Historical Exegesis of Galatians

N.T. Wright has continued, and improved upon, the initial work of those like E.P. Sanders and their new perspective on Paul (i.e. Viewing Paul’s writings in full view of his Jewish background and historical context). In his article entitled The Letter to the Galatians: Exegesis and Theology he expounds upon the issues central to the exposition of Galations, both exegetically and theologically.

One point critical to the examination of any Biblical text, and especially Paul, is to recognize that there is a coherence to his thoughts. Wright expresses this well:

One must assume that there is a train of thought, “that the text has a central concern and a remarkable inner logic that may no longer be entirely comprehensible to us.”[2] One must get in the data, and one must do so without undue complexity, without using that brute force which swaggers around the byways of a text arm-in-arm with ignorance.

I would like to offer up some sections of his analysis for reflection. Unfortunately, with all of his solid work he, like so many others, hasn’t wrestled fully with Paul’s actual praxis, but only briefly touches on it.

The fact that Paul criticized some aspects of his native Judaism and that he announced a gospel to the Gentiles does not mean that he broke with Judaism in order to do so. On the contrary; by his own account (to hint for a moment at the solution that I prefer), he claimed to be speaking as a true Jew, criticizing – as did many who made similar claims – those who embraced other construals of Judaism, on the basis that Israel’s God had now acted climactically and decisively in Jesus, the Messiah. For the same reason, he was now announcing to all the world that the one true God was addressing, claiming, and redeeming it by the Jewish Messiah, the Lord of the world.

He is instead concerned with the theology / ethical ideas inherent in his writings. So there is atill a critical piece that has been essentially left out of the equation. Still, here are some bits for your reflection. Comments are welcome.

First, Wright deals with the classical interpretations of Paul’s view of the Law (Torah):

The dense and difficult discussions of the Jewish law in Galatians owe their very existence to the fact that Paul is unwilling to declare, as many theologians since his day have done, that the Jewish law was shabby or second-rate, or even demonic and dangerous. He is determined to insist, despite the problems he is storing up for later readers, both that God gave the law and accomplished his purposes through it and that the Galatians must not submit to it, since it was given a specific role for a certain period of time that has now come to an end. Eschatology, not religious critique, is what counts. To dissolve the resultant paradox one way or another is a sure way of misunderstanding Paul…

It is sometimes said that Galatians has a negative view of the law, and Romans a positive one; it would be truer to say that in both letters Paul wrestles mightily with this paradox, to address very different situations and contexts. It would be truer, thus, to find a deep compatibility within the two that, when discovered, will reach out further to embrace such other statements as 2 Corinthians 3 and Philippians 3. This eschatological reading of Paul’s understanding of the Scriptures in general and the law in particular is the necessary corrective to any idea that Paul is speaking in the abstract, either about “law” in general or about the Jewish law in a timeless way. His thought is controlled throughout by the sense of God’s purpose within and beyond history, and of where he and his readers belong within that story.

And then he deals with the core issue of justification:

What, fourthly and finally, about justification by faith? This is the subject that most expositors of Galatians have found to be central to the argument of the letter itself. But what is it actually about? There is no space here for a full exposition of the doctrine. Rather, I wish to pose the question thus: What particular emphases does Galatians, read historically and exegetically, provide in this central matter?

The first point we have already noted. Paul’s initial introduction of the topic is embedded within, and seems to be the sharp edge of, the question that was at issue between himself and Peter in Antioch and, we may assume, bears some close relation to the dispute between himself and the “agitators” in Galatia. This was not the general, abstract theological issue of, shall we say, how to go to heaven when one dies. It was not part of a theory of soteriology, understood in this way. It was the question of whether Christian Jews ought or ought not eat with Christian Gentiles. In other words, it addressed the question of the identity and demarcation of the people of God, now redefined in Jesus Christ – a question that is both sociological, in the sense that it has to do with a community and its behavior, which can itself be understood by the proper application of sociological methods, and theological, in the sense that this community believes itself to be the people of a God who has drawn up quite clear conditions precisely for its communal life.

Paul’s answer to the question is complex and dense, but its heart is simple. Because he, and all Jewish Christians, have “died to the law” through sharing the messianic death of Jesus, their identity now is not defined by or in terms of the Jewish law, but rather in terms of the risen life of the Messiah. The boundary marker of this messianic community is therefore not the set of observances that mark out Jews from Gentiles, but rather Jesus the Messiah, the faithful one, himself; and the way in which one is known as a member of this messianic community is thus neither more nor less than (Christian) faith.

Although this account (Gal. 2:15-21) is not itself about soteriology per se, it carries, of course, huge soteriological implications. If one has already died and risen with the Messiah, and if one has been grasped by the grace of God and enabled to come to faith and (by implication, brought into daylight in) baptism (3:26-28), then one is marked out thereby precisely as a member of the renewed, eschatological community of Israel, one for whom the act of God in the Messiah has dealt finally with one’s sinful past, one who is assured of God’s salvation on the Last Day. But the point of justification by faith, in this context, is not to stress this soteriological aspect, but to insist that all those who share this Christian faith are members of the same single family of God in Christ and therefore belong at the same table. This is the definite, positive, and of course deeply polemical thrust of the first-ever exposition of the Christian doctrine of justification by faith…

Justification, to offer a fuller statement, is the recognition and declaration by God that those who are thus called and believing are in fact his people, the single family promised to Abraham, that as the new covenant people their sins are forgiven, and that since they have already died and been raised with the Messiah they are assured of final bodily resurrection at the last. This, of course, is the argument of (among other passages) Romans 5-8, and in a measure also Philippians 3. In Galatians it is hinted at but never spelled out, for the good reason that Paul’s eye is on one thing principally – namely, the unity of the single Jew-plus-Gentile family in Christ and the consequent impossibility of that family being in anyway defined by the Jewish Torah.

Though there are still areas yet to be discussed that may have significant impact upon the message Paul is conveying, Wright has lent substantial, credible insight into the issues surrounding a proper reading of the text. Don’t forget to follow the link above to read the entire article. And don’t forget to send me your thoughts.

Shalom

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