Paul’s View of the Law: Acts vs. the Letters

The articles in this series of Paul’s View of the Law (part of “The Law and the New Testament”) conclude with a short comparative study of the Pauline letters and the book of Acts. Commentators frequently note a number of differences and/or apparent discrepancies between the narratives (involving Paul) in the book of Acts and what he himself relates in the (undisputed) letters—in matters of chronology, the itinerary of the missionary journeys, and so forth. In such instances, critical scholars tend to give priority to the letters, regarding the information in the book of Acts as less reliable; traditional-conservative commentators, on the other hand, generally consider both Acts and the letters as authentic (and reliable), seeking to harmonize the two as far as possible. Perhaps the most well-known (and often-discussed) historical-critical issue involves the relationship between the so-called Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 and Paul’s narrative in Galatians 2. However, important differences have also been pointed out regarding the portrait of Paul painted in Acts, as compared with what he states himself in the letters, and especially in regard to his view of the Law (the subject of these articles). This may summarized by two related questions:

    1. Did Paul himself continue to observe the Old Testament/Jewish Law following his conversion? and
    2. Did he consider that Jewish believers were still obligated to observe the commands and regulations of the Law?

1. Did Paul continue to observe the Law?

Paul states on several occasions in his letters that, prior to coming to faith in Christ, he was most devout and scrupulous in matters of religion, including strict observance of the (written) Law, the Torah (Gal 1:13-14; Phil 3:4b-6, and Acts 22:3; 26:5). Did he continue to observe it so after his conversion? Many scholars today would say yes, and simply take for granted that he did. However, it must be observed that there is very little actual evidence of this in the letters; in fact, he never makes such a statement about himself, but it could be understood from two passages: 1 Cor 9:20 and Rom 3:31.

    • 1 Cor 9:20—”to the ones under the Law, (I came to be) as one under the Law”. This indicates that Paul voluntarily continued to observe the Law, at least when among his fellow Jews, in order to win them to Christ (cf. below).
    • Rom 3:31—”then do we make inactive/invalid the Law through th(is) trust (in Christ)? May it not come to be (so)! but (rather) we make the Law stand!” Many commentators today read this as if Paul is saying that he and his Jewish Christian co-workers continue to observe the Law. However, there is nothing in the context of the passage to indicate this; the emphasis in Romans 3, especially in vv. 21-31, is the declaration that Jews and Gentiles both are justified through faith, and not by works of the Law (i.e. observing the Law). For more on this passage, see the earlier note and discussion in this series.

By contrast, the following passages indicate that Paul, along with all believers, is free from the Law: 1 Cor 9:20-21; 2 Cor 3:6; Gal 5:11; 6:14; Rom 6:15; 7:6; Phil 3:3, 7-9.

In the book of Acts, there is somewhat more evidence that Paul continued to observe the Law. First, we have his statements generally to this effect, in Acts 24:14, 17-18 and 28:17 (?). We also see:

    • His presence in the Temple (Acts 21:26-27; 22:17-18; 24:17-18); along with other early believers in Jerusalem (Lk 24:53; Acts 2:46; 3:1ff; 5:21ff, 42; 21:22-27), Paul continued to frequent the Temple. However, it is not clear to what extent he participated in the sacrificial ritual; on only one occasion is he seen involved in ritual activity (21:26-27, cf. below).
    • His traveling to Jerusalem for the feasts, at least on several occasions (Acts 18:21 v.l.; 20:16); but note that Acts 20:6 indicates that Passover would have been observed away from Jerusalem.
    • Acts 18:18 refers to a vow (Nazirite?) he had taken, which presumably was done according to the regulations in the Law.

In none of these instances is it recorded that Paul was under obligation, or felt required, to observe the Torah. The most relevant passage is Acts 21:21-26 (cf. below); but even here, his involvement in the Temple ritual was done voluntarily, at the recommendation of James.

2. Did he consider that Jewish believers were still obligated to observe the Law?

Again, a good many commentators today would answer in the affirmative—while Gentiles were not required to observe the Old Testament Law, Jewish believers were still bound to do so. I find not the slightest indication of this in the letters, not even in the most positive references to the Law (Rom 3:1-2; 7:12-14 [cf. also 1 Tim 1:8]; Col 4:11, and, possibly, Rom 4:12; 1 Cor 7:19). As mentioned above, some commentators would read Rom 3:31 as though Paul believed that the Law continued to be binding (for Jewish believers), but I consider this a serious misunderstanding of the passage. The overwhelming number of references, indicating that the Law is no longer in force for believers in Christ, would seem to speak decisively against it—cf. 2 Cor 3:7-18; Gal 2:11-14ff, 19; the illustrations in Gal 3-4 (esp. 3:25, 28; 4:2, 5, 31); 5:1, 6, 13-14, 18; 6:15; Rom 2:28-29; 3:21ff; 6:14-15; 7:1-6; 8:2f; 10:4; Phil 3:3; Col 2:16-17; 3:11; Eph 2:15. There are, however, three passages in the book of Acts, which could suggest that Paul held the Torah to be binding for Jewish believers; each of these will be discussed in turn:

Acts 16:3—Paul had the half-Jewish Timothy circumcised, prior to his joining the mission effort. This has often been seen as contradicting Paul’s own teaching regarding circumcision in the letters (Gal 2:3; 5:2-3, 6, 11; 6:12-15; 1 Cor 7:18-19; Rom 2:28-29, also Phil 3:3; Col 2:11; 3:11; Eph 2:11), causing some critical scholars to question the historicity of the detail in Acts 16:3. Much depends on the reason why Timothy was circumcised; there are several possibilities:

    • Jews, including Jewish believers, were obligated to observe the Law, with circumcision being a central covenant obligation; according to later Jewish tradition (m. Kidd. 3:12), children from mixed marriages were still regarded as Jewish.
    • It was a practical measure, to avoid unnecessary hostility and opposition among Jews to the mission.
    • It is an example (and extension) of Paul’s missionary principle expressed in 1 Cor 9:19-23—of becoming like one under the Law in order to reach those who are under the Law.

There is nothing in the context of 16:1ff itself to indicate that Timothy was circumcised because he was required to do so, as would be suggested in the first view. The only reason given in the passage is that he was circumcised “through [i.e. because of] the Jews that were in those places”, which would seem to fit the second interpretation above. However, it is also possible that Paul was generally following the principle he would later express in 1 Cor 9:19-23; for more on this, see the conclusion below. One would like to think that Timothy willingly (and voluntarily) agreed to circumcision, though this is not indicated in the text.

