In order to understand my perspective of Galatians, one must understand my perspective of the author. After all, I am attempting to put myself in the shoes of the author as much as possible, two thousand years later, in order to decipher one of his letters. I was not raised with the beliefs I currently hold. I was raised believing that The Church had essentially replaced Israel as the chosen people. Therefore, I always read the Bible from that perspective. After my revelation, when I read scripture, I viewed it through a different lens. One significant conflict I had to work through when I read anything written by Paul, I struggled with inconsistency between what I was taught vs what I read on the page. Prior to studying and consequently teaching Galatians for an adult Bible study, I decided to get to know Paul better and understand his character, personality, and attempt to reconcile seemingly contradictory statements he made. There are numerous books written about Paul, of which I had not read until recently. When formulating my understanding of Paul, I did so with an ESV bible and a lot of prayer. Since that study, I found a great article written from the same perspective I developed on my own.
This is the result when we approach Paul from our side of the time line. We live after the triumph of Christianity and the final parting of ways between Jews and Christians. Paul did not. Yet we bring that post-Pauline framework with us when we read him. And that framework has determined how we read him—at least until a few decades ago, when a number of scholars began to offer a new view of Paul.
Consider what would happen if, for just a moment, we were to consider Paul’s letters from the other side of the time line, from Paul’s time instead of our own. What would happen if we threw into doubt the triumph of Christianity in Paul’s time, or even the notion of the final split between Jews and Christians? Or—since we have started to ask tough questions about our assumptions—what would happen if we were to recall (here I am not inventing but simply describing) that in Paul’s time there was no Bible other than the Hebrew Bible, no New Testament, or even any idea of a New Testament, and no Christianity, or even any idea of Christianity? What difference would it make to our reading of Paul if we were to bring these assumptions, this framework with us when we read his letters? The result is not just a minor adjustment here or there on the fringes of the old image. What I and others have been arguing is that the old image, the image that has been 100 percent dominant from Paul’s day to our own, is 100 percent wrong, from top to bottom, from start to finish.
John G. Gager
Paul: Jewish Law and Early Christianity (p.6-7)
Biblical Archaeological Society
Gager’s position described my own when I was trying to reconcile inconsistencies between Paul’s letters. To any believer, it is a requirement that scripture can not contradict itself. Otherwise, we can not rely on it as an absolute truth to guide our lives. If that is true, then how was it possible for Paul to make pro-law and anti-law statements? How was it possible for Paul to write against the law, yet continue to observe the Sabbath, travel to Jerusalem for festivals, engage in a Nazarite vow of cleansing, and defend himself as law-abiding when accused otherwise? Either my previous assumptions about Paul were wrong, or Paul was a complete hypocrite, speaking out of both sides of his mouth.
What if the last two thousand years of history and doctrine has adjusted our position of what Paul was attempting to say? Is it possible that if we view Paul from a different lens, a lens from his perspective in history, that what Paul meant was completely removed from how his words are read today? Prior to reading Gager’s position, I attempted to reconcile these questions on my own, simply by digging into scripture and finding what I considered to be contradictions. I will not spend a lot of time here outlining the contradictions. Instead, I am going to paint a picture of the Paul I found in scripture by seeking words from his pen and how some of Paul’s life was recorded by Luke in the book of Acts.
Paul authored nearly half of the New Testament books. Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus, Philemon. It is easy to determine which letters Paul wrote because he introduced himself in the beginning of each one.
Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry (Romans 11:13 ESV)
To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ (Ephesians 3:8 ESV)
Arguably the father of many Christian church doctrines because he was the self-proclaimed apostle to the Gentiles and each of his letters ring a certain theme of teaching directed towards Gentiles.
I am not sure where I heard the claim that Saul’s name was changed to Paul after his vision of Yeshua as a method to separate himself from Judaism. This subtle assumption may seem inconsequential, but it does provide a pinch of understanding that scripture can be misread so easily. Acts 13:9 simply reads Saul, who was also called Paul. The simple understanding here is that in Hebrew, he would have been called Rav Sha’ul or Rabbi Saul. Paul is the Greek equivalent of the name Saul in the same way that Yeshua is the Hebrew equivalent to Jesus in the Greek. Odds are much higher that Paul referred to himself with his Greek name because his mission field was primarily Greek speaking territory. Other than the name he used or what we call him today, who was Paul?
I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin.
Romans 11:1 (ESV)
Paul, being an Israelite of the tribe of Benjamin, was potentially named after King Saul, also from the tribe of Benjamin (1 Samuel 9:21). Being named after King Saul is purely speculation, but would not be uncommon.
circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee;
Philippians 3:5 (ESV)
Now when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial.”
