A Little Question of Past Tense Pillars in Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians

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by Neil Godfrey

I have a question. How might we best explain the passage in Paul’s letter to the Galatians in which he seems to imply that the pillars of the Jerusalem church, James, Cephas (Peter) and John, “were” pillars — in the past? How are we meant to understand those words?

Was Paul saying that though they were pillars of the church they were no longer generally so regarded at the time of his writing?

Was Paul saying that he himself regarded them pillars in the past but did so no longer?

Does the expression betray the hand of an author who was looking back on past history, after the passing of the generation of the pillars?

2 1Then, after fourteen years again I went up to Jerusalem with Barnabas, having taken with me also Titus;

and I went up by revelation, and did submit to them the good news that I preach among the nations, and privately to those esteemed, lest in vain I might run or did run;

but not even Titus, who [is] with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised —

and [that] because of the false brethren brought in unawares, who did come in privily to spy out our liberty that we have in Christ Jesus, that us they might bring under bondage,

to whom not even for an hour we gave place by subjection, that the truth of the good news might remain to you.

And from those who were esteemed to be something — whatever formerly they were [= ὁποῖοί ποτε ἦσαν ; ποτε = once, formerly, at one time], it maketh no difference to me — the face of man God accepteth not, for — to me those esteemed did add nothing,

but, on the contrary, having seen that I have been entrusted with the good news of the uncircumcision, as Peter with [that] of the circumcision,

for He who did work with Peter to the apostleship of the circumcision, did work also in me in regard to the nations,

and having known the grace that was given to me, James, and Cephas, and John, who were esteemed to be pillars, a right hand of fellowship they did give to me, and to Barnabas, that we to the nations, and they to the circumcision [may go],

10 only, of the poor that we should be mindful, which also I was diligent — this very thing — to do.

There are explanations and Ken Olson, whose contributions on the earlywritings forum I have very much appreciated, took the trouble to post me the following explanation. The specific questions of mine to which he was responding were not exactly the same as I mentioned above but I believe his response applies to any number of possible questions that might arise — though I’m willing to modify that claim if Ken objects. I have interspersed Ken’s reply with my own thoughts on the points he makes.

Paul is writing after the Antioch Incident (Gal 2.11-14) and after Jewish Christian missionaries have started preaching to his Gentile converts to Christianity that they must get circumcised and follow the Mosaic law in order to be part of God’s people. Paul thinks the Jerusalem church (including Pete and James) have gone back on the understanding they reached at the Jerusalem conference described in Gal. 2-1-10.

This is a reasonable inference for us modern readers to make. But there is nothing in Paul’s rebuke of Peter that points to a breach of prior agreement with the three pillars. If Paul had been offended by a breach of prior official understanding in Jerusalem, would not we expect him to make some reference to that fact, especially since Paul also associates the offending practice with “false brethren”? Rather, when Paul describes the change in Peter’s behaviour after representatives from James arrived, he implies that James had never accepted Paul’s view that gentiles were not to be “judaized”. Paul faults Peter’s behaviour as hypocrisy, not betrayal or having gone back on his word. Earlier he had even said that Jews who wanted gentiles to keep the Jewish laws were “false brethren”. Yet Paul has nothing to say about that view when confronted by the behaviour of Peter and, by implication, James?

11 When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.

Paul follows with a lengthy sermon or exposition of his gospel that was surely not what he said in the heat of the moment. It certainly reads like a theological explanation that is coloured with some dramatic force by the conflict in the prior narrative:

14 When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?

15 “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles 16 know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in[d] Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.

17 “But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! 18 If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker.

19 “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”

Paul really said all of that yet not a word about the prior agreement or betrayal by James or the view that such judaizers were “false brethren”? No, surely the dramatic narrative functions as a backdrop for this sermon for the readers’ benefit.

