Monday, March 24, 2014

English: Map of the Letters of Galatia
English: Map of the Letters of Galatia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the first entry in the Bible Junkies Online Commentary on Galatians, I discussed introductory matters concerning the founding of the churches to the Galatians, the situation when Paul wrote to them, when the letter might have been written and the type of letters which Paul wrote, based on the common Greco-Roman letters of his day. In the second post, I considered the basic content and breakdown of a Pauline letter. I noted the major sections of the formal letter structure and, in the context of each section, outlined the theological and ethical (as well as other) concerns of Paul, including some Greek words which will be examined more fully as we continue with the commentary. In the third entry, I looked at the salutation, which is long for Paul’s corpus (only Romans 1:1-7 is longer) and briefly commented on the lack of a Thanksgiving, the only letter of Paul’s which does not have one. The fourth entry discussed the opening of the body of the letter, a significant part of the letter especially in light of the absence of a Thanksgiving. In the fifth entry, I examined the beginning of the opening of the body of the letter, in which Paul describes his background in Judaism and I placed this in the context of Judaism in the Hellenistic period. In the sixth post in the online commentary, I continued to look at Paul’s biographical sketch of his life, this concerning his earliest life as a Christian. In the seventh post, I examined what Paul says about his subsequent visit to Jerusalem to see the apostles and the Church in Jerusalem. In the eighth entry, Paul confronts Cephas about his hypocrisy in Antioch.

The ninth blog post started to examine the theological argument in one of Paul’s most important and complex theological letters. In the tenth entry, found below, Paul makes an emotional appeal to the Galatians based on their past religious experiences and their relationship with Paul.

4. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians  

d) Body of the Letter (1:13-6:10):
iv) Theological Teaching (2:15-5:12): How did you receive the Spirit? (3:1-5).

1 You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified! 2 The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? 3 Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? 4 Did you experience so much for nothing?—if it really was for nothing. 5 Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?  (NRSV)

Paul turns from the historical and the theological to the personal and the experiential.  Though theology is at the heart of Paul’s indictment of the Galatian Christians, it is grounded in their religious lives. This is a significant point, to my mind, that theology grows out of the spiritual experience of the earliest Christians, in a way that is not always valued today. The turn away from faith that Paul perceives is a turn away from the actual reception of the good news, which Paul implies was charismatic, though he does not explain the manner in which they “receive{d} the Spirit” other than to combine the reception of the Spirit with the working of “miracles among you” (Galatians 3:4). Unless, of course, Galatians 3:1 (“It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified!”) represents some miraculous experience of Jesus among the Galatians. Most scholars attribute this phrase to a description of Paul’s intense preaching, which makes sense, but could Paul not also be describing some sort of visionary experience within the community? It cannot be proven, but the focus on miracles and spiritual experiences within this passage challenges us to think beyond merely effective rhetorical teaching.

I would like to reflect on this for a short time because it has often puzzled me how Paul would come into a city in the Roman Empire, each city with a supermarket of gods and goddesses and make any headway in evangelizing the local inhabitants. Certainly, Paul might get a foothold in by going to synagogues, or speaking with God fearers, Gentiles who might have had some or significant knowledge of Judaism, the Law and the Scriptures, but this would only be a start. In addition, it seems likely from what we know of Paul’s stay in Corinth and elsewhere, such as Ephesus, that Paul would have set up shop and worked in the agora, which would have facilitated encounters with a cross-section of people, but this does not explain why people would turn to Jesus Christ, at least not exclusively. As significant as Paul’s rhetorical skills are, even though he denies this in 1 Corinthians 2:4, there must have been more to his presentation than convincing speech.

Indeed, he makes a similar claim to the Corinthians as he does to the Galatians. Immediately after the opening clause in 1 Corinthians 2:4 that “my speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom,” Paul declares that he came to them “with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” Since Paul speaks to a Church at odds with him in Corinth and this is even more significantly the case here in Galatia, Paul’s reporting on Spirit-filled and miraculous deeds must refer to previous acts of the Spirit which those in Galatia would acknowledge and accept as truthful reporting. We cannot identify these deeds with more precision, whether they would include speaking in tongues, prophecy or other “Spirit-filled” activities, but these experiences are essential for Paul’s theological argument and, again, must represent the reality of the spiritual experiences of the Galatians when Paul first came to them. Modern scholarship too often minimizes the claims of spiritual wonderworking at the heart of Paul’s Gospel, which might explain both its initial attraction and subsequent attachment to the Church, even though such claims are difficult to define.

It is because of these experiences and the relationships Paul has with the Galatians that he labels them “foolish Galatians,” using the word anoêtos, which could be translated as “foolish” or “ignorant.” Paul also wonders, “Who has bewitched you?” The verb baskainô could be translated as “bewitch” or “put under a spell,” and though Paul probably does not believe such tactics have literally been used on the Galatians, it does indicate the sway or power he believes the interlopers in the community have utilized in turning them away from the Gospel he preached.

The remainder of this section reflects back on their conversion experiences, and the religious events which accompanied them, and draws on the theological arguments made in the second half of Galatians 2. It does so by asking a series of questions, some of which we have already examined. The questions are as follows:

1. Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? (Galatians 3:2)

2. Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? (Galatians 3:3)

3. Did you experience so much for nothing?—if it really was for nothing. (Galatians 3:4)

4. Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? (Galatians 3:5)

Notice the rhetorical force of this type of questioning, which challenges not Paul’s teaching or proclamation, but their own experience. And yet, in both questions 1 and 4, which frame the whole section with identical contrasts, the theological teaching of Paul distinguishing between “works of the Law” and “believing what you heard” is central. It is important to keep in mind here as well that “believing what you heard” translates the noun pistis, which is generally translated as “faith.” The phrase in both verses is ex akoês pisteôs, which is literally “out of the hearing of faith.” “Believing what you heard” is a fine translation, except that it obscures the commonality of pistis, which is earlier in the letter translated as “faith.” Paul’s verbal consistency is obscured by the English translation, which is equating “faith” with “belief.” I would simply change it to “having faith in what you heard.”

The significance of the argument, of course, is not obscured, which is that the experience of the Spirit came not through “works of the Law” but through “having faith in what you heard.” In question 2, Paul equates the “works of the Law” with “the flesh” (sarx), since the Spirit (and justification) has come through faith. This indicates that “the flesh” and “the Spirit” are naturally opposed.[1] Question 3 is a typical “parental” question: are you going to throw away everything you have already gained? If everyone is following the works of the Law does that mean you have to do so? How did you gain the Spirit?

This sort of parental appeal has a lot of emotional pull, as anyone with parents knows, for it plays on past religious experiences and past relationships. These sorts of relationships, with so much history, are not easy to cast aside or ignore, which Paul knows, and he plays on the emotions of the Galatians. Yet, emotion will alone not win the Galatians back to Paul, since those who have entered the community have their own appeals and their own relationships with the Galatians. Paul will have to return to theology if he wants to restore the relationship among the Galatians. He will have to convince them.

Next entry, Abraham and faith

John W. Martens
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This entry is cross-posted at America Magazine The Good Word

[1] There will be much more on the sarx and pneuma (Spirit) contrast in this letter, which we will discuss later in the commentary.

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