§1 Approaching Galatians (session 4, part 1)—Paul’s Letter to the Galatians: A Presbyterian Adult Spiritual Formation Series

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


McMaken: Welcome, faithful remnant of our study together. We are fewer today—thanks to all the ice, I'm sure. I’d like to begin with a quick recap.  We’ve talked about the date of the writing and the audience to whom Paul was writing. We also worked our way through some key sources that I'm using to fuel reflection. We talked about Luther: his two kinds of righteousness, his two kingdoms, his two uses of the law, and his ideas about justification by faith. We talked about Calvin: his work on his biblical commentaries and how he has similar but different focuses from Luther. Then, last time, we talked about J. Louis Martyn—who has done a lot of work on reading Paul through an apocalyptic lens—as well as some of the history of scholarship around research into Jesus and Paul. Today, we have one last book to talk about before we get into the text!

e. Nancy Bedford and Galatians


This last book is Nancy Bedford’s book on Galatians in the Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible series.[1] If you want to read one of the books that I’m using in this series, then this is the one you should pick up. It's written for as broad an audience as possible, so it is more accessible than some of the others. Bedford also has some interesting scholarly contributions, including how she thinks about the outline of the book of Galatians, which we'll get to in a bit. Her approach is to think broadly about how the different Christian traditions of interpreting Galatians fit together and what it can mean for us today, including some of those more practical applications for us in our lives.

How does Bedford understand the Galatians, the recipients of this letter? She speaks about the letter in terms of intra-Christian debates. Paul is arguing with his opponents, and the Galatians are stuck in the middle. It isn’t a situation of Christians on one side and Jews on the other—everyone involved in the argument is a “Christian.” We've been over this idea a few times already. Bedford basically agrees, although she speaks in terms of “intra-Christian” debate. Strictly speaking, that suggests a highly developed concept and identity of “Christian” in distinction from the Jewish community that wasn’t around in Paul’s day. It’s later language pushed back in time, as it were. But Bedford is getting at the right idea. If we wanted to be more technical, as we’ve done before, we’d say that we're talking about some Jewish-Jesus followers arguing with other Jewish-Jesus followers about what to do with Gentile-Jesus followers.

Bedford thinks that these intra-Christian debates, these debates among different groups of Jesus-followers, are serious debates. They are more serious, for example, than Calvin's way of framing it about differences in customs between churches, where one church expects another church to do things the same way they do them. The question at stake is: How are Jewish Jesus-followers going to incorporate Gentile Jesus-followers into the Jesus-following community?

This wasn’t a totally new or surprising question at the time Paul wrote Galatians. The question has new inflections because it’s all now centered on Jesus, but the Jewish community had been interacting with Gentiles, and with Gentiles who were interested in the whole Jewish religious thing, for quite a while. Versions of this question are all through the Hebrew scriptures. Even more recently, there was Jewish contact with what we called Hellenism—the cultural environment that comes out of Greece and the Greek colonies and cities all around the Eastern Mediterranean. Alexander the Great’s empire in the 4th century BCE was a large part of the story of Greek culture expanding throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, including Palestine. When he died, his kingdom splintered into different pieces. He was Greek, so you've got Greek control of all these different sections of his empire. One piece of that previous empire was run out of Syria and included Palestine.