Acts 16:4—In the next verse, we read that Paul delivered the decisions (do/gmata) from the ‘Jerusalem Council’ (Acts 15:19-31) to the believers in the cities of Pisidia and Lycaonia (i.e. Lystra, Derbe, Iconium, etc) in SE Asia Minor, which had been evangelized during the first Missionary journary (Acts 13-14). The letter from Jerusalem (15:23-29) is addressed to Antioch, Syria and Cilicia; Paul is extending it northward and westward in the region. There are two major critical issues involved here:

    1. Paul’s knowledge (and support) of the Jerusalem decrees. He never once refers to these in his letters, even on occasions when the decisions would have been relevant (1 Cor 8-10; Gal 2:11-14, etc; Rom 14; Col 2:16ff). In particular, the decisions appear to be directly on point with the very question Paul addresses in 1 Cor 8-10; if he knew of the decisions, and considered them to be authoritative (and binding) for Gentiles, it is rather strange that he does not refer to them. Many critical scholars consider the detail of Acts 16:4 to be inaccurate—e.g., note how in Acts 21:25 Paul appears to learn of the decrees then for the first time. More to the point, commentators have argued that the Paul of the letters would not have supported the decrees, especially with regard to the dietary restrictions placed on Gentiles (cf. issue #2).
    2. The relation of the decrees to the Torah. In Acts 15:21, James (the speaker) clearly connects the decisions of the Council with the fact that Moses (i.e. the Old Testament Law) is proclaimed and read in cities throughout the region, and followed by devout Jews (including Jewish believers). I have discussed this aspect of the Jerusalem decrees in some detail in a previous article. It is possible, but by no means certain, that, in observing the decrees, Gentile believers are thereby expected to follow the Torah in a limited sense. The emphasis is squarely on the idolatrous and immoral aspects of the pagan culture in which the Gentiles live—things which would also offend the religious and moral sensibilities of Jewish believers everywhere. I believe that the primary focus of the decrees is twofold: (1) as an authoritative exhortation for Gentiles to abstain from things associated with idolatry, and (2) as a way to ensure fellowship and unity between Jewish and Gentile believers.

The apparent discrepancy between Acts 16:4 and Paul’s failure to mention the Jerusalem decrees even once in the letters, can be explained one of several ways:

    • Paul was not aware of the decrees when he wrote his letters (contrary to Acts 16:4)
    • He did not consider (or would not have considered) the decrees authoritative and/or binding on Gentiles (again contrary to Acts 16:4)
    • The decrees had only a limited (regional) scope—the areas in Syria and Asia Minor surrounding Antioch—and were not considered binding for Gentile believers in territories further away
    • The decrees had only a limited scope, insofar as they related to places with large Jewish populations (such as the regions around Antioch)—in support of healthy relations between Jewish and Gentile believers—but were not necessarily binding on Gentile believers en masse.
    • The decrees were only binding for a time, eventually being abolished or superseded as circumstances dictated, or through “progressive revelation”; at the time of Paul’s writing, the decrees were no longer in force.

According to a strict, traditional-conservative (harmonistic) reading of the New Testament, only the 3rd and 4th interpretations above are viable options. A consistent and thorough analysis of Paul’s letters, taken by themselves, would, I think, lead one to adopt the 2nd interpretation. Overall, the last view is perhaps the simplest and most practical solution, but it is nowhere so stated in the New Testament, and would have to be assumed.

Acts 21:21-26—This is almost certainly the most direct (and controversial) passage in Acts related to Paul’s view of the Law. It must be examined in some detail:

  • The Context—At the conclusion of his (third) major missionary journey (18:23-21:16), Paul travels to Jerusalem, and is greeted by the believers there (vv. 17-19), including James and other leaders (elders) in the Church. Presumably he presented the collection of funds for the needy in the Jerusalem Church, which he had laboriously organized and gathered from the congregations in Greece and Macedonia (1 Cor 16:1-4; 2 Cor 8-9; Rom 15:25-28), and which is mentioned (it would seem) in Acts 24:17, but not here in chap. 21.
  • The Issue—James’ address to Paul is recorded in vv. 20b-25, in which the following points are made:
    • In Jerusalem there are many Jewish believers, who continue to be zealous in observing the Torah (v. 20b)
    • It is reported that Paul instructs Jews to forsake the Torah, and not to be circumcised, etc (v. 21)
    • It is assumed that: (a) this cannot be true, and (b) Paul himself continues to observe the Torah (v. 24b)
    • To prove this, James recommends that Paul take part in a purification ceremony (in the Temple) (v. 23-24a)
    • The Jerusalem decrees are also mentioned, indicating, at the very least, that Gentile believers honor and respect the customs of (observant) Jewish believers (v. 25)
  • Summary exposition—James effectively summarizes the controversies between Paul and Jewish believers, regarding his view of the Old Testament Law (as expressed in Galatians and Romans). Admittedly, nowhere in the letters does Paul say anything quite like the claim in verse 21, though the teaching that believers in Christ (Jew and Gentile alike) are “free” from the Law (cf. above) certainly could be characterized this way. It is perhaps such a (mis)representation that Paul combats, or attempts to avoid, in passages such as Gal 3:21ff; Rom 3:31; 7:7ff. Above, I have examined evidence regarding the extent to which Paul continued to observe the Law himself after coming to faith in Christ, such as James assumes here in v. 24b; the evidence is hardly conclusive, as I shall discuss again below. However, Paul does go along with James’ recommendation and participates in the purification ritual (vv. 26-27), at considerable personal expense it would seem, giving at least a general affirmation of his support for the position of observant Jewish believers. But based on what we have studied thus far in the letters, can we truly say, with James, that “all that of which was sounded down [i.e. reported] to them about you [i.e. Paul] is nothing”? What of the many potentially controversial passages regarding the Law, such as 2 Cor 3:7-18; Gal 2:11-14ff, 19; 3:25, 28; 4:2, 5, 31; 5:1, 6, 13-14, 18; 6:15; Rom 2:28-29; 3:21ff; 6:14-15; 7:1-6; 8:2f; 10:4; Phil 3:3; Col 2:16-17; 3:11, et al.?

Conclusion

A fair and unbiased view of the evidence, from both the letters and Acts, would have to affirm that Paul did continue to observe the Law, but only in a special and qualified sense. Ultimately, the clearest declaration of his own view of the matter comes from 1 Cor 9:20:

“And I came to be to the Jews as a Jew, (so) that I might gain Jews (for Christ), to the (one)s under (the) Law as (one) under (the) Law—not being under (the) Law (my)self—(so) that I might gain the (one)s under (the) Law (for Christ)”

Here he clearly states that:

    1. He observes the Law (i.e. is “under the Law”, u(po\ no/mon) for the purpose of winning Jews to Christ, and not because he is still obligated to observe it—indeed:
    2. He himself is not under the Law. It should be noted, that some manuscripts omit the phrase mh\ w*n au)to\$ u(po\ no/mon (“not being under the Law myself”), but it is present in a wide range of witnesses (including many of the “earliest and best” MSS), and is almost certainly original. While some commentators might dispute it, I regard this as a decisive statement that, along with all other believers in Christ (Jew and Gentile alike), Paul is no longer required to observe the commands and regulations of the Old Testament Law. Note also, in v. 21, that:
    3. He is not without the “Law of God” (cf. also Rom 7:22, 25), and identifies himself as now being under (lit. “in”) the “Law of Christ”. This (being “in Christ”) is an altogether new covenant, as he makes clear in 2 Cor 3:1-18.

