The Letter of Paul to the Galatians Online Commentary (4)

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, which you are now reading, we will discuss the opening of the body of the letter, a significant part of the letter especially in light of the absence of a Thanksgiving

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4. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians  

c) Opening of the Body of the Letter (1:6-12): 

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— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. 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! 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! 10 Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12 for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. (NRSV)

One minor technical matter to begin: most scholars would read verses 11-12 as a part of the following section in which Paul explains his call as an apostle. I include these verses here because Paul begins this section by asserting that the Galatians are deserting the Gospel and turning to “another” Gospel (1:6); he then ends the section, to my mind, by claiming that the Gospel he proclaims was divinely received (1:11-12). This forms a complete argument and then takes us to Paul’s claims of authority as an apostle.

Paul “jumps” into the letter by claiming that the Galatians are “deserting” (metatithêmi: literally, turn from, exchange for another, desert one thing for another) “the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (1:6). The first phrase is interesting because in some early manuscripts and Church fathers, the word Christou, “of Christ,” is missing. The phrase would then be “the one who called you in grace,” the subject of which would be Christ or God, but in the phrase as it stands with Christou, “the one who called you in the grace of Christ,” the subject is most likely God but it is also possible to consider that it is Paul himself. There is no question, however, that this is the Gospel, euaggelion, from God for the next phrase speaks of “turning to another Gospel,” one which is not from God.[1]

The moment, though, that Paul suggests that there is “another” Gospel, he quashes the very idea immediately: “not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ” (1:7). Paul is here laying the basic groundwork of his argument throughout the letter, that there can be no Gospel beyond what he teaches and that regarding the Gospel there can be no negotiation or compromise. We must remember, however, that whoever these people are whom Paul claims “are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ” must certainly also be Christians. Their intention could not have been a desire to pervert or confuse, but a different sense and understanding of the nature of the Gospel. Instead of proposing an identity now for these people, whom Paul might designate as interlopers (and worse!) among the Galatians, we should wait until we have worked through more of the letter to see if any possibilities emerge.

It is worth defining Gospel at this point, though, for what is meant by euaggelion here is not a written Gospel or even Jesus’ own teaching – although it certainly includes that – but the whole of the saving message of Jesus Christ, which would include the words of Jesus spoken during his ministry, the narratives about that ministry, in oral form most likely at this point, and the saving message which was embodied in the actions of his death, resurrection and ascension and taught by Jesus’ disciples, the Church.

Paul cannot even entertain the notion of “another” Gospel, claiming that “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!” (1:8). The word for accursed here, anathema, is hard and sharp, referring to something that ought to be destroyed or cut-off.Paul ups the ante on the previous verse by stressing immediately in the following verse, “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!” (1:9).

What gives Paul, to borrow a Hebrew/Yiddish word, the chutzpah to make such an audacious claim that there is no Gospel beyond that which he preaches and that this Gospel cannot be altered by Paul himself or “an angel from heaven”? To jump to verses 11-12, and to recall 1:1, Paul does not believe he is doing anything but fulfilling the call given to him by God through Jesus Christ. He states that “the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:11-12). Indeed, this is a key to understanding Paul’s combativeness throughout the letter: he is fighting for what he understands to be his divine commission to preach the Gospel. It is not kata anthrôpon, according to human (beings), nor is it para anthrôpou, from human (beings), nor was it taught to Paul, but it was a revelation (apokalypsis). Paul's audacity emerges from his understanding that what he preaches is not his, but God's message.

Though Paul does not outline the revelation here, it must be the same revelation which is described in Acts 9 (and further in Acts 22 and Acts 26) that is often called Paul’s conversion. A question to explore as we examine Galatians is how much of the content of his Gospel did Paul receive through revelation? Is Paul saying that all that he teaches came through the revelation of Jesus Christ and he learned nothing from fellow Christians? Is he saying only that the knowledge of God’s saving act in Jesus Christ came by revelation and nothing could be added to it? Can we even determine what Paul intends by this bold claim?

Let’s return to 1:10, in which Paul asks rhetorically after he has finished defending the unique and divine character of the Gospel he preaches, “Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” Most scholars believe that Paul is probably responding claims made about him by the Galatians, probably at the instigation of the interlopers among the churches in Galatia. Why would such a claim be made? As we know, Paul will argue against the practice of the Law of Moses as followers of Jesus Christ (though this issue will be far more complex than my statement makes it seem). This would mean that some of the key components of Jewish identity, such as kosher dietary practices, circumcision, etc., would not be necessary among the Christians. It is likely that the claim that Paul is a “people pleaser” in his ministry is a means to say that Paul is trying to be well-liked and accepted by making the religious life “easy” by foregoing the identity markers of Judaism among Gentile Christians. Paul will defend himself further, but at this point he simply says that if he was interested in “pleasing people” he would not have followed Jesus.

Next entry, we examine Paul’s life as a persecutor of the Church and then convert to a follower of Jesus.

John W. Martens

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[1] There is no additional verb here, but the prior verb metatithêmi continues to govern this clause.

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