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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

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Commentary on Galatians

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Introduction ( 1:1–9 )

( 1:1–5 ) Opening Greetings

The literary form of the opening words is found in nearly all NT and early Christian letters: ‘writer to addressees, greetings’: ‘Paul…to the churches of Galatia, grace to you and peace…’ As in his other letters, Paul elaborates this opening formula, but only in Romans 1:1–6 is this done at greater length than in Galatians.

Paul's comments on his apostleship are striking. In numerous passages in his letters Paul refers to himself in positive terms as an apostle (‘one who has been sent’). In v. 1 , however, Paul stresses that his apostleship is not based on a ‘human commission’, nor has he been sent ‘from human authorities’. Is this a direct response to his opponents in Galatia right at the outset of the letter? Have they been undermining Paul's authority by referring to its purely human origin, perhaps stressing that Paul had been sent as an apostle (merely) by the church at Antioch (Acts 13:1–3 )? This may be the case, but as we noted above, Paul's forceful statements are not all to be read as direct responses to the jibes of his opponents. Paul emphasizes that he has been sent to the Galatian churches as an apostle by Jesus Christ and God the Father. God has shown that he is the Father of Jesus Christ by raising him to life; in vv. 3–4 God is the Father of Christians (‘our Father’).

In the opening phrases of several of his letters Paul refers to individual co-workers; see, for example 1 Cor 1:1 , Sosthenes; 2 Cor 1:1 , Timothy. In v. 2 Paul refers to an unnamed group of co-workers. The phrase, ‘God's family’, correctly alludes to the presence of men and women in the group, for in a context such as this, the Greek word adelphoi, literally ‘brothers’, includes ‘sisters’.

Paul states that he is writing to the churches of Galatia. As noted above, it is not easy to be certain about their precise geographical location. Paul's other letters were written to individual churches, though they may soon have circulated more widely. Like 1 Peter (cf. 1:1 ), Galatians was intended to be a circular letter to a group of churches probably scattered over a wide area.

In v. 4 Paul makes three comments about the significance of the death of Christ. (1) In Paul's day many Jews believed that the death of a righteous man as a martyr would expiate the sins of others (see especially 4 Macc). Here the death of Christ is linked to this conviction in what several scholars have claimed is a pre-Pauline formula. The strongest indication that this may have been the case is the use of ‘sins’, whereas Paul himself prefers the singular, ‘sin’. (2) In what may be Paul's own filling out of an early credal statement, the death of Christ is seen as a release ‘from the present evil age’. Paul implies that there is a ‘coming age’ which he refers to in 6:15 as ‘the new creation’. This contrast between two ‘ages’ is characteristic of apocalyptic thought. (3) Christ's giving up of his life for our release is in accordance with the will of God. ‘The death of the Son is therefore a sacrifice enacted both by him and by God; and as such it breaks the mold of the old sacrificial system. The cross, that is to say, is not a sacrifice human beings make to God; it is fundamentally God's act, and as such the inversion of the sacrificial system.’ (Martyn 1997: 91)

Paul concludes his extended opening greetings with a traditional doxology (v. 5 ). He does not do this in his other letters. Perhaps he does so here in the knowledge that his circular letter will be read in the churches in Galatia in the context of worship.

( 1:6–9 ) Rebuke

Immediately after the opening greetings in all Paul's other letters a thanksgiving to God for the readers is included. Thanksgiving is mentioned by Paul more often, line for line, than by any other Hellenistic author, pagan or Christian (O'Brien 1977 ). In stark contrast to Paul's other letters, however, there is not even a hint of a note of thanksgiving in Galatians. But there is one important point of similarity here with the other letters: here too the main theme of Galatians is introduced in the sentences that follow the opening greetings.

Paul's first word after the initial greetings, thaumazō, ‘I am astonished’ must have sent a shudder through the Galatian congregations when they heard it read, for they would have expected a thanksgiving. v. 6 includes Paul's only use of the verb metatithēmi, ‘desert’; the closest parallels in Hellenistic writers refer to the desertion of one philosophical school for another. Here, however, the context is different: Paul is amazed that the Galatians are deserting ‘the one who called you’, clearly not Paul himself, but God whose call is ‘in grace’. Although NRSV reads ‘in the grace of Christ’, ‘of Christ’ is not found in some early MSS; it is more likely to have been a later scribal explanatory addition than an omission. The Galatians' desertion has happened ‘quickly’, perhaps soon after the arrival of the agitators. The verbs in vv. 6–7 are in the present tense, confirming that the Galatians' apostasy is still happening as Paul writes.

