Blog Member Richard Fellows earlier provided us with a controversial post connected with his publication: “Paul, Timothy, Jerusalem and the Confusion in Galatia” Biblica 99.4 (2018) 544-566.” The earlier post is here: (Was Paul Really at Odds with Peter and James? Guest Post by Richard Fellows | The Bart Ehrman Blog) Now he follows it up with a second; one more is yet to come.
In my previous guest post I proposed that the Galatians had come to believe that Paul now believed in circumcision, and that they thought that it was only to please the Jerusalem apostles that he was not recommending circumcision to them. In this post we will confirm this proposal using the letter alone. By finding the theme that is highlighted by repetition and by the letter’s structure, we will identify the conclusion that Paul wants his audience to draw.
Those preparing presentations are advised, “Tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you have told them”. Paul does this in Galatians. He has an introduction in 1:1-10 and a concluding summary in 6:11-17. There is also a summary at 5:2-12 and almost every thought in this section has an equivalent in either 1:1-10 or 6:11-17 or both. Furthermore, these repeated thoughts appear in virtually the same order. Thus, Witherington writes about 5:2-12, “the rhetorical signals, both before and after our passage, point to this passage giving us the heart of the argument, the pith of the matter”. Finally, 2:15-21 is also seen as something of a summary. Paul’s main take-away, which his detailed arguments are intended to support, should be found at the climax of each of the four passages. These four climaxes, shown in bold, should be interpreted together:
6:16 As for those who follow this rule – peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God. 17 From now on, let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body.
5:10-12 But whoever it is that is confusing you will pay the penalty. 11 But my friends, why am I still being persecuted if I am still preaching circumcision? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. 12 I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!
1:7-12 but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! 9 As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed! 10 For am I now seeking the approval of people, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ. 11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not according to people. 12 For I did not receive it from people …
2:21 I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing. 3:1 You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you?
6:17 can be paraphrased, “let no one deny my commitment to Gentile liberty, for I have wounds to prove it!”. This is the same thought as 5:11. Paul rebuts the idea that he would preach circumcision at 1:8 too. At 2:18-21 too Paul plausibly denies that he now favours Law observance, which for him would be to nullify the grace of God. All four climaxes can be interpreted as Paul’s denials that he believes in circumcision.
All four climaxes also come with actual or implied insults or curses, and this further demonstrates that they should be interpreted together. 6:16 wishes peace on those who follow Paul’s rule that circumcision is nothing, with an implied curse on those who do not. At 5:12 Paul says he wants those who spread the misinformation to castrate themselves. At 1:8-9 he curses himself and others if they ever preach circumcision. At 3:1, he calls the Galatians “foolish”. By cursing or insulting those who advocate circumcision, Paul shows that he is not secretly in support of their position. He uses offensive language to demonstrate the strength of his feeling, to correct the view that he does not oppose circumcision at all.
All four climaxes refute those who have spread the misinformation in Galatia. 5:10 and 1:7 warn of those “confusing” you. This word, ταράσσω, appears nowhere else in Paul. 3:11 refers to those who have bewitched them. 6:17 plausibly alludes to those same people.
In summary, the climaxes of Paul’s four summary passages have much in common and should be interpreted together as his denial that he now approves of circumcision. The old view of Galatians, however, lacks parsimony, for it fails to find any such unifying theme. 5:11, in particular, has long been an embarrassment to the commentators. For example, Fee writes: “Given all that has been said to this point, this next sentence [5:11] is one of the most puzzling moments in this letter — or in any other of Paul’s letters”. Dunn thinks that at 5:11 Paul “turns abruptly to a different point”. Campbell has a whole article on 5:11 without discussing its context at all! Interpreters have tried to explain away 5:11 and quarantine it from the rest of the letter, but this is inadequate, given its position at the conclusion of Paul’s summary, and given its links to the other concluding statements.
1:10-12 contains several references to “people” (ἄνθρωπος), which refer to the Jerusalem church leaders, who feature prominently in the following narrative. At 2:6 Paul says that the Jerusalem leaders meant nothing to him, and this confirms that they are the “people” at 1:10 that Paul is not trying to please. At 1:9 Paul curses those who might undermine his gospel of Gentile liberty, then at 1:10 he writes that he is not saying this to please the Jerusalem apostles. The text makes perfect sense if the Galatians were thinking that Paul now believed in circumcision and taught against it only to please Jerusalem. These who assume the old view of Galatians, however, are forced to conclude that the “people” in 1:10 means the Galatians themselves and are different from the “people” mentioned thereafter. This is an arbitrary move.
A school principal might say “the safety of the children is the most important thing”, or she might say “I consider the safety of the children to be the most important thing”. The additional words in the second statement are technically redundant, but can tell us that the principal is refuting the charge that he is not committed to the children’s safety. Similarly, Paul refers to himself in ways that seem unnecessary unless his commitment has been questioned (1:6, 9, 11, 20; 2:6; 3:2; 5:2, 3, 12; 6:11). For example, not only does he write in large legible letters, but he also tells the Galatians that he is doing so (6:11).
It is also significant that Paul refers explicitly to the gospel that he preached (1:8, 9, 11; 2:2), presumably to distinguish it from the gospel that the Galatians were thinking he now believed in.
If, as is commonly supposed, the circumcision activists had appealed to the authority of the Jerusalem apostles against that of Paul (rather than the other way around), we would expect Paul to give a consistent portrayal of the Jerusalem apostles’ position and consistently undermine their authority. However, we find no consistency on these issues (1:15-2:14). Rather, the common theme is that he is not an ambitious sycophant of the church leadership who preaches what they tell him to preach. We can paraphrase him as follows, “I was ambitious for advancement before my conversion (1:13-14), but afterwards I made no effort to get myself noticed by the leadership (1:15-24). Their status means nothing to me (2:6) and they did not instruct me what to preach, but gave me autonomy (2:7-10). There was an occasion when I opposed Peter publicly for compromising on the very issue of Gentile inclusion (2:11-14).
In conclusion, the background to the letter that was laid out in the earlier blog post is confirmed from Galatians alone. The third and final blog post in this series will discuss the circumcision of Titus and his identity as Timothy. What else should be included?