversion. How he knew Saul is unknown. But as a result of the testimony of Barnabas, Saul was accepted by the church and continued to preach “boldly.”
Saul stayed in Jerusalem two weeks, much of it with Peter. During that time it must be assumed they formed a close bond. That Saul had grown up in a Gentile environment that was not nearly so isolated from Greek and Roman influences as that of many of the first Christians set him apart in many ways from the Galilean disciples. It would not be unlikely that his initial impressions would have been that they were a group of generally uneducated men.
Two more diverse and opposite cultural milieus could not be imagined for the two men (Peter and Saul) who would eventually co-lead the church in the decades ahead than Tarsus and Bethsaida on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Imagine today two men thrust together to lead a multi-national business—one from New York’s elite with a PhD from Columbia, the other without any formal education from the backwoods of Appalachia, whose mere accent gave him away as a hick every time he opened his mouth. That will give you some idea of the contrast.
It is not difficult to imagine, therefore, that Saul almost immediately saw himself as a potential Christian leader. His educational advantages and knowledge of Jewish doctrine, would bring obvious benefits to the intellectual side of the fledgling movement. Even if such thoughts were entirely humble, Saul could hardly have been unaware of the possibility of his gifts being used in potential leadership right from the start.
Obviously Saul and Barnabas also deepened their friendship. Within two weeks, however, as it had been in Damascus, Saul’s life was in danger. The believers escorted him to Caesarea and sent him off to his home city of Tarsus, where again he dropped out of sight.
The church in Jerusalem then entered into a season of relative peace and freedom from persecution.
8. Peter’s Vision—the Gospel to Gentiles!
Meanwhile, God’s Spirit was stirring up the question of the Gentile role in Christianity.
As we have seen, Gentiles were involved from the very beginning, from Peter’s first sermon on the Day of Pentecost in the year 30. Up till now they had been a distinct minority. But their numbers continued to grow, and the question of what role Judaism and its Law of Moses was to play in the lives of Gentile converts became a matter of imperative debate.
It is difficult for us to reconstruct the situation facing the young church without more evidence. It is clear that Gentiles began “believing” in Jesus almost immediately. But the Law of Moses forbade association between Jews and Gentiles. Especially stringent was the regulation prohibiting them to eat with each other.
So we must imagine a situation where two things were likely taking place. One, most new converts to the Christian faith were presumably circumcised to make them “legally” Jews as well as Christians. They would then also have been required to adopt other Jewish customs common to their new faith. Secondly, there remained clear distinctions within the Church between Jew and Gentile. Presumably the two groups remained distinct and separate. Peter’s statement to Cornelius in Acts 10:28 probably illustrates the general state of affairs prevalent even within the church at the time: “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit any one of another nation…”
But all this was about to change.
And to whom should a revelation come clarifying a new direction in which God wanted to take the young Church—to the very man upon whom Jesus said he would build his Church, Peter himself.
While visiting in Joppa, Peter experienced an extraordinary vision. It confirmed to him that God intended the gospel for Gentiles as well as Jews. You can read about it in Acts 10. As a result, he conducted what might have been the first baptismal service for Gentiles, apparently without a word about circumcision or any other “Jewish” requirement. Peter simply accepted them into the faith, as far as we can tell from the account with no strings attached.
The rest of the church wasn’t pleased with what Peter had done. What James’ thought, we don’t know. What we do know is that when Peter returned to Jerusalem, those church leaders who believed that faith in Christ required adherence to Jewish law and custom, including circumcision (Acts 11:2 calls them “the circumcision party”) criticized Peter sharply.
But after Peter’s explanation of what had taken place in Joppa, the others agreed that a major shift had indeed taken place, and that God was leading them to include Gentiles fully in the gospel with the same status as those born Jews.
But though many were apparently persuaded by the force of Peter’s vision, there remained those among the circumcision party who were unconvinced.
Antioch takes center stage—Barnabas looks to Saul for help
It is during the years approximately between 38 and 43 when the church at Antioch began to grow and take center stage. Because of this growth, and because of his stature as a leader alongside Peter and James, Barnabas was commissioned to go north to head up the exploding work in Antioch. One description suggests that Barnabas and his fellow Christian leaders who were sent to Antioch functioned as “prophets.
Whoever had come to Antioch with him, Barnabas needed more help. The church was growing at a tremendous rate. Barnabas thought of Saul. Obviously he too had noticed Saul’s gifts. Why not enlist his help?
Barnabas traveled to Tarsus looking for Saul. He asked him to come help him at Antioch, and Saul agreed. This period is recounted by Luke in Acts 11:19-30.
Sometime in the mid-40s, a famine hit Palestine and Barnabas and Saul carried relief funds from Antioch down to the stricken church in Jerusalem. There were further discussions at this time with Peter and James and John about the Gentile question. That Barnabas and Saul took along an uncircumcised Gentile convert by the name of Titus made the question far more than an academic one. Because of his vision of the descending sheet in Joppa, Peter continued to be a vocal proponent in the church for the view that the gospel had indeed been opened to Gentiles on an equal footing with Jews.
But the debate remained far from over.
In Syria the complexion of believers was much different than in Jerusalem. Greeks and Gentiles were pouring into the church in droves. And in Antioch that the tension between the two factions (Jews and Greek Gentiles), noted in the matter of the Jerusalem widows and which surfaced again in the discussions following Peter’s vision, ultimately came to a head. The aftermath of the incident precipitated the church’s eventual and final split with the Judaism of its roots.
Christianity’s first missionary trip—Barnabas, Saul, and John Mark
Returning to Antioch from Jerusalem, Barnabas brought with them John Mark, his own kinsman, now a young man probably in his early or mid twenties. At this point, and for another few years, the preeminence of Barnabas was undisputed. The “partnership” was initially labeled “Barnabas and Saul.”