Fast forward a few centuries and you get to a king named Antiochus the 4th Epiphanes. An “epiphany” is like a revelation, an experience of God, a knowing of God. Basically, Antiochus thought he was literally God's gift—well, not “God’s” gift; more like “a god’s” gift, but you get the idea. Antiochus was all about the superiority of Greek culture, and he tried to impose this throughout his kingdom in a new way. Suddenly, you've got the situation in Jerusalem where Antiochus expects the Jewish temple not to be devoted only to the one Jewish God, but to be devoted to all the Greek gods as well. And in some ways, Antiochus wanted to be treated like a god as well. The way this played out in Jewish areas was predictable. It wasn't a very popular move, although many—or, at least, some—of the more urban and well-off Jewish folks seem to have been on board and wanted access to the benefits of Hellenization. But then Antiochus and his soldiers barged their way into the temple and sacrificed the pig in the inner precincts. This added insult to injury, as it were, because the Jewish tradition regards pigs as unclean animals. It was at that point that a minor house in the priestly lineage in Judea arose. They were called the Maccabees. Scholars aren’t entirely sure what “Maccabees” means but the best guess is that it means “hammer.” So Judah Maccabee, Judah the Hammer, raises an army in rebellion. Have we all seen the movie Braveheart? That how I always picture what’s goeing on here. They're out in the hills among the shepherds, putting together a ragtag army, until – eventually – the meet Antiochus' forces in a pitched battle. Surprisingly, Antiochus loses, and the Maccabees end up establishing their own rule. That lasted from about 160 BCE to 63 BCE, when Rome marched in and took over.

All through this period, however, there are intense debates about how much Greek-ness, or Hellenism, Jews are willing to tolerate. With the Maccabees in control in Palestine, things tend to be more conservative with less Hellenization. But out in the diaspora, among the Jewish communities outside of Palestine, things look different. The diaspora is made up of Jews who left Palestine for one reason or another, whether voluntarily or through forced emigration, throughout the first millennium BCE. There are Jewish communities in many Greek cities throughout the eastern Mediterranean, for instance. There are also significant Jewish communities in Babylon and Egypt. They had synagogues where they gathered, prayed, and read their Scriptures, whether in Hebrew or in Greek translation. And in the Greek-speaking diaspora, there was not sharp conflict between Jewish and Greek culture.

From the Hellenistic perspective, there are lots of gods and lots of different people worshiping them, so what’s the problem with one more? Additionally, Hellenistic culture had a high regard for things that were old and, of course, the Jewish people and their beliefs are very old. Hellenistic folks saw a venerable old tradition maintained by a particular group of people who weren’t harming anyone. They figure that just means there’s one more god invested in the success and safety of their city, which is a good thing. And there was a lot of fluidity between Jewish communities in these cities and the Hellenistic communities on the side of Jews in diaspora, even to the point where there seems to be attestation in the records of Jewish folks being involved in all kinds of different civic organizations. Think if groups like the Knights of Columbus, the Masons, or the Better Business Bureau—but with different rituals and observances tied to pagan gods. These organizations help make the community function well by making sure that the city’s gods help it to prosper. People who disrupt that function are bad. But Jewish folks were able to fit into this social situation without causing any of those kinds of problems because they didn’t seem to think it somehow compromised their devotion to the Lord.

Part of the conceptual world that helped make sense of all this religious intermingling is monotheism. The idea of monotheism, that only one God exists, wasn’t common in the ancient world. Each group of people thought their god was the best god and the high god, but everybody accepted that all the gods existed. So, for Jewish folks, the other gods ultimately answered to their God, but that doesn't mean they don't exist. The world is full of these kinds of spiritual powers and forces, like we talked about with apocalyptic thought. From the perspective of diaspora Jewish, what’s the problem with being associated with other gods that exist so long as their ultimate allegiance is to the Lord, whom they believe is the high god? Nothing. Given this kind of perspective, Jewish folks in these communities could be good citizens right along with the Hellenistic folks.

            So, there’s a long tradition and broad spectrum of how Jewish folks in different contexts think about their interactions with Gentiles and Greek culture. In Palestine—in the Promised Land, so to speak—these boundaries are much more strictly maintained than in the diaspora, where the boundaries are very fluid. One question that then arises for the Jewish communities is: what do you do with Gentiles who become interested in and devoted to the Jewish God, the Lord? Ultimately, there are two levels of interest or involvement here, and reference to both comes up from time to time in the New Testament.

