Book Review: The Irony of Galatians

The Irony of GalatiansFinally, I want to acknowledge the victims of certain interpretations of Paul’s voice, especially those who have suffered the Shoah. Their suffering cannot be separated from the prejudices resulting from those interpretations any more than it can be wholly attributed to them. To them I dedicate the effort represented in this book.

-Mark D. Nanos
from the Acknowledgments, pg ix
The Irony of Galatians: Paul’s Letter in First-Century Context

I know I also began my blog post Prologue to the Irony of Galatians with this quote, but I think it’s important to remember a little bit about where Nanos is coming from in writing “Irony”. It’s not just another scholarly book addressing an interpretation of a New Testament letter, and it’s not even just presenting a new perspective on Paul. It’s aimed at correcting a nearly two-thousand year old injustice to the Jewish people by what eventually became the Christian Church, started by the so-called Church Fathers who reinvented the Bible to say that the Jewish people and Judaism became passé if not completely evil, perpetuated by the authors of the Reformation, and culminated in the most incredible evil of the twentieth century, an evil that still sends echos into this day and this hour: the Holocaust.

I know that some hard-core Evangelicals such as John MacArthur might say that the classic Christian interpretation of Galatians is the correct one and that the Church can hardly be blamed for how it’s been used against the Jewish people over the long centuries of exile, all the pogroms, all the torture, all the forced conversions, all the assimilation, all the deaths. He might say (I’m not saying he ever breathed a word of this, I’m just “supposing”) that most Jewish people have failed to “move on” and leave the Law behind, and that they should give up the past and embrace grace and Jesus Christ instead.

But what if that’s wrong? What if Paul never wrote something that he intended to be twisted into a declaration of condemnation against his own people, against the Torah, against the Temple, and even against himself? Christian apathy and the reluctance to overcome its own inertia (in most cases) has resulted in an almost total lack of desire, let alone any activity directed at reading Paul’s letters through fresh eyes, removing the “tradition” colored glasses and donning lenses more appropriate to how a first-century Jewish scholar would have seen the Messiah in context and how he intended his audience, in this case the Gentile believers in the various synagogues in the area of Galatia, to read his “ironic rebuke” of their apparent foolishness (I’m getting to all of that).

What if we’ve got Paul all wrong? What if that results in our having to re-examine and even to re-create what it is to be a non-Jewish worshiper of the God of Israel with the Son of God, the Moshiach, Yeshua of Nazareth as the doorway?

Nanos doesn’t go that far in his book, but it’s the logical consequence of his writing if we accept his conclusions.

Let’s dive in.

Before reading/hearing Paul’s polemical assault, the influencers appeared very differently to those he now addresses in Galatia, as trusted guides, likely even friends, who had their best interests in mind. Rather, I suggest that the influencers represented Jewish communities in Galatia that were concerned about the integration of these particular Gentiles, who were, through their involvement in the (still Jewish) Jesus subgroups, an integral part of the larger Jewish communities at this time. But their appeal to traditional norms maintained in the present age apart from Christ to modify the identity expectations of Paul’s children in Christ threatened the addressees’ interests in ways that neither the influencers nor the addressees perceived accurately–according to their parent, Paul. We have only his response.

This response implies that these Gentiles declared themselves to be identified with the Jewish communities in a new and disputable way, as righteous ones apart from proselyte conversion.

-Nanos, “Conclusion: The Irony of Galatians,” pg 317

The Mystery of RomansI probably should have started with the Conclusion and then worked through the body of the book. Like Nanos’ Romans book, “Irony” is densely packed with details as Nanos first attempts to refute the traditional Christian interpretations of Paul in general and the Galatians letter in specific, and then presents his own evidence for the premise he suggests, that this letter is not Paul’s major attempt to torpedo the Torah, Judaism, and the Jewish people, but rather what he calls an “ironic rebuke” written to his Gentile disciples who frankly he believes should have known better than to listen to the Jewish (quite possibly proselytes themselves) influencers who neither had faith in Yeshua as Messiah nor believed that Gentiles could ever fully integrate and participate in Jewish worship and community life without undergoing the proselyte rite and converting to Judaism.

