Why did Paul issue an anathema in Gal 1:7-9, and what are the implications for Christian intra-community expulsions?

Continuing the analysis of intra-church expulsion began here.  Go here for Part 3.

The relevant passage in Galatians is as follows:

"But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!" (Galatians 1:7-9)

It is unanimously agreed that whomever Paul was condemning, it was because these ‘agitators’ (1:7) were advocating the circumcision of Paul’s Gentile Christians, whose community Paul had founded (3:1). To investigate the nature of the anathema, therefore, is to explore the implications of circumcision for the Gentile Christian community in Galatia.

I will take a shot at it via the below route:

1.      The significance of circumcision for Jewish distinctiveness

2.      The problem/tensions between Paul and those whom he condemns over the circumcision issue

3.      Insights from Galatians regarding intra-church expulsions

4.      Summary & Conclusion

1. Circumcision and Jewish Identity

In the context of Gentiles who wanted to become Jews, circumcision was a key step in the proselyte conversion process. The practice, like the observance of special Jewish days and dietary restrictions – both also urged by the agitators being condemned by Paul (2:10-11 and 4:10 respectively) – were generally regarded as symbols of covenant loyalty, identity markers marking out the Jews from non-Jews. That the Gentiles were being urged to comply with these boundary-setting conditions, therefore, implied that the defining attributes accrued via belief in Christ were of no value in the marking out the Galatian Gentiles as the new people of God.

Commenting on the marks of covenant membership, James D.G. Dunn in a pioneering work states:

"Circumcision remained an identification marker of Jewishness, of membership of the Jewish people, in the eyes both of the Gentiles and of the Jews themselves…

"The laws on clean and unclean foods…at least from the time of the Maccabees (had) assumed increasing importance in Jewish folkore and Jewish self-understanding…the devout Jews of Paul’s day would regard observance of these laws as a basic expression of covenant loyalty.

"As to the observance of special days, particularly the Sabbath…(here) was a work of the law which had the same basic character of defining the boundaries of the covenant people, one of these minimal observances without which one could hardly claim to be a good Jew, loyal to the covenant given by God’s grace to Israel.

"…for the typical Jew of the first century AD, particularly the Palestinian Jew, it would be virtually impossible to conceive of participation in God’s covenant, and so in God’s covenant righteousness, apart from these observations, these works of the law." (Jesus, Paul & the Law,p.193, italics in the original)

N.T. Wright frames the issue well:

"The problem Paul addresses in Galatians is not the question of how precisely someone becomes a Christian, or attains to a relationship with God…it is: should his ex-pagan converts be circumcised or not? (This question)…has to do with how you define the people of God; are they to be defined by the badges of Jewish race, or in some other way?" (What Saint Paul Really Said, p.120, italics in the original)

He also warns against any reduction of the Galatian problem into the ‘faith-works’ divide:

"Circumcision is not a ‘moral’ issue; it does not have to do with moral effort, or earning salvation by good deeds. Nor can we simply treat is as a religious ritual, then designate all religious ritual as crypto-Pelagian good works, and so smuggle Pelagius into Galatian as the arch-opponent after all. First-century thought, both Jewish and Christians, simply doesn’t work like that" (ibid., p.120-1)

To talk of circumcision is to talk about Jewish distinctiveness and identity as God’s chosen ones. Unsurprisingly, when a Gentile community begins to claim itself as part of the eschatalogical (and, formerly, exclusively Jewish) community on the basis of their trust in a crucified man MINUS these traditional symbol cum identity-markers, the stage is set for dispute, controversy and – surprise surprise – condemnation.


2. Understanding Paul’s condemnation in light of the circumcision issue

It is unanimously agreed that the Gentile church were being pressured to become proselytes (via circumcision) failing which their full status as equals in the true covenant people would be in doubt.

So, Thielman:

"…it seems reasonable to view (the agitators) as Jewish Christians who were trying to impose the entire Jewish law upon Paul’s Gentile converts and whose particular interest was conformity to the three requirements of the law that both Jews and Gentiles recognized as distinctively Jewish: circumcision, observance of the Jewish calendar and keeping the law’s dietary restrictions. Ion other words, the agitators were Jewish Christian who were attempting to compel the Galatians to become Jewish proselytes." (Paul & the Law: A Contextual Approach, p.121)

Not surprisingly, Paul challenged the requirement of circumcision and a good chunk of Galatians, not least chapt. 3, explains Paul’s theological reasoning that faith in Christ represents the new demarcating line of the people of God (a topic complex enough to require separate multiple write-ups; among the top works aiming at in-depth explanation, IMO, are N.T. Wright’s Climax of the Covenant and Mark Nanos’ Irony of Galatians, both very detailed and ground-breaking).

This brings into focus the issue meriting Paul’s severe condemnation.