Back to Ken’s reply:

This is an angry letter because Paul feels betrayed both by the Jewish church and by his Galatian converts. Moreover, he wants to emphasize that his (law-free) gospel was given to him directly by God (Gal 1.1, 1.11-12). His authority does not derive from the Jerusalem church *and it never had*.

This is a problem for Paul, because it might look to outsiders like his authority to preach the gospel did indeed derive from the Jerusalem church. He is trying to minimize the contact he’s had with Jerusalem and to suggest that his gospel and his authority to preach it did not come from the Jerusalem church. Paul went to Jerusalem and laid the gospel he preached to the Gentiles before those of note ‘because of a revelation’ (Gal. 2.2). They did not summon him to give and account of his activity and had no authority to do so – he went up because of a revelation.

Is not there a problem here? On the one hand we read that Paul went up to Jerusalem “by revelation” — evidently to disabuse anyone of the idea that he was being summoned by the pillars — but on the other hand we read that he presented his gospel to them “lest he had been or might further be teaching in vain”. Surely there is an irreconcilable contradiction here, is there not? How can Paul say that he submitted what he taught to the pillars “in case it had been mistaken in some way” given his insistence that his gospel was not “from men”.

Moreover, he took Titus with him and he was not compelled to be circumcised (i.e., they did not insist Titus be circumcised. Also, they added nothing to Paul (i.e., he put his gospel before them and they did not insist that he add the requirement of circumcision or observance of the Mosaic law in general). They agreed that They asked only that he remember the poor (collect money for the Jerusalem church), which he was eager to do. They agreed that he and Barnabas should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised (the Jews) and gave them right hand of good fellowship (i.e., they shook on the deal).

The good relationship Paul had (or thought he had) with the Jerusalem pillars at the time he met them (as narrated in Gal. 2,1-10) has been broken.

Galatians 2.6 (Berean literal): And from those who were reputed to be something (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those, I say, who were of repute added nothing to me;

ὁποῖοί ποτε ἦσαν, οὐδέν μοι διαφέρει, ‘whatever they were formerly makes no difference to me’

I take Paul to be saying that whatever reputation they had enjoyed among men ceased to be relevant in their dealings with Paul (i.e. Paul is not saying they ceased enjoying that reputation among human beings).

In his commentary on Galatians (1997) J. Louis Martyn writes:


PS Yes, that really is the shorter form of my reply.

I agree that Paul’s explanation that he went to Jerusalem “by revelation” was an implicit claim that he did not recognize the authority of James, Cephas/Peter and John over him. The problem remains, in my view, how Paul could at any time imply that he had recognized those three persons as “pillars”. If he says “whatever they were… I no longer regard them as such”, then he is saying something very unlike the Paul we otherwise know.

Paul insisted from the very beginning that his gospel was not from men, so much so that on his conversion he avoided Jerusalem altogether for many years. One has to conclude that he never personally regarded them as pillars. It follows that he could not have at any time without any qualification or explanation have called, or thought of them as, pillars.

But if Paul is saying that others had regarded them as pillars, how can he say in Galatians 2:6 that they “formerly were pillars” — unless they no longer exist at the time of his writing?

If Paul was using the past tense simply because he is talking about past events, it is nonetheless awkward to speak of a situation that still exists at the time of writing itself to also have been a past event — as if it is no longer applicable to the present. We don’t speak of last week’s debate by saying Trump debated Biden “who was (formerly) the president”.

Such is my reply that I had returned to the earlywritings forum to post, only to discover that, without warning or explanation, I had been “permanently banned”. So if any reader here has contact with Ken, do feel free to notify him of this post. Of course the views of others are also welcome.

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17 thoughts on “A Little Question of Past Tense Pillars in Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians”

  1. “and I went up by revelation”

    I have never considered this before, this is the first time I have read it translated like this, but the literal reading here does seem to be he met these pillars in some sort of ‘heaven’ by revelation as if they were now actually dead. (Paul does claim to be a frequent flyer astral traveler!). It would be consistent with his claim that he received everything by revelation.

