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

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Paul's dilemma when writing Galatians

In my last two posts, here and here, I presented a new reconstruction of the background to Galatians.

Paul's understanding of scripture showed him that Gentiles should be free from the Law. He shared his views with the Galatians when he visited them, but the agitators later dismissed Paul's teachings as insincere. They argued that Paul was an envoy of the Jerusalem apostles, whose doctrine he had loyally promoted, without believing it. The agitators encouraged the Galatians to therefore dismiss what Paul had taught them on this matter, and accept circumcision. Paul then wrote Galatians, but was in a predicament. He wanted to persuade the Galatians not to be circumcised, but how was he to convince them that he was giving his own opinions? There was a danger that, whatever Paul wrote, the Galatians would think it was motivated by subservience to Jerusalem, and therefore lacking any independent authority. Even Paul's claims to being independent of Jerusalem could be seen by the Galatians as a ploy to promote Jerusalem's doctrine and consistent with his subservience to them. This was a real dilemma. In my previous posts I discussed Paul's claims to independence from Jerusalem. In this post I will argue that several other features of Galatians also come into sharper focus when they are understood as Paul's attempt to overcome this dilemma.

Paul claims he is not lying

Gal 1:20 reads, "In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie." This suggests that Paul was aware that his words might not be taken to be honest. This is explicable if the Galatians were suspecting Paul was the mouthpiece of the Jerusalem church leaders rather than one who honestly gave his own opinions on this matter.

Three parallel passages

The three main passages that deal with the agitators are laid out on a web page here. You may wish to open this web page in a second window so that you can keep it in view while reading this blog post. The first passage, Gal 1:1-10, begins the letter, so we should not be surprised to find Paul laying out his argument there. The last passage, Gal 6:11-17 is the letter’s subscription (written in Paul’s own hand) and we should not be surprised to find Paul recapping his argument here. The second passage, Gal 5:1-12, is the last section that deals with the principle theme of the letter in its main body, so this passage, too, would be a good place for Paul to repeat his case. It will be shown below that all three passages do indeed make essentially the same points in the same order, and that the major differences are also explained by the present theory. In each passage Paul’s argument runs: I am writing on my own behalf: you are justified by faith, not by the Law. A curse on those who have told you that I believe otherwise. The passages should be interpreted together, rather than in isolation.

I am writing on my own behalf

Shown in blue below, Paul begins each passage by claiming that he is representing himself. Gal 5:2 starts with the emphatic "I, Paul" (γ Παλος). With the conventional understanding of Galatians this "I, Paul" is hard to explain. Paul could not be here appealing to the authority carried by his own name, because (on the conventional view), the Galatians did not recognize his authority. The phrase appears three other times in Paul's undisputed letters (2 Cor 10:1; 1 Thess 2:18; Philemon 19). In each case Paul uses the phrase to differentiate himself from others. In Philemon 19 Paul uses "I, Paul" to start his subscription, where it was customary for the author to take the pen and sole responsibility. Thus, "I, Paul" dismisses Timothy, Paul's co-sender. I would argue that 2 Cor 10:1 does the same. The phrase in 1 Thess 2:18 is probably used to distinguish Paul from Silvanus. Given this usage, it is likely that Paul writes "I, Paul" in Gal 5:2 to make it clear that he is doing the talking. The verse is an unambiguous declaration of Paul's position, "Listen!, I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you". James Dunn is close to the mark when he writes that the words, "I, Paul, say to you"

has the form of a solemn affidavit (cf. 2 Cor x.1; eph. iii.1). What is about to follow is something he wants his Galatian audiences to pay special attention to, something of particular importance to them; perhaps also a clarification of his own teaching on the subject, made necessary by insinuations that his teaching was different (see on v.11).

Paul here states his position clearly and asserts that he is writing his own words, lest the Galatians continue to believe that he is merely a mouthpiece for others. Note also that the repetition in Gal 5:2-3 further reinforces Paul's point that he means what he is writing.

Gal 6:11 is similar. Paul points to the large letters as evidence that he has taken the pen and perhaps also to show them that he is writing as clearly as possible. Paul is here telling the Galatians that he really does want them to know that what follows is his declaration.

Gal 1:1 can, and should, be interpreted in the light of Gal 5:2 and Gal 6:11. Paul is implying here that he gives the truth, as he understands it from his revelation, and does not speak merely as an envoy of others.

You are justified by faith, not by the Law

Each passage then continues with a discussion, shown in light green, of Christ's saving role. At this point two of the passages have similar statements, shown in red, about the obligation of the circumcised to obey the whole Law (Gal 5:3; 6:13).

Then, both Gal 5:6 and Gal 6:15 (shown in dark green) say, in very similar words, that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything. This statement, superficially at least, is ambiguous about whether it is OK to be circumcised. On the present hypothesis the Galatians suspected that Paul actually believed in circumcision. This explains why Gal 1:1-10 has no statement equivalent to 5:6 and 6:15. At the start of the letter Paul must present himself as an uncompromising opponent of circumcision and allow no ambiguity. Only towards the end of the letter, when he is becoming confident that he is getting the message across (Gal 5:10), can he nuance his position in the way that he does in 5:6 and 6:15.

