22 Sep 2019

Galatians, a First Century Jewish Document: Examining a Few Exegetical Assumptions

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Exegesis, Galatians, Hebrew Bible, Hermeneutics, Jewish Backgrounds, Martin Luther, Paul, Uncategorized
Nanos volume contains some extremely helpful essays on reading Galatians as a first century Jewish document.

Galatians is a book that will tax a readers reading. It is a swirling vortex of Pauline applied theology. The letter was written to a very specific place, in space and time dealing, with a very specific issue. As readers of this letter two thousand years later it demands we check our assumptions at the door. We may find that they are quite alien to AD 49.

In my life this examination of assumptions has not happened with the scrutiny that Paul may need. Many of the presuppositions we bring, I am convinced, can have serious repercussions on how we hear the letter. Many of the assumptions we have historically read this letter through have to do with Judaism and the Hebrew Bible. So in an effort to read the Galatian letter more faithfully in its first half of the first century context, I offer these Sunday evening reflections.

First. Perhaps the foundational assumption of all assumptions, grounded in centuries of caricature, is that the “Old Testament” and Judaism is legalistic and exclusivistic. This assumption, compounded by F. C. Baur’s thesis that this legalistic Judaism was in dire conflict with Paul’s grace approach to faith has seriously colored Protestant interpretation of Galatians. These two intertwined assumptions have been shown to be historically false however. The Law of Moses does not prohibit Jews from eating with, much less associating with Gentiles. In the Second Temple period there are numerous texts that indicate Jews (who had various opinions btw on the matter) had table fellowship with Gentiles under a wide array of circumstances. We think of Letter of Aristeas, Judith, Philo and others. Jews regarded Abraham as the model of hospitality for being a gracious host and an “ideal guest.” It just is historically incorrect that Jews, as a matter of course, would refuse to eat with Gentiles. When this fact hits us we are then forced to deal with the text in Galatians in its actual historical context.

Second. Whoever the “men from James” were, we know at least two things about them. 1) These men were in Antioch, not Galatia. Paul never says, nor implies, the troublers in Galatia are from Jerusalem or the folks who came to Antioch. 2) These men do not actually represent James’s or the Jerusalem church’s views. This is confirmed by Paul himself because he notes that Titus, a Gentile, was not “compelled to be circumcised” even in the presence of James. Since Titus was not told to be circumcised the question arises, did James and the Jerusalem church make Titus eat by himself while in Jerusalem? I honestly do not believe that to be the case. Some how Titus enjoyed table fellowship even while in Jerusalem itself.

Third. What is most interesting is that Paul never mentions food, kosher or otherwise, in Galatians. Peter did withdraw table fellowship in Antioch, but Paul does not say it was because of food. Protestants have in fact, though, read the text as if it does mention food. Perhaps it was but the text does not state that. And in light of the previous two facts, we are confronted with the likelihood that it was not merely non-kosher food (and again we do not know it was non-kosher or table with both) that offended the men who came from Jerusalem to Antioch (but recall they are not in Galatia). I have come to the position that when Peter withdrew out of fear, that the “Jews” are non-messianic Jews in Judea probably with some connection with the Zealots. Remembering the extremely volatile situation in Judea during the late AD 40’s and 50’s that culminate in the outbreak of war at least makes a plausible case that something beside food spooked Peter. Thus I agree with F. F. Bruce’s observation in his Commentary on Galatians that Peter’s move would be a pastoral move which is why Paul does not say he was guilty of apostasy but hypocrisy.

Fourth. It seems upon historical investigation extremely likely that the troublers in Galatia, not the men from Jerusalem in Antioch, are Gentiles who have converted to Judaism at some earlier point. They are not ethnic Jews. This seems to be what Paul actually says. Note the following renderings of 6.13

For not even they who RECEIVE circumcision do themselves keep the law” (ASV)

those who LET THEMSELVES BE CIRCUMCISED do not observe the law” (Goodspeed’s New Testament)

the ones who ACCEPT circumcision …” (New American Bible)

even those who RECIEVE circumcision …” (New English Bible)

deSilva’s is the most complete Evangelical commentary on Galatians. Though he takes a different view than Nanos on some matters, this is a must for any study of Galatians

This language makes absolutely no sense of a Jew like Paul, Peter, and James who was circumcised on the eighth day of life. Paul states clearly what “we Jews know by birth know” in 2.15-16,

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, yet we know that a person is justified not by works of the law by but through faith.”

In Romans, Paul makes the same point by quoting the Psalms “Do not enter judgement with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you” (Ps 145.2, quoted in Romans 3.20)

But it is “those” who have allowed themselves to be circumcised who are troubling the congregations of Galatia. These are Gentile proselytes, who have a vested interest in getting Gentiles to go through the same initiation rites they themselves have done to become “full fledged Jews.” Paul is adamant that this is not in line with the truth of the gospel.

For Abraham to be the father of many nations Gentiles did not, eschatologically, become Jews. The Gospel is not about making Gentiles into Jews. Nor is it, btw, about making Jews into Gentiles. Abraham is the father of Jews as Jews and Gentiles as Gentiles through the Gospel. The Gospel as the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham is that now the nations, as the nations, have left idolatry and join with Jews in worship of the One True God.

There are many other assumptions that need critical examination when reading Galatians. But when the assumption that Jews, as a matter of course, refused table fellowship with Gentiles is rejected as false (because it is) things suddenly change and Galatians sounds quite different. And when we realize that Jerusalem and Paul are actually on the same page and the men “from” James are not in Galatia, that impacts the reading of the letter. And when we realize that the agitators are almost certainly Gentile converts to Judaism and not ethnic Jews this too greatly impacts understanding the letter. And finally when we notice that food is actually never once mentioned in the letter it is almost breathtaking.

But with each assumption falling by the wayside we come closer to hearing the actual meaning of Paul’s letter. Galatians is about how Gentiles as Gentiles can be citizens in the commonwealth of Israel. It is not some timeless expression of Paul’s view on the “Old Testament” as such or the “law” in particular.

P. S. You may be interested it this:

Romans is not Galatians! Welcome to the Most Jewish Letter in the NT: Assumptions and Surprises

3 Responses to “Galatians, a First Century Jewish Document: Examining a Few Exegetical Assumptions”

  1. Jerry Hamilton Says:

    Need more information about book

  2. Darryl Willis Says:

    Enjoyed the article. Always love reading your work, Bobby!

    Actually, I didn’t realize there were those who confused the “men from James” with the agitators in Galatia. For some reason I never connected the two groups as the same–but that Paul was just using Peter and the “men from James” as an example of Paul’s willingness to confront situations immediately and his unwillingness to compromise.

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