This blog, by Richard Fellows, discusses historical questions concerning Paul's letters, his co-workers, Acts, and chronology.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A new theory on the background of Galatians

I will argue here that the agitators had been saying to the Galatians,
"You should be circumcised because scripture requires it. Paul knows this, but he taught you the opposite because he was a loyal envoy of the Jerusalem church leaders (who oppose circumcision)."
This is potentially the most important blog post that I have written, but it is the one that is most likely to be misunderstood. Please read it carefully and start by forgetting everything that you think you know about the background to Paul's letter and the 'tendencies' of Acts. If you are accustomed to the conventional interpretation, you will find that it takes some 'unlearning' to entertain my new proposal, but I hope to show that it is worth it, because it leads to an elegantly simple explanation of the data in Galatians and reconciles Galatians with Acts.

First I will argue that the Galatians did not know that Paul disapproved of circumcision (for Gentiles).

1) Throughout Gal 1-2 Paul claims that he was not an apostle/envoy of the Jerusalem church leaders. It is therefore likely that the Galatians were believing that he was Jerusalem's envoy. Paul's delivery of Jerusalem's letter (Acts 16:4) would have added to the impression that he was its envoy. Now, envoys in the ancient world were expected to represent the views and interests of those who sent them (see Mitchell's "New Testament Envoys" JBL 1992). The Galatians no doubt remembered that Paul had told them that circumcision was not required, but they would have no way of knowing what Paul actually thought on the issue. A good envoy would suppress his own thoughts and loyally represent the views of those who had sent him.

2) Paul circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:3), presumably so that Timothy could become "as one under the law" so that he might "win those under the law" (1 Cor 8:20). The circumcision of Timothy would enable Paul and Timothy to gain an audience with Law-observant Jews. Paul would not be able to explain the reason for circumcising Timothy, lest he undermine his purpose. The circumcision of Timothy might therefore have left the Galatians confused. We can excuse them for wondering whether the incident betrayed Paul's true beliefs about circumcision.

3) Gal 5:11 reads, "Brothers, why am I still being persecuted if I am still preaching circumcision". This confirms that the Galatians thought that Paul actually believed in circumcision.

4)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.

It is normally assumed that the views of the Jerusalem church leaders would have carried weight in Galatia - that their opinions on the circumcision question would have held sway there. This assumption is natural because the Jerusalem apostles were the keepers of the Jesus traditions. However, there is no evidence in Acts or in Galatians or elsewhere that anyone looked to the traditions about Jesus to settle the circumcision question. The agitators in Galatia were making their argument for circumcision by appealing to the Hebrew scriptures. The Jerusalem pillars were 'uneducated men' (Acts 4:13), so the Galatians would not have looked to them to interpret the scriptural passages on circumcision. Paul, on the other hand, was well acquainted with the scriptures, as his letters show. He had been brought up at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3) and had advanced in Judaism beyond many of his contemporaries, as the Galatians probably knew (Gal 1:13-14). Therefore, it was Paul , not the pillars, who had expertise on the circumcision question. For this reason, and because he was the founder of the Galatian churches, it was Paul's opinion that the Galatian believers would have sought.

So, my proposal is that:
a) Both Paul and the Jerusalem church leaders believed that Gentiles should not be circumcised.
b) The agitators (understandably) believed that Paul believed that Gentiles should be circumcised, and that he had spoken against circumcision only out of loyalty to the Jerusalem church leaders. The agitators therefore thought that Paul was on their side.
c) Paul's authority was not seriously under attack in Galatia. Paul had been misunderstood, not maligned.

How would Paul respond to news of this confusion in Galatia? He would want to give his understanding of the scriptures, but that would not be sufficient because the Galatians would still suspect that he writing out of loyalty to Jerusalem and not out of conviction. The agitators may have said to the Galatians, "By all means ask Paul for his opinion, but he is subordinate to the Jerusalem apostles, so he will not tell you what he really thinks". How was he to show that he was writing out of conviction? He would first need to convince his readers that he preached circumcision out of principle and was not an emissary of Jerusalem. This is exactly what he does in Gal 1:1-2:14:

