July 2: Gal 2:15-16

In the last three daily notes, I explored the relationship between Peter and Paul in the New Testament and Christian tradition, in commemoration of the festival of Peter and Paul (June 29/30). Yesterday’s note discussed the episode at Antioch as narrated by Paul in Galatians 2:11-14. Paul’s statement in verse 14b leads into the famous passage in vv. 15-21, which serves to establish the basic issue at the heart of the letter—the propositio, according to classical rhetorical categories. I felt it well worth devoting a short series of notes on these verses, along the following division:

    • Note 1 (vv. 15-16)—Basic proposition regarding justification and the Jew/Gentile distinction
    • Note 2 (vv. 17-18)—Rhetorical argument to show the problem with applying the Law to (Gentile) believers
    • Note 3 (vv. 19-20)—Relation of the believer to the Law
    • Note 4 (v. 21)—Concluding argument regarding justice/righteousness

Galatians 2:15-16

It is often debated whether Paul’s words to Peter end with verse 14 or continue on into vv. 15ff. From a literary (epistolary) and rhetorical standpoint, I believe the direct address to Peter ends with v. 14 (along with the narration [narratio] of vv. 1-14); Paul deftly (and seamlessly) makes the shift from Peter to the Galatian audience of the letter here in vv. 15-16. This becomes clear when we look closely at the two statements which make up this verse pair:

V. 15: “We (who are) by nature Yehudeans [i.e. Jews], and not sinful ones [i.e. sinners] out of the Nations [i.e. Gentiles]…”

He draws a distinction, entirely from a traditional Jewish point of view, between Israelites/Jews who live according to the Covenant established by God and the Law (of Moses), and non-Jews (Gentiles) who live apart from the Law and Covenant. According to this religious distinction, faithful and observant Jews are considered “righteous”, while non-Jews (and faithless/disobedient Jews) are considered to be “sinners”. Paul admits this distinction (from a religious standpoint) and uses it as the starting point for his argument; it also serves as a point both ‘sides’ can agree upon—Paul, on the one side, and Jewish Christians (who believe all Christians should be circumcised and observe the Law), on the other. The emphatic use of the first person plural pronoun (h(mei=$, “we”) immediately establishes the common ground—Paul associates himself here with another Jewish Christian (i.e. Peter, implied).

Verse 16 is more complex, and, in rendering it, I would break it down into outline form—it begins “[but] seeing/knowing that…”:

    • “a man is not declared just out of [i.e. by/from] works of (the) law
      • if not through trust of Yeshua (the) Anointed
      • and we (indeed) trusted in (the) Anointed Yeshua
    • (so) that we might be declared just out of [i.e. by/from] trust of (the) Anointed (One)
      • and not out of works of (the) law
      • (in) that out of works of (the) law
    • all flesh will not be declared just”

Note the way that the three ‘outer’ clauses or phrases emphasize justification (being “declared just/righteous”), whereas the ‘inner’ pairs of clauses/phrases juxtapose trust (or faith) “of/into Jesus” and works “of the law”. The ‘outer’ portions themselves form a guiding chiasm:

    • A man (i.e. individual person)—not declared just (from works of law)
      • We (i.e. believers) might be declared just (by faith/trust in Jesus)
    • All flesh (i.e. all persons, collectively)—not declared just (from works of law [implicit])

The participle that begins this verse (ei&dote$, “having seen/known [that…]”) joins it to v. 15, and implies that, this too, is a proposition both ‘sides’ can agree on. Indeed, many (if not most) early Jewish Christians, like Peter, would have granted that ultimately it is by faith in Jesus, and not by observing the Law, that believers are “justified” and “saved”. Almost certainly, Jewish Christians who might make statements such as that in Acts 15:1 were a relatively small (if vocal) minority. The difference is that Paul regarded the less extreme view and behavior of Peter (and other Jewish Christians in Antioch) as essentially leading to a denial of this fundamental proposition—the denial being that faith/trust in Jesus ultimately was not sufficient to establish a right religious standing before God.

Before proceeding, however, it is important to mention the difficulty in rendering the verb dikaio/w (dikaióœ), as well as the related noun dikaiosu/nh (dikaiosy¡n¢) and adjective di/kaio$ (díkaios). Translators are generally torn between “just/justice” and “right/righteous(ness)” The basic idea underlying the dik- word group is conformity with what has been established (in society, i.e. custom, tradition) or with (moral/religious/legal) direction. Overall, “just/justice” best captures the social and legal aspects in English, whereas “righteous(ness)”, in particular, is almost entirely limited to a specific religious sense. The main problem is the verb dikaio/w, as there is nothing really corresponding to it in English. Literally, it would be “make right/just”, but this is somewhat awkward and potentially misleading; “declare just” perhaps better fits the legal sense, but this too can be misleading when used in a spiritual or theological context. Typically, “justify” is used to translate, but in modern English this verb has virtually lost its proper legal sense, and necessitates special technical usage in the New Testament (esp. in Paul’s letters). Needless to say, the subject is immense, and requires careful study of all the relevant passages.

Two additional points of translation (and interpretation) are worth mentioning:

    • The genitive construct used in verse 16—”the trust/faith of Jesus”—is best understood as an objective genitive, i.e. “faith in Jesus”. The parallel and synonymous Greek expression is “faith ei)$ [lit. into] Jesus”. This primarily refers to faith/trust directed toward Jesus, but one should not ignore the dynamic, participatory aspect implied by the literal rendering “into”.
    • The expression “works of (the) law”, now also found in the Qumran texts (4QMMT line c27, hrwfh ycum), is distinctive to Paul’s thought. By it, he means active observance of the commands and ordinances of the Old Testament Law (Torah or “Law of Moses”), particularly in its ritual/ceremonial aspect. Here in Galatians the reference is primarily to circumcision, but would also include the sacrificial offerings, observance of holy days (Sabbath, Passover, etc), dietary regulations, and so forth—even extending to supererogatory acts of religious devotion which go beyond the letter of the law. By juxtaposing the parallel genitive expressions “works of law” and “trust of Jesus”, Paul creates a contrasting distinction, highlighted by: (a) “trust/faith” vs. “work/act”, and (b) the use of the preposition ei)$ (trust into/unto Jesus) which Paul takes rather literally—Jews may be “in” (e)n) the Law or Christians “in” Christ, but by trust/faith one moves “into” (ei)$) Christ; in other words, faith in Jesus brings about a dynamic change of religious, existential, and spiritual situation for the person.

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