“God-fearers” are the first category. These are Gentiles who became impressed with the Jewish god and added that god to the other gods that they worshiped. Many folks in the ancient world thought that you can never have too many gods on your side. So these Gentiles spent time with the Jewish communities gathered around the synagogues, listened to the scriptures read and prayers said, and generally learned about what devotion to the Lord means. But all the while they are still worshiping their families’ and cities’ gods.

The second category of Gentiles interested in the Jewish god is “proselytes.” Proselytes are full-blown converts who leave their other family ties and the gods that go with them and become, for all practical purposes, Jewish. The main way that they do this is through circumcision, which is why circumcision shows up in Galatians and becomes such a big deal in Paul's letters. The idea here is that someone who was a Gentile now becomes a Jew, and therefore is no longer a Gentile. And this involved changing your allegiance to deities. Now, as far as we can tell, this was a rare occurrence because it meant such a dramatic change in one’s life: completely new religious and ethical commitments, completely new social locations, the loss of family ties, etc. God-fearers were more common, but proselytes were rare.


Participant: Does this mean that only men are Jews? How did Women become Jews?


McMaken: Your husband. That's really your only option. Or you could marry a Jewish man, but your Gentile family probably wouldn’t allow that. Women didn’t have much, if any, say over who they married. But, if you’re a woman who was a Gentile and is now a Jew, either that’s because your husband converted or you married in.


Participant: I would imagine they're not thinking about this as individualistically as we do. There's an individual element to salvation. But if you convert from Judaism to Christianity, you're probably doing so as a household. Not necessarily just this one person.


McMaken: It would depend on your status in the family. If the paterfamilias changed, then everybody changes. But if you’re the second son, for instance, you're probably not taking many people with you.

Now, here is something that is really interesting. There seems to have been a minority position within the Jewish conversation at the time that said it was impossible for Gentiles to become Jews, even if they do the whole proselyte thing. Paula Fredricksen, whom I’ve talked about before, thinks that Paul might have been part of this group.[2] I think that makes a lot of sense, and we’ll come back to that topic as we go along.

So, if that’s how Gentiles could become part of the Jewish community apart from any consideration of Jesus, then what happens when you add Jesus to this dynamic? Well, on the one hand, you have the people Paul is arguing with in Galatians who seem to think that if Gentiles want to participate in the Jesus thing, then they need to take the steps that Gentile proselytes take to become Jews—they need to be circumcised. And since they are becoming Jewish through circumcision, they also need to observe the Jewish law and keep what we would today call a kosher diet. Folks who answered the question this way drew on a pattern that was already in place, especially outside of Palestine in the diaspora Jewish communities around the Roman Empire.

But Paul has a very different idea of how this should go. He argues that Gentiles don't have to become Jewish proselytes in order to follow Jesus. He thinks that there is a Gentile way of following Jesus that does not require them to become Jews. Fredriksen talks about “eschatological Gentiles”[3] because, as part of that apocalyptic expectation, as part of the Jewish traditions of thinking about what's going to happen when God makes everything right, there is this idea that Gentiles are going to be included in what God does. You see this especially in Isaiah, which Paul draws on through the Book of Romans when he's thinking about these things. This is Isaiah 2:1–5:[4]


The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.


2 In days to come

    the mountain of the Lord’s house

shall be established as the highest of the mountains

    and shall be raised above the hills;


Have you ever read in the Psalms and noticed a heading on one of them calling it a Psalm of Ascent? That means it is a Psalm of “going up.” They have this name because in the Jewish mind, both geographically and in terms of elevation, you always went “up” to Jerusalem. Jerusalem and the temple are up on the top of a hill, so when you go there, you have to go “up” the hill. And this takes on symbolic meaning as well with the idea that the temple is where God lives, and it is the high, central point where heaven and earth touch. So you always go “up,” an this passage in Isaiah predicts a time when—literally, or at least symbolically—this becomes true for the whole world and not just for Jews. The passage continues:


all the nations shall stream to it.


