Paul’s Letter to the Galatians – A Contextual Reading

What follows began as a sermon but has been reworked into an essay on St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, specifically focusing on Chapter 4:1-20, which I believe to be not only the heart of the letter, but also, following the lead of Professor Brigitte Kahl, the exegetical key to the letter. This essay will attempt to outline and reflect on this Biblical text utilizing the insights laid out in Dr. Kahl’s masterful book, “Galatians Re-Imagined: Reading With the Eyes of the Vanquished.” Her work shifts the focus of Paul’s critique of “works of the law” away from the traditional negative assessment of the Jewish Torah and refocuses it on the Roman Emperor Worship. Frankly, Dr. Kahl’s exhaustive and detailed work has made this letter come alive for me in ways that I have rarely experienced before. Along with the work of other scholars, such as Dominic Crossan, Deborah Krause, Paula Frederickson, Pamela Eisenbaum, Amy- Jill Levine and Warren Carter there has been a noticeable shift in biblical scholarship that seeks to refocus the interpretive process on the Imperial context, a context that has been too much ignored in the past; and a context that reveals a new and profound meaning leading to a mandate for all of those who consider these texts to be formative and foundational for the faith. “Empire criticism” calls us to take this context seriously and to carefully assess our own “imperial” context and the ways we have accommodated and participated in “the works of the law” of the “Emperor worship” of our own time that have led to a self-centered and privileged Christianity that turns its head and allows and encourages hate, racism, injustice, and violence to flourish in the sanctuaries of our churches. In our complicity we are all guilty of betraying our faith and our brothers and sisters of other cultures and traditions, none as much as Jews who have been subject to centuries of Christian-perpetrated horrific violence and persecution, much of it fueled by just this kind of misinterpretation and self-centered self-justification. 

One caveat before I begin – these are my reflections based on my study and understanding of the Biblical text read through the lens of these other authors and teachers, especially through the lens of Professor Brigitte Kahl’s book. It is a lot to absorb and if my reflections are incorrect or confusing this is my fault and not the fault of the scholars whose work I have been studying.

Paul and Galatians in Context: 
At the heart of Paul’s letter to the Galatians is the unique “radical” Monotheism [1] which sits at the heart of Judaism: God, Yahweh, the God of Israel, the God of Abraham and Sarah, the Patriarchs and Matriarchs is ONE God, who, out of incomprehensible love, created the world – good/TOV and in a state of peace/SHALOM. The crown of this work of creation was the creation of humanity in the image of God, whose hubris, whose desire for control, released the forces of chaos and initiated the brokenness and alienation that began the process of the destruction of the creation. To restore the creation to its initial state of Shalom, this one creator God chose a couple from the ancient Sumerian city of Ur, Abraham and Sarah to birth the great nation of Israel who themselves are tasked with being the God’s chosen vessel through which God would bestow God’s blessings and restore the broken relationship between creator and creation. But as recounted in the Hebrew Scriptures, Israel has not been altogether successful and so, “in the fullness of time,” God became incarnate in Jesus, through whose birth, life, crucifixion and death God seeks to restore the creation to SHALOM, to relationship with both God and with itself. When Paul speaks of being “justified by grace” in chapter 2 at its heart he is proclaiming the return to SHALOM, a return to a relationship of intimacy between God and others, given as an unconditional gift of incomprehensible love. The act of receiving this gift then constitutes faith. And to receive is an action, not an attitude. “Faith” then is active trust. We demonstrate our faith when we act in faith; when we live our lives in ways that reflect this holy gift of relationship; when we allow God to use us as open vessels of God’s grace in order to invite others into relationship with God and with others. This is: Justification by Grace, through faith. 

16)…yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law 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. (Galatians 2:16) 

But there is a power that holds a vested interest in brokenness and division, as it focuses on the self. This is called “sin” but it is human self-centeredness, and it is to be found everywhere there are human beings. And for Paul in this letter, human sin, human self-centeredness/hubris is focused in particular in the power of Caesar [2] who has established Roman Peace (Pax Romana) through strength and violence and maintains his controls through the power of the law, thus demanding that “works of the law” be accomplished continually in order to maintain this Roman Peace along with its power, wealth and control, despite the human cost. When Paul talks about the “works of the law” he is using a familiar Roman concept in order to refer to Imperial demands that must be accomplished by order of the Empire. These “works of the law” required by Rome included principally paying taxes, providing men to serve in the Roman military machine and, most importantly, they required full and enthusiastic participation in the Imperial Cult [3] of worship, sacrifices, feasts, civic festivals and celebrations of the divine Caesar. Every city, every person of all classes and cultural expressions that made up the Empire were obligated to accomplish these “works of the law” that were designed not only to acknowledge Roman victory over the forces of chaos and to celebrate the institution of Roman Peace and prosperity, but to demonstrate the complete submission, devotion and loyalty of the population to the Emperor. 

