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GOSPEL AND THEOLOGY IN GALATIANS

(Originally published in Gospel in Paul: Studies on Corinthians, Galatians and Romans for

Richard N. Longenecker, eds. L. Ann Jervis and Peter Richardson, 1994, pp. 222–239.

Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Supplement Series 108. Sheffield: Sheffield

Academic Press. Reproduced by permission of the author.)

N.T. Wright

1. Introduction

The word ‘gospel’ has had a chequered career in the course of Christian history. During

the first century, as we shall see, it could refer both to a message proclaimed by word of

mouth and to a book about Jesus of Nazareth. In more recent times it has been used to

denote a particular sort of religious meeting (a ‘gospel rally’) and as a metaphor for

utterly reliable information (‘gospel truth’). Many Christians today, when reading the

New Testament, never question what the word means, but assume that, since they know

from their own context what ‘the gospel’ is. Paul and the others must have meant exactly

the same thing.

The trouble is, of course, that though there are obviously difficult concepts in the

New Testament, which send any intelligent reader off to the commentaries and

dictionaries, there are others which are in fact equally difficult but which are not

recognized as such. ‘We turn to the helps only when the hard passages are manifestly

hard. But there are treacherous passages which will not send us to the notes. They look

easy and aren’t.’1 Part of the purpose of scholarship, within both the academy and the

church, is to expose the frailty of regular assumptions, to ask the unasked questions and

to sketch out alternative possibilities. Whether or not he agrees with the proposals I shall

advance, I know that Richard Longenecker shares this vision of the purpose of

scholarship. Indeed, it is partly because he and others have carved out ways of pursuing

this vision that I, in company with a good many today, now have the courage to do so as

well. I am therefore confident that he will be as happy to entertain, and perhaps to

controvert, my arguments as he has been to engage in debate on many previous

occasions, which, whether formal or informal, have always been warm and cheerful.

In order to arrive at the meaning of ‘gospel’ within the confines of the letter to the

Galatians, we must go back to the old question: where did the idea come from and what

echoes did the word in consequence carry both for Paul and for his readers? I shall

suggest that the two normal answers to these questions have been wrongly played off

against one another, and that when we examine them both more closely we will discover

convergences which have not hitherto been explored. This will enable us to survey the

occurrences of ‘gospel’ within Galatians, with our ears retuned to the nuances which may

after all have been present for both Paul and his hearers. We shall thus discover an

emphasis within the letter which is not normally given the weight which, in my judgment,

it deserves.

2. Isaianic Message or Imperial Proclamation?

The two backgrounds regularly proposed for Paul’s use of

and

are, predictably, the Hebrew scriptures on the one hand and pagan usage

on the other. The line between the two tends to follow the old divide between those who

suppose Paul to be basically a Jewish thinker and those who see him as having borrowed

his fundamental ideas from Hellenism.2 The evidence has been rehearsed often enough,3

though it is my impression that the right lessons have not always been learned from it.

We must set out the main features briefly.

The LXX occurrences of the relevant root include two well-known verses from

Isaiah:

Get you up to a high mountain,

O Zion, herald of good tidings (

);

lift up your voice with strength,

O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings (

);

lift it up, do not fear;

say to the cities of Judah,

‘Here is your God!’ (40.9)

How beautiful upon the mountains

are the feet of the messenger who announces peace (

),

who brings good news (

),

who announces salvation.

who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’. (52.7)

These passages, in company with others,4 are among the climactic statements of the great

double theme of the whole section (Isaiah 40-55): YHWH’s return to Zion and

enthronement, and the return of Israel herself from her exile in Babylon. They are not

simply miscellaneous ‘good news’, a generalized message of comfort for the downcast;

they are very specific to the plight of Israel in exile. That they were read as such in the

second-temple period is clear from two post-biblical passages which echo or evoke them.

The first is Psalms of Solomon 11:

Sound in Zion the signal trumpet of the sanctuary;

announce in Jerusalem the voice of one bringing good news,

for God has been merciful to Israel in watching over them.

Stand on a high place, Jerusalem, and look at your children,

from the east and the west assembled together by the Lord.

From the north they come in the joy of their God;

from far distant islands God has assembled them.

He flattened high mountains into level ground for them;

the hills fled at their coming.

The forests shaded them as they passed by;

God made every fragrant tree to grow for them.

So that Israel might proceed under the supervision of the glory of their God.

Jerusalem, put on the clothes of your glory,

prepare the robe of your holiness,

for God has spoken well of Israel forevermore.

May the Lord do what he has spoken about Israel and Jerusalem;

may the Lord lift up Israel in the name of his glory.

