§1 Approaching Galatians (session 2, part 1)—Paul’s Letter to the Galatians: A Presbyterian Adult Spiritual Formation Series

[The series continues and now commences the second in-person session. Find the last post here.]

x. Excursus on the NRSVue

 McMaken: I was talking to Ronnie[1] ahead of time about how I only learned about a month or so ago that there is a new NRSV translation. It came out in 2021 but, somehow, I missed it. Ronnie told me he knew all about it. He’s very happy to have known something that I didn’t know. So tell him “well done.” Give him some praise for that.


Participant: I noticed that. Isn’t it something at the end, like the “anglicized version” or something?


McMaken: It says UE, “updated edition,” at the end. I upgraded all my “working” Bibles just the last couple of weeks. This is one of the new ones. Ronnie and I were looking in the front trying to figure out what changed. I found this statistic in the preface. It says that the NRSVue “presents approximately 12,000 substantive edits and 20,000 total changes, which include alterations in grammar and punctuation.”[2] There wasn’t punctuation in the original languages, so that’s always an interpretive question. Anyway, this update is kind of exciting and I’m looking forward to digging into it. I've been using the NRSVue as I’ve worked on Galatians. When we get to the actual text—and I promise you that we will—we’ll work off of the NRSVue text. That will be my introduction to it, so I’m looking forward to that.


Participant: My dad will be excited to hear that. We regularly tease him because he’s really into grammar. We regularly tease him about correcting the grammar in the Bible, which he does do.


McMaken: The folks who handled the updating of the translation are scholars from the Society of Biblical literature. Top notch credentials went into it. Each book had at least one editor working on revising the translation. They had a bunch of managing editors over the whole thing. Dozens of people worked on it. It seems like it’s going to be really interesting. One of the main things they were trying to do, especially for the Old Testament / Hebrew Scriptures portion, is incorporating a bunch of the research that has been done on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Have we heard about those? They pulled them out of caves.


Participant: What’s happened with them?


McMaken: Well, everything has been translated. Or at least a vast majority have been translated now. Scholars have been able to interact with those texts and compare them. For instance, there’s an Isaiah scroll that came out of those jars that’s different from the Hebrew Isaiah text we had. So, they’ve been able to start all that comparing work, and they’ll be doing that for a century at least. We’re starting to see results. That’s all getting incorporated, along with other textual things that have come up. It’s exciting.


Participant: It’s so amazing. I was reading about a fellow who’s relooking at scrolls and fakes, and finding some really good fakes.


McMaken: Yeah. There’s also been trouble with that in the last 10 years especially.[3] Anyway, that conversation was just meant to kill 20 seconds. Welcome back. I said I promise we’ll get to the text. I don’t think it’ll happen today, but we’ll keep marching in that direction.


5. Selected History of Interpretation


Last time, we talked about what we knew about Galatians and what our experience with Galatians has been. I did the whole show-and-tell about books things. You can see I didn’t bring my whole stack of books since you got to see those last week. But we also got to see the historical context for the letter. We thought about what the scene of having the letter read in the community might have looked like, having Paul's opponents there, and how all of that might have played out. Now, I’d like to jump into talking about some of the interpretive traditions that have gone developed from Galatians. What role has Galatians played? How have people interpreted it? How have the people who wrote those books I was passing around approached Galatians? We can get a sense of what is going to be important for us, as we listen to their voices.


a. Early Interpretation of Galatians


We got into this a little bit last time. Paul gets a chance to interpret himself, what he wrote in his letter to the Galatians, in a couple of interesting ways. We know Paul sent at least one other letter to the churches in Galatia because it’s mentioned in 1 Corinthians 16:1. In that passage, Paul is talking about the charity collection that he’s asking >all of the congregations that he’s worked with, all around the Mediterranean, to put together and send to the churches in Jerusalem and Judea. There’s a famine going on there and lots of folks struggling. It’s pretty bad. But you have these other Jesus-following folks living outside that area, including Jesus-following Gentiles. How do they show that they’re of one body together in Christ? Share resources. This is a big deal for Paul. It really occupies a big part of his mind. In 1 Corinthians 16, he’s talking about that collection and he says: “I sent instructions to the Galatians and some other people.” Now, one of you told me that they sat down and read all of Galatians in one sitting at one point in the past week. Did anyone else? A few people. Great! Did you hear mention of instructions for a collection when you sat down and read it through?