But Rome did allow an exception, begrudgingly perhaps, but an exception nonetheless. The Jewish communities living in Judea and in diaspora around the Empire refused to acknowledge the Lordship of the Divine Caesar, instead maintaining their commitment to their ancient “radical” monotheism, the oneness of Yahweh – the God of Israel. And so, Rome forged a compromise that allowed the Jews an exemption (a kind of “back stair” if you will [4]). The terms of this compromise were carefully laid out by the Romans and accepted by the Judean leadership in Jerusalem. These included, in particular, the requirement for twice, daily sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple on behalf of the Emperor. In this way, Rome was able to extend its control even over Jewish Monotheism, which is now graciously and mercifully permitted this special dispensation. Consequently, Jews throughout the Empire get a pass on participation in the Imperial cult – under the condition that the sacrifices continue uninterrupted; and with the understanding that this exemption is only for circumcised Jews. 

That wasn’t all. Another important condition was the expectation that the Jewish community engage in no missionary activity. This would not normally have been an issue, as a rule Jews don’t engage in missionary work, but this becomes an issue with Paul who has received a calling to specifically engage in missionary activities among non-Jews. Remember there are no “Christians” or “Christian church” at this time in history [5]. Paul is a Jew and remained a Jew throughout his life [6]. His commitment to Christ was a part of his Judaism. And his impassioned missionary activities among the gentiles through Asia Minor and Greece specifically invited non-Jews to become a part of a community that was understood by the Romans to be a sect of Judaism. In short, Paul’s missionary work was focused on creating new Jews who became part of a Christ community that was a part of Judaism [7]. Paul in Galatia 

During his travels [8] through the Roman province of Galatia [9], Paul tells us in chapter 4 that he took ill. Now the region of Galatia was populated predominantly by immigrant Celts from Northern Europe, who themselves, like Jews, had been considered outsiders and enemies of Rome for much of their recent history. And, also like the Jews, they had been “rehabilitated” due to the magnanimous grace and mercy of Rome who had permitted these former enemy barbarian Galatian/Celts to become productive and law-abiding members of the Roman society, provided that they participate fully in all dimensions of Imperial life, thereby accomplishing the “works of the law.” [10] 

This they do with enthusiasm. The price of “Peace” – “Roman Peace” – is compromise: for the Jews, twice daily sacrifices in the Temple acknowledging the power and omnipotence of the Roman Emperor and agreeing to maintain the boundaries of their communities intact without attempting to bring others into this community; For the Galatian/Celts it was active and enthusiastic participation in all aspects of Imperial life, including the Imperial Cult of the Emperor, the economic life of the empire (read = pay the taxes) and providing soldiers for the military forces which are charged with the task of maintaining and spreading this Pax Romana

And so, into the midst of this environment we have Paul, ill and being nursed back to health and still concurrently engaging in missionary activity by inviting these Galatian/Celts to become part of the Christ community that is a part of the overall Jewish community; We have Paul undermining the Roman “Peace” by proclaiming that true Shalom or oneness comes only through Jesus, a criminal and suspected insurrectionist who is by order of the Roman procurator in Jerusalem crucified and then whose resurrection reveals him to be God incarnate; We have Paul who negates the imperial social order by proclaiming that all who are a part of this Christ community, all who have been baptized into Christ, are no longer divided by race, culture, social standing or gender – There is now neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female, we are all one in Christ, Paul writes (3:27-28). We have Paul who continues to insist that because of this oneness in Christ, God has adopted non-Jews – these Gentile, Galatian/Celts (and us too incidentally) - as heirs of Abraham and consequently as full members of the community of God’s chosen people of the covenant. In God’s eyes, Paul asserts, these Galatian/Celtic Gentiles now have the same standing as Jews, except they are not circumcised. And more than that they must not be circumcised, because to be circumcised would be a denial of God’s grace. Circumcision is only required of Jews. Paul points to the story in Genesis of the call of Abraham as an example of unconditional grace (Galatians 3): Abraham was chosen not because he was particularly worthy, but simply because of God’s grace. The point being that to be worthy of God’s acceptance and love requires no action on the part of the recipient. There are no conditions. The call of Abraham is an act of pure grace on God’s part. The law, the Torah, Paul points out, came later at Sinai. So the law cannot override Grace, rather that law becomes important subsequent to the gift of grace. 

