Before talking about Paul’s Letter to Galatians , some notes on Paul’s Letters in General
The ease we have in reading, writing, and communicating makes it easy to misunderstand Paul’s letters. First, the writing. This is not Paul sitting down at a desk and dashing off an email to the Corinthians, or slapping on a 50cent stamp. From general knowledge of the day as well as hints in Paul’s letters, we know several things. Paul is unlikely to be the sole person responsible for the content or form of these letters. He often mentions other people in the greeting, that the letter is coming from. The physical writing, and perhaps some (most?) of the form or phraseology was done by a scribe or amanuensis in collaboration with Paul and company, e.g. Romans 16:22 “I Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord.”
“Tertius” was a Roman name (often used for a third child), sometimes used by Jews. Most of the ancient world was too illiterate to write letters, certainly letters as sophisticated as this one; they depended instead on scribes. Those who were highly literate were also wealthy enough that they could dictate letters to scribes as well, sometimes their own secretaries, who were usually literate slaves. Paul’s host may have lent him his scribe, or Tertius may have been a professional scribe; in any case, Tertius seems to be a believer, because scribes did not normally add their own greetings. That Paul followed the common practice of signing dictated letters (1 Cor 16:21; Gal 6:11; Col 4:18; 2 Thess 3:17) indicates that he used scribes regularly.- The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament
Paul himself could only write roughly (6:11), and sometimes penned a short note at the end of a letter, e.g.
See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand! (Gal 6:11 NRS)
I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. (1Co 16:21 NRS)
I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you. (Col 4:18 NRS)
Once sent, these letters were essentially understood as speech written down. That is, Paul’s letters (and letters in general) were not read in silence by individuals, but meant to be read out loud in public, to the congregation(s), as if Paul himself were there speaking those words. They were letters, but oral letters.
“when this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you read also the letter from Laodicea.” (Col 4:16 NRS)
“I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to everyone.” (1Th 5:27)
Second, the entire process of composing, writing, and sending a letter was potentially quite costly. From Huntsman’s article below, a short letter like Philemon would have been about $80, and Romans perhaps as much as $2300 to write and send! That’s not a typo. I strongly recommend reading
- Lincoln Blumell’s “Scribes and Ancient Letters: Implications for the Pauline Epistles” here, and
- Eric Huntsman’s “The Occasional Nature, Structure, and Structure of Paul’s Letters” here.
On to Galatians itself. First, note at the end of v.2, this is a circular letter. It’s sent to a general region (presumably with multiple congregations) and meant to be redistributed. It’s like writing “a letter to the Minnesotans” or “a letter to the Arizonans.”
Among the authentic Pauline letters, Galatians holds a peculiar position.
While all the others are addressed to churches in Macedonia, Greece, and Rome,
only Galatians has survived from what must have been at one time a larger correspondence
with churches in Asia Minor (unless Romans 16 was originally addressed to Ephesus).
– “Galatians, Epistle to the,” Anchor Bible Dictionary
Status of the Torah
Paul wastes no time in getting to his point in v.6
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel– 7 not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! 9 As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!
As a sidenote, this passage has often been wielded against LDS by Protestants. Since we don’t embrace salvation-by-faith-alone the way (some) Protestants understand it (and they do have different understandings), Mormons are guilty of preaching “another gospel,”namely, a “gospel of works” instead of Jesus and grace. Adding in Paul’s mention of “even if… an angel from heaven” which sounds like LDS proclamations of Moroni and other angels restoring the gospel, and some go so far as to say “here Paul prophesies about the Mormon heresy.”
The problem, of course, is that such an accusation is begging the question about what the good news, “the gospel” consists of. The post-Lutheran understanding of Paul and salvation by grace held by many Protestants is far from the original intent of the New Testament (see the middle of my post here for a short summary), and Mormon understandings of grace and covenant much closer to it. While not a lengthy explanation, Joseph Smith’s statement at least points us in the right direction.
“The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it. – TPJS, 121.”
Think about that! The Book of Mormon, the temple, the Word of Wisdom, missionary work… all these things are secondary to our religion, appendages, in some sense, to the central principle of divine Jesus, died and resurrected. Returning to Paul, he continues his harangue.”You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” What is Paul talking about in such strong terms? (“Galatian” may be a derogatory term, so it might be really strong language.) Some Galatians, apparently, while still accepting Jesus, had reincorporated the Law of Moses, circumcision, and kosher laws. Again, the logic made sense to them. But Paul spends the letter making a variety of arguments, from logic and from scripture, that to follow these things was to reject Jesus. Eventually, he bluntly says
“I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you.
3 Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law.” 5:2–3 (NRSV).
Paul argues this through logic and scriptural interpretation. Among others, he goes to Abraham, who was declared righteous in God’s eyes before the law was given. If Abraham can be, so can we, he says. (Some of this is pretty subtle.)