Shortly after their return from Jerusalem, the Antioch church commissioned Barnabas and Saul to undertake a missionary journey. They took with them John Mark.
This “first missionary journey” lasted from approximately 46-48. We read of it in Acts 13-14.
It is at this point in the account (13:9) when Luke, the author of Acts, first begins to call Saul by the name “Paul.” We tend to think of him as Paul from the moment of his conversion, but he actually continued to go by Saul for his first dozen years as a Christian. In recounting their travels, after switching the order and referring to Paul as the leader of the company, Luke again reverts in Acts 14 to “Barnabas and Paul.” It is difficult to get a completely accurate picture of these years since most of our information comes from Luke, who was a clear partisan of Paul. But it seems clear that in the eyes of those in Jerusalem, Barnabas remained the leader of the Antioch church, the leader of the missionary endeavor, and that Paul and John Mark were his subordinates.
Barnabas must have been an imposing and dignified man, softer and tolerant and understanding toward people. The natives of Lystra, considering the two missionaries gods, gave Barnabas the title of Zeus, while Paul was Hermes—the “spokesman.”
This acclaim was short-lived. Seven verses later we find them stoning the missionary party!
To circumcise or not to circumcise—that was the question
In the brief twenty year history of the church to this point, as noted the Way was a Jewish sect which for the most part continued to adhere to Jewish laws and customs. Much of the life of the young church was carried out in conjunction with local Jewish synagogues.
As more and more Gentiles came into the faith, however, to what extent they were required to adhere to Jewish laws, especially circumcision, was a question that continued to mount and remained a matter of controversy. Those who believed that the Way was to remain inherently Jewish, and that circumcision was required of Gentile converts, were called Judaizers or “the circumcision group.” Most of the church’s major leaders apparently did not endorse the circumcision requirement, including Peter, James, and Barnabas.
In the aftermath of Peter’s vision, we observe a wonderful open-mindedness within the church leadership at Jerusalem. We see men desiring truth, willing to listen, and willing to be persuaded to a point of view different from their own. Listen to Acts 11:1-4: “Now the apostles and the brethren who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ But Peter began and explained to them…”
The end is wonderful. “When they heard this they were silenced. And they glorified God, saying, ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life.’”
Even within the circumcision party, there was an open-minded willingness to listen. And many of the men changed their minds.
As a result of Peter’s leadership, it is clear that there came to be somewhat widespread agreement that the gospel was indeed to go out among the Gentiles. Yet there still remained unresolved two major points of Jewish law—the question of circumcision, and various rites connected with food, especially whether a Christian/Jew could lawfully eat side by side with uncircumcised Gentiles.
These were difficult questions the early Christians didn’t know how to answer. There were differences, there was discussion, certainly there was prayer. God’s full revelation had not yet come.
Though it is getting ahead of the story, it is interesting to note a completely different picture emerging out of this incident than the criticism the Judaizers later receive from Paul. We mustn’t forget that in the initial circumcision debate after Peter’s vision, Paul was not even present. And thus in his later writings, he never takes into account the nature and result of this first Judaizing decision.
When Barnabas, Paul, and John Mark returned from their travels to Antioch, the crisis written about in Galatians finally erupted.
9. Blow Up at Antioch –The Church’s First Internal Crisis
Lunch with friends—or blatant hypocrisy?
Shortly after Barnabas, Paul, and John Mark returned from their first missionary journey—where they had preached, mostly to Gentiles, a gospel of liberty which did not require circumcision—Peter came to Antioch. It is this visit that Paul recounts a year or two later when writing to the Galatians. After Peter’s arrival, another delegation also arrived from Jerusalem. Paul says that they “came from James.” Whether they were sent by James, whether this is merely a way of indicating that they had come from Jerusalem, or whether Paul is implying that James himself was the head of the circumcision group and had sent these men to sway Peter and others to their point of view…all such potential motives behind the visit from Jerusalem are unknown. Paul implies motives, but nothing in Acts seems to corroborate his implications.
After the arrival of the group from Jerusalem, Peter began eating with them, then later so did Barnabas—whether one meal or as a continual practice is also unknown. Paul interpreted this as hypocrisy. In his eyes, by eating with their friends from Jerusalem, they had betrayed the position of truth and regressed by their example back into the circumcision/Judaizing position.
In present day terminology, Paul went ballistic.
He angrily confronted Peter to his face and told him it was wrong for him to eat with the Jewish Christians from Jerusalem. Indeed, because of the written account, the incident still lives today and is more accurately a confrontation in front of the entire church. What happened immediately after the incident, we have no idea. Luke’s account in Acts follows Paul. We have no idea how Peter responded or what were the events and movements in his life after the confrontation.
The incident at Antioch, and its immortalization in the letter of Galatians, would change the church for all time, and set a new direction in its development.
That a man called Paul, a relative newcomer whose bona fides were still somewhat in question, stepped forward and said, Here is the truth, no more discussion—no circumcision required, added a strong new voice to that side of the debate. But should Paul’s opinion have suddenly become the only opinion? Should all the rest of the church and its leaders suddenly accept Paul’s opinion and stop all further discussion on the matter?
Such unilateralism was not the church’s way. There were many leaders and they worked toward consensus together. If James or Peter, perhaps, had stepped in at some point with an authoritative decision and simply said, “This will henceforth be our policy,” it would have been understandable. They were the two recognized leaders of the church. But at the time Paul had not yet gained their stature or authority.
In this light, Paul’s expectation that the entire rest of the church suddenly cease discussion, lay down its various views, and uniformly adopt his point of view, unilaterally declaring all alternative views false and hypocritical, seems more than a little extreme. From the incident surrounding Peter’s vision, we note not hypocrisy but rather a genuine and honest confusion about what that truth was, and an honest attempt to find it. There were men on both sides looking for truth.
