This blog, by Richard Fellows, discusses historical questions concerning Paul's letters, his co-workers, Acts, and chronology. You can visit my web pages here, but note that they are not kept up-to-date.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Gal 5:11 the key to understanding Galatians

Here I will argue that Acts 16:1-4 provides the background that explains Gal 5:11 and the whole of the letter to the Galatians.
Paul went on also to Derbe and to Lystra, where there was a disciple named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer; but his father was a Greek. He was well spoken of by the believers in Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him; and he took him and had him circumcised because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. As they went from town to town, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached  the apostles and elsders who were in Jerusalem. (Acts 16:1-4)
But my friends, why am I still being persecuted if I am still preaching circumcision? (Gal 5:11)
Paul circumcised Timothy in anticipation of the onward journey and then delivered the decision of the Jerusalem elders that circumcision was not necessary. These actions appear contradictory to many commentators and we must ask how the Galatians explained them. I suggest that the Galatians reasoned,
"Paul is educated in the scriptures so he knows that circumcision is necessary. He has circumcised Timothy in preparation for the onward journey because he intends to preach circumcision in his new territory, which will fall under his jurisdiction. Here in south Galatia, however, Paul acts as envoy/postman of the Jerusalem church and obediently preaches their law-free gospel, even though he does not believe it. Since Paul believes in circumcision, it is OK for us to receive circumcised".
To put it another way, the Galatians assumed (perhaps rightly) that their churches fell under the authority of Jerusalem so that Paul was obliged to toe the (law-free) party line of Jerusalem there. When traveling to Europe, on the other hand, Paul was the leader of the missionary team and was free to preach his own doctrine, which the Galatians assumed (wrongly) (on the basis of Timothy's circumcision) would include circumcision. I have argued previously, here, here, and here, that the entire letter to the Galatians is explicable as Paul's response to this kind of misunderstanding in Galatia. Galatians and Acts are thereby reconciled. Paul distances himself from the Jerusalem church in Gal 1-2 precisely to show that he preached non-circumcision out of conviction and not out of obedience to the Jerusalem church. In this post I will show that the Galatian misunderstanding, as formulated above, produces a convincing explanation of 5:11.

Gal 5:11 refers to the time of writing, but also refers to an earlier time or times. Paul says that he is still being persecuted, which is a clear reference to an earlier time when he was also being persecuted. Similarly he says that he is not still preaching circumcision, and Paul refers here to an earlier time when he did indeed, in a sense, preach circumcision. Now, in this short, pithy argument, we should assume that the word still refers back to the same time in both cases, and it is natural that it should refer to the time of Paul's most recent visit to Galatia. Now, Paul's argument in Gal 5:11 rests on the assumption (shared by the Galatians) that he would not be persecuted if he did not preach a law-free gospel. Therefore, at the earlier time alluded to by both "stills" Paul must have been preaching a law-free gospel (since he was being persecuted) at the same time as he (in a sense) preached circumcision. The verse therefore refers, almost certainly, to the time of Timothy's circumcision, when Paul "preached circumcision" (at least to Timothy and by the example that his circumcision of Timothy set) while delivering the decisions of the Jerusalem church that said that circumcision was not necessary. The apparently contradictory simultaneous actions of Paul in Acts 16:3-4 are exactly what is implicit in Gal 5:11.

Some might argue that the two "stills" could, in principle, refer back to two different times, and that this would avoid the assumption that Paul preached circumcision and non-circumcision at the same time. This would allow two possibilities, depending on which of the two times was first.
1. Paul preached circumcision, then he preached non-circumcision and was persecuted, then (at the time of writing) he continued to preach non-circumcision and is persecuted. A difficulty here is that when Paul says that he is still being persecuted, the still here would be redundant to Paul's argument. Furthermore, we would expect Paul to say "again preaching circumcision" instead of "still preaching circumcision", since Paul would have been countering the assumption that he resumed his preaching of circumcision rather than merely extending it.
2. Paul preached non-circumcision and was persecuted. Then he preached circumcision and was not persecuted. Then (at the time of writing) he preached non-circumcision and was persecuted again. The problem here is that we have two distinct periods of persecution, so we would expect Paul to write "again being persecuted" instead of "still being persecuted".
Therefore we cannot escape the conclusion that 5:11 refers to an earlier time when Paul was seen to have been preaching circumcision and non-circumcision at the same time.

5:11 in its context
Dunn (p278) says that Paul here "turns abruptly to a different point". Longenecker (p232) says that Paul writes, "without any preparation of the reader for what follows". F.F.Bruce (p236) says that Paul's argument here is "not obviously related to anything in the immediate context either before or after". Betz (p268) writes that "Without preparation, Paul confronts the readers with a rhetorical question and statement...". As far as I know, no-one has even attempted to explain how 5:11 fits its context. This is a huge problem for the commentators' understanding of the background to Galatians, since there are strong indications that 5:11 is not a digression, but is central to the entire letter:
1. It comes between two statements, shown in brown below, where Paul calls a punishment on the "agitators/influencers".
2. In 5:11 Paul corrects the misunderstanding that he believed in circumcision and this confusion is mentioned in Gal 5:10.
3. Importantly, as the table below shows, Paul follows the same line of argument in the same sequence in the three passages where he discusses the agitators/influencers. 5:11 is not an anomaly, but has its equivalent statements in the other two passages at the same locations in the sequence of thought. I have discussed this table in more detail here.

For more on 5:11 see my review of Douglas Campbell's paper here.

1 comment:

  1. Paul had evangelized Galatia with Barnabas, whom the Galatians considered (rightly?) to be the leader (Acts 14:12). Barnabas, in turn, fell under the authority of the Jerusalem apostles (see Acts 11:22). Acts 4:36 hints that the apostles gave Barnabas his name and this confirms that they had authority over him. From the Jerusalem links of both Barnabas and Paul, and because of the delivery of the decisions of the council, the Galatians would have understood (probably rightly) that their territory fell under Jerusalem's ultimate jurisdiction.

    The Galatians will also have known that Paul intended to avoid preaching in Asia. They may well have deduced (wrongly) that Paul had planned this geographical break in his mission field so that he could preach circumcision without his hearers knowing of his inconsistency. The Galatians may have reasoned that Paul wanted to skip Asia and jump to a geographically distant region so that he could break from the gospel that he had preached in Galatia.