Saturday, April 03, 2010

Outside the Agitating Box of Galatians

Richard Fellows has a A New Theory on the Background of Galatians, which he calls "potentially the most important blog post that I have ever written", followed by Whose side were the pillars on? He argues that (A) Paul and the pillars both believed that Gentiles should not be circumcised, but (B) the agitators in Galatia thought Paul was really on their side -- that he had spoken against circumcision only out of loyalty to the pillars with whom he disagreed.

I should note that while I disagree with Richard's thoroughly argued proposal, my view is actually closer to (A) than most, in the sense that I think Paul and the pillars were at least initially on the same page regarding Gentile liberty. Including Gentiles in the people of God without converting them into proseltyes cohered with apocalyptic hope, and that's what was preached from the get-go in the Christian movement. But that formula wasn't going to work forever -- not with increasing numbers of Gentiles joining the church, and in a world where the apocalypse kept getting postponed; not in the face of increased pressure from wider Judaism on account of this. That's why Christianity started to mainstream around the year 49. In order to survive. (That's typical of millenarian movements, of course: they evole and change/update beliefs when the end fails to come.) So while there was an uneasy agreement between Paul and the pillars in Jerusalem (Gal 2:7-9), I maintain that the pillars broke the agreement (Gal 2:11-14), largely as a survivalist strategy.

And I emphasize that while Paul was rightly furious for being so humiliated, the pillars' about-face was an understandable move. I think of them as realists who were trying to keep Christianity viable within Judaism. Centuries of theologians and scholars have turned Paul into a lone, gun-slinging hero at Antioch, but perhaps there are no easy heroes here. Both Paul and James (via-Peter) acted out of legitimate concerns.

My reading can account for all the Pauline data as much as Richard's, though of course I don't see Acts as squaring so neatly with Galatians like he does. It accounts for the initial agreement at Gal 2:7-9 as much as the fallout in Gal 2:11-14. I'm not terribly impressed with Richard's claim that the Antioch incident "tells us nothing about the relationship between Paul and Peter, since even the best of friends can have a heated argument at least once". In the honor-shame world, one does not call attention to "whatever events prove one's case", certainly not a shameful confrontation like this between friends. Antioch was about treachery more than mere "hypocrisy", and it turned Peter and Paul into rival apostles.

I encourage people to read Richard's posts. They paint an opposite picture of the one I take to be accurate, but they show serious thinking outside the box, which of course is what we should always be doing as readers of the bible.


Blogger Richard Fellows said...


Thanks of summary of your earlier work on the Antioch incident and the convenient links to it. Dunn is not too far from your position, I think.

On my hypothesis Paul must show the Galatians that he is not just writing out of obedience to Jerusalem. It would not be sufficient for him to just simply state that he is not an envoy of Jerusalem, for the Galatians would then suspect that he was doing that out of obedience to Jerusalem. Do you see Paul's dilemma here? Anything that he writes to promote Gentile liberty could be taken by the Galatians to be motivated by loyalty to the pillars (who supported Gentile liberty). And if the Galatians thought that Paul's statements were motivated by loyalty to Jerusalem, they would have no weight. For Paul's statements to carry weight, he needs to show that they are the product of his revelation and his expertise in the scriptures.

So, given this dilemma, the only thing that Paul can do is make statements that could not be made by a loyal envoy of Jerusalem who really believed in circumcision. Thus he calls down curses, uses profanity, expresses an emotional commitment, claims that he does not lie, and makes the embarrassing/shameful admission that he and Peter had quarreled. Now, the Galatians would, of course, understand what Paul is doing here, so it is not as shameful as it appears. Paul's dilemma here, as elsewhere in the letter, has driven him to extremes to convince the Galatians that he is not writing out of loyalty to the pillars. I'll blog more on this in due course.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

I see your point, Richard. Thanks.

BTW, my position differs significantly from Dunn. Like Esler, I claim that Antioch was about circumcision, the very issue settled in Jerusalem. Dunn thinks it was about food laws, that James was calling for a more scrupulous dietary observance in view of problems facilitated by the circumcision-free gospel. He can't bring himself to accept the more logical conclusion (based on Paul's own description of the "circumcision faction" in Gal 2:12) that James had simply revoked the agreement, now requiring Gentiles to be circumcised in order to share indiscriminate table-fellowship with Jews.

There's a big difference between the idea of James and Peter seeking the imposition of something less drastic (like food laws and/or other Jewish customs) while holding to the original agreement about circumcision, and the idea of them suddenly requiring full proselyte conversion (circumcision) by going back on their word. Esler is probably right that modern notions of fair play have made scholars resist the latter scenario. But not only is treachery at home in the ancient Mediterranean, there are glaring indicators in the text that proselyte conversion was the issue at Antioch -- the circumcision faction explicitly mentioned in Gal 2:12, and the fact that circumcision was the issue being addressed in Galatia and Antioch must thus be relevant for Paul to bring it up.

Blogger Richard Fellows said...

Hi Loren,

I have just been re-reading our discussion. It occurs to me that there are two separate questions here, and that they should not be confused. The first question is whether the Galatians thought that the Jerusalem apostles were in favour of circumcision etc. for Gentiles. The second question is whether they were in fact in favour of circumcision. My central hypothesis concerns the first question. I argue that the Galatians thought that Paul preached a law-free gospel in Galatia just to please the Jerusalem apostles. This hypothesis does not require that the Jerusalem apostles remained supportive of Paul's law-free gospel. It works best if Acts is right that a letter supportive of Gentile liberty was written by the Jerusalem church and delivered to the Galatians by Paul. The hypothesis is not effected by the issue of whether Peter's later withdrawal was treachery (as you think) or a temporary lapse of courage (as I think). The questions are separate, aren't they? So, while I argued that Peter and Paul were of one mind at the time that Galatians was written, I don't think I needed to.

You and I are in agreement that the Jerusalem apostles supported Gentile liberty in the early days, and that is all that my hypothesis requires. So do you have any remaining concerns? You might like to take a look at my discussion of Gal 5:11 here.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Hi Richard,

Nice to see you still thinking about the issue. I think you're right that what the Galatians thought and what was actually the case could be different. The relationship (or distance) between Peter and Paul doesn't necessarily effect your claim that the Galatians believed Paul was trying to be a people-pleaser, though of course the likelihood of your thesis strengthened on the "temporary lapse of courage" idea on grounds of probability, since it bridges the Galatians' perception with reality.

On another track, I've been thinking more lately about someone like Barnabus, and how he may (or may not) align with I believe is Paul's sectarianism and falling out with the pillars.

Blogger Richard Fellows said...

Barnabas's sympathy for Peter seems to be in character since it parallels his sympathy for John Mark in Acts. Mark had turned back at Perga, which was just before the persecution started, and this is no coincidence. We know from Gal 5:11 that it was the gospel of Gentile liberty that caused the persecution. Mark, therefore, (like Peter) was unwilling to be persecuted for the gospel of Gentile liberty. Barnabas is consistent in not taking a stand against either man, and Paul is consistent in taking said stand.

Mark had every reason to predict the persecution in south Galatia since the south Galatian Jews were strict on the circumcision issue (consider the circumcision of Timothy and Galatians generally). Some has suggested that the south Galatian Jews were not strict, on the (false) assumption that Timothy's mother was a south Galatian.


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