Paul claims that the Galatians are ‘turning to a different gospel’, but he immediately denies that there is another gospel. The term ‘gospel’ has deep roots both in the Graeco-Roman world and in Isaiah. It may have been associated by the Galatians with the ‘glad tidings’ brought by a military victory or the birth of an emperor. In several key passages in Isaiah 40:9, 52:7, 61:1 ) the verb ‘to proclaim good news’ is used. Jesus seems to have applied the same phraseology to his own proclamation of God's coming kingly rule (e.g. Mt 11:5 11 Lk 7:22; Lk 4:16–21 ). Soon after Easter the noun is used as a Christian technical term for ‘God's good news about Jesus Christ’. For Paul, there can be only one gospel (though see GAL 2:7 ); if his opponents use that term, they are perverting God's good news.

In v. 7 Paul speaks openly about the agitators for the first time. Instead of naming them, he refers to them with disdain as ‘some people’. ‘There are some who are confusing you’ is too weak, as is REB's ‘there are some who unsettle your minds’. The same verb tarassō is used in Gal 5:10 (cf. also Acts 15:24 ) with the sense ‘intimidate’: the Galatians are being frightened out of their wits by the troublemakers who, from Paul's perspective, want to pervert the gospel. In the opening phrase of v. 8 (and again in v. 9 ) Paul uses the plural ‘we’. While this could be an editorial ‘we’, and simply a reference to Paul himself, Paul is probably associating his co-workers with his proclamation (cf. Gal 1:2 ). Paul is speaking hypothetically: he is prepared to pronounce an anathema, God's curse, on himself (and his circle) and even on an angel-messenger from heaven if any of them should dare to proclaim a different gospel.

In v. 9 Paul throws caution to the winds and calls down an anathema on those who are now proclaiming a different gospel. The phrase, ‘so I now repeat’ may simply refer back to v. 8 ; more probably it is intended as a reminder that when he was last with the Galatians, Paul had solemnly warned them of the real risk that the gospel received by the Galatians might be undermined by others. The verb ‘receive’ is used here (and in 1 Cor 15:3 ) in a technical sense to refer to the careful transmission of tradition. In 1:12 Paul seems to contradict himself when he insists that he received the gospel through a revelation of Christ and not as transmitted tradition. But the contradiction is more apparent than real: the gospel does have central themes which can be passed on from one person to another (cf. 1 Cor 15:3–5 ), but ultimately it is God's act of disclosure or revelation.

Paul's Story ( 1:10–2:21 )

( 1:10–12 ) Proclamation of the Gospel

Does v. 10 belong with vv. 8–9 ? The word ‘for’ (gar) in the Greek suggests this; Dunn (1993: 48) (among others) takes v. 10 in this way. However, gar is often so weak that it need not be translated—it is ignored in the NRSV. If so, then v. 10 may be read as the beginning of a lengthy section of the letter which runs as far as 2:21 .

The NRSV translation of v. 10 implies a strong contrast between the accusation against Paul that he uses rhetoric to curry favour with his audience, and Paul's own claim that in his proclamation of the gospel he seeks only God's approval. This interpretation seems to be confirmed by the strikingly similar line of argument in 1 Thess 2:4–6 . However, some commentators translate the Greek verb peithō in its literal sense as ‘persuade’, and take both parts of the opening sentence of v. 10 in a negative sense: Paul is rejecting his opponents' suggestion that he seeks to persuade his audience by the force of his rhetoric, and also their claim that he is persuading God to accept Gentiles on easier terms. The final sentence of v. 10 underlines Paul's rejection of crowd-pleasing rhetoric. Paul's many references to enslavement in this letter are usually negative, but this first reference is positive: Paul insists that he is a slave of Christ.

