NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
PAUL’S LETTER TO THE GALATIAN CHURCHES
CHAPTER ONE (Lesson XLI)
Even though Paul excelled as a Pharisee in the Jewish religion, he would later come to learn that he was like those God spoke of to Isaiah who says “they belong to me.” They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but memorized prayers and creeds.1 Also, very much similar to what was said about them later as being uncaring and self-centered.2 The sad part is that when Paul said he rose above others in the ranks it simply means there were many more just like him, of which he was the best.3 But as the prophet Jeremiah learned, being the best at doing what’s wrong does not count with God.4 These are the same people Jesus dealt with during His time on earth, and we must deal with today.5 No wonder Paul warned the Colossians to be aware of such misguided pretenders.6
After reading this verse, Chrysostom feels that Paul is saying: what he did against the assemblies of believers was done, not on man’s account but, through zeal for God – mistaken zeal, but zeal nonetheless – so how can he be accused of promoting the assembly of believers just to make himself look good when what he does now for the assembly of believers is done because he knows the truth?7 And Jerome feels that Paul is wisely adding to the discussion the fact that he did what he did out of adherence to the traditions of his forefathers, not because it was a law of God. This he no doubt based upon the fact that the Pharisees, who teach doctrines and precepts of men and reject the Law of God, do so to set up their own traditions.8
Theologian Robert Gundry gives us a descriptive look at the language Paul uses here to describe his advancement through the ranks of Jewish scholars. Gundry contends that the literal translation of the Greek reads, “I was beating my way forward in Judaism,” means the same as “I was advancing in Judaism.” But a literal translation come across so well with “persecuting the assemblies of believers outrageously and wreaking havoc on it” that it makes one wonder whether Paul intended to portray his advancement in Judaism being credited to him at the expense of the Christians he ravaged.9 To put it another way, imagine Paul saying: “I beat my way through the crowd of my fellow Jews in order to get to Christians so I could persecute them, and thereby worked my way up to the front of a zealous mob.”
Gundry then goes on to explain that the phrase: “Beyond my many contemporaries among my kinfolk” (“above many of my equals” – KJV) portrays his advancement, at least in comparative terms, and perhaps also in competitive terms. Even if only in the comparative, we detect self-righteousness in pre-Christian Paul.10 “Beyond my many contemporaries” may also mean “beyond my contemporaries, who were many,” in which case he claims to have surpassed all his contemporaries in the practice of Judaism. Then the statement: “Being an extraordinary zealot” (“being more exceedingly zealous” – KJV) is reminiscent of the extraordinary zealot Phinehas in the Sinai wilderness.11 And finally: “For my ancestral traditions” (“of the traditions of my fathers” – KJV) doesn’t refer to the First Covenant as such – rather, to it as interpreted in the Pharisaic school of thought which Paul attended to become a Pharisee.12
As Gundry sees it: That a revelation of Jesus the Anointed One tore Paul loose from those traditions despite his extraordinary zeal for them should draw the Galatians away from the non-gospel of the Judaizers and back to the Gospel he proclaimed to them. In other words, Paul, at one time, was in deeper and more committed to the old way of the Law than any of these Jewish believers or converted non-Jews in Galatia would ever be. So if the Anointed One could rescue him and set him on the right path, then certainly they should see that the liberation they received through the Gospel Paul preached to them should do the same.13
Messianic writer Daniel Thomas Lancaster gives us his view of what Paul is saying here. Says Lancaster, that when Paul said he was advancing in Judaism zealously according to the old traditions, he was not saying “I used to be a legalistic, law-abiding, orthodox Jew, but after finding Jesus I dumped all that.” The Greek verb prokoptō translated as, “going forward, advancing,” is a term which originally meant “ships making headway against the wind and waves at sea.” But Jewish historian Josephus and other contemporary literature of that time used it to mean “making great progress in education.” Paul was really saying: I was an important disciple of an important teacher (Rabban Gamaliel the Elder), and I was zealous to learn the Oral Law, namely, the traditions, and I was advancing very fast to the top of the class. I was headed for a big seat on the Sanhedrin; I was going to be one of the top scholars because I was a prodigy of Gamaliel.14
By listing the religious pedigree he once cherished but now counts as insignificant, Paul gives us a chance to look at the history of Judaism and the Law. The Jewish faith, based on what God revealed to Moses and passed on through the Prophets, increased by an incredibly large volume of traditions and customs as added by Israel’s religious hierarchy. In his case, Paul was very familiar with the additional teachings that the Scribes and Rabbis added to God’s Law. As such, it became a form of psychological and religious reinforcement from a select group who focused on what the flesh could do to please God and not on what faith could do. Therefore, the Galatians needed to be aware that Paul was not some obscure religious hermit, but that he attained a higher level of respect among his peers than any of them would ever reach.