Participants: [confused mumblings]


McMaken: Being confused when someone wants you to confirm a negative is totally legitimate! No, you didn’t see it in there because it’s not in there. So, we know that Paul is talking about a different letter. It’s not the letter we have. Now, we all know Paul well enough that we would agree it’s likely he wrote other things in that letter, that it wasn’t just some instructions. When can Paul help himself but provide more robust guidance on a various number of issues? He probably elaborates in that letter on the same kinds of themes we see in the one we have. That would probably be the first instance of Paul, to some extent, interpreting himself.

The other place where Paul interprets himself on these topics is in Romans—his letter to Jesus-followers in Rome. Paul’s letter to the church in Rome builds on and elaborates the themes of Jerusalem, law observance, the relationship between Israel and Gentiles as people with the same God, and so on. All of these are topics that play an important role in Galatians. Romans chapter 4 spends a lot of time talking about Abraham. Chapters 9–11 are all about Israel and have become a key text in the history of tradition for the doctrine of predestination. So there’s lots of material in the book of Romans that play variations on the same themes we see in Galatians. Martin, who’s book I showed you last time, says: “Parts of Romans constitute an interpretation of Galatia made by Paul himself” (p. 31).

This underscores what we were talking about last time with reference to supersessionism, the idea that Gentile Jesus-followers replace Jews as God’s people. We said that we aren’t probably going to find that in the book of Galatians, even though many people in the history of interpretation have, because Paul’s not talking to or about non-Jesus-following Jews in that text. He’s not talking either to or about them. He’s not talking about Jesus-following Jews either even though, in an indirect way, he’s talking to them. The people who came from Jerusalem, his opponents in the letter, are almost certainly Jesus-following Jews, or maybe Jesus-following formerly-Gentile converts to Judaism.[4] Paul’s talking to these people but he’s not talking about them. He’s having an argument about to what extent and in what way Gentile (non-Jewish) Jesus-followers need to observe the Law. Anything he says in Galatian about the Law is in the context of talking about how it applies to Gentiles.

But it seems like in Romans he’s casting a wider net and thinking more broadly so that in that context he’s talking about Jews who are not Jesus followers. He’s talking about the Law in that context and how it relates to what God did in Jesus. All of that is very much a building upon but extending what he’s on about in Galatians. But you don’t find that stuff in Galatians itself. In the book of Romans with some of these extended passages, Paul’s further elaborating his thinking, trying to clarify things that you can imagine folks were upset and arguing about. This is how Martin sums up what Paul says on these topics in Romans: “Paul can deny neither God’s ancient election of Israel, nor God’s precent elective utterance of the Gospel” (p. 32). These are the two things that Paul is holding in tension in his letter to the Romans. He has to affirm both those things. Remember that passage where Paul says “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (11:29). He’s talking about the Jewish people, Israel, and God’s election of them. Paul says that’s secure. But he also thinks that what God is doing through Jesus for the Gentiles is secure. He’s not entirely sure how those two fit together, but he’s trying to think and imagine his way forward in those passages. And he’s not willing to give up on either of those things. He’s not conceiving of God being done with God’s people, the Jews. That’s important as we get Paul thinking about and interpreting himself.

The key thing for Paul is that he thinks Gentiles can get in on becoming part of God’s people without having to become Jews: through circumcision and some other forms of Law-observance. They can do it in their own different Gentile way. That’s what he’s arguing about with the people from Jerusalem and the Galatians.

That’s Paul interpreting Paul in the history of interpretation. We can imagine that in his letter to the Romans he’s trying to clarify things and respond to charges and what people are saying about him. When we get into the 2nd century, there are texts that we have that aren’t in the biblical cannon but were circulating among different Christian communities, especially Jewish-Christian communities, among Jewish Jesus-followers, that are very critical of Paul and his approach. These debates are continuing 100 years later within Jewish Jesus-following communities.

For instance, there’s a writing called the Epistle of Peter to James. Nobody thinks this is authentic, but the narrative world it assumes is that Peter is writing to James. Those of you who read ahead in Galatians can imagine why, because Paul talks about them in Galatians and says things like: “I talked to James and Peter about this but then Peter went and did this other thing, so I told Peter to stop.” The communities who produced this text picked up on that. There’s also a text called the Ascents of James where this shows up as well. It’s all tied to James in an interesting way. James was far more important in the earliest community than just a glance at the authors of the books included in the New Testament cannon would lead us to think. There’s only one epistle attached to his name. I think it’s a tossup whether it’s authentic or not. But we can imagine that he set a certain tone and people followed in it, and the Ascents of James text reflects that kind of tone. He’s very important in that Jesus-following Jewish community—Acts names him as being important and Paul talks about him that way as well. These Jewish Jesus-following communities continue to hold him up as a paragon a century later. And they’re continuing to argue with Paul long after Paul passes from the scene.

