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(b) Then there was the moderate JewishChristian party, led by the apostle Peter.
Peter had, importantly, made the leap of
understanding that Gentiles could be
Christians, and had accepted, despite
opposition, the hospitality of the Gentile
believer Cornelius (according to some
interpretations, the first Gentile Christian
recorded in Acts).
Reading the Bible
Over Three Years
(c) Paul’s party. Paul believed that there
should be no requirement for the Gentile
Christians to observe the Jewish Law. For
Paul, it was the spirit of the Law that was
more important than the letter: and faith in
Christ was the supreme requirement for the
Christian, not being observant to the Law,
however venerable.
Bible Notes: Week 27
With Fr Andrew Pearce, Rector of
June 2: Galatians 2
(d) The radical, Greek-speaking party,
perhaps represented by Stephen, the first
martyr. If we take Acts 7 at face value,
Stephen held a view of Judaism that verged
on the contemptuous, and it’s not surprising
that he should have been stoned for it. The
most radical Christians believed that the
new religion represented a clean break with
the old order.
A careful reading of Galatians chapter 2 and
Acts chapter 15 gives us insight into the first
great controversy of Church history: were
Gentile Christians to be treated as the
same, in respect to the Law, as Jewish
In considering this question, we can see
that there were four parties that emerged
within the early Church.
As with most controversies, the compromise
that is eventually found ends up as
something of a fudge. It’s clear for Galatians
2 that Paul was somewhat unhappy with the
compromise, and felt that Peter had been
too strongly swayed by James’ ultraconservatives. But it was, fundamentally,
something that he could live with. And so
(as recorded in Acts 15), the Council of
Jerusalem frees the Gentile Christians from
the requirement to observe the Law in its
fullness, but promulgating abstinence from
four things: ‘You are to abstain from food
sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the
meat of strangled animals and from sexual
(a) There was the ultra-conservative, strict
Judaic party, who seem to have regarded
Christianity as, essential, a sect of Judaism.
Members of this party were led by James,
the brother of Jesus – who despite not
being one of the Twelve, nevertheless came
to assume a position of prominence within
the Jerusalem Church (according to later
Christian tradition, he was regarded as the
first bishop of Jerusalem). The Judaic party
believed the Law in all its fullness should be
observed by Christians: and that in
becoming Christians, Gentiles also needed
to become Jews.
Paul clearly felt he had lost the argument for
a more liberal approach to the Gentile
Christians, and his hurt is clear, as we read
Galatians 2 (far more obviously-so than if
we read Luke’s more diplomatic, conciliatory
account of the same events in Acts 15).
subservient to the promise inherent in the
Abrahamic covenant: and this covenant
begins not with circumcision (as traditionally
understood by Jews), but with Abraham’s
faithful response to the call of God.
The call give to the Gentiles, through the
gospel of Jesus, Abraham’s seed, is
essentially the same as the call issued to
Abraham: and it relies on faith, not Law.
Paul may have been smarting from a
setback, but it was to be a temporary one:
the tide of history was ultimately with Paul
and his fellow liberals. In later centuries,
three of the four prohibitions of the Council
of Jerusalem were quietly dropped (even if
the exact definition of the fourth, on ‘sexual
immorality’, continues to be fiercely
debated). And so I’m not alone in my guiltfree enjoyment of black pudding – in spite of
what the Council of Jerusalem decreed
nearly two thousand years ago.
Some Jewish males in Paul’s time greeted
each day with the following prayer: ‘Lord, I
thank you that I am not a Gentile, a slave or
a woman.’ Paul’s words in 3.28 are a
complete rejection of such values. Paul
affirms that in Christ ‘there is neither Jew
nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.’
Two thousand years later, we’re still trying
to put his words into practice. It’s taken a
very long time (longer than Paul would ever
have imagined): but perhaps (just perhaps)
we’re finally starting to get it!
June 3: Galatians 3
In chapter 3, Paul comes to the heart of the
argument as to whether or not faith trumps
observance of the Law. He sees the origin
of Judaism (and indeed the origin of
Christianity) as going right back to
Abraham. We are all, says Paul, children of
June 4: Galatians 4
Paul continues to contrast faith and Law, by
reference to the different destinies recorded
in Genesis of Sarah and Hagar, respectively
the wife and concubine of Abraham Paul
cleverly contrasts those who are enslaved
to the Law (represented by Hagar, the slave
woman) with those who are free from the
demands of Law (represented by Sarah, the
freeborn wife).
‘The Scripture foresaw that God would
justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced
the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All
nations will be blessed through you.” So
those who have faith are blessed along with
Abraham, the man of faith.’ (vv.7-9)
It’s an interesting parallelism: but does it
really work? As a matter of historical fact,
the descendants of Sarah are the Jews: the
descendants of Hagar are the Arabs. I don’t
imagine that many of Paul’s Jewish coreligionists would have been too impressed
with his argument (and I don’t suppose
James and the ultra-conservative Jewish
Christians of Jerusalem would have thought
much of it either!).
Abraham was called by God before the Law
existed: and his relationship with God was
cemented first and foremost not by
obedience to Law, but by his response in
faith. Indeed, although certain aspects of
the Law were established early on (e.g. the
rite of circumcision), the fullness of the Law
did not come until much later, i.e. with
Moses and the Exodus from Egypt. The
Law, argues Paul, is itself secondary and
Paul’s argument predates the rise of Islam
by six hundred years or so: but, inevitably,
we cannot read his words without thinking of
the Islamic context. As we associate
Judaism with Abraham and Sarah, so we
associate Arabs (and Islam) with Abraham
and Hagar. It’s tempting, if wrong-headed,
for us to read back our attitudes towards
Islam (often thought of by Christians as a
religion of Law as opposed to grace, rather
like Judaism), and to say that Paul’s words
here apply just as well (perhaps even
better) to Islam than to Judaism. The word
Islam, after all, means ‘submission,’ and
submission conjures up the image of
servitude: and Hagar, the slave woman, is
the ancestor both of the Arab people and
the Islamic prophet.
a moral guide every action. If only we could
turn to the Bible and find the answer to
every moral conundrum!
