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 this post, we will consider the basic content and breakdown of Paul’s letter before tackling that content in depth.
I will note the major sections of the formal letter structure and, in the context of each section, note the theological and ethical (as well as other) concerns of Paul which will be discussed in forthcoming posts. I will also note some Greek words which need to be examined more fully as weave our way through the letter.
3. Overview of Galatians
i) Paul is noted as the only author, indicating that he alone bears responsibility for what the letter contains (many of his letters have one or two co-authors), even though he is with “all the brothers” (1:1-2); note the strong emphasis on Paul's apostleship as a divine commission (not from or through human beings, but through Jesus Christ and God) (1:1)
ii) Observe the sparseness of his greeting, to “the Churches of Galatia,” with no focus on whether they are called to be saints, for instance, and not described as faithful or steadfast, etc. (1:2)
iii) On the other hand, Paul offers a detailed grace, centered on the sufficiency of Jesus Christ's sacrifice and setting up the theme of the entire letter (1:3-5)
b) Thanksgiving (?):
i) This is the only letter in which Paul does not supply a Thanksgiving, an important part of the Greco-Roman letter in general and a significant element of the Pauline corpus. Scholars have generally considered that Paul is so upset with the churches in Galatia that he would prefer not to offer a Thanksgiving which he does not believe.
c) Opening oftheBodyoftheLetter (1:6-12)
i) The Galatians are turning to “another” Gospel, but Paul stresses that there is no other Gospel, only those who want to pervert the Gospel: who might these people be? (1:6-9)
ii) Does Paul seek to “please people” (1:10)? That Paul is a “people pleaser” in his ministry is most likely a claim made against him.
iii) Paul's reply: his Gospel is not his, it is from God, received through a revelation of Jesus Christ (1:11-12): a question to explore in this letter is how much of the content of his Gospel did Paul receive through revelation? Can this be determined?
d) Body oftheLetter (1:13-6:10):
i) Paul's Background in Judaism (1:13-2:14):
1) Paul, persecutor of the Church, was called by revelation to proclaim the Gospel to the Gentiles; this call, and the Gospel, were not given by human authorities (1:13-24);
2) Paul submits to the Jerusalem authorities, but they uphold his Gospel (2:1-10): if this section of the letter describes the Jerusalem council why is there no mention of Acts 15 decrees?
3) Paul says Peter acts hypocritically when some come from the “circumcision” faction, withdrawing from table fellowship with Gentile Christians (2:11-14): Can we identify those Christians who oppose Paul’s mission with any precision?
ii) Theological Teaching (2:15-5:12):
1) Jews and gentiles “justified” by Christ (2:15-21). What does “justified” (dikaiōsynē) mean? What does Paul mean by “law” (nomos)? What are the “works” (erga) of the law? Paul says “through the law I died to the law” (1:19). What does this mean? What does Paul mean in 1:21 when he uses the word dōrean, which can mean “undeservedly” or “freely,” (in the NRSV, the New Revised Standard Version it is translated as “for nothing”)?
2) How did you receive the Spirit? (3:1-5) Paul here relies on his familiarity with the Galatians and foregoes theological argument to draw on their own religious experience: did the Galatians receive the Spirit by doing works of the law or believing what they heard? Important here will be understanding that the words “believe” and “faith” in English translation both derive from the Greek word pistis and its cognates.
3) Abraham was justified by faith (3:6-18): Abraham, says Paul, drawing on Genesis 15 and 12 in the LXX (Septuagint – the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures), was “justified” by “faith” prior to the giving of the law. As a result Abraham is a model for all those - including Gentiles - who are “justified.” Since the promises were made to Abraham and his “offspring” (sperma, literally, “seed”), which Paul understands as Christ not the Jewish people, this promise cannot be nullified. Christ represents the fulfillment of this earlier promise, that is, earlier than the Torah, so the law cannot take precedence over or replace the promise. One major question for readers today is how to deal with Paul’s ancient midrashic interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures, which was common among Jews and Christians in the ancient world.
