The gospel and the law in Galatia: Paul's response to Jewish-Christian separatism and the threat of Galatian apostasy

Vincent Michael Smiles, Fordham University


Galatians presents a number of unique problems. It stands out among Paul's letters with respect both to form and content, and because of its unrelenting attack on the law of Israel, while yet appealing to it as a sacred witness of the gospel's truth. Within the letter, 2:15-21 commences Paul's theological exposition and would seem to be crucial for understanding his response to the crisis situation. In the history of interpretation, however, its crucial role is not always recognized, particularly since it is so often regarded as simply the continuation of Paul's rebuke of Peter at Antioch and, therefore, as only secondarily applicable to Galatia. A number of recent studies have enabled a better understanding of the form of Galatians, and of its individual parts. There has also been a renewed appreciation for the contextual nature of Paul's writings. Using these approaches in combination, the interpreter is able to gain fresh insight into the notorious difficulties of the letter. Accordingly, this study has examined Galatians in its historical context. This approach has been aided considerably by the insight that 2:15-21, as part of an "apologetic letter," is to be taken as a propositio. This means that it lies at the axis point between the narratio, which recounts events germane to the debate, and the probatio in which Paul refutes the charges which have been made, not against himself, but against his gospel. This study has taken the view that all of Paul's statements in the letter, including 2:15-21, were written with the Galatian crisis as the foremost concern and can only truly be appreciated within that context. The propositio is Paul's statement of the gospel as the Galatians need to hear it. His message is that the gospel, as God's supreme eschatological deed, subordinates all authorities to itself. The law, in this context, is portrayed as an illegitimate intruder which deceives humanity and which must be excluded from any decisive role in the divine-human relationship. And yet, it emerges that the law, as God's word, does have a positive function, as witness to the gospel and as instruction. This paradoxical view of the law can also be detected elsewhere in Paul's letters, notably in Romans.

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Recommended Citation

Smiles, Vincent Michael, "The gospel and the law in Galatia: Paul's response to Jewish-Christian separatism and the threat of Galatian apostasy" (1989). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI8917242.