In a nutshell: Paul resorts to brow-beating and exegesis when the Galatians deviate from the message that initially inspired them to rally behind Jesus.
You clueless Galatians! Who has cast an evil eye on you, putting you under a spell? Your own eyes saw Jesus, God’s Anointed, graphically portrayed on a cross. … How stupid can you be? Do you really think that what was begun by God’s presence and power can be completed by a merely earthly life?
—Gal 3:1, 3 (Scholars Version trans.)
For the sake of consistency and sanity, I’m publishing a couple posts in advance of the (US) holiday weekend. This reading is for the 4th of July. Expect a whole slew of links to 30 Days of Paul around the web after the weekend!
Sin as Generic, Pervasive Corruption
Two interesting developments from Westar’s academic seminars just clapped together in this reading for me:
- The Scholars Version employed by the Paul Seminar translates hamartia as “the seductive power of corruption” instead of the more obscure word “sin.”
- For the Christianity Seminar we have been reading and discussing the Nag Hammadi collection of texts in some depth, and—surprise, surprise!—corruption is often understood in these texts as a quality that permeates the whole world in a rather generic and broad way.
Maybe this observation will only seem groundbreaking if you were raised as I was in a Pentecostal or Evangelical church, where sin is most often understood to be highly personal and individual. Basically, I was raised to translate sin as personal guilt for wrongdoing. In reading Galatians I find myself overwhelmed with the view of sin as a generic state of affairs instead of a psychological battle waged from within.
It helps to read Paul alongside what people went on to write later on the basis of his letters:
Paul: If there were a law that had the power to create life, then our acceptance by God would indeed be based on the law. But the scripture confined everything under the seductive power of corruption… (Gal 3:21b–22a)
Paul: When like children we knew no better, we were dominated by the cosmic powers that controlled human fate. (Gal 4:3)
Jesus in a vision to John, explains how the corrupted world came into existence: Our fellow sister, Wisdom-Sophia … freely willed a likeness within herself although the Spirit had not agreed with her nor had it consented nor had her partner approved, the male virginal Spirit. … Because of the audacity within her, her thought was not able to be idle and her product came forth, being imperfect, ugly in his appearance, because she had made it without her partner (Secret Revelation of John 10:1, 2, 7–8; ANNT trans.). This being, named Yaldabaoth, goes on to create the world humans now inhabit. He thinks he is god, but he is mistaken, ignorant of the higher god above, so the world he creates and rules is corrupt out of his ignorance.
Mary, upon encountering cosmic powers of darkness, ignorance, and eagerness for death: They asked the soul, ‘Where are you coming from, human-killer, and where are you going you place-destroyer?’ The Soul answered and said, ‘What rules me has been slain, and what turns me has been destroyed, and my desire has been filled, and ignorance has died. In a world I was released from a world, and in a mold from a higher mold, and from the chain of forgetfulness which is temporal…” (Gospel of Mary 9:26–28; ANNT trans.)
More examples of this abound. Strange though many of the Nag Hammadi stories may sound to us in their unfamiliarity, they were crafted through careful interpretation of Jewish Scriptures, especially Genesis, using Paul’s letters as a key.
In fact, for some Nag Hammadi texts, Paul is the only legitimate apostle! They refer to “the apostle” in the singular. How apt that is when one considers yesterday’s reading:
Even if one of us, or for that matter a messenger from heaven, were to advocate a message different from the one we delivered—they must be rejected and shunned! We told you before and now I repeat it: anyone who champions a message other than the one you heard from us—they must be rejected and shunned! (Gal 1:8–9)
I can’t stress enough how influential this particular letter has been on Christian history. It’s no wonder we struggle to read it outside the filter of later generations of theology. I’m not sure I’m even succeeding at it in this reading, but my main point today is simply that Paul was not a psychologist and he wasn’t interested in personal guilt. He is describing a wide political context—the “state of the union.”
As our reading progresses, I believe we’ll find that Paul is optimistic about human beings’ ability to climb out of the corruption and live their way into divinity, in the sense of divinity as perfection.
Let me qualify that. I live in a majority-Mormon region of the United States, where the notion of working one’s way to a celestial state of affairs is not that strange. We can take a lesson from Mormon readings of Paul that the material for such readings really is in there even though many of us have learned to read right past it.
I’m not endorsing Mormon theology; frankly, I don’t know enough about what they teach and do in temple to really give an informed opinion. I’m simply pointing out that, like the writer of Secret Revelation of John and other Nag Hammadi texts, later generations of readers have independently entertained the notion that the gap between human and divine simply wasn’t as wide in the ancient world as we often think of it today.
Today we see a stark divide between human reality and divine, “out of this universe” claims. But in the ancient world this was a spectrum that included men, half-men, demons, angels, and gods as agents. Paul’s message is that one moves toward perfection through Jesus, to whom one must pledge allegiance and then live in accordance with his model. It’s not intellectual or ritual or ethical but some holistic combination of all these that, for Paul, finds expression in community with one another.
Questions for the Road:
- Paul uses a lot of language about adoption, heirs, and children of God in this reading as a way to make the nations (“gentiles”) full members of God’s family. This wonderfully inclusive language has inspired many social justice movements. But Paul frequently does this while being critical of Israel and Jewish customs that are still very common today. He even says that Jerusalem is Hagar the slave! This sort of language has fed into generations of anti-Semitic attitudes. Is it possible to live with and be inspired by Paul’s inclusive language here without accepting this darker underside?
- Is sin a living concept for you? What has shaped your ideas about sin? Is there any advantage to defining sin as a generic condition rather than a psychological “personal guilt” thing? For instance, could it be compared to the Buddhist precept that “life is suffering”?
Thanks for reading this entry from the #30DaysofPaul reading challenge. We’re reading the seven undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans. Why not join us? Download the reading plan, which is based on the work of the Westar Paul Seminar as published in The Authentic Letters of Paul.
Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.