Luhrmann, Dieter. Galatians. Part of the Continental Commentary Series. Translated by O. C. Dean Jr.. (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1992).
Martyn, J. Louis. Galatians. Part of the Anchor Bible commentary series edited by W. F. Allbright and David Noel Freedman. (Doubleday, New York, 1997).
Matera, Frank J. Galatians. Part of the Sacra Pagina commentary series edited by Daniel J. Harrington. S. J. (Liturgical Press, Collegeville, 1992).
Paul is responding to a significant crisis in the life of the Galatian church. Most scholars suggest that the crisis involved visiting missionaries or others who were calling for Gentile Galatian Christians to get circumcised, perhaps also to follow Jewish dietary laws and other aspects of Jewish Law. Matera (p. 4) says: “…it appears that the agitators were Jewish Christians from Jerusalem who espoused circumcision and Law observance.” Martyn believes that ALL the Galatians were of Gentile origin.
Matera p. 11: “The core of their own message centered upon the person of Abraham and the importance of becoming his descendant. Thus they told the Galatians that they could only enjoy the full benefits of the Jewish Messiah if they accepted circumcision and did the “works of the Law”.”
Paul writes the letter to persuade the Galatians otherwise. His message can be summarized thusly (Matera p. 18): “The Galatians need not be circumcised because they are in Christ. Because they are in Christ, they are already Abraham’s offspring. In Christ, they share the gift of the Spirit which allows them to overcome the desires of the flesh. In Christ, they are a new creation so that the distinction between circumcision and the lack of it is abolished.” Paul is convinced of the cosmic change to reality as a result of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. God has fulfilled his promise in a dramatic and unexpected way.
Paul argues his case from Scripture to rebut his opponents preaching / teaching. It is not unambiguous however. His reading of the Abraham story is creative but is unique – he is reading it, for sure, in the light of Jesus.
Luhrmann (p. 2ff) points out in the clearest way – for Paul Abraham lived and operated and was blessed by God because of his FAITH. It was his FAITH that brought life (to a childless Sarah) and to God’s people born as a result. To be a descendant of Abraham has nothing to do with genealogy, of which mother one was born to. Paul strives to get the Galatians to understand that it is FAITH (first the faith of Abraham, later the faith of Jesus, and now, for them, faith IN Jesus) that saves, not anything else.
Galatia was a Roman province in what is now central Turkey. The ancient cities of Antioch in Pisidia, Lystra, Iconium, Derbe and others, most of which had churches founded by Paul.
Date? Scholars propose a wide range of possibilities based on Acts and arguments from Paul’s own works. Range is from the early 40’s to mid-50’s. Matera provides a theoretical reconstruction of Paul’s missionary journeys and suggests that Paul founded the communities on his first missionary journey and that the letter to them dates from the mid-50’s. At this point the issue of how Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians could eat together etc. had not yet been definitively handled.
Matera p. 26: “…it (Galatians) and Romans provide the most extensive expositions of Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith apart from the Law.”
Paul’s thoughts continually evolved. And the context of the thoughts also matter. Since Galatian churches did not contain former Jews and in fact there were few, if any, Jews at all in the region, Paul did not nuance his Galatian message. Martyn p. 31 says this:
“We have no indication, to be sure, that Paul ever regretted writing the Galatian letter, but one can easily imagine that, on the eve of his last trip to Jerusalem, he regretted the harsh interpretation that had been placed upon the letter by the Teachers’ followers. Such regret, in any case, is consonant with the fact that, in writing to the Romans, Paul clarified, supplemented – perhaps one should even say modified – some of the things he had said to the Galatians about the Law and about Israel.”
As we read this text – how do you think the Galatians first heard it?
Somewhat surprisingly – we don’t know what the Galatians ended up deciding to do!
CHAPTERS 1 AND 2
Matera p. 41: “He proclaims the divine origin of his apostleship in order to establish the divine origin of the Torah-free gospel that he preaches among the Gentiles.” I would not say “Torah-free” but circumcision free. Hmmn – these other teachers were sent by some portion of the church in Jerusalem.
