Paul - Lesson 9

The Apostle Paul

Lesson 9 – Life and Law – Galatians

By Professor Luke Timothy Johnson, Emory University

Scope:  One of the fundamental issues facing the first Christians – the connection between Christ and the law of Moses – surface with particular sharpness in Galatians.  Some members of this gentile church are seeking circumcision as a sign of full membership among God’s people.  Paul’s response is at once passionate and rigorously argued.  He tries to convince his community members that a ritual they regard as a step forward really represents a denial of the gift of power they received when they believed in the good news about Jesus that he had proclaimed to them. To live by the law as absolute norm means a form of slavery and death. They have been freed from law. But then, by what measure should they live?  Paul sketches a vision of life empowered by God’s spirit and shaped by the pattern of Jesus’s faith and love.

I.                Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia (a territory/province in present-day Turkey) shows him at his boldest and most embattled as he defends his gentile mission.  Galatians is also one of Paul’s letters that had the greatest influence on Christian theology in the West, especially through its use by Augustine and Luther.

a.     Paul has much personally at stake, and his language is correspondingly emotional.

b.     He is also personally involved, to a degree not seen in other letters, in Christ mysticism – his deep, personal identification with Jesus.

c.     This letter (3:6-18) reveals Paul’s command of midrash, the close textual analysis of Torah carried out in rabbinic schools.

II.             We can know the situation in Galatia only through Paul’s perceptions as these are incidentally recorded in the letter; many things, therefore, remain obscure (e.g., where exactly were these churches, were there outside agitators, and what was their identity?)  We are not even able to date the letter with any certainty.

a.     It is certain that Paul was the founder of tis church and that it was made up largly, if not exclusively, of gentiles (4:8-20).

                                      i.     The members came to believe by responding to the message about the crucified messiah, Jesus (3:1-2).

                                    ii.     They experienced the powerful and transforming presence of the Holy Spirit (3:3-5).

b.     After Paul’s departure, some in the churches (whether urged by outsiders or not) advocated the practice of circumcision as a sign of fuller participation in the people of Torah (5:2, 12: 6:12-13).

                                      i.     Throughout the letter, circumcision is synecdoche for being a law-observant Jew.

                                    ii.     The suggestion has some logic: Multiple initiations were common in antiquity, and Paul himself was a circumcised Jew.  Why shouldn’t the church members have what he did?

                                   iii.     In Judaism, circumcision symbolizes the “yoke of Torah” that is envisaged as freedom.  The male Jew is, therefore, the fully mature human.  He is not female, he is not gentile, he is not a slave.

c.     It appears that some are in the process of undergoing this painful ritual act (5:2).  Religiously, this behavior can be understood as the desire to “do more”; sociologically, it can be understood as seeking higher status in the group.

III.           Paul perceives the church members’ desire for something more as a betrayal of what they have already been given and a willing submission to a kind of slavery and death (5:2-6).

a.     Seeking circumcision challenges the adequacy of baptism “into Christ” as a way of becoming “children of God” (3:12 – 4:7).

                                      i.     Is Jesus only a Jewish messiah, a threshold for gentile entrance into Jewish identity?

                                    ii.     Or is Jesus the “Son of God” who makes the power and presence of God available to all peoples?

b.     Seeking to come under the yoke of Torah challenges the ultimate nature of God’s revelation through the crucified and raised messiah, Jesus.

                                      i.     If Torah is the absolute norm for righteousness, then Jesus cannot be the source of life, because Deuteronomy 21:23 curses those “who hang upon a tree” (Galatians 3:13).

                                    ii.     A very important dispute among scholars today concerns the translation of the Greek phrase pistis Christou.  Virtually all traditional translations mistranslate this phrase as “Christians’ faith in Christ” – meaning that their faith is what puts them in right relationship with God.

                                   iii.     A growing minority of scholars today argues that the correct translation should be “Christ’s faith” – meaning that the faith of the human person Jesus in God puts all people, including both Christians and Jews, in right relationship with God.

                                   iv.     But if Jesus, in his human response of fidelity and love (1:4; 2:20), is the ultimate revelation of God’s righteousness, then Torah must become a relative, rather than ultimate, norm.

c.     Seeking higher status through circumcision challenges the egalitarian character of the church.

                                      i.     In baptism, church members became “children of God” in Christ, with neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. (Galatians 3:28)But circumcision would make “Jew” greater than “Greek” and would certainly make “male” greater than “female.”

IV.           Paul’s argument is “radical,” because it decisively takes its stand on religious experience rather than on scriptural precedent.

a.     His long autobiographical statement (1:11- 2:14) is not, as is sometimes thought, s defense of his apostleship.  Its rhetorical function is exemplary.  He wants the community members to learn from his experience.

                                      i.     In his former life, he was the perfect Jew, yet he persecuted the church (1:13-14).

                                    ii.     He experienced the resurrected Jesus and, on the basis of that experience, became an apostle.  (1:11-12; 15-17)

                                   iii.     He held to that experience even when it was challenged by “false brethren” who sought to impose circumcision on his gentile co-worker (Titus 2:1-19)

                                   iv.     He stood up to Peter and the “Men from James” in Antioch in defense of common table fellowship between Jews and gentiles (2:11-21).

                                    v.     The point?  The Galatians, too, should stick by their experience of Jesus and not be swayed.

b.     The second element in Paul’s argument is his reminder to the Galatians of their own experience (3:1-5).

                                      i.     Before they had ever heard of the law, they had experienced the powerful work of God through their faith in the crucified messiah.

                                    ii.     To submit to circumcision because it promised “freedom” would be similar to a person who breathes perfectly well climbing inside a respirator because of the claim that it “helps you breathe”.  The result is slavery and even death.

c.     The third element in Paul’s argument is a complex reinterpretation of Torah from the perspective of faith (3:6-28; 4:21-31).

                                      i.     Those who have faith are the real children of Abraham, who was declared righteous because of his faith.

                                    ii.     The law revealed through Moses is secondary and temporary, with a limited function.

V.             Having declared freedom from the Mosaic law (5:1) for gentiles, Paul must then establish  a new norm for human righteousness if freedom is not to become simply “an opportunity for self-indulgence” (5:13).

a.     The new guide to life is provided by the power of the Holy Spirit that has come from Jesus.  If the church members “live” by this spirit, they can also “walk by” this spirit (5:23).

b.     The Spirit transforms them internally, so that instead of having antisocial attitudes and practices, they show that which seeks the good of others (5:13-26).

c.     The model for this is the pattern of Jesus, who loved us and gave himself for us, thus, Paul says, “bear one another’s burdens and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (6:2).

Essential Reading:


Supplementary Reading:

R.B. Hays, The Faith of Jesus.

J. Munck, “The Judaizing Gentile Christians,” in Paul and the Salvation of Mankind, pp. 87-134.

Questions to Consider:

  1. How critical is the fact that Paul is dealing with gentile Christians in Galatia?  Can his argument concerning Torah be considered anti-Judaic?  In what sense?
  2. Paul’s scriptural argument in Galatians 4-4 would not meet the agreement of a fellow Pharisee, even though the technical means of argumentation are the same.  How would their distinct premises lead to different readings of Torah?

Next Lesson:

Life and Righteousness – Romans.

Read the Book of Romans.