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The Letter to the Galatians and to the Hebrews

  • December 14, 2020
  • By Ben van Noort
The Letter to the Galatians and to the Hebrews

The Letter to the Galatians and to the Hebrews

In Galatians, Paul warned against circumcision. Was he an anti-Semite or anti-Judaist?

The Work of Paul
When Paul worked as a missionary he used to visit synagogues and to tell about Jesus, who was the Messiah. He saw belief in the Messiah as an essential part of the Jewish faith of old. He also had experienced that belief in the Law of Israel did not bring salvation. The Law was the revelation of God’s will for the Jewish people. It was given to protect the weak against the strong. However, the Law could not gain salvation for man.

Synagogues around the Mediterranean
When Paul wrote his Letter to the Galatians, there were a lot of synagogues scattered all over the Middle East. Each had its own rituals and customs. Yet there was a common set of activities: prayers, readings, teachings, hymns (psalms), and characteristic annual festivals. All these synagogues could attract non-Jews to come for prayer and to follow the services.

And Churches
Paul did not have a problem in creating churches, ekklesias, along with synagogues that had existed there for a long time. Moreover, he saw that he gave the people something that was very important: belief in the Messiah Jesus, the King, of which David had spoken in Psalm 2 (compare Psalm 72:20).

Inside Confrontation
In his Letter to the Galatians, Paul warned his hearers of a serious problem: Christians out of the gentiles wanted to be circumcised. It was a common problem, not only for them but also for the circumcised Christians of Jewish origin. Most interesting is that he calls the tune by telling a story that happened in Antioch (Syria). At a meal, Peter and others ate together with some gentile Christians. But when James entered—who had come from Jerusalem with a few companions—Peter and the other Jewish attendants did not eat anymore with the gentiles out of fear for the group of people with James. Then Paul remarked to Peter “If you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Galatians 2:14). We would say “If you eat as a brother with gentiles, isn’t it a betrayal to brotherhood if you leave them as soon as you can eat with other Jews?”

Jewish Way of Life
The example is clear, there could be tension inside the churches between those of gentile and of Jewish origin. And now, gentiles became attracted to the Jewish way of life and wanted to be circumcised also. It was an inside problem that maybe was triggered by some Jews inside or outside the church. Anyway, the majority of Jews in the church seemed to remain passive without any objection to the issue. They did/could not teach the gentiles why they should not do so. It was Paul who had to explain why it would bring no good for the gentiles.

No Spiritual Benefit
He rebuked the gentiles that they would be forced to keep all the rules of the Law and they would not win any spiritual benefit from it. When they had come to Christ, they had received Him through the Spirit. They could not receive more. Circumcision would be in vain for them. Was Paul anti-Judaist? Of course not. He himself kept the commandments with care, but he wanted to give the right arguments in his letter. Arguments that the Jewish members of the church could not give to the gentiles. And that was a second problem, nearly as immense as the problem of circumcision of gentiles.

Faith through Scriptures
And to solve this last problem Paul also wrote the Letter to the Hebrews. He challenged them to use their knowledge of the Hebrew language for their gentile brothers: to teach faith through the scriptures (5:12, 11:1, 12:15). In this Letter, he encouraged the Hebrews to turn their eyes unto Jesus (3:1, 12:2), their heavenly high priest, instead of to the ceremonials in Jerusalem. And to honor Him, who confirmed the New Covenant with His own blood.

Was Paul an Anti-Judaist?
Did Paul call into question the right of non-Christian Jews to come together in synagogues of the traditional order? Never. On the contrary, he prayed for the Israel of God (Galatians 6:16). Was he an anti-Judaist? Not at all. His controversies were internal church questions, and yes he had to place vain theologies in their proper perspective. Anti-Judaism leads to anti-Semitism, which leads to extermination. These words did not exist in classical times, yet the meaning of them did exist and was known among all Jews. It was never Paul’s intention to hurt his people.

By Ben van Noort, December 14, 2020