Just as Abraham “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” [quoting Genesis 15:6] 7 so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham. 8 And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.” 9 For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed. 10 For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.” 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for “The one who is righteous will live by faith.” 12 But the law does not rest on faith; on the contrary, “Whoever does the works of the law will live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”— 14 in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. (NRSV)
Now, what about that latter weird stuff about cursing, the curse of the law or Torah? It’s a fun topic. Essentially, what Paul is saying here is this. Under the Law of Moses, keeping the Torah brought blessings, violating the Torah brought cursings. Remember back when the glorified Jesus appeared to Paul, how “Christ crucified” was a stumbling block to the Jews (1Co 1:23)? To be crucified was seen as a mark of being cursed by God. Obviously you can’t have God’s chosen one simultaneously be cursed by God… yet Paul knew by spiritual experience that the crucified (cursed?) Jesus was also the resurrected, glorified, messianic Jesus. Paul had to work this out, and this passage, apparently, makes it clear. Under the Torah, Deuteronomy 21:22-23 says,
When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse. (NRSV)
This is the passage Paul’s quoting here in Galatians, and he seems to argue that Jesus was cursed. However, he was not cursed for anything he did; rather, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” In this sense, we are cursed, and Jesus becomes/receives the curse in our place, by proxy or substitution. (I know this has theological/philosophical problems, but it’s what Paul teaches here, at least as one model of atonement.) Thus,
In his death Jesus identified himself with the transgressors and took upon himself the curse sanctions of the covenant that were invoked whenever the stipulations of the covenant were ignored. In an act of supreme obedience, Jesus died a representative death as the cursed one so that those whom he represents may receive the blessings of the covenant promised to those who obey its mandates. Christ’s priestly self-offering accomplished redemption finally and perfectly because he made the definitive offering for sins. The concept of redemption is thus fully assimilated to the writer’s sacrificial categories. From the perspective of covenant practice, Christ’s death was a covenant sacrifice, which consummated the old order and inaugurated the new order.- Word Biblical Commentary, Hebrews at Heb 9:15
While you’re processing that, let me present the verses again, but from NT Wright’s translation.
10 Because, you see, those who belong to the ‘works-of-the-law’ camp are under a curse! Yes, that’s what the Bible says: ‘Cursed is everyone who doesn’t stick fast by everything written in the book of the law, to perform it.’ 11 But, because nobody is justified before God in the law, it’s clear that ‘the righteous shall live by faith’. 12 The law, however, is not of faith: rather, ‘the one who does them shall live in them’.13 The Messiah redeemed us from the curse of the law, by becoming a curse on our behalf, as the Bible says: ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’ 14 This was so that the blessing of Abraham could flow through to the nations in King Jesus—and so that we might receive the promise of the spirit, through faith.
Gospel unity and identity– Among others, I’ve spent significant time in Chicago, New York, London, Los Angeles, and Paris. I’ve seen diversity of all kinds, and all the problems coming from competing identities within a congregation. But this is not a new problem. Paul offers at least a theoretical solution, and he had to deal with an even broader diversity (wealth, race, gender, language, religious background, but also extremes of class: Roman citizen, non-citizen, and slave and maybe other variants.)
3:27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. – Ga 3:26–29.
Obviously upon baptism, one does not lose the qualities of “male” or “slave” or “Greek.” But once baptized, all other identities and divisions are supposed to fall away in order that we may be one in Christ. That’s aspirational and difficult. I quite naturally find it much easier to talk to and understand people like me. It is one of the great strengths of the Church that we don’t (at least in theory) shop around for a congregation, but are assigned one. In Minnesota, in New York, in Chicago, that meant a broad variety of people. We’re forced to interact with, serve, and be served by people we wouldn’t normally associate with, and that builds charity. This is the point made at length by Eugene England in his famous article, “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel.”
Notably, perhaps, this system fails in Utah and other Mormon-heavy areas where, because of the high concentration of Mormons, your ward is essentially your block, your same socio-economic group. How do we fix this? How does Paul’s experience map onto ours? Does his solution help, or is it too theoretical?
Galatians and the Jerusalem Council On this, I’m going to punt, and simply provide more material.
- Ensign “A Crisis, a Council, and Inspired Leadership”
- Frank Judd, “The Jerusalem Conference: The First Council of the Christian Church” in The Religious Educator
- And two articles, one from the Anchor Bible Dictionary and one from the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, combined in one pdf, here.
And lastly, Paul has a throwaway statement in 1:16-17, that after his vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus, “I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.”
Arabia? Paul has a vision and immediately goes to Arabia? first, where, and second, why? Venerable gentleman and scholar Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, who wrote some quality books on Paul (and the Holy Land!), had some ideas about Paul and Arabia. As it turns out, it probably means Nabatea, of which the capital was… Petra. Yes, Indiana Jones may well be following in Paul’s footsteps. See his article, “What was Paul doing in Arabia?”
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