    Of course, this cannot be so if he met Cephas in person in Antioch later. So this only makes the problem worse!

    Is it an idea you have entertained?

    PS – good to see you tackling Paul again!

    1. No, I haven’t entertained that one, but I do think the simplest explanation is that God somehow told him to go to Jerusalem. The preceding verse sets the meeting on earth. He tells us he went up to Jerusalem along with Barnabas and Titus and then he explains that it was a revelation that prompted him to do so.

      1. One of my bugbears with Galatians is the contradiction of Paul one one hand being adamant that his teachings came directly from Christ through revelation, but then after all those years in Arabia says he had to check with the apostles in Jerusalem that he had not run his race in vain?

        He seems to be at one point arguing for the primacy of his message and his authority, then next moment relying on the authority of the other apostles to rubber stamp his message. These apostles he is then happy to rebuke when he feels he is in the right!

        And as to a revelation sending him to Jerusalem, how does that fit with him saying “lest in vain I might run or did run”. The revelation was to go to Jerusalem to double-check his message?

        I can only suppose that there was an original core that made more sense, but later rewriting has been made to keep Paul in line with a supposed unified early church?

  2. Here’s the core problem with the Pauline writings: the original — and only — copies of these writings were provided to the Catholic Church during the 2nd Century by a Gnostic Christian named Marcion, who lived over 400 miles from the places to which Paul addressed his letters. So how did Marcion come to posses the only copies of the Pauline writings — especially since he lived so far away? There are several theories, but all of them suggest the Pauline writings were produced by a ghost writer, and that Paul did not actually exist. And no, you will never hear these problems with the Pauline writings discussed at church. But there’s plenty of information on the Internet if one is interested.

      1. Jesusneverexisted.com has a fair bit about Paul (https://www.jesusneverexisted.com/paul/)

        There’s a general issue with studies of Paul which is that we know the letters are not all by the same hand but the normal assumption is that SOME of theme are the real thing. It’s not clear to me why or how, given a pile of documents, you come to the conclusion that they are not all fakes created for more or less the same reason – that the name “Paul” carried some authority for some reason and the fraudster wants to cloak themselves in that authority.

        1. I have encountered only a very few brave critics who are prepared to call out the circularity underlying the reasons for selecting those 4 as the genuine articles.

  3. […] “whatever they were formerly, makes no difference to me” is in Polish translations and it seems that this is how the text should be read.
    I wanted to point out that this is the least of the problems with Gal 2. Paul insults his partners all the time. It starts with a disgusting suggestion in Galatians 2:2-3, where he talks about the hosts as leaders and then sets off a firecracker “and Titus (the guest) was not even forced to be circumcised.” You can’t insult the hosts more!!
    This suggestion is also intentionally false, which may result from a misunderstanding of Judaism. Circumcision is not a magical ritual but a ceremony of admitting a willing person into the community after long preparation. Only children of Jewish parents are circumcised at the beginning of their lives because the parents are given credit for raising their children correctly.
    Paul uses circumcision more often than other Bible authors to discredit these “esteemed partners” of his.

      1. Circumcision is used by the creator of the character Paul to show that the competing characters of the disciples, the pilars, are crazy. The removal of the foreskin does not make an unclean man a Jew. Circumcision and halakha are customs of the region regardless of religion. Jews, Muslims and Christians still practice it en masse in many North African communities because it is their tradition. The fact that an Eritrean will not give his daughter to an uncircumcised Christian does not mean that he will want to circumcise him.