When we think of a spectrum of continuing this set of arguments that Paul was the epicenter for, these “James” texts from Jewish Jesus-following communities are one end of the spectrum. But there’s also the other end. At the other end of the spectrum is a guy called Marcion of Sinope. Usually you drop “of Sinope” and just call him Marcion. Has anyone ever heard of Marcion? He is the quintessential Christian heretic. If anyone is talking about examples down through history of people who have believed the wrong way, Marcion is at the top of the list. His position is called “Marcionism.”

As far as we can tell, he was well to do and he went to join the Jesus-followers in Rome and made a sizeable donation to that community in the interest of getting them to pay attention to his ideas. Eventually they threw him out anyway because they didn’t like what he had to say. His writings continue and he gets branded as a heretic by the leading Christian authorities of the time. But he’s historically important also because he loved Paul—which, of course, does not speak well of Paul. But Marcion loves Paul and puts together a collection of Pauls letters. He's the one that pulled that together. It was a collection of 10 Pauline letters. He also took a version of the Gospel of Luke, stripped it down, and put that with his collection of Paul’s letters. And this is how Marcion became one of the first people in the middle of the second century to start putting together something like a New Testament cannon: a new set of guiding writings for the Christian church.

The issue with Marcion is he concluded that the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament ultimately were talking about different gods. To grossly oversimplify things in a nonetheless accurate way: he saw Israel as having a vengeful, creating god and he thought Jesus had a loving, saving god. This kind of interpretive reflex is still very much with us. If you ask people to characterize the difference between the testaments, people will reach for something like this. It’s deeply problematic. It’s anti-Jewish, which becomes anti-Semitic very quickly, because you’ve got Jews and the bad god and Christians and the good god. This is why the church of Rome kicks Marcion out around the year 144, and why really important figures of the time denounce him. If you ever took a church history class, you would have encountered names like Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian. These are the big-time “apostolic fathers,” and they all say that Marcion is wrong. It’s one of those first arguments within the Christian community about establishing orthodoxy—that is, determining what’s going to count as Christian and what’s not going to count. The basically unanimous decision here about what’s not going to count is any idea that there are two different gods and that the Jewish god is different from the Christian God. Jews and Christians have the same God, and Jewish and Christian scriptures talk about the same God. Nevertheless, and historically speaking, Marcion made sure we had Paul’s letters.

On one end of the spectrum where you’ve got Jewish Jesus-followers thinking that Gentile need to become Jews to be Jesus-followers. At the other end, you’ve got Marcion who thinks that non-Jesus-following Jews and Jesus-followers have different gods. Paul is somewhere in between, although he’s solidly in the part of the spectrum that thinks these are not different gods. And that’s the same part of the spectrum where we find what we could call the mainline of the Christian tradition, saying that Jesus-followers aren’t going to land at either of those extremes. But there’s still a lot of continuum there. You can find people inflecting different points all along that continuum. That’s why it can be such a difficult issue to articulate the relationship between what we’ve come to know as Christianity and Judaism. So that’s the earliest interpretive tradition that grew up around Galatians in the first couple of centuries.


b. Martin Luther


We’re going to fast forward to Martin Luther, whose book I showed you last time. I love talking about the Protestant Reformation. You all know this. We did a whole five-week series on the Scots Confession together. Here, we need to get into a little bit of what was going on for Luther when he was studying Galatians. You’ve heard that Luther is supposed to have nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. What they don’t tell you is we’re not sure if that ever happened. Also, it sounds all dramatic but the door to the church of Wittenberg was just the university bulletin board. But all of that is a different set of conversations.


Participant: But, hey, it sounds good. He is a dramatic player.


McMaken: Definitely. And he wrote those in 1517. In 1519, two years later, he lectures on Galatians for the first time. He’s lecturing on Romans about the time he writes the 95 Theses. Then he lectures on Galatians. Remember that Paul writes Galatians and then he writes Romans. Luther has them flipped. In 1519 he’s working through Galatians. The very next year, he writes three really famous, important essays. One is called The Freedom of a Christian. One is called The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. And one is called The Address to the German Nobility. Speaking very broadly: The Freedom of a Christian is about justification. The Babylonian Captivity is about the doctrine of the church, so things like ordination, the sacrament and which ones should count, etc.


Participant: Babylonian of what?


