Continuity — Paul's Audiences — The Galatians

The Galatians

Who were they?

The author’s reason for writing to the churches of Galatia (presumably founded by him —*4:13–15) is clear: He has just received news about certain outsiders who have been telling his converts that they must endure circumcision first if they are to be considered followers of Jesus. The opponents (“Some who trouble you.”) seem to be saying to Paul’s converts, who are undeniably gentile:

‘What ?!
You guys want to be Christians but you haven’t been initiated into Judaism yet?!
Are you nuts?!’

The Galatian Christian community that Paul is addressing consisted of gentiles.[1] The emphasis that the author places in this epistle on the rejection of circumcision is a dead giveaway. Not only would it simply have been futile for Paul to argue against circumcision to Jews, it would have been stupid, as they would have already been circumcised. Chap 4 verse 8 leaves little doubt that they were former Pagans who had been initiated recently into the Jesus mysteries. There may or may not have been “Jewish” Christians in these groups, but we have no way of ascertaining this from this epistle. Even if there were some, we can safely say that these were not the people who were on the author’s mind when writing this epistle. In Galatians the figure of Paul is stressed out because some of his recent converts are being sold straight-up Judaism by some unknown outsiders. He doesn’t want his darlings to be exposed to this straight-up Judaism, lest they fall away from his “true gospel.” He wants them to remain gentile. At some point in the recent past, apparently, Paul had inspired these gentiles to abandon their former Pagan ways in order to adopt his particular version of the Jewish god, a vision that did not require such extreme measures as circumcision from them.

What was Paul selling at Galatia?

The gentile god fearers of Galatia seem to have been in the market for a specifically Jewish monotheistic expression (else, what’s a god-fearer for?). The Epistle to the Galatians suggests that they were still ambivalent about which path to commit to. What’s more, they were responsive enough to these Judaizers to make Paul freak out about it. Perhaps Paul’s audients weren’t as committed to a Pauline Judaism as he’d have liked to believe. Perhaps they were eager to hear any and all Jewish viewpoints which would bring them closer to this god whose mysteries they sought to enter. Unfortunately, the Pauline rhetoric is the only viewpoint that survived.

A major advantage that the author(s) of the Pauline epistles possibly had over the Judaizer sects, what set him apart, was the Greek training that he seems to have had. “Paul” knew how to talk to these gentiles about the god they had recently chosen to fear in a way that the “circumcision party” could not. Whether their newly chosen god strictly resembled the Biblical Yahveh or not (one of Marcion’s focii) seems of little concern to Paul’s god-fearers. Would a neophyte know the difference, anyway? After all, an ancient mystical tradition like Judaism is intangibly sublime, virtually unfathomable without a knowledgeable guide to help one navigate it. Enter Paul and his glass-darkly. Paulinism offered gentile aficionados like the Galatian community a way inside the mystery of the living god of Israel, in plain Greek, that didn’t require self-mutilation. The way of entrance into the covenant through baptism was understandably more appealing to these Pagan proselytes than was the requisite knife. This was a no-brainer. A win-win situation, in efect.

Still, these Galatian protégés of Paul apparently seem to be laboring under the impression that their Jesus worship was still somehow a fundamentally Jewish expression. Their wish to be adopted into the Abrahamic fold was apparently genuine. When Paul showed up around the Diaspora synagogues preaching the new paradigm of a Judaic god, the texts say that the Jews turned him away at every synagogue. (Hell, the texts say that they damn near killed him at a few of them!) Yet Paul was somehow still able to found a smattering of churches across a good swath of territory using this much maligned and spurned theology of his. How did he manage to build an ‘alternate’ Judaism without any Jews? If the Jews threw stones at him, who was it then that bought into it and sustained his mission? The answer has never been hidden from view. It was very likely these god-fearers, whose understanding of Judaic monotheism (and/or covenant, Torah, et al) could only be an ambitious Platonic or Stoic approximation of Judaism. These spiritual gentiles found in Paul’s all-inclusive message an attractive alternative to the Jewish god they sought. In lieu of having traditional Hebrew credentials (i.e. the right pedigree/bloodline), Paulinism became the loophole through which the god-fearers could at last sneak past the surgeon’s gate into Abraham’s bosom. But why did they wish to adopt Yahveh so badly? We’ll explore that crucial question in time.

