The Ironic Good News of Galatians

Commentators sense the need to argue this point to varying degrees, although none finds it necessary to go to any great lengths. In other words, this conclusion is apparently self-evident. James Dunn’s approach is representative: “The fact that Paul uses the Christian technical term for ‘the gospel’ also is clear indication that those whom he was about to attack were also Christian missionaries. He calls their message ‘another gospel’ because it was significantly different from his own; but he calls it ‘gospel‘ because that was the term they no doubt also used in their capacity as missionaries like Paul.”

-Mark D. Nanos
“Chapter 10: Paul’s ‘Good News Of Christ’ Versus The Influencers’ ‘News Of Good,” pg 285
The Irony of Galatians: Paul’s Letter in First-Century Context

As I write this, I have just finished reading this book (I know, it took a long time) and I really do intend to review it as a unit rather than chapter-by-chapter as I’ve historically reviewed other books. However, gathering my notes together for a comprehensive review will take a little more time and I have a good reason for pulling Chapter 10 out of the stream and devoting special interest to this topic.

As Nanos points out in this chapter and more generally in his book, the issue of what exactly the “gospel of Paul” vs. the “gospel of the influencers” indicates is of great importance in understanding Paul’s letter to the Galatian assemblies as well as the identity of the influencers.

I’ve commented before about how the word “church” (ekklesia) has taken on a life of its own in modern Christianity when the most general use of the word in the time of Paul simply meant “assembly,” as in any group of people coming together for a common purpose. This does not deny that the “ekklesia of Messiah” isn’t something quite a bit more specific, but the twenty-first century technical term “church” seems to be used in a way that we may not be able to anachronistically retrofit back into the first century text.

And so it goes with the word “gospel” (I can’t reproduce the original Greek here as Nanos does in his book). If we believe, as modern normative Christianity does for the most part, that Paul’s use of the word “gospel” in Galatians and his other letters must always specifically mean “the good news of salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ” and can never mean any other kind of “good news,” then we (Christianity or at least Christian doctrine and scholarship) may again be guilty of employing anachronistic retrofitting to force modern Christian theology back, two-thousand years in time and halfway around the world, into Paul’s thoughts, intentions, and writing when it may not have been what he meant at all or at least not all of the time.

I am surprised that you are so quickly defecting from him who called you in [the] grace [of Christ] for a different good news, which is not another except [in the sense] that there are some who unsettle you and want to undermine the good news of Christ.

Galatians 1:6-7 (Nanos, pg 286)

In the original quote from the book, Nanos inserts the Greek text alongside the English words, which I’ve already indicated I am unable to duplicate here. But focusing on this bit of scripture, can the “good news” of the influencers be related to the “gospel message of Christ” and at the same time be “not another” and “different”? For that matter, what is Paul’s “good news” to the Gentiles and is it what we think of when we read our Bibles or listen to a message from a Pastor on Sunday morning?

Paul actually denies that this other “good news” should rightfully be considered “another.” Paul does not exactly say with F.F. Bruce that it is “no gospel,” but he gets thereby at the sense of Paul’s usage, for Paul does reverse himself in calling it that “which is not another…”

-ibid, pg 287

As I was reading this chapter, I was reminded of the First Fruits of Zion television series episode The Gospel Message which I reviewed last summer. According to the introduction to this episode:

The gospel message of Jesus is often simplified down to believe in Christ and your sins will be forgiven and you will go to heaven when you die. In episode eight this common misconception will be challenged. Viewers will discover that the main message of the gospel is one of repentance and entering into the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is not the place we go to when we die but rather God’s kingdom coming down here on earth. The gospel message is about preparation for the Messianic Age.

Scot McKnight
Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight in his book The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited also produces strong evidence that the way “the Church” commonly understands the term “gospel” today does not entirely (or even mostly, sometimes) fit its original and intended meaning. Moreover, the term “gospel” meaning “good news” can mean different kinds of “good news” depending on context.

The good news of Jesus Christ is the centerpiece of Paul’s life and work. But the issue for identifying the influencers and their relationship with Jesus Christ is whether Paul’s use of…must be limited to the lips of believers in Jesus or even to a declaration about Jesus in a formal sense that it has come to have in the Christian tradition, with the results then applied to exegesis of Gal 1:6-7, as the conclusions of the prevailing views assume…

Because gospel is and has been for a long time used as a uniquely Christian term, it is anachronistic for our investigation, having lost the more fluid sense of good news or announcement or message of good originally communicated, and its verbal cognate is further limited by the lack of an English verbal form of “gospel” (i.e., “to gospel”), thus the translation “announcing” or “proclaiming the gospel.”