  4. […] “whatever they were formerly, makes no difference to me” is in Polish translations and it seems that this is how the text should be read.
    The author of these words doubts who the people claiming to be Jesus’ companions in the past were. And even if they were Jesus companions, it doesn’t matter

  5. On the “pillars”, from my book now in the final stages of preparation for publication….

    Paul says the circumcision issue was brought up by “false brothers” (ψευδαδελφους) secretly invited (παρεισακτους) to appear unexpectedly (παρεισηλθον) before Paul; this would be the Pharisee, John. Though Paul makes it all sound very positive and chummy (Galatians 2:9), still one hears the hissing sarcasm in Galatians 2:6, where Paul describes the leaders, mainly the just-mentioned Pharisee, as

    …των δοκουντων ειναι τι οποιοι ποτε ησαν ουδεν μοι διαφερει προσωπον ο θεος ανθρωπου ου λαμβανει εμοι γαρ οι δοκουντες ουδεν προσανεθεντο

    … those esteemed (by others) to be something – whatever they used to be makes no difference to me (since) God does not accept a man’s outward seeming – these esteemed had, indeed, nothing to add.

    Paul’s description is corroborated by the account in Acts (indeed, he is probably the direct source for that account), for after John (he who as Paul says “used to be something”, mainly the sagan in the Temple) speaks once in 15:5, urging the movement to continue to follow the Torah, he is clearly overruled and says no more. But note that the adjective δοκουντων (dokountōn) has a barb in its tail. In this quotation it appears to suggest the meaning of “esteemed” or “held in high opinion”. However in his next phrase Paul suggests that John (for his venom is directed at John despite the plurals) is held in high esteem because of his former-but-no-more high status in the Temple, and so they have been taken in by his claim to fame, the show that he gives the world; literally, the “face” that he shows the world. At any rate, Paul is in no position to make such insinuations, considering his own rather despicable past deeds, though to his credit he at least mentions them in a frequent show of self-disparagement. But God is not so taken in, he goes on, adding with arch piety that though John’s admirers are fooled God is not, and so God’s one faithful follower, Paul, is likewise not fooled. Yet that he alludes to John’s past greatness at all implies it does make a difference to him, and he sounds both envious and gossipy simply for hinting at it. Apparently in his own mind the situation is that Paul has surmounted his past and been forgiven for it, while these others, especially John, far from overcoming their former lives, claim a special status on the basis of them.
    So pleased with it is Paul that he uses the adjective δοκουντων again in Galatians 2:9 to modify the noun στυλοι (styloi), which usually means “pillars”, hence “esteemed pillars”, in the modern sense of “pillars of the church”. But the latter word was also used to refer to writing styluses (in fact the English word is descended from it), and δοκουντων can also mean “opinionated” or even “judgemental”. It also was a euphemism for the aroused penis, which has always been a fecund resource for disparaging epithets to the present day. Thus, no doubt intentionally, Paul intends this phrase to carry a second meaning: “judgemental styluses”; by implication, “judgemental writers”; the equivalent in modern English would be “poison pens” – and that (with my apologies to the reader I will illustrate how crass Paul’s remark is in Greek with a current off-color epithet in North American English) these apostles are “a bunch of dickheads”. Paul might have had in mind the עט שקר (“deceitful styluses”) of Jeremiah 8:8, referring to scribes. Of course the main “scribe” among the Jerusalemite leaders was John; he was by far the best educated of them and was already by this time noted for his epistolary talents. Still, Paul aims his taunt at all of them, not just John; immediately after it he drives it home by relating the story about Simon being hypocritical about demanding Paul to keep kosher when Simon himself does not.

    1. …whom (others) regard as something – whatever happened in the past, it doesn’t matter to me (because) God does not accept the appearance of man – these respected people really had nothing to add.

      This is a very good translation James, I’ll tell you why! If God does not accept a person’s outward appearance, then what does He accept? where did this come from? This is one of the consequences of his statement! But for this one must accept Paul’s statement: “That he may reveal his Son in me…” Gal 1,16

      How can this be accepted? I think I know, but you? Anyone else?

      Who is Christ? Not Jesus Christ, or Christ Jesus! Who is Christ? Answer?

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