Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Galatians

Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Galatians

by Sam K. Williams

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This informative and engaging commentary invites modern readers to "overhear" Paul's letter as if they were present in one of the Galatian house-churches where it was being read for the first time.  By setting aside the theological baggage of the centuries that burdens many other interpretations of Galatians, Williams allows the Apostle's own provocative

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This informative and engaging commentary invites modern readers to "overhear" Paul's letter as if they were present in one of the Galatian house-churches where it was being read for the first time.  By setting aside the theological baggage of the centuries that burdens many other interpretations of Galatians, Williams allows the Apostle's own provocative thought to be encountered freshly and appreciated anew in its own terms.

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Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Galatians

By Sam K. Williams

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 1997 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-5036-6



The Prescript (1:1-5)

Galatians begins with an epistolary prescript unremarkable in its basic pattern but nevertheless indicative of major emphases of the letter and unusual because of the doxology with which it ends.

Had Paul exactly followed the form of salutation conventional in the hellenistic letter of his day, he would have begun, "Paul and all the brothers with me, to the churches of Galatia, greetings!" This conventional form, however, he expands at two points: sender and greeting. His elaborations affirm the creative power of God and the saving work of Jesus Christ.

* * *

With his "sender" statement, the opening words of the letter, Paul makes the first move in his strategy to gain the assent of his Galatian hearers: He sharply asseverates the basis of the authority that will underlie every claim and every argument that follows. He, Paulus (his Roman surname), is an apostolos, a commissioned and sent one, the delegate and representative of another. His standing as emissary he owes to no human source or instrumentality. His apostleship, and thus the authority he is now exercising as an apostle, is solely "through Jesus Christ and God the Father." By elaborating "Jesus Christ and God the Father" with the (Greek) participial phrase "who raised him from the dead," Paul emphasizes two points about the double source of his authority: the life-giving power of God and the unique status of Jesus.

The third word of Paul's Greek text is not. This resounding negative and its companion term nor (in the next phrase) are stern and emphatic. Later readers of all the Pauline letters can observe that, although he typically introduces himself as apostolos, Paul never elsewhere thinks it necessary to assert that he is not an apostle because of any human being. That he does so here is this letter's initial clue to one of his principal concerns: what the ultimate source of his authority and his gospel is and what it is not.

A second rhetorical ploy is Paul's insistence that his response to the Galatian situation is not idiosyncratic, not peculiar to him alone, for he claims as co-senders of the letter "all the brothers who are with me" (AT). Whether he thus refers to his coworkers in ministry, to other members of his missionary entourage, or (more generally) to fellow Christians in the city from which he writes is not clear. Nor need it be. The important point is that, having insisted on the divine origin of his apostleship, he now claims that he will not be articulating merely his own views. Hearers of the letter will soon learn that Paul writes (or dictates) in the first-person singular. Thus when he names "all the brothers with me" as his co-senders, he is not claiming that this letter is a committee effort but, rather, that others agree with the position he will be setting forth. We can infer that such agreement will have been the outcome of discussion among Paul and his associates. It would appear, then, that Galatians was not dashed off hastily and unreflectively.

The standard epistolary greeting, chairein ("greetings!"), Paul modifies to "grace [charis] to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." In the LXX the word peace (eirene) usually translates the Hebrew shalom. Sharing the Hebrew term's wide semantic range (from health and safety to contentment and tranquility), eirene refers not so much to an absence of war or conflict as to an encompassing wellbeing. The sense of blessing that it carries is particularly obvious in the greeting and leave-taking formulas "Peace be to (with) you" and "Go in peace" (e.g., Exod 4:18; Judg 6:23; 18:6; 19:20; 1 Sam 1:17; 20:42; 25:6; 2 Sam 15:9; 1 Kgs 5:19; 1 Chr 12:18; Dan 10:19; Tob 12:17.). In the LXX, grace (charis) appears most frequently in the expression "find grace [favor] before (or in the sight of) someone"; but the conceptual content of the term in the Pauline Jesus-communities is more akin to the Hebrew chesed. When used of God, this Hebrew word signifies the deity's saving help or gracious act of pardoning. In the overwhelming majority of cases, however, the LXX translates it "mercy" (NRSV: usually "steadfast love," "kindness," "loyalty") rather than "grace." Thus charis ("grace") seems to be a term more distinctive of the early Jesus-movement than of Diaspora Judaism.

Later readers can recognize the prescript's greeting as identical to that of Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philippians, and Philemon (1 Thessalonians has only "grace to you and peace"). In Paul's other letters, however, this greeting comes at the very end of the prescript, immediately before the beginning of the thanksgiving section that is typical of his letters. In Galatians, by contrast, the apostle expands the last phrase of the greeting ("[from] the Lord Jesus Christ") with a participial phrase (in the Greek) that reflects a widespread early Christian interpretation of Jesus' death: "who gave himself for our sins." To this phrase he adds a purpose clause: "so that he might rescue us out of the present evil age according to the will of our God and Father" (AT). Shaping Paul's language here is the apocalyptic notion of two ages inherited from certain circles of Judaism: the present age controlled by the powers of evil, and the future age of blessedness that, the Jesus-sect believed, God has inaugurated by raising Jesus from the dead. Exactly how Jesus' giving himself "for our sins" delivers persons out of the present evil age Paul does not here specify. His hearers can assume that in the letter-speech that follows he will clarify the nature and consequences of Christ's "rescue" from this age.