May the mercy of the Lord be upon Israel forevermore.5

This psalm is regularly, and rightly, referred to as evidence that the theme of the Isaianic

herald was alive and well in the first century. Its significance for our purposes, however,

goes further. The psalm speaks of the return of Israel from exile. It is generally agreed

that it dates from a time several centuries after what is normally thought of as the

‘return’; and yet it still appeals to YHWH to fulfil at last his ancient promises of

‘return’—specifically, the promises of Isaiah 40. It is evident that for this writer, as for

many others in second-temple Judaism, the ‘return from exile’, predicted by Isaiah,

Jeremiah, Ezekiel and others, had not yet taken place.6

The second and third passages from our period which echo the Isaianic tradition

of ‘good news’ are from Qumran:

[that he might be], according to Thy truth,

a messenger [in the season] of Thy goodness;

that to the humble he might bring

glad tidings of Thy great mercy,

[proclaiming salvation]

from out of the fountain [of holiness

to the contrite] of spirit,

and everlasting joy to those who mourn.7

This is the day of [Peace/Salvation] concerning which [God] spoke [through

Isa]iah the prophet, who said, [How] beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of

the messenger who proclaims peace, who brings good news, who proclaims

salvation, who says to Zion: Your ELOHIM [reigns]. Its interpretation; the

mountains are the prophets. . . and the messenger is the Anointed one of the

spirit, concerning whom Dan[iel] said, [Until an anointed one, a prince. . .] [And

he who brings] good [news], who proclaims [salvation]: it is concerning him that

it is written. . . [To comfort all who mourn, to grant to those who mourn in Zion].

To comfort [those who mourn: its interpretation], to make them understand all the

ages of t[ime]. . . in truth. . . will turn away from Satan. . . by the judgment[s] of

God, as it is written concerning him, [who says to Zion]; your ELOHIM reigns.

Zion is. . . those who uphold the Covenant, who turn from walking [in] the way of

the people. And your ELOHIM is [Melchizedek, who will save them from] the

hand of Satan.8

Here again it is clear that, within the second-temple period, some Jews at least were still

looking earnestly for a fulfilment of the Isaianic promises. The ‘good news’ or ‘glad

tidings’ would be the message that the long-awaited release from captivity was at hand.

And, as the last passage clearly shows, within this expectation Isaiah 40 and 61 could be

combined with each other, and with a passage from Daniel (9.25) interpreted

Messianically.

For some, this evidence is quite sufficient to win the verdict: this is the

background against which the New Testament ‘gospel’ is to be understood. Others,

however, still insist upon the non-Jewish background as the vital one. In the Greek

world, ‘

is a technical term for “news of victory”’.9 More specifically, it

refers to the announcement of the birth or accession of an emperor. Not least at the time

of Augustus, who became the first Roman emperor following a long period of civil war,

the coming of a new ruler meant the promise of peace, a new start for the world:

The providence which has ordered the whole of our life, showing concern and

zeal, has ordained the most perfect consummation for human life by giving to it

Augustus, by filling him with virtue for doing the work of a benefactor among

men, and by sending in him, as it were, a saviour for us and those who come after

us, to make war to cease, to create order everywhere. . . ; the birthday of the god

[Augustus] was the beginning for the world of the glad tidings that have come to

men through him. . .10

Which of these backgrounds, then, is the appropriate one against which to read

the New Testament evidence? Is ‘the gospel’, for Paul, an Isaianic message or an

Imperial proclamation? I suggest that the anti-thesis between the two is a false one,

based on the spurious either-or that has misleadingly divided New Testament studies for

many years.11

The trouble with history-of-religions study is that it regularly fails to see that what

matters is not so much where an idea has come from as where it is going to. The problem

is not merely that we now know that ‘Jew’ and ‘Greek’ in the first century did not live in

watertight worlds—though this itself ought to make us wary of a strict either-or. It is,

rather, that the Isaianic message always was about the enthronement of YHWH and the

dethronement of pagan gods; about the victory of Israel and the fall of Babylon; about the

arrival of the Servant King and the consequent coming of peace and justice. The

scriptural message therefore pushes itself of its own accord into the world where pagan

gods and rulers stake their claims and celebrate their enthronements.

A further aspect of the problem has lain in the insistence (not least in influential

articles such as that of Friedrich in TDNT) upon a strict division between ‘religious’ and

‘secular’ meanings of the root words.12 The Isaianic meaning is supposed to be

‘religious’, and the imperial one ‘secular’. But matters were not so clear-cut in the first

century. The exchange between Bultmann and Schneemelcher as to whether

was a sacral term in the Imperial cult likewise misses the point:13 once the emperor was

venerated as a god (a development already well advanced, at least in the East, by Paul’s

day), any proclamation of his rule had clear ‘religious’ connotations, even if a particular

word within that proclamation did not happen to feature in the more narrowly ‘cultic’

setting. And it was precisely against such ‘religious’ connotations—the boasting of

pagan emperors from Babylon and Egypt, through the megalomania of Antiochus

Epiphanes, and on to Imperial Rome—that the Jews of Paul’s day had set their face.

When their god,14 YHWH, acted within history to deliver his people, the spurious gods of

the heathen would be defeated. If and when YHWH set up his own king as the true ruler,

his true earthly representative, all other kingdoms would be confronted with their rightful

overlord.

