Monday, December 22, 2014

Galatians: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary.  I will also include artwork by famous artists.

Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia (a Roman province in modern-day Turkey) focuses on one central question: Do gentile converts to Christianity need to follow the Jewish law (or Torah)?  That is, do they need to be circumcised, follow dietary restrictions, and other Jewish laws?  Paul’s answer is an emphatic NO!  Paul harshly criticizes Galatian converts for adopting these Jewish practices.  He calls them “you foolish Galatians!”

Galatia was a Roman province in modern-day Turkey.

Paul’s critique of the value of the Torah is striking, especially because he was a Jew.  He writes, “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by works of the law (Torah) but through faith in Jesus Christ.  And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.”  Pretty straightforward.

But Paul doesn’t stop there.  He says “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.’”  Paul thinks it is impossible to follow the law completely, and he equates observance of the law with prison: “Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed.  Therefore the law as our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.”

Torah (Jewish scriptures/law)

Paul has rather harsh things to say against those who teach gentile Galatians to follow the law and circumcise themselves.  He wishes they wouldn’t just stop at the foreskin, but that they “would castrate themselves” (5:12).  Elsewhere, Paul equates observance of the Torah with pagan rituals (4:9), and suggests that the law didn’t even come directly from God, but through mediators (angels and Moses).  Therefore, it is less pure than the new covenant through Jesus.  As in other letters, Paul establishes his authority as an apostle by referring to his own biography, specifically the vision he had of the resurrected Jesus.  For Paul, the message of Jesus came directly from God, unlike the law.

"The Conversion of St. Paul" by Nicolas-Bernard Lepicie (1767)

One of the most famous passages in Galatians is 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  Despite his harsh rhetoric against the Torah, Paul’s goal seems to be to create unity, not division, by stressing that prior religious/cultural/social distinctions are erased by Jesus.

Despite these intentions, however, Paul’s letter to the Galatians would be used by later Christians to create division.  Scholar Shaye J.D. Cohen writes, “Later Christians learned from this letter that Judaism, that is, the observance of the commandments of the Torah and the refusal to believe in Jesus as the son of God, had and has no value.  In the sixteenth century this letter gave Protestant reformers the rhetoric of ‘faith vs. works’ that they would turn against both Judaism and Roman Catholicism.”  

From the Wikipedia page "Martin Luther and antisemitism": 

In 1543, protestant reformer Martin Luther published On the Jews and their Lies in which he says that the Jews are a "base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth."  They are full of the "devil's feces ... which they wallow in like swine."  The synagogue was a "defiled bride, yes, an incorrigible whore and an evil slut ..."  He argues that their synagogues and schools be set on fire, their prayer books destroyed, rabbis forbidden to preach, homes razed, and property and money confiscated. They should be shown no mercy or kindness, afforded no legal protection, and these "poisonous envenomed worms" should be drafted into forced labor or expelled for all time. He also seems to advocate their murder, writing "[w]e are at fault in not slaying them".  To read more about Luther's vicious anti-semitism, click HERE.

This historical (and damaging) misinterpretation of Paul suggests that, when reading these letters, we need to read carefully, critically, and with an eye toward context.  Scholars today realize that Paul’s letter was addressed to gentiles, not Jews, and that nowhere in his letters does he encourage Jews to abandon the Torah. Needless to say, Paul’s interpretation of Judaism is complicated.

Title page of Martin Luther's On the Jews and Their Lies (Wittenberg, 1543)

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