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What Galatians Means to Christians Today

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)

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.

-from Book Review: The Irony of Galatians

Even after I publish a particular blog post, I tend to obsess over it a little bit, searching for typos, finding a sentence that could be improved, that sort of thing. I try to do all this editing beforehand, but sometimes things slip by.

That includes the above-quoted statement. Today, religious Judaism is adamant that of the three monotheistic faiths in existence, they do not require others to convert to their religion in order to merit a place in the world to come. You can be a righteous Gentile and in obedience to the Noahide laws, you can have a place in the coming Kingdom. No need to actually convert to Judaism at all.

I realized that even in the days of the Apostle Paul, this was also true in some sense. It’s been suggested that some version or variation of what we call the “Noahide laws” today existed back then and was the operational guide for God-fearing Gentiles who populated the diaspora synagogues alongside the Jews and proselytes.

But I can only imagine that being a first-century God-fearer and seeing the awesome beauty of the Torah, watching Jewish men davening in a minyan, experiencing the joy of just hearing the prayers in Hebrew, contemplating the amazing link that each Jewish person had to thousands of years of the history of God’s interaction with Israel all the way back to Moses must have been an incredible lure. How many God-fearing Gentiles in response to their time in the synagogue started down the road of the proselyte ritual that culminated in converting to Judaism, so that they could say “My Fathers” rather than “their Fathers?”

I’ve been looking at Mark Nanos’ book The Irony of Galatians as it impacts my view of the actual epistle written by Paul and its intent toward the believing populations in the area of Galatia in that day. But what impact does it have on Gentile believers who worship among Jews today?

I’m specifically thinking of Messianic Jewish congregations, those few of which I’m aware that are “owned and operated” so to speak, by halakhic and observant Jewish people who are disciples of Yeshua as Messiah. What is it like to be a Gentile, a fully equal co-participant in Jewish worship and community life, and yet not to be Jewish?

For that matter, what is it like to be a Gentile believer in one of the variations of Hebrew Roots community life, be attracted to Jewish practice and the Torah, but find that the vast majority of people around you only have a so-so understanding of what that means and especially how to properly practice a Judaism (this isn’t absolutely true of all Hebrew Roots groups, but it is true of the majority of those I’ve personally experienced)?

A non-trivial percentage of those Gentiles have left either Messianic Judaism or Hebrew Roots and like some of the first century God-fearing Gentiles, proceeded with the proselyte ritual, usually within Orthodox Judaism, and converted to that identity and that faith.

They too have missed the warning that Paul was issuing to his Gentile addressees in his letter to the Galatians and allowed themselves to “desert Him who called them by the grace of Christ for a different gospel, which is really not another gospel at all.”

In a Jewish or Jewish-like worship venue, especially with the involvement of traditional Jewish worship, study, and community practices, it can be easy for some folks to confuse Judaism for faith.

That was the point of Paul saying in Galatians 2:3 that Titus, a Greek who came to faith in Yeshua, specifically wasn’t compelled to be circumcised (convert to Judaism). It’s why Paul cited Genesis 15:6 as recorded in Galatians 3:6 that it was by Abraham’s faith God reckoned to him as righteousness before Abraham was circumcised.

PaulAccording to most New Testament scholars, Paul likely wrote his letter to the Galatians before the events recorded in Acts 15 so it could appear that Paul was very much “shooting from the hip,” because the formal halakhic ruling regarding the legal status of Gentile Yeshua-believers within the Jewish worship and community context of “the Way” had not yet been issued. But Paul’s authority and assignment as the emissary to the Gentiles came directly from Messiah in a vision as we have preserved for us in Acts 9. If we can depend upon anyone to understand who the Gentiles were to be as worshipers of Messiah among the Jews, it is Paul.

His letter was a response to the confusion and dissonance that was occurring between believing Gentiles and non-believing Jews (this is according to Nanos in his “Irony” book) in the Jewish communities in the region of Galatia. The synagogue was the only proper setting for the new Gentile believers to learn Torah and thus begin to understand the teachings of the Master, and this decision was eventually confirmed in the words of Acts 15:21. But while being a Gentile God-fearer was most likely a reasonably well-defined role, being a Gentile believer of the Jewish Messiah was not, especially to those Jews who did not share in that faith and quite possibly for some who did (see Acts 15:1).

