by Dr. Robert R. Seyda



Augustine of Hippo’s contemporary, Chrysostom of Constantinople believes Paul was referring to some members of the Jerusalem council who were highly respected, were themselves not being monitored as to what they were preaching. Therefore, when told of Paul’s ministry they added nothing, they corrected nothing because they were aware that the object of his missionary journeys was to communicate to the Gentiles what came to him by the revelation of the Holy Spirit. Also, in that he brought Titus with him who was uncircumcised, they did not require that he be circumcised, nor imparted to Paul any additional knowledge.[1] This was not a case of Paul dismissing these revered brethren, but that if they expressed any concerns about his message and ministry, those concerns were so neutralized that it left them speechless.

Another early church scholar of this same period, Ambrosiaster, takes this reference of Paul to mean that the Apostles were originally simple people with no education and no distinction in the law, but this did not matter.  Who would accuse someone if God excused them?  The question is not what a person was, but what they are now.  Paul wants people to understand that he was an expert in the law and of blameless life, and for that reason, he turned into an outstanding minister of the Gospel. The writer goes on to point out that Paul says that he got nothing from the Apostles; it all came from God. In Paul’s words: “The One who imparted the meaning of Christian doctrine to the unlearned is also the One who was pleased to impart it to me as well since I was learned in the law.” Therefore, did Paul need to learn anything from the Apostles, when he already learned from the Anointed One and became even more so by the grace of the Anointed One?[2]

Early church preacher Chrysostom thinks he hears Paul saying this: If these critics at one time preached that circumcision was necessary, they will give an account to God. God will not accept any excuses just because they are well-known and in authority. It is obvious, says Chrysostom, that Paul did not make a big deal out of this. And he does not say “what they are” but “what they were,” indicating that they also later gave up the preaching of circumcision, once the Gospel was manifest everywhere. It is as though Paul were saying, “I do not condemn or criticize those brethren, for they knew what they were doing and they will give an account to God.”[3] In other words, what is in the past is dead and gone. No reason to bring it up now by being defensive. Just leave it alone and God will take care of it.

Medieval commentator Bruno the Carthusian sees the possible friction between Paul and those in Jerusalem expressed this way: Paul conferred with them, and after receiving their assurance I appeared just as right as they were. But Paul’s reference to what sort they were at one time refers to Peter and the others prior to growing in faith as being some of those people who seem wise is their own minds. The Apostle Paul bids them remember that what they were under the Law should be of no interest to anyone. In fact, Paul was more respected in the Jewish community than they were until they met Jesus. But this sort of glory meant nothing to Paul.

Bruno feels that this whole argument started because there seemed to be some people who considered Peter and the others to be great in the Christians community, and this newcomer, Paul, really didn’t amount to much. However, Paul hints that since he knew about them back in those early days, he’d rather not mention anything. What he did know was that God shows no favoritism, meaning that God does not find people acceptable on account of their reputation of ethnicity, wealth, or knowledge. So, there is no reason to bring up what they were. Therefore, if it didn’t matter to Paul, why should it matter to them? As far as Paul was concerned, the best way to judge his position in the congregation was that Peter and the others, who were said to be of some repute, conferred nothing on him, that is, they made no corrections in the Gospel he preached and the way he ministered among the Gentiles. They offered no objections when he discussed his Gospel with them. All in all, the bottom line is that they didn’t change and neither did Paul. But what did come out of all this was the fact that they extended the right hand of fellowship to Paul and Barnabas.[4]

Another early medieval scholar, Peter Lombard, gives his assessment: For Lombard, when the Apostle Paul says, “from those who seemed to be of some repute,” it is as if he were saying, “Regarding that conference about the Gospel, I will share my own assessment.” And Paul’s assessment was that such people, ignorant as they were in comparison to him at one time when under the Law before they became Apostles, seemed to be of some repute. That is, they seemed to be of some authority because they walked with the Lord and were present at His Transfiguration. They seemed to be such in the eyes of those false brethren because those who appeared to be important were counted as being something special based on their reputations. Yet they are not extraordinary unless they are excellent ministers of God and Jesus the Anointed One. That makes them something although they are nothing by themselves.[5]

Jerome finds this passage very intriguing. It clearly shows that Paul was intervening either on behalf of these prominent people or was dismissing them as unimportant. That’s why Jerome says that we should briefly take a look at it two ways. On the one hand, those who were noticeably present at the council meeting added nothing to his reputation, but on the contrary, gave the right hand of fellowship as equals to him and Barnabas. On the other hand, it may be that Paul is saying that those who were evidently present council meeting added nothing to him, he added something to them, and they became more steadfast in the grace of the Gospel.[6] Either way, Paul comes out looking good and respectful of these individuals.

