Paul against the Apostles
This morning’s address is about the conflict which arose between Paul and the other disciples, most importantly James (Jesus brother), and Peter. Sandra read out part of a letter written by Paul to the Galatians, a church believed to be near the Black Sea, in modern day Turkey, which was then part of the Roman Empire. The location of the church is important, because it helps us to understand who the recipients of this letter were, and therefore what the purpose of this letter was. In the first century there was not a homogenous brand of Christianity being proclaimed, there were various competing versions. We don’t really know how many different versions of Christianity there were, as it’s more than likely entire groups have been lost to history. Two groups we do know about are, first, those who followed Paul’s teachings, often called Pauline Christians, and secondly, those Christians who thought it was important to follow Jewish customs, even though they weren’t Jewish, called the Judaizers. So, we have the Pauline Christians and the Judaizers. This letter was written by Paul to the Galatians in the mid-50s of the first century. Paul at this time is in his mid-40s, so he would have been born probably a few years after Jesus was born, although he never met Jesus. Paul was a Jewish Roman Citizen, a Pharisee who followed Jewish customs strictly, he was educated in Jerusalem, and he was involved in the persecution of this small religious sect, those who followed Jesus, until he himself had his conversion experience on the Damascus Road in his mid-30s. Paul’s influence on the development of Christianity is second to none other than Jesus himself, probably due to the fact that he was the first Christian (that we know of) to have had a formal education, which gave him the oratorical tools to argue his case before whomever he encountered.
So, returning to the Galatians, right up there in the northern part of Turkey they were well outside of the Jewish/Jerusalem sphere of influence. Some scholars believe they were a people group originally from central Europe, a Celtic people, and so they were originally a Pagan people, a polytheistic people that believed in many gods until Paul reached them and established a church there. In the Book of Acts there are several references to Paul visiting the Galatian Christians. This church was probably established by Paul on his first missionary journey throughout modern day Turkey in the late 40s. So, from the initial establishment of this church in Galatia to the writing of this letter is probably a period of no more than five or six years. And it’s during this period that the shift takes place this in Galatian church from Pauline theology to the Judaizers. We can speculate that during this period, word that this Pauline church existed reached the Jewish Christians down in Israel, and they responded to this news by sending a Jewish Christian to them to tell them that irrespective of what Paul might have said to them, if they’re not following Jewish customs then they’re not really Christians. It’s not enough that they proclaim a faith in the person of Jesus, they must also follow the entire Law of Moses. And so here we find the greatest conflict which consumed the church in the first century.
The difficulty was that in and around the area of Israel, all the Christians were by and large firstly Jews, and therefore to them it followed quite naturally that a belief in Jesus did not change the fact that they were Jews and must therefore continue to be faithful to the law of Moses. And when it came to the Gentiles (non-Jewish peoples), well the Law of Moses was very clear about that; if they choose to follow God then they must also follow the Law of Moses. To resolve this conflict once and for all, they decided to hold a council in Jerusalem. There are two accounts of this council in the Bible. The first is the one we had read out, Paul’s account of the event, and the other is in Acts, which is Luke’s account of the event. The trouble is that both accounts clearly show the bias of the author. In Paul’s account we just hear about why the contrary view is so wrong, and Paul is so right. Whereas in Acts, Luke suggests that everyone unanimously agreed to a compromise position in which the Gentile Christians need only follow a few of the Laws of Moses. Whereas to paraphrase Paul, he says, ‘I went right up to Peter’s face and I told him why he was wrong. And that they’re being hypocrites, and that they not even following the Gospel’. Because it’s all about a faith in Jesus, and if you say, ‘no the law has to be followed too’, then what is even the point of Jesus death? Given these two conflicting accounts, and the fact that Paul is writing this letter to the Galatians at all, in which he must chastise them for embracing this Law of Moses position, the Judaizer position, suggests that despite what Luke says in Acts, in fact no accord was reached on this issue at all.
Acts is written by Luke to be a source of encouragement to the early Christians. It paints this picture of Christianity starting in Jerusalem and spreading out towards the ends of the earth. Conflicts in Acts are therefore always mitigated unless they in turn re-energise the spreading of the Gospel motif. There are no downers in Acts just left in the air to fester. And so, whether Christians should observe the Law of Moses is not at all clear. There is a lot of confusion around this issue. I think most mainline Christians today would say ‘No’, you don’t need to follow the Law of Moses. But then if you ask a mainline Christian if they should follow the Ten Commandments, they will often say ‘yes’ even though that is part of the Law of Moses. So, the issue is confused. And it’s confused for a reason, because the Bible is not clear about it.
Take chapter 5 in the Gospel of Matthew for example. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. Until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
That’s Jesus straight out of the Gospel of Matthew, and it seems to say quite clearly that not only do we need to follow the Law of Moses, we need to do it better than anyone else. And then Jesus goes on to explain what he means - ‘You have heard it said you shall not commit adultery, well I tell you don’t even have lustful thoughts’. Or ‘you heard it said, an eye for eye, but I tell you, turn the other cheek’. So he’s not getting rid of the law at all, he’s making the law harder. He’s taking each rule and asking what the spirit behind that rule is, and saying we need to do that as well. But then whenever Matthew is talking about the Laws, he is talking about these big issues. He’s not talking about the nitty gritty laws of Moses, like not eating shellfish, or the rules around animal sacrifices, or rules against planting two different crops in the same field. Does the Gospel of Matthew expect us to follow these Laws? Is Matthew somehow making a distinction between some bits of the Law and other bits of Law? Again it’s not at all clear.
And so in the first century there are a lot of views and positions, but we’re just thinking about these two camps, the Pauline Christians and the Judaizers. Although you can find Christians today who are Judaizers, or Messianic Jews as they’re often called, the winner of the struggle has been the Pauline Christians. We might ask why this is the case. If the Bible is not clear about it, if you can make a strong case either way from the Bible, why would Pauline Christianity win that fight ultimately? It’s obviously not to do with which position is closer to the truth, because neither position could be said to be more true than the other. It has to do with what ideas are more infectious, and thus endure within the landscape of ideas. So, Paul at his conversion had an idea, and that idea was that the death of Jesus is the key to salvation before God, and that since it was his death which made people right before God, nothing else ultimately mattered, not even the law of Moses. It doesn’t matter if that idea is true, what matters is that the idea was infectious. People could now have salvation apart from the Law. And so, Paul saw himself as the apostle to the Gentiles (non-Jewish people). And Paul was having considerably more success.
It is far easier, ultimately, to convince Gentiles of Pauline Christianity than it was to convince Gentiles to a Judaizer position, because a Judaizer position entailed everything Jewish: circumcision for men as well as baby boys, restrictive food laws, Jewish festivals, observing the sabbath, and so on. Although communities such as the church of Galatia dabbled in Judaizer views, they did not endure ultimately. And as for the Jewish Christians, and the apostles in and around Jerusalem advocating for this Judaizer position, what happened to them? What happened to their brand of Jewish Christianity, which was after all the first brand of Christianity? They were not persuaded to abandon their futile position. As is so often the case, changing minds proves too difficult. Rather, as is the way of such things, these apostles marginalised themselves, failed to promulgate their position, and ultimately, they all passed away (precipitated most significantly by the fall of the Temple in 70AD). Three hundred years later, as Constantine presided over the emergence of Christianity as the Roman Empire’s most dominant religion, and held his Nicene Council to approve key doctrinal statements that all Christians might seek common accord, it was Pauline Christianity that was ratified. It was the earliest forms of Christianity which were condemned as heresy. Not because Pauline Christianity was truest, but because of numbers. It was the most infectious idea going.