I’m a couple of days behind on my Weekly Readers’ Mailbag. I’ve been so caught up in talking about the conversion of the Roman empire to Christianity that I forgot all about it! So here is last week’s a day late. IN it I deal with one question which turns out to be three questions, all of them related to the the historical accuracy of Paul’s letter to the Galatians..
Bart, quick question that’s bothering me. You often say that we can’t be sure of the gospels’ accuracy (due to intentional and unintentional changes over time and location). The idea is that we can’t know what the original really said (even if it names its author (e.g. 1 Tim, 2, Tim, etc.). You often say there are so many changes that we can’t really know what the original was. I always assume you mean in the small details and that you assume the main sense of the texts are fairly accurate to the original. Anyway, I’ve heard you say emphatically that Paul wrote Galatians, etc.. but by your standard for the other writings (say, Mark or John), then why don’t you have the same doubts that Paul wrote his letters? Surely we don’t have originals of Galatians…why no possible scandal here? So what gives? Why are you so sure Paul’s seven letters are solidly in the Pauline camp? How do you know he knew James and John?
Wow, this isn’t a quick question – and it’s not *a* question! I think there are three questions here: (1) How do we know what the original text of Galatians said? (2) How do we know Paul wrote it? And (3) How do we know that what it says is historically accurate (e.g. about Paul knowing Jesus’ brother James)?
My first response is to say that these three questions may be somewhat related, but they are completely different questions, with different answers and different implications. Here I will address each one separately:
First, how do we know what the originals of this letter to the Galatians said? Strictly speaking we can never know anything like this with 100% certainty. But I think many people have been led astray by some of the things that I’ve said and taken the matter too far. My point has always been (for example, in Misquoting Jesus) that we can’t know with absolute complete certainty what was said in each and every passage of the NT. That point – which I think cannot be refuted – is principally directed against fundamentalists who want to claim that every word of the Bible is inspired by God. How can we say the words were inspired if we don’t know in a lot of cases what the words were???
But that doesn’t mean that we cannot know with relative certainty what is said in most parts of the New Testament. True, we can’t have the level of certainty that fundamentalists require (which has always been my point), but we can have high levels of probability for lots of the Bible.
There are thousands of textual differences in our manuscripts of the Pauline letters, many thousands. But in most cases it’s not too difficult to figure out what Paul probably actually wrote. There are some places where it is up for grabs, but these are very much in the minority. I don’t think anything *hugely* different can be found in any of our surviving manuscripts of Galatians (e.g., manuscripts that portray the occasion of the letter and Paul’s response to it in completely different ways). Now it’s true that we don’t start getting manuscripts of Galatians until about the year 200. That’s a fragmentary manuscript called P46. And we don’t get a *complete* copy of Galatians until about the middle of the fourth century. So in in theory early copyists may have changed the texts in ways that we cannot detect because our manuscripts are hundreds of years later. That always has to be allowed as a possibility (to the discomfort of fundamentalists). But as historians, as I’ve said time and time again, we work not on the basis of absolute certainties, but on the basis of probabilities. And for most of the passages of Galatians – the vast majority of them – we have a pretty good sense that we know what the author wrote. At least we think we do! But we really think we do!
Second question: How do we know that Paul actually wrote it? Here the manuscripts are almost completely irrelevant. Whether later scribes changed the text or not has almost no bearing on the question of whether the author was actually Paul (unless scribes widely changed the first word of the epistle, where the author names himself “Paul”) (and why would they do that? Possibly because originally the author said his name was “Fred”???) (every textual scholar I’ve ever heard of thinks thinks that the author called himself Paul). So the question of the authorship of the letter is not really related to the question of later scribal changes.
Why, though, should we think Paul wrote it? Well that’s a very long story. The short version is this. We do indeed know that there were Christians who later claimed to be Paul and wrote letters in his name, knowing full well they were someone else. In my books Forged and Forgery and Counterforgery I explain why even in ancient times readers would have considered such books forgeries. They were. And some such books made it into the New Testament: 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, for example, are Pauline forgeries (scholars who are nervous about calling them forgeries tend to call them “pseudepigrapha,” which is a fancy way of saying the same thing).
So how do we know which of all the letters claiming to be by Paul really are by Paul? (Again: this is the short version.) There are a group of seven letters claiming to be written by Paul that cohere with one another in terms of vocabulary, writing style, theological point of view, and presupposed historical situation. They appear all to have the same author. It is easy to situate these letters in a historical context of the 50s of the common era when Paul was active. Paul was therefore probably their author (note: probabilities again!) (but again, there frankly is very, very little dispute about these seven, even among otherwise cranky and skeptical scholars). Galatians is one of the seven. The forged Pauline letters are all different from these seven in writing style, theology, and presupposed historical situation. And so they probably are not by Paul.
Third question: How do we know the letter is historically accurate? When Paul makes off the cuff historical claims in Galatians he appears to be detailing information that his readers either already know or could know by consulting with others. He’s not telling stories, the way, say, the book of Acts or the Gospels do. He’s simply indicating things that happened to him and things that he did and people that he met. Now, to be sure, he has reasons for doing so, and so you always have to ask if his reasons for saying something are leading him to alter a historical fact. But in most cases, after carefully examining that option, almost all scholars of Paul think that he hasn’t done that much, if at all, in this letter. When he says that he met up with James the brother of Jesus, Peter, and John in Jerusalem, he is not trying to make the point “SEE! There really was a James!” He’s making a point about coming to an agreement with someone that everyone – both he and his readers – knows was an important figure in the Jerusalem church. Paul *may* have distorted (slightly?) the nature of their meeting, and its outcome, because those are the points he’s trying to make and stress. But he’s not trying to make and stress the point that James the brother of Jesus existed. That’s simply something he knows, takes for granted, and states off the cuff. And so it is almost certainly accurate. We may not know that with complete 100% certainty, , since ancient history almost never is 100% certain. But it’s pretty darn close, up there around 99% in my judgment.
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