But now he sees the same thing happening to the Gospel given to believers by the Anointed One Himself. These Judaizers wanted to add some of these same old traditions and customs to improve the teachings of Jesus. This upset Paul because he believed that the Anointed One’s sacrifice, as well as his own personal sufferings, should have given the Galatians a new perspective on the spiritual reinforcement of Love. Here the focus was on others and being significant in their lives. Paul is basically saying: If by following what the Anointed One said is not good enough to get us into heaven, then we might as well throw the whole thing away and start all over.
As a preacher of the Gospel, I cherish the Cross of the Anointed One as much as anyone, and I made it one of the central points of my preaching. But I wonder sometimes if we haven’t taken away it’s real appeal by dressing it up with silver, gold, and precious stones to make it look like an artifact or souvenir, rather than the gross object of torture it really was. Wearing the cross attached to one’s lapel or draped around one’s neck for all to see is not as significant as wearing it attached to the heart and draped in front of the mind for all to experience.
Ambrosiaster sums up what he finds significant here in Paul’s writings. He concludes that if Paul, who was an Israelite and held the rank of rabbi among the Jews, having studied with Gamaliel, a brilliant teacher, and stood head and shoulders above his peers and contemporaries, abandoned the Law for Yeshua, how much less should those outside the Law subject themselves to it! And if this man rejoiced at having gotten out from under the heavy yoke of slavery to the Law, why should the Galatians now lose their freedom to be chained to the Law?15
Martin Luther continues to compare his personal experience to that of Paul’s. Even as the Apostle was enlightened by the Gospel, so Luther was unfamiliar with their message. And just as Paul was zealous for Judaism’s laws, rites, rituals, regulations, and ceremonies, the same was true of Luther’s zeal for those same things in the Roman Catholic Church. In Luther’s own words he said, “I tried hard to live up to every law as best I could. I punished myself with fasting, meditating, praying, and other exercises more than all those who today hate and persecute me. I was so much in earnest that I imposed upon my body more than it could stand. I honored the pope as a matter of conscience. Whatever I did, I did with a single heart to the glory of God.”16 Luther is certainly to be applauded for his dedication, but once he found out it was driving him further and further away from God and the Gospel, the more he understood when doing something in error, no matter how zealous you are, it still does not make it right. If there’s anything that keeps you from going directly to God through His Son, it’s best to be free of it before it destroys your freedom to choose.
The Syriac Version translates verse fourteen this way: “I went much farther in Judaism than many of my contemporaries who were of my nation, and was peculiarly zealous for the doctrine of my fathers.”17 In other words, Paul knew more about the oral teachings started by the scribe Ezra in 450 BC, that would eventually wind up in the Mishnah and Talmud, than his fellow students, but only because he spent more time studying at the feet of Gamaliel than they did. His own personal dedication and persistence are what paid off by expanding his knowledge of what previous Jewish Rabbis said. It wasn’t some inherent superior brainpower that made this possible, but it was his actions in pursuing the truth of his religion. No wonder he was so opposed to any other interpretations of what these Jewish teachers said. And since they did not accept any other Anointed One than the one they envisioned, since Yeshua the Nazarene did not fit their description, he was vehemently opposed to those who heralded Him as the Anointed One. That’s was, until he met Jesus, then everything changed dramatically.
Joseph Benson finds it interesting that Paul mentioned the fact that he started his studies with many boys of the same age. When they arrived in Jerusalem to study for their bar mitzvah, they were all at the same level of education. But then Saul began to pull ahead because of his enthusiasm and zeal to learn the writings of the Rabbis. Over and over he studied their comments on the Law until it was burned into his mind. These are what the Gospel writers and our Lord called the traditions of men began to separate them from what was written by Moses and the Prophets. And then becoming a Pharisee was the crown jewel of Jewish accomplishment. So Paul was not someone down at the bottom looking up at these Judaizers, but someone at the top looking down on them.
1 Isaiah 29:13
2 Ibid. 57:1-13
3 Philippians 3:3-6
4 Jeremiah 15:1-2
5 Matthew 15:1-9; see Mark 7:1-13
6 Ephesians 3:8-15
7 Chrysostom: Homily on Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 11
8 Jerome: On Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 11
9 Robert H. Gundry: On Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit., Kindle Location 247-254
10 Cf. Philippians 3:6-7a, 9
11 Numbers 25:1–13
12 See Philippians 3:5; Acts of the Apostles 22:3; 26:4-5
13 Robert Gundry, On Galatians. op. cit., loc. cit., Kindle Location 239-262
14 D. Thomas Lancaster: On Galatians, op. cit., loc. p. 34
15 Ambrosiaster, op. cit.
16 Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians, loc. cit., p. 28
17 The Syriac New Testament: Translated into English from the Peshitto Version by James Murdock, Published by Marshall Brothers, London, 1905