This understanding of law is a part of Jewish understanding as well. Jews do not see the law as burdensome, or as a pre-condition. Rather, the law is a loving and celebrative response to God’s steadfast love (Hesed) not a set of conditions that need to be fulfilled in order to earn God’s positive regard [11]. But that is just the tip of the iceberg for Paul, for his main objection with the “visitors” who have come into the province of Galatia and are now promoting circumcision, is that to be circumcised is to accept the compromise (a “devil’s bargain” if you will) with Rome. And to compromise with Rome is to affirm, even if indirectly, that the Roman cult has validity. This is why many 1st century Jews objected to the twice-daily temple sacrifices for the Emperor [12] and this is why Paul objects so strenuously to the “solution” of circumcision. Because, to put it in a nutshell: Jesus is Lord; the Emperor is not! [13] 

For their part the “visitors” are proposing circumcision as a compromise solution to the problem of how to be faithful members of the Christ community and not run afoul of the city authorities, the consequences of which could be extreme. I suspect they see themselves as simply proposing a middle ground – a way to keep everyone safe. Circumcision, they suggest, would allow the Galatian/Celts to take advantage of the Jewish “back stair” to full participation in Roman civic life and still allow them to be full participants in the Christ community. It is, after all, not a whole lot different than the compromise forged between Jews and Romans that require the twice-daily temple sacrifice. But Paul says “no!” 

“In Paul’s opinion, the Galatian/Celts must abstain from both circumcision and emperor worship (in all its numerous forms)… for the special Jewish “back stair” to the inside of city and civilization, granting access to a zone of respectability without full recognition of Caesar’s divinity, is – thanks to Caesar’s own magnanimity and permission – open by definition to Jews alone, that is, to circumcised full members of the Jewish community. This “back stair” is not open for Galatian/Celts or any other nations to establish their own status as lawful insiders." [14] 

Galatians 4:1-20 
This brings us then to chapter 4, verses 1 through 20, a passage that constitutes the heart of the letter and that also lets us experience a deeply emotional Paul who essentially advocates here what the Romans would have considered insurrection. Paul begins the section by offering another metaphor to describe the relationship between the gentile (Galatian/Celt)[15] believer and God: that of the minor child, who has no rights within Roman society while he remains a child, but whose full standing within the family is bestowed on that day when he (and I choose the pronoun intentionally) comes of age. The metaphor is that Christ has entered into this minor status and has come of age bringing the baptized – all who are one in Christ - with him, enabling them to be able to address God with in the most intimate of terms, as “Abba-Father.” 

After this metaphor Paul states the following in 4:8-10: 
8) Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods. 9) Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again? 10) You are observing special days, and months, and seasons, and years. 11) I am afraid that my work for you may have been wasted. 

Historically these 3 verses have created much difficulty for interpreters as they have struggled with trying to understand and interpret this passage. The reason for the difficulty is that those doing the analysis tend to begin with the assumption that Paul is speaking throughout the letter to the Galatians against the Jewish commitment to the Torah [16]. If the “works of the law” which Paul rails against are seen as being the Jewish law, the Jewish Torah, then these verses become problematic. But when we recognize that Paul is not arguing against the Torah, but rather that his main target is the Imperial Cult of the Roman Empire these verses make so much more sense. 
  • Enslaved to beings by nature who are not gods… 
  • …how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved by them again? 
Paul is not referring here to the Law of Moses, Paul is referring here to “gods, who are (by nature) not gods” – a perfect description of the Emperor himself who had claimed Divine status for himself, his family and those who came before him demanding that they be worshiped as gods. These human beings had even been proclaimed as gods by an action of the Roman Senate which itself was similarly made up of human beings. But, Paul asserts, none of these human beings have the authority or the right to bestow divine status. Consequently these “gods” are not “gods” and should not be treated as gods, especially by those of you who have been called and baptized into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ, who is the real Son of the one true God of Israel. 

And what about the Pantheon of pagan Roman gods – they are mixed into these celebrations too, but according to the Roman cult the pagan gods had ceded their power to the Roman emperor who now acted on their behalf. Rome went out of its way to redefine the various pagan cults throughout the empire, so that these various pagan pantheons and religious traditions would be superseded and absorbed into the Imperial Cult. This was Rome’s basic policy throughout the conquered territories of the empire: all those pagan gods and goddesses are of secondary importance and you can continue whatever religious traditions you have, but of primary importance was that you acknowledged Rome and the Emperor as dominant over all [17]. This is why many scholars refer to the Roman Imperial Cult as “functional monotheism.” For despite the numerous secondary deities, its focus was on one strong and powerful god – Caesar! It is not surprising that Paul saw this as a direct challenge to the monotheism of Judaism. 
  • …How can you want to be enslaved to them again? 10) You are observing special days, and months, and seasons, and years… 
This is a direct reference to the packed calendar [18] filled with Imperial events: processions, sacrifices, night vigils, concerts, theatrical presentations, poetry readings, athletic competitions, arena games (where Rome’s victory and power are put on display and demonstrated through the blood sport of gladiator and animal competitions [19]) – and, of course, feasts and banquets. [20] These were all off limits to those baptized into Christ. Paul makes it quite clear that he considers participating in these kinds of civic religious events to be an accommodation with the false imperial god and a denial and betrayal of Christ. 

