The books of the New Testament are letters. This might be a hard concept for some Christians to digest. The books of the New Testament were not as much theological treatises as they were personal letters (Romans being the exception). The books themselves were written for a specific purpose, at a specific time, and to a specific people. In Colossians, Paul’s thrust is to counter Platonism. In 1 Corinthians it is to counter division. In Philippians, it is to say thanks.
Galatians reads distinctly more hostile than all these other books. In Reading Through Galatians, the author notes: “The personality of the author blazes out of every sentence” and that the tone is “rebuking rather than teaching”. Paul was very angry about something, and every sentence seems directed and focused towards a specific problem. In short, Christians from Judea were preaching to Paul’s converts that they had to circumcise to be saved. Bart Ehrman sums up the events as such in his book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene:
Paul eventually… moved on from Galatia to take his message elsewhere. As often happened, other Christians arrived on the scene, proclaiming a different message. It is not completely clear what these other “apostles” told the Galatians, but they evidently insisted that when God gave the law to the Jews it was an eternal provision for his chosen people. It was never meant simply as a temporary or limited set of optional requirements… These other apostles also pointed out that the disciples of Jesus, who were the original heads of the church and who continued to lead the church in Jerusalem, agreed with them on this issue. They concluded that if Paul taught a different message, he had corrupted the original teaching of Jesus and his followers.
When Paul got word of the conflict in Galatia, he hit the roof and wrote a response. Unlike most of his other letters, this is not a friendly bit of correspondence written out of a warm regard for his good friends. This is a letter dashed off in white-hot anger.
There is something about Galatians that bewitches those who study the Bible. Of all the books of the New Testament, Galatians is the first book to which critical historians point to show an authentic writing. The clear appeal of Galatians to the Biblical critic is that it shows a major conflict in early Christianity between Paul and the twelve disciples. Most Christians are either unaware that this is present or try to explain it away. But the text is clear: Paul is confronting teachings from Jerusalem.
This is not just an isolated event. Galatians itself details two past events that were similar, but the reason Paul was writing the letter was a third instance. In this letter alone, we learn of three instances in which Paul’s ministry is being subverted in the region of Galatia. This is a continuing pain for Paul, and one he wishes to put down for good. This is the reason he writes to Galatia. We do not have the final outcome of his struggle with the Galatians, but we do know that eventually Christians stopped following the symbolic law. The modern world is testament to Paul’s victory.
A careful reader of Galatians will be able to pick up Paul building his case. Each sentence seems to counter some unspoken argument by his critics. He starts at the core of his ministry: that he has a special authority (dispensation) from God. His authority was not from men (especially the twelve disciples). Paul begins the letter by saying just this:
Gal 1:1 Paul, an apostle (not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead),
Before the rebuke begins, Paul needs to establish that he has the authority to rebuke. With this one sentence, he is telling his readers two main points: his authority is from God and his authority is not from man. Why is he emphasizing that his authority is not through men? If it were through men, which men would it be? Christians universally recognized the authority of the 12 apostles (by extension, James). If Paul did gain authority through men, it would be through the Twelve Disciples. If Bart Ehrman was correct when he said that the Christians from Judea taught that “Paul was a corrupted version of the apostles gospel”, then this sentence make much more sense. The first sentence Paul writes is to refute the notion that his authority was subject to the Twelve. This theme echoes throughout Galatians.
As further evidence that Paul is emphasizing his authority did not come from the Twelve (“men”), compare Galatians 1:1 to Paul’s other introductions:
Rom 1:1 Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated to the gospel of God
1Co 1:1 Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother,
2Co 1:1 Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God which is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in all Achaia:
Eph 1:1 Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus, and faithful in Christ Jesus:
Php 1:1 Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Jesus Christ, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:
Col 1:1 Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,
1Th 1:1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
2Th 1:1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
1Ti 1:1 Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ, by the commandment of God our Savior and the Lord Jesus Christ, our hope,
2Ti 1:1 Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, according to the promise of life which is in Christ Jesus,
Tit 1:1 Paul, a bondservant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, according to the faith of God’s elect and the acknowledgment of the truth which accords with godliness,
Phm 1:1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved friend and fellow laborer,
Galatians is Paul’s only introduction to emphasize that his authority is not coming from men. This is a critical clue to the events that Galatians was written to counter.
Gal 1:2 and all the brethren who are with me, To the churches of Galatia:
We have on record that Paul visited several regions in Galatia, including Pisidia and Lycaonia. Antioch, Iconium, Derbe and Lystra are four cities named that were visited (“cities” is not to be confused with “regions”). The region is interesting to note, because Acts 15 describes events in which men from another region (“men from Judea”) come preaching circumcision. There was a regional hierarchy, either real or imagined to the Galatians. Acts describes Paul being sent back to Judea to get affirmation of his preaching. The evidence suggested that the events in Acts are the same described in Galatians 1 and 2.
With this being the case, Galatians records three instances of false preaching: 1. An event leading to the writing of the letter (indirectly inferred). 2. The event in Antioch with “false apostles”. 3. The later event in Antioch with Peter and men from James. This is not to mention the “believers” teaching the same thing as mentioned in Acts 15:5. This seems to have been a common event.
Gal 1:3 Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,
Gal 1:4 who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father,
Gal 1:5 to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.
This choice of wording appears to be a very common blessing in Paul’s letters with the exception of talking about delivering Christians from the “evil age”. Perhaps Paul emphasizes “evil age” because he is mad at those preaching against his gospel. In fact, the next verses address this very point:
Gal 1:6 I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel,
Gal 1:7 which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.
The Galatians had been converted by Paul, but they were turning away. “So soon” might refer to quickly after their initial conversion or just quickly in general (i.e. it did not take much preaching to convert them away from Paul’s gospel). In any case, we see Paul’s anger take shape against those converting away from the “gospel of Christ”. Paul uses the word “pervert”, which in English connotes modification to the worse (accurate of the Greek word as well). Notice that Paul’s converts are being “troubled” by “a different gospel which is not another”.
Much has been made of this phrase “which is not another”. Acts 2 Dispensationalists tend to translate this to mean “this is not even a gospel”. Acts 9 Dispensationalists point out that “different” and “another” are two separate Greek words and “another” more accurately is translated as “not another of the different type”. Acts 9 Dispensationalists argue the text is better rendered “I marvel you turn to another gospel which is not really even a different gospel (it is the same!)”. Acts 2 and Acts 9 Dispensationalists can argue, but context is key to figuring out the real meaning.
“Perverting” the gospel, or altering the gospel, does that make it a new gospel or a gospel of another type? Were the men who were troubling Paul’s converts preaching a “gospel”? Did Paul consider it a “gospel”? As Galatians proceeds, the reader gains more context clues:
Gal 1:8 But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed.
Gal 1:9 As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.
So Paul begins this segment by saying that even if he (the one who originally converted these people) were to return and preach something else, then those people should reject Paul. Paul doubles down on his point and says even angels are not to be believed when they preach something else. Both these concepts fit into Paul’s overall message that his authority is not from man but from God. Paul is setting up his reader to reject man’s authority, even if it came from the Twelve Apostles. If they are instructed to reject Paul (and any other preacher included in his collective “we”) and angels, who can they accept who preaches a different gospel? Paul is eliminating all other options. In essence, this is Paul saying “it does not matter who teaches something else, they are wrong.” The very next verses echo the same theme:
Gal 1:10 For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I still pleased men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ.
Gal 1:11 But I make known to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man.
Gal 1:12 For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ.
To be continued…