At any rate, the educated Greek style that Paul exhibits throughout the corpus was obviously attractive to the gentile god-fearers. It plays a significant role in the form of the epistles. For instance, the author employs a kind of judicial rhetoric in the first couple of chapters of Galatians, where he defends his message over against his opponents by first defending the legitimacy of his apostleship. It’s a defense as well as an attack, showing a clean rhetorical style and a familiarity with contemporary Hellenistic methods of discourse.

But Paul takes a bold step beyond this classical Greek one. He mixes biblical midrash into his Hellenistic rhetoric. In arguing against his opponents, he uses the authority of Torah to support his arguments for why it is unnecessary to circumcise the gentiles. This is so weird and ironic that it warrants repetition, rephrased: Paul uses Torah to explain to gentile god-fearers why gentiles need not be bound to Torah to legitimately follow the Jewish god. (Mind you, his audience is gentile, so he can pretty much say whatever he wants, really, and they’d be none the wiser.) This, I think, is one of the vital puzzles of Christian origins.

Midrash is a method of biblical interpretation whereby one searches for deeper meaning by applying a kind of logical extrapolation to a given passage, projecting from the lesser case to the greater or vise versa. This method allows for a fairly wide scope of interpretation of scripture. Through it, the rabbis would openly discuss the intricacies of the law and resolve any discrepancies resulting from the peculiar, sometimes very difficult phrasing of biblical passages.

The specific midrash that Paul attempts to apply to this question in this case involves the very first covenant that the Hebrew god ever made with Abraham in the book of Genesis. Paul focuses on two different details in the story, both referring to this covenant, to defend his position that Torah is superceded. To wit: In Genesis 15 God promises prosperity to Abraham because of the constant faith that Abraham has displayed since his calling. Later, in chapter 17, he demands the ritual of circumcision from male members as a sign of this special covenant with the people. Paul argues that the promise was made before the ritual had been instituted by god in order that the gentiles can be endeared to god through faith alone, without relying on external signs like circumcision. In other words, the chronology of the two parts of the contract makes a world of difference for Paul, who reasons that the one must be prior to the other not just chronologically, but also in terms of their significance for human history. If the epistle to the Galatians is anything, it is a loud cry to allow the whole world into the Jewish tent.

One aspect of the midrash process was that it is an interactive method. A midrash doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s not enough to unpack and to posit a possible explanation for any given passage. Torah is a living thing. It needs to be engaged and discussed among one’s peers. Something might be a valid midrash, but it might not necessarily be a compelling one. A valid interpretation is not necessarily a correct one. [2]

I stress this aspect of midrashic argumentation because I find it hard to believe that a moderately learned Pharisee could not have demolished Paul’s premise that the gentile has access to Yahveh prior to the Jew just because of this particular sequence in Genesis (by simply pointing out the fact that there‘s no such thing as ‘half-a-contract’, for example). Was there no one nearby who could engage and challenge Paul’s lame midrash? I bet those Judaizer opponents that he’s complaining about could have, had they stuck around. These Judaizers were apparently compelling enough to rattle the Galatians, who were shook up enough to inspire Paul to call them “foolish” (“who has bewitched you?”). Paul’s letter gives the impression that these Galatian Christians were “of Paul”, but how committed to Paul they actually were is questionable, given their evident capriciousness. There would have been no need for Paul to scold them so severely for listening to an old-hat argument for circumcision if their faith in his message had been secure. No?

Interestingly, to the naked eye, the offenders’ rationale seems to be simply the standard within Judaism. Nothing more. If Paul saw these guys as fellow followers of Jesus, it would seem that they had an understanding of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus that differed radically from Paul’s, an understanding which he characterizes as “another gospel” (and which he double-curses). But this “other gospel” seems to have been nothing but good old normative Judaism, as far as I can tell, with, perhaps (it's hard to tell from the text) some added importance imparted to Jesus (which can be inferred from the texts).  But it is far from clear. Was he a Messiah to them? Was he a beloved, well-remembered Rabbi to them? We could venture guesses, of course, but we ultimately can’t know because all that Paul says in this epistle is that these opponents wanted his gentiles to be circumcised. We have no idea what christology or soteriology they adhered to. The epistle cannot help us there.