Acts 23:6 (ESV)
Paul was proud of who he was. Clinging to his Pharisee status, with pride, well into his ministry. It is important to recognize a common misconception among New Testament readers. All Pharisees were not bad. Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes were different sects within Judaism. Similar to Christian denominations, Judaism has sects which have different understandings of how to interpret or uphold scripture. The common Christian understanding is that all Pharisees were bad because of the snapshot portrayed in scripture. Being a Pharisee wasn’t bad in itself, in fact there are a few good examples in scripture. That, however, is an entirely different topic which I may write about in the future.
“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day.
Acts 22:3 (ESV)
Being trained by Rabbi Gamaliel would have been an incredible honor. Rabbi Gamaliel was very well-known, highly influential, and to be a disciple of him would have meant Paul was extremely well-educated. (As an honorable mention, but unrelated to this post, do not forget that Gamaliel, although not a messianic believer, was a Pharisee and the voice of reason on the Sanhedrin that saved the Apostles. Acts 5:34-39).
So the tribune came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” The tribune answered, “I bought this citizenship for a large sum.” Paul said, “But I am a citizen by birth.” So those who were about to examine him withdrew from him immediately, and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him.
Acts 22:27-29 (ESV)
Historically, Roman citizenship meant high status. It could be obtained by being born in a Roman territory of parents that were citizens, serving in their military, adoption, or by purchasing the citizenship. Simply living or being born in a Roman territory did not grant citizenship. The idea that Paul was born a citizen, and that his parents were Jewish, implies that someone in his lineage was able to purchase their citizenship. His Roman citizenship probably held significance in respect to him being able to move and teach within these territories without as much fear of persecution. As seen above, Roman citizens were not as susceptible to legal retribution or punishment. Obviously this changed during the time of his ministry, but it allowed him to have a far-reaching effect.
Finally, I feel the need to establish a pattern of Paul’s character and obedience to God and the Torah (law). I believe that this is the single most important key to reading Paul’s letters accurately. One of the most argued positions regarding Paul’s letters is his stance on the law.
And when they heard it, they glorified God. And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law, and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs. What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. Do therefore what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law. (Acts 21:20-24 ESV)
But this I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets (Acts 24:14 ESV)
Paul argued in his defense, “Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I committed any offense.” (Acts 25:8)
Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. (Romans 3:31)
So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. (Romans 7:12 ESV)
For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being (Romans 7:22 ESV)
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (Romans 7:25 ESV)
Each passage above shows a consistent pattern of Paul defending the Torah. Many readers have interpreted Paul’s writing to mean that the law was no longer required. Many have even interpreted Paul’s writing to mean that the ceremonial portion of the law should not be observed. Specifically Sabbath observance, dietary laws, and the biblical festivals. I argue that Paul’s lesson is not that the law is no longer required, no longer important, or even no longer necessary. I argue that Paul’s lesson is that salvation does not come through the law. If one is capable of setting aside preconceived ideas about the grace vs law debate, and reading Paul’s letters from the perspective that Paul is teaching that salvation comes through grace, and not teaching against Torah observance, scripture makes a lot more sense.
Consider this point: If Paul truly taught against observing the law or in some way was attempting to teach that Torah observance was not required, not necessary, or even worse, should be abandoned, isn’t Paul the biggest liar and hypocrite? Consider the conflicting message. In several passages, Paul defends the law. Luke recorded in Acts, Paul defending himself, claiming to follow the law. James, also recorded in Acts, believed and defended to others that Paul lived according to the law. Paul himself, in Romans claims the law is holy and should be upheld. Either Paul was lying and had others fooled, or Paul truly maintained Torah observance. Scripture simply will not contradict itself.
but they went on from Perga and came to Antioch in Pisidia. And on the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. (Acts 13:14 ESV)
As they went out, the people begged that these things might be told them the next Sabbath. (Acts 13:42 ESV)
And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures (Acts 17:2 ESV)
And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks. (Acts 18:4 ESV)
but we sailed away from Philippi after the days of Unleavened Bread, and in five days we came to them at Troas, where we stayed for seven days. (Acts 20:6 ESV)
For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus, so that he might not have to spend time in Asia, for he was hastening to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost. (Acts 20:16 ESV)
Several references that Luke recorded throughout the book of Acts provide evidence that Paul observed the Sabbath and made the festivals a priority for his travel. All of this must be taken into consideration when reading Paul’s letters.
From my perspective, by reading scripture, Paul was a well-educated Jewish man, from a proud Pharisaic family, trained by the prominent Rabbi Gamaliel, who loved God, and forsook all that he had to carry out a mission spreading the gospel to the nations. He lived a Torah observant life and refuted anyone that accused otherwise.
I repeat Peter’s warning that Paul is difficult to understand and his words easily twisted.
And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability.
2 Peter 3:15-17 (ESV)
When deciphering anything that Paul wrote, I will maintain the assumption that Paul was Torah observant and would have expected his readers to know that. He also would not have been hypocritical and taught contrary to his lifestyle.