Saturday, November 28, 2009

Historical meditation on Paul's Epistle to the Galatians

1) Opinions vary as to the date, origin, and destination of this letter, but I will restrict my commentary to the scholarly opinion to which I subscribe. (For those of you who are keeping track, I subscribe to the south Galatian theory.) It is my opinion that Paul wrote this letter from Syrian Antioch to the saints in the central Asian province of Galatia (in what is now Turkey). The Epistle to the Galatians is one of a body of letters that Paul wrote to some of the churches that he had established during his first missionary journey. As for when he wrote this letter, I believe that he wrote it prior to the Jerusalem Conference, which took place in A.D. 49 and is recorded in Acts 15. Galatians is notable because it deals directly with the question of what role (if any) the Mosaic Law should play in the salvation of a gentile convert (or any convert for that matter), and yet Paul neglects to mention the Jerusalem Conference even once. This is telling, because Paul was personally involved in the events immediately leading to the Conference and helped to draft and distribute the ultimate decision of the Apostles and elders of the Church concerning what would be expected of gentile converts in a ritual sense. Here are the basics of the text of the Official Declaration published by the Apostles as a result of the conference (see Acts 15:24-29):

Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment: . . .For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well.

If Paul’s letter to the Galatians does indeed predate the clear statement of policy and doctrine issued at the Jerusalem Conference, it might help to explain why in later chapters (of Galatians) there seems to be some confusion or at least a difference of opinion among the brethren over precisely how the Gentiles were to be integrated with the church in Jerusalem.

2) Paul’s inspiration for writing to the Galatians appears to be a desire to answer and denounce the false teachings of Judah-izing emissaries that had apparently come out of Jerusalem. These missionaries were teaching some modified form of the Gospel that apparently emphasized mosaic ritual (especially circumcision) as the required mode of salvation. It appears that they wanted to convince the newly baptized saints that The Mosaic Law was the foundation of God’s church, and that the gospel was an addition or an appendage to it. They appear to be at least aware of Paul and his preaching among the gentiles, and in some instances seem intent upon discrediting Paul himself as well as his teachings. (See Acts 21:20-21, 2 Corinthians Chs. 10-11) There is some confusion regarding the identity of these missionaries, and especially regarding whether or not they represented the church at Jerusalem. Certain scholars have imagined that there was a rift, both doctrinal and personal, between Paul and the Elders at Jerusalem. These missionaries are imagined to represent more conservative elements of the church, and the whole episode is viewed as mere squabbling between two competing schools of thought within the church. The notion that Paul was some kind of radical who drew the ire of more conservative clergy by acting on his own without consulting the brethren is a wholly false one. While these “missionaries” were and are lent some authority by their apparent origin at Church headquarters, it is unlikely that they held any actual authority to speak on behalf of Peter or any of the Apostles. Judging from what we read in Acts 15:24, these men, or others very much like them were spreading false teachings and trouble throughout the church without (and in fact contrary to) the sanction or approval of the Apostles at Jerusalem or anywhere else. It is my opinion that these men were Pharisaic Jews that had at one point been converted to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but had apostatized over the question of the continued validity of Mosaic Law under the Gospel. Furthermore, it is clear to me that they held no authority whatsoever, and in fact were false teachers and rank heretics in the worst sense. (See 2 Corinthians 11:13-15). In the KJV Bible, Paul refers to these men as “they…which trouble you”, but in other more modern translations (such as the NIV) it is perhaps better rendered when he instead refers to them as “agitators”. I believe that this letter was written (and ultimately the Jerusalem Conference itself was held) in response to a specific wave of heresy and apostasy that swept the church as it made the (somewhat painful but important and necessary) transition from what was essentially a small provincial sect made up largely of Jewish converts to a truly universal religion that consisted of a diverse membership whose religious backgrounds (prior to conversion) varied greatly. Acts records that Paul visited certain cities in the southern part of Galatia (Psidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe) during the course of his first mission. When he left them, they were apparently very devoted to the gospel. Unfortunately, the simple truths of the Gospel had apparently become corrupted in the time since he left them. This appears to be largely the result of the influence of the aforementioned false teachers who preyed upon the naiveté and inexperience of the Galatian saints, but there is also evidence (in Galatians 4:8-10) that the Galatians had allowed some of their old Paganistic beliefs to creep into their Christian worship. In this passage, Paul rebukes the Galatians for “turning again” to the service of “them which by nature are no Gods”, and also for observing “days, and months, and times, and years”, which is probably a reference to their continued (or perhaps resumed) observance of the festival calendar of the Roman imperial cult.

