The Letter of Paul to the Galatians Online Commentary (19)

In the first entry in the Bible Junkies Online Commentary on Galatians, I discussed introductory matters concerning the founding of the churches to the Galatians, the situation when Paul wrote to them, when the letter might have been written and the type of letters which Paul wrote, based on the common Greco-Roman letters of his day. In the second post, I considered the basic content and breakdown of a Pauline letter. I noted the major sections of the formal letter structure and, in the context of each section, outlined the theological and ethical (as well as other) concerns of Paul, including some Greek words which will be examined more fully as we continue with the commentary. In the third entry, I looked at the salutation, which is long for Paul’s corpus (only Romans 1:1-7 is longer) and briefly commented on the lack of a Thanksgiving, the only letter of Paul’s which does not have one. The fourth entry discussed the opening of the body of the letter, a significant part of the letter especially in light of the absence of a Thanksgiving. In the fifth entry, I examined the beginning of the opening of the body of the letter, in which Paul describes his background in Judaism and I placed this in the context of Judaism in the Hellenistic period. In the sixth post in the online commentary, I continued to look at Paul’s biographical sketch of his life, this concerning his earliest life as a Christian. In the seventh post, I examined what Paul says about his subsequent visit to Jerusalem to see the apostles and the Church in Jerusalem. In the eighth entry, Paul confronts Cephas about his hypocrisy in Antioch. 

The ninth blog post started to examine the theological argument in one of Paul’s most important and complex theological letters. In the tenth entry, Paul makes an emotional appeal to the Galatians based on their past religious experiences and their relationship with Paul. In the eleventh chapter in the series, Paul began to examine Abraham in light of his faith. The twelfth blog post continued Paul’s examination of Abraham, but also claims that Christ “redeemed” his followers from the “curse” of the Law.  In the thirteenth study in the Galatians online commentary, we looked at Paul’s claim that God’s promises were to Abraham and his “offspring,” with a twist on the meaning of “offspring.” The fourteenth entry examined Paul’s question, in light of his claims about the law, as to why God gave the law. The fifteenth chapter in this commentary examines the function of the law, while the sixteenth post studied how the members of the Church are heirs to the promise.

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In the seventeenth entry, I observed what it means to be an heir in Paul’s theological scenario. And in the eighteenth installment, Paul transitions back to his relationship with the Galatians, but before he concentrates on this in full, he returns to the issue of the stoicheia, commonly known as the four cosmic powers, earth, air, water and fire. In the nineteenth blog post, which is found below, Paul draws on his personal relations with the Galatians to draw them to his point of view.

4. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians  

d) Body of the Letter (1:13-6:10):

iv) Theological Teaching (2:15-5:12): Paul's relationship with the Galatians (4:12-20). 

12 Friends, I beg you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are. You have done me no wrong. 13 You know that it was because of a physical infirmity that I first announced the gospel to you; 14 though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn or despise me, but welcomed me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. 15 What has become of the goodwill you felt? For I testify that, had it been possible, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me. 16 Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth? 17 They make much of you, but for no good purpose; they want to exclude you, so that you may make much of them. 18 It is good to be made much of for a good purpose at all times, and not only when I am present with you. 19 My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, 20 I wish I were present with you now and could change my tone, for I am perplexed about you. (NRSV)

One of the difficulties with interpreting this section of Galatians is that it reflects the complexities, intimacies and lived realities that are only known fully to the people in the relationship. The events and experiences to which Paul refers cannot be understood totally even if we had all of the data, which we do not. Even more, though, like most relationships there are hidden places where the thoughts, feelings and emotions are only known to those who have experienced them. Paul draws upon these intimacies and shared experiences and this creates a sort of vagueness for those of us who are sharing in the relationship all these many centuries later. It does not mean we can make no sense of Paul’s thoughts and feelings, only that we cannot be certain of our reconstruction.

What is fascinating is how many books on Paul simply ignore this passage in otherwise thorough examinations of this letter. I did not do a systematic study of secondary literature, but in a quick check of my own library, I found only one or two books that spent any time on this passage at all. It might be because this is not considered a central passage in Paul’s general theological argument in Galatians or because it is seen as peripheral to his specific discussion of law, but I think the passage offer more insight to Paul’s argument (and mind) than is given credit.

Michael Gorman describes Paul’s passage in this way: “appealing now to his initial, warm relationship with the Galatians, Paul begs them not to allow his work to have been in vain (4:12-20). His tone is one of confusion as well as scolding (4:20) as he complains – in creative and compelling imagery – that he has to go through the process of pregnancy/fetal development and the pains of childbirth with them all over again (4:19)” (Apostle of the Crucified Lord, 211-12). What does this all mean for Paul and his world of thought?

The first verse, 4:12, “Friends, I beg you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are. You have done me no wrong,” is not initially clear. What does it mean for the Galatians to become as Paul is as Paul became as “you are”? Stephen Westerholm states that it refers to Paul’s “abandoning of ritual observance in the course of his activity among the Galatians” (Israel’s Law and the Church’s Faith, 95-96), with which Heikki Raisanen (Paul and the Law, 75) and Joseph Fitzmyer (NJBC, 788) agree. This does seem possible to me, at least as a partial answer, and would indicate that Paul did not follow all the requirements of the Torah when he was with them (he became as they were) and is now requesting that they do the same and turn away from the requirements of the Torah (become as he is). All of the scholars noted above pair Galatians 4:12 with 1 Corinthians 9:20-21 to indicate Paul’s common practice among Gentile churches.

