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Christians Against Christians: Already In the New Testament

I’ve long been intrigued by the fact — I think it’s a fact — that the people we get in the BIGGEST fights with are those closest to us: spouses, siblings, parents, good friends.  Sometimes we fight with others, of course.  But it’s those closest to us that really seem to annoy us.  Which of us has not had situations get completely out of hand?

That has made some people wonder about the New Testament.  For example, Jesus’ main opponents during his ministry are with the Pharisees.  Is that because he was particularly close with them in some way?

Five years ago today (I checked) I posted on an interesting parallel situation from the life of Paul.  As you know, Paul can be a bit, uh, vitriolic at times.  And never more than in the letter to the Galatians, written to a group of churches with which he was really peeved.  This is one fierce letter (many people don’t see that because they simply aren’t expecting it; the fierceness is even more pronounced when you read it in the original).

Paul had fierce enemies there.  They didn’t like each other and thought the views of the other were, literally, damnable.  We know Paul’s view of the situation.  But we wish we had the *enemies’* view.  Would they have anything to say for themselves?   Of course.  But what?  That’s what I posted about.  Here ’tis.

*******************************************************************************

Among the lost writings of early Christianity, one batch that I would especially like to see discovered would be those produced by Paul’s enemies among the Christians.   I don’t know how many of his opponents were writing-literate, but possibly some of them were, and their own attacks on him and defenses of their own positions would be fascinating and eye-opening.   Among these, I would especially love to see what his opponents in Galatia had to say for themselves.   My hunch is that they were every bit as aggressive and confident in their views as Paul was in his.

I’ve always found the letter to the Galatians to be one of the most forceful, intriguing, and difficult letters of Paul.   I’ve studied it for over forty years, and there are still verses that I don’t understand.  My view is that most scholars don’t understand them either — even the scholars who think they do!   It is a packed and theologically dense letter in places.

But the basic point is clear.   A person is made right with God by faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus, not by observing the Jewish law.  Gentiles who believe in Jesus must not think that they have to follow the law in order to be fully justified before God.   Anyone who thinks so – who, for example, decides that he needs to be circumcised – has completely (not just kind-a) misunderstood the gospel and is in danger of losing his salvation.

Paul’s opponents among the Galatians think just the opposite.

As with all of Paul’s letters, the only way to make sense of Galatians is…

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    clerrance2005  March 25, 2020

    Secondly, what is your thought on the book of James in relation to that of Galatians. It seems to me that the writer of James brings out the other viewpoint, that is an argument in favor of the Law.

    My question is this – don’t you see the writing of James as what the opponents of Paul held?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 26, 2020

      I see James as reacting to a later interpretation of Paul, which insisted that, at the end of the day, it didn’t matter how you lived. Paul would never ever have said that.

  2. Avatar
    schreiberbrett  March 25, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman, is reading Galatians 5:12 as “cut off socially” too assuming? I looked up Strong’s 609, and it is only used in a physical sense. On the other hand, it seems surprisingly rude. Are there any other rude statements that support a reading of “white hot anger” from Paul?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 26, 2020

      You’ll need to quote the verse and then ask your question so other blog members will know what you’re referring to. It’s a priceless verse!

  3. Avatar
    Hormiga  March 26, 2020

    >other Christian missionaries arrived who preached a different gospel from Paul’s

    Any indications (or guesses) as to who those guys were and where they came from? Presumably they were “Jewish Christians” from Palestine, but are there any traces of contemporaneous (40s-50s?) teachings like theirs in other sources?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 27, 2020

      Actually, the most interesting thing is that they appear to be NON-JEWS! Reason: in 5:12 Paul says that he hopes when they themselves get circumcised, the knife will slip! And so these are apparently gentiles, who converted to follow Jesus, who became convinced that to do so they had to be Jewish, and now are on a huge mission to inform others to, with the kind of missionary zeal you see even in groups today such as Jews for Jesus, who are almost entirely non-Jewish by birth, background, and upbringing.

  4. Avatar
    clerrance2005  March 26, 2020

    Prof Ehrmann,
    Please who in your opinion wrote the Gospels (were they Greeks/ Jews) and will your answer be the popular opinion amongst scholars?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 27, 2020

      My view is that Mark, Luke, and John were gentiles. Matthew — I can’t tell. Most scholars agree about Luke. The majority probably think Mark and John were Jews. I don’t. Mark makes mistakes about what Judaism teaches (e.g. that all Jews wash their hands before meals); and John has Jesus speak to Jews and say “your” law, as if it wasn’t his, something hard to imagine a Jewish Christian writing. So yes, there are debates….