The question that must be asked by any honest Bible student, therefore, is: Did Paul’s reaction accurately represent the big picture?
Judaizers in Galatia
After Paul’s blow-up at Antioch, the “Judaizing” controversy continued. For the Judaizers no less than for Paul, it was a serious matter. As Judaizing Christians traveled about preaching, therefore, they presented their form of the Christian Gospel. Their arguments apparently succeeded in convincing many of the Galatians, apparently also using the argument that Paul did not possess so great a level of authority that his teaching could be relied on.
Word eventually reached Paul that Judaizers had infiltrated the churches of Galatia that he and Barnabas and John Mark had visited. Some of the Gentle members of the congregation had been swayed to their point of view and were considering having themselves circumcised.
The result was Paul’s first letter that would later become part of the New Testament. It was written, as a footnote in the Harper Study Bible indicates, in a “white heat of…indignation” when the incident at Antioch was still fresh.
Theologian that he was, for Paul the question was not merely one of circumcision, or with whom one partook his meals, the implications were far larger in scope. The nature and purpose of the gospel itself was at stake in Paul’s mind. Paul always used specific circumstances as a springboard to larger and more general truths. We see this pattern nowhere more clearly than in Galatians, where, building upon specifics, Paul documents the first major and expansive written treatise on Christian theology.
In its introduction to Galatians, the New Oxford Annotated Bible summarizes what was involved:
The relationship between…new, non-Jewish converts and Jewish Christians, and between the emerging Christian movement and Judaism, became an issue of burning importance. One critical issue concerned the status of the law of Moses. Should Gentile Christians convert to Judaism in the process of becoming Christians? Were they required to observe the Jewish law, even in part?…
The context of Paul’s formulations was his bitter struggle with opponents in Galatia. The content and sharp polemic of Galatians were worked out in reply to what Paul knew of his opponents’ teaching and of their attacks upon him. We would have a better understanding of Paul’s intentions if we knew more about them. Despite the best efforts of scholars to identify and reconstruct the arguments of Paul’s opponents, they remain a shadowy group. Most commentators describe them as Judaizers because they insisted on circumcision…We also have no evidence that they were missionaries sent by the Jerusalem church…Nevertheless, the effect of their controversy with Paul is unmistakable. The opposition forced him to develop a defense of his mission to the Gentiles which would prove the basis for a Christianity independent of its Jewish roots. (pp. 309-10, NT)
For twenty years the church had been flowing along and growing almost randomly. The entire Christian movement was spontaneous and experiential. Preaching, signs and wonders, visions, travel, conversions, baptisms, persecutions, escapes…everything was moving fast but without a cohesive theological framework other than the fact that a man called Jesus Christ had recently lived and taught and died in Palestine, then had risen from the dead, and was now being hailed as the Son of God. Even the letter of James, wonderfully practical, reflected this random and spontaneous approach, bouncing from topic to topic but without an overview or single compelling theme.
With the Judaizing controversy, the incident at Antioch, and the letter to the Galatians, Paul began to provide a doctrinal framework for Christianity of larger and more comprehensive theology.
10. The Confusing Chronology of Paul’s Life
Several theories surround the dating of Galatians, some of which place it after the Thessalonian letters, and some even after those to the Corinthians as late as 58. The dispute revolves around the destination of the letter. Was Paul writing to the churches of North-central Asia minor that he visited on his second missionary trip (50-52)—requiring a later date? Or was he writing to the churches of Southern Galatia that had been founded on the first missionary trip (46-48)?
The events of Saul’s/Paul’s life too complex to resolve
Whole libraries could be filled with books about the life of Paul. Literally thousands have been written. All of them together, however, have not resolved the problems of a full chronology of Paul’s movements and travels and writings. It is simply impossible to precisely synchronize the account of Luke in the book of Acts, and the various references to dates and movements alluded to in Paul’s letters. Every scholar agrees that there are irresolvable discrepancies.
We encounter two of them immediately as we begin to read Galatians. Paul writes, “Then after three years…” and a little later, “Then after fourteen years…” Meanwhile, in Acts 9, Luke writes of Paul’s first trip to Jerusalem after his conversion as occurring “when many days had passed.”
The confusion in the Pauline chronology thus sets in very early in the accounts. It seems unlikely that Paul would mistake the passage of time. Yet the three and fourteen—whether they are added together or the three included in the fourteen—do not mesh with the timing of the first missionary journey and the incident at Antioch. Still later (Acts 15) a conference was held in Jerusalem over the whole Gentile issue. It is unclear, however, which of these visits to Jerusalem Paul is referring to in Galatians. If the letter was written after the Jerusalem Conference, as the “fourteen years” would seem to necessitate, it means a later date for the writing of Galatians. How many times did Paul go to Jerusalem, and with whom and for what purposes?
A.C. Purdy, writing in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible places this difficulty into perspective:
“We must consider briefly some of the many questions raised by a comparison of Acts with the Pauline letters. First, we may note that the agreements are quite as numerous and substantial as sources separated by almost a generation in time of writing could be expected to yield, especially if they are independent….[Most] differences…are not serious; they are what we would expect. But the case is other with some basically contradictory material which we must now consider. Paul’s letters record three visits to Jerusalem, each quite pointedly characterized as to purpose and result…Not only is the number of visits in question, but it is by no means easy to identify the three letter visits with any three of the Acts visits, so variously are they described…” (Vol. 3, p. 686)
When it comes to timing and dating, the events of Galatians and the writing of Galatians are among the most problematic to resolve of all the books in the New Testament. Many scholars suggest that Paul’s “third” visit to Jerusalem of Acts 15 is actually identical with the “second” visit of Galatians 2. This would take care of some of the inconsistencies, but not all.