A final peculiarity of the Galatians prescript appears in the way it ends, on the emphatically theological note "to whom [i.e., to our God and Father] be the glory for ever and ever. Amen." In every other assuredly genuine Pauline letter the prescript ends with a greeting that invokes grace and peace upon the recipients. Only the Galatians prescript ends with a doxology, a doxology bound syntactically to the phrase "the will of our God and Father." The effect of ascribing eternal glory to the One whose will is being implemented by Jesus' efficacious death is to establish the firm theological parameters of everything that follows and, at the same time, subtly to reinforce the claim of verse 1 that the authority with which Paul writes derives ultimately from God. Furthermore, with a play on the word age (in v. 4 "the present evil age" and in v. 5 the standard phrase "into the ages of the ages" ["forever and ever" NRSV]) Paul underscores the contrast between the eternal horizon of the divine and the narrow environment that presently shapes human existence.

* * *

The Galatians prescript provides modern readers their first indication of the symbolic world that Paul and the letter's original recipients share. With confessional language that an outsider would find puzzling, it adumbrates an unfolding drama decisive for human destiny, a drama into which Paul and the Galatian Christians are themselves caught up. The scriptwriter of this drama is God (note the stress on God's will at 1:4), who alone is worthy of eternal glory (1:5). But the script itself seems necessitated by a situation that is not as it should be, the life-world of humans that Paul calls "the present evil age." The major characters in this drama are the scriptwriter, God, conceived as powerful patron and paterfamilias ("God the Father," "our Father"); the Lord Jesus Christ, whose title-name designates him the anointed agent of the Father; the human beings who find voice in the confessional phrases "for our sins" and "our God and Father"; and, finally, Paul himself, whose special role derives from his being commissioned by Jesus Christ and God the Father. If we are to judge from the prescript, the central happenings of this drama are three. Two belong already to the past: the Lord Jesus Christ "gave himself for our sins" (1:4), and God the Father "raised him from the dead" (1:1). The third, in process or still in the future (the purpose clause of v. 4 leaves the point uncertain), is rescue from the life-world that is now humankind's home.

Three sharp antitheses mark Paul's letter opening: Jesus Christ and God the Father over against humans (1:1); resurrection versus death (1:1); and the "present evil age" in contrast to another life-world that rescue points to (1:4). A fourth lies half-concealed in the apostle's words: the will of God and whatever thwarts or impedes its realization. One begins to sense that such antitheses signal a perspective that will shape everything that follows.

Body of the Letter (1:6–6:10)

Paul's Steadfastness as an Apostle of Christ (1:6–2:21)

Modern commentators often divide Gal 1:6–2:21 into discrete parts, but the text itself signals no breaks. Various Greek particles (conjunctions and adverbs) bind the sentences of this section of the letter into a syntactically seamless whole. With respect to subject matter and types of statement, though, 1:6–2:21 is anything but homogeneous. It includes some statements specific to the epistolary situation, others that are general and thematic. More specifically, it includes a rebuke and the cause of that rebuke, an imprecation, a personal defense, accounts of personal experience, and a summary declaration about the gospel and its power in reshaping Paul's own life.

The opening passage of the section, 1:6-12, appears particularly heterogeneous, but the noun gospel (euangelion) and the corresponding verb to proclaim the gospel (euangelizesthai) provide an obvious coherence. In the long central "autobiographical" part of this section, Paul himself clearly marks crucial episodes of his personal history (save the first) with then (epeita, 1:18, 21; 2:1) or but when (hote de, 1:15; 2:11). The "speech" (2:15-21) that concludes the last of these episodes features a statement of Paul's understanding of the gospel and stresses his devotion as its bearer. This statement corresponds antithetically to the accusations and double anathema of 1:6-12 and, with that earlier passage, brackets the long "autobiographical" section of chapters 1 and 2. By introducing several new emphases of the letter ([works of] the Law, faith, justification), it also points ahead to the dense argument that will follow.

