The Jewish Paul: A Running Commentary on Galatians (Part 1)

The writings of the Apostle Paul are recognized by everyone as of major importance to the origins of Christianity yet his statements can often seem contradictory, confusing, and even impenetrable. This perceptual problem has existed since the earliest centuries of the church when educated Christian theologians wrestled with Paul’s letters often trying to untangle or reinterpret Paul’s meaning for a new generation. Much of this struggle with Paul’s writings, however, derives from a basic misunderstanding of Paul that has by now become common: as a frustrated Jew who came to understand how Judaism had not only failed him but was, in fact, a failed religion and how only Christianity could offer him salvation from his sins and freedom from the Law, a thing Judaism could never do.

After nearly two-thousand years, a growing number of scholars are rising up to challenge this Christian supersessionist model of Paul (supersessionist = the assertion that Christianity supersedes and replaces Judaism as God’s favored religion). These scholars come armed with a much fuller and more sympathetic understanding of first-century Judaism. They study intently how Jewish-pagan relations actually worked in the ancient Roman world. They are beginning to read Paul as he seems to understand himself: as an observant Jew accepting a calling to become a (or the) apostle to the Gentiles (non-Jews). Paul’s letters are, in fact, written to this very target audience: non-Jews. The issues he deals with in those letters concern Gentiles and the brand-new offer that he brings to them: to become justified (or, better = to be “made righteous”) before the God of Israel. They can be righteoused so that they, too, might share in the glorious benefits of the coming Kingdom (which Paul believed was due at any moment).

When reading Paul this way, with Judaism and not against it, many seeming inconsistencies and contradictions melt away. There is of course no way to completely understand anyone from remote antiquity whose thoughts are only revealed in a limited number of one-sided correspondences. Yet, it is amazing how well this approach makes intelligible and consistent so much of Paul’s thought. There is perhaps no better (or shorter) way to demonstrate how this works than to take up a very important letter, the one he wrote to the Gentiles in Galatia, and offer a reorienting, running commentary on it.

In the next series of blog posts, I will present the text of Galatians (generally following the New English Translation though modifying the translation where necessary based on an alternative reading of the Greek original) along with intertextual comments in bold and in brackets [] that will help readers come to know Paul as a Jewish apostle to the Gentiles, which is, after all, what he claimed to be. Nearly all of the text of the letter will be presented omitting only some biographical material in chapter 1 and some prayers and good wishes in the closing chapters. We will avoid none of the so-called “difficult” passages. However, one must read this commentary from the beginning in order to understand certain basic concepts that follow throughout the letter, concepts that, due to space limitations, will not be continually repeated throughout (though some will bear repeating).

So, open your minds, put aside everything you thought you knew about Paul, and follow along as the apostle to the Gentiles responds (rather angrily at times) to a problem that has arisen in his community of Gentile converts in the Roman province of Galatia. Some members of that community are accepting if not advocating a change in the way that Christ-believers practice their faith, a change Paul vigorously opposes.

The Letter to the Galatians

1:1 From Paul, an apostle (not from men, nor by human agency [Paul will explain below that he received his “gospel” from a revelation, not from human transmission], but by Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead) 2 and all the brothers with me, to the churches of Galatia [it is vital for the proper reading of this letter to understand that these churches are composed of Gentiles – everything Paul says in this letter is directed to and about Gentiles – we will demonstrate this as we move along]. 3 Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave himself for our [Paul uses the inclusive plural (“our,” “we”) many times in this letter in order to rhetorically identify himself with his audience using a common Greek rhetorical device known as pluralis societatis] sins [these are Gentile sins; until now, Gentiles had no access to atonement or redemption – Jews had been provided the means of atonement for sin since the reception of the Torah] to rescue us [inclusive language but meaning the Galatian Gentiles] from this present evil age [a Jewish apocalyptic view that demonic forces were currently in charge of the world] according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be glory forever and ever! Amen.

1:6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you [this could refer to them deserting Paul or the Spirit which Paul says was active in their community] by the grace of Christ and are following a different gospel— 7 not that there really is another gospel [Paul initially admits that there are multiple gospels – he will say so again below – but then retracts the statement upon further reflection, perhaps to avoid giving his opponents any credence], but there are some who are disturbing you and wanting to distort the gospel of Christ [that is, the gospel Paul brought to them]. 8 But even if we (or an angel from heaven [Why an angel of heaven? Many apocalyptic Jews like Paul believed that angels influenced much of human and world activity. Some believed that angels were assigned to oversee the nations and watch over them (c.f. Acts 7:38, 53]) should preach a gospel [here he admits again that there were other gospels] contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be condemned to hell! 9 As we have said before, and now I say again, if anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received [from Paul], let him be condemned to hell! 10 Am I now trying to gain the approval of people, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a slave of Christ! [Paul’s audience understood that he was frequently persecuted for his teachings. He would not be so persecuted, he insists, if he taught a more popular gospel. How could it be more popular? Paul will say below that he once taught that Gentiles needed to be circumcised (essentially converting to Judaism) in order to be made righteous. Circumcision was part of what his opponents were advocating, though not, apparently, for full conversion to Judaism. They were advocating this, Paul insists, to line up better with current social expectations (pleasing people). Paul’s teaching counters social expectations: his Gentiles stop worshiping pagan gods in order to exclusively worship the God of Israel yet they do not convert to Judaism. Paul often uses slave language as he does here. Slavery was ubiquitous in the Roman world – the institution touched nearly every soul in some way.]

1:11 Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 For I did not receive it or learn it from any human source; instead I received it by a revelation of Jesus Christ [In this way, Paul differentiates himself from those who walked with Jesus and taught a “good news” message to other Jews in Palestine. Paul insists that what he teaches did not originate with the historical Jesus or his apostles but came to him via divine revelation. This claim would leave Paul vulnerable to obvious skepticism.].

1:13 For you have heard of my former way of life in Judaism [It is important to read this passage as it is translated here which refers to Paul’s former way of expressing his Judaism. That is, by his zealous claim to understand Jewish faith and follow it better than other Jews. There were many forms and expressions of Judaism at this time. Paul is not saying that he once was a Jew and now he is not.], how I was savagely persecuting the church of God and trying to destroy it. 14 I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my nation, and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my ancestors [These words offer a small window into how Paul was expressing his Judaism – he was “advancing,” that is, in knowledge and understanding, more than other Jews that he knew. Paul was zealous, that is, he was forceful in decrying other forms of Judaism than his own. This included that form of Judaism which claimed that the crucified Jesus was the messiah and, most likely, their belief that Gentiles now had some means other than conversion of entering the coming kingdom.]. 15 But when the one who set me apart from birth and called me [Paul was called to a vocation, not “converted” to Christianity, in the same way that the prophets of old were commissioned – Isa. 49:1; Jer. 1:5] by his grace was pleased 16 to reveal his Son in me so that I could preach him among the Gentiles…. [Paul then goes on to say that he did not stop to confer with anyone but traveled about. Nothing in these lines suggests that Paul stopped being Jewish. He came to another understanding of Judaism which required him to stop persecuting at least one form of it, Jewish messianism focused on Jesus. This change came about, he says, as the result of revelation. Such claims identify Paul as an apocalyptic mystic, one who believed in a variety of cosmic beings, divine revelations, and portentous notions of a coming end to the age.]

Come back soon for Part 2!