Commentary on Galatians 2:15-21
The Argument Leading Up to 2:15
Paul’s letter to the Galatians begins with a defense of his own apostolic authority, which has clearly been contested by the teachers who come behind him after he leaves Galatia. Paul narrates his earlier life as a zealous Pharisaic Jew who tried to annihilate the church until he joined it. According to Paul, he received a “revelation” (1:12, 16) of Jesus and a call (in the manner of the prophet Jeremiah) to become a proclaimer of the gospel. As part of that call, he established the churches in Galatia, baptizing the converts who, in the process, received the Holy Spirit. During his time with them “Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified!” (3:1) and miracles were worked among them (3:5).
Paul was called to evangelize Gentiles, and he did so without requiring circumcision or keeping the food laws carefully laid out in the Torah. Those who come behind Paul tell the Galatians that Paul had given them only part of the story and that they did, in fact, have to submit to circumcision and keeping the Law to be part of God’s salvation plan. To put it succinctly, the question was: “Do Gentiles have to become Jews to be Christians?” Paul’s resounding answer was “Heck, no!”
Paul declares his apostolic authority to be independent of any human being. He does, however, speak about a meeting with the Jerusalem leaders where they all perfectly agreed that they would evangelize Jews and Paul would evangelize Gentiles (2:9). Not everyone was happy with this arrangement, however, as is indicated by Paul’s reference to “false believers secretly brought in” in Galatians 2:4-5. Apparently, some chafed at the idea of Gentiles not having to keep the Law.
Even Peter and Barnabas disappointed Paul on this matter. Paul refers to a time when Peter joined him in Antioch and enjoyed unencumbered table fellowship with Gentiles. However, when a group of Judaizers came, Peter became a hypocrite and separated himself from his Gentile brothers and sisters out of cowardice. “And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas [i.e. Peter] before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?'” (Galatians 2:13-14).
Paul’s Proclamation: Justification by Faith
At any rate, Paul aims to set everyone straight, both Jew and Gentile (this is how Paul divides his world until his dying day). He needs to clarify the relationship between the law, faith, justification, and the cross. This is not easily done, of course, and Paul will arduously attempt to work it out in Galatians for the first time.
Since he just finished speaking about his Jewish compatriots, it is not surprising that he says in verse 15 that “we ourselves are Jews by nature and not Gentile sinners.” Maybe not the most politically correct way to refer to a Gentile, but his point is clear: Paul, Peter, Barnabas and all Christians, Jewish or Gentile, are to realize that the works of the law (of which circumcision is considered one) cannot effect justification. Justification comes only from the faith of Jesus Christ (cf. Romans 3:28). Paul worries that by submitting to circumcision, the Galatians will think that they have to adopt the whole law. He is so angry about the chopping off the foreskin bit that he makes numerous plays-on-words with “flesh” and “cutting” language in Galatians 5:4 and 5:12.
Pistis Christou: Faith “in” or Faith “of”?i
Much ink has been spilled on the objective and subjective genitive of pistis Christou (faith of Christ). As an objective genitive, the phrase would mean human faith in Jesus; that is, Jesus would be the object of our faith. As a subjective genitive, the phrase would mean Jesus’ own faith that he displayed; that is, Jesus would be the subject of the faith. So, the agency lies either in us or in Jesus. Either we effect justification by believing in Jesus or Jesus effects justification by his own righteous obedience.
Richard Hays argued in his book, The Faith of Jesus Christ, for the subjective genitive. Many have agreed with his position; that is, they put their money on Jesus. Certainly the early translations (Coptic, Syriac, and Latin) support this view. Furthermore, if justification rests upon human belief, then faith becomes a work and no longer faith. Also, it assigns Jesus an entirely passive role.
What is Justification?
The Greek verb behind the English word “justify” is dikaioo (2:16–used three times, 2:17, 3:8, 11, 24; 5:4). The noun form, dikaiosyne, is often translated as “righteousness” (2:21; 3:6, 11b, 21; 5:5).
I remember someone once teaching me a short-cut definition of “justified”: just-as-if-I had never sinned (you must say this aloud to get the gist). While I appreciated the simplicity of the mnemonic device, it is somewhat off base. First, justification does not imply turning back the clock; rather, it is a full, honest reckoning of our sin for diagnostic purposes. With any luck (and wisdom gained through experience), we will learn from our mistakes as we move forward in our relationship with God, a right relationship that God has trued. Second, where the quip above focuses on the individual, justification in the Biblical sense is communal in nature. As Helmut Koester writes, Paul’s God is “not interested in righteous individuals,” but wants “to create righteousness and justice for people, communities, and for nations.
What is Paul’s Beef With “Works of the Law?”
The works of the law served as a distinctive ethnic and religious identity marker for God’s chosen people, the Jews. Now, Paul has no problem with the Law, but to understand his stance concerning it, you must understand that he divides salvation history into three epochs, each marked by a historical figure and a noun:
During the era of Abraham, righteousness was based on the promise. Abraham believed God and it was reckoned unto him as righteousness (Galatians. 3:6). Since there was no Law as of yet, Abraham’s justification was patently not dependent upon the Law. Abraham, for Paul, is the prototypical Gentile convert who is justified apart from the Law (you can bet his Judaizing opponents disagreed thoroughly with this interpretation which makes the father of Judaism the first Gentile convert!).
The next phase in salvation history was that of the Law as mediated by Moses. The Law was good and it served its appropriate function, but that function was temporary (if necessary), much like that of a pedagogue or disciplinarian (see Galatians 3:23-28).
Paul wants the Galatians to see that those of us who live in the period of Christ/faith gain righteousness through that means and no other. It is not as if the promise or the Law were negative in any way at all; it is simply a matter of locating ourselves accurately in the chronology of salvation history.
iI would like to thank Mr. Sang Soo Hyun, a current doctoral student in New Testament at Southern Methodist University, for the careful, creative, provocative lecture he did in my Interpretation class on March 2, 2010. His lecture, “Justification, the Law, and Faith,” has inspired my own thinking and his innovative proposal about what he calls the “ecclesiological interpretation” of pistis Christou is compelling. Stay tuned for his dissertation.