While reading this book, on more than one occasion, I felt I had gotten lost in the forest, unable to see the grand landscape for the trees, and there are a lot of “trees” in this book. I took an amazing number of notes that still riddle the pages of “Irony,” and could possibly form a small book themselves if bound between their own covers. However, this book is the result of Nanos’ doctoral dissertation so you can expect it to be tough reading (for most of us, anyway).

Like “Romans”, “Irony” presupposes that the Gentile believers in Galatia were involved in the local synagogues as the only likely venue for them to practice worship of Israel’s God and to learn more about the teachings of Messiah which after all, were contained in the Torah and the Prophets. Where else does one learn Torah than among Jewish teachers and students in a synagogue?

But as Nanos presents the situation, some of the Jewish people, “agents of social control” in the Jewish community, had a problem. As I stated above, how could they understand, since Nanos states these Jewish influencers were not disciples of Yeshua/Jesus, that these righteous Gentiles could be fully equal co-participants in Jewish worship and community without undergoing the proselyte rite? Apparently, these Gentiles, in the absence of Paul or any other Jewish believer and teacher, were being successfully convinced that faith in Messiah was not enough and that they must too undergo circumcision and take on the full yoke of Torah, as it applies to the Jewish people, in order to complete their devotion to God as “Messianic” disciples.

But the ideas Nanos presents in “Irony” aren’t exactly radical.

The next Sabbath nearly the whole city assembled to hear the word of the Lord. But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began contradicting the things spoken by Paul, and were blaspheming.

Acts 13:44-45 (NASB)

Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”

Acts 15:1 (NASB)

You may have to read all of Acts 13 for context, but as you may recall, on Paul’s first trip to the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch, his message of the good news of Messiah for all of the people present, born Jews, proselytes, and God-fearing Gentiles, met with great success. The Jewish members of the synagogue followed Paul and his companions after they left Sabbath services for the day, urging them to return the following Shabbat and to teach more. It was only when large numbers of pagan Gentiles who had heard of this good news invaded the synagogue that the synagogue leaders, threatened by their presence and the implications involved, turned against Paul and drove him out.

ancient-rabbi-teachingAccording to Nanos, something similar may have been operating among the influencers since how could they be sure these “righteous Gentiles” who in no way were progressing on the path to becoming proselytes, weren’t also involved in community pagan rites? The only way to be sure, would be to confirm their commitment to Hashem and the Jewish people by having them convert to Judaism.

Also, in the eyes of most Jews, the statement of Acts 15:1 seemed incredibly obvious. One does not come to Hashem except through Judaism.

Paul knew the truth, but he wrote his letter to the Galatians most likely before the Acts 15 legal decision handed down by the Council of Apostles that dictated the formal status and identity of the Gentile disciples within the Jewish community as something like “strangers living among us (Israel)”. Paul’s “gospel” was a radical idea at the time (and still is for most Jewish people today), that by faith could the Gentiles be grafted in to the community of Israel, coming to the Father by way of the Son.

As I mentioned in my previous review, according to Nanos, Paul was not a happy camper at hearing his students were defecting from their faith in Messiah and joining the more traditional path toward becoming proselytes. But rather than crafting a logical, dispassionate, and scholarly theological paper, he wrote a hopping mad “ironic rebuke,” whereby he took his Gentile followers to task for acting like inconsistent teenagers following after the “cool kids” in school rather than what they knew to be the truth.

But without understanding that Paul was being ironic, and sarcastic, and “snarky,” we could completely misunderstand what he was saying and who he was saying it to. If we believed that he was talking to Gentile and Jewish believers, and if we believed he was condemning circumcision, the Torah, and the Temple to that entire population, then we might conclude that Paul was himself “Law-free” and advocating for all Yeshua-believers, including Jewish disciples, that they become “Law-free” as well. Sounds like the exact accusations leveled against Paul in Jerusalem by Jewish people from the diaspora we find in Acts 21 (specifically from verse 17 onward), accusations that Paul steadfastly denied throughout a number of legal proceedings for the remainder of the book of Acts.