The basic principle of freedom in Christ, which Paul consistently teaches (cf. Gal 2:4; 3:25, 28; 4:21-31; 5:1ff, 13; 1 Cor 9:19ff; 2 Cor 3:17; Rom 6:7ff; 7:2-6; 8:2ff, 21, etc), also means that believers—certainly Jewish believers—may continue to observe the Torah, and other Jewish customs, either voluntarily, or as a matter of personal conscience. There is a world of difference between “may observe” and “must observe”—I believe Paul would affirm the former, but definitely not the latter. All of the passages in the book of Acts examined above can be understood and interpreted as voluntary observance. In this sense, the claims reported about Paul (according to James) in Acts 21:21 are false; but there are actually two erroneous claims which ought to be rejected:

    • He teaches that Jewish believers must, or should, cease observing the Old Testament Law—false
    • He teaches that Jewish believers must continue (strict) observance of the Old Testament Law—likewise false

When it comes to Gentile believers, the situation is somewhat different; Paul, especially in Galatians, takes the more forceful position, that they should not observe the Torah, and speaks in the harshest terms regarding those who would influence them to do so. However, this must be understood in the historical (and rhetorical) context of the letter, and not turned into any sort of absolute rule to follow. Early Christianity was dominated by Jewish traditions and patterns of thought, and initial Gentile converts could easily be compelled to adopt Jewish religious practices as well. For the most part, this dynamic has long since disappeared from the Church, and there is little inherent danger in (Gentile) Christians today voluntarily adopting customs and practices set forth in the Torah. I will discuss this point again at the very conclusion of this series on The Law and the New Testament.

Paul’s View of the Law: Galatians (Chaps. 1-2)

For a proper study of Paul’s treatment of the Law in Galatians, I believe it is important to keep the overall line and structure of his argument in view throughout. For this reason, I will be looking at the relevant verses and passages according to the divisions of the letter as established by the best rhetorical analysis.

In analyzing the structure and rhetorical framework of Galatians, I am generally following the outline of Hans Dieter Betz (Galatians, in the Hermeneia series, Fortress Press [1979]). This landmark critical work was among the first to apply modern rhetorical analysis extensively to Paul’s epistles; for a more traditional-conservative approach along the same lines (and using the same basic outline), see B. Witherington, Grace in Galatia: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (T & T Clark / Eerdmans: 1998).

The outline is as follows:

    • Opening Greeting (Epistolary Prescript)—1:1-5
    • Introduction, with direct address to the audience (Exordium)—1:6-10
    • Narration or statement of relevant facts and events (Narratio)—1:11-2:14
    • Statement and exposition of the case (Propositio)—2:15-21
    • Presentation of arguments and proofs (Probatio)—3:1-4:31
    • Exhortation and ethical instruction (Exhortatio)—5:1-6:10
    • Conclusion and Farewell/Benediction (Epistolary Postscript)—6:11-18

Epistolary Prescript (Gal 1:1-5)

This includes the standard elements indicating author and addressee (vv. 1-2), greeting (vv. 3-4) and doxology (v. 5). There are two aspects especially worthy of note: (1) Paul’s self-identification as an apostle (a)po/stolo$), v. 1, and (2) the Gospel summary in v. 4. These are both common features of Pauline opening greetings, but they have a particular significance here in Galatians:

    • Paul as an apostle, that is, one who is set forth as a special emissary and representative (of Christ). This will be a central theme in establishing the argument of the letter—Paul’s role and authority as an apostle to the Gentiles. Note how he qualifies the term “apostle” in verse 1—”not from men and not through a man, but through Yeshua (the) Anointed and God (the) Father”. In other words, his apostolic authority comes directly from Jesus Christ and God the Father. Consider also how his apostleship is connected to the Gospel message here in v. 1 with the concluding formula “…the (One) raising him [i.e. Jesus] out of the dead”.
    • Verse 4 applies to Jesus a more extensive Gospel formula: “the (One) giving himself over our sins, that he might take us out of the standing evil Age, according to the will of our God and Father”. A proper definition and understanding of the Gospel (“good message”) is likewise central to the argument of Galatians, as we will see.

Exordium (Gal 1:6-10)

This represents the introduction of the letter and the beginning of Paul’s direct address to his audience. Verses 6 and 7 provide the causa, that is, Paul’s reason for writing. He begins, “I wonder/marvel [qauma/zw] that…”, a deliberative rhetorical technique that draws attention to the course of action being taken (or about to be taken) by his audience; similarly, his use of the adverb taxe/w$ (“[so] soon/quickly”). Note the two parallel verbs in vv. 6-7:

    • metati/qhmi (“set [something] after”, i.e. change the place of)—metati/qesqe “you have moved (yourselves) away from [a)po\]”
      • The transfer is away from the one calling the Galatians to faith and salvation, i.e. God (but in a secondary sense, also Paul as apostle), and toward (“unto”, ei)$) “another Gospel” (e%teron eu)agge/lion)
    • metastre/fw (“turn after/across”, i.e. turn to a different place or condition)
      • Paul’s opponents (the ones “troubling” [tara/ssonte$] the Galatians) wish “to change/pervert/distort” [metastre/yai] “the Gospel of Christ” [to\ eu)agge/lion tou= Xristou=]

On the one hand, Paul accuses the Galatians of changing over to “another” Gospel, on the other, he accuses certain people of wishing to change/alter the Gospel. Though he does not state it here, it soon becomes clear that this “other Gospel” is represented by the views of the Jewish Christians who would require (or urge) that Galatian believers become circumcised and observe the regulations of the Law (Torah). Paul effectively marginalizes this Jewish-Christian (“Judaizing”) position with his aside regarding this “other” Gospel—o^ ou)k e&stin a&llo (“[of] which there is no other”). That is to say, in Paul’s mind, there is only one Gospel, and it corresponds with the Gospel which he has been proclaiming. As will become clear throughout the first chapters of the letter, this question of the Gentile believers being (or feeling) compelled to observe the Old Testament/Jewish Law is no small matter of indifference or preference, but rather cuts to the very heart of the Christian message. The seriousness with which Paul views the matter is indicated by the double curse (anathema) he gives in verses 8-9. Implied within the curse is an affirmation of Paul’s own apostolic authority—this will be the main focus of the narration in vv. 11ff. Paul’s position and authority as an apostle (representative of Christ) is also indicated in verse 10, which serves as the transitus, or transition, between the exordium and the narratio.

Narratio (Gal 1:11-2:14)

In classical rhetoric, the narratio refers to a statement (narration) of the facts of a case, along with related events, by the author/speaker; it also sets the stage for the principal arguments (or proofs) which follow. Verses 11-12 make up the propositio, or opening statement, intended to influence the audience. This is indicated by Paul’s use of gnwri/zw ga\r u(mi=n (“For I make known to you…”) at the start.

I am not sure why Betz, in his outline of Galatians, treats verse 11 as part of the transitus; his own analysis on pp. 59-60 shows that it is better regarded as the opening of the narratio (part of the propositio).