Once we grasp the historical setting of Paul’s gospel, therefore, we discover

something for which the abstract categories of traditional history-of-religions research

had not prepared us. The more Jewish we make Paul’s ‘gospel’, the more it confronts

directly the pretensions of the Imperial cult, and indeed all other paganisms whether

‘religious’ or ‘secular’. It is because of Jewish monotheism that there can be ‘no king

but god’.15 In the history of ideas, and in lexicography, derivation is important; but so

should be confrontation. The all-embracing royal and religious claims of Caesar are

directly challenged by the equally all-embracing claim of Israel’s god. To announce that

YHWH is king is to announce that Caesar is not. Thus even the apparently ‘secular’ uses

of

in the LXX are brought into the immediately relevant background: again

and again, the “news’ that is brought has to do with the royal house, whether for good or

for ill.16 The death of one king means the accession of another; the acclamation of a

would-be king spells a dire threat for the present one.

This, however, forces us back to the question: to what extent did Paul participate

in this confrontation? What contribution, in particular, does the letter to the Galatians

have to make to this exegetical, historical, and above all profoundly theological question?

3. God, Messiah and Gospel in Galatians

Two elements in Pauline theology which are normally underplayed, even supposing they

are noticed at all, come into crucial relevance here. First, Paul’s gospel is a message

about the true god as opposed to the false gods. Second, Paul’s gospel is a message about

the Messiah, the true king of Israel, and hence of the world. In both cases, this ‘gospel’

only makes sense against the Jewish background sketched briefly above; in both cases,

the ‘gospel’ confronts directly the claims of other gods and lords.

These claims are of course controversial. Remarkably enough, the meaning of

‘god’ in Paul’s theology has regularly been passed over. Equally remarkably, in my

view, the Messiahship of Jesus has often been ignored, it being assumed that Paul left

such categories behind in announcing his message to the non-Jewish world who would

not be interested in Jewish concepts. Partly as a result of these two omissions, the

confrontation between the gospel Paul preached and the ‘powers’— the other gods and

lords of the pagan world—has also regularly been marginalized. I have raised the first

and third of these questions elsewhere, though I have not explored them fully in relation

to Paul himself.17 In regard to the second, I have argued elsewhere that Paul did indeed

regard Jesus as Messiah, and that this remained a vital and central category for him.18 In

what now follows I shall attempt to explain, within the brief compass of this essay, how

the ‘gospel’ functions in Galatians as an announcement about the true God and about the

Messiah, and hence as a challenge to the ‘powers’ of the world. The Pauline

,

I suggest, is based firmly in Judaism; at the same time, and indeed precisely for this

reason, it functions as the royal announcement which challenges the pagan principalities

and powers. Galatians is, as it happens, an excellent example of this whole train of

thought.

We may begin by considering Gal. 4.1-11. The word

and its cognates

are absent from the passage, but it will not be doubted that 4.1-7 states in one particular

form the content of ‘the gospel’ which Paul preached; or that 4.8-11, in referring to the

time when the Galatians did not ‘know God’, and then to their present state in which they

do ‘know God’, describes substantially the context and effect of that gospel’s preaching.

The passage stands, in fact, at a fairly climactic moment in the whole letter, drawing

together the argument of the preceding chapter (this is the force of in 4.1), and

laying the foundations for what is to come; it may thus fairly be seen as a summary of

‘the gospel’ which is so clearly stated as a main theme in the opening section of the letter

(1.6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 16). In particular, the note in 4.4 that God sent forth his son ‘when the

time had fully come’ corresponds quite closely to the link in Mark 1.15 between the

‘fulfilment of the time’ and the preaching of the gospel. We shall return to this point later

on.

In terms of Gal. 4.1-7, the message of the Pauline gospel is this: the true god has

sent his son, in fulfilment of the prophecies of scripture, to redeem his people from their

bondage to false gods (described here as the 3, 9); he now

sends his own spirit to make his people truly what they were before only in theory and

hope—his own children, heirs of his world. Equipped with this gospel, the Galatian

Christians now know the true god; or rather, as Paul quickly correct himself, they are

known by him (4.9).19 That is, they have received the great blessing promised by Isaiah

throughout chs. 40-55: the one true god has revealed himself in saving them, routing the

idols of the nations in doing so. The message of good news decisively confronts the

power of the spurious gods.

This raises the old question, whether the regular Pauline phrase ‘the gospel of

God’,

, should be read as ‘the gospel concerning God’ or as ‘the

gospel from God’.20 While I agree with Stuhlmacher and Strecker that it is difficult to

divide them up completely, the present passage suggests that the content of the gospel is

not merely ‘Christ’ but also, and perhaps primarily, God himself.21 The Pharisee who, by

his own obliquely autobiographical admission in Rom. 10.2, had been zealous for the one

true god, looking for his victory over paganism on behalf of his ethnic people Israel, had

become convinced that the victory had after all been won in Christ, and that the one true

god was thereby revealed. The Shammaite who had believed that there should be ‘no

king but god’ did not cease to believe it upon becoming a Christian. He now at last

understood who that god really was. The god now revealed in the sending of the son and

the spirit (4.1-7) is the god beside whom the defeated principalities and powers pale into

insignificance (4.8-11). That is why, in 1.6, Paul can speak of the Galatians turning away

from ‘the one who called you in the grace of Christ’ to ‘another gospel’. The ‘gospel’ is

for Paul first of all a message about the true god as opposed to the false gods.

