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.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

How Acts explains Galatians

Paul's letter to the Galatians is often used to argue that Acts is not historically accurate and cannot have been written by a companion of Paul. In this blog post I bring together some observations that show that Galatians has been badly misunderstood and that it actually confirms the historicity of Acts.

Paul wrote Galatians, especially chapters 1 and 2, to respond to the Galatian believers' misunderstanding of the relationship between himself, the gospel of Gentile liberty, and the Jerusalem apostles. But what exactly was the misunderstanding? The first column in the table below shows the conventional reconstruction of the beliefs of the Galatians. My own reconstruction of their views is shown in the second column.

The conventional assumptions about what the Galatians were saying The new view about what the Galatians were saying
"The Jerusalem church leaders are a higher authority than Paul on the circumcision question." "Paul is a higher authority than the Jerusalem church leaders on the circumcision question."
"Paul is against circumcision." "Paul is in favor of circumcision (so it is OK to be circumcised)."
"Paul preaches a law-free gospel in Galatia, against the wishes of the Jerusalem apostles." "Paul preaches a law-free gospel in Galatia to please the Jerusalem apostles."
"The Jerusalem apostles are in favor of circumcision (so it is OK to be circumcised)." "The Jerusalem apostles are against circumcision."

It can be seen that I have reversed all the usual assumptions. Most commentators assume that the Galatians thought that Paul was a disloyal apostle of the Jerusalem church leaders and that he preached a law-free gospel in Galatia against their wishes. I propose that the Galatians assumed that Paul was a loyal envoy of the Jerusalem church leaders and that he preached a law-free gospel in Galatia against his own convictions. Paul argued against circumcision in Gal 3-6, but before he could throw his authority behind this law-free gospel, he needed to show that he was writing out of conviction and not just playing the loyal apostle of the Jerusalem church leaders. This is why he distances himself from the Jerusalem church in Gal 1-2, I suggest. Paul's dilemma when writing Galatians is that almost anything that he might write could be dismissed by the Galatians as motivated merely by a desire to honor Jerusalem's jurisdiction over Galatia. Paul's views against circumcision in the letter will carry weight only if he can first establish that they are indeed his sincere views.

Let us look at the four rows in the table in turn.

"Paul is a higher authority than the Jerusalem church leaders on the circumcision question."
The circumcision debate in Galatia focused on the scriptures (see Gal 3:6-4:31). The Galatians will have known that Paul was well educated in the scriptures (see Acts 22:3, Gal 1:13-14, and Paul's letters generally). Peter and John, at least, were uneducated (Acts 4:13). Therefore the Galatians probably considered Paul's opinion on the circumcision question to be more authoritative than that of the Jerusalem church leadership.  The fact that he had helped to found the churches of Galatia will have added to his authority there. It is true that the Jerusalem apostles had been close to Jesus during this life, but no-one appealed to the teachings of Jesus to settle the circumcision debate, as far as we know.

"Paul is in favor of circumcision (so it is OK to be circumcised)."
Gal 5:11 reads,
But my friends, why am I still being persecuted if I am still preaching circumcision?
The two instances of the word "still" (ἔτι) naturally refer back to the last common point of reference between Paul and the Galatians: his last visit to Galatia. This verse suggests that
1) Paul had, in a sense, preached circumcision during this last visit to Galatia
2) Paul had also preached against circumcision at the same time and had been persecuted because of it
3) the Galatians were believing that Paul had preached only circumcision since leaving them. Paul argues that this cannot be the case because the persecution has not stopped.