Paul’s Gentile church was being semi-coerced to submit to pre-atonement Jewish norms for Gentiles which in effect implied the denial that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection meant anything at all for their inclusion into the righteous people of God ("…if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!", Gal 2:21).

Thielman again:

"Paul had considered the Galatians to be members of the people of God, people who awaited the hope of righteousness (5:5) on the basis of faith alone apart from observing the Mosaic law. The agitators, however, believed that obeying the law’s command to be circumcised and following the Mosaic law’s diet and calendar were essential requirements for membership in Abraham’s family." (Paul & Law, p.121)

And Nanos:

"(Paul) considers (the agitators’) influence harmful, destructive, anathema, because he does not grant any longer the legitimacy of the influencers’ (traditional) reference group norm for membership for Gentiles in Christ in view of the meaning of the good news of Christ

"With the dawning of the (awaited new age by way of Christ), Gentiles are granted membership in the reference group of Abraham’s children according to promise, the righteous ones of God. (Irony of Galatians, p.197-8)

He also writes insightfully regarding the nature of Paul’s response given what the agitators were doing:

"(The agitators) resist (the Galatian Gentiles’) claims to fully integrated status while remaining Gentiles, but they welcome the intention to gain the standing of righteous ones…(this) desired identity may be negotiated only by completion of the rite of proselyte conversion.

"Paul is not amused. His response may be likened to that of a parent who has caught his or her teenager in a compromising turn justified by the powerful urge of acceptance by the youth’s peers, the immediacy of the seeming good too strong to resist, the persuasive power of its logic overwhelming." (ibid., p.319-20)

Or, from the angle of Christians belonging to Abraham’s family, Stanton:

"The agitators were insisting that God’s covenant with Abraham was based on his good works…and probably that Abraham’s circumcision was the sign of the covenant.

"Paul will have none of this. (He) rejects firmly any suggestion that God’s covenant with Abrahgam was based on circumcision rather than faith, or that it was modified in any way by the Mosaic law…In short, Paul removes circumcision and the law from the pedestal on which they had been placed." (‘The Law of Moses & the Law of Christ’ in Paul & the Mosaic Law ed. James DG Dunn, p.108)

Finally, Dunn:

"Paul’s point is precisely that…justification by works of law and justification by faith in Jesus are antithetical opposites. To say that God'’ favourable action towards anyone is dependent in any degree on works of the law is to contradict the claim that God'’ favour depends on faith, faith in Jesus Christ… What is of grace through faith cannot depend in any sense, in any degree, on a particular ritual response."(JPL, p.195-6)

 Paul’s rebukes are thus directed at this imposition upon his Gentile church of requirements for membership in the eschatalogical people of God APART from faith in Christ. The complexities of the Mosaic Law in the context of the work of Christ notwithstanding, it could be said that Paul asserts ‘justification by faith’ as opposed to ‘justification by works of the law’ i.e. the understanding that one is recognised as a member of God’s people by his/her faith in Jesus Christ as the Messiah of Israel, and NOT in acquiescence to the traditional Jewish covenant rituals.

It cannot be overly surprising, therefore, that Paul ‘eternally condemns’ this group of influencers cum agitators. Because if becoming a member of God’s people REQUIRES circumcision, then justification by faith in Christ ceases to have any bearing for Gentile Christians, which is another way of saying that Christ and His atoning work accomplished nothing pertaining to inaugurating a new covenant community


3. The significance of Galatians for intra-church community expulsions

It remains a controversial point whether or not the ones Paul was rebuking were Christians or not. Most scholars, including think the agitators were Christ-believing Jews

Mark Nanos has recently argued that the agitators were probably non-Christ believing Jews who did NOT recognise the significance of Jesus Christ for Gentile membership among the people of God (see now the very careful analysis by him in Irony of Galatians, chapt. 7). For now I will adopt this view - that the agitators were not Christians - noting that this point only minimally affects my main points i.e. that Galatians focuses on Christ and His Cross as the defining traits of God’s new eschatological people and that Paul’s anathema was against those who denied this.

To reiterate the problem, the agitators’ insistence on the Gentiles’ circumcision implied that believing in Christ and His work on the Cross did not count as a basis for the new people of God (or at least not for the Gentiles) contrary to what Paul had been teaching all along.

I suggest, therefore, that circumcision was not an issue between an apostle who believe that salvation was "100% faith in Christ" and those who believed in "faith in Christ plus circumcision". It was a dispute between an apostle who trusted in Christ and his Jewish opponents who did not i.e. it was NOT, strictly speaking, an intra-Christian community argument at all! If this is right - and if the problem of Galatians wasn’t so much, "Is Christ enough for salvation?" but, "What is the basis for the new people of God?" – then the anathema of Galatians can only doubtfully be said to have been directed at Christians.