It does seem to me, though, that Paul could also be drawing on another motif in this passage, that of “imitation”   (mimesis; verb: mimêomai). This is often connected in classical literature, not just Paul’s letters, to the role of children in “copying” the life or “shaping” their life in the image of a superior, especially a parent or a teacher.  In fact, much of Paul’s actual use of the word “imitation,” which is admittedly not used here, comes in the context of a discussion of the members of his churches as “children” or “infants” (on “imitation” see 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 1 Thessalonians 2:14; 1 Corinthians 4:13-17; 1 Corinthians 10:26-11:1; Philippians 3:13-17; see also 2 Thessalonians 3:7-9; Ephesians 4:31-5:1.)

Paul is generally a spiritual “father” to his churches (see 1 Thessalonians 2:11; 1 Corinthians 4:14-16; 2 Corinthians 11:2), the one after whom they are to model themselves as his spiritual children. One is called to imitate the parent in order to grow from “infancy” to “maturity.” David Stanley, S.J., the great Jesuit biblical scholar said, imitation “is the working out in them, through divine grace, of what constitutes the object of Paul’s kerygma, their assimilation to Christ who has attained glory through suffering” (D. M. Stanley, S.J. “Become Imitators of Me,” 868-869).

It is no surprise, then, that later in this passage Paul will speak of these Galatian Christians, who ought to have moved from childhood under the law to maturity in Christ as “my little children” (tekna mou), but in this case as their mother.  Paul uses concrete maternal imagery: “my little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you (Galatians 4:19). This is not the only place Paul describes himself as the “mother” of his churches, but it is always when they are behaving as infants or little children. One occurrence is in 1 Thessalonians 2:7, when Paul speaks of himself as a nurse caring for his children, when the Thessalonians first became Christians, and the other is in 1 Corinthians 3:1-4, when Paul chastises the Corinthians for behaving like infants instead of growing up. Galatians 4:19 is more similar to 1 Corinthians because Paul believes the Galatians have turned away from previous maturity which has already been gained and have gone back to spiritual infancy. Paul, in fact, has to “mother” the Galatians once again and give birth to them one more time.

In between Galatians 4:12 and 4:19, Paul goes back over information the Galatians must certainly have known, describing how “it was because of a physical infirmity that I first announced the gospel to you; though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn or despise me, but welcomed me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. What has become of the goodwill you felt? For I testify that, had it been possible, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me” (Galatians 4:13-15). Scholars and ordinary readers have looked for clues in Paul’s letters as to what this infirmity might be, with some lighting on 4:15 and the mention of eyes here as a key piece of information. It is too speculative, however, to say that Paul definitively had trouble with his eyes and one cannot be certain of Paul’s ailments. There is a fair degree of agreement, though, that whatever Paul suffered was probably the result of physical persecutions and this might mean that Paul had numerous wounds and infirmities. His claim that they did not “scorn or despise” Paul, “but welcomed me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus,” indicates that they looked beyond his physical sufferings and were able to see who he was and what he offered to them as a spiritual guide: the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

If the Galatians were able to accept the physically infirm Paul, perhaps beaten and battered, and accept the Gospel through him, why have they turned away from that Gospel, he asks? And at a more personal level, why are they now rejecting their spiritual father Paul who brought them the Gospel? “Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?” (Galatians 4:16).  It is obvious that there are personal issues for Paul here as well as theological ones. The Galatians have rejected Paul for other spiritual teachers.

Paul rejects these teachers of the law. He says that “they make much of you (zêloô, “they are zealous for you”), but for no good purpose; they want to exclude you, so that you may make much of them (zêloô)” (Galatians 4:17). It seems they have, in Paul’s mind, flattered and fawned over the Galatians, but he understands their purpose as one of exclusion. The word ἐκκλείω (ekkleiô) can be translated a number of ways, such as “exclude” (NRSV), “alienate” (NIV), “isolate” (NAB), or “shut you out” (NJBC, 788), but it seems that Paul understands their purpose as attempting to cut the Galatians off from the broader Church by cutting them off from Paul.   The fact that Paul uses ekkleiô to describe their actions, so close to the word for church, ekklêsia, might not be an accident. Paul might want the Galatians to think about what they are being cut off from. It is also no accident, I think, that Paul describes these interlopers as “zealous” for the Galatians; the other time that Paul uses this word  apart from this section is to describe his former life under the law (zêlôtês in Galatians 1:14).

It is Paul, as their “founder and ‘mother’” (Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord, 212), who wants them to be “zealous.” He says, “it is good to be made much of (zêlousthai) for a good purpose at all times, and not only when I am present with you” (Galatians 4:18). I think it is possible to read this as Paul wishing for them to be “zealous” for a good cause at all times and not just when Paul is with them, though the verb in the passive tense does suggest that Paul cares zealously for them and they ought to know that even when he is not with them.

Finally Paul ends by saying, “My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, I wish I were present with you now and could change my tone, for I am perplexed about you” (Galatians 4:19-20).  We have already looked at 4:19, but 4:20 brings us back to the personal, relational nature of this section. Paul really cannot believe why the Galatians are acting this way, but he has nothing to add to the personal nature of this plea right now.

Next entry, we begin the Allegory of Hagar and Sarah.

John W. Martens

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