Several of D. Thomas Lancaster’s sermons in the Holy Epistle to the Hebrews series address a very simple message of the writer of Hebrews to his Jewish audience in Jerusalem. The message says to pay attention to what we have learned and not to drift away from our faith in Messiah, lest we grow cold in faith and distant from the lover of our souls. That distance can make us mistake who really loves us and like the addressees of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we may think Judaism is our goal rather than Messiah, the living Word of God.

The traditional Christian interpretation of Galatians (I know I’m over-simplifying it) is that Paul was attempting to convince both believing Gentiles and believing Jews that the “Law was dead” and replaced for everybody by only faith in Christ Jesus, inventing a new identity in the Jewish Messiah for one and all, and eliminating Jewish identity for Jews entirely. That’s very much like throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Looking at the letter as Nanos sees it, it’s a cautionary tale specifically to the Gentiles not to confuse Jewish Torah observance and community life for the practices that accompany a Gentile faith in Messiah. Yes, many of the blessings and observances are identical for Jewish and Gentile disciples of the Master, but the identities are not. This is a warning we can heed today, especially those of us who though not Jews are still attracted to Jewish studies, the Torah, the Talmud, and the wisdom of the sages.

The main reason Nanos wrote his book was to publicize an apprehension of Paul’s “voice” that did not give rise to anti-Jewish, anti-Judaism, and anti-Torah sentiments, that enhanced the relationship between Christians and Jews rather than divide them, and in honor of all the Jewish people across the long centuries who have suffered and died because (directly and indirectly) of the historical and traditional interpretation of Paul’s letters by the Church.

Even as Nanos attempts to penetrate Christian history and tradition through scholarly means in order to contribute to righting many terrible wrongs, Boaz Michael, President and Founder of the educational ministry First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) approaches the same goal through a more “grassroots” method as he writes in his book Tent of David. This sends people back into the church with the same message, that we have been misreading Paul for a very long time and the result has been disastrous on an epic scale.

leaving-the-churchWe can correct the course of history by the grace of God, but we need to be willing to change. We need to be willing to see Paul in a radically different way as compared to Church history and tradition. We need to grant ourselves the ability to set aside our long-held preconceptions about what the Bible is saying and we need to resist two things: the desire to stay “safe” by digging in our heels and not even considering that Christian interpretive traditions could be wrong and, for those Gentiles attracted to Judaism in some manner or fashion, to resist the desire to abandon the Church, Christianity, and even Christ and embrace a fully Jewish identity through conversion.

Neither option is correct. We cannot summon the Messianic future by holding on to an interpretive tradition that was born out of supersessionism and anti-Semitism, nor can we do so by exiting Christianity and the nations entirely and converting to Judaism as our only way of serving God.

I’ve referenced Rabbi David Rudolph in a number of blog posts including An Exercise in Wholeness, Twoness and Oneness: From Sermons by David Rudolph, and Oneness, Twoness and Three Converts to describe how observant Jews, particularly in the Messianic framework, and Christians, both within the Messianic community and in the local church need each other in order to fulfill prophesy and prepare the way for the return of the King.

In my opinion, no other avenue is going to work or is in accordance with the plan of God as we see, or as I see, in the Bible.

If you are a Gentile Christian in a church and you have an awareness of the Messianic plan as I often describe on this blog, you have an opportunity to help raise awareness among other Christians. It’s not easy as I can personally attest, and most of the time, people in the local church will not want to hear your/my message. Still, the effort must be made, for who can say that by starting the process, even if you don’t see its completion, that what you began was not effective?

If you are a Gentile believer in a Messianic Jewish or Hebrew Roots community, you do not have to apprehend Jewish identity in order to be an active and vital part of God’s plan. In fact, your Gentile identity is essential to bringing that plan to fruition. If the world was populated only with Jewish people (and that may seem attractive to many Jewish people), then the prophesies we have in our Bible about our role in bringing about the Messianic Age would be impossible to accomplish. Gentiles are absolutely needed, even as Jews are needed to be part of all that God said He would do.

jewish-prayer_daveningPaul didn’t go anywhere near what I’m saying in the Galatians letter, but as I continue to ponder this epistle and the book that Mark Nanos wrote about it, the implications are there. Paul was addressing Gentile believers existing and worshiping in a Jewish religious and community space. After a long absence, we are beginning to see that process and those relationships begin anew. The Apostolic Scriptures don’t paint a very plain portrait of how those relationships should work in an ideal manner. We only have examples of the struggle to find balance and harmony, which was probably never accomplished in Paul’s lifetime and which completely disintegrated in the decades and centuries after the Fall of Jerusalem.