That then is the bottom line: Those who have become a part of the Christ communities that are themselves part of the broader Jewish community are not to participate in any way in the rites, rituals, celebrations, events and feasts that celebrate the divine Caesar. And those who are Galatian/Celts cannot be circumcised in order to make this refusal easier for themselves. They have been baptized into Christ – therefore they have no choice. 

Paul then moves into perhaps one of the most moving passages in any of his 7 letters [21]: his description of being taken in and cared for when he was so terribly ill, perhaps so ill he might have died. He describes in moving and emotional words how the Galatians had been so gracious and kind and caring, accepting even the risk that comes from caring for a sick person. “What has happened to your love, your faithfulness – why have I become an enemy?” Paul asks. And he concludes with these words: 19) My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, 20) I wish I were present with you now and could change my tone, for I am perplexed about you. Paul has now become “mother Paul” who is still suffering the pain of childbirth for his beloved Galatians. And this birthing process will continue until Christ is completely formed in you. [22] 

What difference then does all of this make? What then is Paul saying to us 21st century Christians? First, Paul calls, no, actually demands we recognize the gift we have received in Baptism. We have been buried with Christ in Baptism and raised to new life just as Christ was raised. This new life as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew) calls upon us to take seriously that it is God who has brought us into relationship with God and God who has given us community with one another. This is a gift, an unconditional gift of love, and it is this that constitutes what we call “salvation.” Within the community of Christ, within the relationships God has given to us we must accept that there is now no Jew nor Greek, no slave nor free, no male and female, but that we are all one in Christ. Race, culture, sexual orientation, gender identity, even religious convictions themselves are gifts of diversity, and must never be used to exclude or persecute others, for to do so is to betray Christ. Together we all are called to worship the one God of the Covenant, the God of Israel, the God of Abraham and Sarah. And this is a worship that we share with our Jewish brothers and sisters. 

For among many the things we can learn from our Jewish friends is that worship calls forth from us more than singing hymns and saying prayers. Worship calls forth action. According to the Prophets, true worship includes a commitment to justice, a commitment to non-violence, a commitment to peace and grace, and a rejection of self-centered hate and violence. Our worship leads us to stand against all that destroys the gift of relationship, the gift of SHALOM, especially when this destruction, this divisive hate and violence is being encouraged from the offices of the highest authority in the land. Our faith calls forth from us an obligation to reject the claims of our version of Caesar, to refuse to participate in the hate and division and violence he incites and to stand against Caesar demanding “liberty and justice for all,” especially for those who are considered “other” within our society, just like the Galatians were considered “other” in their society. 

For Paul, speaking to the Galatian/Celts, standing to the side, ignoring the cries of the persecuted and the needy and cooperating with the powers of injustice and violence because it was personally convenient or beneficial (or safer) was simply not an option. It was in fact, as far as Paul was concerned, nothing short of a betrayal of Christ. And it is still a betrayal of the Gospel of Christ today. It is simply not an option for those of us who call ourselves Christ followers today. We are our brother and sister’s keeper! We do not compromise or accommodate those who would perpetuate hate and violence in the name of law, order and peace through strength. Instead we follow the Prince of Peace, the crucified one whose victory came through weakness and non-violence. Rejecting the demands of Emperor worship today brings a risk that may be different than the risk the Galatian/Celts had to face, but the risk is still there. But so is the imperative that to follow Christ, to worship the one God of Israel means we categorically reject the one fake god of power and violence – the false god of security, of fear, of wealth, of hate, of violence; the false gods who enslave us to the power of our own Caesar. But in the end, Caesar is impotent, weak, terrified and incompetent. We stand therefore with Christ, crucified and raised for we have been buried and raised with Christ in Baptism, so therefore… For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again (or ever) to a yoke of slavery. (5:1) 
[1.] See “Paul Was Not A Christian” by Pamela Eisenbaum 

[2.] I want it clear from the outset that while the historical discussion revolves around the historical Caesar(s) (the Julio-Claudians) who ruled the Roman Empire in the 1st century while Paul was alive and engaged in his travels, nevertheless we should also be able to see the symbolic reflection of our own Empire and Emperor worship issues. Circumstances have changed but apparently human beings have not as recent current events have given us images of supposedly committed evangelical “Christians” worshipping the current occupant of the white house in a manner which seems to mirror the kind of ancient, mindless, sycophantic, emotional celebrations which were a common feature of the Imperial cult. These included/include, then and now, just to name a few examples: (a) a retelling of the history of the Empire in order to glorify the current power structure; (b) oaths of allegiance to the Caesar, the one who is chosen and installed by God and has become a god in the flesh; (c) a demonization of anyone or any group which dares to object and protest any action undertaken by the Great Leader; (d) the mindless frenzy and sycophantic devotion displayed by both officials and supporters who dare not offer any word of disagreement or criticism but who mindlessly celebrate every nugget of wisdom that emerges; (e) the instigation of violence against these barbarian opponents who do actually dare to object and criticize; (f) the celebration of the violent defeat of any and all opposition to the Great Leader or his programs; (g) the demand that the celebrations, the rallies, the games, the schools all go on regardless of any danger; (h) the proclamation by religious and political leaders of the gods, or God’s unique and singular favor and His anointing of the Leader as truly blessed and anointed as the “chosen one,” to the point where the gods or God has given over His power to the Great Leader who becomes seen by some as the incarnation of the deity Himself. (I choose pronouns intentionally to make a point, BTW). The bottom line point – much of what made Emperor worship in the 1st century an effective tool of political unification and control is being re-enacted before our eyes by the current political leadership in Washington D.C. It is not an exact parallel, but it is close enough that it should give us pause. 