      • Avatar
        clerrance2005  March 28, 2020

        Will the language in which the NT was written in also be a strong arguement (external evidence) for why the gospels may be attributed to Greek (Gentile) authors; bearing in mind that Greek was the linguafranca in the then Roman world.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 29, 2020

          They certainly are written by Greek speaking authors; but that in itself doesn’t indicate they were gentile. It’s more like saying a book is written in English — doesn’t tell you if the author was one religion or another.

  5. Avatar
    4Erudite  March 27, 2020

    I know there is no way of really knowing, but if Paul had never appeared on the scene (educated guess) how do you think the Christian movement would have progressed/developed/evolved? I know the immediate chosen disciple apostles of Jesus spread out across various lands, but were any of them known to have been anywhere near as successful as Paul? Without Paul do you think Christianity would have evolved to be anything near what it is today….of course it would be different because it would have been different, but was there strong Jewish law compliance influence in the teaching/preaching of Jesus chosen disciple apostles?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2020

      I’d say it’s impossible to know. But if his *insight* had never come on the scene, that Gentiles can be followers of Jesus without becoming Jewish, the religion would never had taken off, but would have almost certainly remained a small sect within Judaism. And I suppose we’d all still be pagan….

  6. Avatar
    kevinpe5  March 28, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Thank you for this article. I find it interesting that many scholars will admit that the Early Church Fathers had many disagreements among themselves, but the NT records also record many disagreements that were already taking place among believers in theology. I believe Philippians is the only NT epistle attributed to Paul where there isn’t some sort of disagreement taking place, and even then you see a fight between Euodia and Syntyche (Phil. 4:2-3).

    As you pointed out, with all of the disagreements in the NT, we are often left with only one-sided arguments.

    It is interesting how many Christians want to point to a time of uniformity. However, would I be correct in saying that there was never a time of universal uniformity in theology and doctrine?

    Thanks,

    Kevin

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2020

      Oh boy would you be right! From our very earliest records: MAJOR disagreements….

      • Avatar
        kevinpe5  March 29, 2020

        Dr. Ehrman,

        On what basis do some Christians romanticize a time when early Christians were united in their beliefs? Just selective and limited quotations that are piecemealed together?

        By the way, I am thankful I came across your blog. I have several of your books. I am a Christian and you are my favorite historian because of your honesty and non-biased approach. If you ever want another review from a Christian, let me know. I’d be happy to provide you one.

        Your research is invaluable to non-Christians and Christians alike!

        • Bart
          Bart  March 30, 2020

          The earliest account with that motif happens to be in the Bible — the Book of Acts! Since then it’s been the standard line in traditional Christain thining, spread most widely, later, by the “father of church history,” Eusebius.

  7. Avatar
    dankoh  March 29, 2020

    I’ve seen a lot of arguments for theological reasons behind Paul’s rejection of circumcision (Paula Fredriksen in particular), many of which make sense to me. But I also think Paul had a practical reason: The circumcision requirement (and to a lesser, the food and Sabbath laws) were making it harder to attract converts. These 3 laws in particular were the subject of much mockery by the Romans, not to mention that circumcision hurts! I find this fits in with Paul’s pragmatic approach, as seen his allowing people to marry even though there would be no marriages in heaven.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 30, 2020

      Yup, that’s the traditional line. Ain’t gonna get a lot of pagans to join your movement if they’ve gotta do *THAT*….

  8. Avatar
    scandler7  March 30, 2020

    Do you consider the fig tree in MT 21.19 an actual fig tree? Or do you consider it symbolic of Israel, and thus Jesus’ affirmation of everything Paul is saying in GAL 5.4?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 30, 2020

      I’m not sure what you’re asking. Are you asking if I think Jesus really withered a real fig tree? No. Or that Matthew imagined he did? Yes. Or that Matthew meant something symbolic about it? Yes. he could think it happened *and* think it was symbolic.

  9. Avatar
    scandler7  March 31, 2020

    Thank you.

