John G. Gager and the Reinvention of Paul
by Carlos Vasconcelos, nds

Lecture based on
chapters three and four

Presented by
Fr. Carlos Alberto da Rocha Vasconcelos, nds

According to Franz Mussner1, Paul developed his teaching about the law and justification not against Jews, but against fellow Christians! For the most parts, this is ignored by Christian interpreters of Galatians, even though this observation provides the hermeneutical Key to understanding the letter.

Galatians typifies the circumstances under which Paul wrote all of his surviving letters. In modern terms, we would call them attempts at damage control.

The matter of fact does not impose on the Gentiles the Law of Moses: “the Faith in Jesus Christ redeem and save them. Paul is not writing against the Law or against the Jewish people. He is trying to protect the Gentiles of the almost unbearable weight of the law because a converted must compliment hundred percent of the Law.

Is important to clarify who is Paul’s audience, they are Gentiles who through Paul’s preaching had accepted Jesus as savior and Jews who are following Jesus Christ. This is a discussion among Jesus’ followers. Paul is not writing to a regular Jewish audience, so, he is not against the Law or the Jewish people.

The issues and arguments

The Statement of Facts and External Matters: 1.11-2.14

Paul starts the letter presenting himself and his opponents and a long narrative about how his life before his conversion and his beginning in Jesus Christ’s faith. In this way, Paul built the basis of his arguments to defend the law-free gospel.

In this exposition, he offers us a glimpse into the internal dynamics and tensions of the early Jesus-movement, two themes predominate: first a vigorous defense of Paul’s gospels and, by implication, his authority; and, second, the independence of his mission to the Gentiles.

In developing the first theme, Paul goes to great lengths to demonstrate that his gospel came from a divine revelation and not from any human source (1.11).

To back up this claim, he points to himself as the most unlikely of all candidates for such a revelation, for it happened while he was persecuting the church! In the background, we are probably safe in assuming that Paul’s opponents in Galatia, as elsewhere, must have challenged his authority on various grounds, including the charge that his gospel was a mere human invention.

In the second theme, the issue is Paul’s freedom to preach his law-free gospel to the Gentiles. Here Paul is anxious to report that the leaders in Jerusalem had given their full approval:

– They placed no restrictions on him (2.6).

– Once they saw that he had entrusted [by God] with the gospel to the uncircumcised, James, Peter, and John gave him the right hand of fellowship, that is, a sign of their approval.

– They resisted efforts by “false brethren” to limit Paul’s freedom (2.4-5).

– And, at least by implication, Peter agreed to share table-fellowship with non-observant, Gentile believers.

– We know from the end of the narrative that the last part of the agreement broke down soon after Peter arrived in Antioch (2.11-14).

The relevance of all this for Galatia seems clear. Paul’s opponents there must have claimed the authority of James (2.12), and probably of Peter too. The apostle seeks to set the record straight: his law free gospel had been recognized end approved by James and Peter (Acts15.28,29)! Those who claimed otherwise are not to be trusted. They are hypocrites (2.13)!

The Legal Definitions: 2.15-21

Sanders and Dunn represent a certain movement away from the traditional understanding. Sanders, speaking of Chapter 3, but with Chapter 2 in mind, notes that “the problem …in Galatians is that of the admission of Gentiles (How it should be, in my opinion).” and he continues,

…the quality and character of Judaism are not in view; it is only the question of how one becomes a true son of Abraham. …I believe that the reason for which Galatians 3 is seen as Paul’s argument against Judaism is this … It is believed to be characteristic of Judaism to hold such a position so that Paul’s argument is perceived to be against Judaism. A study of Judaism does not reveal such a position. More to the point, that is not Paul’s argument in any case.

Sanders states that Paul “passionately embraced [the view] that Jew and Gentile alike are righteoused by faith in Christ.” Dunn recognizes that Paul’s thought in Chapter 2 is entirely in accord with Jewish views and that he is “wholly at one with his fellow Jews in asserting that justification is by faith.” But he, too, goes on to see the passage as directed against a “basic Jewish self-understanding,” which he takes to mean the use of the law to foster an attitude of “a too narrowly nationalistic and racial conception of the covenant.”

Gaston follows the principle all the way through, whereas both Sanders and Dunn, along with many others, manage to introduce the otherwise absent Jews into the conversation. For him and others anthropos is a typically Pauline term for Gentiles; and the key phrase, works of the law (erga tou nomou), refers specifically to the ambiguous status of Gentiles under the law and should not to be rendered as “the law” or “Torah.”

Put differently, the apostle to the Gentiles is writing to Gentiles who are being pressured by other apostles, within the Jesus-movement, to take on circumcision and a selective observance of the law. The issue is not the law and Israel but the law and Gentiles. Mussner puts it this way: “What he [Paul] wishes to lay low is a Christian pseudo-gospel to which …even Peter had confessed as he gave up table fellowship in Antioch. …In the Epistle to the Galatians Paul absolutely does not enter into dispute with Jews.”

The Rebuttals: Chapters 3-5

“Many scholars who view the opposing missionaries as Jewish Christians nevertheless see Galatians 3 as Paul’s rebuttal of Judaism. But the quality and character of Judaism are not in view.” According Sanders, if we maintain this perspective throughout, the series of arguments directed at the Galatians will begin to yield a new meaning:

– 3.1-5: Paul reminds them of an important historical fact: they were converted not doing “Works of the law” but through hearing Paul’s gospel of faith. Why, then, the implies would they wish to return to their former Spirit-less condition? This first rebuttal also sets out the leitmotif for all of the following arguments – the opposition between “Works of the law” and faith. but unlike the older view which takes this as an opposition between Judaism and “Christianity”, we will see that the contrast is between Gentiles before Christ and after. This is one of the passages that suggests a prior affiliation of the Galatians to a synagogue before their conversion. The argument makes better sense if at least some of the Galatians were affiliated with synagogues, that is , were doing “works of the law,” before Paul came to them.