Assuming Paul wasn’t lying, then believing that Paul was against the Law, against the Temple, and against the formal practice of Pharisaic Judaism for believing Jewish people as most Christians interpret the Galatians letter just doesn’t make sense.

If approached as a theological tractate or an oration in a court of law, for example, or as a polemical attack on Jewish identity and Law observance as Galatians has often been read, then an entirely different set of expectations shapes the interpretive process than those suggested herein. But if Galatians exemplifies a letter of ironic rebuke designed to address the source they had been running when confident that their understanding of the meaning of Christ was legitimate–rightly so according to Paul’s revealed good news–then the guardians of the majority or dominant communities, who are guided in their sensibilities and responsibilities by long-standing membership and reference group norms, will no doubt consider it their rightful duty to obstruct such a course.

-Nanos, pg 319

It’s not a matter of changing a single word of the Galatians letter, but rather, shifting your perspective on what Paul was intending when he wrote it. We only have this letter to tell us what was going on with his addressees in Galatia and to suggest (Paul doesn’t tell us outright) who the influencers were. The method of interpretation makes all of the difference and as I’ve said before, Protestant Christianity has a very definite tradition about how to interpret Galatians and the rest of the Bible. The real challenge is getting the Church, from the average person sitting in a pew on Sunday morning, to the Pastoral staff, to the governing bodies of the various denominations, to the New Testament scholars and students in seminaries and universities, to set aside those traditions long enough to read what Paul is saying as a devoted disciple of Moshiach who was zealous for the Torah and never taught against the Law of Moses or the Temple of God.

Not an easy task to be sure.

The Jewish PaulBut if we read not just Galatians, but the rest of the record of Jewish and Gentile interactions in the Apostolic era with an eye on the tremendous social difficulties involved in even attempting to integrate these two populations in the synagogue under the radical notion that Gentiles did not have to adopt Jewish identities in order to be fully equal co-participants in the worship of God through Messiah, then we come up with a very different picture of the lives of the first Gentile believers and even what our lives as Christians should be today, particularly relative to the Jewish people and Judaism.

Which brings us back to Nanos’ statement about Shoah in the introduction to “Irony”.

The vast majority of the text, while it seems quite logical to me, would really require someone well-studied in New Testament scholarship to critically analyze. What Nanos writes makes sense to me primarily because it fits my own overarching view of the message of the Bible, but without traveling a similar educational path to Nanos or others like him, I don’t doubt I could miss quite a lot. But while I don’t have the ability to intimately examine each and every bit of research and evidence “Irony” presents, I can see that the final conclusion, at least generally, fits the portrait in which I have come to see the Apostle to the Gentiles, a Jewish man who was given the extraordinary task of bringing the good news of the Messiah to the pagan nations of the world; a man who centuries after his death, has been (in my opinion) falsely accused both by Christians and Jews, of being a traitor to his own people, of abandoning the Torah, abandoning the practice of his forefathers in the worship of God, and twisting the teachings of a humble itinerant Rabbi in the Galilee into a brand-new religious form that has no resemblance to the way Jesus taught the Torah of Moses to the “lost sheep of Israel.”