He says that he had not been sent by any human authorities (Gal 1:1). Thus he counters the assumption that he was an envoy of the Jerusalem church. He then expresses emotion at the developments in Galatia (Gal 1:6 and throughout the letter), lest they think he is just mechanically repeating the party line. Then, addressing the confusion (Gal 1:7) caused by the circumcision of Timothy, he calls down a curse on himself if he ever proclaimed circumcision to them (Gal 1:8). He repeats himself in Gal 1:9, desperate to show that he is being sincere. Then he tells them that he is not writing out of loyalty to the Jerusalem church leaders - he is not seeking to please men (Gal 1:10). He then writes, "the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin..", indicating to the Galatians that he was not Jerusalem's envoy (Gal 1:11). Notice here he goes to the trouble of writing "the gospel that was proclaimed by me", rather than just "my gospel", which would have been ambiguous because "my gospel" could have meant the gospel of circumcision that the Galatians thought that Paul believed in. Paul disambiguates Gal 2:2 in the same way. Then, in Gal 1:13-24 Paul emphasizes that his preaching had been independent of the Judean churches. This is not an attempt to claim that his gospel was better than theirs, as is commonly supposed (he makes not such claim anywhere). Paul's point is merely that his gospel of Gentile liberty had not been preached merely out of loyalty to Jerusalem and Judea. He was well known for his preaching even before the Judean churches knew him by face (Gal 22-24).

Then, to further emphasize that he had not inherited his gospel of Gentile liberty from the pillars, he writes that he told the pillars what he had already been preaching, without really knowing whether the pillars would approve it (Gal 2:1-2). Here Paul makes it clear that he had preached Gentile liberty before he knew that the pillars supported it too. With the words, "what they actually were makes no difference to me" (Gal 2:6), Paul further reinforces his point that his preaching had been sincere and not just an act of obedience to the pillars. He then says that they added nothing to him (Gal 2:6). This is normally taken to mean that the pillars did not add anything in support of Law observance to Paul's message, but I take it to mean that they added nothing in support of Gentile liberty to Paul's message. In Gal 2:7-10 Paul stresses once again that his message was independent of the pillars: he was not their envoy, for they had recognized him as their equal. Paul assures the readers that the pillars had endorsed his mission because they saw that his calling was genuine, not because they thought he would obediently toe the party line.

Paul's final proof that his preaching of Gentile liberty was not an act of obedience to the pillars comes in Gal 2:11-14. Here Paul manages to bring up an occasion when he had actually opposed Peter for not being resolute enough on an issue of Gentile inclusion. Paul does not clarify what exactly was at stake at the time in Antioch and nor does he say who prevailed in the conflict. These questions were not Paul's concern when writing to the Galatians. His concern is only to show that he preached Gentile liberty out of conviction and not out of obedience to the pillars. Thus he stresses that he took a principled stand, opposing Peter to his face (Gal 2:11), and doing so publicly even after everyone else had been lead astray (Gal 2:13-14). The emphasis in this passage is on Paul's principled stand, not on Peter as such.

Let's turn now to the conventional view of the background to Galatians. On this, as on most things, James Dunn follows the consensus view:

Paul writes with the clear objective of refuting views which had evidently been put about, to the effect that Paul's gospel was dependent on and derived from the Jerusalem leadership, with the implication that the policy line advocated by the Jerusalem leadership on any point of dispute was to be followed rather than Paul's. (Beginning from Jerusalem p367)
The first part of Dunn's statement is correct. However, the part that I have placed in italics is problematic because:

a) It is an unnecessary complication, as I have argued above.

b) It implies that there was a considerable gulf between Paul and the Jerusalem leadership on this issue, otherwise Paul would not have devoted so much space to discussing his relationship with Jerusalem. This is problematic because:
  • Acts makes it clear that there was no such rift. One would have to suppose that Acts has glossed over the supposed dispute, but this is special pleading, as I argued here.
  • Paul's continuing close collaborations with Silas-Silvanus and others show that there was no rift between Paul and Jerusalem. See here.
  • Gal 2:7-9 implies that Paul and the pillars found themselves to be in agreement.
c) It would be surprising that Galatians does not mention the decree of Acts 15:23-29.

d) In Gal 2:2 Paul implies that the Jerusalem church had authority, and this would be counterproductive if Paul wanted the Galatians to ignore the Jerusalem church leaders.

e) There is too little evidence in Galatians that Paul's authority (rather than his independence) was under attack.

In conclusion, it seems to me that the Jerusalem church leaders were against the circumcision of Gentiles. The agitators, on the other hand, supported circumcision and assumed that Paul did too, since Paul had circumcised Timothy and was educated in the scriptures. Paul had preached against circumcision to the Galatians, but the agitators reasoned that Paul had done these things out of obedience to the Jerusalem church leaders, whose letter he had delivered. This understanding of the background to Galatians reconciles the letter with Acts. It also confirms that Galatians was written after the events of Acts 16:4, and that it was addressed to south Galatia. These last two theories are also confirmed by Titus-Timothy and I may blog about this one day.