‘For I want you to know’ at the beginning of v. 11 is a formula Paul uses elsewhere (e.g. 1 Cor 12:3; 15:1 ) to underline the importance of what follows. In spite of the strongly polemical tone of this letter, Paul refers here to the recipients as ‘brothers and sisters’, perhaps as a conciliatory gesture. Paul's firm threefold denial in 11c and 12 that his gospel has merely human origins is a filling out of 1:1 , and probably a direct response to the jibes of his opponents. Paul's positive statement about the origin of his gospel at the end of v. 12 is one of the most important in the whole letter: it is expanded and expounded in the autobiographical sketch that follows. Paul insists that he received the gospel ‘through a revelation (apokalypsis) of Jesus Christ’. This translation preserves the ambiguity of the Greek which can be construed either as ‘Jesus Christ's disclosure of the gospel’ or as ‘God's disclosure of Jesus Christ as the content of the gospel’. The latter is preferable, especially in view of the filling out of v. 12 in vv. 15–16 . The key noun in v. 12 , apokalypsis is usually understood in the light of apocalyptic writings where it often refers to the unveiling of something or someone previously hidden, i.e. the ‘revelation’ or ‘disclosure’ of Jesus Christ. While not denying the validity of this traditional interpretation, Martyn (1997: 144) has argued forcefully that God's unveiling of Christ is ‘basically qualified by the assertion that apocalypse is the invasive act that was carried out by God when he sent Christ and Christ's Spirit into the world and into human hearts’ ( 3:23; 4:4, 6 ).

( 1:13–17 ) Paul's Story, Part I

When had the Galatians heard about Paul's pre-Christian way of life (v. 13 )? We can only guess. Perhaps Paul had spoken about it on his initial visit to the Galatian churches. Or perhaps Paul knew that some information about his former life had circulated far and wide—well beyond the reports that had reached the churches of Judea to which he refers in 1:22–3 . Or perhaps Paul had guessed or was aware that his opponents had used an account of his former way of life to undermine his authority and proclamation.

Paul's two references in vv. 13 and 14 to his way of life in Judaism are the only two references to Judaism in the NT. Not until the writings of Ignatius half a century later do we find ‘Judaism’ and ‘Christianity’ contrasted as two ‘religions’. In earlier Jewish writings (2 and 4 Macc) ‘Judaism’ is used to contrast the distinctive Jewish way of life with Hellenism. In v. 14 Paul underlines twice over the ‘out of the ordinary’ zeal with which he observed the ‘traditions of his ancestors’, i.e. traditional Pharisaic interpretation of the law. Perhaps Paul is glancing sideways at the insistence of his opponents in Galatia on law observance: Paul concedes that formerly he himself had made the same claims concerning the law.

Paul's zeal had led him ‘to persecute the church of God violently and to try to destroy it’ (my tr.) The verbs are strong and in the imperfect tense: Paul's hounding of the church was not a one-off outburst, but a sustained attack which included violence. Why had followers of Christ roused Paul's ire? Some scholars have claimed that it was lax observance of the law by Christians that provoked Paul, but Paul himself does not say this. Were there Christians in the period between the Resurrection and Paul's call who did not keep the law fully? From his letters it is difficult to discern at what point Paul changed his mind about law observance; this does not seem to have happened immediately after his call on the road to Damascus. Luke does provide some relevant evidence in Acts, but it is difficult to interpret: in Luke's perspective the claim that Stephen and the Hellenists attacked the law before Paul's call was mischievous (see Acts 6:11, 13–14 ). So it is not as easy as some have supposed to argue that before his call Paul was in contact with Christians who did not observe the law.

It is more likely that early Christological claims, especially concerning the Messiahship of Jesus, were the trigger for the violence Paul used against ‘the church of God’. Christians were claiming that a man crucified recently as a criminal was God's Messiah, but Paul knew all too well that such a person stood under the curse of the law (Gal 3:13 ). Hence Paul discerned that proclamation of a crucified Messiah was implicitly a threat to the law, though even after his call as apostle to the Gentiles it seems to have taken him some time to work out the radical implications of this conclusion.

Paul does not tell his readers the location of the churches he persecuted. The phrase, ‘the church (assembly) of God’ is striking. This very early Christian self- designation echoes the OT references to Israel as ‘the assembly of Yahweh’. Although both synagōgē and ekklēsia are used in the LXX to translate the Hebrew phrase, there is no evidence that ekklēsia was ever applied to the Jewish community in a given place (Meeks 1983: 80). So the early Christian use of the term ekklēsia was one way Christians differentiated themselves from local Jewish communities. In retaining the phrase ‘of God’, Paul concedes that his persecution of the church was an attack on God.