-Nanos, pg 288-9

Mark Nanos
Mark Nanos

This suggestion is bound to offend some Christians, and it’s certainly not my intention to do so. It is my intention to use what Nanos presents in his book to “shake the establishment” so to speak, and investigate an aspect of the writings of Paul that I think has been long neglected, especially at the level of the local community church: reading Paul specifically within the intent and context of his letters and letting Paul tell us what he meant rather than letting centuries old Christian tradition tell Paul and us what he meant. While I can’t promise that Nanos’ viewpoint is 100% correct in all respects, I think his approach shows much promise and has the ability, if we let it, to shake Christianity out of its apathy regarding our understanding of the Bible, and getting us to see the scriptures in a way that has been abandoned since the death of the last apostle.

On page 290, Nanos defines the usage of the plural of the word we translate as “gospel” in the time period of Paul and how it functioned within the “imperial cult for the announcement of significant event concerning the divine ruler: birth, coming of age, enthronement, speeches, decrees, and actions are ‘glad tidings’ of happiness and peace…” He also presents this by way of illustration:

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” (emph. mine)

Isaiah 52:7 (NRSV)

We can start to see the Greek word we read in English as “gospel” or “good news” having a somewhat more diverse or expanded meaning beyond what we consider in the Church, but lest I cast Nanos in an uncomplimentary role or misrepresent him, he did also say the following:

It should be clear by now that I do not intend to suggest that the usage of…in its various forms for the message or proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ by Paul generally represented anything other than messianic eschatology, but at the same time I want to make it clear that this was not the only way in which it could be or was used by Paul or his Jewish or pagan contemporaries, to which I now turn.

-Nanos, pg 292

In other words, Nanos isn’t saying that “gospel” is never used by Paul to refer to “messianic eschatology”, only that Paul doesn’t always use the Greek word for “good news” in the same way. It isn’t a matter of either/or but depends on the immediate context of the message.


That instance (2 Sam 4:10; 2 Kgdms 4:10 in LXX) also constituted an ironic twist on the double meaning of… (though in the plural): the messenger thought that he was “bringing” David “good news” … about the death of Saul, only to be killed, for the value of the news was perceived differently by David… (emph. mine)


PaulThis brings up the point of how the difference in the good news of Paul vs. the good news of the influencers was intended. We know that Paul intended his good news to be good for the Gentile addressees of his letter, but what about the influencers (I’ll speak more about the identities of the addressees and influencers in my forthcoming general review of “Irony”)? On page 314, Nanos says that “it is not to say that the influencers did not regard their message as good news for these Gentiles. I think they did.” I’ll expand on this in my next review, but from the influencers’ point of view, as understood by Nanos, the Jewish influencers really did think they were doing the Gentile believers in Christ a big favor by “completing” their transition of identities from pagan worshiping goyim, to God-fearing Gentiles, and finally to fully integrated members into the Jewish community in which the Gentiles were then worshiping and participating through entry into the proselyte rite.

In other words, “good news” is in the eye of the beholder. While Paul may have referred to the message of the influencers as “good news” ironically and even sarcastically, Nanos maintains that the influencers were sincere in their intent to bring good to the Gentiles, not understanding or not wanting to understand that through Christ, the Gentiles would be equal co-participants in Messiah-devotion and worship of the God of Israel in a Jewish synagogue and community context.

But this flies in the face of how Nanos defines the following verse:

For those who are circumcised do not even keep the Law themselves…

Galatians 6:13 (NASB)

While many Christians understand that piece of scripture to be Paul’s accusation that the Jewish people who were trying to entice the Gentiles to convert and to “keep the Law” hypocritically did not observe the mitzvot themselves, Nanos says that Paul had one very specific Law in mind:

…but you shall love your neighbor as yourself…

Leviticus 19:18 (NASB)

While the Jewish influencers in the Galatian synagogues may not have been aware that Yeshua of Nazareth cited this as one of the two greatest commandments (see Mark 12:31 for example), they would have been quite aware of the commandment in Torah. Nanos says that Paul accuses the influencers of not observing this specific mitzvot by ignoring what was actually in the best interests of their Gentile neighbors in Christ for the sake of the influencers’ own interests. Again, I’ll speak more on this at a later time, but I mention it now only to draw attention to the seemingly contradictory motivations of the influencers as presented in the Nanos book.

Moreover, the association of the declaration to Abraham of the promise of a son with the label good news continued in the rabbinic tradition on Genesis, though obviously with no association with Jesus: Gen 18:1-15; b. Baba Mesia 86b; Mekita, Pischa 14; cf. Fragment Targum to Gen 21:7 and Gen. Rabbah 50:2.