The majority consensus historically has maintained that the book of Galatians represents the first of Paul’s epistles, and that it was written around the year 50, plus or minus a year or two, probably from Antioch (if 48-50), or Corinth (if 51-52).
Some readers will not be interested in such details as these. But they are fascinating in attempting to accurately set the stage for this foundationally important written document that Christians of the first century encountered either shortly after James’ letter, or at about the same time.
An early date for Galatians, held by most scholars, is significant for several reasons. Galatians is more biographical than Paul’s other letters. He speaks with unabashed candor about the incident that had recently taken place in Antioch. It is unvarnished and raw in the manner in which he speaks of Peter and the other individuals involved. Paul is not worried about showing Peter in a bad light or speaking with astonishing bluntness. Perhaps this bluntness results from the fact that this is Paul’s initial foray into the medium of written communication. (Or if not, it is the first one that has survived.) It would be interesting to know whether he might have toned down his comments, and perhaps been a little more circumspect toward Peter, had he known that his letters would be so widely circulated in the church, and eventually be canonized.
One thing we can be certain of—with this letter, and in the case of all his letters: Paul was not attempting to write, nor even imagining that he was writing, “Scripture.” He was simply writing a letter to meet a specific situation that had arisen and which he felt required a response.
James vs. Galatians
Galatians has been called “the Magna Charta of Christian liberty.” In it Paul argues passionately—indeed, angrily, indignantly—against any and all attempts to limit Christian liberty and freedom with Jewish legalism. By attempting to add the legalistic requirements of Judaism to the gospel of grace he and Barnabas had preached when among them, Paul fears that, unless prevented, his adversaries would bring his recent Galatian converts back into bondage to the Law. He calls such a false gospel, affirming that faith and grace alone are the basis for salvation, not the works of the Law.
It is often said that the rediscovery of the vital message of Galatians (justification by faith) brought about the Reformation. Martin Luther so strongly relied on Galatians in his own writings that it is often called “Luther’s book.” Placed in juxtaposition to Galatians, it is not difficult to see why Martin Luther so ridiculed James with his “epistle of straw” comment. Galatians validated Luther’s desired theology, while James, with its emphasis on practical obedience and the imperative of works, might have been used to undermine it.
This is the merest speculation…but if indeed there was tension between James and Paul, and if the two men did indeed view the circumcision controversy differently, the two themes present in their books (James emphasizing the necessity of works to validate faith, Galatians emphasizing that salvation is not of works but of faith and grace) become all the more intriguing.
Add to this the uncertainty of dating. The question arises whether James and Paul might have been writing in response, each to the teaching of the other. Placing James 2:18 and Ephesians 2:9 (admittedly written later but expressing the same perspective as Galatians) side by side, one wonders if perhaps either James or Paul had the other’s words in front of him at the time of his own writing.
How fascinating it is, then, in tracing Christianity’s development, that its first two written documents present such distinct emphases.
11. The New Kid on the Block Goes Ballistic—Christian “Doctrine” Begins
From Paul’s reaction to the events at Antioch, it is clear that he interpreted the visit from Jerusalem in a duplicitous sense. He does not see the debate over Gentile converts merely as a “difference” of opinion which the church has to resolve. He views it as a true question of right and wrong, and of duplicity and insincere motive. He speaks about those of the Judaizing point of view in a notably condemning tone. He calls those of the circumcision group “false brothers.” He says that “they infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ.” (NIV) These are not mere observations, they highly charged accusations.
Everything is not only cast in a critical light, the accusations of motive are personal. He does not merely indicate that mistakes have been made, he lumps everyone together as false and duplicitous. He publicly calls Peter and Barnabas, two of the most revered men in the church, “hypocrites.” Where is the decorum indicated by Jesus of going to a brother privately? Is Paul not aware of the Lord’s instructions?
Later Paul will write, “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Yet after a whole year or more, he is still angry over this incident and its repercussions. Many suns have gone down on his anger, and he is still upset. We cannot but wonder if a gentler hand, and a more sympathetic approach, and perhaps a greater level of respect for leaders that were still “above” him in many ways, might have been called for.
Because we are so accustomed One of Paul’s signature tunes throughout his letters is the regular contrast between the gospel he preaches and what he calls any other gospel. Most will recognize the terminology, which has slight variations in his letters. Sometimes the reference is to what others preach, or what was “received from me.” Most are familiar with the Cephas, Apollos, Paul passage of contrast in 1 Cor. 1:12.
A number of factors here are unsettling. For Paul the gospel is always personal. This may be good in one way. His own salvation was indeed personal. All salvation is personal. Paul knew beyond doubt that he was undeserving of God’s love, yet God reached down and revealed himself and instantly transformed Paul’s life. Paul never recovered from the enormity of this personal encounter with the God he had thought he knew, but now suddenly really knew.
When and why, in his mind, did Paul turn “the gospel of Christ” into “my gospel?” This transition in outlook took place somewhere. We must suppose the change occurred during Paul’s early Antioch years or on the first journey with Barnabas…but why? No one else uses such terminology. No one else calls the gospel my gospel.
When Mark opens his book, it is with the words. “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” When Jesus comes onto the scene, Mark describes it: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God…”
It is fairly clear whose good news it is. It is a gospel that belongs to no man.
How then does Paul come to think of it as his gospel? Obviously we know what he means—a gospel of freedom rather than adherence to former Jewish Law. Fair enough. But why cast it in I and me terms? One would think that “the gospel of Jesus Christ” would be a sacrosanct phrase (indeed, a truth) that Paul would be very reluctant to tamper with.