In vv. 15–17 a single, long, rather complicated Greek sentence is retained as one sentence in the NRSV; it fills out the argument of 1:11–12 considerably. Paul's two main points are clear, even though, as we shall see below, some of the details leave questions unanswered. He emphasizes that his dramatic call to proclaim God's Son among the Gentiles was on God's initiative as a revelation or disclosure of his Son (see A4 above); he did not make contact with any other Christians in order to seek their advice or instructions, but went off on his own to Arabia.

Although it has often been customary to refer to Paul's conversion experience, and thereby to imply a conversion from Judaism to Christianity, Paul's carefully chosen phrases here indicate that he himself saw matters very differently. He did not decide to convert from one religion to another; in God's own time (‘when it pleased God’), God called Paul to be an apostle to the Gentiles. Paul deliberately echoes phrases from Jer 1:4–5 and Isa 49:1, 6 to refer to his call, thereby aligning himself with the Hebrew prophets.

Paul acknowledges that there were apostles in Jerusalem before his call, but stresses that he felt no need to defer to their authority. Instead, immediately after his call he went off to ‘Arabia’, the kingdom of Nabataea south of Damascus. Betz (1979: 73) notes (with references) that recent excavations have brought to light a prosperous civilization with strong Hellenistic influences that was at its peak by the time of Paul's visit. Paul may have stayed in this area for up to two years, perhaps preaching in cities such as Petra to Gentiles already sympathetic to Judaism (so-called ‘God- fearers’) (so Hengel and Schwemer 1997: 127). This is a plausible historical reconstruction, but Paul tells us much less about his visit to Arabia than we would like to know.

At the end of v. 17 Paul reveals that he returned to Damascus following his stay in Arabia, thus implying that it was in or near Damascus that he experienced God's call. Although readers of Acts are told three times and with vivid details ( 9:3; 22:6; 26:12 ) that Paul experienced God's call near Damascus, Paul himself tells us much less in vv. 15–17 , for his concerns in this letter are different. He focuses on his call to be an apostle to the Gentiles as God's initiative, and on his avoidance of those who might have been ‘human sources’ (cf. 1:12 ) for his gospel.

( 1:18–24 ) Paul's Story, Part II: Visit to Jerusalem

When did Paul go up to Jerusalem—three years after his return to Damascus, or three years after his initial call? Most scholars prefer the latter, though the former is not impossible. The NRSV translates the key verb historēsai which refers to the purpose of Paul's visit to Jerusalem as ‘visit’, while the GNB translates ‘obtain information from’. From the context ‘visit’ is preferable; if Paul had conceded that he obtained information from Cephas (the Aramaic form of Peter) he would have offered a hostage to fortune. No doubt during the period Paul spent as Cephas's house guest in Jerusalem he did gain some information about the life and teaching of Jesus, but from Paul's perspective that did not mean that he was dependent on Cephas for his understanding of the gospel. Some scholars have suggested that during this visit to Jerusalem Paul reached the agreement with Peter that is referred to in 2:7 , but that is unlikely.

Paul is adamant about his independence from the leaders of the Jerusalem church. In v. 20 he confirms the accuracy of his autobiographical sketch with an oath. None the less it is important to bear in mind that Paul's purpose is not primarily to set out his story with chronological precision. His sketch is selective, for it is designed to rebut the claims of his opponents. Hence his repeated insistence (cf. vv. 17, 19 ) that with the exception of Cephas, he did not meet any of the other Jerusalem apostles. In 19b Paul adds a further exception, James the Lord's brother who is almost certainly referred to here as an apostle. However, the Greek may mean that Paul did not see any apostle (apart from Cephas)—though he did see James.

In order to underline his independence of the Jerusalem authorities Paul mentions in v. 21 that after his short visit to Cephas he then went well to the north and north-west of Jerusalem, to places in Syria (presumably including Antioch) and in neighbouring Cilicia. Defenders of the south Galatia theory believe that Paul's first visit to Galatia took place during this journey. Martyn, a defender of the north Galatia theory, believes that v. 21 tells strongly against the south Galatian theory; he notes that if Paul had visited the cities of (south) Galatia at this point, it would have suited his argument to have said so (1997: 184).

