NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
PAUL’S LETTER TO THE GALATIAN CHURCHES
CHAPTER ONE (Lesson XXXVIII)
1:13 I’m sure you’ve heard about my past, when I was a Jewish religious fanatic, and how I viciously attacked God’s assembly of believers and did everything I could to destroy it.”
Jewish writer Mark A. Nanos believed that Paul was wanting to do more here than just bring up his well-known past. His was his modest way of saying that he anticipated that these Judaizers would come to these Galatians, saying that they were bringing a new revelation. They would also attempt to put themselves on the same spiritual and intellectual level as the Galatian believers. This would certainly allow them to assume the authority to instruct the believers to accept what they were telling them and that any resistance on their part would jeopardize getting the intended message. In other words, Paul by his own experiences knew that it was quite ordinary for any audience, who was being told of a new revelation, to be curious as to where it came from and by whom was it given. In such a case, these Judaizers should have been ready to defend what they were saying the same way Paul answered those who opposed the Gospel message that he was delivering. So why didn’t they do so, that was certainly a mystery to Paul.1
So Paul shares his personal biography with them on how things were at one point in his life. Apparently, this came as no secret to the good folks in Galatia, most likely because Paul’s family, who live in the next province of Cilicia to the east, already spread the word. He showed no interest in hiding anything about his past. The Gospel Paul preached to them was the same message by which he was converted. So, he not only talked the talk but walked the walk. If the Judaizers thought they were pious champions of the Jewish faith, Paul outdid them all as one of the most devout defenders of Judaism. That’s why he hated this new cult that followed this Jesus of Nazareth. He went after them like a bounty hunter. His fellow Pharisees looked on him as a hero, while Christians saw him as a religious hoodlum. It should be understood that Paul did not attack the believers in Jesus the Anointed One because he necessarily hated them, but he did so as a patriotic defender of the traditions of the Pharisees which he zealously lived by and believed all should do so.
In case the Galatians weren’t sure Paul actually converted to Christianity, he confesses to his guilt in persecuting them. He thought he was standing up for God’s chosen people and their faith, without realizing he was persecuting God’s Son and His Gospel. So, now that he’s on their side, he refers to this new company of believers as God’s Church. If he used the term “the Anointed One’s Church,” the Judaizers would immediately be on his case for ignoring all God taught His people through Moses and the Prophets. But Paul wanted both Jew and Gentile believers to know that just as God the Father and God the Son were one, therefore, everyone who believes in Jesus, be they Jew and Gentile, are also one with God and His Church.
This is not the only time Paul felt led to share the testimony of his conversion to calm down his critics. When he was back in Jerusalem and was at the Temple with others to show his respect for God’s house, he was arrested for defiling this holy institution. So he asked his Roman guard if he could speak to those who raised such a ruckus about bringing in unauthorized individuals onto the Temple grounds. So in Aramaic, he told them about when he persecuted the followers of Jesus because he felt about them the same way the Jews now felt about him.2 Paul repeated this again when he stood before King Agrippa some days later.3
But for anyone in Galatia who wanted to know more, surely they would have been able to find out what happened during Paul’s persecution of the Anointed One’s followers when he participated in Stephen being martyred.4 But that was not all, Paul (known at that time as Saul), was a fanatic persecutor of all those who called Jesus the Anointed One.5 He was honest enough to tell the Corinthians, “I am the least important of all the missionaries. I should not be called a missionary because I made it so hard for God’s church. I am different now.”6 And Paul told the Philippians he was so eager to defend his religion that he persecuted the church. And no one could find fault with the way I obeyed the Law of Moses.7 And to Timothy, Paul shared what he was before he met the Anointed One and how meeting Him changed his life.8
Early church African scholar Marius Victorinus believes that by Paul telling this unsavory part about his life, was another way to show that he learned all that from listening and watching others, so it was far better that he learn the truth from God and Jesus the Anointed One. The aim of this is to prevent the Galatians from entertaining another opinion or supposing that anything needs to be added to the Gospel.9 We must remember in those days there was no such thing as a denomination. These converts to the Anointed One were simply known as “The Way” and “Followers of the Anointed One.”
Augustine of Hippo expresses a particular view on Paul’s persecution of the church. In Paul’s mind, if by persecuting God’s church and trying to destroy it Paul advanced up Judaism’s ladder of notables. So it is clear that Judaism is opposed to God’s “called out” ones, not because of the spiritual law that the Jews received but because of their own carnal and slavish way of life. And if by imitating the traditions of his forefathers Paul persecuted the followers of the Anointed One, and the traditions of his ancestors are opposed to their assemblies. Nevertheless, the law is not to blame. For the law is spiritual and does not force anyone to understand it using human logic.10 The fault lies rather, with those who view what they received intellectually and, moreover, handed it down through many teachings of their own.11 I saw this in my own lifetime growing up in an extremely conservative Pentecostal denomination, where people were judged more by what preachers said the Bible teaches, rather than by what the Bible actually taught.