-Nanos, pg 294

A Jewish person recently commented on one of my blog posts how Christians have sometimes erroneously misinterpreted the sages to support their (our) stance that Yeshua is the Messiah and that the Messiah is Divine. Further, in one of my reviews of D. Thomas Lancaster’s sermon series Holy Epistle to the Hebrews, I stated that there is a very real danger in reading Talmud and interpreting Midrash written well after the Apostolic Era as if it existed in the same form during the time of the apostles. On the other hand, Nanos is presenting his argument by establishing the usage of the Greek word for “gospel” at the time of Paul first, and then projecting it forward in time rather than trying to make the future apply to the past.

It occurs to me now that without saying so explicitly, what Nanos does in “Irony” may also be (though I say this rather provisionally) what Lancaster is doing in his lectures. That still doesn’t excuse deliberately reading into the Rabbinic sages what they never intended relative to the identity of the Messiah (which is something I’ll need to write about someday), but I think it’s valid to establish a method of reading the Apostolic scriptures “Jewishly” and then looking forward in time through Jewish literature at how that perspective has been maintained or evolved across history.

Another important aspect of Paul’s application of the broader semantic field of…comes to the front when we consider his usage of this language with regard to the figure of Abraham. Paul appeals to “the good news proclaimed beforehand…” to Abraham (i.e., before his circumcision). The content of this good news was that “In you shall all nations be blessed” (3:8). This good news was obviously proclaimed before Jesus or any message could be directly attributed to him or his followers…


Certainly the scripture in the above-referenced quote is about Jesus as the Messiah, but said-good news was not delivered by the followers of Jesus (which would have been historically impossible) and thus while the good news does address a future Messiah who would be a blessing to the nations, it was not specifically describing the “mechanics” of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as a means of personal salvation, which is how the Church understands the “good news” today.

The Jewish PaulNanos continues to deliver additional examples of how “gospel” could have been meant differently by Paul in different contexts, and how “gospel” as attributed to the influencers could have been considered “good” to the Gentiles by them, even as Paul considered it “another gospel” which is “not a gospel” at all, for it undermined the good news of the Messiah for Paul’s Gentile students in the Galatian communities.

Nanos paints a portrait of the letter-writing Paul not as crafting a cold, calculated, and logical religious treatise as much as he was delivering a “snarky” commentary as an offended parent to misbehaving teenagers who were being led astray by a misinformed group of “agents of social control” in their local Jewish communities. While being “snarky” doesn’t mean Paul checked his brain at the door and was incapable of composing a complex and scholarly dissertation in letter form, it does mean that Paul was writing a letter in response to a specific event or set of events, and he was quite possibly hurt and angry as he addressed the error of the addressees and the troublesome actions, though possibly even well intended on some level, of the influencers.

My take away from this chapter is that we need to stop being married with the highly technical meanings we assign to certain words and phrases in Christianity, and instead, we should “get down in the mud” so to speak, with Paul as he’s writing his letters, get into his head, get into the situation, as much as history will allow, and experience, in this case, Paul’s Holy Epistle to the Galatians as a letter fired off by a fired up Paul trying to avert what he could only see as a disaster, if his Gentile protegés were led off the path of Paul’s “gospel” to believe in another “gospel,” one that said they would never be equal co-participants in the Jewish community of Messianic followers and worshipers of the God of Israel unless they were circumcised and converted through the proselyte rite into Judaism.

Paul had the good news of the Messiah for the Gentiles that through the covenant promises God made to Israel, by faith as Abraham exhibited before his circumcision, the people of the nations could be grafted in and be made part of the glorious hope that began with God’s elevating the Hebrews, continued with the first stirrings of the New Covenant in the life of Jesus and the Apostolic Era, and that will ultimately be realized with Messiah’s return, a promise of what is to come.

Addendum: The full book review is now online.

4 thoughts on “The Ironic Good News of Galatians”

  1. Shavua Tov, James — Congratulations on a good start to summarizing Nanos’ perspective, though I don’t quite understand what is inhibiting you from reproducing references to “εὐαγγέλιον” (“evangelion”) or “good message” in its generic sense, or even the references to a “heteron” (other; alternative) version of it that is described as twisting or distorting (“metastrepsai”) the Messiah’s good news. I seem to recall a previous topic in which you pointed out that the Messiah’s good news was that the kingdom of heaven was “close at hand”, and was even present and immediately accessible, as distinct from a more recent Christian distortion of it as you described it above. I don’t recall with certainty whether you also dealt with the distinction between two versions of it that Rav Shaul described in Gal.2:7 as applicable to either the uncircumcised or the circumcised respectively.

