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.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Why did the "pillars" ask Paul to "remember the poor"?

Gal 2:6-10 is one long and complicated sentence:
6 And from those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders ... those leaders contributed nothing to me   ...  10 they asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do. 
6 ἀπὸ δὲ τῶν δοκούντων εἶναί τι ...  ἐμοὶ γὰρ οἱ δοκοῦντες οὐδὲν προσανέθεντο ... 10 μόνον τῶν πτωχῶν ἵνα μνημονεύωμεν,  καὶ ἐσπούδασα αὐτὸ τοῦτο ποιῆσαι. 
In this blog post I will argue that Paul and the Jerusalem church leaders independently concluded that it was time for a collection, which would unite the church behind the gospel of gentile liberty. I will also argue that Paul writes, "which was actually what I was eager to do" to refute the idea that his participation in the collection showed that he was a servant of the Jerusalem  church leaders and supported gentile liberty only to please them.

It is generally agreed that "remember the poor" refers to a request made by the "pillars" (James, Peter, and John) to Paul and Barnabas to organize a collection for poor believers in Judea. This blog post will shed new light on the motivations for the request and on why Paul mentions it. First we need to explore the evidence that Paul had already organized an earlier collection from gentile churches to Judea before he was requested to "remember the poor". Three points support this view.
1) "remember" (μνημονεύωμεν) is a present subjunctive, which may a continuing action that implies an earlier remembering of the poor.
2) Paul seems to be saying that he had already been eager to "remember the poor", even before his was asked. I'll return to this below. It would appear, then, that Paul and the pillars independently decided that a collection would be worthwhile. It would be a bit of a coincidence if Paul and the pillars came up with the same idea at the same time without any prior precedent. However, if there had been an earlier collection then the thought of a repeat of the enterprise would naturally present itself to both Paul and the pillars. 
3) Acts confirms that Paul did indeed participate in an earlier collection (Acts 11:27-30)

2 Cor 9:11-15 gives us important information on the benefits of the collection:
11 You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; 12 for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. 13 Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, 14 while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you.
The collection would relieve poverty, and also do something further. The generosity of the donors would demonstrate their obedience to the gospel and show how much God had transformed their lives. The Judean believers (including those who were not beneficiaries of the collection) would then glorify God for working so powerfully in these gentile churches, and they would realize that the gentile believers shared their same faith. The Christians in Judea would then have warm feelings towards their gentile brothers and sisters. Paul seems very confident that the collection will have this positive impact. It is as if he is speaking from experience, and I have argued above that he did indeed have the experience of an earlier collection or collections.

Now, Paul's earlier collection must have had the same effect of giving Judean believers a sense of unity with the donor churches. There is no reason why one collection should have this effect and another not. Also, Paul would not have been so confident in 2 Cor 9:11-15 if his earlier collection had not had this effect. Therefore, at the time of Paul's visit to Jerusalem (Gal 2:1-10) both Paul and the Jerusalem church leaders knew that a collection for the poor among the churches of Judea would unite the believers there in warm affection towards their uncircumcised fellow-believers. The generosity of the gentile believers would prove their commitment to the faith more than any surgical operation could ever do. Any opposition to gentile liberty would then diminish.

Now, there are two probable implications of all this. Firstly, the Jerusalem church leaders wanted to unit the Judean churches in support of the Law-free gentile churches. I don't think they would have requested a collection if they did not want its expected outcome.

Secondly, it was in Paul's interests to organize a collection, and indeed he was eager to do so (2:10). The Jerusalem apostles therefore did not make any concessions to Paul in return for his commitment to the collection. Why would they trade something to get Paul to do what he would surely have done anyway? His decision to "remember the poor" was therefore not a concession that he had to make in order to get permission to continue his preaching, as many suppose. This collection was not an obligation laid on Paul as part of a negotiated agreement. I see no evidence that there were any negotiations between Paul and the pillars or that they were in dispute in the first place. Paul and the pillars independently decided that another collection would aid the poor and help to unite the church.

Now let's turn to the question of Paul's purpose in writing Gal 2:10. In JSNT back in 1979 Larry Hurtado proposed that Paul brings up the collection in Gal 2:10 because the Galatians had drawn some false inferences from it. I think he is correct. Hurtado writes "it is not difficult to think that some of his converts could have wondered whether Paul was raising the funds because he in turn was under orders from Jerusalem." Paul writes that the pillars added nothing to him (Gal 2:6) ... "only (μόνον) that we remember the poor". The word "only", as Hurtado points out, may suggest that the request to remember the poor (2:10) was an exception to the statement that they had added nothing to him (2:6). Paul then goes on to point out that this exception was not really an exception because he was already keen to do it, even before he was asked. Since this exception did not really count, Paul would not have been under an obligation to mention it for the sake of giving a complete account. This raises the suspicion that the Galatians' misinterpretation of the collection has provided the occasion for this verse. Hurtado also points out that Paul's choice of words here, "remember the poor", presents this collection as a benevolent act, "thereby downplaying any sense of it being a tax upon Paul's churches."

An implication of all this is that the collection of money from Galatia had at least been started by the time Paul wrote the letter. Along with the majority of scholars, I think that the letter makes no appeal to the Galatians to give to the collection, so I conclude the the collection had already been completed by the time that Paul wrote. This is exactly what I had argued on other grounds here.

Why, then, does Paul proclaim his independence from Jerusalem in 2:10 and indeed throughout Gal 1-2? We have to remember that the Galatians thought that Paul believed that gentiles should be circumcised (Gal 5:11). The Galatians would assume that he was writing against circumcision only to please the Jerusalem leaders (Gal 1:10). The agitators, you see, were saying "It's OK to be circumcised because Paul believes in cirmcumcision: he teaches you not to be circumcised because he is under orders from Jerusalem, as the collection demonstrates." See here for an explanation of how this works.

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