Yet we encounter this personalization of the gospel as Paul opens Galatians. Paul’s first mention of the gospel in verse 8 does in fact use we. But by verse 11, the signature tune that we will encounter over and over is in evidence: “the gospel I preached.” Later in Gal. 2:6, it is called “my message.”
If one had only Paul’s words to go on, the conclusion would seem to be that he was the first and only man to preach this form of the gospel as being free from the legalism of Jewish law. But Paul wasn’t the only one to preach it. He wasn’t even the first to advocate freedom from the law. He is one of thousands by this time preaching exactly the same thing. The two most notable, of course, are Peter and Barnabas. Barnabas had been leading the Antioch church for years, and headed up the journey to Asia Minor, enlisting Paul to help him preach the gospel.
How then did it become Paul’s own personal gospel? At what point, in Paul’s mind, was Barnabas removed from the ticket?
Had it not been for Barnabas, Paul would not even have had the opportunity to meet Peter when he first went to Jerusalem. Yet in referring to this time in his life in Gal. 1:8, Barnabas’ pivotal role is not mentioned. It seems that the history of events in Paul’s life is being given a revisionist twist.
Barnabas was the chief leader of the non-Jerusalem church for years. One would never guess it from reading Paul. His only mention of Barnabas in Galatians is as a hypocrite.
An even more serious difficulty exists here.
Not only does Paul draw the I/we vs. them contrast, in Galatians he also sets in motion a pattern of rebuking and condemning the them—anyone who preaches differently. This establishes very early what is a seriously destructive trend in the church.
Verse nine of chapter one is unbelievable. “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed.” The NIV has it, “let him be eternally condemned.”
Good heavens, what is Paul thinking?
He is talking about his Christian brothers, some of whom even among the Judaizers might well have walked personally with Jesus. True, there are differences of approach in how they see the details of the gospel. But…accursed and eternally condemned? What an awful judgment to pass on his fellow Christians.
Cast your thoughts back to Acts 11. Peter and those who disagreed with him (the circumcision group) handled their dispute amiably, with discussion and prayer and mutual brotherhood. There was an attempt by all sides to get to the truth that God intended, an open willingness to listen. And such men as these—who might still disagree and might still hold the Judaizing position—Paul says should be eternally condemned?
What an outrageous charge to make against the man who spent time with Jesus in an intimacy of relationship no one else on earth, perhaps with the exception of John, can imagine.
From speaking about his gospel, Paul then makes the leap to call his gospel “the truth,” (2:5, 14) implying that it is only he who can accurately represent truth. He accuses Peter and Barnabas and the others (Gal. 2:14) of not acting in accordance with “the truth of the gospel.”
The truth of the gospel according to whom?
Was Paul, possibly still an assistant in Antioch, suddenly the sole interpreter of what comprised “truth” in the entire Christian movement? It is very difficult to understand Paul’s motives here.
Where is the respect and reverence for his elders in the Lord? Here are the two men most responsible for bringing Paul into the inner circle of the church. They accepted him. Peter welcomed him (probably into his own home) to stay for two weeks. Barnabas was the one who went to Tarsus to invite Paul to join the work in Antioch.
I know what it is to have mentors whom I love and admire. I also know what it is to see my mentors stumble, to witness their humanity. I do not idolize my mentors, but I revere them and honor them. I would never dream of speaking against them no matter how serious might be their stumbling.
Paul owes everything to these two men. Where is the affection of gratitude and friendship? Where is the humility of respect and honor for their stature in the Lord?
Actually, we know the answers to those questions. Paul states it in Gal. 2:6—he says it “makes no difference to me.”
A message sent out to an impressionable church—what will be its impact?
As the letter to the Galatians is sent off, then, to become the first of many letters circulated among a young, impressionable, and immature church, purportedly from an “apostle,” purporting not merely to be the perspective of one Christian teacher but to be the truth and the gospel and the only true gospel, from a man who stands alone even above all the other apostles even above Peter (the Rock upon whom the church was to be built) in being able to represent that truth truly…the enormous question we are faced with is:
What signal did this letter and Paul’s example send to the rest of the church…and to posterity?
What was the permanent impact, not only of Paul’s message but perhaps more importantly of his method, on the church as it will grow and expand and develop through history?
— A Window into Reading the Bible for the Big Picture —
Do Haloes Clarify or Obscure Truth?
Because we are so accustomed to Paul’s occasional passion—even when it leads him into negativity, criticism, and defensiveness—and to the stature of his writings as they were elevated later in history to the level of scriptural infallibility, many troublesome between-the-lines themes tend to escape us in the Galatians story. Every book, every commentary on the subject presupposes an underlying foundation of Pauline infallibility. Whatever Paul says is the accurate perspective. Paul’s attitudes, words, and perceptions are never called into question. If Paul says that Peter was behaving hypocritically, then it is a priori assumed that Peter was behaving hypocritically…without further investigation or question.
Are these assumptions healthy? Do they lead to truth? What if there is more to the story?
As much as I admire his insights into Scripture, biblical scholar Donald Guthrie succumbs to this tendency by using phrases like “a glaring case of inconsistency” and “Peter’s changeable nature” and “the difficulty of Peter’s culpable inconsistency.” (New Testament Introduction, p. 461) He assumes that Paul’s responses are accurate and infallible, and then tries to work out an interpretation of Galatians that adequately explains them.
Victor Paul Furnish, in The Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary on the Bible, notes:
It would be wrong to overemphasize the belligerent aspects of this letter. Its power derives primarily from the magnitude of the themes discussed and the vividness with which the crucial points of Paul’s preaching are expressed. Its chief importance is theological, not only because it became the scriptural anvil on which the key emphases of Protestantism were hammered out—the “Magna Charta of the Reformation”—but also because it affords an intimate and candid view of Paul’s own theological concerns, presuppositions, and methods. (The Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary on the Bible, p. 824)
This same excusing tone characterizes nearly every commentary on Galatians.