But the gospel is also, of course,

! —a phrase which,

less controversially, focuses attention on the content of the gospel without denying a

reference to its origin (as in Gal. 1.12).22 The gospel concerns the Christ, the Messiah; it

is through him that the true god has made himself known. Paul’s preaching of the gospel

involved him in portraying Jesus Christ publicly as the crucified one (3.1).

Here I part company completely with the majority of the tradition, and explicitly

with Stuhlmacher’s recent treatment. In his analysis of ‘the content of the Pauline

gospel’, Stuhlmacher states that ‘in his Damascus vision Paul saw Christ exalted to the

right hand of God. . .and installed as Son of God in the position of “Lord”’.23 This

simply cannot be right as it stands. Until his Damascus experience, Paul did not believe

that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, the ‘Christ’. What then? Are we to say that ‘in

his Damascus experience Paul saw Jesus exalted. . .as Lord’? Are we, in other words, to

go from the human Jesus to the exalted Lord, bypassing the step of Messiahship

altogether? This would, I believe, be a travesty of Paul’s experience and Pauline

theology. ‘Christ’ is not a cipher for Paul, a kind of specialized surname for Jesus of

Nazareth. It refers, as I have argued elsewhere, to Jesus as the Messiah, the one who

sums up Israel in himself. It is because the crucified Jesus is the Messiah that all the

trouble in Galatia occurs, trouble which Paul insists on speaking of in terms of ‘the

gospel’. What happened on the road to Damascus, I suggest, was something like this:

Paul realized that the crucified Jesus was indeed risen from the dead; that in him the hope

of Israel had thus been fulfilled; that he was therefore that which his supporters had

claimed, namely Israel’s Messiah; that this Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah of

Israel was now enthroned as Lord of all, Jew and Gentile alike; that these events were

indeed the inauguration of the ‘age to come’, though not in the form for which he, as a

zealous Pharisee, had been longing; and had, as a result of this whole complex of thought

(complex for us, reconstructing it; plain sailing for a first-century Pharisee), the pagan

idolatry of the world had been decisively defeated, and those who adhered to it—that is,

the Gentiles—were to be summoned to give allegiance to this strange and subversive

Jewish Messiah. Hence, ‘the gospel of Christ’.

My proposal at this point, then, is that, for Paul writing Galatians, ‘the gospel’ or

‘the gospel of Christ’ refers to this complex of belief and announcement. ‘The gospel’ is

not, for Paul, a message about ‘how one gets saved’, in an individual and ahistorical

sense. It is the announcement

1. that the God of Israel is the one true God, and that the pagan deities are mere

idols;

2. that Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified and risen one, is not merely ‘Lord’ in

some cosmic sense, but is actually King—King of Israel, and hence (on the

Davidic model of passages such as Psalm 89) the King before whom all the kings

of the earth shall bow;

3. that Israel’s destiny has been fulfilled, her exile finished, her salvation won,

but in a manner which undermines the Jewish ethnic and nationalistic hope that

Paul had formerly espoused;

and

4. that the rule of the pagan idols, which have kept the pagan nations in their iron

grip has been broken, and that those who follow and serve them are now

summoned to share in the blessings of Israel’s ‘age to come’.

Each aspect of this fourfold announcement is, I believe, vital if we are to understand what

Paul means by ‘gospel’ at all, and particularly in Galatians. It is because Paul sees his

Galatian opponents failing to grasp this sequence of thought that he accuses them of

purveying ‘another gospel’.

This proposal, I suggest, has three merits in particular.

1. It holds together the two backgrounds sketched above as part of the meaning of

‘gospel’. It is because the Isaianic prophecy has come true that Jesus is now proclaimed

as the new King, the King of kings. The Jewish background and the pagan context are

not antithetical. One is not ‘religious’ and the other ‘secular’. Both have to do with

ultimate worldview issues; in the Jewish case the aspects which Enlightenment thought

would consider more obviously ‘religious’ are firmly anchored to the national hope for

restoration, and in the pagan case the aspects which Enlightenment thought would

consider more obviously ‘secular’—the enthronment of a monarch—are of course

inextricably bound up with pagan views of national deities, and already by Paul’s time

with pagan views of the divine emperor. The Isaianic hope was always conceived as a

challenge to paganism at every level; the pagan context always envisaged the new

monarch as a gift from, and perhaps in expression of, the divine. Paul’s gospel, in

declaring that Israel’s hope is fulfilled in her Messiah, ipso facto declares also that the

pagan world is confronted with a new ruler.

