I’ve enjoyed my studies of Galatians so far in my Romans/Galatians class at school. In many ways it feels like a daunting challenge to tackle these books. Yet, understanding the books seems so fundamental and the issues in Romans and Galatians seem typical of the kinds of issues that are prevalent throughout the New Testament.
From my studies so far, one of the biggest debates in first century Christianity seems to be the role of Judaism in the Christian faith. Was Christianity a subset or sect of Judaism? Or was Christianity a completely different entity? Was the prevailing notion between the two continuity or discontinuity?
Few, if any, would deny that Christianity finds its heritage in the Jewish faith. Jesus was a Jewish Messiah. The Jews were the first converts to Christianity. The Bible of the earliest church was the Hebrew Scriptures. Christianity grew out of the Jewish context.
These earliest Jewish Christians maintained their social and national identity. They still circumcised their baby boys. They observed the religious holy day calendar, which was commanded in the Law of Moses and commemorated the events of their Jewish heritage. Observation of the dietary laws was still kosher. These issues would have most readily identified a Jew in the Gentile world. These elements did not constitute the entirety of the Law, but they represented boundary markers for God’s people. In short, they did not need to stop being Jews in order to become Christians.
For a period of time, these Jewish Christians were the only Christians. The gospel spread among the Jews exclusively at first. After some time, the gospel went to the Samaritans, and many of them became Christians. It was only after Peter received his vision that this chief apostle realized that the gospel could be taken to the Gentiles. And so the question arose quite naturally: did the Gentiles have to adopt Jewish practices? They could become Christians, but did that necessitate living a Jewish life? Christianity was going through the growing pains of transitioning from a Jewish movement to a universal religion for all people.
It would have been logical and reasonable to see why many Jews felt like their national and social identity could be imposed on the Gentiles. They had a centuries old self-understanding in the Jewish faith. Christianity had grown out of a Jewish context, and all Christians to that point kept the bulk of the Jewish law. It would have been inconceivable for many Jewish Christians to understand the world differently. I’m not saying that this made it right or that changes did not need to occur in the understanding of the Jewish Christians. However, it is easy to see how the earliest Christians would think in this way. To change would have been no small feat. It is more than changing a doctrinal position. What was required was a complete paradigm shift and way of seeing the world. In part, they would have had to change their thinking about their identity and what truly constituted them as a people.
This debate over the relationship between Jew and Gentile can be found throughout the New Testament. Understanding this dispute gives the proper context to books like the Gospel of Matthew, the Acts of the Apostles, and many of the epistles of Paul.
In Galatians, Paul reacts violently against this mentality of the “Judaizers.” For him, imposing Jewish national and social identity upon the Gentiles was paramount to a different gospel. It threatened the essence of the gospel. Paul demands that the Jewish Christians to choose the foundation of their identity; was it in Christ or the Law?
There’s more that could be said, obviously. Many scholars have written books on this subject. But that provides a quick synopsis of some my thoughts on the background of Galatians. I’ll probably continue my thoughts, including the process of making application to this subject, in some subsequent posts.
Go to my next post on the Jewish/Gentile issue.