In vv. 22–3 Paul goes still further: at this time he certainly was not in contact with the Jerusalem authorities, for he was not known personally by the churches in Judea, including Jerusalem. In that area stories had circulated about his volte-face from persecutor to proclaimer, but he himself was not there, but far to the north. In v. 23 Paul quotes the report about him which had reached the Judean churches and had been received with thanksgiving to God (v. 24 ). No doubt only a summary is included, but some of the phrases seem to come directly from the report rather than from Paul himself. For example, Paul does not refer to the content of the Christian message as ‘the faith’, and he prefers the noun ‘gospel/good news’ to the verb ‘proclaim good news’.

( 2:1–10 ) Paul's Story, Part III: Conference in Jerusalem

The meeting between Paul and Barnabas and Christians in Jerusalem was one of the most momentous events in the development of earliest Christianity. Was it intended to defuse a major crisis and to reconcile deep-seated differences? What were the main issues at stake? Although some details are unclear, the main points can be set out confidently.

The relationship of Paul's account in these verses of a conference in Jerusalem to Acts 11:29–30 and 15:1–29 has baffled scholars for many decades. A minority insists that the ‘apostolic council’ recorded in Acts 15 took place after Galatians was written. This would account for Paul's failure to refer in ch. 2 to the ‘apostolic decree’ (Acts 15:20, 29; 21:25 ) which, according to Luke, encapsulated the decisions reached at the ‘apostolic council’. On this view the events recorded here are to be equated with Acts 11:29–30 . However, most scholars accept that in spite of some glaring differences, there are enough similarities between the two passages to conclude that they record the same event from different perspectives. Even if Acts 15 draws on earlier sources, Luke wrote some three decades after Paul wrote Galatians—and, unlike Paul, Luke makes no claim to have been present himself. So Acts 15 should be used with great care by the interpreter of Gal 2:1–10 .

‘After 14 years’ probably refers to Paul's call ( 1:15–16 ) rather than his visit to Cephas ( 1:18–19 ). Paul is accompanied by Barnabas who is portrayed in 2:13 as a leader in the church at Antioch, as he is in Acts 14:26–8 . So Paul and Barnabas probably travelled to Jerusalem as leaders of the church in Antioch, even though, for whatever reason, Paul does not state this explicitly. Paul emphasizes that the journey was undertaken at God's behest, ‘in response to a revelation’ (v. 2 ), i.e. not as the result of the anxieties or the decision of the church in Antioch.

With whom in Jerusalem did Paul discuss his convictions concerning the gospel he was proclaiming to Gentiles (v. 2 )? The NRSV and the REB refer to one ‘private’ meeting with the leaders of the Jerusalem church who play a prominent part in vv. 6–10 . Some commentators (including Betz 1979 and Martyn 1997 ) conclude (probably correctly) that two meetings are referred to in the Greek of v. 2 , one with the whole church in Jerusalem, followed by one with the leaders.

Paul is anxious lest his fundamental conviction that Gentiles should be accepted without the requirement of circumcision be called in question or even rejected outright (2b). In v. 3 it becomes clear that Paul and Barnabas had taken Titus with them to Jerusalem (v. 1 ) as a test case. At first there is no dissension: the Gentile Titus was not compelled to be circumcised (v. 3 ). At this point the link between Paul's story in chs. 1 and 2 and the crisis in Galatia would have become crystal clear to those who heard this letter read aloud in churches in Galatia many hundreds of miles from Jerusalem. In chs. 1 and 2 Paul is narrating selected past events in his life not because he believed that his autobiography was interesting, but because he was convinced that his story was directly relevant to the disputes in Galatia. The phrase ‘compelled to be circumcised’ which is used in v. 3 with reference to Titus, recurs in Gal 6:12 with reference to the Galatian Christians. In v. 5 Paul insists that the stand he took on principle in Jerusalem was ‘so that the truth of the gospel might always remain with you [Galatian Christians]’.