2. This proposal explains why it is that Paul sees the ‘gospel’ as a challenge to the

principalities and powers. The of 4.3, 9 are best understood as the tutelary

deities that hold the nations in captivity. The irony of Paul’s exposition at that point of

the letter is of course that Israel has used the (god-given) Torah in the same way, locking

herself up hereby inside her own nationalism, not realizing that the design of her god was

that the covenant should be the means of his saving the world, and that she too needed

liberating from the quasi-paganism involved in the idolization of nation, soil and blood.

That is why, in 4.8-11, the ex-pagan Galatian Christians are warned that if they become

circumcised, that is, become ethnically Jewish, they will in effect be reverting to

paganism. They will be embracing again a religion of the . The gospel stands

over against any such attempt. Precisely because Israel’s hope has been fulfilled, and the

Isaianic promises accomplished, in the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth, Israel’s

specifically ethnic aspirations are set aside, all paganisms are confronted with the

message of the one true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and all pagans, as

well as all Jews, are invited to discover true liberty through allegiance to the new king,

the Messiah.

3. This proposal explains why the references to ‘the gospel’ in Galatians are so

apparently flexible, covering what, on any other scheme, are quite a wide range of issues.

A brief survey of the various occurrences of the

root in Galatians should

make this clear.

As we saw, in 1.6 the gospel is a message about the true god. In 1.7 it is the

announcement of the Messiah. In 1.11-12 it is that which Paul received on the way to

Damascus. In 1.16 it is the announcement of the son of the true god to the Gentiles. In

1.23 (where the verb occurs, but clearly within the same broad semantic field) it is the

message of ‘faith’ (as also in 3.23-25, where ‘faith’ is more or less personified); here my

own guess is that this is a shorthand for ‘faith-in-the-god-who-raised-Jesus’.

In 2.1-5, the mention of Titus’ circumcision (or not), and the opposition from

‘false brethren’ in Jerusalem (2.2-4), is sandwiched between the statements that Paul laid

‘the gospel which [he] preached among the nations’ before the ‘pillar’ apostles (2.2a),

and that, by his opposition to the ‘false brethren’, what he calls ‘the truth of the gospel’

might be preserved for his Gentile converts (2.5). This juxtaposition is best explained on

the assumption that the same ‘gospel’ itself decisively confronted and overthrew the

pagan powers that had dominated the Galatians before, whereas, if the ‘false brethren’, or

for that matter the Galatian ‘agitators’, had had their way, the gospel would have become

simply an inner-Jewish message, inviting people to get circumcised and to join present

Judaism. And Judaism in Paul’s day, as all Jews knew, had not in fact been redeemed

within its own terms of expectation. The only redemption, the only fulfilment of the

Isaianic return-from-exile prophecy, which had occurred, was the resurrection of the

crucified Jesus; any attempt to purvey a ‘gospel’ which ignored the implications of this

central event was a non-gospel (1.6-9), for the very good reason that it had no good news

to offer.24 It could only ever be a Jewish proselyte movement; it could not declare that

the great promised day had arrived.

In 2.7 the ‘gospel of the uncircumcision’ and that of the circumcision are clearly

not two different messages altogether. If I send a circular letter to several different

friends, it makes perfectly good sense to speak of my sending ‘the letter to Brian and

Sylvia’ by air mail and ‘the letter to Andrew and Lis’ by surface; it need not at all imply

dial the letters themselves are different. In Paul’s case, 2.2 indicates clearly enough that

the letters, the ‘gospels’, were not different; in any case, he has already declared in 1.6-9

that there cannot be two gospels. The division is one of geography, not content: Paul

goes to the Gentile world (though his method, according to Rom. 1.16, remains ‘to the

Jew first and also to the Greek’25); Peter, to the Jewish world.

The issue of ‘the truth of the gospel’ is again at stake in the discussion of 2.11-14

(the phrase occurs in 2.14). Here the ‘truth’ in question is not simply a set of correct

propositions, but an entire worldview, seen graphically in its characteristic praxis. Paul’s

reconstrual of the Jewish worldview necessarily involved one aspect of praxis which

broke the bounds of previous Jewish ways: those who hailed the Messiah Jesus as their

Lord formed a single family, whose common table functioned as a vital symbol. Remove

that symbol, cease that praxis, and the entire worldview is under threat. Unless they are

in place, the ‘gospel’ which he has announced is a lie. The powers have not been

defeated; there is no new king, no lord of Jew and Gentile alike, no new family from Jew

and Greek alike.

This is why Paul can speak of scripture ‘preaching the gospel in advance’ to

Abraham (3.8). ‘The gospel’ which is thus ‘preached’ is, once more, not the summons to

a new dimension of religious experience (that might make Christianity into simply

another mystery religion); not the invitation to a private experience of salvation, either in

the present or the future (that might simply create a new sense of shut-in privilege in

place of that which Paul had renounced); but the message that all the nations would be

blessed in Abraham (3.8b). The gospel narrative, the story of Jesus the Messiah, is the

story of how that promise has come true. It tells of how Israel’s own exile at the hands of

the pagans, which might have seemed to block the promises for good, has been dealt with

in the execution of the Messiah (3.10-14).26 It tells of how the single ‘seed’, the one

family promised to Abraham, has been created, despite the division between Jew and

Gentile which the Torah, if absolutized, would have maintained (3.15-22, 28 29).27 In

other words of how a new family has come into being, a family composed of Jews and

Gentiles alongside one another.

