Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Judaizers and the Galatians

Reading N°13 in the History of the Catholic Church

Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

The very success of Paul and Barnabas among the pagans involved their newly founded churches in a momentous dispute. It was impossible not to see that Antioch was the center of all the new Christian communities, and Paul seemed to be their leader. What, then, of the influence of the mother Church? In these new communities the Jewish observances were not all kept. What was happening to the ancient traditions? The Church at Jerusalem was being recruited by a considerable number of priests and Levites,[1] some of whom did not altogether forsake the narrowness of their rabbinical training and showed themselves extremely sensitive.

No doubt God had spoken to Peter at Joppa with regard to the centurion Cornelius. But the situation was now much changed. The present issue was not whether to admit a pagan and his family into the Church, regardless of the Jewish legal observances, but whether a sort of federation of churches might be formed, with a center and a head, seeming to draw the disciples of Christ into a movement quite different from that over which Jerusalem had theretofore had the direction. Some half-converted Jewish priests were grieved to see the Holy City deprived of its primacy, the Temple abandoned, the work of Moses rejected. Their complaint was apparently sanctioned by the example of their chief, James the Less, who was seen to be so assiduous at prayer in the Temple, and so exact in fulfilling the prescriptions of the Law.[2]

Some years later, the Council of Jerusalem would make allowance for whatever was reasonable in these claims. Unfortunately, certain ill-disposed persons embittered the dispute. Paul and Barnabas, at the time of their previous journey to Jerusalem, saw through the designs of "false brethren unawares brought in, who came in privately to spy our liberty, which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into servitude."[3] Some of these were simply narrow, obstinate men who would not for any reason give up a view once taken or a prejudice once formed. Others were jealous and malicious; in their bitter attacks on the Apostle and his labors, it seemed they aimed at the very work of Christ Himself in His most ardent missioner.[4]

The storm broke loose shortly after the return of Paul and Barnabas to Antioch. The two missioners declared to their listeners that the hour was now at hand to open wide the door of faith to the Gentiles.[5] At this, some men, who had arrived from Jerusalem and claimed to speak in the name of the Apostles, rose up before them. St. Luke does not give us their names. St. Paul applies to them a word difficult to translate, which may refer to the haughtiness of their claims and the insufficiency of their authority (ὑπερλίαν ἀπόστολοι), "superapostles" or "apostles above measure."[6] They declared: "Except you be circumcised after the manner of Moses, you cannot be saved."[7] They succeeded in winning over part of the Antiochene Jews and made loud proclamation of their commission from the Church at Jerusalem. Their daring went farther. When Peter came to Antioch for the purpose of observing at close quarters the progress of the Gospel in one of its most important phases, they appealed to him against Paul's methods. At the same time, they tried to stir up the principal churches founded by Paul against him and his teaching.

Peter followed the line of conduct revealed to him at Joppa, freely mingling with the converted pagans. He was seen to sit at their tables, without concerning himself about the food that was served. The men from Jerusalem endeavored to persuade him that such conduct scandalized the Jews and troubled their consciences. Already, they said, a large part of the Antiochene Jews had risen up against Paul and the converted pagans. They advised Peter to live as a Jew, observing the Mosaic prescriptions, to restore confidence and peace. The Apostle of the circumcised,[8] moved by this reasoning, yielded. Little by little, to quiet the Jews, he discontinued his close relations with the converted pagans, ate with his fellovv-Jews, and followed the same rules as they. Barnabas, too, weakened and was won over. Following them, a number of Christians began a strict observance of the Jewish regulations at their meals.

Petrus et Paulus
4th century etching

Paul saw the danger and judged that he was qualified to denounce it to Peter. At Jerusalem he had been officially recognized by the Apostles as the providential Apostle of the ucircumcised. It was evident that, by Peter's present conduct, the work which God had entrusted to him was threatened with failure. "To maintain circumcision, with the implied full observance of the Law, was to forego the hope of conquering the world. Never would the world become Jewish. The question of principle was graver still. To make a Mosaic practice an essential condition of salvation was virtually to deny the transient nature of the old economy, the sufficiency of the Redemption, the value of the blood and merits of Jesus Christ, the efficacity of grace; this would be to overturn the fundamental dogma of Christianity."[9] The Apostle of the Gentiles, therefore, was in duty bound to point out to the head of the Church the effects of his excessive condescension. In one of his Epistles, he writes:
When I saw that they walked not uprightly unto the truth of the Gospel, I said to Cephas before them all: "If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of the Gentiles, and not as the Jews do, how dost thou compel the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?"[10]
Roman province of Galatia
Peter yielded to Paul's reasoning,[11] and the danger dreaded by Paul seemed to be warded off.[12] But the sect was not satisfied with acting merely at Antioch. Its emissaries had already visited the Christian communities of Galatia, disturbing the neophytes by the confidence with which they everywhere repeated their famous motto: "Without circumcision there is no salvation." Nothing could be more painful to Paul's heart. These earnest people of Galatia had received the faith of Christ with most enthusiastic eagerness and had welcomed the Apostles with marks of filial affection. With his own hand, in spite of the painful infirmity of his eyes, Paul wrote as best he could, in big letters,[13] an epistle vibrating with feeling that he made no attempt to restrain.