Paul's fury at the ‘false believers’ who had sneaked in like spies to ‘enslave us’ is not disguised; it is reflected in emotive language in vv. 4–5 and in the tangled grammar, which the NRSV partly unravels. Where did this attempt to thwart ‘the freedom we have in Christ Jesus’ take place? Some scholars posit an earlier occasion in Antioch, partly on the basis of Acts 15:1 , while others believe that the disruption took place in Jerusalem itself. Who are the ‘false believers’ who posed such a threat? Paul concedes that they are ‘believers’ (‘brothers’ in the Greek), but is adamant that he did not yield to their demand that Gentile Christians should be circumcised. Like the agitators in Galatia, they are perverting the gospel of Christ ( 1:6–7 ). The ‘false believers’ are probably not identical with ‘the certain people from James’ referred to in 2:12 .

In v. 6 Paul insists that the Jerusalem leaders made no demands on Paul: ‘they imparted nothing further to me’ (REB). Here, as elsewhere in this passage, Paul is ambivalent about the Jerusalem leadership. He recognizes that they are the ‘acknowledged leaders’ ( 2:2, 6, 9 ) of the Jerusalem church, though he himself is unimpressed by their status, for they have no special standing in God's eyes.

In vv. 7–9 Paul spells out the agreement that was reached, one which in Paul's eyes was a victory, not a compromise. The Jerusalem leaders recognized that Paul had been entrusted by God with the gospel ‘for the uncircumcised’, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel ‘for the uncircumcised’. Most scholars now accept that Paul is referring here to a division of labour along ethnic (Jew / Gentile) rather than geographical (Israel / diaspora) lines. Paul is not referring to ‘two gospels’, one for each ethnic group; the very idea would have appalled him, as 1:7 confirms. The recognition that God was at work in making Peter ‘an apostle to the circumcised’ is in stark contrast to the reference to Peter in the account of the ‘incident at Antioch’ which follows in 2:10–14 .

At last Paul names the leaders of the Jerusalem church: James, Cephas, and John (v. 9 ). They are referred to as ‘pillars’, as in supports for a building. Agreement is sealed by giving ‘the right hand of fellowship’, an act that had the same meaning in antiquity as it does today. ‘By implication, the agreement sets up two cooperative but independent missionary efforts’ (Betz 1979: 100). The only request made by the Jerusalem leaders to Paul and Barnabas was that they should remember ‘the poor’, i.e. they (probably the Antioch church) should support the Jerusalem church financially. Paul had no hesitation in accepting this request. We know from 1 Cor 16:1–3 that the Galatian churches did make weekly collections for the Jerusalem church (cf. also Rom 15:25–6 ).

What is left unsaid in vv. 1–10 must not be forgotten. The ‘false believers’ fade completely from the scene at v. 5 . There is not even a hint that they accepted the agreement. And if, as most scholars think, Acts 15 records a different version of the discussions in Jerusalem, Paul's failure to mention the ‘apostolic decree’ is significant: either Luke has anachronistically added the decree to his account of the apostolic council, or it was such an embarrassment to Paul that he could not bring himself to mention it here.

( 2:11–14 ) Paul's Story, Part IV: Incident at Antioch

The clash between Peter and Paul recorded in these verses is in sharp contrast to the amicable agreement reached at Jerusalem. In the earlier parts of Paul's story an indication of the chronology is given, but there is none here. This is one of the reasons why some scholars reverse the order of the two events narrated in ch. 2 : the crisis that arose in Antioch (vv. 11–14 ) was resolved by the agreement reached in Jerusalem (vv. 1–10 ). This reconstruction avoids the difficulty that in ch. 2 Paul does not indicate the outcome of his dispute with Peter at Antioch. But in such a carefully argued letter Paul is unlikely to have reversed the chronology, and in 2:1–10 there is no reference to food laws, the central issue at stake in Paul's clash with Peter.

Paul's failure to record the outcome of his face-to-face dispute with Peter is related to his primary concern to show that this incident has a direct bearing on the tensions in the Galatian churches. Even though the text gives no explicit indication of a change of scene from Antioch to Galatia at v. 14 , most modern translations assume rather too readily that there is a major break at this point. However, the NRSV's footnote is helpful, and points the reader in the right direction: ‘Some interpreters hold that the quotation extends into the following paragraph.’ If so, then in 2:15–21 Paul is still addressing Peter in Antioch—but for the benefit of the troublemakers in Galatia. It is preferable to read the record of the incident at Antioch as undergoing a subtle metamorphosis in vv. 15–21 as Paul switches the focus of his attention from Antioch to Galatia.