Here Paul expands upon the point made back in verse 1—that the Gospel he proclaims was not taught to him by other human beings, but came to him directly by revelation from Jesus Christ himself. This fact is intimately connected with his role as a representative and emissary (apostle) of Christ, both aspects—Gospel message and apostolic authority—being central to his exposition. The narratio itself is autobiographical, and can be divided into three parts:

    • Paul’s early career—the call to be an Apostle (1:13-24)
    • The meeting in Jerusalem—confirmation of Paul’s role as Apostle to the Gentiles (2:1-10)
    • The incident at Antioch—questions regarding the Gospel as proclaimed to the Gentiles, concerning Jewish-Gentile relations and the Law (2:11-14)

Paul’s early career (1:13-24)—From the standpoint of this study, three basic themes or points can be isolated:

    • His religious devotion and zeal—that is, his Jewish identity (vv. 13-14)
      The “traditions [lit. things given along, passed down] of the Fathers” certainly includes legal (i.e. commands and regulations of the Torah) as well as extra-legal religious matters. His devotion extended even to persecuting the early Christians in Jerusalem and Judea, which corresponds to the scenario described in Acts 8:1-3; 9:1-2ff. Note also how here he effectively contrasts Judaism with the Gospel (presented in v. 15), but not as either competing or complementary religions; rather, the revelation of Jesus Christ to him represents something entirely new.
    • His call and commission as Apostle (to the Gentiles)—it came directly from God and Christ (vv. 15-17)
      This is indicated by two aspects of the narrative:
      (1) He was set apart by God (even before he was born), being called by the favor of God and through the (personal) revelation of Christ (vv. 15-16a)
      (2) He did not consult at first with other Christian leaders (in Jerusalem), i.e. his instruction and earliest ministry work was directly under the guidance of God and Christ (vv. 16b-17)
    • His ministry work becoming accepted within the wider early Christian community—including contact with the apostles in Jerusalem (vv. 18-24)

The meeting in Jerusalem (2:1-10)—I have discussed this passage in some detail in relation to the so-called ‘Jerusalem Council’ of Acts 15. I would generally follow the majority of commentators in their view that Acts 15 and Galatians 2 refer to the same underlying historical event[s], though this identification is not without difficulties. However one chooses to interpret the relation between these passages at the historical level, here we must focus exclusively on what Paul writes in his letter. The following points should be noted:

    • Paul’s attendance in Jerusalem is also the result of a revelation (vv. 1-2, cp. Acts 15:2f)
    • At issue is the Gospel Paul has been proclaiming to the Gentiles (v. 2)
    • There were some (Jewish Christians) in Jerusalem who would require/compel Gentile believers to be circumcised [and, presumably, to observe other Torah regulations as well] (v. 3; this is more prominent in Acts 15:1-11ff)
    • Paul characterizes these Jewish Christians (“Judaizers”) as “false brothers”, indicating that they have come in surreptitiously (infiltrating/spying), and with false/improper motives (v. 4); note the introduction here of a motif (slavery vs. freedom) which will appear throughout the epistle.
    • Paul clearly contrasts this Jewish-Christian view with the “truth of the Gospel”—as such, Paul feels compelled to oppose it (v. 5)
    • The authority and importance of the (apostolic) leaders in Jerusalem, judged in human terms, is devalued by Paul (v. 6, 9)
    • And yet, Paul’s role as apostle to the Gentiles is confirmed—along with his missionary approach and the Gospel he proclaims—by the leaders in Jerusalem (James, Cephas/Peter, and John) (vv. 7-9)

We can detect how many of the important themes and motifs of the epistle, to be expounded by Paul, are introduced and interwoven throughout this narrative. The points of controversy and conflict are brought forward, and already Paul has begun the polemical (and vituperative) treatment of his opponents which will increase markedly in the climactic sections of the letter.

The incident at Antioch (2:11-14)—For a detailed treatment of this section, see my earlier discussion, and also on the Peter/Paul controversy in Christian tradition. It also may be worth consulting my notes on the so-called Apostolic Decree from Acts 15. Here we have a narrative snippet from a minor, but significant, event in early Church history, which shows the cultural and religious difficulties in incorporating Gentile (non-Jewish) believers within a largely Jewish-Christian matrix. The incident at Antioch, by all accounts, did not involve Jewish Christians urging or compelling Gentiles to observe the Torah; rather, it had to do with the behavior of the Jewish believers. Should Jews (as believers in Christ) continue faithfully to observe the Torah regulations and/or their religious traditions if it meant separating themselves from fellowship with Gentiles? The issue may even have gone deeper, for Paul speaks of Peter as starting to be in a Gentile manner of living (e)qnikw=$); this perhaps indicates that Peter has ceased to observe certain Torah regulations (such as the dietary restrictions, cf. Acts 10:9-16), at least when living and eating among Gentile believers. Social pressure (from prominent Jewish believers) apparently caused Peter to return to his prior religious scruples. Paul saw and sensed in this a great danger, as it seemed to place Jewish distinctiveness ahead of Jewish-Gentile unity in Christ. This is an important observation directed at those commentators who would view Paul’s arguments regarding the Law in Galatians as being limited to what is necessary for salvation—the incident at Antioch shows that Paul’s argument goes beyond this, for it relates to the very notion of Christian identity. Galatians is first surviving Christian writing (however one dates it exactly) to address this issue head-on.

Propositio (Gal 2:15-21)

The propositio is the primary statement of the case (distinct from the statement introducing the narratio, cf. above), along with an initial exposition, whereby points of agreement and disagreement are laid out. Each of these seven verses is vital to an understanding of Paul’s view of the Law in Galatians. I have discussed and examined 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

The overall statement in vv. 15-21 is further expounded by Paul in chapters 3-4 (the probatio) with a series of 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 article in this series.

July 5: Gal 2:21

This is the last of four daily notes on Galatians 2:15-21 (for the first three notes see #1, 2, 3). Today’s concluding note is on verse 21, which I have summarized as a concluding argument regarding justice/righteousness.

Galatians 2:21

The sentence in this verse is made up of two statements or clauses, the first by way of a bold declaration:

ou)k a)qetw= th\n xa/rin tou= qeou=
“I do not displace [i.e. set aside] the favor of God”

From a rhetorical standpoint, this a refutation (refutatio) by Paul of a charge (real or hypothetical). The verb a)qete/w, “unset, displace, set aside”, is often used in a legal context, i.e., of “setting aside” (invalidating, nullifying) an agreement; it can also be used in the more general sense of “disregard, deny, repudiate”, even to “act unfaithfully, be disloyal”, etc. For other occurrences of the verb, cf. Gal 3:15; 1 Cor 1:19; 1 Thess 4:8; 1 Tim 5:12. Here Paul probably has the legal sense in mind, related to the Israelite/Jewish covenant (agreement) with God. Paul’s Jewish (and Jewish Christian) opponents might well have accused him of annulling the Covenant by his particular view of the Old Testament Law, as expressed here in Galatians (on this, cf. the previous note). According to the basic Jewish view, salvation (and the establishment of the Covenant) is the result of God’s gracious election of Israel; and observing the commands, ordinances and precepts of God, as revealed in the Torah (Law of Moses), represents the terms whereby Israel fulfills (and adheres) to the agreement. By effectively abrogating the Law, Paul invalidates the Covenant, and, in turn, disregards the favor (grace, xa/ri$) of God. This last is the argument that Paul refutes. It is actually a clever bit of substitution—he does not frame the charge in terms of setting aside the covenant, but rather of setting aside the favor/grace of God. This is important to his rhetorical argument as a whole, as we shall see in the second clause that follows:

ei) ga\r dia\ no/mou dikaiosu/nh, a&ra Xristo\$ dwrea\n a)pe/qanen
“for if justice/righteousness (is) through (the) Law, then (the) Anointed (One) died away dwrea\n

The word dwrea/n (dœreán), which I left untranslated above, properly means “(as) a gift”, and so Paul uses it in a similar context in Romans 3:24; however, this translation can be misleading in English, since often the emphasis is rather on being “free of charge” or “without payment”, either in a positive (2 Cor 11:7) or negative (2 Thess 3:8) sense. It can even carry the harsher connotation of “in vain, for no purpose”; the English expression “for nothing” captures this ambiguity—it can mean something done “for free, as a gift” or “for no purpose”. It is this latter sense that Paul plays on here, juxtaposing xa/ri$ and dwrea/n, as he does in Rom 3:24; there the parallelism is synonymous (both words can mean “[as a] gift”), here it is rather antithetical (or better, ironical). I will return to this in a moment.

