The agitators and the pillars: a hypothesis

Richard Fellows, author of the blog Paul and co-workers, just put up a fascinating challengeto the near unanimous understanding of the message of the Galatian “agitators”, also adding a twist on how to understand the dynamic between Paul and the “pillars” at the Jerusalem church.

The typical scholarly understanding of the background of Galatians is that the agitators genuinely represented a Jewish faction that still believed in retaining certain Jewish customs as we see in Acts 15. The message these agitators were spreading among the Galatians is usually conceptualized something like this:

“You should be circumcised because scripture and the Jerusalem church leaders require it. Why should you believe Paul when he tells you that you don’t have to be circumcised?”

In other words, they challenged Paul’s apostolic authority, subjugating it to that of the Jerusalem leadership. Richard Fellows, however, thinks that their message was somewhat different:

“You should be circumcised because scripture requires it. Paul knows this, but he taught you the opposite because he was a loyal envoy of the Jerusalem church leaders (who oppose circumcision).”

Eyebrows will most certainly be raised by this proposition, as this is a very different picture of the scenario than is commonly understood!

The description of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 is often regarded as Luke’s understatement of major differences between Paul and the other “pillars” in the Jerusalem church. There is indeed tension between what the Council decided about Gentiles abstaining from meat offered to idols and Paul’s advice on that same subject in 1 Cor 8, even though Acts presents the decision as so uncontroversial that there was rejoicing in Antioch where the conflict originated (v. 31) despite of it. Still, we needn’t read any further between the lines than we are justified. Acts certainly depicts Peter as independently convinced of the invalidity of at least some of the Jewish customs, including his statement at the Jerusalem Council. This is not to say that the Jerusalem church was painted as wholly gone over to “Christian liberty” from the Jewish customs — clearly they were not — but that it was progressively minimalistic in its fidelity to those customs. Most scholars (except the conservative ones) usually assume that Luke is glossing over conflicts, making things look more harmonious than they actually were; I agree that this is a possibility, but because Luke gives plenty of examples of conflict among Christians in Acts, it doesn’t seem likely that Luke would have thought he could get away with ignoring a conflict of that magnitude, especially given his focus on Paul.

Richard makes some powerful arguments, including the claim that Paul was not defending his authority as equal to the Apostles here as he does in other epistles like 2 Corinthians, but rather he’s making a conscious effort to emphasize his independence from them; Paul wants to emphasize that he is not James’ or Peter’s lackey when he delivers the same message that the Council decided (viz. that Gentiles needn’t be circumcised). This is the motivation for Paul telling the Galatians the story of when he called out Peter for hypocrisy, to the effect that, “I’m even more radical in liberty from Jewish customs than Peter himself!” The implication is that the pillars like Peter were advocates of relative freedom from Jewish custom. Paul makes much more hay by recounting this story in Richard’s version than with the conventional understanding.

This interpretation is not without at least one problem that I’ve identified: if he’s right, Paul missed a wonderful opportunity to prove once and for all that he personally believed that Gentiles shouldn’t be circumcised. If the background for the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 is given even the slightest credence, I have a hard time conceiving that it wouldn’t have occurred to Paul immediately upon hearing the Galatians question his convictions about Gentile circumcision to say, “You think I believe Gentiles should be circumcised? I was the one (well, me and Barnabas) who brought this matter to the attention of the Jerusalem leaders!”

I didn’t mean to go on so long about it, since I’m not necessarily convinced myself.  Still, it’s an interesting idea I thought I’d highlight here. Go read his post!

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  • Richard Fellows

    Thanks for your interest in this hypothesis. It is great to see that my post has been read and thoroughly understood. In many ways you have explained the hypothesis better than I did. This is helpful.

    Concerning Acts 15:1-3, it seems that Paul and Barnabas were sent to Jerusalem by the church of Antioch, and there is no indication that the trip was their initiative. In any case, the purpose of the trip was to get the apostles and elders to give a ruling on the circumcision issue. Paul would not have written this to the Galatians. To do so would have played into the agitators hands, wouldn't it? The agitators and their Galatian friends would have said, “See, Paul went to Jerusalem to get the ruling of the church there and to bring it back to Antioch. This proves that, on the circumcision issue, Paul is the mouthpiece of the Jerusalem church.” To avoid feeding the rumor that he was an underling of the pillars, Paul says that he went up 'by revelation'. No doubt this was true, but I suspect it was not the whole truth.

    Paul does write that presented his gospel before the pillars. He is clear that he did so BEFORE he knew what the response would be. Thus he proves that he did not preach his gospel just to please the pillars.

    Anyway, those are my initial thoughts on the matter. I will ponder it some more. Thanks for raising the point.

  • Hi, Richard! I'm very happy you came here to respond and that you thought my (necessarily truncated) presentation of your idea was accurate.

    I anticipated that your response might be that Paul and Barnabas were sent by Antioch, and no, I wouldn't expect him to want to highlight the fact that he was “sent” per se, but I imagined that he could have downplayed his role as delegate…which, now that I see that apparently he did. As you said, he credited his visit to “by revelation”, which again seems like he's asserting that he independently arrived at his opinion about Gentile circumcision.

    Interesting stuff!

  • Hi, Richard! I'm very happy you came here to respond and that you thought my (necessarily truncated) presentation of your idea was accurate.

    I anticipated that your response might be that Paul and Barnabas were sent by Antioch, and no, I wouldn't expect him to want to highlight the fact that he was “sent” per se, but I imagined that he could have downplayed his role as delegate…which, now that I see that apparently he did. As you said, he credited his visit to “by revelation”, which again seems like he's asserting that he independently arrived at his opinion about Gentile circumcision.

    Interesting stuff!

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