Who are Paul’s Opponents in Galatians?

Paul Writing a Letter

When Paul first came to the churches in Galatia the gospel he preached was received with much enthusiasm. However, after Paul left Galatia other itinerant missionaries arrived and began to advocate a different message. Although it is obvious that this message was not in line with Paul’s message, the nature of this message as well as the identity of these messengers is not very clear.

The Options:

Longenecker believes that the messengers were Christian Jews who came from Jerusalem stressing the fact that Gentiles needed to be circumcised and to keep the cultic calendar, for full acceptance by God and as a proper Christian lifestyle.[2] “These Christian Jews might have been associated with the ‘circumcision party’ of the Jerusalem Church whose activities are illustrated in Acts 15:1, 24.”[3] Other options as to who these messengers were include: Jewish Christians of Gnostic persuasion, Jewish Christians with no specific support from Jewish authorities in Jerusalem, and Gentile Christians.[4]

The Method:

Commentators have attempted to work backwards by trying to piece together their message by reading Paul’s reactions and defenses. By coming to understand Paul’s defense commentators have pieced together Paul’s gospel and this other party’s gospel. However there are several flaws with this approach.

The Flaws in the Method:

Cousar helpfully points out that “the Bible is always interpreted in one set of historical circumstances or another.”[5] Thus in our current interpretation of Galatians we are conditioned to hear Paul’s words in Galatians by our post-reformation understanding of Christianity. Along with this post-reformation understanding of Christianity of Paul’s message is a particular understanding of the gospel. Since we are shaped with a post-reformation understanding of the gospel, it is easy to understand Paul’s opponents as being opposed to this gospel. So we begin with our understanding of the gospel and read these opponents as being opposed to our gospel. Because we do this I believe that it is more helpful to begin with the question “what is Paul’s gospel?” and then try to figure out “who are Paul’s opponents?” rather than the other way around.

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[1] Cousar, Galatians: Interpretation Commentary, 3.

[2] Richard Longnecker, Word Biblical Commentary: Galatians, (Waco: Word Books, 1990), xcv.

[3] Ronald Fung, NICNT: The Epistle to the Galatians, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1988), 9.

[4] Cousar, Galatians: Interpretation Commentary, 5.

[5] Cousar, Galatians: Interpretation Commentary, 2.

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