“Nations” here refers to the folks we’ve been calling “Gentiles.” So the Gentiles are streaming to the Lord’s house.


3     Many peoples shall come and say,

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,

    to the house of the God of Jacob,

that he may teach us his ways

    and that we may walk in his paths.”


When we read this passage from our contemporary Christian perspective, we make a mental substitution in our mind so that we take “many peoples” to mean “many people.” We assume that this means a large group of individuals, a large group of people. But what the text is really talking about is all the many “nations” that we just read about. These are all the different kinds of Gentiles that exist in the world, and they are all streaming to the Lord’s house.


For out of Zion shall go forth instruction

    and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

4 He shall judge between the nations

    and shall arbitrate for many peoples;

they shall beat their swords into plowshares

    and their spears into pruning hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation;

    neither shall they learn war any more.

5 O house of Jacob,

    come, let us walk

in the light of the Lord!


So, as reflected in and developing from this passage in Isaiah, there was this expectation that when God shows up to set the world right in the end, all the Gentiles are going to get really interested in Israel's God. And, in this passage: do the Gentile nations ever stop being the nations? Does it say they're going to come and become Jews? No. The nations stay the nations. Sure, they stop fighting each other. They stop engaging in typical Gentile behavior. But they are still Gentiles. All the Gentiles are coming to Zion, to Jerusalem, and God is judging among the Gentiles—basically, what we see here is the idea that the sovereignty of Israel’s God over all things will be real and effectual in a new kind of way. It is what you might expect if you prayed for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done, and then it very straightforwardly was! But all of these different kinds of Gentiles, these nations, are listening, learning, and obeying the God of Israel while remaining Gentiles.

This seems to be the way of thinking that Paul works within and adapts to the new situation, the new time on God’s clock, that he sees as the result of Jesus. Paul sees Gentiles getting in on the Jesus thing and thinks of them in terms of these “eschatological gentiles” (to circle back to Fredriksen).[5] And, just like the nations in Isaiah 2, Paul doesn’t think that the Gentiles have to stop being Gentiles in order to worship and obey the Lord. Thanks to Jesus, thse Gentiles are now involved with God, they are part of God’s work in the world, and they are part of a people of God that still has Israel at its core but has now expanded beyond Israel to the nations.

Importantly, for Paul, if you make these Gentiles become Jews then you’re getting in the way of what God is doing in this new “age,” this new time on God’s clock. If you make Gentiles become Jews, then they can’t be these eschatological Gentiles. For Paul and this tradition he follows—which, again, seems to have been a minority report in his day—Israel is supposed to say Israel, the Gentiles are supposed to stay Gentiles, and the Lord is Lord over all of them. And that’s why it would make sense if Paul didn’t think a Gentile could really become a Jew through conversion as a proselyte. Why? Because, building on this sort of tradition we see in Isaiah, the Gentiles aren't supposed to become Jews: they are supposed to become eschatological Gentiles.

It is important to understand this to understand all the negative comments Paul makes about circumcision in his letters. Whenever he does that, whether in Galatians 5 when he wishes his opponents might castrate themselves, or in Phillians 2 when he talks about the “dogs…who mutilate the flesh”[6]—Paul is not talking about Jewish people who are circumcising their sons on the eighth day. He's talking about those giving and receiving proselyte circumcision and he’s denigrating the fact that they think they can turn Gentiles into Jews by circumcising them. That's what he rejects and that’s what he’s criticizing. His criticism of proselyte circumcision and of following the Jewish dietary guidelines is not a rejection of Judaism or Jewish ways of following Jesus. Paul’s point is that these things don’t apply to Gentiles because Gentiles, based on this tradition out of Isaiah, don't need to become Jews in the last days. God will deal with them precisely as eschatological Gentiles. To come back to Bedford, she has a nice turn of phrase that sums this up: “In Christ, there is ample room for difference.”[7]



[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.]


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