McMaken: The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. Then, The Address to the German Nobility is about how church and politics should relate. Basically, Luther’s trying to cover these three key issues for the reformation at that time. He’s a few years in, and he sits down and writes these essays trying to cover all these bases. And when he does this, it’s a year after he’s completed his first set of lectures on Galatians. The timing is feeding into how he’s framing these things in that really crucial year.

Fast forward a decade. Luther goes back to lecturing on the book on Galatians in 1531. This is the same year that the Smalcaldic League was formed. Do you know it? The Smalcaldic League was within what we call Germany, which, at that point, was the Holy Roman Empire. It’s all the different principalities that are Protestant teaming up to resist all the principalities that are Catholic, along with the emperor. It’s like the balance of powers in the Cold War, or before WWI, where there were different sets of treaties. Protestants were saying: “They might squash us. We have to get together in this mutual defense pact.” To do that, they hammer out a broad theological agreement. Luther’s working through Galatians again at that pivotal moment.

This is also the year that the Augsburg Confession was published. If you’re familiar with Lutheranism, the Augsburg Confession ranks a little bit below scripture in terms of how important they think it is. It’s a little bit like some conservative Presbyterians wish we treated the Westminster Confession! The Augsburg Confession is supposed to be the lens through which you interpret scripture in that tradition. It was an opportunity for all of these Protestant areas to present what they believe to emperor Charles in 1530 so it can be evaluated to see if it passes muster or, more in keeping to how the Catholic side saw it, to see just how heretical they are. This was another important event that was happening at just about the time Luther was returning to Galatians.

Also, this is the year that Ulrich Zwingli was killed in Switzerland. Zwingli was the leader of the reformation in Switzerland, especially in the early years. He was based in Zurich. He and Luther are roughly contemporaneous and come to similar theological places by separate paths. But it’s an important moment when Zwingli dies on the battlefield in a clash within Switzerland between Protestants and Catholics. So it’s a huge year for the future of Protestantism, which is still up in the air, and Luther says: “Back to Galatians.”

Luther published this second set of lectures on Galatians in 1535, which is about 10 years before he dies. So this is right in his mature Protestant period. Interestingly, when it’s published, it’s the same year that the 2nd edition of Philip Melanchthon’s Loci Communes was published. Melanchthon was Luther’s right-hand man. He’s a humanist-trained scholar and expert biblical interpreter, and he teaches theology with Luther in Wittenberg. Luther is very insightful and can speak very powerfully, but he’s not great at sitting down and presenting things in a coherent way—at least according to the tastes and expectations of the humanist scholarship that is the exciting new wave in academics at the time. Luther likes to preach. But Melanchthon was trained by one of the preeminent humanist scholars of his age, and he’s good at it. So, in the early 1520’s, he writes his Loci Communes, which is Latin for “common places.” It addresses all the main theological questions that you might have from a Lutheran Protestant perspective, and it does so in an organized and relatively concise way. Now the 2nd edition is coming out at the same time Luther is publishing his second stab at a Galatians commentary. Those two things go together as a solidifying moment in “Lutheranism.” It’s also one year before our boy, John Calvin, publishes the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, which comes out in 1536, and addressing especially the French-speaking context (even though it was published in Latin first; Calvin published French editions later on).

You’ve got this moment where things are being brought together and presented in a new kind of coherent whole after Protestantism has been maturing for 15-17 years. They’re developing a new baseline for what this Protestantism thing is going to be. One of these key pieces is Luther’s 2nd Galatians commentary.

[This is an edited transcript from an adult spiritual formation group that met at St. Charles Presbyterian Church in St. Charles, Missouri. It was transcribed and edited with the help of a student worker at Lindenwood University who wishes to remain anonymous, but who was also a big help. Click here to find an index of the full series.]

[1] Rev. Ronnie Osborn, pastor of St. Charles Presbyterian Church in St. Charles, Missouri.

[2] NRSVue, ix. For more on this updated translation, see Annelisa Burns, “An Even Better Bible: The leaders of the NRSVue project talk about translation, reception, and what Bibles are for,” Christian Century, December 19, 2022: https://www.christiancentury.org/article/interview/even-better-bible.

[3] For one point of entry into this, see Brigit Katz, “All of the Museum of the Bible’s Dead Sea Scrolls Are Fake, Report Finds,” Smithsonian Magazine, March 16, 2020: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/all-museum-bibles-dead-sea-scrolls-are-fake-report-finds-180974425/

[4] I know this language gets confusing. There’s no efficient way of talking about these things without burying the oddity of the situation with familiar words like “Christian” that didn’t really exist at the time, at least in the same way.



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