The events of Acts 16: 3-10 fit perfectly with Gal 5:11 and explain how the Galatians' confusion arose.
3 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. 4 As they went from town to town, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem. 5 So the churches were strengthened in the faith and increased in numbers daily. 6 They went through the region of  Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. 7 When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them, 8 so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. 9 During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." 10 When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. (Acts 16:3-10)
Paul delivered the decisions of the elders, to the effect that circumcision was not necessary, and I suggest that Paul was persecuted because of it. At the same time Paul circumcised Timothy in preparation for the onward journey and this might have suggested to the Galatians that Paul was in favor of circumcision and planned to preach circumcision in his new territories. The decision of the missionaries to go beyond Asia, without preaching there, may have contributed to the Galatians' suspicion that Paul intended to preach circumcision in his new mission field: the geographical jump would have given Paul the opportunity to switch his teaching without it being immediately obvious that he had done so. The Galatians could have reasoned, "Paul had Timothy circumcised and then went off with him to lands beyond Asia, without telling us exactly where he was going, because he intended to preach circumcision in his next mission field. He preaches a law-free gospel to us, but he will preach circumcision in his new territory since it will fall under his jurisdiction, now that he is the leader of the missionary team". Paul, writing from that mission field, answers, "If I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted".

Gal 6:17 reads, "From now on, let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body". This further suggests that Paul's commitment to the law-free gospel is being questioned in Galatia. He is saying, "my wounds prove my commitment, so let no one question it." The thought here is  very similar to 5:11. Paul corrects the view that he believes in circumcision also in Gal 1:8-9 (see the table below). Now, the color-coded table at the end of this post shows that Gal 1:8-9, Gal 5:11, and Gal 6:17 all occur at the same location in Paul's sequence of thought and this confirms that they serve the same function.

The confusion about what Paul actually  believed is evident also in 1:7 and 5:9, which also appear at the same place in Paul's sequence of thought (see the color-coded table at the end).

In Galatians Paul presents himself as an uncompromising supporter of a Law-free gospel (Gal 1:8-9; 2:4-5; 2:11-14; 5:2-3; 5:12). The Paul of Galatians takes a more extreme position than does the Paul of Acts or indeed the Paul of the other letters. This is explicable if Paul wrote Galatians to correct the view that he believed in circumcision. See the discussion below for more on how Paul uses the Antioch incident of  Gal 2:11-14 to prove his commitment to a law-free gospel.

"Paul preaches a law-free gospel in Galatia to please the Jerusalem apostles."
How did the Galatians explain why Paul preached a law-free gospel to them? Paul's law-free gospel had been given to him by revelation (Gal 1:11-16). However, Paul rarely talked about his revelations (2 Cor 12:1-6), and the fact that he must write Gal 1:11-16 suggests that he is informing the Galatians about it for the first time. Therefore it is unlikely that the Galatians already knew that Paul had received his law-free gospel by revelation.

Now, the (south) Galatian towns where evangelized by Barnabas and Paul. Acts 14:12 tells us how the two missionaries were perceived by the Galatians:
Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes, because he was the chief speaker.
Zeus was the ruler of all the Gods so the Galatians (probably rightly) thought that Barnabas was in charge. Barnabas himself was under the authority of the Jerusalem apostles (Acts 4:36; 11:22). The Galatians could easily have concluded (probably rightly) that the movement of Jesus-followers had not given Paul authority over the territory of Galatia and that he was obliged there to follow the doctrinal positions of Barnabas and the Jerusalem church. Paul later acted as postman for the Jerusalem church (Acts 16:4) and this will have re-enforced the impression that he was an envoy (apostle) under the direction of the Jerusalem church leaders. Envoys were expected to represent the views of those that sent them (See Mitchell's "New Testament Envoys" JBL 1992).

It is therefore plausible that, when Paul had left Galatia and traveled to Europe, the Galatians came to the view that Paul had preached a law-free gospel to them out of loyalty to the Jerusalem church - and not out of conviction. Confirmation of this is found in the table below.

