Tuesday, March 15, 2005

The Surprising Significance of Galatians 2:10

I read Galatians a few nights ago. I find it a fascinating letter for many reasons, but in this post I want to focus on a seemingly obscure verse, Galatians 2:10. Paul writes:

"They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do."

In context, this is a throwaway line in the sense that it is unimportant to the broader argument Paul is making in Galatians. Yet, for reasons I will explain below, it is actually one of the most significant sentences in Galatians for those who want use the bible in the way I have recently described.

In the first chapter-and-a-half of his letter to the Galatians, Paul contends that he did not merely receive the gospel secondhand from any apostle who knew Jesus during his natural life. Paul asserts his authority by describing how he was specifically "called" and directly instructed by a vision of the risen Christ. Gal. 1:15-16.

By Paul's own account, the early years of his missionary work were done without any authorization or support from "the pillars" of the Jerusalem Church (i.e., the leaders of the nascent Christian movement) or any of the other churches in Judea. Gal. 1:17 - 2:1. After fourteen years, however, "a revelation" instructed Paul to go to Jerusalem and to meet with the Church leaders there. Gal. 2:2. Apparently, Paul's purpose was to get approval and support from the Jerusalem Church -- to formally unite their efforts. Gal. 2:9.

Now, put yourself in the shoes of those running the Jerusalem Church. Surely, you would indeed be pleased that "[t]he one who formerly was persecuting [you] is now proclaiming the faith." Gal. 1:23.

Paul was highly intelligent. Paul was earnest. See, e.g., Gal. 2:7-8. And giving any description of his utter dedication to the cause would risk understatement. He would, in short, be a spectacular asset to have on your side.

But you would also be wary.

Those in charge in Jerusalem were people like James ("the Lord's brother," Gal. 1:19) and John (one of the original twelve apostles, Matt. 10:2) who were extremely intimate with Jesus during his life. Now here comes someone who never knew Jesus during his natural life; someone who never heard Jesus preach; someone who did not live through the heart-rending experience of Jesus' grissly execution.

Sure, Paul was a capable go-getter. He would get the message out. But if he never even met the earthly Jesus, could he be trusted to get the message right?

In other words, before stamping the missions of this "newbie" with your approval, you would at least want to assure yourself that he learned and would attend to the basics.

This is how I read Galations 2:10. Before agreeing to join forces with him, James and John made Paul promise to "remember the poor" in his missionary work. Indeed, when read in context, it seems likely that this one-liner records a much longer conversation between Paul and "the pillars" about the gospel and the poor.

The fact that "remember[ing] the poor" was the "one thing" that those intimately familiar with Jesus asked of Paul, suggests the poor's absolute centrality to the Historical Jesus' message. This is, in other words, further evidence that when we are serving "the least of these," we are indeed at the heart of the gospel.


At 1:04 PM, Blogger donzelion said...

A dangerous line of reasoning here. Theologians differ about how the Gospels were constructed and recorded. If you discount Paul, because he had no direct tie to earthly Jesus, you may also have to discount the Gospels themselves, since the evidence that their authors listened firsthand is also suspect. This is another problem with the pure textualist approach to Gospel interpretation that is irrelevant to Constitutional interpretation.

At 7:54 AM, Blogger Infission said...


First, I haven't discounted Paul in this post. I've merely made a historical claim about how I think Paul might have been received by the Jerusalem Church. THIS PARTICULAR POST is consistent with deep deference to Paul. I don't think it makes any normative claims at all re: Paul's authority.

More importantly though, I think you've misunderstood the hermeneutic claims of my other posts. I'm neither interpreting the Bible NOR THE GOSPELS. I'm interpreting Jesus' message. Insofar as the Gospels don't accurately record Jesus' message, one must discount them. The scholarly consensus that the Gospels are not firsthand accounts, and the fact that we can't defer to them absolutely is a big reason that we NEED TO LISTEN TO PEOPLE LIKE PAUL. We need to supplement the Gospels with the New Testament letters precisely because the Gospels cannot be the "be all, end all" codification of Jesus' message. In other words, I'm not sure which way your point cuts.

On the other hand, this reveals a huge limitation to my Constitutional law analogy. The "text" that I'm interpreting does not exist in textual form. Jesus did give sermons, but we have no direct transcriptions of them. This makes interpreting Jesus' message terrifically unlike interpreting the U.S. Constitution.

I'm not sure all of that was coherent. I haven't had my coffee yet.

At 9:20 AM, Blogger ats54 said...

Nice observations on your original post.

It is always fun when a small verse explodes in your face with far reaching importance that usually goes unnoticed.

I'm not saying we should define the mountain by the molehill, by any means. But, that was a very interesting observation(s).

Here's a question for you though, Reverend:

You say that the Gospels may not be accurate, based on scholarly assertions that they are not true eye-witness accounts. That's fine. I understand your assertion to be that Jesus' primary agenda was to help "the least of these" and to teach us to do the same. Have you thought about and explored the possibility that this was not Jesus' primary goal, but that it was the primary goal of the Gospel writers? That maybe the authors and "the pillars" of the Jerusalem Church had a different agenda and used Christ's message (which undoubtedly addressed the issues of the poor) for their personal agenda? All this in much the same way the Religious Right does today. I suggest that if the Gospels were known as "Donald, George, Dick and John" (Rumsfeld, Bush, Cheney, Ashcroft) then we'd be reading a completely different side of Jesus' message. Or would it still be Jesus’ message at all?

In short, maybe the "least of these" agenda was created by the "liberal Jerusalem Church" and supported by early Church fathers such as Athanasius. :)


At 9:24 AM, Blogger ats54 said...

Sorry, my question is for Infission, since he is the author of this post.

Though, I would be curious to hear Reverend's thoughts as well.

At 4:15 PM, Blogger Infission said...

I don't think I am as skeptical of the Gospels as you're thinking I am. I think the Gospels contain MUCH that is accurate. I think that they derive from an oral tradition that was passed down from direct eyewitnesses.

Moreover, I'm not sure I'd say that Jesus' primary agenda was to help the least of these. I think the primary message was one of other-directedness -- of living our life in the service of others rather than in service of ourselves. The most critical and important APPLICATION of this other-directed ethic is a special concern for the least of these. In other words, if we truly loved our neighbors as ourselves, then we'd be most concerned with the most distressed. That's how I'd put it.

That being said, the question of what Jesus' message was is simply a historical question to be answered with historical evidence like any other. The Gospels, flawed though they may be, are powerful (though incomplete) evidence of what Jesus' message was.

It is unlikely that Jesus' other-directed ethic and special concern for the least of these was concocted after his death because his teachings in this regarded are supported by multiple, independent attestations. In other words, these teachings obviously transcend whatever biases the individual Gospel writers had.


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