In a future post I hope to show that there is the same sequence of thought in the three passages in Galatians that deal with the agitators.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Does Acts gloss over conflicts in the church?

I am amazed at how confidently people assert that the author of Acts suppresses conflicts within the church. This is often stated without evidence, as if it were established fact. An example is Michael Goulder's "Silas in Thessalonica":
We cannot but admire the subtlety with which kindly Luke, the great reconciler, has covered his tracks.
With this slight of hand, Goulder attempts to deflect attention away from the fact that Acts contradicts his theory that there was an ideological rift between Paul and the Jerusalem church leaders. The very common assumption that Luke had a tendency to down-play conflicts in the church is, I think, a piece of special pleading designed to permit the common understanding of Gal 1-2 that sees Paul in conflict with the Jerusalem church leaders. Here's why.

Acts is full of conflict. For example, there are conflicts between Paul and other Jews, and between Paul and pagans, and even between Paul and the civil authorities (though Luke had to tread carefully there). Luke was therefore no "kindly reconciler". It is arbitrary to suppose that Luke would down-play the supposed conflict between Paul and the Jerusalem church, but not down-play the conflicts between Paul and his other co-religionists, for example.

Acts also contains plenty of conflict among the followers of Jesus. Luke tells us that:
1) Peter confronted Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-10)
2) the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews over the distribution of food (Acts 6:1)
3) Peter and John opposed Simon in Samaria (Acts 8:18-24)
4) the disciples in Jerusalem were suspicious of Paul (Acts 9:26)
5) believers in Jerusalem criticized Peter for eating with Gentiles (Acts 11:2-3)
6) Paul clashed with Bar-Jesus, a believer.
7) men from Judea clashed with Paul and Barnabas over the need for circumcision (Acts 15:1-2)
8) other believers in Jerusalem also opposed the views of Paul and Barnabas on circumcision (Acts 15:5)
9) Paul rejected John-Mark (Acts 15:37-38)
10) Paul and Barnabas had a sharp dispute and parted company (Acts 15:39-40)
11) seven "sons of Sceva" believed in the power of name of Jesus over evil spirits, but are humiliated
12) many believers who were zealous for the law were suspicious of Paul (Acts 21:20-21)

This list shows that Luke was not shy about recording conflicts in the church. In most cases Luke takes sides, and it is clear that he considers Simon Magus, Bar-Jesus, and the sons of Sceva to be beyond the pale. If the Jerusalem church leaders had opposed Paul on the issue of Gentile inclusion Luke would have recorded it and he probably would have taken sides. Luke does, after all, record similar conflicts (see 5, 7, 8, 10 & 12 above).

It is true that Luke does not mention the agitators in Galatia, or the opponents in Corinth, but this is merely because the focus of Acts is on the initial spread of the gospel around the mediterranean, not on the subsequent history of those churches.

In a future post I will (finally) explain why I think Galatians demonstrates that Paul and the Jerusalem church were in complete agreement on the issue of Gentile inclusion.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

"Barnabas and Paul": name order in Acts

On his blog Charles Seville mentions Rackham's comments on why Luke sometimes mentions Saul/Paul before Barnabas, and sometimes reverses the order. There is always significance to name order in the NT, and I think the order that Luke chooses in each case fits with what we know from the rest of Acts and from Paul's letters.

The order is not the same throughout and this shows that the two men had roughly the same prominence. This is in agreement with what we learn from Paul (Gal 2:1, 9, 13; 1 Cor 9:6).

Barnabas is always mentioned ahead of Paul until Paul becomes the dominant speaker from Acts 13:9 onwards (see Acts 11:30; 12:25; 13:1; 13:2; 13:7). This suggests that Saul was not prominent prior to the 'first missionary journey', which is consistent with the fact that Luke has little to say about these first ~11 years of his Christian life, and it is also consistent with the fact that we have no letters of Paul from this period. Paul prominence in preaching after Acts 13:9 (see Acts 14:12) explains why he is mentioned first in Acts 13:43; 13:46; 13:50; 15:2; 15:22; 15:35; 15:36.

There are only 3 times after Acts 13:9 when Barnabas is mentioned before Paul. The first occurs in Acts 14:12-14 when the followers of Zeus attempt to offer sacrifice to Barnabas and Paul, having concluded that Barnabas was Zeus. Barnabas is more central to the story than Paul and this explains why he is mentioned first.

The 2 other cases are in connection with Jerusalem (Acts 15:12; 15:25) (see also Acts 11:30; 12:25). This is presumably because Barnabas was better known then Paul in Jerusalem (Acts 4:36-37; 9:27; 11:22; Gal 1-2).