Another further example of Paul’s use of biblical exegesis in Galatians (4:24) is his allegory involving Abraham’s two seeds, that of Sarah and of Hagar, respectively. Allegory is simply the figurative treatment of one subject under the guise of another one. In this case, the author identifies the Jews with Ishmael, the son of Hagar, Abraham’s slave concubine, while he equates his own acolytes with Isaac, the son of Sarah, a freewoman. These two alternatives are cast as two separate covenants, of the flesh, and one of spirit. Without delving too deep into Paul’s reasoning here, it should be noted how repulsive this would have sounded to a Jew. If one thinks that Jesus was ballsy for calling the Pharisees vipers, imagine how well Jews would have reacted to Paul saying they were sons of a slave concubine girl. Had there been any schooled Jews around to riposte, Paul would have gotten quite an earful, if not a stoning, I’m sure! The interpretation that Paul advances in this allegory could only occur to a Christian superssesionist—certainly not to a Pharisee, who have always stressed the Abraham–Isaac–Jacob–Joseph lineage in Genesis.

Hyam Maccoby wrote a whole book[3] in which he questions Paul’s Pharisaic credentials by pointing to many of the discrepancies in Paul’s supposedly Pharisaic thought, such as the one I just outlined. He concludes that the apostle’s attempts at displaying rabbinic proficiency were but an idiosyncratic affectation at best. I won’t belabor the point, but I think that Mr.Maccoby may have been right.

What is the relation to James? . . . . .

Early in the epistle, in his exasperation over having to defend the validity of his apostleship, Paul relates an earlier episode in Antioch (Chapter 2), where some of James’ party, including Cephas, apparently were not keen on sharing their meals with the gentiles. He refers to these people as the circumcision party. But in telling that anecdote, he is not referring to these new Judaizing offenders. He’s merely recollecting a recent episode in his mission. While some kind of kinship is usually assumed between these Judaizers intruders in this epistle and the James group from Chapter 2, the letter never actually explicitly equates these two groups. In fact they seem to be two distinct groups upon close inspection. In light of the author’s explicit and boastful description of his “meeting” with James and the pillars in Jerusalem, for example, I find it hard to believe that anyone from the James’ party would so openly and defiantly contradict a direct ruling from James if he was truly the man in charge. If James’ authority was as far reaching as is implied in the Pauline corpus, then surely these “troublemakers” had heard of the recent “merger” (the so-called Council of Jerusalem) between the two giants (Paul and James). It turns out that the Judaizers in Galatia, however, either don’t know about the decisions taken during the council or else they simply don’t care. They preach a Torah-first faith to these Galatians, sans any arbitration or intervention or influence from James, apparently (or from Paul for that matter).

It should also be stressed that Paul is not speaking to these opponents in the epistle; he’s not trying to convince them to change their ways. He is trying to convince the Galatian Christians (who are decidedly gentile) to not listen to these outsiders who insist that following Jesus demands a parallel adherence to Torah first.

Is this group’s insistence on an imperative observance of Torah sufficient reason to pinpoint them to Jerusalem or to James?  No— it only recognizes them as Jews (Judeans), and no more. 

Another possibility exists. Is it not just as plausible that there could have been more than one “circumcision party” in Palestine at the time? This Galatian letter inadvertently reveals that it was apparently possible to be a Torah observant Jesus fan which did not look to James for authority, but who eat only kosher food and honor all other Jewish religious observances like circumcision. It would be just one more possible way of being proto-Christian in this formative gestation period from which the new religion would eventually emerge.

Before moving on from the James connection to Galatians, we should mention the collection of money for the poor in Jerusalem. It is not a very central concern (he devotes a few words to it) in this epistle but it is notable because for Paul this collection brings with it a perception of legitimacy in the eyes of the Jerusalem church.  Throughout these epistles, he seems to need a more positive relationship with that group for some reason. Why does he need this legitimacy so badly?  

So . . .: What do we know about the Galatians viz Judaism?