3) The false teachers mentioned in Galatians and elsewhere often sought to undermine and/or discredit Paul’s Apostolic authority. Paul therefore is often found to be writing, at least in part, to firmly establish (or reestablish) the truth of his teachings and the validity and authority of his divine calling as an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ in the minds of uncertain saints. This is especially clear in Galatians, where Paul wastes no time in declaring that his priesthood authority is entirely divine in origin, that is to say that his Apostolic calling comes directly from God the Father, and Jesus Christ and not from any earthly source (Galatians 1:1). He goes on to assert his superiority over those false teachers by emphasizing his apostolic right to receive divine revelation, and the importance of revelation as the source for the doctrine that he teaches (Saints of the LDS persuasion should find those two points to be of particular interest). He also emphasizes that he was specifically called to minister to “the uncircumcision” (the gentiles) as an answer to the charge from various apostates that he was a maverick of sorts that was speaking for himself and not acting in concert with, or according to the doctrine (or policy) of, the Jerusalem church. To counter this accusation, Paul strives to demonstrate that he is acting in harmony with, and under the authority of, the Church leadership in Jerusalem. He (not so subtly) reminds the Galatians that Peter (Cephas), James, and John themselves had extended to him “the right hands of fellowship” in specific and explicit approval of his mission and teachings to the gentiles (see Galatians 2:7-9). In doing this, Paul seeks to demonstrate that he is truly an Apostle of the Lord by making it perfectly clear that he both receives revelation from the Lord, and, as a duly appointed representative of Christ, holds the authority to speak on His behalf (and that he does so with the support and blessing of the Church leadership). Along the same line, Paul also makes a point to underscore the fact that the Gospel, as he himself had preached it unto the Galatian saints, is indeed divine in origin, and that he did not modify or alter it in any way so as to “persuade” and/or “please men” (see Galatians 1:10-12). The notion that Paul had somehow “watered down” the true Gospel so as to appeal to the Gentiles was apparently a common accusation leveled at Paul both by apostate teachers who espoused a more fundamentalist devotion to the Mosaic Law as well as some (perhaps overly) strict and zealous Jewish Christians who were uncomfortable with the influx of so many uncircumcised gentiles into the church and were reluctant to let go of their old ways and way of thinking.

4) In answer to the pollutions of doctrine that had creeped into the church at Galatia, Paul wrote one of the boldest and most passionate declarations of the doctrine that justification comes through faith in the Savior Jesus Christ and in his Atonement, and not through any of the so-called “dead” works of the Mosaic Law. Paul teaches quite clearly in this letter that the Law cannot bring salvation in any form, and that salvation comes only through Christ. Due to it’s strong emphasis on these themes, this letter (along with Romans) helped to spark the protestant reformation. Galatians has been referred to on occasion as a sort of “declaration of independence” from the law. According to BYU professors D. Kelly Ogden and Andrew C. Skinner in their book “Verse by verse: Acts through Revelation”; “The terms free and freedom are used eleven times in [this] brief epistle”.

5) Paul gives a short account of his calling to Christ, and his subsequent activities in Ch. 1. In verse 17 he mentions that after his heavenly visitation (and subsequent recovery and conversion) on the way to (and in) Damascus he spent time in “Arabia”, and then returned to Damascus over a period of 3 years before returning to Jerusalem. Paul may not have actually traveled all that far, as Damascus was a part of “Arabia” in Roman times. This region was also known as “Nabatea” and was ruled by the builders of the monumental tombs at the (now ruined) city of Petra in what is now modern day Jordan. While Acts records that the Jewish population in Damascus conspired to have Paul killed, Paul claims additionally in 2 Corinthians 11:32-33 that “the governor under Aretas the King…[desired] to apprehend me”. According to Paul, this is what occasioned his dramatic escape from Damascus in a basket lowered out of a window in the wall of the city during the night. Apparently Paul did more than just anger the local Jews, but in fact provoked the ire of the king himself. This may have been exacerbated by the fact that relations between the aforementioned Nabatean King Aretas IV (who ruled from Petra) and Herod Antipus (and by extension, Rome) had deteriorated to a point that it would have been dangerous for a Jewish preacher of any sort to work in Arabia.

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