This family, uniquely among families (in a world where family and racial loyalty

were all-important in a way of which the post-Enlightenment West knows little), bore

only one distinguishing mark, and that was , faith. ‘Justification by faith’ was not,

for Paul, a doctrine about how people could ‘find a gracious god’ without moralism. Nor

does it speak merely, as the Romantic movement has encouraged some Protestants to

speak, of the difference between outward and inward religion (a difference well enough

known to first century Jews in any case). Nor is ‘justification by faith’ to be equated with

‘the gospel’ itself; it is, rather, its direct corollary. ‘The gospel’ is the announcement of

the kingship of Jesus; ‘justification by faith’ reminds those who, abandoning their varied

idolatries, have given their allegiance to Jesus that this very allegiance is the only

distinguishing mark by which the renewed and united family of Abraham is to be known.

All other possible distinguishing marks undermine the gospel itself, implying that the

crucified and risen Jesus is not after all the one true king. Allegiance and loyalty to

Jesus, ‘faith’ in this full and rich sense, is not the gospel itself; it is what the gospel is

designed to produce and by the power of the spirit, does produce.

For this is where Galatians has its equivalent of the statement in Romans that the

gospel is ‘the power of God for salvation to all who believe’ (Rom. 1.16). When the

message of King Jesus was announced it brought forth faith, and the only explanation of

this is that the spirit works as and when the message is proclaimed. That, at least, is how

I believe Gal. 3.2-5 should be read, not least in light of 1 Thess. 1.4-10 and 2.13. The

royal proclamation is not simply the conveying of true information about the kingship of

Jesus; it is the putting into effect of that kingship, the decisive and authoritative

summoning to allegiance. That is why it challenges the powers. That is why to retain, or

to embrace, symbols and praxis which speak of other loyalties and other allegiances is to

imply that other powers are still being invoked. And that is to deny, ‘the truth of the

gospel’.

4. Concluding Reflections

I have proposed, all too briefly, a way of reading ‘gospel’ in Galatians which, it seems to

me, does more justice both to the history-of-religions background and to the exegetical

content of the term than the various alternative views currently available. This generates,

for me at least, several concluding reflections, of which I confine myself to three.

First, I suspect that this conception of Paul’s ‘gospel’, which is of course

considerably more wholistic than some others, goes a lot further than competing analyses

in explaining why this gospel provoked opposition, including violent opposition.

Offering people a new religious mode of being, in a private sense, is not particularly

threatening. It becomes so, and provokes violence, the minute it challenges the life and

worldview of a community; this is so just as much in the modern ‘Christian’ western

world as in first-century Asia Minor. The message of the cross was, as Paul ruefully

noted, a scandal to Jews (1 Cor. 1.23; Gal. 5.11); the entire gospel was also a scandal to

Gentiles, inviting them to abandon their long-held, and sometimes politically useful,

allegiances and to give allegiance only to the still-very-Jewish, and therefore scandalous,

Jesus. The idea that the early preaching of the gospel carried no particular political

implications only shows, I think, how far we have gone in projecting the privatized nature

of western Christianity back onto Paul.28

Secondly, I suggest that if we read Galatians in this way we discover a new

coherence in the letter, and by implication in Paul’s theology as a whole. There is a

current fashion in Pauline studies for playing off ‘covenantal’ categories against

‘apocalyptic’ ones. Since I have myself stressed the importance of ‘covenant’ in Paul, let

it be said here, and backed up by the argument of this essay, that I believe in the

essentially apocalyptic nature of Paul’s covenantal theology, and vice versa.

‘Apocalyptic’, rightly understood, is not about the destruction of everything that

happened before Jesus and the ushering in of a totally new world. It is about the new

creation breaking into the old.29 Paul speaks at the start of Galatians about the true god

‘rescuing us from the present evil age’ (1.4), and at the close of the letter about the ‘new

creation’ which was the only thing that mattered, over against the questions of

circumcision and uncircumcision (6.15). This cosmic and apocalyptic vision, however, is

in no way antithetical to covenant theology rightly understood, or at least Paulinely

understood. For Paul as for the Isaiah passages he knew so well, it is when the true god

acts to fulfil his covenant to Israel that the new world order will be ushered in. As in the

sequence of thought in 2 Corinthians chs. 3, 4 and 5, it is the new covenant (ch. 3) that,

proclaimed by the suffering apostle (ch 4) brings about the new creation (ch. 5). The

gospel of the true God, of the Messiah Jesus, announces this total message. The real

‘apocalypse’ has taken place in the resurrection of the Messiah Jesus (compare Gal 1 13);

but that event can only be understood, and its significance elaborated, through an

exploration of the Abrahamic covenant (Galatians 3-4).30 What has been left behind in

the revelation of the new world through the gospel is not covenant theology itself, but the

restriction of covenant membership to ‘those of the Torah’.