Removing the halo
Truth is not injured by the attempt to see all sides of difficult and controversial issues. Indeed, placing the glow of a halo onto the men and women of the Bible actually impedes our ability to perceive truth accurately.
Only one perfect Man ever walked through the pages of Scripture and across the pages of history. That man was Jesus himself. For the rest, God has worked his will through flawed and imperfect men and women. We do no one any favors, and we do the truth no favor, by glossing over the human incongruities of those through history who, in spite of their inconsistencies, have made the gospel alive in midst of the stresses of imperfect humanity.
I honor Paul. I love his writings! I cannot wait to meet him. But he was not infallible. His writings are not infallible. His theology is not infallible. He possessed very human motives and emotions that got in his way and caused him to make some very serious mistakes in the carrying out of his call that did not reflect God’s purpose.
So let us remove Paul’s halo, and look at the so-called apostolic foundations of his letter to the Galatians as an unbiased and thorough historian would examine them.
The necessity of an author to establish authority
It was common practice in ancient times, in the “Prologue” to any piece of writing, to establish the authority of the writing to come. It was this need that prompted the practice of using the name of famous men rather than the actual author himself—to lend a higher degree of credibility to a work.
We will see this when we come to the gospels. Each of the four Gospel writers begins by giving their accounts authoritative roots.
Matthew links Jesus immediately to the authority and historicity of David and Abraham, then traces his genealogy in order to establish the fact-ness of his lineage. Authority.
Mark links Jesus to the prophecies of Isaiah, the most well known of Israel’s major prophets. Authority.
Luke begins by establishing his own authority as a historian, then links what follows to known Roman history, ending also with a powerfully worded genealogy that goes straight back to God himself. “Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, the son of…the son of…the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.” Wow…authority!
But John outdoes them all in establishing Jesus’ ultimate authority. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.”
The gospel writers do not simply say that a man called Jesus happened to be born, they establish the authority of his birth, of his lineage, of his eternal connection to God and creation, and then as it progresses, the authority of his message. Mark 1:22 punctuates the entire opening phase of Jesus’ ministry with, “And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority.”
The basis for Paul’s authority—Jesus himself
Likewise, then, as Paul embarks on an attempt to speak to the Galatians on a matter, as he sees it, in which the entire veracity of the Gospel is at stake, he has to establish his credibility, his authority to speak…and to speak with authority. This would be all the more important if his standing in the church had been criticized, as, given his past, it surely must have been.
Though he was still not at the top rank of leadership in the church, it is clear that from the moment Paul emerged on the scene, he spoke out boldly. He shook things up. He was “no respecter of persons.” He was a firebrand as a Christian just as he had been as a Pharisee. Not only was he a firebrand, he was ambitious as a Pharisee. Why would he not likewise be ambitious as a Christian?
Obviously, what greater authority could Paul call upon than the unassailable argument that Jesus himself had given him the authority to speak? No one could argue with him then.
12. Paul’s Problem…Authority—Solution…Apostleship
One of the most intriguing questions of all time, certainly the most intriguing question of the New Testament is, “What did Jesus know, and when did he know it?” In other words, when did he know that he was the Son of God, the Messiah and the Savior of mankind? The Lord’s was an increasingly revealed Sonship. He did not step on the earth as a fully formed “Son of God.” He was born as a baby, and had to grow into that realization progressively as he “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.”
This is the New Covenantal equivalent to the brain-warping yet magnificent and awe-inspiring conundrum of the Old: How could God have always existed?
When did Paul begin thinking of himself as an Apostle?
When we analyze the life of Paul, we face a similar question: What did he know, and when did he know it?
When did Paul come to the conviction that he was an “apostle”?
What put the idea in his head in the first place? He implies that the commission came from Jesus. When we read the account of his salvationary vision, however, in both Acts 9 and 22 there is nothing to indicate such an apostolic aspect to the vision.
Barnabas did not call himself an apostle. James did not call himself an apostle, though others may have considered him to be. Many men were older in the faith than Paul. What put the idea into Paul’s head that he should be an apostle?
Paul is the only man in New Testament to give himself the title. That he says it came not from men is not so confirming a stamp of authority as it may seem. Matthias’s apostleship came through men. He did not seek it, nor claim it. He allowed God to work through the men above him. James and Barnabas might certainly have laid claim on far more grounds than Paul, yet neither did. In all other cases, the title of apostle is conferred by others.
Only Paul appoints himself.
One cannot but wonder if the idea came to him either as a result of the Antioch incident, or shortly thereafter as he set out to write his letter to the Galatians. If it indeed came on the Damascus Road, why does Luke not mention it? Why does Paul wait until now to make it known?
The intent here is not to discredit Paul’s claim, but to look at his life with an openness and honesty that helps us get to know the real Paul, rather than the mirage of infallibility that church history has built up around him.
Paul opens his letter to the Galatians with the greeting, some form of which would thereafter be standard for most of the New Testament epistles: “Paul an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead…”
To what did James point for the authority to begin his letter? Here indeed is the authority of Jesus! Not only do we see a different emphasis in the two books on the issue of deeds and grace, but also in the way the two men present themselves.
Paul, an apostle…James, a servant.
13. Paul—the Original Revisionist?
If we intend to come to the New Testament documents as honest, objective, intelligent readers, scholars, or historians, we can’t play games with what we find in those documents. Paul presents us with many serious difficulties.
There will be those who will already be upset by the questions raised about the man whom many refer to as Saint Paul. There are those who read the Bible with all haloes firmly in place, pretending the biblical characters were something they weren’t.