Thus the name order of all 15 cases is explained. The data confirm Paul's relative obscurity in the early years, and Barnabas's prominence in Jerusalem.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Goulder on Silas in Thessalonica

Mark Goodacre reminded me of Michael Goulder's "Silas in Thessalonica" (JSNT 48 1992). Here Goulder suggests that:

a) Silas and Paul had very different doctrines.
b) After Paul had left Thessalonica, Silas may have returned there and promoted is own version of the gospel.
c) 1 Thess (& probably 2 Thess) are Paul's response to Silas's influence in Thessalonica.

This is problematic.

Firstly, Paul would not have chosen to travel with Silas if there were significant doctrinal differences between them. Paul was selective about who should be in his team (Acts 15:37-38), and he chose Silas in preference even to Barnabas. Goulder seems to be aware of this problem, writing:
They could hardly have undertaken the mission together if they did not get on; but we have to consider the possibility that having worsted Paul in the incident of Gal. 2.11-14, the Jerusalem emissaries may have insisted on having one of their men go on mission with him and keep an eye on him. (p102)
This is ingenious, but not convincing. It is doubtful that Paul, who was capable of holding his ground against Peter (Gal 2:11-14) and resisted the inclusion of Mark in his team, would then allow others to impose Silas on him if Silas was likely to create the kinds of problems that Paul addresses in 1 Thess. Also, if Silas accompanied Paul to make sure that Paul did not promote Gentile inclusion too strongly, as Goulder implies, we would expect the issue of Gentile inclusion to surface in 1 Thessalonians if Goulder is right that this letter responds to Silas's influence.

Secondly, Paul includes Silas/Silvanus as a co-sender of 1 Thess, implying that Silas endorsed the letter. Goulder's explanation (without evidence) is that:
When Silas came to Corinth, Paul browbeat him into joining in the two Thessalonian letters (p104)
This is again ingenious but unconvincing. The Thessalonians would surely have realized that the letter(s) contradicted Silas's views, if that were the case. The use of Silvanus as co-sender would then be a charade that would convince no-one. Furthermore, the letter uses the first person plural almost entirely. Paul and his colleagues write that 'we' had brought the gospel to Thessalonica, and they make no distinction between Paul's gospel and Silas's (see for example 1 Thess 1:5; 2:8-13; 4:2-6; 4:11; 4:15; 5:14). If Silas's gospel was different from Paul's, the Thessalonians would feel that these texts were misrepresenting what had happened. Goulder claims that Silas had encouraged the Thessalonians to give up work, but Paul and Silas wrote, "we worked night and day" (1 Thess 2:9) .

Also, if Paul was able to 'browbeat' Silas into endorsing his letter to the Thessalonians, it would be odd that he was not able to browbeat him into conforming to his teaching while in Thessalonica. Furthermore, if Silas had been imposed on Paul by Jerusalem to keep him in check, as Goulder must suppose, Silas would not have been so easily browbeaten. Goulder's ingenious explanations are therefore in tension with each other. Why would anyone force Paul to accept Silas as his fellow missionary if Silas was too weak to stand up to Paul?

Thirdly, there is no solid evidence for Goulder's hypothesis that I can identify. He attempts several arguments, but they are based on particular exegetical decisions that I am not confident in (for example the tendency of the Thessalonians to shun work can be interpreted in terms of patron-client relationships). If Silas was the cause of so many problems (as Paul saw them) in the church, why does Paul not address Silas's influence directly? Why does he not write, "Silas told you abc, but we/I now tell you xyz"? Goulder writes:
there is no suggestion in either letter of a competing mission which has been spreading these false ideas. (p101)
Goulder implies that this excludes the possibility that the false ideas had been spread by missionaries from outside of Paul's team. Fair enough, but neither is there any suggestion of a competing mission from within Paul's team.

But Goulder is correct when he writes:
We learn little of Silas from the Thessalonian letters, but there is no reason to distrust Acts, where Luke seems well informed about him, and for the most part without an axe to grind.
Therefore we can be confident that Silas was indeed a leader of the Jerusalem church, and that he was chosen by the other Jerusalem church leaders to represent them on the issue of Gentile inclusion. His views on Gentile inclusion were therefore representative of those of the Jerusalem church leadership. Since Paul chose him at a time when Gentile inclusion was the hot issue, it is very likely that Paul shared the same views. In a future post I will argue that Gal 1-2 also tells us that Paul was known to preach the same message of Gentile inclusion as the Jerusalem church leaders.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

No split between Paul and the Jerusalem church

In Gal 1-2 Paul states that his gospel was independent of the Jerusalem church leaders. From this commentators invariably jump to the conclusion that the Jerusalem church leaders and Paul had different views on the issue of circumcision and Gentile liberty. They conclude that the Jerusalem church leaders must have been traditionalists, in contrast to Paul's uncompromising support for the unconditional inclusion of Gentiles. In future posts I will argue that Gal 1-2 has been completely misunderstood and I will offer a new reconstruction of the background of the letter. Here, though, I will argue from other texts that there was no split between Paul and the Jerusalem church leaders, and that he remained an integral part of the mainstream church.