Thirdly, the significance I have posited for ‘gospel’ in Galatians may have

something to say about the relationship between ‘gospel’ as Paul’s own term for the

message he announced and ‘gospel’ as an early-church term, so far as we can tell in the

period later than Paul, for books like Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The detailed

history of this transition is a subject for another time.31 Suffice it to say here that once we

reinstate the Pauline emphasis, there is far less of a strange break between Paul’s ‘gospel’

and the written ‘gospels’ than there is if we suppose the former to be the announcement

of a new, non-historical, way of being religious, or of finding a non-historical salvation,

and the latter to represent a failure of nerve, an attempt to ground the supposedly

ahistorical gospel in history after all. If we take Paul’s ‘gospel’ to denote the

announcement that the true god has acted in fulfilment of his promises, sending the

Messiah to die and be raised, and so ushering in the new world order in which the false

gods are confronted and confounded and their adherents summoned to a new and

liberating allegiance, then we may realise that that description would do fairly well for

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as well, for all their obvious differences from one another

and from Paul.32 Mark’s Jesus (‘the time is fulfilled; the kingdom of God is at hand;

repent and believe the gospel’)33 is quite at home with Paul (‘when the time had fully

come, God sent forth his son…’).34

Whether this would do so well for the Gospel of Thomas is a different matter

altogether. But then, Paul has always been a problem for those in the ancient and modern

worlds who have sought to advance seriously gnosticizing interpretations of the message

of Jesus. Despite the claims sometimes advanced to the contrary, to enter the enclosed

little world of Thomas is not to confront the real issues of the real world, or the real

questions of theology or even history, but to avoid them. Paul’s gospel, like Isaiah’s,

confronts the tyrants and summons their victims to freedom.35 If history, theology and

exegesis can join hands at this point, perhaps together they might persuade the

contemporary church to rediscover aspects of Paul’s message to the world which we, like

his opponents, have often enough found it convenient to ignore.

1 C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press, 1967), p. vii.

2 In favour of the OT background: see esp. P. Stuhlmacher, ‘The Pauline Gospel’, in P. Stuhlmacher (ed.).

The Gospel and the Gospels (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991 [1983]), pp. 149-72 for citations of other

literature and discussion of the debate; U. Wilckens, Die Brief an die Romer: Evangelish-Katholischer

Kommentar zum Neuen Testament (CologneNeukirchen-Vluyn: BenzingerNeukirchener Verlag, 1978),

VI, p. 74-75. In favour of pagan usage: above all G. Strecker, ‘Das Evangelium Jesu Christi’, in G.

Strecker (ed.). Jesus Christus in Historie und Theologie: Festschrift fur H. Conzelmann (Tubingen: Mohr.

1975), pp. 503-48; also Stuhlmacher, ‘The Pauline Gospel’, pp. 151-52; G. Friedrich, ‘

’, TDNT,

II, pp. 721-36, pp. 724-25; and W. Schneemelcher and R. McL. Wilson (eds.), New Testament Apocrypha.

I. Gospels and Related Writings (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963), pp. 71-75. It is remarkable that

there is no article on ‘Gospel’ in the Anchor Bible Dictionary. On the history-of-religions debate which

underlies all this see S.C. Neill and N.T. Wright, The Interpretation of the New Testament, 1861-1986

(Oxford: Oxford University Press 1988 (19641), pp. 367-78.

3 See above all P. Stuhlmacher, Das paulinische Evangelium. I. Vorgeschichte (FRLANT 95; Gottingen:

Vandenhoek & Ruprecht. 1968).

4 60.6; 61.1; the Hebrew root , which underlies these, occurs in a similar passage in 41.27.

5 Cited according to J.H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. II. Expansions of the ‘Old

Testament’ and Legends, Wisdom and Philosophical Literature. Prayers, Psalms and Odes, Fragments of

Lost Judaeo-Hellenistic Works (Garden City. NY: Doubleday. 1985), pp. 661-62. The Psalms of Solomon

are usually dated to the mid-first century BCE.

6 Cf. N.T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (Minneapolis,

MN: Fortress Press, 1991), pp. 268-70. See also Ezra 9.8-9. Josephus, in Ant. 11.64-65, speaks of

Zerubbabel announcing ( ) to the Jews in exile the good news that Darius was allowing them

to return from exile; one textual variant gives this as ‘he gave them the good news about [rather than

‘from’] the king’.

7 1QH 18.14-15, cited according to G. Vermes. The Dead Sea Scrolls in English (Penguin Books:

Harmondsworth. 3rd edn, 1987 [1962]), p. 200.

8 11QMelch., cited from Vermes, Dead Sea Scrolls, p. 301,

9 Friedrich, ‘

’, TDNT, II, p. 722. For the whole field of pagan usage cf. esp. Stuhlmacher, Das

paulinische Evangelium, pp. 180-206.

10 Inscription dated to 9 BCE: quoted from U. Becker, ‘Gospel, Evangelize, Evangelist’, NIDNTT, II, p.

108.

