When Paul was hopping mad – Monday, 27th Week in ordinary time – Galatians 1:6-12
For the next nine weekdays, the liturgy of the Church will take for its first reading, texts from St Paul’s letter to the Galatians. The epistle spans six chapters. This is an important epistle that requires our attention not only for what it says but for what others claimed that it said. Its use or misuse during the Protestant reformation led to many of the divisions within Christianity.
Martin Luther cherry picked this book as his ‘great charter.’ He failed to properly reconstruct the conversation based on its original context and instead read Galatians and Romans through the lens of his own personal experience and the controversies of his era. He saw in this book the doctrine of salvation through the grace of Christ alone and assumed that what Paul was denouncing was role of good works. What Martin Luther did was a classic case of eisegesis. Biblical exegesis can be best understood as ‘drawing out’ what the text is saying while eisegesis means to draw in; in the sense of “importing” or “drawing in” one’s own subjective interpretations into the text, unsupported by the text itself .
Paul is writing to the Galatians, perhaps about 55 AD. Among other things, Galatians gives many autobiographical details of the apostle’s earlier life and evangelistic activity. At the time of Paul, Galatia was a province of the Roman Empire. Galatia is situated in what is today, modern day Turkey. The earliest inhabitants of that area were of Celtic origin. They migrated from central Europe across Italy and Macedonia to Asia Minor where they were hired by the local king as mercenaries around the year 280 B.C.
When Paul wrote to the Galatians, he did not write to a single church in a single city. For example, 1 Thessalonians is addressed to the church of the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 1:1). This epistle was addressed to the churches of Galatia, because Galatia was a region, not a city and there were several churches among the cities of Galatia.
Even though I mentioned that this book was written in 55 AD, there are several time periods and several locations given for the location of the audience and the date of this epistle. We know that Paul was in southern Galatia on his first missionary journey (Acts 13:13-14:23). However some scholars have also suggested that he went through northern Galatia on his second and third missionary journeys. They back this with texts such as (Acts 16:6).
Essentially, there were two regions of Galatia, one to the north including the cities of Pessinus, Ancyra and Tavium and one to the south including the cities of Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe which we hear of in the first missionary journey. There has been considerable debate if Galatians was written to the cities of the northern region or the southern region. Whatever be the case, we know that it is to some of these cities that Paul wrote this epistle and this should not be an important issue for us in our understanding of the contents of his message.
On reading Chapter 1:1-6 one is drawn to both what is said and what is not said. Missing here are the expressions of thanks or praise that Paul often wrote in the beginning of his letters. Paul did not do this with the Galatians and the directness of his approach indicates the severity of their problem.
It was Paul who had established the churches in Galatia, composed primarily of Gentiles who received the Gospel eagerly (4:14-15). When he left them they were “running well” (5:7). After Paul had left Galatia, he learned that Judaizers (Greek: Ioudizo—those who live by Jewish practices, 2:14) had persuaded the Galatians to adopt Jewish practices; circumcision in particular. They didn’t advertise their message as trouble, but that is what it was.
So what was really happening in Galatia? Apparently, ‘missionaries’ following after Paul persuaded these Gentile Christians that it was necessary for them to become Jewish in order to be true followers of Christ. Therefore, those who want to become followers of Jesus must first become Jews and follow the Jewish Law; for the men, that means circumcision.
Paul counters this by saying that it is through faith in Jesus Christ that a person comes right with God and not by the observance of external laws and ritual observances. The Letter of James will complement this teaching by saying that works not inspired by faith are dead but that a faith which does not express itself in loving works for others is also dead. ( a text that Martin Luther conveniently disregarded.)
Paul is both astonished (Galatians 1:6) and perplexed (4:20) at how the Galatian Christians have bent to this new and ‘perverse gospel.’ He accuses them of following a different Gospel and in so doing of basically turning away from the Gospel that Jesus gave and from the call they received from Jesus Christ. Paul asserts that there is only one Gospel of Christ and that is the one they heard from him. And anyone who preaches a different Gospel is “anathema” and is to be condemned.
To say that Paul was angry would be an understatement. He was so perturbed that he flung curses at the people who had stirred up the churches in the region (1:8-9). He even goes so far as to suggest that it would not be such a bad thing if his opponents suffered a slip of the knife in an act of self-mutilation (5:12) there by castrating themselves and not merely being circumcised. Paul was not only angry he was also clearly distressed by the fickle behaviour of these Galatian Christians. He refused to shape his message just to please his audience. He was more concerned about pleasing God.
But what was a doctrinal dispute was also a personal issue of enmity or jealousy. It had become clear that these Judaizers were not trying to win people for Christ as much as they were trying to ween people from Paul. It was clear from his opening lines that the battle lines were drawn. These Judaizers had sown doubt that Paul was not ‘really’ an apostle and so Paul takes the issue by the horns. He is “an apostle sent neither by human commission (as alleged by the Judaizers) but through Jesus Christ and God the Father.
Paul is clear, he needs neither preaching material nor marching orders from humans. Moreover, he says, he requires no stamp of approval. If he wanted human approval, he would certainly be doing something besides being a slave of Christ.
Little has changed today with many still attempting to pervert the Gospel. When we understand how ‘offensive’ the true gospel is to many in the world, we better understand why many would want to pervert it even today.