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New Testament | Galatians | Summary

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Summary

  • Paul defends the gospel he preached to the Galatians as "a revelation of Jesus Christ," not a teaching with human origins (Galatians 1:12).
  • In a brief autobiography, Paul highlights his zeal for Jewish traditions and describes how God revealed God's son to him.
  • Paul clarifies the nature of his calling to preach to the gentiles.
  • Paul accuses Cephas of hypocrisy because although he had been eating meals with uncircumcised Christ-believers, he stopped once representatives from Jerusalem arrived in town.
  • Paul claims it is not circumcision or dietary practices that lead to justification, but argues that people are justified "through faith in Jesus Christ" (Galatians 2:15–16).
  • Paul says that Abraham was counted righteous because he believed God, and anyone who believes is a descendant of Abraham.
  • Interpreting the Genesis story of Sarah and Hagar as an allegory (symbolic narrative), Paul contrasts promise and flesh, freedom and slavery, and Mount Sinai and the heavenly Jerusalem.
  • Paul teaches that choosing to be circumcised means having to obey the entire law, a focus that may cut a person off from Christ, the real source of justification and freedom.
  • He warns against "works of the flesh" such as "sexual immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry" but encourages them to produce "fruits of the Spirit" such as "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity" (Galatians 5:19–20, 22).
  • Paul proclaims that what truly matters is becoming "a new creation" in Christ (Galatians 6:15).

Analysis

The central question in the letter to the Galatians—whether or not gentile Christ-believers should be circumcised as part of their initiation into the people of God—is one of the important practical and theological concerns early Christ-believing communities faced. Paul's argument in Galatians, which eventually prevailed as the proto-orthodox position (orthodox literally means "right teaching" in Greek) makes clear that he does not believe circumcision is necessary, because faith is the true means of becoming part of the people of God. It is also clear from Paul's vehemence that there were other Christ-believers who thought circumcision was and should be required.

The letter serves as a record of the messy nature of this debate and the fault lines that appear to have divided church figures such as Paul and Peter/Cephas (Galatians 2:11–14); in contrast, the Acts of the Apostles depicts a "Jerusalem Council" meeting where the followers of Jesus meet in Jerusalem and calmly, without much strife, come to an official agreement about not needing circumcision (see Acts 15).

Paul's argumentative techniques place him firmly in a Hellenistic Jewish context: he employs sophisticated Greek rhetorical techniques in interpreting the language and content of the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures. He uses this rhetoric to persuade the Galatians to accept his teachings.

Paul sets up a series of dichotomies (strongly opposed pairs of concepts) to make his argument that circumcision is not a requirement for those who would belong to the people of God. Some of the dichotomous pairs include law and faith (Galatians 3:11), flesh and promise (Galatians 4:23), freedom and slavery (Galatians 4:25–26), and flesh and spirit (Galatians 5:16). These strong contrasts are designed to encourage readers to agree with Paul.

Throughout the letter, Paul engages in careful exegesis or interpretation of the Jewish scriptures. He concentrates especially on the story of Abraham, which appears in the book of Genesis. Paul also refers to the lawgiver Moses, whose story is told in the books of Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. In Galatians 4 Paul employs allegorical interpretation, reading the elements of the Genesis story about Sarah and Hagar as symbols that represent other abstract ideas.

Ultimately, Paul's argument against circumcision looks back to Abraham and the circumstances under which the God of Israel made a covenant with Abraham that, Paul says, was based on Abraham's faith or belief. By turning to the Jewish scriptures as a reliable source of instruction, Paul demonstrates that within early Christ-believing communities, the sacred texts of Judaism constituted the authoritative canon of scripture.

The letter also highlights the tangible impact of biblical interpretation and theological debates within Christ-believing communities. At the end of the letter, Paul frames his practical advice to the community in the form of another dichotomy: flesh and spirit. He draws on fairly traditional lists of virtues and vices that would have been familiar to both gentile and Jewish audiences, but he maps his recommendations and warnings onto flesh and spirit, with spirit representing the superior option.

It is also clear in the letter that the divisions between those who recommend circumcision and those, like Paul, who see it as unnecessary are a source of distress. Throughout the letter he expresses a concern for unity among Christ-believers.

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