    However, I have a question for you about another issue entirely, that you mentioned inadvertently in a single phrase above: “since the death of the last apostle”. Whom do you think that “last apostle” might have been? When do you think he (or even she) died? The phrase might be interpreted to refer to death of the last of those identified by name in the apostolic writings, but what of the unnamed apostles cited in various passages? In 1Thess.1:1 we see the letter ascribed to Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, all of whom must be considered included in the reference to apostles in 2:6. And then there are Andronicus and Junias, who are cited in Rom.16:7 as outstanding examples of apostles. And let’s not neglect Barnabbas who was cited as an apostle along with Rav Shaul in Acts 14:14. We certainly are not limited to merely the 12 “apostles of the Lamb” cited in verse 21:14 of Yohanan’s Revelation, because that would exclude Rav Shaul as well. And there are examples of people being appointed as apostles, among other offices of the assemblies of the Messiah. So I find it problematic to identify anyone as the “last apostle”, whose death could mark the end of an interpretive era. I rather suspect that something more closely related to the political behavior of the Roman Empire impelled the change in perspective away from the original Jewish “apostolic” perspective. Nanos cited some of this sort of influence in his book, particularly regarding some difficult choices faced by non-Jews who could not claim the legal sanction of Jewish proselytes in order to eschew idolatrous/pagan Roman political observances.

  2. Congratulations on a good start to summarizing Nanos’ perspective, though I don’t quite understand what is inhibiting you from reproducing references to “εὐαγγέλιον” (“evangelion”) or “good message” in its generic sense

    All I meant was that I don’t seem to be able to read Greek and I don’t have a computer keyboard that is capable of reproducing Greek letters.

    As far as the last apostle is concerned, I was under the impression that John was the last surviving apostle. It was simply an “artistic” way for me to say “since the end of the apostolic era.” It gets redundant to keep saying “two-thousand years ago” over and over again.

    1. Ahh, keyboard limitations! I don’t know which type of PC you use, but Windows systems have a useful app called “Character Map” (under “System Tools”) that contains Unicode characters for foreign-language special characters and even complete alphabets for Greek, Hebrew, Cyrillic, and others, in various fonts. However, the entire Greek text of the apostolic writings is available online, as is the LXX and the Hebrew bible. Often, lexicons are built in so that one may seek dictionary-style translation of specific words. This allows copying of key words, for those special occasions when they might be useful. I mention this here because others may perhaps face the same limitation and appreciate that solutions exist. Of course, there is no substitute for learning the languages, but these online apps can be excellent tools for study.

      I appreciate the desire for alternative ways to express an oft-referenced time or era, and perhaps Yohanan really was the last survivor of the original twelve. After all, he lived so long that some folks really began to wonder if he would ever die, because of Rav Yeshua’s rebuke to some of the other disciples, years before, that whatever would happen to him was none of their business and that HaShem could keep him alive until Rav Yeshua’s return (viz: Jn.21:22-23). The implication is that Yohanan’s besorah was composed and circulated some significant amount of time after the resurrection, so that Rav Yeshua’s return was already recognized as not to be expected in the immediate future. I just thought it might be worthwhile noting that, just as many folks fail to realize that tens of thousands of Jewish messianists in the Jerusalem area remained good, Torah-zealous Pharisees, so many also fail to realize that there were more than twelve apostles and that the job, like the spiritual giftings, may still be available even today to qualified applicants.

  3. Since being introduced to Messianic teaching I’ve had a new appreciation for the fact that the hallmark of Jesus’ “ways,” his “walk,” was complete dependence on and obedience to the Father, only doing and speaking what he received from the Father. A new appreciation for the concept of “access” to the Father develops from Yeshua’s repeated references to the Father from a more “Jewish” point of view, if I may. I see Yeshua as defining his divine mission in a way that is much different than Christian theology about Jesus maintains. In other words, it occurs to me that Christians largely misunderstand the full sense of Elohim, YHVH as it exists in reality due to their over-estimation of Jesus’ place in the picture. Bottom line: Christians allow, inordinately, I think, and this will sound blasphemous to some, the person of “Jesus” to overshadow the role of the Father; that manifestation of YHVH which resides in Heaven and presides over all, even the actions of His son, Yeshua the Messiah. There. I said it.

    Of course, this is a mystery that I do not claim to fully understand, and yet, it seems to me that if Christian teaching had gotten this theology right in the beginning, there would have been less anti-Jewishness in its behavior throughout the centuries. The overemphasis on the Son may have been a “necessary product” or an “essential element” of the Church’s strategic insertion of Replacement Theology back in the early second century, since that “passing of the last [inherently Jewish] apostle.”

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