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.


  1. This is a fascinating theory that I'm struggling to get my head round, so I'll ponder it for a while.

    But how do you account for the fact that the letter is so angry?

    And if you are right when you argue (elsewhere) that Timothy and titus are the same person, how do you account for Paul circumcising Timothy but not Titus (Galatians 2:3)? You may have answered this elsewhere...

  2. So far, very interesting. Thanks for sharing this. I'll be keen to see how you continue to make the case.

  3. Thanks for the comments, Simon and Jonathan.

    In Galatians Paul does indeed express anger, or is it exasperation? Either way, it fulfills Paul's purpose, I think. It convinces the Galatians that Paul really does support Gentile liberty. Otherwise the Galatians might think that Paul is a supporter of circumcision (5:11) and was writing against circumcision to please the Jerusalem church leaders (as a good envoy should). 5:12 is a good example of Paul expressing strong emotion. Even today people often use coarse language to show that they have strong feelings.

    Thanks for your interest in Titus-Timothy. I'll blog on him sometime. Meanwhile take a look at my web pages here.

  4. Richard, this is well argued and shows how far you've come with these ideas in the past few years. I look forward to further postings.

  5. Greetings Richard. A few things: 1. I see and agree with your consideration of Timothy and the circumcision and Galation trial. 2. as to Timothy being Titus....i appreciate where there is to go in matters of name change. But as to Titus being Timothy I have a in writing to Timothy does Paul say....Titus went to Dalmatia? 2 Timothy 4:10 What am I missing here?

    Finally, 3. are you Jewish by blood(fathers line)?


  6. Hi Malachiah,

    along with most specialists, I think that Paul did not write 2 Timothy. I have discussed the problem of 2 Tim 4:10 here.

    Timothy was a Gentile because his father was a Gentile. I give references here.

  7. Greetings Richard.
    Thank you for your response. I will check out what you have written of 2 Timothy. My mind is fully open here with seeking. As to Timothy we fully agree that he is a Gentile because his father was. Todays Judaism teaches that a Jew is according to mothers line. This is foolish in my sight. Finally, you didnt answer my question concerning yourself.Are you a Jew or a Gentile?
    Thank you