Paul’s Jewish opponents (Galatians 3)

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Throughout his Christian ministry Paul was dogged by Jewish opponents who sought to undermine his message. Some of these challengers were Jews who rejected the Messianic claims of Jesus and sought to halt the growth of the church by open persecution (Acts 13:45, 14:19), just as Paul himself had once done. On other occasions, however, Paul seems to have been opposed by Jews who were perhaps offended not so much by the fact that Paul preached Christ but that he did not require Gentiles to become proselytes (i.e. to embrace the ways of Judaism, such as circumcision, observance of the Sabbath and avoidance of non-kosher foods). It appears that the Christians in Galatia had been persuaded not to turn away from Christ but to become proselytes. For Paul this was an alarming development because it undercut the core message of the gospel; if salvation could be attained without embracing Judaism, then the death of Christ was insufficient.

Scholars have become vitally interested in understanding Paul’s Jewish adversaries, because this issue is key to nderstanding Paul. The traditional Protestant view is that Paul’s Jewish opponents were “legalists” who believed that salvation is not received by grace through faith but must be earned by “good works” (which in this case meant adherence to the ritual laws of Judaism).

Against this, some have  recently argued that first century Judaism was not really “lgalistic” at all but that it held to the belief that forgiveness was obtained purely by the mercy of God. These scholars charge that Protestantism have judged ancient Jews out of the context of the Protestant Reformation, when Luther faced the legalism of Roman Catholic masses and indulgences, rather than truly listening to the first century Jews themselves. To the contrary, such critics insist, faithful Jews believed that God had chosen them purely on the basis of His grace and that He required only that they regulate their lives according to the terms of His covenant. The “rules” of Judaism, according to this perspective, helped Jews to preserve their identity and faithfulness but were not a means for acquiring God’s favour.

This viewpoint on _Judaism has led to an altered perspective on Paul. If the early Jews were not in fact legalistic, then our interpretation of some of Paul’s words needs significant revision. On the other hand, many believe that it is valid to claim that many first century Jews did embrace an excessively moralistic and institutionalized view of religion and that Paul was reacting against this code. Scholars are currently involved in research to try to determine exactly what these early Jews believed about how God’s favour was to be obtained.

Even so, it is probably unnecessary to prove that first century Judaism was formally and theologically legalistic in order to demonstrate that many of Paul’s opponents were legalistic in their approach to their religion. When Jesus opposed the Jewish leadership, He was concerned not so much with debating the Pharisees over hypothetical elements of theology as with their lack of repentance (e.g. Matthew 23). When religious people are unrepentant, they often become harsh and judgemental, adhering to a letter-of-the-law code of moral and ethical standards. Their ability to preform religious rites and duties becomes a substitute for an authentic and personal knowledge of God. This is true in Christian communities as well, notwithstanding the fact that no one in these communities disputes that Christianity holds to salvation “by grace and not bt works” as one of its core teachings. Thus, even though many of Paul’s opponents may have formally accepted that forgiveness depends entirely upon the mercy of God, in their practicak religious lives they may well have been legalistic.


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