That’s fine, if people want to read the Bible that way. But it’s no way to get at its deepest truths. The people in the Bible, including those who wrote its documents, didn’t wear haloes. They were real people and they made real mistakes. That we call the Bible “God’s Word” and consider it inspired and base what we call truth upon it doesn’t mean we can play games with the reality of its historicity and its people.
Reading these documents through a glow of spiritual unreality won’t yield full understanding. We are trying to get to the reality of Christianity’s origins, not an imaginary picture painted in shades of sentimentality that raises no discomforting questions…but that never happened.
No games. Real people.
How did other church leaders view Paul?
It becomes important, then, to ask how Paul was viewed and received by his contemporaries. He was obviously “accepted” by the other church leaders at the time. But was he elevated to the stature of an apostle in their eyes? This is the pivotal question. Did Paul truly function as one of the recognized “apostles” throughout the early church…or only in his own mind?
Was his apostleship universally recognized?
The answer is no.
Up to this point in the pages of Scripture—except for Luke (whose perspectives came from Paul himself and are therefore not entirely neutral)—no one else calls Paul an apostle. In Acts 15, when Paul came to the Jerusalem conference, there is no indication that he was thought of with such stature. When Paul was calling himself an apostle, none of the other Christian leaders did so. Acts 15:2 is clear: Paul and Barnabas were sent to Jerusalem to meet with “the apostles.” They were not the apostles…they were sent to meet with the apostles.
In writing of it in Gal. 2:7-9, Paul puts words into James’ and Peter’s mouths that close examination reveals as inaccurate. Compare the Galatians account with the Acts account. A strikingly divergent picture emerges. Read Peter’s words of Acts 15:7 and James words of Acts 15:14.
In both cases, it is Peter who is recognized as first taking the gospel to the Gentiles.
Do we read hypocrisy in the words of either James or Peter? Do we read an unwillingness to embrace Gentiles free from the Law? Do we read anything that would validate Paul’s scathing characterization of Peter and Barnabas, and, by implication, James as well?
Not a word. We get a completely different picture from Acts 15 than Paul gives us in Galatians.
Paul’s revisionist spin on events
Yet it is the Pauline perspective that the church has generally accepted as accurate, all but ignoring the very different perspective of Acts. This might be understandable if it were a matter of having to adhere to the doctrine of scriptural infallibility, and thus accept Paul’s perceptions of Galatians as flawlessly and objectively perfect. But in taking such a view, the infallibility of the Acts perspective falls apart.
We can’t have it both ways. It is not that there exist obvious and glaringly contradictory factual “details.” It is the overall perspective and tone that is inconsistent.
(In trying to answer this question we encounter the dating discrepancies noted earlier. It is not known how many trips Paul made to Jerusalem, and exactly when the various discussions took place. According to Paul there were two meetings with Peter and James, according to Acts only one. This difficulty provides a loophole for those desiring to argue that both Galatians and Acts are infallibly accurate. But in looking for overall tone and perspective, the sequence hardly matters. In Acts 15 Peter summarizes his ministry from the beginning, a ministry that inaugurated the church’s Gentile mission. It is clearly a different representation than Paul gives it…whatever the order of events.)
Because of the extremely powerful influence the letter of Galatians has had in the church’s history, this inconsistency lying at its root deserves our close attention. What, therefore, are the two conflicting images of the Judaizing controversy and its resolution that are conveyed by Galatians and Acts?
The Galatians view: The picture that emerges from Paul’s words is that Peter, James, and Barnabas were essentially hypocritical in their stance…wavering, indecisive, fearful of the Judaizers, unwilling to stand up for truth. After Paul presented his case in Jerusalem, James and Peter saw that he was right, changed their views, and appointed him as apostle to the Gentiles in the same way that Peter was apostle to the Jews. Paul is the prime mover in the whole thing.
The Acts view: In Acts an entirely different picture emerges. Here it is Peter who is the prime mover in the Gentile mission, and who repeatedly and steadfastly speaks on behalf of it—without wavering, and without fear of opposition. Their commission to Paul and Barnabas was merely a continuation and expansion of the earlier decision of Acts 11:18—a decision led by Peter and prompted by the Lord’s vision to Peter, before Paul was even part of the discussions.
Nor must the salient point escape us that in Galatians we are reading Paul’s very emotional outburst. In Acts, however, we are reading an objective third-party account, written later, researched and presented without emotion by the preeminent New Testament historian Luke. If the bias of personal overreaction exists anywhere in the two perspectives, obviously it is going to be found in Galatians. If I were a betting man, I would put my money on the majority opinion as represented in Acts 15 by Luke, Peter, and James.
It is not merely Paul’s spin on the Judaizing question that is troubling, so too is his reconstruction of the events leading to his apostleship. According to Paul, Peter and James appointed him, as a completely new thing, to preach to the Gentiles in a way that had never been done before. Paul thus implies that Peter and James added their commission to the Lord’s. He relies heavily on this implication in Galatians, saying that they gave him a particular role in the church’s mission unique among all its leaders.
But did Peter and James really give Paul this commission?
The only answer we can derive from the actual account of Acts is no.
By spinning events in the way he does, Paul turns Peter into the “apostle to the circumcised” when no facts support such a label. Indeed, this implication directly contradicts the force of the Lord’s vision to Peter of Acts 11. Peter preached to Gentiles all his life. His earthly ministry ended in Gentile Rome just like Paul’s. Paul’s label upon Peter in Gal. 2:7 is invented for his own convenience. He writes, “They saw that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been to the Jews.” He exaggerates in both directions. Ignoring the vision to Peter, he diminishes Peter’s role from what we know actually took place. At the same time, he elevates his own role and turns it into an apostolic commission. And what about Barnabas? He is left off the ticket completely.
Again we observe the emphasis on Paul’s “I.” To Paul it is invariably “my message.” (Gal. 2:6). Paul is not even satisfied to become the thirteenth apostle, he sets himself alongside Peter as one of the two chief apostles to the world.
