John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift— Part Fourteen


BEN: Turning now to your discussion of Galatians, I appreciate the way you’ve carefully walked through various landmines in the discussion of this letter and managed to focus on things relevant to your inquiry. I do wonder however about the issue of Judaism as a recognized or licit religion in the Roman Empire in Paul’s day. What I mean by this is, could the appeal to get circumcised and keep the Mosaic Law have been made persuasive if the agitators had argued ‘Judaism is a protected religion, in the sense that one is not required to participate in pagan worship or even Emperor cult, whereas the form of Christ-following advocated by Paul leaves one not only without a religious and cultic calendar and identity, it leaves one open to the criticism that you are following an illicit eastern religion and thus not exempt from things like participation in pagan festivals and the Emperor cult. ‘ Could this be underlying the appeal for these Gentiles to ‘Judaize’???

JOHN: There is no technical category of ‘licit religion’ in the Roman empire, but it is certainly the case that native-born Jews were expected and generally allowed to maintain their own ancestral customs, and it was recognized that this meant that they would not take part in normal ‘pagan’ worship and would offer prayers for but not to the emperor. The question is whether this would apply to pagan converts to Judaism (proselytes) and thus could be a factor encouraging Paul’s male converts to get circumcised etc. Since we have rather few references to proselytes in Roman sources, this is hard to answer, but judging from the reaction of Tacitus (Histories book) and Juvenal, proselytes were heavily criticised (at least in Rome) for abandoning their Roman or ancestral habits in favour of Judaism. In other words, they could be regarded as traitors to their own tradition, and it is not clear that they were accorded any right of appeal to the kind of tolerance enjoyed by native-born Jews. Thus it is not clear to me that becoming a proselyte would necessarily reduce the social pressure coming on those who had abandoned ‘idolatry’ in this respect.

BEN: I agree entirely with your remarks about the crucial role the antitheses or binary polarities play in Galatians. It seems clear that Paul is alarmed enough about the situation in Galatia to throw down the gauntlet and try and force the audience to make a choice between this way or that way of Christian living. And furthermore the polarities are not just ethical or ritualistic, but also theological— there’s only one genuine Gospel, one genuine way of right standing in Christ, one genuine way of walking ethically and so on. It’s this kind of rhetoric of course which has fueled numerous polemical and dogmatic sermons where in essence the preacher says ‘its my way or highway’. Do you think this sort of rhetoric reflects Paul’s sense of just how urgent the situation is in Galatia, and how much he thinks is at stake? I ask this because, despite all the problems in Corinth, 1 Corinthians doesn’t seem nearly as binary and polemical as this document.

JOHN: I think that in rhetorical terms Paul is required to set things up as antithetical opposites partly because what is being presented to the Galatians is made to look like it is just the completion or fulfilment (3.3) of what Paul himself told them. Precisely because it appears so similar to the Galatians Paul has to stress how utterly different it is. But there is more at stake here than a rhetorical strategy. Paul sees the Christ-event as a world- and history-altering event, which reshapes the structures of reality and of the values and norms that reflect that reality. You are either in the new creation, or you are determined by the ‘present evil age’; you either walk in accordance with the cross/the gospel/the Spirit, or you walk in accordance with the flesh. Actually I don’t think this is that different from what we find in other letters: think of the dualisms that run through 1 Cor 1-4 (wisdom of the cross; wisdom of this age; spiritual or non-spiritual) and crop up elsewhere in that letter (world or Lord; idols or Spirit; table of Lord or table of daimonia etc.). It is just that we find these in a particularly concentrated form in Galatians.

BEN: One of the things that has helped me make sense of this letter is the conclusion that it is likely a very early Pauline letter, probably written before whatever form the famous council took, which is summarized in Acts 15. Had there really been a proclamation available to Paul when he wrote Galatians which said ‘Gentiles do not have to get circumcised and keep the whole Mosaic Law’ it is hard to imagine him not playing that trump card somewhere in this letter. He could have simply told his converts that the Agitators were in fact going against the edict of James who was the leader of the Jerusalem church. I realize this is an argument from silence, but frankly some silences shout at you for explanation. It would explain also the polemical and extreme forms of arguments Paul uses including the famous rebuttal allegory. He would not have had to protest so much if in fact he could demonstrate he was on solid footing with the views of James and Peter. One gets a sense of a Paul who feels very much alone, vulnerable, and his whole mission in Galatia is hanging in the balance. He’s even had to endure Barnabas and Peter backing off from prior commitments to table fellowship with Gentiles under pressure from ‘the men who came from James’. I would see this as directly relevant to the case you are making, because it explains the strident emphasis on grace as both the means of ‘getting in and staying in’ in the Christian life. What do you think of this reconstruction?