Early church theologian Thomas Aquinas sees Paul describing the status of these brethren of great repute as being what they were before their conversion, namely, the status they enjoyed in the synagogue. This status, he hints gently, was mean and lowly. Hence, he says, what they were at some point in time, for they were coarse, poor, ignorant, and illiterate. But what they were was nothing to him, and did not feel it was right for him to discuss the matter. Perhaps his reason for introducing this was that by considering their status in the synagogue – which was very little – and the status Paul held as a ranking Pharisee – which was quite influential – they might see that Paul’s opinion on legalism should be preferred to theirs. Consequently, since Paul stands equal to them in the congregation of believers, even though he reached a higher rank in the synagogue before their conversion, yet, after his conversion he held a rank equal to theirs.

Hence when matters concerning the synagogue were discussed, the opinion of Paul deserved to prevail over the others, but when it came to the Gospel, his opinion was as good as theirs. And just as the others were not made great through things pertaining to the Law but through the Anointed One, so too was the Apostle’s faith in the Anointed One and not through things pertaining to the Law.[7] In my mind, Aquinas missed the mark on this one. Anything of importance attached to Peter, James, and John that would cause them to be considered of higher rank, was only that they walked and talked with Jesus the Son of God for over three years. There is no hint that back in Capernaum where to live, they made no big impression in the Synagogue there.

Martin Luther once said, in relationship to his conflict with the Vatican in Rome, that if the Pope would concede that God alone by His grace through the Anointed One justifies sinners, he would carry him in his arms, he would kiss his feet. But since the Pope will not make such a concession, he will give in to nobody, not even to all the angels in heaven, not to Peter, not to Paul, not to a hundred emperors, not to a thousand popes, not to the whole world. If in this matter he were to give in to them, they would take from him the God who created him, and Jesus the Anointed One who redeemed him by His blood. Said Luther, “Let this be our resolution, that we will suffer the loss of all things, the loss of our good name, of life itself, but the Gospel and our faith in Jesus the Anointed One – we will not stand for it to be taken away by anybody.”[8] Looks like Luther was taking his cue from the apostle Paul here in this letter to the Galatians.

How different the history of the congregation might be if the Roman Catholic authorities during Luther’s day would have expressed the same attitude about him as early church scholar Ambrosiaster did in comparing Paul with Peter. Ambrosiaster noted that Paul mentions only Peter and compares himself to him because he received the leadership role in founding the believing Jewish congregations. Paul was also chosen in a similar way and given the leadership role in founding the Gentile congregations, although, of course, Peter also preached to the Gentiles when the occasion arose, and Paul preached to Jews. Both men are recorded as having done both things. Nonetheless, Peter was recognized as having full authority to preach among the Jews just as Paul preached among the Gentiles with full confidence. This is why he calls himself the Teacher of the Gentiles in Faith and in Truth.[9] Each man received the gift according to their abilities.[10]

Reformer John Calvin was used to having his writings and teachings attacked, so he sees what happened here as necessary. Sometimes, boasting is essential just as long as it is holy boasting, and worthy of the highest praise. If Paul yielded this point to his opponents that his status improved under the Apostles, his opponents could furnish two charges against him. Their immediately reply might be, so you did make some progress meeting with the Council. They helped you correct your past errors and did not admonish you for your former brash attitude. Had that really taken place, the whole doctrine which he taught the Gentiles would come under suspicion.

Not only that, but it would lower his status among the Apostles and treated as an ordinary disciple. We find, therefore, that his boasting was not to elevate himself personally, but became necessary in order to elevate his Gospel. That is what led him to holy boasting. The controversy makes no reference to individuals, and, therefore, cannot be a struggle of personal ambition. But Paul’s determination was that no person, however eminent, should cast a shadow of doubt over his apostleship, on which the authority of his doctrine depended. If this is not enough to silence those stray dogs, says Calvin, at least their barking is sufficiently quieted.[11]

[1] Chrysostom, Homilies on Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.

[2] Ambrosiaster: Commentary on Galatians, loc cit.

[3] Chrysostom: Homily on Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit., Edwards, M. J. (Ed.) p. 21

[4] Bruno the Carthusian, Complete Galatians, op. cit., loc., cit.

[5] Peter Lombard: The Letter to the Galatians (Medieval Bible Commentary series), loc. cit.

[6] Jerome: On Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit., Edwards, M. J. (Ed.), p. 22.

[7] Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Galatians, loc. cit.

[8] Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians, loc. cit., p. 33

[9] See 1 Timothy 2:7

[10] Ambrosiaster, op. cit.

[11] John Calvin, Commentary on Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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