Podcast 1.7: Paul and the situation in Galatia

This episode looks at the situation in Galatia that led Paul to write his letter in the mid-first century. Here I explore the rationale of Paul’s opponents who advocated circumcision among Gentiles (non-Judeans) as a symbol of belonging to God’s people and an entrance requirement into this Jewish movement that considered Jesus the Messiah (approx. 25 minutes).  This episode is part of series one (“Paul and his Communities”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 1.7: Paul and the situation in Galatia (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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2 thoughts on “Podcast 1.7: Paul and the situation in Galatia

  1. Richard Fellows


    thanks for this thoughtful and clear summary.

    You describe the circumcision faction in Galatia as Paul’s “Opponents”, but, as others have pointed out, we do not have evidence that they considered themselves to be opponents of Paul. I would like to offer a new reading of Galatians in which the circumcision faction in Galatia (let’s call them “influencers”) did not OPPOSE Paul, but rather they MISUNDERSTOOD him. Acts tells us that Paul acted as the mail boy, delivering the decisions of the church leaders in Jerusalem (Acts 16:4), and that he circumcised Timothy (16:1-3). It would therefore not be surprising if some in Galatia became confused about what Paul really believed. Gal 5:11 shows that they thought that Paul really believed in circumcision, and this is probably because of the circumcision of Timothy. But how did they explain away the fact that Paul had preached a law-free gospel to them? I suggest that they deduced (wrongly) that when Paul preached a law-free gospel he was just doing what the Jerusalem leadership had told him to do, and that he did not really believe in the law-free gospel. This would explain why Paul is at pains to point out that he had not received his gospel from the Jerusalem leaders and that he preached it before he had had much contact with them. See in particular Gal 1:8 which supports the view that Paul is concerned with the Galatians’ misunderstanding of his views.

    On this reading of the situation the Jerusalem leaders were in favour of a law-free gospel, and the influencers were against it, and the influencers thought that Paul was on their side.

    Your podcast suggests that the Jerusalem leaders were not supporters of a law-free gospel. I used to share this view but:
    1. The above reconstruction (which makes sense on other grounds) suggests the opposite.
    2. Paul seems to show respect for Cephas by translating his name into Greek in Gal 2:7-8. Here Paul discussed Cephas’s role in the church and recognises that he was the “Rock”.
    3. Acts consistently portrays Peter and James as supportive of the law-free position.

    You may object that James would not have sent members of the circumcision party to Antioch with a circumcision message AFTER the events of Acts 15 (=Gal 2:1-10) if he supported a law-free gospel. Indeed, you might point out that we should expect James to be particularly careful to keep a careful control on any delegations that he sent out, since the EARLIER delegation of Acts 15:1,24 had caused so much trouble.

    However, everything changes when we accept the best attested textual variant in Gal 2:12. Stephen Carlson has argued convincingly that Gal 2:12 should read, “but after HE came, he drew back and kept himself separate….”. This means that the ‘men from James’ were already in Antioch when Peter returned there. We then get the following sequence in which the ‘men from James’ are one and the same as the men from Judea of Acts 15:1,24):

    1. Peter visits Antioch, eats with Gentiles, and returns to Jerusalem.
    2. The men from Judea arrive in Antioch.
    3. Paul and Barnabas go up to Jerusalem (Gal 2:1-10 = Acts 15).
    4. Paul and Barnabas return to Antioch
    5. Peter returns to Antioch while the men from Judea were still there, and he is opposed by Paul.

    With this understanding of the sequence, James is innocent on all charges, except that he had not made it sufficiently clear to the delegation that they were not to preach circumcision in Antioch.

    You may further object that Gal 2:11-14 shows that Peter was sympathetic to the circumcision party. However, Paul’s charge here is hypocrisy not false ideology. Also, we should remember that Paul is being very selective in the incidents that he chooses to cite. He is not writing objective history, but rather he picks out certain episodes that demonstrate that his preaching of non-circumcision was sincere and not just to please the Jerusalem leaders. Gal 2:11-14 is one such incident and is no more representative of Peter’s position than the circumcision of Timothy is of Paul’s.

    By the way, I think Bruce Winter has a book coming out soon in which he argues that pressures on the Galatians were local. We should not assume that there was a counter-mission from Judea.

    What are your thoughts?

    Richard Fellows.

  2. Phil H.

    Hello Richard,

    Thanks for these thoughts, which will remain here as a look at another theory on Galatians. I am aware of certain aspects of the theory you are outlining here. I chose to outline a different theory in the lecture, one that I think works well in accounting for the evidence (lectures always involve major simplification choices and decisions of this sort–my reiteration of the theoretical nature of history writing may not always make it into the podcasts).

    But I agree that the “opponents” may well be unaware of any opposition to Paul specifically. In other words, they are just doing what they are doing without thinking much of Paul, who they may not consider very important. Notice that I do NOT argue that (in Galatians 1-2) Paul is defending himself against attacks by the opponents. It is Paul that CERTAINLY thinks of them as opponents, which makes it reasonable to speak of them as such, even if some aspects of the theory you mention are correct.


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