JOHN: I have deliberately not committed myself to a definite dating of Galatians (except that it is before Romans) because of the complexities and ambiguities in all attempts to fix its date (and precise destination). And the relation between Galatians 2 and Acts 15 is of course notoriously difficult to resolve. Of course Paul does accuse Peter of hypocrisy (2.12-13) and he does seem to regard Peter and James as having gone back in some way on the Jerusalem agreement of Gal 2.1-10. As you say, the more definite that agreement had been about what was, and was not, required of Gentiles, the more he could have appealed to it in his argument. But there was also a limit to which Paul would have wanted to make a political agreement the basis for a theological argument. Ultimately the authority for his gospel, including its unorthodox expectations of Gentiles, rests not in human opinion, even the opinion of the ‘pillars’ in Jerusalem, but in the revelation of God: hence the sharp antitheses of 1.1 and 1.10-12 and the big case Paul makes of *not* consulting the authorities in Jerusalem in 1.16ff. In other words, the lack of an argument along the lines: ‘Peter and James agreed to this, so who are you to say otherwise?’ may be to do with the date of this letter, but it may equally be to do with the kinds of argument Paul prefers to prioritize in this letter.

BEN: One of the persistent problems in dealing with Paul’s letters is what has come to be called mirror-reading, and I would say a closely related problem is the whole approach involving assuming ‘hidden transcripts’. You critique the latter approach, quite rightly in my view, on p. 348 n. 65 by emphasizing that that approach assumes that Paul thinks his letters are being read by spies and informants, rather than Galatians being an example of insiders talking freely with insiders. In both cases there is an attempt to reconstruct ‘the other side of the conversation’ or at least the social milieu which is producing what Paul says. I agree with Jerry Sumney and others that while a certain amount of reading between the lines is necessary, and helpful, that it needs to meet specific criteria to be justified. Yet Paul is not addressing his opponents in this letter, nor is he mainly critiquing some particular religious aspect of pagan culture, it would seem. Can you help our readers understand the problem of over-reading Paul’s Galatians in these ways. What are the warning signs that a reading has gone off the rails?

JOHN: Well, I wrote about the dangers of ‘mirror-reading’ in an article many years ago (JSNT 1987) that people still seem to cite as useful in this regard. Basically, the danger is that we get over-excited about finding out what Paul’s opponents thought by reading Paul’s arguments as in every case the mirror-opposite of theirs, or as picking up their arguments and turning them around his way: if Paul says x, they said non-x; if he argues from this OT text, they must have used it on their side too. Because this is a directly polemical letter, responding to another point of view, there is clearly some justification for this sort of exercise, but we have to apply criteria of plausibility here, which prevent us from jumping to the wrong conclusions. Thus a) do we have multiple evidence for our reconstructions (not dependent on one thing only)? b) does it fit what else we know of early Christian thought? c) is there anything in the text (e.g. emphasis, unusual wording, a context of rebuttal) that makes us think this is Paul picking up things from others? The basic rule is: be very cautious when you fill in gaps, lest you fill them in with your own imagination! In relation to a supposed counter-imperial message in this (and other Pauline) texts, the NT Wright school of thought requires us both to fill in the silence and to explain why there is a silence there in the first place. In a letter as forthright as this on so many things, including some that put Paul’s life in danger, why not come straight out and say: ‘what I mean is that the Roman empire is corrupt and Caesar’s rule is opposed to God’? When you catch yourself finding hidden messages in the text, you are on the path to the ‘Bible-as-code’ and Dan Brown’s fantasies. Stick with what is actually in the text and not between the lines: that is quite challenging enough!

BEN: Certainly one aspect of the New Perspective on Paul is the attempt by Dunn and others to avoid suggesting, as Luther did, that Paul is directly critiquing Judaism. No, says Dunn, he is critiquing ethnic imperialism and so the requirement of Gentiles to become Jews in order to be followers of Judaism. While it’s clear that the latter is part of what Paul is arguing against, it does not seem to be the whole or main purpose of his critique. When he says that Jesus was born under the Law to redeem those under the Law out from under it (Gal. 4) this surely is referring to Jews and the Mosaic covenant. In other words, Paul is concerned with much more than ethnic imperialism and boundary rituals. He’s saying the Mosaic covenant with its 613 commandments should no longer be imposed on Jews much less on Gentiles, as the Messiah has come inaugurating a new covenant with a new Law, the Law of Christ. Why this great reluctance to admit that Paul is offering a strong covenantal critique of Judaism and the Mosaic covenant, which is nonetheless a Jewish in-house critique of these things?

