The National Catholic Review
Is it foolish (NRSV) Galatians or stupid (NAB) Galatians? It’s so hard to know and so hard for a Galatian to catch a break, one way or the other. Paul writes in a polemical style common among ancient writers, but jarring to our ears. It is hard to imagine a papal encyclical beginning with "stupid Catholics," yet Paul snaps us to attention with this raw epithet. And then he asks, "who has bewitched you?" Paul uses the phrase to shake the Galatians up. He sees the Galatians in danger of walking away from the salvation they have gained in Christ. Paul asks if they received the Spirit through faith or through the "works of the law" (3:2). This antithesis is maintained throughout the letter, as is the antithesis between Spirit and "flesh" (3:3). It is clear that faith and Spirit adhere to those who follow Christ, while the "flesh" is associated with the "works of the law." Yet, this law is the law of Moses, given by God; how can it lead to the "flesh"? And what exactly is the "flesh"? The flesh is not necessarily the physical body, but the whole person turned away from God. How could the law lead one away from God? Precisely it seems because faith in Christ leads to the Spirit - that is the simple diagram Paul draws. It is that concrete, or experiential - God works "miracles among them" (3:5)because of their faith in Christ not "works of the law" - and we should not lose sight of the experiences of the Spirit amongst the early Christians as the ground of their conversion. Paul then begins an exegesis of the accounts of Abraham in Genesis 12 and 15 - a spiritual, not literal, reading of these texts. This is not to say that Paul’s reading of language in these texts is odd. From the Septuagint, he reads that Abraham had faith and it was reckoned to him as "righteousness" (3:6; Gen. 15:6). The exegetical move he makes moves beyond the literal reading of these words, for Paul says that Christians who have faith in Paul’s day are descendants of Abraham by virtue of this faith (3:7). This means that Abraham, who received blessings and righteousness prior to the giving of the law of Moses, is the model and the father of gentiles who are found righteous now due to justification through Christ. "For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed" (3:9). Paul claims that the law is, in some way, a curse, for those who do not do all the things of the law are under a curse (3:10). It is a strange even circular argument, with which will not truly be done until we are finished with all of Galatians, but Paul seems to argue in this way: those who are "under" the law are under a curse because everyone is cursed who does not do all of the law (Deuteronomy 27:26); but the law does not justify, because the righteous live by faith (Habakkuk 2:4); and those who do follow the law, which they cannot follow completely, do not live by faith but by the works of the law (Leviticus 18:5) (3:10-12). As the citations from the Old Testament indicate, Paul is drawing on scriptural passages, as he has previously from Genesis, to prove his argument. While his argumentation might seem odd to us, it is common amongst Jewish interpreters of his day, who understood the whole scripture as intimately related regardless of its historical context or literal meaning. As scripture for us, Paul’s writings also challenges us to view the relationship of the scripture not simply in a historical context, but primarily in a theological and spiritual context. At this point we can simply say that a curse is related to the law - God’s law - and that Christ relieves us from the curse "by becoming a curse for us" through the crucifixion, in order that God’s promise and blessing to Abraham might now be poured out on the Gentiles (3:13-14). Through Christ, it is clear, one gains access to justification through faith, as promised to Abraham and witnessed in his own life. But why then the law? The question still resonates. How could God’s law have come to such a strange and negative end in the theology of Paul? John W. Martens