[3.] I am using the term “cult” in the sense of “cultus” – a system of worship that includes many facets and dimensions and is all encompassing. I am specifically not using it in its current common usage as a description of a closed group of religious believers who usually hold views outside of the mainstream. Dominic Crossan writes in his book “In Search of Paul” (co-authored by Jonathan Reed) that the use of the term “cult” should not be taken to indicate the isolated peculiarity of emperor worship, but the integrated universality of imperial theology. (page 188) 

[4.] See Brigitte Kahl, “Galatians Re-Imagined.” 

[5.] It was not until after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 C.E. that the “Christians” were finally expelled from the synagogue and from Judaism and had to redefine themselves. 

[6.] See “Paul Was Not A Christian” by Pamela Eisenbaum 

[7.] See Brigitte Kahl, “Galatians Re-Imagined.” 

[8.] Two issues here are worth noting. First, the nature of Paul’s illness is a mystery. In 2 Corinthians 12:3 he speaks of a “thorn in the flesh” which he had tried to pray away with no success. Is this some kind of recurring illness? Dominic Crossan suggests in his excellent book “In Search of Paul” that Paul may have contracted Malaria as a child in Tarsus. This was not uncommon, especially in a swampy place like Tarsus. Throughout his life Paul had to deal with illness when this Malaria would flare up from time to time. This is a hypothesis. No one knows from sure as Paul provides little information besides this passage in Galatians 4 and the mention in 2 Cor. 12. However, the suggestion that Paul may have been suffering from some sort of blindness when he arrived in Galatia which then accounted for his comment about the Galatians “ripping out their eyes” for him I think is really a stretch. Nevertheless, we do not know the state of Paul’s health, except that he became ill and was taken in by a community in Galatia who cared for him and nursed him back to health. This in and of itself is rather remarkable considering how fear inducing illness in the 1st century tended to be. 

[9.] The second issue touches on the long debate of whether Paul traveled through northern Galatia or southern Galatia. This has been a long-standing scholarly dispute and there is no definitive answer to the question. Northern Galatia tended to be more rural, though in the heart of Northern Galatia sits the city of Ancyra with its well-known Temple to the Divine Augustus. Southern Galatia was more urban and included four larger and vibrant cities – Derbe, Iconium, Lystra and Pisidian Antioch. According to Dr. Kahl the population in the north tended to be more Celtic while the south was more ethnically diverse. 
(Above image) The Res Gestae Divi Ausgusti is an accounting of the accomplishments and benefices extended to the people and cities of the Empire by the Divine Augustus, written by Augustus himself, copied and displayed in Temples throughout the Empire. The Temple to the Divine Augustus in Ancyra has a fairly complete copy. 

[10.] Dr. Kahl discusses this issue at length in her book “Galatians Re-Imagined.” I will not attempt to summarize this here, but rather refer you to her work. But, the Romans did memorialize their subjugation of their enemies in various works of art: 
Such as this incredible marble statue that is known as the “Dying Celt” or the “Dying Trumpeter.” 