The key portion of this conditional statement is the unreal or false (indicative) clause: “if justice/righteousness (is, or comes) through the Law…” Paul has already stated that this is false in verse 16, effectively as a (rhetorical) point of agreement with his (Jewish Christian) opponents, implying however that their viewpoint and behavior actually (if unintentionally) contradicts the ‘agreed-upon’ doctrine in v. 16. Now, he goes on to say that, if they are correct, and one is justified by observing the Law, then this “sets aside” the very work of Christ on the cross! The final irony is that the false/hypothetical charge (against Paul) in v. 21a turns into a real charge against Paul’s opponents—by requiring believers to observe the Old Testament Law, they set aside the grace of God. Usually when Paul speaks of something being “in vain”, he uses the adverb ei)kh= or the expression ei)$ keno\n, as in Gal 2:2; 3:4; 4:11; so the use of dwrea/n here is most distinctive (and intentional), reflecting a powerful irony—by disregarding the central teaching that salvation/justification is entirely by trust (or faith) as a free gift from God (i.e. “for nothing”), Paul’s opponents have made Christ’s sacrificial death to be “for nothing”. Ultimately, of course, this entire argument is intended as a warning and exhortation for the Galatian believers (see Gal 1:6ff; 5:2-4ff; 6:12ff).

It also demonstrates again how important the mystical, participatory language and symbolism of dying with Christ was for Paul. Salvation “by grace” was not simply a matter of God overlooking or forgiving human sinfulness, it was centered in the idea of God “giving” his Son (and Christ “giving himself”) as a sacrificial offering for us. Our faith/trust is “into” Christ and places us “in” Him; this entry is focused—spirtually and sacramentally—upon our participation in His Death and Resurrection.

July 1: Gal 2:11-14

In the previous two daily notes (June 29, 30), I surveyed some of the New Testament passages, and other references in early Christian tradition, which mention Peter and Paul together. Today, I will look a little more closely at the primary New Testament reference—Paul’s narrative of the episode at Antioch in Galatians 2:11-14.

By all accounts, the Antioch episode with Peter took place some time after the meeting in Jerusalem (between Paul & Barnabas and the “pillars”) described in Gal 2:1-10. Most scholars hold that Gal 2:1-10 generally refers to the same events as Acts 15:1-19, though some would question this. More difficult is the relationship between the account in Acts 15:1-19 and the letter from James in vv. 20-29—some commentators believe that these occurred at different times, but have been combined/conflated by the author of Acts. In spite of what may be implied in Acts 15:30ff, there is no indication by Paul in any of his epistles that he knew of this letter (Paul may have first become aware of it later on, as suggested by Acts 21:25). Interestingly, however, Acts 15:1-19 and Gal 2:1-10 deal primarily with the question of circumcision, while Acts 15:20-29 and Gal 2:11-14 both seem to refer more specifically to dietary regulations.

Unfortunately, the brevity of Paul’s narrative in Gal 2:11-14, and the rhetorical force of it, makes it difficult to know for certain what took place between Peter and Paul. There are three main interpretative issues:

    1. The exact nature of the dispute
    2. The identity and role of the “men from James” (v. 12a)
    3. The force and significance of Paul’s statement in v. 14b

Paul frames the dispute with two expressions in verse 11:

    • “I stood against [a)nte/sthn] him according to (the) face [kata\ pro/swpon, i.e. face-to-face]”
    • “(in) that [i.e. because] he was known/recognized (to be at fault) by (his conduct) [kategnwsme/no$]”

The first verb (anqi/sthmi, “stand against”) is often used in a military or political context (i.e. “oppose, resist, withstand”); but it can also refer specifically to opposing/exposing an imposter (as Peter withstood Simon Magus in tradition [see below]; cf. also Acts 13:8; 2 Tim 3:8). The second verb katagi–g—nw/skw literally means “know against/concerning (someone)”, in the sense of forming an opinion or judgment against a person; as a technical legal term, it can mean “bring a charge against”, “decide a case against”, i.e. “judge, condemn”; it can also carry the nuance of “find fault with/against”, “think poorly of”, “despise”, etc. Here the sense of the perfect passive of the verb is probably something like “clearly in the wrong or at fault”, though perhaps catching a bit of a legal connotation as well, i.e. “recognized or judged to be at fault”, perhaps even “(already) judged/condemned”.

In verse 12, Paul states that (prior to the arrival of “men from James”), Peter was “eating with” (sunh/sqien) the Gentiles (presumably Gentile believers of Antioch); the imperfect form of the verb sunesqi/w (“eat [together] with”) suggests repeated, or habitual, action. Peter apparently was willing to forego the Jewish dietary regulations in order to have fellowship with Gentile believers, or similarly to disregard other religious scruples about associating with non-Jews. Paul’s statement in verse 14, that Peter had “begun (to live) under [i.e. according to the manner of] the nations [i.e. of the Gentiles]”, would suggest a significant shift away from strict observance of the Law (including the dietary regulations, etc). An association of Peter with such issues surrounding Jew-Gentile relations (and the Law) in early Christian tradition is confirmed by:

  • The Cornelius episode in Acts 10-11, a key narrative in the book as it sets the stage for the early mission to the Gentiles (Peter refers to it again in Acts 15:7-8). The vision of Acts 10:9-16 effectively abolished the dietary requirements established in the Old Testament Law; while it is nowhere specified that Peter ceased to observe the regulations, it is clearly allowed (even required) for Jewish Christians to do so for the purpose of missionary work among Gentiles. Acts 11:1-18 shows that Peter had to defend or explain his actions in this regard to other Jewish believers. For more, cf. Parts 13 and 14 of the series “The Speeches of Acts”.
  • At several points in the so-called Pseudo-Clementine literature (prob. early 3rd century), writings which preserve certain kinds of Jewish-Christian tradition, Peter is depicted as defending himself against “false” claims that he taught the abolishment of the Law of Moses (on this, see my earlier note). Many critical scholars see “Simon (Magus)” in the Clementine writings as a cipher for Paul (and his teachings). Indeed, Gal 2:11 is alluded to in the Clementine Homilies XVII.19.4, effectively reversing Peter’s position in relation to Simon (Paul).

Following the arrival of “men from James”, Peter’s response (and shift in behavior) is described by three terms:

(a) he “withdrew” (u(pe/stellen, literally, “he set/placed [himself] under”), in a concrete sense he “pulled back”
(b) he “separated himself” (a)fw/rizen e(auto/n) i.e. from the Gentiles; the verb a)fori/zw fundamentally means “to mark (someone or something) from (another)”, that is, to create a distinction or boundary; here the idea is that Peter marked himself off (in some way) as a Jewish believer, apart from the Gentile believers with whom he had been associating.
(c) he was “in fear” (fobou/meno$) of the ones “of the circumcision” (e)k peritomh=$); this latter expression could simply mean “other Jewish Christians”, but Paul may also be identifying them (in part) with the “false brethren” of Gal 2:4, who had, it would seem, argued that Gentile converts should be circumcised (v. 3, cf. Acts 15:1).

