N.T. Wright’s Galatians– Part Four

N.T. Wright’s Galatians– Part Four July 9, 2021

Q. I completely agree with you that Galatians is an early letter maybe even Paul’s earliest of the extant letters we have, and it seems clear it was written before the Acts 15 council. He seems to be swimming upstream, whereas if Acts 15 had already happened, he could simply have cited the decree to the Galatians and said— ‘see, the apostles all agree Gentiles don’t have to get circumcised and become Jews in order to be part of Jesus’ community and to have table fellowship together’. It is difficult for me to understand how so many scholars have missed the rhetorical tone of Galatians dealing with an unsettled issue. Paul thinks his work might be for naught if the agitators succeed in getting his converts to cross the Mosaic boundaries into full Jewish expression. And what is really at issue here is what is the basis of Jew and Gentile united in Christ. Do you think that the long history of reading Galatians with Romans is what has prompted the late dating of Galatians, simply because they have some similar ideas? Or is it the larger suspicions that Acts is not a trustworthy historical source about Paul and early Christianity etc.? Or both?

A. I think it’s both, and probably more as well. The idea that Gal must be close to Rom in time (because both use similar arguments) is quite ridiculous. Paul’s letters are not successive drafts of a systematic theology; he is addressing similar issues of course, though actually significantly different, as I point out in the commentary. IN Gal he is saying ‘NO don’t go and become Jews’ whereas in Rom he is saying ‘NO don’t go and become anti-Jewish’ – so, similar terrain but opposite warnings. And in any case the letters are at most only about 10 years apart . . . but this all emerges from the F. C. Baur school in the nineteenth century, and the long legacy of misreading in German scholarship which then leeched across into America in particular (British scholars have tended to stick with Ramsey and others in seeing Gal as early and ‘south’). And yes, that has gone with the prejudice about Acts, which IS simply prejudice, again emanating from F C Baur, and then egged on by Kaesemann and others for whom Luke was writing ‘salvation history’ which K KNEW was wrong because it had been the engine for the Third Reich – which was always a ridiculous misreading of Luke. And so on. We have lived with quite serious prejudices in the discipline for a long time. This, by the way, is another reason for the split we talked about in the first question: a LOT of theologians and pastors studied NT in their first year at college and were told that ‘Jesus never said this or that’ and that ‘Acts isn’t historical’ and so on – all in the name of a ‘historical criticism’ which, as I’ve said elsewhere, was a lot more ‘critical’ than ‘historical’, as Martin Hengel showed so well. (Though the fact that he isn’t listened to, not least in Germany today, shows that the subject is still driven by ideology rather than history…)

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