[11.] Throughout the history of biblical interpretation the Jewish law – the Torah – has been seen in an antithetical relationship with grace and faith, as revealed through the death and resurrection of Christ. It is I think one of the darkest parts of Christian history that this interpretive mistake has contributed to centuries of anti-Semitic persecution and death. Christians from early on have victimized Jews, and still it continues – even here in the United States. The specific issue at it relates to the Torah are best summed up in these words from Pamela Eisenbaum in her excellent book “Paul Was Not A Christian” (page 211): … Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith is understood {historically} as a polemic against the assumed alternative, namely that one is (or could ever be) justified by works of the law… “True Christianity” as the reformers presented it, understood itself as a religion of pure faith, stripped of all extraneous “works.” Judaism, on the other hand, stands at the other end of the spectrum: it is a religion of nothing but works, and therefore could be used to represent the worst form of religious expression, exactly the opposite of faith in God. (See also Lloyd Gaston “Paul and Torah.) The fact is that Christians – Medieval Catholics and later those who led the reformation even continuing into our own times – posited a false dichotomy of grace and faith vs. works and law. And at its core was the incorrect assumption that Jews believed that they had to accomplish the law perfectly in order to be acceptable to God. This is the understanding that lay behind much of the interpretation of Paul and it is based on an understanding that is simply incorrect. Again, quoting from Professor Eisenbaum (page 218): When Paul says, “It is clear that no one is justified by the law,” for “the righteous one shall live by the faithfulness” (Gal 3:11 citing Habakkuk 2:4), he does indeed mean all people – Jews and Gentiles alike – are made righteous by faithfulness, but his point is that Jews always stood righteous before God because of God’s faithfulness to the covenant, not because Israel observed the law in perfect obedience. If Israel did not have to earn her way to righteousness, then surely Gentiles don’t have to earn their way to righteousness either. Paul is not contrasting law and faith; he is arguing that God has acted in the same gracious manner to Gentiles as God did to Jews who had the long-standing benefit of a covenant with God. In addition Dr. Kahl suggests that when Paul discusses law and “works of the law” he is also pointing towards the “works of the law” demanded by the Empire. Galatians 3:11: “It is clear that no one is justified by the law” then can be understood to reject those works demanded by the empire, just as Paul rejects the suggestion that the Galatians can justify themselves by taking refuge in the Torah’s mandate of circumcision. 

[12.] In 66 C.E. the Temple sacrifices on behalf of the Emperor came to an end. This was the spark that ignited the brutal Roman campaign to squash a Jewish rebellion that ended with thousands of deaths along with the destruction of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. by the Romans under the command of Emperor Vespatian’s son, Titus. The campaign itself came to an end in 74 C.E. when the Romans were finally able to take the Herodian fortress in the desert called Masada where a remnant of Jewish Zealots and their families had taken refuge. 

[13.] See Dominic Crossan “God and Empire.” 

[14.] Brigitte Kahl, “Galatians Re-Imagined.” Page 221. 

[15.] I believe that the time has come for all students of Biblical studies to stop lumping non-Jews into the single category we call “Gentiles.” The fact is that Roman society was very stratified culturally and socio-economically. Race and cultural background were issues in Roman society and were used to determine the status of various ethnic groups and individuals. Now, what was NOT an issue was skin color, which only becomes an issue in the west with the advent of the trans-Atlantic slave trade from non-Christian Africa and the Americas during the “Age of Discovery” (16th century). But in the early Empire Roman citizens held a uniquely different position in the society than rehabilitated Celts or any of the other various groups that Rome had subjugated. To lump these groups together gives an impression of a kind of social cohesiveness or unity that simply did not exist. The Roman system was brutal particularly for those who were not a part of the accepted or insider class. Celts in Galatia may have been “rehabilitated” but they were still a class below due to their long history of “barbarism” and were not entirely trusted as a result. Compare them then with those who lived in the city of Philippi, for example. Philippi was settled by Roman army veterans following the Battle of Philippi in 42 BCE that ended the Republic and led to the establishment of the Empire. These gentiles in Philippi, as veterans of the Roman army would have held a distinctly different status within the empire than the Galatian/Celts whose history with Rome had been as enemies and barbarians to be conquered and subjugated. 

[16.] I turn to Dr. Kahl’s discussion of Krister Stendahl’s seminal book “Paul Among the Gentiles” to address the important issue of Luther’s interpretation of Paul – From “Galatians Re-Imagined” pages 39-40 - … three decades into the post-Holocaust era, Krister Stendahl's small but seminal publication “Paul among Jews and Gentiles” (1976) reframed the debate on Galatians and "justification by faith." Stendahl, who would later become the Lutheran bishop of Stockholm, made two observations that set a new research agenda for all subsequent Pauline interpretation: first, that the proper historical context and hermeneutical key to understanding Paul's justification by faith is not the desperate struggle of an individual with sin, but Paul's practical concern with holding a community of Jews and Gentiles together; and, second, that Paul's Damascus experience was not a "conversion" to a new religion, Christianity, but a prophetic "call" to a new mission within Judaism toward the Gentiles. Paul subsequently did not fight against Jews or Judaism but worked to justify the status of uncircumcised Gentiles as "honorary Jews." Stendahl's theses, though sketchily drawn, had a profound impact: they unhinged the dominant paradigm of Pauline interpretation. Stendahl began the dissociation of the scriptural Paul from the Lutheran Paul, showing that Luther's question of the individual's standing before a just God was not Paul's. Unlike Luther prior to his "tower experience,” the pre-Damascus Paul had not been tormented by a sense of inescapable sinfulness and the impossibility of keeping the law, but had rather experienced a "robust conscience." Stendahl showed that the issue of individual sinfulness and the impossibility of justification as primary theological problems had been imposed on Paul by Augustine, three hundred years after the apostle, and subsequently by Luther, himself an Augustinian monk; the imposition revealed the individualistic and self-absorbed concerns of the "introspective conscience" of the West… Furthermore, Stendahl pointed out with prophetic clarity the problems inherent in traditional Protestant interpretation, namely, its stereotyped anti-Judaism, its narrow individualism, and its dogmatic disengagement from concrete social realities. Paul had been at first - and remained even as an apostle - thoroughly Jewish; "Christians" did not yet exist. In the place of a "combat semiotics" pitting Christianity against Judaism, Stendahl insisted that Paul's concern was how Jews and Gentiles could live together in a new community. Reconciliation, not combat, was central. And to add the footnote which appears at the conclusion of this last sentence: And, furthermore, it is obvious that “Paul remains a Jew as he fulfills his role as an Apostle to the Gentiles. The “I” in his writings is not “the Christian” but the “apostle to the Gentiles" (Stendahl, “Paul Among Jews”). The doctrine of justification by faith "was hammered out by Paul for the very specific and limited purpose of defending the rights of Gentile converts to be full and genuine heirs to the promises of God to Israel. Their rights were based solely on faith in Jesus Christ." 