I’m glad I read this book but it certainly wasn’t easy. I consider myself educated but not in this field of study. However, this is a necessary book to work through for Christians because we must be shaken up and startled out of our complacency and our interpretive traditions. Even if you’re not willing to accept a view of Paul and his letter to the Galatians that exactly matches Nanos’ description, the very attempt should help convince you as it continues to convince me, that historic and modern Christianity has made a terrible mistake in how we see Paul. There’s a lot more to learn or relearn about Paul. “The Irony of Galatians” by Mark Nanos is but one step on that journey.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: The Irony of Galatians”

  1. James, interesting that I was just reading an article about medical ethics discussing whether it was permissible for a physician to act in a paternalistic manner in deciding what was best for the patient, including withholding information or acting against the patient’s expressed wishes. Paternalism in the medical profession was assumed prior to the mid to late twentieth century. In a follow-up article, that doctor admitted to providing what turned out in retrospect to be futile end-of-life care. He was emotionally invested in this elderly patient as he had grown fond of her over many years of care, and once he began a course of believing he could save her, he refused to change course when evidence demonstrated her health was too far compromised for any care to have more than minimal, temporary effect.

    But it is very difficult to change course and admit that you are wrong; that is a proven aspect of human nature. In fact, the impetus is to fight even harder in the presence of contrary evidence. How much more is this true regarding spiritual issues, which many see as having eternal consequences?

    1. I’m certainly not saying that changing course is easy or that many people (most people) are willing to do so, only that in this case, I think it’s necessary. I also think there are some doctors who know when it’s time to let go.

      1. We can compare King David’s response of repentance in response to the prophet Nathan to Pharoah’s response to Moshe. So, the Davids will listen, while the Pharoah’s, Sauls, Labans, etc. won’t.

        In another comparison to the medical issue, one poster commented that medical decisions are more often driven by economics rather than ethics, and I believe we can see a parallel to the world of religion.

        Religion is also highly paternalistic, but as in the area of medicine, the availability of information as well as the growing consensus that a person has the right to manage their own care have led to changes in medical practice. One doctor mentioned that he had patients who desired for him to take on the paternalistic role and wanted him to make decisions for them. Sound familiar?

      2. I’m not willing to paint all people of faith quite so cynically, Chaya. While it’s true that human nature often leads us away from God, many people struggle against that nature and strive toward truth, even though they’re far from perfect, their hearts, and hopefully ours, still long for God the way God wants us to see Him.

  2. I am not saying most people are aware of their cognitive dissonance. One thing I learned in my communication course is that we employ cognitive shortcuts; it is impossible for us to examine and process all the messages we receive, so we filter some out, we receive those that already agree with or are familiar to us and we focus in on what we feel is important, such as the way we hear our name spoken in a room full of people and conversations.

  3. James, I have his book on Romans and found it a challenging read to grasp. He’s quite a scholar.

    Do you gather from Nanos that he rejects the Christian premise that Jews who put their obedience and trust in a merciful YHVH have no place in the world to come unless they also ascent to a creedal stance of Yeshua as Messiah?

    Do you believe that Paul was sent out to proclaim that Messiah had come or to proclaim that ascenting to that coming in the person of Yeshua was no required to be right with God?

  4. @Chaya: I agree that most people aren’t aware of their own process and have a very difficult time gaining that sort of “out of the box” perspective on themselves and what they/we believe (I can hardly exempt myself since I’m human, too). That’s usually why it takes some sort of crisis or similar event to shake us up so we can gain expanded viewpoints. I think that’s why we hate change, even if it’s beneficial.

    @Daniel: I can hardly speak for Nanos and can only comment on what I read in his book(s), so I can’t possibly answer your first question. He doesn’t specifically address issues of salvation through Christ in “Irony”. The point of the book is to reinterpret the Paul’s intent and “style” (ironic rebuke) in writing the epistle as well as support his speculations for the identities of the addressees and the influencers.

    In my opinion, Paul was specifically sent to the Gentiles but obviously he was devoted to the Jewish people and always went to them first to declare the good news that Messiah had come and the first fruits of the Messianic Age were at hand. I don’t think that the coming of Messiah describes a departure from previous prophesies and the established covenants but rather a logical extension and continued fulfilling of God’s promises to Israel and through Israel, to the Gentiles. Faith and devotion to the God of Israel though the Messiah is a requirement to be reconciled to God for Jews and Gentiles without violating the identity distinctions between those two groups contained within the body of Moshiach.

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