NRSV text Commentary
1:1 Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— The Galatians were saying that Paul preached a law-free gospel to them only because, as a messenger of the Jerusalem church, he was obliged to do so. Here, from the start of the letter, Paul protests that he was not a messenger of the Jerusalem church, but of God. His point is that everything that follows in the letter is written out of conviction. Many suppose that Paul is defending his authority in 1:1, but the word "apostle" simply means "one who is sent" in Paul and does not confer status (see on 1:19 below).
1:6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— Here, as elsewhere in the letter, Paul has an exasperated tone. To convince his readers that he is sincere, he expresses emotion that it would be hard to fake.
1:7 not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. I am astonished that yo are so quickly deserting" the law-free gospel that I preached to you "and are turning to" a gospel of circumcision, under the influence of "some who are confusing you" by saying that I believe in such a gospel (which is no gospel at all),
1:8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! but a curse on us if we ever proclaim circumcision to you. Paul here shows his sincerity by calling down a curse on himself. He here writes the words "contrary to what we proclaimed to you", instead of simply, "contrary to my gospel" because he must distinguish between the gospel that he had preached to them and the gospel that they thought he believed and now preached.
1:9 As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed! Lest the Galatians think that Paul is faking his disapproval of them (out of obligation to Jerusalem), he repeats the curse.
1:10 Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? Are you thinking that I am writing all this to stay in good standing with the Jerusalem apostles?
If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ. No, I am not a people-pleaser, but a servant of Christ,
1:11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 1:12 for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. for I proclaimed the law-free gospel, not because the Jerusalem church had asked me to, but because I had received it from Christ. Here Paul uses the phrase "the gospel that was proclaimed by me" instead of "the gospel that I proclaim" or simply "my gospel" because he must distinguish it from the gospel of circumcision which the Galatians assumed Paul was now preaching in Europe.
1:13 You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. 1:14 I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. 1:15 But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 1:16 to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, 1:17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.Here Paul reiterates that he owed his allegiance to God, not to those who shared his gospel. He explains that, immediately following his conversion, he did not consult with any other believers in Jerusalem or Damascus about the gospel that he had been commissioned to proclaim among the Gentiles, but he went straight away into Arabia. Paul's point is that he preached non-circumcision out of conviction and not as a means to ingratiate himself with the leading Christians of Jerusalem (or Damascus). I have argued here that Aretas did not permit Christ to be preached in Arabia and that Paul was therefore the first to preach Christ there. This explains why Paul got into trouble with Aretas (2 Cor 11:32). Luke does not mention Paul's two or three years in Arabia and nor does he mention the the conflict with Aretas, presumably because he wanted to avoid inviting persecution by drawing attention to Paul's illegal preaching in Arabia. The unusual phrase, "his disciples" in Acts 9:25 makes sense if it refers to converts that Paul had made in Arabia while working in isolation from any other Christians. Paul's isolation at that time is also shown by the fact that the Jerusalem believers were not convinced of his conversion (Acts 9:26).
1:18 Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him for fifteen days; 1:19 but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. Paul says that when he eventually did go up to Jerusalem, the only apostles he met were Cephas and James. "Apostles" in Paul's usage means missionaries. He did not meet the other missionaries, presumably because many of them were in distant mission fields at the time. That Paul is here limiting the term "Apostle" to missionaries is confirmed by Acts 9:27, which tells us that Paul met (most of) the eleven. There is no conflict between Acts and Galatians here (or elsewhere).
1:20 In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! Paul declares that he is not lying, lest the Galatians think that he is telling a white lie as a loyal messenger of the Jerusalem apostles might be expected to do.
1:21 Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, 1:22 and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; 1:23 they only heard it said, ‘The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.’ 1:24 And they glorified God because of me. Paul says here that he had preached the law-free gospel before he was known to the Judean believers. It cannot be said that I preached the law-free gospel just to please the Judean churches, because I did not even know them at the time.
2:1 Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. In 1:10-24 Paul supports his argument by showing that he had preached the law-free gospel before he had had much contact with the Jerusalem church. He argument does not require that he had had little contact with the Jerusalem church up to the time of writing, and he makes no such claim. Contrary to a common assumption, Paul is not obliged to mention every visit to Jerusalem up to the time of writing, and there is no reason to doubt the famine visit. Paul mentions the "fourteen years" here to show that he had preached his law-free gospel for a long time before he took the time to check that it was in line with the thinking of the Jerusalem church. He is saying, "I cannot have been preaching the law-free gospel to please the Jerusalem church for those 14 years because I was not even sure whether they shared my perspective on the matter."
2:2 I went up in response to a revelation. 2:2 does not contradict Acts 15:1-2. Paul does not mention that he had gone to Jerusalem to receive instructions from the Jerusalem church because to do so would have supported the rumor that he was motived by a desire to please them. Paul therefore gives a different, but not incompatible, explanation for his visit.
Then I laid before them (though only in a private meeting with the acknowledged leaders) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain. Acts 16:4 shows that the Galatians will already have known about the plenary meeting of Acts 15:3-29 in which the Jerusalem church confirmed that observance of the Law was not required. Here in 2:2 Paul tells them that he had a pre-meeting meeting with the leaders because he was not sure what their position would be. He says this to show, once again, that he had not been preaching the law-free gospel to please the Jerusalem church.
2:3 But even Titus, who was with me, was not compelled to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. 2:4 But because of false believers secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might enslave us— 2:5 we did not submit to them even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might always remain with you. Here Paul explains why he did circumcise Timothy, who was also known as Titus. See here.
2:6 And from those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders (what they actually were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those leaders contributed nothing to me. Paul says here that the Jerusalem leaders meant nothing to him. He says this not to undermine their authority, but to show that his preaching was not motivated by a loyalty to them.
2:7 On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised 2:8 (for he who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me in sending me to the Gentiles), Here Paul contradicts the rumor that the Jerusalem leaders had told him what to preach. He says that they recognized the legitimacy of the gospel that he had received independently from God.