We spoke before of revisionism. It would seem that Paul was the first Christian revisionist. This whole series of events is cast such as to imply that the other leaders not only endorsed his claim but suggested it.
— A Window into Reading the Bible for the Big Picture —
The Ageless Christian Conundrum—Message vs. Example
An interesting tendency is universal in human interpretative memory. It is the “fish story” syndrome—facts and images tend to enlarge with the passage of time.
It was this tendency that caused the Jewish Talmud to gradually take on the luster and authority of Scripture itself. After centuries, the interpretation became equal in stature to the original account.
Knowing Paul’s tendency toward résumé enhancement, it is interesting to note that the accounts of his conversion grow in the telling. Compare Acts 22 and 26. In the latter Paul becomes eloquent and the account of his conversion expands, with Jesus giving him a commission to preach to the Gentiles in words we have never heard before. One who begins from a foundation of Paul’s infallibility reads this and automatically assumes total reliability. But the unbiased historian would at this point ask some pointed questions about why Paul is suddenly adding to the story what wasn’t there when Luke first told it.
Most biblical commentators do not ask such probing questions. If you read the footnotes in your Bibles you will see clearly a undercurrent of saintly Pauline perfection. The first footnote to Galatians in the Harper Study Bible reads: “His indignation is vividly stated…upon those who pervert the gospel…Paul’s emotion is caused by his conviction that his readers were running the risk of deserting the gospel…”
The commentator has made exactly the switch Paul wants his readers to make—Paul’s gospel has become the gospel. (The underlinings are mine, to emphasize this point.)
The first note to Galatians in the NIV Study Bible reads, “…because Paul had seen the risen Christ he was qualified to be an apostle.”
Again the commentator has made the switch—accepting Paul’s words about the qualification of an apostle, while ignoring altogether the qualification of Acts 1:21-22. Nor are the other 500 eyewitnesses mentioned as being equally qualified.
Pauline infallibility always carries the day.
Did Paul read Antioch correctly?
As fascinating as is the discrepancy between the different accounts in Acts and Galatians, the clear impression from Acts 15 is that Peter and James and most of the other church leaders were entirely supportive of the move to embrace Gentiles fully into the Christian movement without legalistic conditions.
Paul’s reaction therefore is all the more difficult to understand. Peter was never an outspoken Judaizer.
The looming question is therefore: Were Paul’s responses at Antioch accurate?
The possibility exists that they were. It is certainly possible that Peter and Barnabas lapsed in judgment. We just don’t know the details. Given the fact that both Barnabas and Peter were known not to be of the circumcision group, however, and that they freely ate with Gentiles, one cannot but wonder if they began eating with those who arrived from Jerusalem simply because many of these new arrivals were friends. Barnabas had been in Antioch for years. He may not have seen some of these people for a long time. Perhaps they brought news of his family. Perhaps even some relatives were among them. What would be more natural than to share meals to renew old friendships?
It seems possible if not probable that Paul read into the situation far more than was there.
And Paul’s charge that Peter and Barnabas were afraid?
This strains credibility in the extreme. If Barnabas wasn’t afraid to take Paul’s side in Acts 9:27, and was not afraid to face a stoning during their travels on Lystra…would he be afraid over a matter of mere doctrine?
Think of it—Barnabas had faced a stoning for the sake of the gospel! And now Paul accuses him of being afraid to eat lunch with Gentiles?
Somehow I don’t think so.
If Peter wasn’t afraid of prison early in Acts, nor afraid of the circumcision group in Acts 11, and in Acts 15 stands up against any circumcision requirement…would he be afraid here?
When in his life, except on the night of Jesus’ arrest, was Peter afraid of anything!
Where do we find a hint of Peter “forcing Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?” (Gal. 2:14, NIV)
The widespread influence of example
We observe throughout Paul’s life and writings a difficulty that is even more undermining to his message than his theological arrogance—the disparity of his own example alongside the standards he writes about.
None of us thoroughly practice what we preach. We are all hypocrites. I am, and I hate to break it to you…but so are you. It is part of the human condition, and an intrinsic component of the Christian message.
But Paul so sweepingly condemns all opposition to himself personally and to his ideas that it is impossible not to notice this disparity.
Had Paul not written Galatians, would we even know about the Judaizing dispute? It was handled. The church grew and matured. It almost seems that Paul wanted to make more of the disagreement than circumstances justified in order to present himself as “apostle to the Gentiles.”
Despite all these factors casting a shadow on the origins of his apostleship, however, Paul continued to refer to himself as an apostle. He wrote more and more letters…he continued to travel extensively throughout the Mediterranean…and therefore he has come down to us through history as The Apostle Paul.
After this lengthy introduction lasting several chapters, Paul’s letter to the Galatians comes to us with much to ponder. With all it has given us (Gal. 5:22 represents one of the seminal mountain peaks of the New Testament!) one wonders whether the church would eventually have had the wisdom through the years to discover the proper balance between faith and works, between grace and lawful obedience, without the contentious dispute, without the anger, without the public rebuke of a respected leader and the Lord’s closest earthly friend.
Paul is one of us. He is a human being. No one is going to fault him for that.
But the halo biblical scholars have placed on his head through the centuries gets in the way of the accurate historical context of this important book, and obscures a true image of the man behind so much of first century Christian thought.
Might we have been better off had Paul let his first draft sit a few days, and then, upon review, begun a revised edition of his letter beginning with Gal. 2:15? It is in those latter portions where Paul’s eloquence and wisdom rise to such heights of inspiration, and give us each much meaty food for prayerful consideration in our own lives.
January 23: Galatians 1-2
January 24: Galatians 3-4
January 25: Galatians 4-5