Whether you are Jewish or Gentile, Messiah does not require that you give up who you are and become something you are not. Jewish believers make a mistake by “converting” to Christianity and assimilating into the Gentile mainstream because God never intended “the Church” to finish the job of eliminating the presence of Jews on our planet that Hitler’s Holocaust started (I know that sounds harsh, but that’s how some Jewish people see assimilation, especially into a normative Gentile Christian identity). Jewish believers serve God by retaining a lived Jewish identity, by observing the mitzvot, by davening with other Jews, by being who God made them to be.

Gentile believers make a mistake by thinking that being a member of the nations who are called by His Name means they/we aren’t good enough for God or somehow that status makes them/us insignificant in God’s plan. If you abandon your fellow Gentile believers and especially if you abandon Messiah and convert to Judaism, you defy one of the primary reasons for your existence. God has made all of the Jews He intends to make. For some few, conversion to Judaism may be valid, but for the majority of us, the only thing we’re trying to satisfy through conversion is our own desires or to smother feelings of inadequacy.

Only, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk. And so I direct in all the churches. Was any man called when he was already circumcised? He is not to become uncircumcised. Has anyone been called in uncircumcision? He is not to be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God. Each man must remain in that condition in which he was called.

Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord’s freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ’s slave. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. Brethren, each one is to remain with God in that condition in which he was called.

1 Corinthians 7:17-24 (NASB)

Whoever you are, don’t give up who you are, because God created you and the roles you fill for a reason, even if you can’t see what that reason is right now. Paul may have written his letter to a group of people who lived halfway around the world two-thousand years ago, but in this case, I can perceive very clearly how his “ironic rebuke” is addressed to us today. Perhaps you can hear this message, too.

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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.

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.

However…

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)

-ibid

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…

-ibid

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.

Prologue to 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

Such a strange way to end a series of acknowledgments for a book. The author usually thanks his/her publisher, editor, spouse, and whoever else contributed to or who were sometimes inconvenienced by the author’s writing of the book. Occasionally, religious people will thank God, their congregation, and so forth, in addition to the “usual suspects.” Having written a few books myself (though not in the religious studies space), I know the author’s side of composing acknowledgments.

That said, I normally blow past the acknowledgment page quickly when I get a new book in my hands, but something told me to slow down a bit before getting to the “meat” of the content. What we have here is a suggestion that the traditional way Paul has been understood by Christian interpreters has, in some manner or fashion, contributed to the injury of the Jewish people, including the most glaring injury in recent history, the Holocaust. There have been two injustices committed by the “consensus view” of Paul which includes his letter to the Galatians: a gross misunderstanding of Paul himself and his missives to various First Century churches, and as a result of that misunderstanding, a terrible injustice to Jewish people across the last nearly two-thousand years of history.

That’s a heavy burden to place upon collective Christianity, but it’s not a burden that is undeserved, nor is it one that cannot be lightened. What is needed is a fresh reading of Paul from a First Century Jewish context.

While Nanos states in the book’s Prologue that he attempts to make no direct comparison between the Paul of Galatians and how Nanos depicted Paul in his previous book The Mystery of Romans, I don’t doubt that I’ll be making the comparison anyway, considering my several recent reviews of that work. After all, we are talking about the same human being, and unless Paul received a “personality transplant” between writing one letter and the next, he should be transmitting the same basic understanding of the role of Jews and Gentiles in the Jewish religious stream once known as “the Way.

Because the prevailing interpretations have probed Paul’s text without sufficient appreciation of the powerful role of ironic inversion at work, at the formal as well as functional level, the interpretation of the apostle’s scathing rhetoric has exaggerated and, regardless of other plans, continues to accentuate the differences that are imagined to separate Christian and Jewish identity, behavior, and even intentions toward God and neighbor. The legacy of this perception of the Jewish other has proven often tragic for the Jewish people, at least in a world that has been often dominated by those who look to Paul to shape reality, and for others, as a foil to justify their twisted construal of what is right.

-Nanos, Prologue, pg 2

This reads more like an indictment than, as Nanos puts it, a project that “represents a revised and expanded version of (his) Ph.D. dissertation…in 2000.” There’s a sense that Nanos has more invested in this project than simply a serious and scholarly re-investigation into the traditional interpretation of Paul relative to ancient and modern Christian and Jewish relationships and identities.