In what sense did Peter “fear”? It is likely that Paul is framing the issue in the sharpest possible terms—Peter’s ‘fear’ may have been nothing more than the result of his feeling social pressure, touching upon his older religious habits and practice. His behavior among the Gentiles might suddenly seem problematic when viewed by (observant) Jewish Christians. Even Paul, in his letters, cautions against believers in the exercise of their Christian freedom, lest they trip up “weaker” brethren (i.e. those who still feel bound by certain religious scruples). At any rate, Paul saw the matter as serious enough to take bold action, “standing against” Peter “face to face”. This probably implies two things: (i) he expressed his objection directly to Peter, and (ii) it took place publicly, likely in whatever leadership/council setting was current among believers in Antioch (see v. 14). Such a meeting may be summarized by Paul in verse 13, where he describes how the rest of the Jews (i.e. Jewish Christians of Antioch)—and even Barnabas—were swayed by Peter and/or the “men from James / of the circumcision”; the summary is governed by two, related, verbal expressions:

    • sunupekri/qhsan au)tw=|—the verb sunupokri/nomai is a compound derived from u(pokri/nomai (“to judge/discern under[neath]”), which had the basic meaning of “answer, explain, interpret” (similar to the related verb a)pokri/nomai). The derived noun u(pokrith/$, “interpreter” came to be used widely in the technical sense of an “actor” (i.e. one who interprets an author/poet’s work); similarly, u(po/krisi$ (“explanation/interpretation”) came to have the meaning “play-acting”, and the verb u(pokri/nomai, in turn, to mean “play a role”, i.e. “pretend”—our English word “hypocrisy” is a morally-tinged transliteration of u(po/krisi$. The prefixed particle sun means “(together) with”; so the expression Paul uses means that the rest of the Jewish Christians “played the part together with him [i.e. with Peter]”; some translations fill in the meaning further—”(they) acted hypocritically, joined in the hypocrisy”, etc.
    • sunaph/xqh au)tw=n th=| u(pokri/sei—Paul states that even Barnabas was “led away (together) with their play-acting [i.e. ‘hypocrisy’]” (the noun u(po/krisi$, cf. above). In modern English, we might say, “he was carried away (by it) and joined in their pretense”. The idea seems to be that (nearly) all of the Jewish Christians living and working (among the Gentiles) in Antioch were swayed by Peter and “the men from James”.

But who exactly are these “some [i.e. certain] (men) from James” (tina$ a)po\  )Iakw/bou)? At the time, James was the leading figure of the Jerusalem Church (as indicated in Acts 15, 21), and one of the three “pillars” (along with Peter and John) mentioned by Paul in Galatians 2. There are two possibilities here: (a) that they were genuinely sent by James, or (b) they only claimed to have been sent by James. For commentators eager to harmonize Acts 15 and Galatians 2, the latter is generally assumed; however, the former is actually much more likely, considering the influence they seem to have had over Peter. In any case, they certainly would have been prominent representatives of the Jerusalem church, known by Peter and probably many other leaders of the Antioch church as well. It is extremely unlikely that they are the same as the “false brethren” of Gal 2:4. There the issue was the circumcision of Gentile converts, and observance of the Law of Moses; here there is no sense that anyone is requiring Gentiles to conform to the Law, rather the pressure is on Jewish Christians to maintain their religious identity while working among Gentiles. No doubt observance of dietary regulations was a key point, but Peter’s “withdrawal” and “separation” implies something more than that. Paul appears to have recognized this; as he states in verse 14:

“But when I saw that they did not set foot [i.e. walk] straight/right toward the truth of the Good Message [i.e. Gospel], I said to Kefa’ [i.e. Peter] in front of (them) all…”

He identifies their Jewish religious observance as “not walking right” according to “the truth of the Gospel”—a striking statement, which may well have taken them by surprise! Like many Jewish Christians throughout history, they may have seen no conflict between preserving their Jewish identity (by conduct and association) while at the same time accepting Gentile believers as true Christians. However, in this situation, at least, Paul saw a different implication, as he goes on to say:

“If you, a Yehudean [i.e. Judean/Jew], are beginning (to live) under (the manner) of the Nations [i.e. of Gentiles], and not (in the manner) of Yehudeans, how do you constrain [i.e. make it necessary for] the Nations to become Yehudean [i.e. live as Jews]?”

The logic of this statement in verse 14b is somewhat hard to follow, but I would interpret it according to the following line:

    • Previously, Peter was willing to associate and eat with the Gentiles (disregarding the dietary restrictions and other legal/religious scruples); in so doing, he was effectively living as a Gentile and not a Jew.
    • Now, since the arrival of important Jewish Christians from Jerusalem, he is reluctant to associate with Gentiles in the same way; in so doing, he (perhaps without fully realizing it) is re-affirming a specific Jewish identity.
    • The practical result is: in order for Gentile believers to continue associating again (fully) with Peter, they would need to adopt the same (Jewish) religious practices; effectively they would have to become Jews.

It is altogether possible that Peter did not see this last implication, or did not draw the connection as strongly as Paul. The specifics of the incident between Peter and Paul at Antioch are largely lost to us; what remains, and follows in Galatians 2:15-21, is one of the most extraordinary, and yet underappreciated, passages in all of the New Testament. It is to this passage that I will turn for the next series of daily notes, according to the following division:

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

June 29: Galatians 2, etc

June 29 is the traditional date celebrating the apostles Peter and Paul, a feast observed in both Eastern and Western tradition since the mid-4th century; it is associated with their martyrdom (in Rome), and may have been connected with the deposition of their remains (bones/relics) during the 3rd century. In commemoration of this date, over these three days (June 29, 30, and July 1), I will be presenting short notes on several aspects of the traditional relationship between Peter and Paul, as follows:

  • Opposition between Peter and Paul in Christian tradition
  • Peter and Paul as a symbol of Church Unity
  • An exegetical outline and summary of the famous passage in Galatians 2:11ff

Today’s note will look at the first of these:

Opposition between Peter and Paul in Christian tradition

There is only one passage in the New Testament which refers to any opposition between Peter and Paul—this is the second chapter of Galatians (Gal 2). The historical-critical questions surrounding the episode[s] in this chapter (in relation to those of Acts 15) are well-known and continue to be debated by scholars and commentators today; it will not be possible (nor advisable) to try to address them here. Rather, I will simply let Galatians speak for itself:

In verses 1-3, Paul refers to a session held during a visit to Jerusalem, where he and Barnabas (along with Titus, a Greek) met (privately kat’ i)di/an) with those considered (or seeming/appearing, dokou=sin) to be leaders (among the Jerusalem Christians). Though not stated here, these ‘leaders’ must have included James, Peter, and John (v. 9). According to v. 2, Paul went to Jerusalem according to a revelation (kata\ a)poka/luyin), his main concern being to set before them the “good news” (Gospel) that he had been proclaiming among the Gentiles. While he does not clearly explain the reason for doing this, he certainly was aware that his missionary approach—emphasizing that non-Jews could come to Christ and join the wider Christian Community without observing the traditional requirements of the Old Testament Law—was liable to be misunderstood (and misrepresented) even among Jewish Christians. He no doubt wished to maintain strong relations with the Jerusalem community, and to see his missionary work confirmed by them. He goes out of his way to point this out in verses 7-9.