But we can’t. We could spend many hours
searching fruitlessly for advice on internet
safety; or protocols on correct behaviour
whilst attending a pop concert; or the pros
and cons of different types of energy
capture; or whether fox hunting should be
banned; or the merits (or otherwise) of ecigarettes.
The commandments of the Old Testament
are extensive, with more than 600 specific
commands or prohibitions; and over several
centuries of rabbinical interpretation, the
Talmud and the Mishnah provided further
ethical guidance for the pious Jew. But they
could not cover every eventuality, even two
thousand years ago: and they certainly
cannot today.
Well, perhaps if he were writing six
centuries later, Paul would have couched
his argument in a different way, or with a
different polemic target. And maybe Paul’s
argument doesn’t really work that well today
(even if it did work better in his own time –
which, frankly, I rather doubt). Let’s not get
too distracted by unhelpful speculation as to
who are the children of Sarah, and who are
the children of Hagar: Jew or Gentile,
Christian or Muslim, believer or unbeliever.
The Law can be reduced to general
Commandments, for example; or the
Summary of the Law quoted by Jesus; or
the Golden Rule here quoted by Paul –
‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. But, of
course, reduction can so easily become
reductio ad absurdum: a reduction to a
lowest common denominator that becomes
so vague as to be meaningless.
Instead, let’s simply rejoice with Paul in the
fact that we are children of God: and if we
are sons and daughters of God, then we
cannot possibly be slaves. And if we are
children of God, then we are heirs to a truly
wonderful inheritance.
So what guides us, if we are to avoid a Law
that is over-complex (but still inadequate,
because it cannot cover every eventuality),
or a Law reduced to trite aphorisms? The
answer, Paul explains, is the Spirit. Living
by the Spirit is the only answer for the
ethically-minded Christian.
June 5: Galatians 5
Being free from the Law does not mean that
we are free from moral constraint: indeed, it
could be argued that we are actually under
a greater, not lesser, constraint.
The Spirit is the supreme gift of God to all
Christians. As Paul said in Galatians 4.6, it
is the Spirit, living in our hearts, that enables
us to cry out Abba (Aramaic for Father – or
more particularly, ‘Daddy’, implying as
In some ways, it would be so much easier if
we could rely upon a law-code that acted as
We don’t know: but the statement in
Galatians has led some to speculate
whether or not Paul experienced the socalled stigmata. Stigmata (the bodily marks
of Christ’s crucifixion) have been attested
on a number of times in the history of the
Church, most famously as something
experienced by St Francis of Assisi during
the last two years of his life. Is this what St
Paul is referring to?
tender, intimate relationship with a loving
parent). And it this relationship, lived in the
Spirit, that enables us to make the right
ethical choices, even when faced with a
moral dilemma of which we have had no
previous experience.
Life in the Spirit may be harder than life
according to the Law. Yes, there are times
when we get it wrong; occasions when we
misunderstand the promptings of the Spirit.
And the fruits of the Spirit that Paul
describes in verse 22 – love, joy, peace,
patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,
gentleness and self-control – are not going
to appear spontaneous within us just
because we wish it to be so.
Again, we simply don’t know: and though it’s
an intriguing possibility, I think it’s more
likely that Paul is speaking more generally.
Paul, after all, is a man who has
experienced stoning, beating, and flogging
during his ministry as an ambassador for
Christ: he has suffered physical (and,
indeed, emotional) anguish, not dissimilar to
that faced by the Lord in his Passion. Paul
may simply be identifying his sufferings with
those experienced by Jesus.
Living in the Spirit, as opposed to living
according to Law, is rather like learning to
drive. We’re not going to become good
drivers simply by memorising the Highway
Code. That’s not to say that the Highway
isn’t important: but it can’t cover every
eventuality. And the very first edition of the
Highway Code (with instructions about how
to use your whip to signal as you direct your
horse-drawn carriage) is a lot less useful
than more recent editions! No, if we want to
become good drivers, we have to get
behind the wheel of the car: the rulebook
will only take us so far by itself. There’s no
substitute for experience: and, for
Christians, that experience is found by living
in the Spirit.
But it’s a fitting conclusion to Paul’s
discourse on circumcision that he should
speak of ‘bearing the marks of Jesus’. The
outward mark of circumcision has come to
mean little to the one-time devout Pharisee
Saul of Tarsus. Now as Paul, he wants to
boast of the way his life has been
transformed by Jesus, the Messiah he once
How do we bear the marks of Jesus in our
body, mind and soul? What are the outward
signs that accompany the inward certainties
of our faith? We are not under the Law, so
there is no need for physical circumcision:
but how, by the grace of the Spirit, have we
circumcised our hearts? And, in short, how
do others know we are Christians: by the
dogmas we declare, or by the love we
June 6: Galatians 6
What did Paul mean by declaring ‘I bear on
my body the marks of Jesus’ (verse 17)?
Some have related this statement to the
‘thorn in my flesh’ (2 Corinthians 12.7) about
which I speculated last week. But are two
statements referring to same affliction or
Fr. Andrew Pearce