4) Why then the law? (3:19-4:11) Paul is now in a difficult theological position: if the promise given to Abraham was always intended to be completed through “faith” in Christ, why then was the law given? What was its purpose? (3:19). Paul says the law was added “because of transgressions” in order to restrain sin (3:19). He also adds that the law was mediated by angels: to what does this refer? Does it reflect a diminishing of the law's importance?
Paul also says that the law could not do what it was intended to do (3:21-23). Why? Why could the law not “make alive” (3:21)?
The law functioned as a paidagōgos, says Paul, a word which will have to be examined in depth in our study (3:24). It refers to a slave guardian who cared for a child prior to the age of majority: Paul states the law was a guardian until Christ came and those who believed in Christ received their inheritance, no longer slaves, but heirs (3:25-4:11).
Paul also uses the word stoicheia, which refers to the “elemental spirits,” water, air, earth and fire, often considered as gods in the Greco-Roman period (4:3, 9). Why does the issue of stoicheia arise? Is Paul comparing the law of Moses to the stoicheia?
5) Paul's relationship with the Galatians (4:12-20)
Paul makes an emotional appeal to the Galatians to accept him and so his Gospel. He refers to his previous experiences and sufferings and his relationship with the Galatians (4:12-16). Paul is also clearly battling his opponents: how do the opponents of Paul “make much” of the Galatians (4:17-18)?
Paul says he is in “childbirth again” until Christ is formed in them, which indicates that Christ is no longer in them and also that Paul is their spiritual mother (4:19).
6) Allegory of Hagar and Sarah (4:21-5:1)
Paul then creates an allegory in which he says that the two sons of Abraham, Ishmael, represented by his mother Hagar, equals slavery and the flesh, while Isaac, represented by his mother Sarah, is freedom and Spirit (4:21-31). Christ has set us free, says Paul, so do not submit to slavery (5:1). But does this mean the law of Moses is a form of slavery in Paul’s mind?
7) Against Circumcision (5:2-12)
Paul says if you are circumcised you must follow the whole law (which Paul has already argued in 3:11 cannot be done), but even more you have “cut yourselves off from Christ” (5:2-4).
Paul does not preach circumcision; he considers it meaningless (5:6, 11), but wishes those who “unsettle” the Galatians would “castrate” themselves (5:12).
iii) Ethical Exhortation (5:13-6:10):
1) EthicalImplications of Freedom in Christ (5:13-26)
Freedom in Christ is not an opportunity for self-indulgence (5:13). Freedom must be guided by love, in fact the “whole law” (ho pas nomos) is “fulfilled” (peplērōtai) through love of neighbor (5:14). Some translations do not render this as “fulfilled,” but it is an important word. How does one fulfill the law? Paul outlines the works of the flesh (5:19-21), which are opposed to the ways of God: what is “the flesh” (ho sarx)? Christians, however, show evidence of the fruits of the Spirit (5:22-23). The Spirit opposes the flesh and “its passions and desires” (5:24); the Christian must be guided by the Spirit (5:24-26).
2) Social Implications of Freedom in Christ (6:1-10)
Restore those who sin in gentleness (6:1). Bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the “law of Christ” (6:2): what is the law of Christ? Does it have “content” or is it just a term Paul uses loosely? Paul’s focus in this section is on basic ethical conduct – “let us work for the good of all” (6:10) – but when Paul speaks of sowing to the Spirit, not the flesh (6:8), eschatological concerns seem to come to the fore here for the first time in the letter.
e) Closing oftheBodyoftheLetter (6:11-17):
In Paul’s concluding admonitions (6:11-17), he omits his usual greetings and instructions to take one last opportunity to encourage the Galatians to turn from the law and those who would guide them to it: boasting in the flesh is nothing, he says, only boasting in the cross. He is also quite specific when he says peace to those “who will follow this rule” (6:16). He also asks them to no longer “make trouble for me,” since he carries the “marks” (stigmata) of Christ on his body (6:17).
f) Closing (6:18): Paul offers a simple, unadorned grace to close the letter.
Next entry, we examine the salutation and, hopefully, the opening of the body of the letter.
John W. Martens
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