11 One writer who has attempted to combine the two backgrounds is C.E.B, Cranfield, A Critical and

Exegelical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (ICC: Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1975), I. p. 55; see

below.

12 Friedrich, ‘

’, p. 708, claims to detect a transition from the one to the other, and declares that

‘in the OT is used only in a secular sense. There is no religious use of the subst. whatever’ (p. 721).

To project the modern distinction between religious and secular onto material from ancient Israel seems to

me quite anachronistic. Another problem that has bedevilled the discussion, as with so many others, is an

over-use of precise lexicography, as though the connection between two areas of discourse lay in verbal

identity rather than content; a good example is Wilckens’ dismissal of the analogy with the emperor-cult on

the grounds that there the plural , not the ‘technical’ singular, is found (Die Brief an die Romer,

p. 75).

13 R. Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament (trans. K. Grobel; London: SCM Press; New York:

Scribner’s. 1951-55), I, p. 87; Schneemelcher and Wilson, New Testament Apocrypha, pp. 72-73.

14 Use of the lower case for ‘g’ in god is deliberate; for a full explanation see my Christian Origins and the

Question of God. I. The New Testament and the People of God (London: SPCK; Minneapolis. MN: Fortress

Press, 1992), pp. xiv-xv.

15 Cf. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, pp. 170-81; 302-307

16 Cf. e.g. 1 Sam. 31.9; 2 Sam. 1.20; 4.10; 18.19, 20, 27, 31; 1 Kgs 1.42. It is not true that ‘in pagan and

Jewish literature the term designates any kind of message’ (italics added) (pace H. Koester, Ancient

Christian Gospels: Their History and Development (London, Philadelphia: SCM Press, Trinity Press

International, 1990] p. 4).

17 Wright, The New Testament and the People of God. passim, esp. ch. 9.

18 Wright, Climax of the Covenant, passim, esp. chs. 2, 3.

19 Cf. I Cor. 8.4-6.

20 These are sometimes described as the ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ genitives respectively; but this is

misleading. Object and subject only strictly apply when the noun governed by the genitive denotes an

activity (as in ‘the love of God’). What we have here are the genitives of content and of origin. Cf. BDF §

163: ‘the division of the gen. into obj., subj. etc. is really only an attempt to set off several special lypci

among the manifold possibilities. . .’

21 Against Stuhlmacher, ‘The Pauline Gospel’, p. 153.

22 Cf. R.N. Longenecker, Galatians (WBC: Dallas. TX: Word Books, 1990) P. 16.

23 Stuhlmacher, ‘The Pauline Gospel’, p. 154. Other similar statements occur frequently in the article.

24 I find it strange that B.R. Gaventa should suggest that there is no implicit reference to the resurrection

when Paul speaks of the cross. If we are to think truly historically, without the resurrection the cross could

only herald another failed Messianic mission (‘The Singularity of the Gospel: A Reading of Galatians’. in

J.M. Bassler [ed.], Pauline Theology. I. Thessalonians, Philippians, Galatians, Philemon [Minneapolis,

MN: Fortress Press, 1991), pp. 147-59, 157).

25 Cf. too Rom. 15.8-9.

26 Cf. Wright, Climax of the Covenant, ch. 7. I hope that the fuller exposition of the ‘end of exile’ theme in

my The New Testament and the People of God, pp. 268-71, and the primary and secondary sources referred

to there, will help to convince those who were puzzled by that earlier statement.

27 Cf. Wright. Climax of the Covenant, ch 8.

28 Against, for example, Wilckens, who writes: ‘in der Fruhzeit der Entstehung des urchristlichen

Wortgebrauchs jeglicher politisch-polemische Bezug fehit’ (Die Brief an die Romer, p. 75). Cranfield,

Romans, p. 55, sees in principle the point I am making, but generalizes it away from the immediate political

context: it is not a matter simply of ‘the pretentious claims of self-important men’, but of the political claim

of worldly rulers.

29 Cf. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, ch. 10.

30 The rarity of the word (cf. 3.15) is of comparatively little importance here, except to those who

cannot see beyond the pages of the concordance. What matters is that, as in Romans 4, Paul is dealing

again and again with whole passages (Genesis 12. 15, Deuteronomy 27. etc.) that speak of the covenant and

relate it to Israel’s history and future.

31 Cf. Schneelmelcher, New Testament Apocrypha, pp. 71-75 and Koester Ancient Christian Gospels, Part I.

32 I am thus approaching, from a different angle, the same set of issues as R.B. Hays, The Faith of Jesus

Christ: An Investigation of the Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3.1-4.11 (SBLDS; Chico, CA: Scholars

Press, 1983), with an arguably similar result. Cf. too Gaventa, ‘The Singularity of the Gospel’, p. 154.

33 Mk 1.15.

34 Gal. 4.4.

35 On the theme of freedom in Paul see Longenecker, Paul, Apostle of Liberty: The Origin and Nature of

Paul’s Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1976 [1964]).

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