It is significant that only here does Paul discuss the role of Cephas and only here does he refer to him by the name "Petros". This name, for Paul's (Greek-speaking) readers, means "Rock", and signifies Cephas's role as the rock on which the (Jewish) church was to be built (Matt 16:18). If Paul and Cephas were rivals, as some suppose, Paul would not have honored Cephas by calling him "Petros" here.
2:9 and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. Paul shows here that the "pillars" recognized him as an equal: he was not their underling, as the Galatians supposed. There is no reason to suppose that Paul and the pillars were rivals. Rather, we should think of the pillars being happy that Paul and Barnabas were able to take over their responsibilities in Gentile lands, leaving them free to focus on the Jews.
2:10 They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do. See my blog post here.
2:11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; 2:12 for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they [he] came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. 2:13 And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 2:14 But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?’ In this passage Paul argues that, contrary to the rumor, he is firmly committed to Gentile liberty. Much of the emphasis in this passage is on Paul himself: he opposed Peter to his face, he confronted Peter "before them all" even after Barnabas and the others had been led astray. To counter the rumor that he believed in circumcision, Paul portrays himself here as an uncompromising champion of Gentile inclusion.
Someone who supported Gentile liberty only to please the Jerusalem church leaders might preach a Law-free gospel and he might even risk conflict over the issue, but he would never take a stance against those same church leaders for not being committed enough on the issue. The Galatians (according to my proposal) were thinking that Paul preached the law-free gospel only out of obedience to the Jerusalem church leaders - principally Peter, the major force behind the inclusion of Gentiles (Acts 10:1-11:18; 15:7-11), and perhaps also Barnabas, who led the mission that evangelized Galatia. If Paul can recall an occassion when he actually confronted Peter and Barnabas for not being committed enough to the law-free gospel, he can use it to quosh the Galatian rumor. Gal 2:11-14 is that incident. Paul's criticism of Peter and Barnabas here shows the Galatians that he is not a seaker of their approval. The incident that Paul recounts serves to prove to the Galatians that he genuinely believed in the law-free gospel and was not just the messenger of Peter and Barnabas on the issue.
See also the discussion of Gal 2:11-14 below.

Gal 1:1; 5:2 and 6:11 are shown in blue in the table below. They all begin their respective passages on the confusion in Galatia and serve to indicate to the Galatians that what follows are Paul's views, not the views of the Jerusalem apostles speaking through him.

