Thursday, January 17, 2008

Paul’s Letter to the Jesus Communities in Galatia

To orient us to the material in Galatians, it will be helpful to briefly explore the who, when, where, why and what of this letter. Of course, most of the “what” will be explored as we read the letter itself.

Who? Paul. There is virtually no debate about the authenticity of this letter as belonging to Paul. Some of the other letters attributed to Paul have been questioned. Of course, that matters most for those trying to reconstruct Paul’s thought. It matters a bit less to those of us trying to read the New Testament as Christian Scripture. In that case, whether or not Paul wrote a letter, we need to deal with it. When Paul wrote this letter is wrapped up in the question of where he may have been sending it.

Where and to Whom? There are two prominent theories about where this letter was being sent and to whom. The letter was written to the churches of Galatia, but Galatia can either refer to the Roman province of Galatia, which would have included cities Paul and Barnabas visited on Paul’s first missionary journey, or to the territory of Galatia in the North of Asia Minor populated by ethnic Galatians – related to the Gauls of France. Paul passed through this region later in his ministry. Because the letter seems better understood as addressing issues for Gentile Christians only, not Jewish Christians, and the churches in southern Galatia would have included Jewish Christians, it seems the majority opinion among scholars that the letter was written for churches in the territory of Galatia, in the northern part of the Roman province of Galatia. This theory then dates the letter later in Paul’s life and ministry, around 55 CE. This would be about the time he was writing Romans and some of his Corinthian correspondence.

Why and What? Here I would like to offer the words of some different writers that give us a flavor of this letter’s purpose and content.

The letter is Paul’s response to a crisis occasioned by people who came to Galatia after his departure. Although he never identifies them, they were probably Jewish Christians who deeply revered the Mosaic Law. They believed in Jesus as the Messiah and were prepared to welcome Gentiles into the commonwealth of Israel, provided they were circumcised and observed the prescriptions of the Mosaic Law. Although their reasoning seems strange to contemporary believers, it had a compelling logic…. Paul viewed the preaching of those who came to Galatia after him as a perversion of the gospel. (New Interpreters Study Bible)

This letter contains some of the most sublime statements of the meaning of Christian faith and life found in the New Testament, as well as some of the most angry and bitter denunciation…. Like all New Testament letters, it is not a timeless tract or essay, but a real letter addressed to a particular situation, to a church threatened by issues such as the role that circumcision and food laws play in making one acceptable to God…. After Paul left for other mission work, Jewish Christian missionaries arrived who taught the new converts that Paul’s version of the Christian faith was incomplete, that in order to be authentic members of the people of God they must be circumcised…. [These teachers] considered Paul and inadequate apostle, misleading his converts by relaxing the requirements for belonging to the people of God. Paul considers the message of the Jewish Christian evangelists in Galatia to be not merely a variation of the one gospel, which he would have celebrated and affirmed, but a substitute gospel, a false gospel, a perversion of the true gospel. (People’s New Testament Commentary)

There is not doubt about the troubles prompting Paul to write his most polemical letter. It is the conflict between the circumcised and uncircumcised Brothers, and it leads Paul to his most vitriolic comments, not only about the present conflict, but about Peter and James in his earlier clash with them at Antioch…. Paul later indicates that he came to regret the bitterness expressed here. He certainly did not follow his own counsel to others, that they correct each other with kindness…. Of course, we do not have the other side, which may have been just as intemperate. He could be trading taunt for taunt, fighting fire with fire…. He is wounded and he means to wound others. (Gary Wills, What Paul Meant)

John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed, in In Search of Paul, believe that Paul is engaged here in religious polemics, and think it important to understand this style of writing and rhetoric. The purpose of polemics is not to conduct a fair, accurate, and objective debate, but to demolish opponents by impugning their motives, ridiculing their arguments, and caricaturing their views…. The idea that one should be fair to one’s opponents was not widespread in antiquity…. Furthermore, Paul’s opponents do not get to answer back (probably with equal polemics) in his letters. We only hear Paul’s arguments and, unanswered, he always wins. Finally, we have therefore to imagine what opponents would have responded and whether the letter’s recipients would have been persuaded by Paul or by his adversaries. Above all else, we have to decide in any given case what exactly was at stake for each side and whether there might have been a better alternative to either position. (214)

Paul’s letter to the Galatians is at once apologetic and polemical with a tone both bitterly reproaching and emotionally pleading…As far as we can understand the situation from Paul’s response to it, opponents had told his Galatian converts that his gospel was all wrong, that their males must still be circumcised, that Paul was nothing but a subordinate missionary (not even an apostle), and that, moreover, he was living and teaching in disagreement with his superiors at Jerusalem and Antioch. (214)

From Eugene Peterson’s “Introduction” to Galatians in The Message: When men and women get their hands on religion, one of the first things they often do is find a way to use it to control others, either by putting or keeping them “in their place.” People have been using religion this way for centuries. No wonder people who have only known religion as something to be used against them suddenly experience freedom and release when they come face to face with a religion that is for them. That new freedom is exciting and life-producing. It is also, it turns out, very short-lived…. [Paul] founded a series of churches in the Roman province of Galatia. A few years later, Paul learned that religious leaders who saw religion as a way to control people had worked their way into those churches. Those religious leaders had called Paul’s views into question, challenging his authority and trying to herd all the freedom-loving Christians back into the corral of religious rules and regulations. Paul was, of course, furious. He was furious with these religious leaders who were so anxious to control and talk these new Christians into giving up their free life in Jesus. But he was also furious with the Christians for allowing themselves to be talked into it.

Some of this makes the letter sound like part of a first-century Crossfire. It lends some suspense as we prepare to read, doesn’t it?

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