The great preacher Chrysostom of Constantinople offers what he feels was Paul’s argument. As Paul saw it if his efforts against these assemblies were not based on ulterior motives but from mistaken religious zeal, why should he be motivated by self-pride now that he was promoting these assemblies and embraced the truth? If this then was not his motive, but a godly zeal, similar to what possessed him when he was in error, how much more should he be fired up now that he knows the truth? Ought he not be free from being questioned about his motives. As soon as he changed over to the doctrines of these assemblies he shook off his Jewish prejudices and manifested a zeal even more ardent than before. This should be proof enough that his conversion was sincere, and that the zeal which possesses him now is from above. What other incentives could he have for making such a change, and exchange honor for contempt, peace for peril, and security for distress? Nothing else but his love of truth.12
Another member of the 4th-century scholars, Ambrosiaster, notices a theme in what Paul is saying here to those who may have doubted his allegiance to the Anointed One. Perhaps pointing to the false apostles who were causing such discord because of their commitment to the Law, Paul, more or less, says: “He was more dedicated than any of them in his attempts to defend the Law, which he did not do in order to gain the favor of other people but because he thought it was what God wanted.” However, Ambrosiaster feels that Paul now acknowledges that in fact, he was pleasing the leaders of the Jewish faith although he thought he was pleasing God. This seems like a hidden message to the individuals involved, that they too were making the same mistake he once did.
Ambrosiaster suggests that Paul admits he did not know that the time for keeping the Law was in order to gain salvation was over, and that he was faithfully following the teaching of his ancestors as outlined in the oral teachings of the Rabbis, both out of respect for Jewish religion and out of spite against this new way started by Jesus of Nazareth. Not only that, but he was aiming at another goal, and that was to stand head and shoulders above his peers in his zeal for the Law. It took a direct revelation from God through the Anointed One to bring him to his senses, and it was this same revelation he brought to Galatia. So why couldn’t these new believers in Galatia remain as faithful as he was? Why did they so quickly buy into the polluted gospel brought by these false teachers?13
Ninth century theologian Haimo of Auxerre offered paraphrase on what he thinks Paul is saying here: “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries, that is, beyond all those of my own era and those who were my own age. I was advancing in the teaching of the Law according to the tradition of the Pharisees from whose class I was descended. Nobody could rival my zeal for the lessons and inquiries, nor indeed for the persecution of Christians. Thus, they could not match my status in the synagogue.14 Among my own people, the people of the Pharisees, I was more dedicated to a greater degree, an ardent follower, meaning a diligent imitator, living to prop up the synagogue of my ancestral traditions, namely, of the Pharisees.”15
When Paul was speaking about his peers, Bruno the Carthusian hears Paul saying: “I advanced, I say, by performing beyond many of my contemporaries who were young and industrious just as I was. I call them contemporaries, not proselytes, for they were among my own people and thus children of Abraham nurtured in the Law just as I was. I also say that I lived as an ardent imitator, a follower, and a lover not only of the Law but also of my ancestral traditions.” Paul is revealing that the prophets bestowed certain traditions that went beyond the Law, such as when Zechariah speaks of the fasting on the first month, the fasting on the fourth, etc.16 Paul accepted them as traditions for his life because he was so fascinated by them that it was as though they belonged to him. That’s why when he persecuted the assemblies of believers, it was obvious that he didn’t learn anything about the Gospel prior to his conversion.17
1 Mark A. Nanos: On Galatians, op. cit., p. 125
2 Acts of the Apostles 22:3-23
3 Ibid. 26:4-18
4 Ibid. 8:1-3
5 Ibid. 9:1-2, 13-14, 21, 26
6 1 Corinthians 15:9-10a
7 Philippians 3:6-7
8 1 Timothy 1:13
9 Marius Victorinus: Edwards, M. J. (Ed.), Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999, p. 11
10 Romans 7:14
11 Augustine’s Commentary on Galatians: Introduction, Text, Translation, and Notes (Oxford Early Christian Studies) by Eric Plumer, op. cit., loc, cit.
12 Chrysostom: St. John: Homilies on Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.
13 Ambrosiaster: Commentary on Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 6
14 Philippians 3:5-6
15 Haimo of Auxerre, op. cit., loc. cit.
16 Zechariah 8:19
17 Bruno the Carthusian: The Letter to the Galatians (Medieval Bible Commentary series), op. cit., loc. cit.