Saturday Series: Galatians 2:15-21

Propositio (Galatians 2:15-21)

The propositio is the primary statement of the case (distinct from the statement introducing the narratio, see the previous study), along with an initial exposition, whereby points of agreement and disagreement are laid out. It can also be referred to as partitio or divisio, particularly when there is more than one main point to be established. The classical form is discussed by Quintilian (4.4-4.5) and Cicero (De inventione, 1.22.31-23.33); the Rhetoric for Herennius describes it as follows:

“the division of the cause falls into two parts. When the statement of facts has been brought to an end, we ought first to make clear what we and our opponents agree upon, if there is agreement on the points useful to us, and what remains contested…” (1.10.17, Betz, p. 114)

Paul makes his point, over seven verses (2:15-21), in a rather complex fashion. A careful examination of these seven verses is vital to an understanding of Paul’s overall argument in Galatians. I have discussed them in some detail in a series of notes, and, as such, it is not necessary to repeat that analysis here. The notes proceed according to the following outline of the section:

    • 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

In considering how Paul adapts the classical rhetorical techniques to his purpose, here in the propositio, we may note the established method of beginning with the points on which the author/speaker and his opponent(s) agree. Paul does this in verses 15-16 (see the recent note for a detailed discussion). The approach is actually quite clever, in that he combines two points of agreement which are actually contradictory, from the standpoint of his line of argument, and this serves to undercut the position of his opponents. We may summarize the two points of agreement as follows:

    • According to the traditional religious-cultural distinction between Jew and Gentile (based largely on the Torah regulations), Gentiles are regarded as ‘sinners’ [v. 15]
    • Jewish and Gentile believers both are made right (‘justified’) before God, not by “works of the Law” (observing the Torah regulations), but through trust (faith) in Christ [v. 16]

Most Jewish Christians (like Peter) would agree that one is justified or saved by faith in Jesus, rather than by fulfilling the Torah regulations. Those who might believe along the lines of the declaration in Acts 15:1 were probably a small (though perhaps vocal) minority. In the episode at Antioch, described by Paul in vv. 11-14, there is not the slightest suggestion that Jewish Christians were saying that Gentiles had to be circumcised (and observe the Torah regulations) in order to be saved. Rather, Peter’s behavior in withdrawing from contact and fellowship with Gentile believers (v. 12) is what Paul specifically points out (and condemns). The first verb used in this regard is hypostéllœ, which literally means “set oneself under”, and implies the action of retreating to a safe or ‘covered’ spot. The second verb is aphorízœ, which basically denotes marking off one space (or thing) from another; when used reflexively (here with the pronoun heautón, “himself”), it refers to Peter “separating himself” from his Gentile brothers.

Paul says that Peter acted this way because he “feared those of the circumcision,” referring specifically to certain prominent Jewish Christian representatives from Jerusalem. Prior to their arrival, according to Paul, Peter apparently disregarded the Jewish dietary and purity regulations in order to have contact and table fellowship with Gentile believers. But when these prominent Jews arrived, Peter changed his conduct, presumably because of the way it might have looked to Jewish Christians who were strictly observant, and possibly to avoid giving offense. For Paul, this change in behavior gave a not-so-subtle message that there really was a fundamental distinction between Jewish and Gentile believers—something that persisted, in spite of their common faith in Christ.

The basis of this distinction was the Jewish obligation to obey the regulations of the Torah. Thus, for Paul, to require believers in Christ to accept this distinction, reaffirms the traditional religious-cultural designation of Gentile believers as impure ‘sinners’ (the point in v. 15). That unacceptable contradiction leads Paul to his rhetorical argument in vv. 17-18, intended to show the problem involved with applying the Law to (Gentile) believers. For more on this, see the discussion in the recent note.

Even more striking is his point that follows in vv. 19-20 (note), regarding the relation between believers and the Law. His argument is that the Torah regulations cannot be regarded as obligatory for believers. This is true for both Gentile and Jewish believers—and Paul, a Jewish believer, certainly includes himself in the declaration:

“For I, through the Law, died off to the Law, (so) that I might live to God. I have been put to the stake [i.e. cross] together with (the) Anointed (One), and it is no longer I (who) lives, but (the) Anointed (One) lives in me; and the (life) which I now live in (the) flesh I live in (the) trust th(at is) of the Son of God, the (one) loving me and giving himself along over me.” (vv. 19-20)

The key part of the declaration is the statement “I died to the Law”. This means, unequivocally, that believers in Christ (like Paul)—all believers—have died to the Law, and are no longer required to fulfill the Torah regulations (circumcision, dietary laws, et al). It is, of course, just this point that marks the major disagreement between Paul and his opponents. There are even many Christians today who would not (and do not) accept the implications of this Pauline teaching. Paul’s argument is not simply that a person is not required to obey the Torah in order to be saved, but that believers (and especially Gentile believers) are no longer required to observe the regulations (such as circumcision) at all. He and his opponents were already in agreement on the former point; it was the latter, more extreme, point where there was serious disagreement.

In verse 21, Paul presents a concluding argument regarding justice/righteousness (note). It is best to understand the noun dikaiosýn¢ in the fundamental sense of “rightness” —i.e., of a person being made right with God. His claim that “I do not set aside [vb athetéœ] the favor of God” carries the implication that his opponents do set it aside. Thus he clearly enough, through verses 17-21 of the propositio, establishes the main point of difference (and disagreement) between he and his opponents. If his opponents are correct, then the favor (or grace) of God is effectively nullified, and the entire Gospel is rendered meaningless:

“if right(eous)ness (comes) through the Law, then (the) Anointed (One) died away for nothing.”

The expression “through the Law” is shorthand for “through observing/fulfilling the Law” (i.e., obeying the Torah regulations). This rhetorical argument by Paul may seem extreme, and certainly he indulges in a bit of pointed exaggeration; yet for him the matter is serious enough to warrant such language, for it cuts to the very heart of the Christian identity—what it means to be a believer in Christ.

The overall statement in vv. 15-21 is further expounded by Paul in chapters 3-4 (the probatio) with a series of (six) arguments illustrating and proving its validity, with the purpose, of course, of convincing and persuading the Galatians. Each of these arguments is important for Paul’s view of the Law and must be examined carefully; this will be the focus of the next study.

References above marked “Betz” are to Hans Dieter Betz, A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Churches in Galatia, ed. by Helmut Koester, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 1979).

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