No interpretation is independent of context, that realized or assumed for the original author and audience, and that of the interpreter him-or herself. I am a product of many factors, not the least the long shadow of the Holocaust, which claimed so many Jewish people, my people, as well as exposure to critical tools now available to the interpreter.

ibid, pg 4

PaulNanos goes on in the Prologue to compare the “Consensus View” which he states has “not changed that significantly in the history of Christian interpretation” to his perspective which he calls “The Irony of Galatians,” characterizing Paul’s letter as an “ironic rebuke”. He challenges the consensus view of Paul as Law-free and in opposition to Jewish Law (Torah) and religiously obedient Jews, which is an interpretation of Paul’s message in Galatians that has been “undeniably colored by the interpreter’s understanding” rather than “producing a disinterested portrait” of the subjects of the letter, “considering their identity, motives, messages, or methods on their own terms.”

Of course, we have to consider that Nanos, in partially attributing Shoah and the murder of six million of his people to the traditional interpretation of Paul renders him less than completely objective, but then again as Nanos has already alluded, no one fails to bring something to the table when interpreting the Bible. In the book’s Prologue, Nanos leaves it up to the reader to determine if he has “constructed a probable context for interpretation of Paul’s voice…”

I know a fellow who is quite an erudite scholar and it is his opinion that more often than not, a book’s prologue may contain enough of the contents of the book itself to tell the entire story, sort of how some movie trailers give away most or all of the story of the films they are advertising. This may also be true of Nanos’ “Irony,” but not having cracked even the first page of the first chapter yet (as I write this), I’ll have to wait and see.

On the other hand, Nanos does reveal that he considers the “influencers” to also be Galatians and Jews who have a certain responsibility to initiate the Gentiles in the Galatian synagogues into their entry into Judaism. If these influencers were like those Jewish people we encounter in Acts 15:1-2, we may be seeing a heavy bias in the non-believing and believing Jewish communities in the days of Paul toward the proselyte ritual as the only means by which a Gentile may enter “the Way.” That makes Paul’s Galatian letter, according to Nanos, an “ironic rebuke” to the Gentile readers and an intra and inter-Jewish communal dispute between Paul and the Jewish influencers.

As I read in Nanos’ “Romans” book, he continues to depict Paul as Torah-observant, which only makes sense, given that Paul wrote that a Gentile being circumcised and converting to Judaism is obligated to the full yoke of Torah (Galatians 5:3). Being Jewish then, by definition, would mean that Paul considered himself as obligated to said “full yoke” of Torah in the same manner as his fellow believing and unbelieving Jews.

Paul is himself an example of status and observance, and his message in this letter does not abrogate the identity or observance of Torah for Jewish people (i.e. Israelites) in the least but is instead predicated upon their continued validity for himself and other Jewish members of this movement.

-Nanos, pg 9

The remainder of the prologue covered a summary of each of the three parts of the book and what the reader can expect to discover. What remains are the detailed arguments presented by the author, which I have yet to experience.

For the “Romans” book, I reviewed the material almost chapter by chapter in some cases, and I have a tendency to write book reviews in parts, often before I’ve completed my reading of the entire work. I don’t know if I’ll do that here since such an analysis takes a fair amount of time. On the other hand, it’s difficult in just a few sentences, to impart complex ideas and descriptions accurately when presented in a “book-length” form. Also, as much as I report for the sake of my audience, I write these blogs to process my own experience as I encounter new thoughts and concepts, so the level of detail in which I engage is sometimes more for me, the writer and learner, than it is for you the reader. Of course, my benefit is also your benefit as long as you don’t mind having to consume the output of my internal dialogue.

Mark NanosSince I’ve liberated myself from having to produce daily morning meditations, I can’t say when the next installment of my review on “Irony” will be written, but know, compulsive blogger that I am, that it will appear before too long. Galatians is one of my Biblical “pet peeves” along with the traditional Christian interpretation of Paul as either suffering from multiple personality disorder or as a liar and hypocrite.

I’m searching for an interpretation of Paul’s letters that renders him sane, internally consistent, consistent relative to his personal history as an observant Jewish Pharisee, and as a living expression of generations of Torah-observant Jews who came before him, worshiping the God of his fathers, obeying the Torah, and honoring the Temple, all within the context of a zealous faith in the Jewish Messiah. No other Paul makes sense, and a Paul (as the Christian consensus view defines him) who is mentally ill, a duplicitous liar, or a two-faced hypocrite makes the apostle completely disingenuous and an unreliable author of the majority of the canonized New Testament.

So much for the Christian faith if the consensus view is true.

I can only take Paul seriously if I can find another way to hear his voice. I believe I have found that sane and reliable Pauline voice. Now I want to see how that voice speaks in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.