The Galatian Controversy

The book of Galatians is a misunderstood book by many, and we are going to introduce some of the reasons for this, but it will not be in detail. For that we refer you to our verse-by-verse study of the book of Galatians called, ‘Brit Chadasha Foundations-Concepts in Galatians” on this website. First, we must clarify what we are talking about as far as circumcision. The Torah commands that a descendant of Abraham must be circumcised in what is called the Abrahamic Circumcision. Paul is not talking about that circumcision in Galatians. He believed that as a Jew one must be circumcised as a part of the Abrahamic Covenant. He circumcised Timothy because of that belief in Acts 16.1-5. What Paul was against in Galatians is the rabbinical oral law that said a non-Jew must be circumcised to become Jewish to be saved. That was never required by God for the non-Jews. When Paul talks about circumcision he means “to become a Jew.”

There are two main themes in Galatians. First, Paul was teaching that non-Jews did not have to convert to Judaism and become Jewish to have a place in the Kingdom of God and be saved through what was called “ritual circumcision” according to the oral laws of a sect of the Pharisees called Beit house) Shammai (Acts 15.1). Second, Paul is not criticizing the written Torah in Galatians, but the oral additions to it called the Oral Torah. So, let’s look at the circumcision issue.

In the first century, oral traditions were added to the body of Jewish law. This violated Deut 4.2 and these additions made up a large percentage of Jewish law. One of these additions said that non-Jews had to convert to become Jewish to be saved, and the sign for this was ritual circumcision. That law was based on several scriptures in the written Torah (Gen 17; Exo 12). Many today still think a non-Jewish believer needs to be ritually circumcised, citing these same verses and using the same line of thinking as these first-century “Judaizers.” God clearly showed in Acts 10 with Cornelius that circumcision for the non-Jews was not required for salvation. That whole chapter is about how God had accepted people by faith, and it is not about doing away with the food laws in the Torah, another misinterpretation by some teachers. Peter himself said the vision was about people, not food (Acts 10.28).

Now, there are several terms that need to be clarified in order to understand what Paul is saying in Galatians. When he says, “not under the law” there is no “the” in Greek. It should read, “not under the law” (upon nomou meaning a system of works righteousness). It’s the same when he says, “works of the law.” It should read, “works of law” (erga nomou meaning works to gain righteousness). Now, when Paul said the non-Jewish believer (or Jewish for that matter) is not under law or works of law, and knowing that a majority of Jewish law was just oral traditions of men, what was he saying? He was saying that the oral law has no authority over a believer, especially in the area of ritual circumcision. (not Abrahamic, that was written Torah). Oral laws were written by man and men make mistakes, but the written of God was given by God and he doesn’t make mistakes.

So, in other words, the Galatians did not have to obey man’s laws concerning non-Jewish conversion to Judaism or to become a Jew, which included circumcision. God had already showed them that the non-Jews were being saved and filled with the Holy Spirit without ritual circumcision, so why listen to people who say they were lacking in their faith in some way if they were not ritually circumcised? To accept ritual circumcision is accepting man’s laws as being valid, and that is a dead work

As a result, Paul says in Gal 5.3 that if they gave validity to ritual circumcision according to the oral laws and traditions, they were to obey the “whole” oral laws and traditions. When he says “whole law” there he means all the oral additions of men. If they accept it as having authority over them, than they were to accept it all. God’s written law was already accepted as having authority over them, so he has to mean the oral law here.

Also, in Gal 4.9-10, he says they were turning to the weak and beggarly elements, where they desired to be in “bondage” again by observing days, months, times, and years. To suggest that Paul is saying that the festivals of the Lord are “weak and beggarly” is ignorant and inconsistent on how believers felt toward the written laws of God. The Jewish believers in the first century, including the apostles and Paul, went to the Temple, kept the Sabbath, went to the Temple on festivals, and followed the Torah. What Paul is talking about here is the additional Jewish festivals, holy days, fasts listed in Zech 8, the fast of Esther, the fasts of Acra and NIcanor, the fast of wood-carrying, the new year for trees, semi-public fats on Monday and Thursday, the doubling of the opening and closing days of Passover, Pentecost, and Sukkot. There is not enough room in this article to list them all, but it was these additions he was alluding to, not what was written in the Torah. A curse would come on the people if they did not keep the written Torah and the festivals written there (see Deut 28.1-63 for example).

Paul is angry over the fact that these Galatians started out following the Torah “in the Spirit” or according to his purposes and authority, but later felt that they had to be perfected in their faith through fleshly, human additions in the oral law, in particular ritual circumcision according to the oral laws of the Pharisees from Beit Shammai. He never once said or even hinted that believers were not to obey the written Torah of God found in the Scriptures. For more information on why the oral law is invalid, see our teaching called, “A Case Against a DIvinely Inspired Oral Law” on this website.

Posted in All Teachings, Articles, Idioms, Phrases and Concepts, Prophecy/Eschatology, The Tanak, The Temple, Tying into the New Testament

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *