Paul and Galatia

Pentecost 3 2013

Galatians (Paul)

Marian Free 

In the name of God who speaks to us in many and various ways. Amen.

Reading the letters of Paul is rather like going on an archeological dig. Apart from the book of Acts, our only information about Paul and about his message is in the letters. What we now accept as holy scripture were the writings of a travelling missionary to the communities that he had founded. Very often Paul writes in reaction to something that has happened in his absence or to a question that the community would like answered.  If we look below the surface of the text it is possible to a limited extent to reconstruct what is going on, to learn something about the community itself and something about the gospel which Paul preached.

Paul tells us very little about himself in the letters. There is no need – the recipients already know who he is. That said, we know that he was passionate about the gospel, that there was some event in his life which turned him from a persecutor to a believer and that he cared deeply for the communities he founded.

For the next few weeks the lectionary is going to take us through Paul’s letter to the Galatians. It is in this letter that most appears to be at stake, and in which Paul reveals the most about himself. By his own admission Paul was a zealous Jew who persecuted those who believed in Jesus. This came to an end when God revealed himself to him. The letters also tell us that Paul had too some sort of physical ailment and that this was the reason that he stopped in Galatia. He is not explicit as to the nature of the complaint, but the fact that he claims that the Galatians would have plucked out their eyes for him, leads us to believe that the problem was with his vision.

While Galatians provides a fair amount of information about Paul (in comparison to the other letters), there is much less detail about the recipients of the letter and where they actually were. There are a number of problems when it comes to identifying to whom Paul is writing. First of all, Galatia is a region not a city. Secondly, Galatia could be one of two places – one in the north and one in the south. Southern Galatia makes most sense as the letter’s destination as Paul may well have passed through the area on one of his journeys. However, references to mountains in the letter point to a northern hypothesis as the local religion of the north related to a mountain. Whether north or south, the letter does not provide many clues as to the nature of the community. Were they a largely Gentile community or were they a mixed community of Jews and Gentiles?

The introduction to the letter tells us that other teachers have come to the community. They are confusing the new believers and, in Paul’s terms: “perverting the gospel of Christ”. Who these people might be creates another puzzle for the reader. Are they travelling preachers like Paul who have a different view of the gospel? Are they Jewish members of the community who want the Gentiles to become like them? or Are they members of the local cult who are trying to persuade the community to return to the faith of their ancestors?

These might seem to be minor details, but trying to resolve these sorts of questions helps us to better understand Paul’s arguments in the letter and to appreciate that Paul is not sitting down writing reasoned theology, but responding to a crisis and defending his position with regard to the issue at hand.

So in order to understand the letter to the Galatians we have to peel back the layers to see if we can work out what is going on. In the letter we have what could be described as Act three of a three-part drama.[1]. In Act one Paul, forced to stop in Galatia for health reasons, takes advantage of the situation to preach the gospel to the people there. Some come to faith and form a worshipping community. Act two sees the arrival of other teachers who, the letter tells us, teach things contrary to Paul’s teaching and unsettle the Galatians to the point that they appear to be considering the radical step of circumcision – something Paul strenuously objects to. Finally, in Act three Paul, hearing that the Galatians are being convinced to abandon the gospel he preached, puts pen to paper and writes what turns out to be his most caustic letter

In order to understand Paul’s argument, we have to work backwards from the letter. Paul’s response to those whom he labels “false prophets” tells us something of what they were teaching. In turn, if these other teachers were teaching something different from Paul, it is possible, though somewhat speculative, to work out what it was that Paul had first taught.

Our best guess as to what was going on is this: after Paul left Galatia, other teachers arrived and persuaded the Galatians that in order to be truly members of the faith, to be really children of Abraham, they needed to adopt the Jewish law and to be circumcised. The Galatians, whose faith was only new, were easily persuaded by these new arguments and are either considering circumcision, or are planning to abandon their new-found faith because circumcision was too hard. Paul feels betrayed by their prevarication, but his greater concern is that by accepting the teaching of his opponents, the Galatians have jeopardized their hope of salvation.

Paul uses a number of tactics to try to bring the Galatians back to what he calls “his gospel”. Firstly, as we heard this morning, he makes it clear that his gospel (which does not compel Gentiles to be circumcised or to keep the law) came directly from God and not from any human source. Secondly, he reports that the so-called leaders of the church in Jerusalem gave this circumcision-free gospel their stamp of approval. Thirdly, Paul recounts how he stood up to Peter to defend his position. Having established his credentials Paul moves on to question the Galatians and to counter the arguments of the “false apostles”. He wants to know if they received the Spirit as a result of keeping the law or through faith, knowing before he asks that the answer is the latter.

The central argument of the opponents seems to be that Abraham and his descendants were circumcised therefore if the new believers want to truly belong, they too must be circumcised. Paul however, is able to demonstrate that circumcision was only the seal of a prior promise – that Abraham would be the father of all nations. Further, Paul argues that it was Abraham’s faith which saved him (not circumcision). The logical conclusion is that justification/salvation is based on faith not law. As the Galatians have demonstrated that they have faith they have no need now to adopt the law. This is a great equalizer as we shall see in chapter three in which Paul proclaims: “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ.” (3:25)

Paul then uses two arguments to defend his point that the law enslaves rather than liberates – it acts in a custodial role for those who do not have the Spirit and it binds one to an earthly rather than a heavenly existence. After his great battle cry: “For freedom, Christ has set us free” (5:1), Paul concludes the letter by exhorting the Galatians to allow their lives to be directed by the Spirit and by teaching them how to live in community.

Of course, I have only skimmed the surface of a complex, yet profound argument.  At the heart of the letter to Galatia is Paul’s argument that faith is the primary criterion for membership in the community that followed Christ and the fact that this opened the way for Gentiles to join the new faith without first becoming Jews. Along the way Paul provides some profound insights into the gospel as he understood it.

Paul writes not theology, but occasional letters aimed at particular communities with particular issues. For centuries Paul has been misrepresented, misused and misunderstood. Many people have written him off as too difficult to understand. Yet the communities to whom he wrote these letters were convinced that their contents would benefit a much wider audience. The letters were shared, collected and considered so important that they were finally included in what we call the New Testament.

Isn’t it time we took the trouble to get to know him and to discover the treasures for ourselves?


[1] I am indebted to Winger for this concept. Winger, Michael. “Act 1, Paul arrives in Galatia.” New Testament Studies 48 (2002):548-567.

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