  10. Avatar
    sjhicks21  April 10, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman, I really appreciate the exchange between you and RichardFellows. It points out how these debates go. After reading both of your responses and reviewing the referenced Biblical Passages, I am persuaded that RichardFellows raises some challenging points, but in the end they seem unpersuasive. His argument seems to depend on 2 very big assumptions: One that James & the other Pillars in Acts actually cared strongly about not requiring circumcision among the Gentiles and two that the Galatians actually believed that Paul secretly supported Circumcision. Both of these assertions seem dubious based on the Biblical Record. Looking at Acts 15 it appears that James and the pillars were only persuaded to relax the requirement for circumcision among the gentiles after Paul convinced Peter to make a speech about it and then James is able to reference an obscure biblical quote in Isiah that could be interpreted to imply that gentiles “should not be troubled” presumably about circumcision once they were included in God’s plans. It is Paul that seems to be driving things here. Also, a perfectly reasonable explanation for Timothy/Titus circumcision is that Paul wanted Timothy to show his preference for his mother’s religion when speaking to other Jews. This certainly does not point to an indication that Paul in any way thought that gentiles needed to be circumcised. As 1 Corinthians 9:20 shows, he understood the need to be Jewish when speaking to Jews and Gentile-like when speaking to Gentiles. Secondly, his reference to not trying to please men in Galatians 1:10 seems more reasonably attributed to the idea that he is not subverting the Christian message in order to be able to convert Gentiles. There is no explicit mention in Galatians about what they might be suspecting about his true beliefs. Thus the ideas that they suspect him of hypocrisy is sheer speculation based on a theory of why he is angry contrary to his stated reason for his anger in Galatians 1:12. It seems to me that the speculation about the thinking (secret support of circumcision) of the Galatians which we have no direct evidence for and the speculation about Paul’s sycophantic attitude towards James and the Pillars, is unsupported by the evidence we do have. Thus it seems to me that the common sense/traditional meaning of Galatians makes much more sense.

    • Avatar
      RichardFellows  April 12, 2020

      Thanks, Robert, and sjhicks21, for your comments. As you know, I am proposing that the Galatians were thinking that Paul believed in circumcision but hid the fact from them because he wanted to please the Jerusalem apostles. You will need to read my paper in Biblica (2018) before you can make an assessment. The hypothesis does not require that the pillars supported Gentile liberty before Paul or more than Paul. The hypothesis is about what the Galatians believed at the time when Paul wrote. It requires two things:

      1) The the Galatians believed that the pillars opposed circumcision for them at the time of writing. Acts 16:4 says that Paul delivered the decisions of the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem, and this would have convinced them that the pillars supported Gentile liberty.

      2) The Galatians believed that Paul believed in circumcision, at the time of writing. Gal 5:11 virtually says as much. Paul’s circumcision of Timothy was susceptible to such a misunderstanding. Chrysostom is helpful:
      “The blessed Paul himself, who meant to abrogate circumcision, when he was about to send Timothy to teach the Jews, first circumcised him and so sent him. This he did, that his hearers might the more readily receive him; he began by circumcising, that in the end he might abolish it. But this reason he imparted to Timothy only, and told it not to the disciples. Had they known that the very purpose of his circumcision was the abolition of the rite, they would never have listened to his preaching, and the whole benefit would have been lost. But now their ignorance was of the greatest use to them, for their idea that his conduct proceeded from a regard to the Law, led them to receive both him and his doctrine with kindness and courtesy, and having gradually received him, and become instructed, they abandoned their old customs.”

      Acts 15:24 says that the agitators, or people like them, had claimed that the apostles were on their side, so it would not be surprising if they said the same thing about Paul. It cannot be argued that the Galatians or the agitators would have taken Timothy to be a Jew by birth. The son of a Gentile man was a Gentile in the first century.

      To save Bart some time, we could move the conversation to my blog, here:
      http://paulandco-workers.blogspot.com/2019/02/the-background-to-galatians.html

      In response to Manuel, Paul does not say who won his argument with Peter, because it was irrelevant.

  11. Avatar
    ManuelNaujoks  April 11, 2020

    In his letter to the Galatians Paul describes his conflict with Peter about what the right way is.
    Who do you think won the dispute, Paul or Peter, and why do you think that?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 12, 2020

      It is usually thought that if Paul had scored a victory, he would have reminded his readers of that. Since he doesn’t mention the outcome, it probably means that in public opinion at the time he lost.

      • Avatar
        sjhicks21  April 14, 2020

        Professor Ehrman, doesn’t the fact that the 4th and 5th century Orthodox view of Christianity seems to have agreed with Paul about circumcision mean that he won the argument? Or is the Catholic Churches’ more complicated view (more complicated than modern evangelicals and Martin Luther) of the role of faith and works in salvation the reason you say he lost. Or are these later positions, that did not reflect the stance of the church of the New Testament Writers, near the end of the 1st century AD?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 14, 2020

          OH yes, he definitely won the argument in the long run! Way before the 4th century — by the end of the first! But it does not appear that he won it among the Galatians that day.

          • Avatar
            sjhicks21  April 15, 2020

            Interesting. The more I read your blog, your books and other books – Of late I have been reading Volumes I & II of John Meier’s Book – Jesus a Marginal Jew – the more complex this whole thing becomes. I feel I am getting a much better picture of what happened, but I am also more aware of how hard it is to fill in the details. I thought I knew why my unbelief made sense,and previously I thought that Meier was giving in too much to the conservative view point. For instance, I think he still thinks there was an empty tomb. But now it appears to me that the much more nuanced look he takes on who Jesus was is probably in the right direction and it still allows plenty of room for non-belief. In fact after reading him with a better understanding, I don’t see how one can still believe. He doesn’t seem to believe that the Christianity that most folks worship/accept today is what Jesus had in mind during his lifetime and that Jesus did not seem himself as the Son of God.. Given that how can belief be justified?