A Rebuke (1:6-10)

The "body" of a hellenistic letter often began with such conventional niceties as a wish for good health, assurance that the writer was making supplication to a deity on behalf of the addressee, or a statement of thanks to the gods for some favor. Typical of Paul's letters is a section (following the prescript) expressing such sentiments as his gratitude to God for the faith or love of the recipients or his remembrance of them and his longing to see them, the tone one of joy and confidence. Not so in Galatians. Here the "thanksgiving section" typical of Paul's letters is missing altogether. In its place the Galatians heard an unmistakable rebuke couched as an expression of surprise and amazement. We should be cautious, however, about taking Paul's "I am astonished ..." as an ejaculation issuing solely from a certain psychological state. The Galatians will have heard thaumazo as a formula typical of a particular kind of hellenistic letter that aimed to effect some change in the recipient's behavior, often some act of negligence (such as a failure to write). The tone of such letters was one of disappointment and reproach, but often a note of confidence was obvious in an appeal to correct the offending conduct. If the bearer of Paul's letter had not already given a preliminary indication of the apostle's response to the Galatian situation, its recipients could no longer be in doubt when they heard his "I am astonished!" This exclamation told them that Paul was displeased and disappointed, and they now knew as well that they stood under his rebuke. They could now expect his letter to set forth the reason for his disapproval and his appeal for change.

The reason for his rebuke Paul declares at once: "You are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ" (some early manuscripts, lacking "of Christ," read: "the one who called you in grace"). The Galatians would know whether the reference point of "so quickly" was Paul's founding of the Galatian churches or Paul's departure from Galatia or the arrival of the agitators. We later readers cannot be sure. They could also know more surely than we what to make of the present tense of Paul's verb. The tense reflects, perhaps, a process that has already begun (and that Paul fears will continue). In any case, the subject of the verb ("you" rather than "some of you") suggests that he thinks of each of his congregations more as a people than as an aggregate of individuals. When used elsewhere in contexts where political or philosophical or religious allegiance is at issue, his verb means to change sides, to desert, or to become an apostate. Significantly, the apostle does not accuse the Galatians of changing from one understanding of the gospel to another. Rather, he says, they are deserting "the one who called you." Although Paul's expression (a participial phrase in Greek) is just ambiguous enough to remind his hearers of his own role in their conversion, it surely refers principally to God. In going over to an "other gospel" (Paul's term can mean either different in kind or simply another), they are not merely exchanging one set of ideas for another. Their defection is much more serious: in turning to a different gospel they are abandoning God and thus regressing to their state prior to grace.

Immediately upon mentioning the "different gospel" Paul corrects himself: "which is not another at all" (AT). The only sense in which there is "another gospel" is this: there are "some"—Paul employs the rhetorical device of dismissing these persons by referring to them in the most general manner possible—who are stirring up (or confusing) the Galatians and are wanting to change the gospel (euangelion) of Christ into something else. In the first-century political sphere euangelion was an imperial proclamation concerning the peace that Augustus brought the world. In the poems of Second Isaiah (LXX), the verb euangelizesthai refers to proclaiming the joyful news of God's salvation, the deity's deliverance of Israel from captivity in Babylon. In the Jesus-movement, "gospel" was already a technical term for the good news of what God was doing through the death and resurrection of Jesus. In Paul's view, though, a teaching that causes people to turn away from God and God's grace is not gospel. It is not good news.

In order now to stress how utterly unacceptable is the agitators' distortion of the gospel, Paul proceeds to demand their ouster from the Christian community. So certain is he of the truth of the gospel he initially preached to them that he calls down a curse upon himself, divinely commissioned though he is, or even upon one of God's heavenly messengers, if either of them were to preach a gospel other than what he had preached originally to the Galatians. ("We" rather than "I" is, of course, the subject of v. 8. This "we" may be merely the authorial plural equivalent to "I." More likely, however, the plural reflects historical actuality: on the occasion of founding the Galatian churches Paul had been not a lone operative but the leader of a missionary team.) For solemn emphasis the apostle exactly repeats his imprecation in verse 9: "Let that one be accursed!" In this repetition, however, he moves from the unreal, the barely imaginable ("even if [ean] we or an angel from heaven were to proclaim [subjunctive mood] to you a gospel other than ..." [AT]) to the actual, the reality of the present situation: "if [ei] anyone is preaching [indicative mood] to you a gospel other than ..." (AT). He also shifts from "what we proclaimed" to "what you accepted," thereby subtly reminding the Galatians of their earlier decision and underscoring the discrepancy between what they believed initially and what they are now hearing from the agitators.

The key term of Paul's imprecation, anathema, can mean, positively, a sacrifice or offering to God (2 Macc 2:13; 9:16; 3 Macc 3:17), but in the LXX it regularly translates the Hebrew cherem, something devoted to destruction. Deuteronomy 7:26 characterizes the anathema as a loathsome and abhorrent thing, an abomination, probably because it had previously been dedicated to an alien deity and was thus intolerable to Israel's God. In any case, the anathema was to be utterly destroyed, offered now as a sacrifice to the Lord (see anathema at Lev 27:28; Deut 13:17 [Heb 13:18]; Josh 6:17, 18; 7:1, 11, 12, 13; 22:20; 1 Chr 2:7; anathema at Deut 7:26). It is in this specific sense that, in Paul's Bible, an anathema is a "cursed thing."


Excerpted from Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Galatians by Sam K. Williams. Copyright © 1997 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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