In vv. 4-5, Paul suddenly mentions “false brothers” who were “brought in” (lit. “led along in[side]”) and “came in alongside” to “look down (at)” (i.e. inspect, ‘spy’)—it is not specified just who these people are or how they came to be a part of the proceedings, they may simply have been associates of the leaders (James-Peter-John). Here Paul introduces the freedom vs. bondage theme that will carry through the rest of the letter. The implication is that these “false brothers” wished to impose religious-legal requirements—circumcision, at least—on Gentile converts such as Titus (on the curious language in verse 6, see below). Paul concludes his narrative in vv. 7-10 by emphasizing that the meeting ended with a basic agreement—Paul was indeed recognized as an apostle to the Gentiles, just as Peter was for the Jews [the circumcised]. However, while this distinction could be harmonious, it could also serve as the basis for division. A hint of opposition between Paul and the Jerusalem leaders runs through vv. 1-10, by his repeated use of a curious expression, using the verb doke/w:

    • “the ones thought/considered (to be…)”, v. 2
    • “the ones thought/considered to be some(thing)”, v. 6 (partially repeated)
    • “the ones thought/considered to be pillars”, v. 9

Note the way this narrows and becomes more specific: in verse 9 the expression is identified with James, Peter and John. It is possible that the earlier references could apply to a larger group of church leaders. Some commentators have argued that there is nothing derogatory or negative about the expression “the ones thought/considered to be…”, but Paul’s repeated use of it here suggests otherwise, especially when we consider what he adds in verse 6: “whatever they were carries through [i.e. matters] nothing to me, (for) God does not receive the face of man [i.e. does not take a person at face value, according to appearance].”

However, it is clear that actual opposition does not break through until verse 11-14, a separate (later) incident, narrated by Paul, which took place in Antioch. Paul states that he “stood against (Peter) according to (his) face” (in English we might say “opposed him face to face”, or colloquially, “got right in his face”). The concluding expression of v. 11 (o%ti kategnwsme/no$ h@n) is a bit difficult to translate, but could be rendered “in that [i.e. because] he [Peter] was known/recognized (to be in error) regarding (this)”. I will discuss this passage in more detail in a later note, but the gist of it seems to be that, for a time, Peter was willing to forego the dietary laws (and/or other religious scruples) to observe Christian fellowship with the Gentile believers of Antioch; but, when prominent representatives of the Jerusalem church (“men from James”) arrived, he withdrew and was reluctant to associate publicly in the same way. Paul uses this as the springboard into the main argument of Galatians (summarized powerfully in verses 15-21).

There is only one other passage in the New Testament which could reflect some sort of opposition between Peter and Paul; this is 1 Corinthians 1:12, part of a discussion on divisions among believers in Corinth:

“each one of you says: ‘I am of Paulus’, and ‘I (am) of Apollos’, and ‘I (am) of Kefa [i.e. Peter]’, and ‘I (am) of (the) Anointed [i.e. of Christ]’—has the Anointed (One) been divided (into parts)?…”

Kefa (the original Aramaic of Pe/tro$/Peter, “Rock”) is mentioned again in 1 Cor 3:22 and 9:5. The reference in 1 Cor 1:12 (and perhaps also 3:22) would not be a direct personal opposition, but could imply emphasis on a more “Jewish” style of Christianity associated with Peter. That such a distinction of “Jewish” vs. “Gentile” Christianity, represented by Peter and Paul, persisted in Christian tradition, may perhaps be indicated by the so-called Pseudo-Clementine Literature (the Homilies and Recognitions). These works, typically dated to the early-3d century, are pseudepigraphic (see on Pseudonymity and Pseudepigraphy), associated with Clement, a prominent figure of the early sub-apostolic period, and traditionally one of the first bishops of Rome. The Homilies are prefaced by (pseudonymous) correspondence between Peter and James, in which Peter presents books of his preaching (the Homilies) and gives instruction regarding their use and distribution. In the letter to James (2:3-4), Peter complains (and warns) that:

“some among the Gentiles have rejected my lawful preaching and have preferred a lawless and absurd doctrine of the man who is my enemy. And indeed some have attempted, while I am still alive, to distort my words by interpretations of many sorts, as if I taught the dissolution of the law and, although I was of this opinion, did not express it openly. But that may God forbid!” (transl. Johannes Irmscher and George Strecker in Hennecke-Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha, vol.2 ).

According to the books of Homilies which follow, the “lawless” “enemy” is Simon Magus; however, many critical scholars hold that Simon is actually a kind of code (or cipher) for Paul and his teachings. In Hom. II.17.3-5, Simon is described specifically as one who went (ahead of Peter) to the Gentiles and proclaimed “a false gospel”. The narrative of the Homilies works on two levels: (1) Peter pursues Simon and challenges/opposes him as a false teacher and wicked magician, much in the manner of other legendary, extra-canonical “Acts” of the Apostles; and (2) Peter pursues and corrects a specific sort of false teaching that has been spread out into the Gentile world.

The theological outlook of the Homilies is strongly Jewish Christian, having much in common with the language and thought-world of the Sermon on the Mount; indeed, it draws heavily on the “Two Ways” motif (see also Didache 1-5; Barnabas 18-20), which was itself no doubt influenced by sayings of Jesus such as in Matt 7:13-14ff. The “easy way” that leads to destruction involves ignoring or disregarding the Law of Moses and/or the corresponding commands of Jesus (Hom. VII.7.1-2ff; VIII.5-7, etc). The dualism of the Homilies is even more pronounced, as we see in book 2, culminating in the juxtaposition of Simon and Peter—Simon with the false Gospel comes first, then follows Peter with the true Gospel—an inversion/perversion of the proper order of God (and Creation) which the true Gospel is meant to correct. However, the Homilies (as reflecting the purported teaching of Peter) do not simply require Gentiles to obey the Law of Moses; rather, its theological outlook is expressed well in book 8, where in chapters 4ff an argument is laid out akin to the modern-day “Two Covenants” theory—Jews who faithfully observed the Law of Moses will not be condemned, even apart from Jesus, and (Gentile) Christians who faithfully observe Jesus’ commandments (as in the Sermon on the Mount) too will be accepted, even apart from the Law. It is the “lawless” pseudo-Christians (i.e. followers of “Simon”) who certainly will be condemned.

There are rough similarities to the Homilies in the epistle of James, a much earlier compendium of Jewish-Christian instruction which has also been greatly influenced by the Sermon on the Mount. In James 2:14-26, there is the famous passage on “faith and works”, often thought by many commentators to have been written in response to Paul’s teaching. Of course, much depends on the date of composition and authorship of the letter (perhaps better described as a sermon-tract). Dating varies considerably, from early (40s) to late (90-100); I am more inclined to accept an earlier dating, at least prior to the Jewish War of 66-70. Did ‘James’ know Paul’s teaching on “faith and works” such as we see in Galatians, and is he writing to contradict it? At least one statement (verse 24) almost seems to be an explicit contradiction, as does the very different use of Genesis 15:6 in vv. 21-23 (cf. Gal 3:6; Rom 4:3). On the other hand, it can be argued (rather convincingly) that James and Paul use e&rga (“works”), pi/sti$ (“trust/faith”) and even dikai/w/dikaiosu/nh (“justify”, “justice/righteousness”) somewhat differently; certainly the context is different—in James 2 the main issue is the importance of “good works” (acts of mercy) to the poor and needy, whereas in Galatians Paul is addressing the question of whether Gentiles (and believers in general) are still required to observe the Old Testament Law.

