Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett

in The Bible: Authorized King James Version

Published in print February 1998 | ISBN: 9780192835253
Published online April 2009 |

Series: Oxford World's Classics


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The Epistle to the Galatians is perhaps the most combative of Paul's many combative writings. Its rhetoric and argument in some ways foreshadow the letter to the Romans. Paul had apparently made at least two visits to these churches—though there is, as usual, disagreement about where Galatia was. Differences from 1 Thessalonians, the earliest of his writings, suggest that it was written c.54 ce. From what he says in the letter, the Galatians had evidently ceased to follow Paul and had defected to what Paul calls ‘another gospel: Which is not another’ (1: 6–7). Here already are the beginnings of that ideological formulation of the gospel which outlawed every variation differing from Paul's: ‘But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed’ (1: 8). Insisting that his apostleship came from Jesus Christ, and not from him (1: 1), Paul is driven to confirm his own apostolic status by opposing, if necessary, other apostles (2: 6–15) with his own claim to ‘the apostleship of the uncircumcision’ (cf. 2: 7–9). This was Paul's great contribution to the construction of the gospel: the admission of Gentiles (foreigners who were not Jews) to the gospel without the necessity of their having to undergo circumcision. This was the decisive move taking the gospel out of the Jewish cultural world and transforming it into a non-Jewish culture. In time its Jewish aspects and origins were forgotten or made obsolete. In 1: 11–2: 21 Paul strongly defends his own apostolic status, preaching, and understanding of the gospel. The firm distinction between faith and works (or grace and law) in the letter to the Romans, is also found in this earlier letter to the Galatians: ‘Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified’ (2: 16). In 3: 6 Paul uses Gen. 15: 6 (as in Rom. 4: 3) and in 3: 11 he cites Hab. 2: 4 (as in Rom. 1: 17) to make his point about the supremacy of faith. For Paul, Abraham is the father of Christ, who is of ‘Abraham's seed’ (3: 16), and the law is then ‘our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ’ (3: 24), so that the Jewish story is treated as preparation for Christ. In baptism all distinctions between Jews and Gentiles are removed: ‘For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus’ (3: 27–8). New Testament scholars detect in that phrase, ‘all one in Christ’, elements of an ancient baptismal formulation. Certainly it was never understood in the subsequent development of Christian beliefs and practices to entail belief in the equality of the sexes, or between slave and free. In the allegory of the two sons of Abraham (4: 21–31) Paul distinguishes between Ishmael (born of the flesh) and Isaac (born of promise) and the two covenants (Sinai and the two Jerusalems) in order to differentiate between Jews and Christians—though it is not always easy to follow the substance of his arguments. Jews apparently are represented by Agar (Hagar), the mother of Ishmael: ‘the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar. For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. But the Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all’ (4: 24–6). The Jewish tradition is selectively appropriated into the new Christian synthesis, leaving only the bad features to the Jews. Having valued the law only as a preliminary measure until the coming of Christ, Paul then has to spend the rest of his letter trying to persuade the Galatians that while they are freed from the law, they must nevertheless be ethical and carry out its spirit: ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’ (5: 14). The works of the flesh and the fruit of the spirit are listed and contrasted (5: 19–23), but the implication of Paul's letter to the Galatians, like those to the Corinthians, is that those who are in Christ are also all too prone to live according to the flesh.

Chapter.  793 words. 

Subjects: Religious Studies ; Biblical Studies

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