[17.] I want to clarify that I am not suggesting that the various pagan pantheons just disappeared or did not retain importance in the religious and spiritual life of the various communities throughout the empire. On an individual or personal basis people would have maintained their devotion to their house gods/goddesses and the patron god/goddess of the city, such as Athena for Athens or Artemis for Ephesus. Nevertheless, Roman emperor worship brought with it the closing of a number of pagan temples, in some cases and the appropriation of these temples specifically for emperor worship in others cases. This then resulted in a weaving together of traditional devotional activities with the new demands emperor worship, in some locations. This is in fact a very complicated issue and the establishment of the Imperial cult and the process of weaving it together with long-standing pagan worship traditions looked different in every city of the empire. For example, the city of Ephesus was well known throughout antiquity as being a center for the worship of the goddess Artemis, and the location of one of the most beautiful temple complexes in all the ancient world – the Great Temple of Artemis. After Augustus had consolidated his power, his legate to Asia, a man named Publius Vedius (Cicero once referred to Vedius in one of his letters to Atticus stating that “I have never seen a more worthless man”) reorganized the Temple administration, eliminating the long-time high priesthood (known as the Megabyxos) and revising a number of the ceremonies and traditions. From there elements of emperor worship began to be incorporated into the traditional celebrations of Artemis and eventually altars dedicated to the emperor were erected within the complex of the Artemisium itself as well as in stand alone temples newly erected and scattered throughout the city. We see also a complete re-presentation and re-telling of the story at the heart of the famous frieze that was a part of the Great Altar to Zeus in the city of Pergamom. (I would call your attention to Dr. Kahl’s extensive analysis of this frieze in her book “Galatians Re-Imagined.”) But all this didn’t happen overnight, but over a period of time emperor worship slowly overtook and undermined the traditional pagan pantheons. By associating these ancient worship traditions so closely with the nationalism of emperor worship it is my contention that individuals and cities began to loose a sense of spiritual immediacy and commitment leading eventually to spiritual impoverishment. The popularity of Judaism and (eventually) Christianity seems to increase as emperor worship becomes more and more dominant. There is a lesson in this for those among us who would demand and legislate a particular version of Christianity that is heavy on the nationalism and light on the spiritual engagement (and, not insignificantly, completely disconnected from the Gospel of Jesus). 

[18.] The calendar itself was created and promulgated throughout the Empire by Julius Caesar (who is remembered in the month “July”); the extensive list of celebrations and festivals was revised and reissued by Augustus Caesar (who gets the month of “August.”) Yet another way in which the ancient world of the Roman Empire is still with us today. 

[19.] In “Galatians Re-Imagined,” Dr. Kahl extensively explores both the centrality and brutality of the “games,” which took place at the Circus Maximus in Rome, but were a feature in every moderate to large city of the Empire. 

[20.] Hence the debate over eating “meat sacrificed to idols” found specifically in I Corinthians 8:1-13. Paul is not specific, but I think the idols in question would have been related to Emperor worship. Additionally, Dr. Kahl notes that Paul seems to have softened some of the harshly uncompromising positions he expresses in Galatians in his subsequent letters. Paul’s position vis á vis the eating of meat in I Corinthians, for example, seems to be less harsh than his overall position regarding interaction with the culture in Galatians. 

[21.] The consensus among scholars is that there are seven authentic letters of Paul in the New Testament: Galatians, I & II Corinthians, I Thessalonians, Philippians, Philemon and Romans. The letters to the Ephesians, Colossians and II Thessalonians are considered questionable and probably not by Paul; while the Pastoral Epistles of I & II Timothy and Titus are rejected as definitely not by Paul. I concur with this assessment. Both the language and content of those six questionable letters are so different that for me there is no question. Further, it is important to note that the Paul of Acts, his words, his way of thinking and his travels do not always (that is, hardly ever) correspond to his authentic letters. Consequently the Book of Acts should be assessed with some caution regarding its historical veracity. For example, in Acts Paul is confronted by the pagan gods and goddesses in several situations, whereas in the letters he hardly concerns himself with this issue, as his major concern is the Imperial cult, which itself is never addressed in Acts. 

