Paul’s angriest letter: Galatians

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Galatians, selections of which are read in the early Sundays of Ordinary Time after Eastertide in Year C, reads like Paul’s hastiest and angriest letter. He addresses the recipients as “foolish Galatians!” (Gal 3.1) And the letter includes one of his rudest comments, carefully left out of the lectionary, “Those agitators [arguing for circumcision] had better go the whole way and make eunuchs of themselves!” (Gal 5:12 REB) Paul’s passion and anger revolve around the subjects of circumcision especially, but also sharing a common meal.

A statue of Paul with a sword (symbolising the word of God) seems particularly appropriate for this fiery letter. The statue is in St Paul’s Outside the Walls, Rome.

From the time of the Maccabean crisis1 circumcision and food laws had become key “works of the law” that helped maintain cultural boundaries around Judaism. Paul’s practice, of not requiring Gentile circumcision, and of sharing a common meal with non-Torah-observant Christians, was knocking that carefully maintained fence down again. As in Maccabean times, this produced a “zealous” reaction.

Paul himself was provoked to what he called zeal (Phil 3:6) which he demonstrated by persecuting the church. The people trying to enforce Gentile circumcision in Galatia may actually be less zealous than Paul had been, trying to change the church to their way of thinking rather than persecuting it. Paul, however much his views have been turned through 180°, is still the character who passionately believes his own views are the right ones, and will not easily accept disagreement with his deeply held convictions.

If First Corinthians showed us Paul at his most traditional and ecclesiastical2, Galatians shows us Paul at his most isolated and radical. He puts his understanding of Christ’s commission to him above everything else, and that understanding includes a full acceptance of Gentiles without demanding Torah observance. In Acts, Peter is shown as the first to reach that position (Acts 10), and in chapter 2 of this letter Paul himself tells the story of Peter being happy to share the common Christian meal with Gentiles at Antioch. In Paul’s version, however, Peter (along with Paul’s long-time companion Barnabas) stops doing this because they are afraid of some messengers from James practicing a Torah-observant Christianity. Peter might well have said that like Paul he was trying to be “all things to all people” (1 Cor 9:22) but Paul sees this as a compromise too far.

Paul retells this story of Peter to show that he, Paul, will even stand up to the chief apostle, and so he will certainly stand up to those who are stirring up trouble in Galatia. He is quite clear that the right of Gentile entry to the church is based on the gift of Christ, not on the gift of Torah. So, he asks them, in what he clearly believes is a knock-down argument, did they receive the Spirit, the gift of God’s presence and power, by keeping Torah or by the hearing Paul’s proclamation and believing it. (Gal 3:2)

Abraham, as in Romans, stands in for a prime example of faithful obedience, but more than this, the promise given to Abraham was that through him all nations would be blessed (Gal 3:8). This is the promise that is now fulfilled in Christ, Abraham’s true descendant. The law did not exist when this promise was made, and so can’t alter the promise. The promise comes to those who, like Abraham, receive God’s gift in faithful obedience.

In contrasting the old and new covenants, Paul uses the language of flesh and spirit in quite a few places, but especially in the closing ethical sections of this letter, where he contrasts the works of flesh with the fruit of the spirit. The idea of “flesh” is often misunderstood. In Paul, the contrast is rooted in the covenants. The first is made, quite literally, in the flesh, as knife is applied to foreskin. The second, that comes through hearing and trusting the story of Christ, is sealed with the gift of the Spirit.

From this Paul seems to generalise to “flesh” meaning everything that is not shaped by, given by, energised by the Spirit of God. Sometimes flesh is a relatively neutral word, sometimes quite a negative one. What it does not mean, however, is sexuality, and the sins associated with it. That should be obvious from Paul’s list of works of the flesh (Gal 5:19-21), which includes envy, ambition and quarrelling as well as fornication, indecency and debauchery. But “sins of the flesh” has acquired a life of its own in the English language which obscures Paul’s original meaning, and a reader needs to guard against that interpretation if they can.3

In the end, with Paul, we need to concentrate on the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22-25) and give more attention to our own conduct than censuring that of others (Gal 6:4).


  1. See the post on 1 & 2 Maccabees.
  2. See this post on 1 Corinthians
  3. The relevant passage is read as Year C, Proper 8, 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time

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