JOHN: In textual terms, Dunn and others appeal to Gal 5.14 (‘the whole law is fulfilled in the love-command’) to react against the view that Paul is ‘anti-Law’; in theological terms it comes (as Dunn admits) from his Reformed assumptions that there is one covenant (Abraham-Mosaic-in Christ), albeit in different dispensations; in political terms, it is an attempt to avoid, for the sake of contemporary Jewish-Christian relations, any sense that Paul is directly opposed to Judaism. My position is this: if by ‘Judaism’ we mean the Jewish people and their covenant relationship to God, Paul is not ‘opposed to Judaism’, as I think the prayer of Gal 6.16 (for ‘the Israel of God’) and Romans 9-11 indicate; but if by ‘Judaism’ we mean (as I think Paul means when he uses the term in Gal 1.13-14: ‘my former life in Judaism’) a pattern of life for which the Torah is the ultimate authority, then I think Paul propounds something radically different. It is not just that the Torah is not to be imposed on Gentiles; it is also that it is no longer the ultimate norm even for Jewish believers. There are lots of circumstances when it is fine for them to adhere to the Torah, but there are also circumstances when they are required to become ‘sinners’ by its lights (e.g. eating with Gentiles in Antioch). That break with its ultimate authority reduces the Torah to a contextually determined custom, and this is what Paul means by saying he has ‘died to the Law’ (2.19), as a paradigmatic Jewish believer. So he does not require Jewish believers routinely to flout the law, but he requires a) that they recognize other believers as equally acceptable to God even though they do flout it; see Romans 14-15); and b) that they are willing to flout it where it is overriden by the higher demands of the gospel (as at Antioch). Paul spells this out a lot more pithily in 1 Cor 9.19-23: I can live like a Jew, but I can also live not like a Jew – it depends on what the gospel and Christ demand.

BEN: In light of the last bit of what I’ve just said and asked you about, it seems to me that this means that Galatians is not: 1) an argument against legalism; 2) an argument against ‘works righteousness’ in Luther’s sense of the phrase; 3) an argument against obedience or keeping the Law (as redefined); 4) nor is it an argument that obedience has nothing to do with final salvation (while Paul is arguing that initial right-standing with God is by grace and through faith). Rather, Paul is reminding those already saved about how they came to have that gift including the gift of the Spirit, and is suggesting that the way they should live going forward is on the basis of the gift which keeps on giving through the Spirit, and in a fashion that reflects the character and life-rule of Christ. Why is it, do you think, that this letter has so often been misread, or become a lightning rod for all kinds of ‘new perspectives on Paul? By all means comment on whether you think my reconstruction of what Paul is actually saying and doing in Galatians is reasonably on target.

JOHN: I read Galatians as an appeal to let the Christ-gift, in all its radicality, determine every aspect of who the Galatians are and what they do. That means that the gospel is their ultimate authority, not the Torah, and this means that their patterns of communal life are determined by the ‘law of Christ’ in love, and not by their competitive instincts, or anything else. In other words, Paul is shaping the Christian movement in distinction from other options on offer outside the new Christian congregrations (whether the Jewish synagogue or the normal patterns of Graeco-Roman life). The polemics are designed to draw a clear line around the church. As this letter gets read in later eras, when Christianity pervades the whole culture, its polemical edge gets turned inwards, and it becomes a way of refining Christianity from within: the polemical line is drawn between different kinds of thinking within the church. Hence the later application of this letter to internal Christian disputes about legalism, the place of works in salvation etc.

There are clear lines of continuity between the original intent of the letter and the Reformers and I don’t want to dismiss them as simply ‘misreading’ the letter: they catch very well the fact that Paul is talking about the incongruous grace of God in Christ. In fact, they offer a brilliant recontextualisation of this letter in 16th-century circumstances. But it can be very beneficial to try to catch again the original context and purpose of the letter, not least because our social and cultural circumstances are not so different from Paul’s. (One thing I would clarify in what you say: grace is not just about initial right-standing, because everything that can be said about the believer, including their ‘sowing to the Spirit’ from which they will reap eternal life (6.8) is the product of the miraculous new life (Christ who live in me) that constitutes the core of their new being. We will return to that topic when we get to Romans.)

BEN: Yes, I didn’t mean to imply salvation doesn’t involve grace from start to finish. Of course it does. I was referring to what Paul means by our ‘working out our salvation….’ where we have a role to play in the matter.