"The Jerusalem apostles are against circumcision."
Paul (and Titus-Timothy) delivered to the Galatians the decisions of the Jerusalem church leaders (Acts 16:4). The Galatians will therefore have believed (rightly I think) that the Jerusalem leaders were against circumcision (for Gentiles of course). Many commentators, on the assumption that the Galatians thought that Jerusalem was in favor of circumcision, are surprised that Paul does not cite the Jerusalem decree to correct them. However, we should reverse the argument: Paul's silence about the decree shows that it would have been counter-productive for Paul to mention it - in fact it had contributed to the rumor that Paul wrote the letter to oppose. Acts 10:1-11:18; 15:1-32 show that the Jerusalem leaders, like Paul, believed that circumcision was unnecessary. Gal 2:6-9 confirm this unanimity between Paul, the Jerusalem "pillars", and Barnabas.

Some have inferred (perhaps correctly) from Gal 2:3 that the "pillars" would have preferred Titus to be circumcised. However, Paul himself circumcised Titus later in Galatia (Acts 16:3) after he had been named "Timothy", so it cannot be argued from 2:3 that Jerusalem was more pro-circumcision than Paul.

The Antioch incident of Gal 2:11-14 harmonizes very well with Acts, especially if we accept the better attested reading, "he came", in 2:12 (see Carlson's post here). The sequence of events is:

1) Peter came to Antioch and ate with Gentiles and then left.
2) Some men "from Judea" (Acts 15:1) came to Antioch and preached circucision, thinking (mistakenly) that they had the approval of James and the Jerusalem church (Gal 2:12; Acts 15:24).
3) Paul, Barnabas, and Titus went up to Jerusalem (Gal 2:1; Acts 15:2) to discuss the circumcision question.
4) Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch and Peter later returned to Antioch.
5) the Judeans "from James" were still in Antioch and Peter decided that on this visit he would not eat with Gentiles.

With this sequence it cannot be argued that James could not have written the Jerusalem decree, because the men "from James" were sent before the decree was written and Acts 15:24 shows that they did not have his backing anyway. Peter believed that Gentiles should be included (Acts 10:1-11:18; 15:7-11) and his lapse of courage here is completely in character (compare Mark 8:29-38; Mark 14:27-31, 66-72). There is no need to suppose that Peter's views were different from Paul's. Peter's decision not to eat with Gentiles is explained by his lack of courage and also, I suggest, by his new role. At the time of Peter's first visit to Antioch he was, presumably, involved in outreach to Gentiles, but by the time of his second visit to Antioch, it had been decided that he should focus on the Jews (see 2:9 above), so it was now expedient for him to avoid offending Jews.

With the new understanding of the background to Galatians we can no longer assume that Gal 2:11-14 is  in any way representative of Paul's relationship with Peter. There may have been occasions when Peter chided Paul for not defending Gentile liberty vigorously enough, but in Galatians Paul cited only the incident that proved the point that he need to make, and that was the Antioch incident.

It is true that there were some in the Judean churches who favored circumcision (for Gentiles) and that the Jerusalem church leaders tried to avoid offending them. We see this in Peter's behavior in Antioch. James's conflict aversion is evident in Acts 21:20-24, and the men of Gal 2:12 may have mistaken his conflict aversion for an endorsement of their mission. However, there is no reason to doubt that the Jerusalem church leaders did indeed write the decree and that it was shared with the Galatians. The Galatians will then have believed that the Jerusalem apostles and Barnabas were against circumcision.

Paul's sequence of thought
The interpretation of the letter given above is further demonstrated by a comparison of the passages that concern the agitators who were propagating the rumor in Galatia. It can be seen from the color-coded table below that Paul follows the same sequence of thought in all three passages. This confirms that the belief that Paul supported circumcision (5:11) is the background to all three passages

The Galatians (rightly?) assumed that the Jerusalem church required Paul to preach the law-free gospel in Galatia. After Paul circumcised Timothy, they concluded that he actually believed in circumcision and this encouraged them to consider circumcision for themselves. Paul wrote Galatians to show that he was genuinely against circumcision and persuade the Galatians not to be circumcised. Acts and Galatians are in perfect agreement.

Further reading
For more evidence that Galatians was written to south Galatia, see here.
For more evidence that Acts was written by a companion of Paul, see herehere, here, and here.
Here is a detailed discussion of Gal 5:11, and here I engage with Campbell's treatment.
Earlier posts on the background to Galatians can be found here, here, and here.

Feedback, either positive or negative, is welcome.