Those of you who read the comments on my posts know that my thread on Cephas and Peter elicited some very interesting responses. One person in particular who who took me on leveled some very learned and detailed critiques. It made my day(s)!
Richard Fellows is an unusual person, not to mention blog member. He is trained in a different field (Physics at Cambridge university) and works as an engineer, but he has published a number of articles in academic journals on the New Testament. Now THAT doesn’t happen very often. In fact, I don’t think I know of anyone else who has pulled it off (though I know a lot who have tried and a lot more who have wanted to). Academic journals are very demanding, whatever field you’re in, and without training, well….
But Richard has done it and is still doing it (he has another article coming out). His special interests are the apostle Paul and those associated with him, including Peter (whom he, like most other sentient beings, except me on alternating weeks, thinks in fact is Cephas). One of his articles is especially germane to the topic: “Paul, Timothy, Jerusalem and the Confusion in Galatia” Biblica 99.4 (2018) 544-566.
After Richard posted his critiques, it occurred to me I should have him write up his views at length in a couple of blog posts, based on his article And so here is the first. Let him know what you think!
Let us start with what is universally agreed. Paul preached Jesus Christ in Galatia, which is in central Turkey. Later, Paul’s converts in Galatia came under the influence of agitators, who tried to persuade the men that they needed to be circumcised. Then, about 20 years after the crucifixion, Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians to persuade them that circumcision was not necessary. That much is agreed, but that is about where the agreement ends. As John Barclay noted, the problem is that reading Galatians is like listening to half of a telephone conversation and “it is so easy to jump to conclusions about what the conversation is about and, once we have an idea fixed in our minds, we misinterpret all the rest of the conversation”. What, then, was the other half of the conversation? What was the rumour that Paul opposes in his letter? Here I will offer a scenario that has not been considered before. Before you can test-drive this scenario and see whether it explains the text of the letter, you will need to forget everything that you think you know about the background of the letter. I’ll explain the new proposal with a story:
Paul became a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Chapel Hill. His expertise was respected by his students and he explained to them that the New Testament teaches the equality of the sexes. However, while he was away, some other professors visited Chapel Hill and pointed to evidence that the New Testament gives authority to men over women. This troubled the students, who explained that Paul had spoken for equality. The visiting professors said,
“Paul no longer buys into the egalitarian position: he continues to teach equality of the sexes to you, but just to please the leaders at Chapel Hill, for he has always been ambitious for advancement. He will not admit it to you, but he now shares our views”.
Paul has now heard about the confusion created by the visiting professors, and he needs to write to the Chapel Hillians to persuade them not to abandon their egalitarian stance. But what should he write? Before he can argue for equality, he first needs to convince his readers that he writes out of conviction, and not just to please the Promotions Committee of his institution. Anything he writes will be vulnerable to the rebuttal “Yeah – right! Paul is just saying that to please the big cheeses”. Paul must write with such intensity of emotion that his readers will realize that he is sincere. He needs to display exasperation that cannot be feigned, lest his readers think that he is secretly in favour of male authority. He writes,
“From Paul, a teacher, not under human direction, to the Chapel Hillians (1:1-2). There are some who are confusing you (1:7). If anyone teaches you anything contrary to what I taught you, let that one be accursed (1:9). In writing this, am I seeking the approval of committees? Or am I trying to ingratiate myself with people (1:10)? What I teach was not given to me by those people (1:11-12). You have heard, no doubt, about my earlier career in industry, how I was ambitious (1:13-14). But not anymore. When I entered academia, I did not seek out the big names right away (1:16-19), or try to get my face noticed (1:22). When I finally met with the promotions committee members (who they are means nothing to me), they gave me no directives about the content of my teaching (2:6). On the contrary, when they saw that I was qualified to teach my field, just as Professor Ehrman was his; Barbara, Bart, and Jennifer, the supposed bigwigs, gave me tenure (2:7-9). And when Bart came to Durham, I opposed him to this face (2:11) and corrected him in front of everyone (2:14). No, I have not come around to the views of the bogus visiting professors (2:5, 18; 5:11): I wish they would cut themselves to pieces (5:12)…”
In this story “Paul”, in his letter, distances himself from Barbara and Bart and Jennifer, but we cannot conclude that it is because he disagrees with them. On the contrary, it is because they agree. There was no personal or doctrinal quarrel between Paul and his Chapel Hill colleagues, but if we read his letter without knowing the background we could easily come to the opposite conclusion, for we all like a bit of court intrigue and juicy controversy.
In my Journal article I started by analysing Galatians and then moved on to explore whether Acts offers corroboration. Here I will explain the events chronologically.
Some activists, who were believers in Jesus, came from Judea to Antioch and argued for the necessity of circumcision (Acts 15:1). They claimed to have the backing of James (Gal 2:12) and the other Jerusalem church leaders, but they did not (Acts 15:24). Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem (Acts 15, Gal 2:1-10), where James and Peter and the other leaders agreed that circumcision should not be imposed, and they wrote a decree to that effect (Acts 15:23-29). Titus-Timothy was in Galatia when Paul arrived there, and Paul circumcised him (Acts 16:1-3), presumably as a ploy so that Timothy could gain a hearing among Jews. However, as Chrysostom pointed out, Paul could not explain his reason for the circumcision, otherwise the effect would be lost. Paul’s circumcision of Timothy was therefore liable to create confusion about what Paul really believed. Paul could easily be misunderstood, willfully or otherwise, especially by the activists who had earlier misrepresented the Jerusalem church leaders. We can then imagine a conversation between the pro-circumcision activists and Paul’s Galatian converts:
Activists: “You should be circumcised to complete your conversions. Paul now agrees, for he circumcised his friend, Timothy.”
Galatians: “But Paul delivered the decision of the Jerusalem apostles, that circumcision is not needed.” (Acts 16:4)
Activists: “Paul likes to please those in authority, for he has always been ambitious for advancement, so he delivered their message, as he had agreed to do, but he no longer believes it. He is now actually on our side and wants and expects you to be circumcised, and don’t believe him if he says otherwise.”
In my next post I hope to show that Galatians is best explained as Paul’s response to this mis-information. Meanwhile, read the letter once with the new view on the background in mind, and once with the old.
The Jerusalem apostles opposed circumcision for Gentile converts, and the activists were appealing to Paul’s authority against that of the Jerusalem apostles. Paul expresses as much exasperation as he can, to show his sincerity.
The Jerusalem apostles favored circumcision for Gentile converts, and the activists were appealing to the authority of the Jerusalem apostles against that of Paul. Paul fails to contain his anger in his defence of his authority.