– 3.6-14: The second rebuttal points to scripture and makes several points in rapid succession: first, that Paul’s gospel (God would justify the Gentiles by faith, i.e., outside the law) was predicated long ago in scripture; second, that the key figure is Abraham, who was declared righteous by God “from faith/faithfulness” (Gn 15,6) and given the promise that through him all the Gentiles would be blessed (Gn 12.3); third, that this promise has now been fulfilled in Christ Jesus (3.14); and forth, that the blessing means – here Paul drops his rhetorical bomb – the release of Gentiles from the curse of the law – “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse” (3.10; again quoting the scripture, this time by Deuteronomy 27.26 – “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all of the things written in the book of the law, and do them”). …there is no argument here that the law is by nature unfulfillable and or that is a curse for Israel. At every point, Paul has in mind not Jews but Gentiles. … Without in any sense denying the righteousness of God expressed in Torah for Israel. “In Galatians the polemic has to do with the entry of Gentiles into the people of God.” Verse 7 must be read in the light of verse 8. No other reading makes sense of the text.

– 3.15-18: The rebuttal moves next to a legal example, building on the previous passage in which Gentiles are represented as legal heirs of the promise to Abraham. No one can annul or modify a will once it has been ratified. …Once again, the contrast is between law and promise. Once again, the traditional view holds that Paul thereby annuls the law for Israel. But unless he has changed audience (Gentiles) and vocabulary (The promise to Abraham concerns Gentiles), the statement in 3.18 concerns only the law and Gentiles.

– 3.19-20: Paul needs to explain why the law was never the intended path for Gentiles and how he can make the outrageous claim (v.10) that “all who rely on works of the law are under a curse”. His answer are consistent throughout. First, the law was added – to Gentiles – because of their transgressions. The giving of the law to Israel through angels (3.19) has no precedent anywhere in Jewish sources, whereas the double notion of angelic mediation of the law to Gentiles and of the law as negative for them is not uncommon. The traditional view, according to which the law was added to Israel because of her transgressions, is a later Christian invention, part of the consistent anti-Judaism developed in the second century and beyond. There is no “radically un-Jewish position with regard to the Torah” and no “negative evaluation of the mediator Moses.” Such a view is possible only if we ignore everything he has said before and everything that comes after; only if Paul himself has forgotten the Gentiles and suddenly, without hint or warning, turned to the Jews.

– 4.1-11: In this rebuttal, Paul picks up several threads from the preceding sections – the lowly status of minors, even though they are heirs to the state; the law; slavery; and sonship. The human subjects, the “we” (v. 3) and the “you” (v. 8f) must – still- be Gentiles. not only is there no reason to suppose that Paul has changed audience, but the descriptions of the circumstances of the Galatians before Christ can only apply to Gentiles.

– 4.21-5.1: after a personal appeal to his authority and correct behavior among the Galatians, Paul returns to those “under the law”. In 4.9 he expressed his dismay that his converts were returning to their former ways. 4.21(“Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law?”) must carry the same weignt – they are reverting to their former status under the law. What that status means has the subject of the preceding rebuttals – curse, sin, slavery, ignorance of God, and worship of false deities. But Paul tries one more rebuttal, this time contrasting the law and freedom. As promised, he will use the law (his reading of it) against the law (their reading). Thus, he sets out to interpret the story (Gn 16 and 21) of Abraham’s two sons.

The entire passage has served as a favorite proof-text for advocates of the rejection-replacement view of Judaism, from ancient Christian commentators to the present.

The Targum of pseudo-Jonathan show us an expanded translation to Genesis, portrays Ishmael as lording it over his brother Isaac:

Ishmael said:”It is right for me to be the heir of my father, since I am his first-born son.” But Isaac said: “It is right for me to be the heir of my father, since I am the son of Sarah his wife, but you are the son of Hagar, the servant of my mother.” Ishmael answered: “I am more righteous then you because I was circumcised when thirteen years old.” (Gn. 17,25).

In this instance, the Targum explains Paul’s emphasis on persecution, the choice of Isaac over Ishmael, and the relevance of circumcision. If the troublemakers in Galatia were themselves Gentiles – though this is by no means certain – and were boasting of their recent circumcision as adults, “Paul must have immediately thought of Ishmael when he heard of them.” In other words, the children of slavery, those persecuting (v.29) the children of the Spirit, are not Israel but the troublemakers opposed to Paul. And his advice to the Galatians is clear: “Cast out the slave and her son”. (Gn 21.10), that is, “expel the agitators and their “children,” those who have adopted their views and yielded to their demand for circumcision.”

In his final rebuttal, Paul returns to the main issue – circumcision and its negative implications for his converts. “I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.” (5,3). Paul based his sentence in a Rabbinic formula: “A proselyte who accepts all commandments of the Torah except for one is not accepted (Jerusalem Talmud, Demai 2.5; Babylonian Talmud , Bekhoroth 30b; Sifra, Qedoshim 8.3 and other places).”


Franz Mussner, Traktat Über die Juden (Munich, 1979).

  1. P. Sanders, Paul, the law, and the Jewish People (Philadelphia, 1983).

Lloyd Gaston, Paul and the Torah (Vancouver, 1987).

James D. G. Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul and the Law (Peabody, 1991).

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