We are so used to thinking of Paul as a pillar of the early church that we give him and his words an automatic authority. If we put ourselves “back in the day” – Paul was known to have begun as a persecutor of the church. Paul had a conversion experience. Paul spent some years in Antioch in study. Paul then was sent out, with others, by the church in Antioch as a missionary. He may have even been a junior member of that delegation (with Barnabas as the heavy-weight)! And through all this time the center of gravity in the early church would have been Jerusalem with the majority of apostles who were there. The point – it was not a foregone conclusion that Paul would win this fight (and others) as the early church struggled with the issue of what to do with Gentiles who wanted to be Christian.
All are given grace. Grace can be rejected.
Matera points out that this letter from Paul does not have the customary “thanksgiving” section in the greeting. Because he is mad? To get their attention?
Matera p. 50: “Because Christ died to deliver humanity from the present evil age, it is no longer necessary for those who believe in him to rely upon “works of the Law”. … “The Galatians undoubtedly thought that by accepting circumcision and other works of the Law they were completing and perfecting the conversion they began at Paul’s preaching. But in Paul’s view circumcision implied that Christ’s death upon the cross was insufficient for salvation.”
Matera p. 57: “To summarize, these verses (1:1 to 1:12) are the foundation for all that Paul will argue in the rest of the letter. His gospel, which proclaims that God has justified the Gentiles on the basis of faith, not on the basis of works of the Law, came directly from God, without human mediation. Because this Torah-free gospel came from a revelation of Jesus Christ, Paul cannot alter it, nor should the Galatians swerve from it. Anyone who tampers with it violates the truth of the gospel.”
Martyn p. 162: Why did Paul persecute the early church? It is a good question! “..Paul viewed the church as a Jewish sect that was intent on venerating as though he were God’s Messiah a man who had been crucified as a criminal, and who therefore stood under the curse of God’s Law. In a word, Paul probably saw in the church’s christology a truly significant threat to the Law. Thus, however observant the members of this sect might have been in their day-to-day lives, they seem to have represented, in Paul’s view, an intolerable cancer in the body of God’s elect people.” Now, almost ironically – Law observing Jewish Christians are persecuting / afflicting the Gentile Galatian Christians!
Martyn p. 178: Paul recounts his travels and trips etc. in order to establish that he is an apostle sent by Jesus and not Jerusalem, that his gospel is from Jesus and not Jerusalem and that therefore he is not the deviating underling that apparently the Teachers / Judaizers / opponents are claiming that he is.
Matera p. 90: “If the gospel gives Peter the right to live like a Gentile, that is, free from the Jewish laws concerning food, by what right can Peter impose those laws on the Gentiles, that is, judaize them? The argument, of course presupposes that Christ freed Jewish believers from the Law as well as Gentile believers, something which Peter and other Jewish Christians had not yet understood.” Paul argues that Christ freed all Christians from a need to observe Jewish law (Sabbath and festivals, sacrifices, food, circumcision, etc.)
Check out Acts 15 for Luke’s version of what happened in Jerusalem when Paul and Titus met with leaders there. The conference settled some immediate issues (Paul to Gentiles, others to Jews) but they did not see the looming larger issues (mixed communities, eating together) etc. that would result in future conflicts.
Martyn p. 221: “For in fact the formula itself had the effect of silently posing a crucial question: What is the point of departure for the doing of theology in God’s church, the Sinaitic Law or Christ? Taken by itself, the formula provided no answer. Indeed, as subsequent events were to show, the formula could serve as an expression of common conviction because, leaving that question unaddressed, it allowed each of the major parties to interpret the two parallel lines in a way that reflected that party’s unspoken assumption, about the point of departure for Christian theology.” For sure – Jerusalem started with Law and understood Jesus from within it and Paul was starting from Christ and understood the Law in light of him.
A later visit by the leaders of Jerusalem to the leaders in Antioch led to a “divorce” between Paul and the church in Antioch and with Barnabas.
not justified by “works” means that the mere observance of the visible actions of Judaism (Sabbath, sacrifices, food laws, circumcision) does not put someone in right relationship with the LORD. What has put all of us in position for right relationship with God is the faith OF Jesus which led him to the cross and resurrection thereafter. Such that now, if we believe IN Jesus, we are freed from the obligations of the Law and can be in right relationship with the LORD.