Silas/Silvanus helped Paul evangelize Europe (1 Thess 1:1; 2 Cor 1:19; Acts 16:19-29; 17:10,14-15; 18:5). Paul even mentions him ahead of Timothy (1 Thess 1:1; 2 Cor 1:19). All this shows that there can have been no significant ideological difference between the two men on the issue of Gentile liberty. Yet we also read that Silas was a leader in the Judean church and that he represented the church of Jerusalem on this very issue (Acts 15:22-34; 15:40). The apostles and elders sent Silas to Antioch to represent their views on the issue of Gentile inclusion so we can assume that Silas's views were similar to theirs. Furthermore, Silvanus is attested by "Peter" in 1 Peter 5:12. So Paul's views = Silas's views = Jerusalem's views, therefore Paul's views = Jerusalem's views. In any case, a big gulf between Paul and the Jerusalem church leaders is problematic.

Prisca and Aquila had almost certainly come to the faith independently of Paul's missionary work (Acts 18:2-3). They were from Italy, where Paul had not been. If Paul had a gospel that was at variance with the wider church, as many suppose, it would be hard to explain why Paul collaborated so closely with Prisca and Aquila. He stayed with them (Acts 18:3). They risked their necks for him (Rom 16:3) and he gives them the position of honor at the top of the list of those in Rome whom he greets, and they headed a house church in Ephesus (1 Cor 16:19), presumably with Paul's approval.

Andronicus and Junia came to the faith independently of Paul (Rom 16:6-7), yet he esteems them highly and recognizes their apostleship. They had probably been in prison together.

Apollos was from Alexandria and had clearly not inherited his faith via Paul (Acts 18:24). While there were some in Corinth who claimed to belong to Apollos (1 Cor 1:12), Paul recognized the important role that Apollos had played (1 Cor 3:6). Paul makes no distinctions between the various parties in Corinth, including the "Paul" party, but is critical of the divisions. While there may have been some theological differences between Paul and Apollos (Acts 18:25-19:7), the issue of Gentile liberty was not one of them. Circumcision and Law observance are hardly mentioned in 1 Corinthians (1 Cor 7:18-19), so Apollos had not encouraged the Corinthians to Judaiz.

It seems that there were some in Corinth who claimed allegiance to Peter (1 Cor 1:12). If Paul and Peter had distinct theologies on Gentile inclusion, we would expect Paul to bring up the issue in 1 Corinthians, but he does not.

Luke was clearly an admirer of both Peter and Paul. This is hard to explain if, as some suppose, there was a Paul camp and a Peter camp, representing distinctly different ideologies.

Clement of Rome reveres Peter and Paul in the same breath:
Take the noble figures of our won generation. Even the greatest and most virtuous pillars of our Church were assailed by envy and jealousy, and had to keep up the struggle till death ended their days. Look at the good Apostles. It was by sinful jealousy that Peter was subjected to tribulation, not once or twice but many times; it was in that way that he bore his witness, ere he left for his well-earned place in glory. And Paul, because of jealousy and contention, has become the very type of endurance rewarded. He was in bonds seven times, he was exiled, he was stoned. He preached in the East and in the West, winning a noble reputation for his faith. He taught righteousness to all the world; and after reaching the furthest limits of the West, and bearing his testimony before kings and rulers, he passed out of this world and was received into the holy places. I him we have one of the greatest of all examples of endurance.

In summary, it seems to me that the evidence outside Galatians suggests that Paul remained firmly within the circle of the mainstream church, as presided over by the Jerusalem church leaders. Those who are determined to see a theological chasm between a Paul camp and the 'pillars' in Jerusalem will no doubt suggest that the lack of evidence for their hypothesis just shows how thoroughly the truth has been suppressed by Luke. However, such a conspiracy would have to have involved not only conscious distortion of the direct data by Luke, but also careful manipulation of subtle incidental details, and deliberate corruption of the undisputed letters of Paul!