            Really appreciate your blog and it is a real gift to me during these times of social distancing and staying at home.

  12. Avatar
    YHWHisthetrueGod  April 22, 2020

    Here is something Martin Luther King Junior wrote. He said that the so-called ‘Christian’ church acquired its doctrines, such as the Trinity from ancient Mystery Religions, i.e., by reinterpreting and retranslating the Bible to make it falsely appear that the Bible teaches such errors as the Trinity, hellfire, and the inherent immortality of the soul.

    Those are Mystery Babylon’s doctrine. Corrupted copies of the Bible were an instrument of Satan to lead people away from worshipping YHWH and he used Emperor Constantine as his unwitting agent.

    Constantine wanted a unified Roman Empire and he had influence over church doctrines and he had the bishops assimilate the teachings of the pagan Mystery Religions, i.e. Babylon the Great into the Christian Religion

    Stanford University
    The Martin Luther King, Jr.
    Research and Education Institute
    Search

    Main menu
    “The Influence of the Mystery Religions on Christianity”
    Author:
    King, Martin Luther, Jr. (Crozer Theological Seminary)
    Date:
    November 29, 1949 to February 15, 1950
    How do we determine conjectured information? ?
    Location:
    Chester, Pa.
    How do we determine conjectured information? ?
    Genre:
    Essay
    Topic:
    Martin Luther King, Jr. – Education
    Download Document:
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    Details
    King wrote this paper for the course Development of Christian Ideas, taught by Davis. The essay examines how Christianity developed as a distinct religion

  13. Avatar
    gchrist4  April 29, 2020

    It just struck me that during Jesus’ lifetime he seemed to be an itinerant preacher with a couple dozen followers or so. But then the Jerusalem church headed by his brother James shortly after Jesus’ death seems big enough to have organization (Paul refers to meeting the “Elders” and gives their numbers I believe). Do we have any information on how James‘s church came about or anything about its size or scope and how it rose to such size so quickly after Jesus’ crucifixion?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 29, 2020

      We really don’t know how large it was, but yes, it was large enough to have a group of inside leaders. I guess you could say that Jesus’ own disciples did as well, Jesus as the head, and Peter, James, and John as the ones below him. So we don’t need to be tlaking about hundreds of people here.

  14. Avatar
    Brand3000  May 2, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman:

    Do you agree with this?:

    “The account in 2 Cor 12 has nothing to do with Paul’s conversion. It is a polemic against fierce opponents who attack Paul (see 2 Cor 10 -11, claim visions for their authority, and so forth. Indeed, this passage stands within Paul’s “fool’s speech,” which begins in 11:1 and is directed at boastful rivals who claim he is not a legitimate apostle. In this context, the account in chap. 12 reads like a parody of the kinds of boasts his detractors make about themselves. So here Paul shows his rhetorical skills.”

    • Bart
      Bart  May 3, 2020

      I agree that he is not describing the vision he had at his conversion, yes.

    • MohammedFawzi
      MohammedFawzi  July 7, 2020

      Dr Bart ..
      Does Paul Contradict some of Jesus’s explicit Teachings in NT ?
      if yes ..
      Can you give us one example?
      And.. do you believe that Paul contradicted Jesus because he wasnt aware of the Four Gospels?
      And how Paul got access to Jesus ‘s teachings ?

      • Bart
        Bart  July 7, 2020

        Well, if Jesus said keeping thec commandments would bring eternal life and Paul said they would not (as in my post a couple of days ago) I would say that is a contraction, yes.

  15. MohammedFawzi
    MohammedFawzi  July 17, 2020

    Dr Bart ..
    Why according to you , the Evangile , which Paul and others Spoke of , can’t be the Q source ?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 17, 2020

      Paul never refers to his gospel as a *book* but as a message. In any event, if it is Q then it would be strange that henever quotes the sayings of Q.

      • MohammedFawzi
        MohammedFawzi  July 17, 2020

        Dr Bart .. because We dont have the Originals so we will never know ?!
        So Dr Bart… is there any Evidence From the NT which Proves or Suggests that The Evangile is a Message and not a Written Document?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 19, 2020

          Yes, if you read the texts themselves that is clearly what is meant. The term “gospel” did not come to be applied to literary texts until about a hundred years after Paul. If you’re interested in reading up on this, see, e.g., Helmut Koester’s book Ancient Christain Gospels

        • MohammedFawzi
          MohammedFawzi  July 20, 2020

          Thank you Dr Bart

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