We know that some outsiders tried to convince some of Paul’s follower’s that circumcision was a necessary component of keeping the faith. 

What do we think we know?

We think we know that these outsiders were somehow affiliated with James’ party, with whom Paul shared an awkward meal in a story that he relates. Paul does call them the ‘circumcision party’, but it’s important to note that in Chapter 2 Paul is not identifying the Jacobians with this new threat. He is merely venting his frustrations in dealing with Judaizers by sharing one anecdote from his past experiences.

At any rate, we see that, so far, neither the Thessalonian nor the Galatian audiences of the epistles are necessarily the "thorough Jews" that Boyd vehemently insists they are in his objections.

In the next installment, we will look at the Corinthian community that Paul addressed.

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1 - This was the conclusion reached by J. Munck in Paul and the Salvation of Mankind, and by numerous other scholars.

2 - This important subject is dealt with at length in Validity in Interpretation (1973) by Hirsch, E.D. Jr

3 - The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity (1987)


  1. I think Paul's teaching was being usurped by Aquila of Pontus (Sinope) a pagan convert to Christianity who ended up embracing Judaism. This guy seemed to be a contemporary of Marcion.

    1. Sound interesting. Do you have a citation that I can follow up on?

    2. I used Google to search for famous people from Sinope, then I went to the Jewish Encyclopaedia.
      I think also we see an attempt to cover up the scandal of a gentile converting to Christianity then becoming a Jewish proselyte in Acts 18. Notice how Priscilla's name precedes that of her husband most of the time in the NT as if He was being demoted.
      Acts tells us that Paul stayed with Aquila and Priscilla, preached at the synagogue where he was rejected. Next thing he moves in with someone else. Why?
      Because Aquila too rejected his message but his wife fell for it.
      She went on to follow Paul around - what a scandal! Hence the cover-up - keep Aquila's name in there as a red herring. Another red herring in the story is that the couple were Jews.
      Just an idea.

    3. hmm . . . it's an interesting speculation.

  2. But Paul's crowd, at least in theory, really are "monotheists", in the sense that they have been trained to reject all other cults. That you can use Genesis, a sacred text of a circumcised people, to give rules to permanently uncircumcised, non-Jews is plain to anyone who reads e.g. the story of Noah, who was no more Jewish than he was Eskimo. This is ABCs, really. Is a character like this --- there are hundreds like him in my neighborhood! -- somehow 'not really Jewish', kind of fake and Greekish, because he too *preaches against the circumcision* ? I don't think any pharisee could outdo such a one! The simple formula that Paul is converting the nations into something like 'noahides' in preparation for his apocalyptic Judean king makes perfect sense of the matter, however, even if it's a little too simple. The whole idea seems to be that the messianic ruler conquers the nations and subjects them, not that he turns all the nations into Judeans, which is basically a contradiction, and in any case not spectacular enough for him. I guess a sufficiently powerful cosmic ruler could turn the Eskimos into Chinese and Greeks into Jews, but it's hard to see what the point would be.

    1. You act as though circumcision were all that was on the line there. That, combined with the Law-supercession . . . tells me they are not really understanding that Paul is not selling quite Judaism, Christian or otherwise. What he's selling has nothing to do with Torah . . . he is clear on that. They are accepting it as such because they know no better. This is why Paul freaks out when real Jews arrive to conscript his "children," to lead them astray.

      I do get your point, and I don't disagree . . . but it still does not demonstrate a continuity between a Jerusalem "original" Jewish Christianity and Paul's innovations . . . It's not that he wanted them to be Jewish ... it's obvious that he doesn't .... in that aspect you are proving my point ... you seem to be missing the forest for the trees on this one.

    2. why do i get multiple repeated comments . . . each of your comments is getting sent to me at least twice . . . sometimes three times . . . is that a glitch ... or are you sending them multiply?

