In a nutshell: Paul struggles to regain authority among the Galatians when strangers come into town promoting circumcision and other practices that clearly mark these (non-Jewish) Christ followers as belonging to the people of Israel.
The point is, if I now endorse what I previously rejected, then I am demonstrating I have no integrity.
30 Days of Paul around the Web
- Running Dirt Roads on 1 Thess 4-5: “Paul wanted the followers of Christ to liberate themselves from worldly passions. … Amid the wild Greco-Roman culture, he wanted them to stand aware of their own beings, especially as they were in relation to one another.
- Glynn Cardy on 1 Thess 4-5: “Divine mandates worry me. Whether it’s the Pentecostal version [‘I have a word from the Lord’], or the Jonestown or Waco version of a leader with a messianic complex, or just your regular hometown egomaniac, they all worry me. When someone says, like Paul, that they ‘were not sent by human authority’ [1:1] I hear it at best as a power trip for the preacher and at worst a piped piper leading any gullible lemming to the cliff of disillusionment and disaster…”
Lolita and Legitimacy
No relationship is guaranteed to last forever. We fight this kind of battle often in life: How many marriages have ended with the arrival of an alluring stranger? How many parents have watched their teenager make a new friend and—seemingly overnight—become a different person? Their whole attitude shifts. They take their orientation from a new point on the compass. Try as hard as you might, you can’t seem to get your loved one back on your side.
Oddly enough, the drama of anger and betrayal in Galatians has not, to my knowledge, been heavily dramatized in Western culture, even though it has shaped the Christian imagination and Jewish-Christian relations to horrific degrees. The closest I come is a short story by Rudyard Kipling called “The Church that was in Antioch,” about a young soldier named Valens who dies protecting the Christians. In this rather heavy-handed tale, the words “They don’t know what they are doing,” on Valens’ dying breath—an echo of Jesus—form the catalyst for Peter to abandon his despair and rise to his role as the “rock” on which the church will be built. Paul in the story is a sickly, proud man who often stumbles over his words but at key moments speaks so clearly and with such emotion that he can command even the hard-headed Peter and the government officials to obey him. Perhaps you know of other stories; I couldn’t find them.
Nabokov’s Lolita is not directly inspired by Galatians, but it follows a similar, if more ominous, pattern that I think is helpful in understanding what is going on in this letter of Paul. In the novel Nabokov cleverly lulls us into identifying with the pedophile Humbert Humbert instead of with Dolores Haze, the 12-year-old girl he nicknames Lolita. He obsesses over her, isolates her, molests her continuously—in short, makes her fully his. So he thinks and so he insists to readers. By the end, we’re on to him. We know that he’s writing to us out of desperation to hold onto her. When another man helps her escape, HH becomes so infuriated that he commits murder, but even that isn’t enough to retrieve his “Lolita,” who was never really his. She has always kept some part of herself out of his grasp.
Paul is no Humbert Humbert, but the fear of loss that is so tangible in Lolita comes across also in this letter to the Galatians. This sort of loss was never about love but about legitimacy, the right to claim a special role in a particular world. Surely legitimacy is wrapped up in love, but it is not quite the same concept. Legitimacy has a snowball effect: when you achieve success here, it gives you credibility there. There is a point at which suddenly the up-front content of what you’re saying or doing has little bearing on your authority because the authority is now what people see first.
If you’re wondering what that has to do with Humbert Humbert and Lolita, it helps to recall that HH’s legitimacy depends on readers. He needs us to keep his ties to Lolita alive by reading and thereby reliving the story with him. Even by sharing this story with you, on some level I’m feeding his aim. In the novel itself he builds us up slowly with anecdotes of his interactions with other “nymphets” long before he introduces Lolita to the stage for his final attempt to convince us that he has a right to claim her.
But there’s always the risk that your authority will all come crashing down around you because someone refuses to grant it to you. “We all have such fateful objects,” wrote Nabokov, “it may be a recurrent landscape in one case, a number in another—carefully chosen by the gods to attract events of specific significance for us: here shall John always stumble; there shall Jane’s heart always break.” So it is with Paul and the Galatians.
The Integrity Problem
Paul says to the Galatians, “The point is, if I now endorse what I previously rejected, then I am demonstrating I have no integrity.” But Paul does endorse what he previously rejected. He used to be stricter in his practices, and now he is not. Paul may be the one who inspired the Galatians to rally behind Jesus, but he didn’t give them an easy mark of that newfound identity. What helped them feel they were set apart as a special people of God? They were baptized, and they no doubt broke bread together. Those are among the rituals Paul mentions in his letters. Yet the Galatians seem to be craving more than what they got. Why else would they jump at the chance to take on practices like circumcision? Does this boil down to a “liturgy fail”?
Paul is still failing on this front today, incidentally. Plenty of little Christian boys are still being circumcised alongside their Jewish peers.
Paul tried to rescue this situation by appealing to his authority based on a direct insight from God. Although today we find this a bit awkward—I feel like telling Paul to “prove it”—it’s possible that it was more convincing in Paul’s own time. Arthur Dewey writes of Galatians 1:15–16a:
Consider Odysseus, often called wily and resourceful, but how did he actually come to a decision? Athena would appear and provide the necessary insight for his predicament. In other words, revelation was a breakthrough from the divine world to the human. This was how the ancients could explain major transformations in thought. The different cast of a person’s mind could only come about through divine influence. Thus, Paul’s revelation actually fit into the epistemology of the ancient world. His radical change of mind could only have come about through the God of Israel revealing what was the meaning of the crucified Jesus. (“Trek to the Interior,” The Fourth R)
It’s possible this strategy worked. We don’t actually know whether Paul and the Galatians made peace.
I could write a whole separate blog post about Paul’s story of his own transformation, but perhaps others will also write about that. I’ll see how that develops.
Questions for the Road:
- Where do you find authority in your own life? Do you face challenges to your sense of legitimacy and meaning among your family, friends, workplace, religious/spiritual spaces? How successfully do you feel Paul meets such challenges in this letter to the Galatians?
- If you haven’t done this exercise before, you might find it worthwhile to compare what Paul says about himself here to what the book of Acts claims about him. The conflict in Antioch plays a key role in both texts. (If you have a copy of The Authentic Letters of Paul, you can also read the authors’ assessment of this problem on pp. 9–13.)
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.