Paul’s Autobiography in Galatians

From 2004. My opinion has firmed up since then.

I had a new thought today about that autobiographical section in Galatians beginning at chapter 1 verse 13 and extending all the way through to the end of chapter 2. Almost all outlines I’ve seen regard this as a defense of Paul’s independent credentials as an apostle. The idea is that the Judaizers, Paul’s antagonists, have called his apostolic authority into question. They have probably claimed for themselves that they have been deputized by the apostles in Jerusalem to clear up Paul’s distorted teaching, especially with regard to the practices of the Gentiles. They therefore appeal to Jerusalem for their authority. Paul responds by establishing his independence from Jerusalem putting himself on a par with the reputed pillars of the church, but also affirming that his message has been recognized as consistent with theirs. The focus of this section, then, is Paul’s status and authority as an apostle.

I realized, today, that can’t be Paul’s emphasis, because he’s already said that if he himself were to preach a gospel different than what he had already preached to them, then he is accursed. He calls down a curse upon himself if he veers from the content of the gospel. It’s the gospel that’s at issue, not his, nor anyone else’s authority. If he distorts the gospel then he has no authority; he is damned. The truth of the gospel stands independent of its proclaimers. It is is no respecter of persons, whether they are the reputed pillars of the church, the beloved Barnabas, or, even, Peter.

It is true that Paul outlines his independence in this section, but I think that serves first, to make it clear that the gospel he preached to the Galatians is unalterable because it is a divine revelation, and, second, to assert that he has been faithful to keep the gospel pure and undistorted. The gospel he preached to them doesn’t need any modification or correction.

So, the focus in this autobiographical section is not Paul’s authority, but the purity of his gospel. His authority is meaningless if he has not faithfully preserved the gospel he received.

This may seem a distinction without a difference; but I think it makes more sense of the context. The flow of Paul’s argument makes more sense to me. Verses 10 through 13 in chapter 1 all begin with a “for” and are clearly intended to explain and support the paragraph in vv. 6-9, as is that entire autobiographical section (though Paul makes some very strong doctrinal points along the way building to a climax in Gal 2:11-21.)

I am currently working on a detailed outline of Galatians for my own use. I am convinced that the series of rhetorical questions in Gal 3:1-5 form the center of Paul’s argument in this letter rather than simply being a rhetorical ploy, an appeal to the Galatians experience to draw them into his reasoning. I believe that we have often missed the point of this letter. I’ve heard countless sermon series that assume that the primary issue in this letter is justification by faith. The book of Galatians is a defense of justification. I don’t think that’s true. I think the real issue has to do with the role of works of the Law in the life of the Christian. Paul argues that we are free from the Law. The Judaizers raise a number of objections to this. For example, implied in chapter 5 is that freedom from the Law would lead to licentiousness. Paul’s argument is that it is the ministry of the Spirit that prevents license. The Christian is free from the Law but follows the Spirit. Christians begin by the Spirit and end by the Spirit. The ministry of the Spirit, I believe, is the central theme of this letter. However, I am seeking, by writing a detailed outline of Paul’s argument, to verify whether this is so. It’s in the midst of writing out my outline on these first two chapters that I had this “Aha!” moment about how the autobiographical section follows from 1:6-9.

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