CHAPTERS 3, 4, 5, 6
one way to think about what Paul is doing is to think not so much of Spirit and flesh but of new reality (God acting through Christ / the Kingdom / the Spirit) and old reality (human acting by observing Mosaic Law / human sin and estrangement from God / the flesh).
Martyn p. 290ff: Paul is probably not doing highly abstract theology here – that comes in later letters. Flesh evokes, in this context, the “flesh of the foreskin” that the opponents are eager to cut off! Do you want to be saved by the flesh?
Matera p. 114: here come the reasons why the Galatians should not rely on circumcision or the other works of the Law. The Spirit has already made them descendants of Abraham and inheritors of the promises to Abraham. The faithfulness of Jesus, even to death on a cross, has saved them and laboring under the Law can add nothing to this.
I set before you two paths – one for life and the other for death. Paul’s reading is that the path of life requires perfect obedience to the Mosaic law which is not possible for anyone. Therefore we have the “curse of the law” – but Jesus freed us from that burden. So, why on earth would anyone want to go back to it? Later Paul argues that the Law condemns both those who try to observe as well as those who don’t.
In addition – the Law came with Moses, centuries later. It did not modify the promise to Abraham. Paul actually separates covenant/Promise from Law entirely. Hence he can go on to say that the Law came from angels through a mediator (Moses) – not directly from God as did the promise to Abraham
Martyn p. 368,369: “We know that he (Paul) had no objection to the continuance of Law observance among both Jews and Christian Jews. so long as it was not viewed as a salvific requirement that should be imposed on Christians of Gentile background.”.
Matera p. 132: “If the inheritance comes through the promise, then what is the purpose and nature of the Law? Paul provides three answers: the Law was added to make transgressions known; its role is temporary; and it is inferior to the promise because it was promulgated by angels, through the hand of a mediator.”
The temporary nature of the Law makes it like a teacher of the young – at a certain point the teacher is no longer needed. For Paul – the presence of the Spirit of Jesus in the church makes need for the law outdated.
Jewish folks would heartily disagree with all of this. In their view God created the universe with God’s Law / Torah at its heart. NOT temporary. Gospel of John – God said / creation through God’s Word / Jesus as Word made flesh / Jesus came to fulfill the Law not to discard it. It was NOT impossible to keep nor did it need to be kept “perfectly”. In this section we have some statements that Paul would later nuance somewhat – because they offended Jewish Christians.
Matera p. 172: “In 3:1-29, Paul argued that the Galatians are the descendants of Abraham because they have been incorporated in Abraham’s one descendant, the Christ. Following this argument Paul appealed to the Galatians not to return to the period of their minority (immaturity).” The agitators argued that circumcision was the sign of the Abrahamic covenant so they made some sense.
Matera p. 187: “While the contemporary religious person sees law as a safeguard from sin, Paul argues that being under the Mosaic Law is a form of slavery since it makes the violation of particular commandments possible (Rom 7:7). By contrast, freed from the Law, those in Christ fulfill the Law through love (5:14).” This is not an excuse for licentiousness however.
Martyn: Jerusalem is either a simple place reference or Paul uses it as shorthand for the “home of these Jewish Christians who are trying to impose the Law on Gentiles”. They themselves might have referred to it as their “mother” in their call to the Galattions. This usage must be understood at the end of chapter 4. Paul is NOT rejecting Judaism.
if you are “in the flesh” you do the things of the flesh, if you are “in the spirit” you do the things of the spirit. Being in the spirit overcomes the desires of the flesh.
Matera p. 218: on beginning of chapter 6
- plural you – correct sinning members
- singular you – be responsible for yourself
- plural you – bear burdens
- singular you – bear your own burden as best you can
- plural you – support your teachers
- singular you – sowing and reaping
- plural you – do good
Matera p. 223: Paul is not “anti-Law” per se. Christians have high demands placed upon them. If they are in the spirit the spirit will empower them to do good, to live the Law of Love.