In v. 11 Paul does not tell the reader why Peter came to Antioch (presumably from Jerusalem), nor does he give the reason for the dramatic confrontation. Only after the bald summary is given do the details emerge in vv. 12 and 13 . Peter had been fully accustomed to eating with Gentiles in the church at Antioch; he was thoroughly at home in the mixed congregation there of Jews and Gentiles. But when ‘certain people came from James’, Peter backtracked. Presumably the visitors came at the behest of James to express the concerns of the Jerusalem church. If they were the false believers of 2:4–5 , surely Paul would have said so. They were not urging abandonment of the Jerusalem accord over separate missions to Jews and to Gentiles, but raising concerns over Peter's regular practice of eating with Gentiles, a matter apparently not discussed in Jerusalem. Paul does not tell us whether the meals in question were regular meals, or the Lord's supper, or both. At this time Jews and Gentiles regularly had contact with one another, but there were differing attitudes to table fellowship. Peter and other Jewish believers seem to have been welcoming Gentiles to their tables, probably on Jewish terms. They are likely to have been ‘accepting invitations to Gentile tables without asking too many questions (cf. 1 Cor 10:27 ), though presumably on the assumption that the Gentile believers would have been mindful of the basic food rules’ (Dunn 1993: 121).

The verbs in v. 12b imply that Peter began to draw back and refrain from table fellowship over a period of time. Who was applying the pressure, and why was Peter afraid? The NRSV refers to ‘fear of the circumcision faction’; this phrase is usually understood to refer to Jewish Christians who came from James and who were uneasy about what were perceived to be Antioch's lax attitudes to table fellowship with Gentiles. The REB interprets the Greek quite differently: Peter ‘was afraid of the Jews’. The Jews may have been non-Christians. Longenecker (1990 ) and others accept R. Jewett's theory that at the time of the Antioch incident a rising tide of Jewish nationalism had provoked Jewish antagonism towards Jews who were thought to be adopting lax attitudes towards association with Gentiles. Under this political pressure, the Jerusalem Christians were ‘trying to take measures to keep Gentile Christians from needlessly offending Jewish sensibilities’. Hence the concerns of the Jersualem church were triggered by political rather than theological concerns.

These verses can be plausibly interpreted in several ways. Perhaps we have to accept that we do not know precisely why Peter acted in a way that led Paul to charge him with hypocrisy twice over in v. 13 . What is clear is that Peter did not act impulsively and without support from other Jewish Christians. Even Barnabas, Paul's closest colleague ( 2:2, 9 ) ‘was led astray’. It was Paul who was isolated, hence the emotive language (and perhaps even the lack of clarity) in vv. 11–14 . Paul's own position becomes clear in v. 14 . He believes that Peter (and Barnabas and all the other Jewish Christians) were ‘not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel’ when they compelled Gentiles to live like Jews, i.e. to share table fellowship with Gentiles only when meals had been prepared in accordance with Jewish dietary laws. (‘Living like Jews’ did not necessarily include circumcision; there is no indication that Peter was insisting that Gentile believers should be circumcised.) For Paul, a fundamental principle was at stake: Gentiles were being compelled to live like Jews in order to be accepted as members of the Antioch church. Hence Paul rounded on Peter in front of all those lined up against him. It is often pointed out that Paul's attack on Peter is at odds with his own exhortation in 6:1 to use a ‘spirit of gentleness’ when a fellow Christian is ‘detected in transgression’.

Paul says nothing about Peter's response, and nothing about the outcome of the confrontation. Martyn (1997: 240), concludes that ‘the Antioch incident ended in political defeat for Paul’. That is a possible, but not a necessary reading of the text. Perhaps Paul was more concerned to press home the theological issues at stake, as he does in the following verses, than to record the outcome of a painful episode.

( 2:15–21 ) Works of the Law or Faith?

