Lately I’ve begun reading commentaries on some of the Apostle Paul’s letters in the New Testament as part of my research for a novel I’m writing telling the backstory of Philemon. My aim is to understand Paul better—since he’ll be an important character in the novel—and especially his attitude toward slavery, since that is one of the novel’s key themes.
The first commentary I’m reading is James D.G. Dunn’s commentary on Galatians, since it has the earliest version of Paul’s claim, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28), which seems important to Paul’s attitude toward slavery. (He makes something like this claim in other places too, e.g., 1 Corinthians 12:13, Colossians 3:11).
I’ve understood for some time that Galatians is one salvo in a theological battle over whether gentile Christians need become Jews (by performing the “works of the law” and, for males, becoming circumcised) or whether their faith in Christ is sufficient for justification before God. (Paul, of course, holds the latter position in the letter.) However, in reading Dunn’s commentary what I’ve been surprised by is whom Paul appears to be tussling with in Galatians.
According to Dunn, the Galatian churches to whom Paul addressed his letter were churches he planted on his first missionary journey in cities like Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, and (Pisidian) Antioch. (Confusingly, there are two cities called Antioch, one in Pisidia and one in Syria; see the map below.) Soon after Paul had planted these churches, other missionaries swept into town to “correct” Paul’s teaching.
But, who were they? On Dunn’s (quite plausible) account, they were Jewish Christians from the church in (Syrian) Antioch, who were under the guidance of the leaders of the church in Jerusalem—chiefly Peter and James (the brother of Jesus). So, in essence, Paul was locked in a theological battle with two other Apostles, Peter and James (or at least their theological proxies)!
The Book of Acts (11:19-30) teaches us that the church in (Syrian) Antioch was established after the scattering of believers from Jerusalem due to a persecution. Given its proximity to Jerusalem, this church was under the authority and care of the Jerusalem church. It was also the church from which Paul and Barnabus were sent on their first missionary journey (map above), during which the Galatian churches were established (Acts 13-14).
After returning from this successful missionary journey, the controversy began. Acts 15:1-2 tells us,
Then certain individuals came down [to Syrian Antioch] from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders.
At the subsequent meeting in Jerusalem—what is often referred to as the “Council of Jerusalem”—the leaders agreed that gentiles did not need to follow the Law of Moses or be circumcised, and a letter was drafted to this effect for circulation among the new gentile churches (including the one at Syrian Antioch) (Acts 15).
Sometime later, however, according to the account in Galatians, Paul confronted Peter in Syrian Antioch over what seems to be the same issue (Galatians 2:11-14). Apparently, Peter had been eating with gentile believers at Antioch—a no-no for strict Jews at the time—but then shrank back from this practice when some disciples of James arrived from Jerusalem. Despite the outcome at the Council of Jerusalem, it seems a faction from Jerusalem was still treating gentile Christians as second-class citizens unless they became Jews.
What then of the agreement at the Council of Jerusalem? Dunn suggests that this faction might have interpreted the agreement to mean that circumcision and adherence to the Mosaic Law were not required to become a Christian “god-fearer,” but that full acceptance into Abraham’s covenant and promise (e.g., Genesis 12:1-3) did require these steps. This was the point that Paul vigorously disputed in his letter to the Galatians.
In any case, it seems that Paul lost out in the confrontation with Peter in (Syrian) Antioch, and that the “circumcision faction”—whose theological roots lay with the leaders of the Jerusalem church—continued to hold sway. At some point—likely during Paul’s second missionary trip, which ended up taking him to Corinth—missionaries representing the circumcision faction passed through the Galatian churches and tried to undo Paul’s theology on this point, which was overly liberal in their view. Paul likely didn’t find out about their work until he reached Corinth, at which time he composed his letter to the Galatians to counter the views of these “Judaizers.”
My main surprise in all this, then, is that the controversy captured in Galatians was not between Paul and some minor heretical splinter group on the fringes of the new Christian movement. Rather, it was ultimately between Paul and those with perhaps the strongest claim to leadership of the young movement—Peter and James. After all, Peter had been Jesus’s disciple from the beginning, and James had grown up with Jesus! Thus, the controversy on display in Galatians cut to the core of the early church and could well have been its undoing.