The Epistle opens with a prayer for the increase of their charity:
Grace be to you and peace from God the Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins.
Then, without any oratorical caution, the Apostle goes straight to the point:
There are some that trouble you and would pervert the Gospel of Christ. But though we or an angel from heaven preach a Gospel to you besides that which we have preached to you, let him be anathema. [...] The gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For neither did I receive it of man, nor did I learn it; but by the revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews' religion: how that beyond measure I persecuted the Church of God.
With a few masterful strokes, Paul then describes his past life, his conversion, the divine lights granted him, and his relations with the other Apostles. In these lines, which we can feel were written hurriedly, Paul clearly sets forth the two unanswerable arguments on which he builds his whole contention: his doctrine comes to him directly from Christ and has been expressly and repeatedly confirmed by the chief Apostles, notably by Simon Peter. His solid guaranty is Christ's word, declared authentic by the hierarchy. Why, then, should he retreat? For, he says, "if I build up again the things which I have destroyed, I make myself a prevaricator." Why return to the letter of the Law, when we have the grace of Christ? This thought of the grace of Christ transports him. He says:
With Christ I am nailed to the cross. And I live, now not I, but Christ liveth in me. And that I live now in the flesh, I live in the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and delivered Himself for me. [...] O senseless Galatians, who hath bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been set forth, crucified among you?
The Law has, indeed, been appealed to, and Moses. Is there any question of setting up the faith in opposition to the Law, Christ in opposition to Moses? Not at all. The Apostle asks only that the Law of Moses should not make anyone forget the promises made to Abraham and realized by the grace of Christ. Between Abraham and Christ, Moses gave the Law to restrain passions, to maintain faithfulness to the promises, and to prepare for the advent of grace.
The Law was our pedagogue in Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after the faith is come, we are no longer under a pedagogue.
But all this is argument. The Apostle is eager to speak more directly to the heart of his dear Galatians. He writes:
You know how, through infirmity of the flesh, I preached the Gospel to you heretofore; and your temptation in my flesh, you despised not nor rejected.[...] I bear you witness that, if it could be done, you would have plucked out your own eyes and would have given them to me. [...] They would exclude you, that you might be zealous for them. [...] My little children, of whom I am in labor again, until Christ be formed in you. And I would willingly be present with you now, and change my voice.
Then the Apostle returns to his argument. Taking his stand on his enemies' ground, he makes use of a thoroughly rabbinical logic, an allegorical interpretation of the story of Agar and Sara. The Christian is not the child of a slave; he is a free man. The Epistle continues:
We are not the children of the bondwoman, but of the free: by the freedom wherewith Christ has made us free. [...] Walk in the spirit, and you shall not fulfil the lusts of the flesh. [...] The fruit of the Spirit is charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, longanimity. [...] Against such there is no law. And they that are Christ's have crucified their flesh, with the vices and concupiscences.
Such are the main lines of the famous Epistle to the Galatians, in which Paul opens his soul to his disciples. Its style is simple, picturesque, and sincere, at times hesitant, as though beneath the weight of a crushing thought, like the feeble body of the Apostle; again it is proud, brilliant, reaching the sublime, under the impulse of a superhuman inspiration.


[1] Acts 6:7. Cf. Acts 15:5.
[2] Hegesippus, in Eusebius, II, xxiii; Josephus, Antiquities, XX, ix.
[3] Gal. 2:4.
[4] The Tübingen school makes no mistake in affirming the existence of a party ruthlessly hostile to St. Paul. But they are wrong when, without proof and even in face of most convincing evidence to the contrary, they attribute the inspiration and guidance of that party to St. Peter and St. James. We know what St. Peter's attitude was regarding the conversion of the Gentiles, and we see St. James joining in the conciliary declaration which disavowed the sect in question. Those whom St. Paul calls "false brethren unawares brought in" could not be Apostles. St. Epiphanius supposes that the future heretic Cerinthus belonged to this Judaizing sect. (Haereses, 26.)
[5] Acts 14:26.
[6] Cf. 2 Cor. 11:5; 12:11.
[7] Acts 15:1.
[8] Gal. 2:8.
[9] Prat, La Théologie de saint Paul, I, 71.
[10] Gal. 2:14.
[11] "Peter certainly yielded to Paul's reasons. If he had been obstinate, this whole affair, instead of being an argument in favor of St. Paul's gospel, would be a serious objection which St. Paul could not have remembered without utterly ruining the thesis which was so dear to him." (Prat, op. cit., I, 74.)
[12] Such is this famous Antioch incident, reduced to its just historical proportions. Enemies of the Holy See have made a great fuss about it; and some apologists of the papacy have been so disturbed by it that they have gone to great lengths in an effort to prove that the Peter of this incident is not the Peter who was the head of the Church. We need scarcely say that neither the pope's infallibility nor his supreme authority in the Church is in any way involved in this passing disagreement. Peter's whole fault was in letting himself be momentarily circumvented by Judaizers, who misled him as to the effects of his conduct. As Tertullian says, "The fault was one of conduct, not of preaching, conversationis fuit vitium, non praedicationis." (De praescriptione, chap. 23.) Was St. Peter, then, living at Antioch? Tradition gives him the title of bishop of that city; and Antioch itself has always honored him as its first founder. (See Eusebius, H. E., III, xxxvi, and Chron., bk. 2.) In matter of fact, the Apostles were the bishops of all the churches that they founded; their authority over those churches may rightly be called an episcopate, but we should not imagine it organized like that of their successors. The latter, attached to a single church and residing there, were alone true bishops in the sense we give the word. But when Peter, the supreme head of the Apostolic College and of the whole Church, arrived at the "metropolis of the East," that city acclaimed him as its pastor. "There the name 'Christian' was born. Church history bears witness to the fact that this church, though founded by St. Barnabas and St. Paul, recognized Peter, because of his lofty office, as its first pastor. Peter had to come there when it was so prominent for its brilliant profession of Christianity, and his chair at Antioch became a solemnity in the churches." (Bossuet, Sermon sur l'unité de l'Eglise, 1St point.)
[13] Gal. 6:11.


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