Yet, importantly: Paul does not ‘eternally condemn’ ALL non-Christian Jews! Passages like Rom 11:11 makes this notion absurd. Given this, Galatians is even LESS an argument for raining anathemas upon anyone who happens to have differing metaphysical convictions from what is generally regarded as orthodoxy! Paul was anathemizing the antagonisers because they were pressuring the Gentiles there away from Christ, hijacking their faith, threatening a disintegration of the gentile believers back to Judaism.

In short, the anathema in Galatians was levelled for conscientiously threatening the Christian community, and NOT for holding different doctrines per se (even if these doctrines are false)!

But this is not all…

In Titus 1:13, speaking especially (vs.10) of the circumcision group (arguably similar to that in Galatia), Paul admonishes Titus to "…rebuke them sharply, so they will be sound in the faith." When we couple this with the fact that Galatians is largely rhetorical in nature, there is a case that not only did Paul NOT really mean for the Galatian antagonizers to be ‘eternally condemned’ but that his scathing words were part of his strategy to scold them back or in to true faith!

Finally, the famous scolding of Peter by Paul (in Gal 2) helps us see the implications for table-fellowship GIVEN the new basis of defining God’s people. Peter was reprimanded because he held back from fellowshipping with the Gentiles due to his fear of what the Jews would think. He hadn’t yet broken free of the Jewish tradition of non-association with Gentiles despite what he was preaching about the salvific work of Christ, hence the charge of hypocrisy (saying one thing yet acting in a contrary manner).

Nanos again:

"Peter’s withdrawal suggests that gentiles are second-class citizens, not really equals through faith in Christ. Unless they become Jews they are deficient. This, position, however, is far different from what either Paul or Peter teaches; thus it is labelled ‘hypocrisy’, and Paul openly rebukes Peter’s behaviour as a denial of the work of Christ." (Mystery of Romans, p.353)

Interestingly enough, far from being a justification for heresy-hunting within the church, the case-study of Paul and Peter (and Galatians as a whole) cautions Christians from NOT welcoming and fellowship with those who have professed Christ as Lord and Saviour! The Gospel of Jesus Christ not only challenges the pagan gods of the 1st century, but also the divisions and factions within the Christian church from that century to this one.

Simply put, if another person has faith in Jesus Christ, we have NO RIGHT refusing table-fellowship with the person let alone expelling him from the community!

Finally, commenting on the doctrine of ‘justification by faith’ (perhaps the central issue in Galatians) which has so greatly divided Protestants and Catholics, Wright states:

"The doctrine of justification is in fact the great ecumenical doctrine…Justification declares that all who believe in Jesus Christ belong at the same table, no matter what their cultural or racial (or denominational) differences. Because what matters is believing in Jesus, detailed agreement on justification itself…isn’t the thing which should determine eucharistic fellowship.

"If Christians could only get this right, they would find that not only would they be believing the gospel, they would be practising it; and that is the best basis for proclaiming it." (WSPRS. p.158-9)

Hear ye! Hear ye! (smile)


4. Summary-points & Conclusion

a.       Circumcision’s primary importance was as a marker for defining the people of God, and one in opposition to faith in Jesus GIVEN the new age His atoning work has ushered in

b.       When the agitators urged circumcision on the Galatians, this was a denial of Christ and His work as constituting the basis of the new eschatological people of God

c.       Paul’s condemnation of anathema was levelled at those who deny His work altogether and seek to persuade others to do so

d.       Paul’s anathema may be more rhetorical in nature than usually recognised and his real intentions may be merely serious rebuke rather than fatal condemnation (see Titus 1:13)

e.       Paul’s anathema is NO JUSTIFICATION for expelling anyone who happens to differ doctrinally with ‘orthodoxy’! In a serious sense, to refuse table-fellowship with a fellow believer in Christ is ALSO tantamount to denying the work of Christ(!)

f.        Paul, in Galatians at least, holds to belief in Christ as the only ‘essential’ doctrine such that he rebukes Christian separatists who disregard (indeed, disrespect) this common belief by their acts of non-fellowship (let alone expulsion)

We conclude this look at Galatians by noting that expulsion is for those who :

·         actively teach a doctrine undermining the atoning work of Christ, and

·         employ social exclusionary tactics to pressure Christians to adopt their beliefs

The ‘other gospel which is not another’ (Gal 1:6) taught by the agitators implied the IRRELEVANCE (not the mere insufficiency!) of faith in Christ for God’s people.  If I’m right, then needless to say we have a HUGE burden of proof to justify the exclusion of Christians from the book of Galatians (I understand that much anti-Catholic sentiment claims credence from this letter; personally, I think that this kind of thinking – not unlike the anathemization of Protestants at the Council of Trent, sigh - is comparable to Peter’s exclusionary actions which warranted Paul’s rebuke!).

We must be careful not to define our ‘Christian boundaries’ more narrowly (and rigidly) than Scripture does.


Alwyn, Oct 2003

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