    3. I am using 'circumcision' metonymically as Paul does, when he speaks e.g. of the 'party of circumcision'. My 'point' is that you have not given any evidence that Paul has departed one iota from his alleged 'pharisaical' teachers. That what he's 'selling' the Galatians is not the law given to the Jewish people by Moses, *is to be expected.* He thinks that 'preaching the circumcision' to foreigners etc. is an outright violation of exactly that law, the one he has always obeyed, same as Shwartz does now and Schneerson did with characteristic messianic brio. Something else is to be 'preached' to the nations; there is no 'discontinuity' in Schneerson. In particular, you have given no evidence that Paul does not think the law of Moses is not in full force and they he is not himself in obedience to it. Maybe he wasn't; but I think you are following the Church in thinking so. The claim of Acts, that he's perfectly happy to perform a circumcision himself by hand, for the right person, i.e. a Jew -- here I speak literally, not metonymically -- seems to me credible, though I have no idea what to make of Acts. I suspect it's just making the same historical inference I'm making. What you are calling 'supercession' is in the remote future and depends on the fall of the Temple, and probably still more the later catastrophe of the bar Kokhba period. Paul has not an inkling of the fall of the Temple; the temple would seem to be practically the only thing he ever thinks of. He has no inkling of 'supercession'. You are forgetting that he clearly thinks the universe is basically collapsing around him; he has no idea of any permanent 'religion': 'Judaism' and 'Christianity' as 'religions' are not known to him; still less is whatever permanent 'new' 'Hellenistic' mystery cult you are thinking up.

    4. Yes, your software eats almost all comments, after putting them through an amazing number of protocols, most of which involve loss of material, and not informing the user whether communication has occurred. Also the text box starts to re-interpret key bindings if a remark exceeds a couple of lines -- it just started happening! -- so that e.g. moving the cursor and revising a sentence takes you to the top of the web-page instead of to the place in the text box you are pointing to, etc. But the behavior is different in different browsers, mine being Chrome and Safari . Almost every way internally of deleting a sentence is at the moment taking me to the top of a the web page.

    5. I suspect that you prefer prolix circumlocution and that you could continue forever in this wheel-spinning. I rather like to get to the point, however, so to this end I will reduce it down to "one single iota", so to speak.

      Paul bashes the Torah. He does it in Galatians. He does it Romans. That by itself is enough to show he departed from Pharisaism.

      I have other things to do around here than humor (or placate) your kneejerk reactions and shadow boxing (and academic posturing, though I don't doubt you are conversant, at least from an apologist perspective). That's fine, but until you even try to demonstrate the continuity that I am directly challenging, you and I are done here, I think.

      second . . . if you post a comment, you need only post it once ... I get all of them. If they don't appear immediately it is because I have not reviewed and/or approved it for publication yet. If your yearning for instant gratification tempts you to send a comment multiple times . . . please stop yourself . . . i get to these when I get to them.

    6. You can delete these remarks; I am addressing you directly and have no interest in anything but the topic. In fact your software is much more catastrophic than you think; I do understand it by now. For example, it deletes most material during the so-called preview. I am familiar with the internets as the next person and have never seen anything remotely so disfunctional. This may have to do with my particular setup, with livejournal, or Yosemite or etc., but it is simply unparalleled,

      By the way, I have never read a single work of 'apologetic' and couldn't be more allergic to anything like it. If I thought you were a believer I would not think communication was possible and wouldn't have bothered reading the page much less remarking on it. That you could even imagine otherwise given what I wrote is really difficult to imagine.

    7. Not Christian apologetics . . . i realize that much.

      I'll look into the glitch you lament. Thank you.

  3. Sorry, the remark above was supposed to be preceded by:

    This business about 'midrash' is totally anachronistic, again. I guess one could speak of such a thing practiced outside the Hebrew language, but the thought is a little unappetizing. Certainly no Pharisee would know what you are talking about.

    You are worried that "Paul uses Torah to explain to gentile god-fearers why gentiles need not be bound to Torah to legitimately follow the Jewish god." But first, God-fearers are simply people who have added the God of Israel to their pantheon. They 'follow' the 'Jewish God' but are obviously not 'bound to Torah'. Half of the 1st c. Temple complex was devoted to such people in the shape of the 'court of the nations'.

    1. you're right . . . . now . . . can you derive from this a continuity between Jerusalem Christianity and Pauline Christianity?

    2. I'm especially interested in a continuity re: christology ...


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