[22.] What ultimately happened to the Galatians? No one knows. Sometimes in studying the letter to the Galatians I have wondered how the Galatians themselves might have reacted to this conflict between Paul and the “visitors.” At times it feels like they are arguing over the Celt/Galatians whose own history with the Romans included much oppression, genocide, being human sacrifices during a festival in Rome and slavery. In the end I wonder whether these fledgling Galatian Christ followers would have been persuaded to subject themselves to the danger that came with the refusal to participate in the Imperial cult. And, on the other hand, whether they would have been willing to even entertain the prospect of accepting circumcision as a compromise, for undergoing circumcision for gentile men was also not without its negative consequences. Dominic Crossan takes up this question in his book, “In Search of Paul.” He makes the following statement (page 216): “… we do not know what happened at Galatia after the letter was received. This, however, may be indicative. At the end of the first century John of Patmos wrote to seven cities in the province of Asia, and Clement of Rome wrote to Corinth in Achaia. At the start of the second century Ignatius of Antioch wrote to six cities in Asia and a few decades later Polycarp of Smyrna wrote to Philippi in Macedonia. Those mention only three of the four Pauline provinces, Asia, Macedonia and Achaia, but not Galatia. What happened to Galatia?” I think it is quite possible that this conflict might have precipitated the demise of this fledgling Christ follower community. Perhaps this also accounts for the fact that Paul seems more willing to accept limited compromise in his subsequent letters, as noted above in note #17. 

A (Very) Brief Annotated Bibliography: 
Galatians Re-Imagined: Reading With the Eyes of the Vanquished by Brigitte Kahl – This entire essay is inspired by her work. Her book is brilliant, though exhaustive and complex. Fortress Press 2014 

The First Paul by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan – An excellent introduction to Paul and Paul’s world and theology. HarperCollins 2009. 

In Search of Paul by John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed – While this book covers a little of the same ground as the Borg/Crossan book naked above, it is a much more expansive and deeper consideration of Paul’s work, with a much stronger emphasis on the cultural and geographical context of the 7 letters. The unique thing about this book is the contributions of Prof. Reed, an archeologist who adds quite a lot of discussion of the archeological work that touch on Paul. HarperCollins 2004. 

Paul Was Not A Christian by Pamela Eisenbaum – Professor Eisenbaum is a Jewish New Testament scholar who teaches at Iliff. She interprets Paul through the perspective of his deep commitment to Judaism. HarperCollins 2009. 

Paul, The Pagan’s Apostle by Paula Fredricksen – This excellent book situates Paul within the context of the Roman Paganism of the ancient world. Yale 2017 

Paul – A Biography by N.T. Wright – This book attempts to pull together the pieces of Paul’s life from scripture, secondary source material and archeology and then to construct a narrative of Paul’s life. It is an excellent and insightful book. Very readable. 

Paul In Fresh Perspective by N.T. Wright – An overview of Paul’s basic theology filtered through Dr. Wright’s unique perspective. Fortress 2009. 

The Triumph of Christianity by Bart Ehrman – This book will discuss the world of Paul and Paul’s contribution to the historical shift that Christianity created in the ancient world. 

Paul, An Apostle’s Journey by Douglas A. Campbell – Eerdman’s 2018 – Some excellent insights, but I found some of the book problematic. 

Paul, Apostle to the Nations by Walter F. Taylor – Fortress Press 2012 – An excellent textbook introduction to the Apostle Paul. 

Artemis of the Ephesians: Mystery, Magic and Her Sacred Landscape by James D. Rietveld – Nicea Press 2014 – Obviously not about Paul. But a fascinating and exhaustive study specifically on the Artemis Cult centered at the Artemisium, the Great Temple of Artemis, in Ephesus. 

The Letters and Legacy of Paul – Fortress Commentary on the Bible Study Edition – Fortress Press 2016 – The section of the Letter to the Galatians is written by Brigitte Kahl. 

Interpretation Commentaries - Galatians by Charles B Cousar - John Knox 1982. In general I like Interpretation Commentaries and I have gleaned some important insights from this volume on Galatians, But for the most part I would say that Dr. Cousar represents the old school of interpretation which in many places is simply not valid, in my opinion. This commentary is useful though to help gage the depth of the disconnect between newer understandings which are applied to the interpretation of this letter and older traditional ways of seeing the text. Just recently became available in digital format. 

The Letters of Paul – Part of the Social-Science Commentary series by Bruce J. Mailina and John J. Pilach. These are excellent. Augsburg/Fortress 2006.


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