Rebekah Pearson ’22 is a Religious Studies-Dance Performance double major. In Prof. Newton’s Introduction to the New Testament course, she examined Paul’s Letter to the Galatians as an artifact of competing social definitions. This essay was part of her group’s Bible in Culture zine. Learn more in the first, second, third, and fourth posts of the series.
Imagine this: You have been running for over an hour and you finally make it to what you think is the finish line of your first 10K. But wait! There is no finish line and no crowd cheering you on. All of a sudden you realize that at some point along the way you have made a wrong turn. Now not only are you lost, but you also have to turn around and backtrack to the starting line, only to re-run the entire race. In the biblical Epistle to the Church at Galatia, commonly known as “Galatians,” the recipients of Paul’s letter must have felt similarly. As the people of Galatia are being told many versions of what being a part of the new Christian collective means, Paul, in his epistle to the church at Galatia, rebukes the false teachings that are being spread and reminds his churches of the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He establishes not only his authority, but also the authority of the message of faith he preaches so that the Galatians can be certain that they are not living their lives in vain.
“Galatians” was written in the mid-50s C.E to a collective, or in Greek “ecclesia,” in a region of Asia Minor called Galatia (“Intro to Galatians”). At this time the Jesus movement was young. Apostles like Peter and James (the brother of Jesus), as well as the witnesses of Christ’s miracles, were the closest links to Jesus Christ himself. The theology of the Christian movement was still being worked out, leading to some confusion among Christ- followers.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul admonished those who were led astray from the message he had taught previously. As compared to the epistles to the church at Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians) and the church at Philippi (Philippians), Paul’s tone towards the Galatians is harsh and corrective, rather than encouraging and constructive. He believes that the Galatians have strayed from the true gospel. After his own conversion, when “God…was pleased to reveal his Son to [him]” (Galatians 1:15-16), Paul leaves for Arabia so that he might learn only from God the true gospel, or good news, of Jesus Christ. After three years, Paul meets only with Peter, (“Cephas” in Aramaic) and James the Just in Jerusalem before beginning his missionary journeys. However, he is quick to point out that he later reconvenes with several key leaders in Jerusalem, also known as the “Jerusalem Council,” as seen in Acts 15, “in order to make sure that [he] was not runnin
g, or had not run in vain” (Galatians 2:2). At this point the leaders in Jerusalem have already confirmed the gospel Paul is preaching. He knows with absolute certainty that the gospel he proclaims is “right.”
This conviction becomes particularly important in the time that Paul writes “Galatians” as there is another gospel being preached. Here, Paul does not hesitate to remark on the different gospels being preached in this time. He speaks particularly sharply about one such gospel being preached by those among the Jerusalem Council–for the purpose of this argument, a “derivative gospel.” Throughout Galatians Paul definitively distinguishes the gospel that he preaches and knows to be true versus the gospel taught by many other “rival missionaries” (Hays, 2006, pg. 1973). Paul’s gospel is this: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us…in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we may receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Galatians 3:13-14). Essentially, “‘righteousness’ depends not on observance of Jewish law but on God’s promise and its fulfillment through the death of Jesus Christ” (Hays, pg. 1973). The derivative gospel being preached is that Gentiles who have come to faith in Christ must carry out Jewish cultural practices (e.g., circumcision) in order to be right with God. Paul rebukes this teaching.
Paul and those he opposes are fighting over the proper way to follow Christ. Essentially it all circles back to how Christ and his life, death, and resurrection, fit into Jewish identity. The argument at this point concerns not the beliefs of Jews and Christians, but rather the process of “doing Jewish” and the “operational acts of identification” that come with it. At this point, identifying as “Jewish” and as a Christ-follower are symbiotic categories. Although in “Galatians” it appears that Paul and those in Jerusalem are pitted against each other, “historically… The evidence suggests that though the relationship involved tension, the two were not enemies” (Painter, 2018). Through his letter to the Galatians, Paul acknowledges the dissonance between the two gospels being preached and provides an argument for why his gospel of faith is correct. He finds it necessary to make sure that his disciples, and in turn disciples of Christ, are not running the wrong race, a race “in vain.”
Hays, Richard B. “The Letter of Paul to the Galatians.” The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, edited by Harold W. Attridge, HarperCollins Publishers, 2006, 1972-1981.
“Intro to Galatians.” Biblica, The International Bible Society, 9 Nov. 2016, www.biblica.com/resources/scholar-notes/niv-study-bible/intro-to-galatians/.
Painter, John. “James and Paul.” Bible Odyssey. Society of Biblical Literature, 2018, https://www.bibleodyssey.org/people/related-articles/james-and-paul. Accessed 25 April 2019.
Smith, Daniel L. Into the World of the New Testament: Greco-Roman and Jewish Texts and Contexts. T&T Clark, 2015.