Paul expounds vigorously the theological issues at stake in his dispute with Peter. He probably intends these verses (or at least vv. 15–18 ) to be part of his reply to Peter. Paul is unlikely to be recalling some seven years later the very words he used; no doubt these verses incorporate some of Paul's later reflections on the issues at stake. We do not know whether Paul formulated his convictions about ‘justification by faith’ in the light of his dispute with Peter, or whether he had developed them at an earlier point.

vv. 15 and 16 contain a set of programmatic statements that are expounded and underlined in the sections of Galatians that follow. In v. 15 Paul reminds Peter that both of them are Jews by birth, and hence view Gentiles as outside the law and therefore as sinners. Here Paul is echoing traditional views; perhaps he is even echoing the language used by the ‘certain people from James’ (v. 12 ). In the next verse Paul explains that v. 15 is by no means the end of the matter! In the lengthy v. 16 the phrase ‘works of the law’ is used three times and contrasted sharply with ‘faith’. What does the former phrase refer to? Paul is refuting the claim made by the agitators in Galatia (and implicitly by Peter when he ‘compel[led] the Gentiles to live like Jews’, v. 14 ) that one's standing before God is dependent on carrying out the requirements of the Mosaic law. ‘Works of the law’ is taken by some scholars to refer to the Jewish ‘identity markers’ of sabbath, circumcision, and dietary laws, rather than to the Mosaic law per se, but the negative comments on the law that follow in ch. 3 make this unlikely.

Paul insists that a person is ‘reckoned as righteous’ by God (NRSV n.) on the basis of ‘faith in Christ’. The meaning of the latter phrase is keenly discussed. It has traditionally been taken by translators and commentators to refer to the believer's faith in Christ, but a growing number of scholars insist that Paul is referring to Christ's own faithfulness to God, as in the NRSV footnote. The future tense ‘will be justified’ at the end of v. 16 is important; Paul is referring to the believer's ultimate standing before God.

Once again Paul includes Peter with his use of ‘we’ / ‘our’ in v. 17 . Paul seems to be referring to the stand he and Peter took before Peter backtracked: they had sought to base their standing before God solely on the basis of faith—and in so doing they had been dubbed ‘sinners’ by some. Paul vigorously refutes this criticism, and especially the inference that Christ has become a servant of sin. In v. 18 Paul refers directly to the incident at Antioch: he would show himself to be a transgressor if he were to backtrack (as Peter did) and ‘rebuild the walls of the Law that I have torn down’ (Martyn 1997: 256).

In vv. 19 and 20 Paul's statements about the Christian life are positive: both the incident at Antioch and the crisis in Galatia slip into the background. Although Paul repeatedly refers to himself in the first person singular, he is speaking on behalf of all Christian believers. ‘Dying to the law’ (v. 19 ) means being separated radically from it. For Paul ‘dying to the law’ takes place through identification with Christ's own crucifixion and death (v. 19c ). When this happens the believer's life is no longer self-centred, but Christ-centred (v. 20 ).

The phrase ‘Christ who lives in me’ is rarer in Paul than reference to the Spirit who indwells the believer. Both phrases are less common than Paul's references to Christian experience as ‘in Christ’ (e.g. 5:6 ), ‘in him’, ‘in the Lord’, or ‘in the Spirit’ (e.g. 5:25 ). In v. 20b the NRSV's ‘in the flesh’ is misleading, especially in view of Paul's strongly negative use of ‘the flesh’ in 3:3 and 5:13, 16–22 . Here ‘flesh’ is neutral; it refers to the believer's ‘present mortal life’ (REB).

Paul does not often refer to Christ as ‘Son’ or ‘Son of God’. When he does so, it is usually in a particularly rich theological context, as in Gal 1:16, 2:20c , and 4:4–6 . Both the latter passages refer to the Son's self-giving ‘for us’, ‘for our redemption’, a note first sounded in Galatians in the opening greeting at 1:4 . Once again there is a division of opinion over ‘faith’. Does Paul refer to the believer's faith in the Son of God, or to the Son's own faith (NRSV f.) or faithfulness?

v. 21 is a summary of the whole of vv. 15–21 ; in particular it underlines some of the key points of v. 16 . Paul is probably responding directly to the claims of the agitators; the incident at Antioch has now faded from view. The agitators have claimed (or perhaps Paul thinks they have claimed) that Paul has wrenched asunder God's grace and the law. For Paul a person is reckoned as righteous in God's sight not through the law (synonymous in v. 20 with the ‘works of the law’, v. 16 ) but through faith in Christ (v. 16 ) whose death was not in vain (v. 21c ) but was an act of self-giving love for us (v. 20c ).

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