Jews & Gentiles and the People of God

This is the first of several articles which will be posted periodically. The subject is so large, and the sensitivity surrounding it so great, that it must be approached with care (and some caution). I will be posting these articles to run parallel with another, related, exegetical study series on “The Law and the New Testament” (see the introduction). This initial article on “Jews & Gentiles and the People of God” follows several daily notes in which I examined the Pentecost narrative in Acts 2:1-13. I set forth as a fundamental theme of Acts 1-2 the Restoration of Israel (see the note for Pentecost Tuesday with a concluding follow-up note). Consider, especially, the parallel thematic structure of the narrative:

    • The disciples, representing the twelve tribes of Israel—the Twelve (reconstituted, Acts 1:15-26) and the wider group of around 120 (12 x 10) disciples—are united, coming together in one place (Acts 2:1)
      • where they experience the manifestation (power and presence) of the Spirit of God (parallel to the Sinai theophany)—esp. the tongues of fire, Acts 2:2-4
    • Jews from the surrounding nations, representing the dispersed twelve tribes of Israel, also come together in one place (Acts 2:5-6), eventually speaking together with a united voice (vv. 7-11)
      • where they too experience the manifestation of the Spirit (the “voice”, v. 6), as at Sinai, with the word (of God) heard being spoken in other tongues (i.e. their own languages), Acts 2:6-7ff

Note also a second parallel involving the nations (ta\ e&qnh):

    • Jews from the surrounding nations (where they had been dispersed) come together in Jerusalem
      • In the hearing of the separate languages of the nations they encounter and respond to the word of God (spoken by the disciples)—in so doing, they join with the 12/120 apostles/disciples to form a new, restored Israel
      • The disciples (who spoke the languages of the nations), are, in turn, dispersed out in to the surrounding nations (see esp. Acts 8:1-4; 11:19), where they proclaim the word of God (to Jews and Gentiles)
    • Jews and Gentiles in all the surrounding nations come together—as Israel and in Jerusalem (at the spiritual level)

To what extent can this second parallel be demonstrated as part of the original thought and purpose of the author of Acts (or his underlying tradition[s])? There are several passages where the mission to the Gentiles is clearly understood as fundamental to the “restoration of Israel”. Perhaps the most prominent is in the speech of James in Acts 15:13-21—there James cites Amos 9:11-12 in a most original and distinctive manner, tying the “rebuilt tent/booth of David” to the Gentile mission. I have discussed this passage in some detail in an earlier post.

Before proceeding to an introductory analysis of the basic idea of the “people of God”, it may be useful to survey some of the key eschatological references in the Old Testament prophets (and subsequent Jewish literature) where the role (and fate) of Gentiles in the end times is described. To begin with, let me reiterate two important aspects of the “restoration of Israel”, which I pointed out at the end of an earlier daily note (on the Pentecost narrative):

    1. The return of Israelites (Jews) from exile among the nations—this return is to the Promised Land, and, in particular, to Judah and Jerusalem.
    2. The Nations (Gentiles) come to Judah and Jerusalem, bringing tribute and/or worshiping the true God there.

The first aspect is an important and popular theme especially in the later Prophets (from the exilic/post-exilic periods), and, in particular, so-called deutero- and trito-Isaiah (Isa 40-55, 56-66, generally regarded by critical scholars as stemming from this late period, though the matter remains much in dispute). Here is a sampling of some key Isaian passages: Isa 43:5ff; 44:21-28; 48:12-21; 49:5ff; 51:11; 52:2, 7-12; 54:2-8; 55:12-13; 56:1-8; and throughout chapters 60-66, esp. 66:18-24. The imagery and sentiment of these passages largely concurs with that found in exilic/post-exilic prophets such as Ezekiel (esp. chapters 34, 37 and 47-48) and Zechariah 9-14, though in those books the military side of the restoration (i.e. the defeat/conquest of the nations, cf. below) is already becoming more prominent. The motif of restoration/return appears frequently, of course, in subsequent Jewish writings—e.g., Tobit 14:5; 2 Maccabees 2:7; Jubilees, 1:15-17ff; Testament of Benjamin 9:2, etc (selection courtesy of Sanders, pp. 79-82, see below).

With regard to the second aspect, E. P. Sanders (Jesus and Judaism, Fortress Press [1985], p. 214) provides a convenient summary of select passages related to the role and fate of the Gentiles, which I present here in modified form (with expanded references):

“People of God”

In the Old Testament Scriptures, the precise phrase “people of God” (formally <yh!ýa$–h*— <u^, ±am (h¹)°§lœhîm) is actually quite rare (Judg 20:2; 2 Sam 14:13), with the similar expression “people of YHWH” (hw`hy+ <u^, ±am YHWH) a bit more common (Num 16:41; Deut 27:9; Judg 5:11, 13; 1 Sam 2:24; 2 Sam 1:12; 6:21; 2 Kings 9:6; Ezek 36:20; Zeph 2:10). However, Israel is referred to as God’s people many times, including numerous instances where the revelatory/prophetic voice of God refers to Israel as “my people”. These occur frequently in the context of the Exodus—Ex 3:7ff; 5:1; 7:4; 8:22-23; 9:17 (“let my people go”, 5:1; 7:16; 8:1, 20-21; 9:1, 13; 10:3-4); the status of Israel as God’s people is summarized in Ex 33:16. The emphasis of Israel as God’s people is often that of holiness, related to the idea of covenant obligation; this is particularly noteworthy in Deuteronomy—Deut 7:6f; 14:2; 28:9; 29:13, etc—and throughout the Deuteronomic history (e.g., 1 Sam 2:29; 9:16-17; 2 Sam 3:18; 5:2; 7:7-11; 1 Ki 6:13; 8:16; 16:20). For the theme of holiness, see especially Lev 11:45; 19:2; 26:12.

The address of “my people” occurs regularly as a complaint or admonishment in the Psalms and Prophets (Ps 50:7; 78:1; 81:8-13; Isa 1:3; 3:12; 5:13; 10:24; 26:20; Jer 2:11ff; 4:22; 6:26; 7:23; 8:7ff; 18:15; Amos 7:8ff; Mic 6:3ff. In Hosea, there is particular emphasis upon the identity of Israel as God’s people, as the message fluctuates between one of condemnation and a promise of future restoration (Hos 1:9-10; 2:1, 23; 4:6, 8, 12; 6:11; 11:17). Indeed “my people” proves to be an important keynote, in Isaiah and the later (exilic/post-exilic) Prophets, when the theme of deliverance and restoration becomes more prominent; cf. for example in Isa 32:18; 40:1ff; 51:4ff; 52:4-12; 65:19ff; Jer 24:4-7; 30-31; 32:38ff; Ezek 11:19-20; 37:11-14; 39:7 (cf. also 38:16; 44:23).

I will explore similar language and imagery in the New Testament and contemporary Judaism in the next article.