A curse on those who have told you that I believe otherwise

Then Paul turns to the Galatians in Gal 1:6 and Gal 5:7-8. In both places he refers to how the Galatians have turned from “the one who calls you”/”the one having called you”. In Gal 1:6 Paul expresses shock at what has happened in Galatia. By the time we get to Gal 5:7-8 this shock has turned to puzzlement. Then in Gal 6:11-17 we find no parallel verse. This progression makes sense. Paul’s expression of intense emotion Paul in Gal 1:6 demonstrates to the Galatians that his views are sincerely held (it would he difficult for someone to fake the emotion that comes across here and elsewhere in the letter). By the end of the letter, however, Paul has made his case well and no longer needs to demonstrate such emotion.

Then comes Gal 1:7, which parallels Gal 5:9-10 (both shown in pink). Paul says that the agitators are “confusing” the Galatians. The same word (ταράσσω) is used in both places. Furthermore, in both places Paul says that the agitators have corrupted the true gospel: in Gal 1:7 the agitators “want to pervert the gospel of Christ”; and in Gal 5:9 “A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough”. There is no parallel verse in Gal 6:11-17, presumably because Paul feels, by then, that he has largely cleared up the confusion.

Then we come to Gal 1:8-10, Gal 5:11-12, and Gal 6:16-17. All three passages contain some kind of curse (shown in brown). Paul calls down a curse on himself in Gal 1:8, and on the agitators in Gal 1:9. In Gal 5:10 he says that the agitators will pay the penalty, and in Gal 5:11 he wishes that they will castrate themselves. Gal 6:16 wishes peace on those who recognize that circumcision is nothing, and there is an implied curse on those who do not (so Betz “The Galatians debate” Ed. M. Nanos p7). These curses help Paul overcome his dilemma. They demonstrate to the Galatians that Paul does not believe in circumcision. A supporter of circumcision would struggle to bring himself to call down a curse on himself, or indeed to use the strong language of Gal 5:12, even out of the strongest loyalty to the Jerusalem church leaders. By the time Paul got to 6:16 he may have felt that he no longer needed to exaggerate his opposition to circumcision (to dispel the rumor that he supported circumcision), and this may explain why the curse in Gal 6:16 is implied rather than explicit.

Both Gal 5:11 and Gal 6:17 refer to persecutions. 6:17 comes into sharper focus when interpreted in the light of 5:11. Paul is saying, “let no-one cause trouble for me by saying that I am not committed to Gentile liberty, for my wounds prove my commitment.” Here, as in 5:11 Paul’s persecutions demonstrate his commitment, in contrast to the agitators, who are avoiding persecution by advocating circumcision (Gal 6:12). This understanding of 6:17 is essentially that of John Chrysostom (see here).

Gal 1:8-9 should be interpreted together with Gal 5:11-12 because a) both refer to Paul (hypothetically) preaching circumcision, b) they have very similar contexts (see on Gal 1:6-7 and Gal 5:7-9 above), c) both include a curse. This strongly suggests that in 1:8, as in 5:11 and 6:17, Paul is refuting the rumor that he supported circumcision. This rumor is the confusion alluded to in 1:7 and 5:10. The repetition explicitly mentioned in Gal 1:8-9 helps Paul convince the Galatians that he means what he writes.

Gal 1:10 reads, “For am I now seeking the approval of men....”. The Greek word, “γὰρ” (For) shows that 1:10 in some sense must explain 1:8-9. This confirms that 1:8-9 is primarily about Paul’s sincerity. The word “men” appears three times in 1:10 and is often taken to refer to the Gentiles to whom Paul preached, but this does not fit the context. The word refers to the Judean church leaders in Gal 1:11 as in Gal 1:12 and also in Gal 1:1. Therefore Gal 1:10 shows that Paul is concerned that his readers will assume that his letter is written not out of conviction but out of a desire to please the Judean church leaders.

More on Paul and Peter

My last two posts concerned Paul’s relationship with Peter and the other Jerusalem church leaders. I should have mentioned that Paul never names his adversaries. This makes it even harder to see Paul and Peter as opponents when Paul wrote Galatians.

Now, Loren Rosson points out here that it would have been considered shameful for Paul to criticize Peter in the way that he does in Gal 2:11-14 if they had been friends. Loren concludes that Peter and Paul were not friends. However, the dilemma hypothesis argued here provides an explanation. Paul’s ‘shameful’ account of the Antioch incident serves Paul’s purpose because it proves that Paul was not a puppet of Peter. No loyal underling of Peter would be able to bring himself to criticize Peter in writing, as Paul does here, even in the interest of promoting Peter’s views on the inclusion of Gentiles. Now, Paul would have expected the Galatians to realize that he was writing primarily to make this point, so his words about Peter would not have been as shameful as they appear. Gal 2:11-14 is not commentary on Peter. Paul wrote it to convince a skeptical audience that his opposition to circumcision was sincere and not borne of loyalty to Peter and the others.


Paul makes the same sequence of points in Gal 1:10, Gal 5:2-11, and Gal 6:11-17:

1) I am writing on my own behalf: 2) you are justified by faith, not by the Law. 3) A curse on those who have told you otherwise.

This confirms that Paul had to correct the view that he spoke and wrote against circumcision only out of obedience to the Jerusalem church leaders.


  1. "The three main passages that deal with the agitators are laid out on a web page here." Link goes to a retired web page.

  2. Thanks. See the colour coded chart here.