What Others have Written About Galatians – J. C. O’Neill

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by Neil Godfrey

The fact that a century of such patient and devoted scholarship has yielded so few agreements on difficult passages and fundamental issues makes me think that the nine­teenth-century debate is not yet over. (O’Neill, 8f)

John Cochrane O’Neill had a reputation for being a controversial critic but his attempt to sift through the many variant manuscripts (and to resolve the remaining inconsistencies even when those sources agree) was driven by a desire to “get to the truth about Paul”. O’Neill was not afraid to engage with that earlier “unmentionable” critic among theological circles, Bruno Bauer. Contrary to Bauer’s view, however, O’Neill viewed the interpolator or glossator of the epistle to the Galatians as a person who respected Paul and wanted to expand the original text in ways that did honour to Paul:

[Bruno Bauer] … argued that the epistle could not have been written by Paul to the congregations to which it purported to be addressed, and that all the ideas and most of the expressions were clumsily derived from Romans and the Corin­thian correspondence—indeed, could often only be understood if one knew the original setting. The author of Galatians was, in short, a compiler.

Apart from a brief introduction, the whole part devoted to Galatians— seventy-four pages— is packed with precise, well-argued exegetical observations. The only general weakness in his argument is that no compiler would have made such a bad job of compilation as this author seems to have done; a compiler is more likely to have produced a smooth and understandable epistle than this. The more Bauer vents his sarcasm on the compiler for clumsi­ness in using his sources, the less likely does he make the hypothesis that a compiler was at work. (O’Neill, 4 — bolded highlighting is mine in all quotations)

O’Neill turns the obscurities in Galatians into evidence for the fundamental authenticity of the epistle:

How are we to explain that Paul was an independent apostle, who yet thought he should have his preaching approved in Jerusalem; that the Jerusalem leaders, James, Cephas, and John, solemnly agreed to approve his special work, and yet Cephas was able to act in such a way that Paul had to call him to book publicly at Antioch? The obscurity of the situation as it is pre­sented in Galatians has given a foothold to those who wish to deny completely the authenticity of the book, but it remains an obscurity that is as good a guarantee as any of authenticity, for what falsifier would be so implausible and obscure?

I shall suggest that some of the difficulties have arisen because glossators tried to explain difficulties and fill in details. But, how­ever much the picture has been retouched and repainted, the strong master-strokes have not been completely obscured, and on these we must fix our eyes. They may not fit our preconceptions, but nor do they fit the conceptions of the second-century Church. I think that the clue to the strange relations between Paul and the Jerusalem leaders has been given by the Danish New Testament scholar, Johannes Munck (1904-65). He argued that the Jeru­salem leaders and Paul agreed that the conversion of the Gentiles, as well as the conversion of the Jews, was part of God’s plan for the world; they differed about strategy, the Jerusalem leaders holding that the Gentiles would come in when Israel had re­sponded, and Paul holding that the conversion of the Gentiles might well have to ‘precede that of the Jews. Munck’s exegesis of Galatians I do not find satisfactory, but his insistence that Paul and the Jerusalem leaders could agree that there were two different and distinct missions to be carried out alongside one another pro­vides the key to the relationships at the centre of the epistle. (9f)

Each of us may have our own ways of responding to the argument that I have highlighted with yellow background.

O’Neill is far from dogmatic about his proposed interpolations and glosses and makes no secret of his motive:

I cannot hope to have been completely right at every point in assigning this verse to Paul, and that to a glossator, and the other to an interpolator . . . 

I hope [that] an historical study that removes obscurities and explains the meaning of the words will help to clear the way for a fresh conviction that Paul was in fact an apostle of the Son of God. (10, 13)

Following are the main points of O’Neill’s analysis of Galatians 1 and 2. I have added the table format and text of Galatians alongside O’Neill’s arguments or references to them.

Galatians 1-2 with passages O’Neill considers additions to the original epistle crossed through. References to O’Neill’s discussion that is available publicly on archive.org. I have copied quotations that I think will be of most interest to readers.
1 Paul, an apostle — not from men, nor through man, but through Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who did raise him out of the dead —
2 and all the brethren with me, to the assemblies of Galatia:
3 Grace to you, and peace from God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ,
Explanation on page 19
4 who did give himself for our sins, that he might deliver us out of the present evil age, according to the will of God even our Father,
5 to whom [is] the glory to the ages of the ages. Amen
Explanation on pages 19f
6 I wonder that ye are so quickly removed from Him who did call you in the grace of Christ to another good news;
He could hardly mean that the defection or threatened defection of the Galatians from his teaching, serious as it was, was complete defection from God. He regarded Jews who failed to acknowledge Jesus Christ as still worshipping God, even if they did not wholly obey him (Rom. 10.2; cf. 9-4f). Bruno Bauer adduced the idea that defec­tion from Paul’s position was defection from God as evidence that the true author of Galatians was far removed from the time and circumstances of Paul.1 I cite in support of the possibility that Paul here refers to his own preaching the sentence in Gal. 5.8: ἡ πεισμονὴ οὐκ ἐκ τοῦ καλοῦντος ὑμᾶς [=This persuasion is not from him who calls you] where it is possible that Paul referred to himself. If Paul had meant in 1.6 that the Galatians were defecting from God, he would hardly have called that to which they were defecting evayyeXiov, in however qualified a sense. (21)
7 that is not another, except there be certain who are troubling you, and wishing to pervert the good news of the Christ;  Explanation on pages 20f

Verses 6 and 7 as amended may be paraphrased like this.  “I marvel that you are changing over so quickly to some other good news—which is not really good news at all. I would marvel, had there not been people who are disturbing you and wanting to pervert the good news of Christ.”

8 but even if we or a messenger out of heaven may proclaim good news to you different from what we did proclaim to you — anathema let him be!
9 as we have said before, and now say again, If any one to you may proclaim good news different from what ye did receive — anathema let him be!
10 for now men do I persuade, or God? or do I seek to please men? for if yet men I did please — Christ’s servant I should not be. Explanation on pages 23f
13 for ye did hear of my behaviour once in Judaism, that exceedingly I was persecuting the assembly of God, and wasting it,
14 and I was advancing in Judaism
above many equals in age in mine own race, being more abundantly zealous of my fathers’ deliverances,
15 and when God was well pleased — having separated me from the womb of my mother, and having called [me] through His grace —
16 to reveal His Son in me, that I might proclaim him good news among the nations, immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood,
17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem unto those who were apostles before me, but I went away to Arabia, and again returned to Damascus,
18 then, after three years I went up to Jerusalem to enquire about Peter, and remained with him fifteen days,
19 and other of the apostles I did not see, except James, the brother of the Lord.
20 And the things that I write to you, lo, before God — I lie not;
21 then I came to the regions of Syria and of Cilicia,
22 and was unknown by face to the assemblies of Judea, that [are] in Christ,
23 and only they were hearing, that `he who is persecuting us then, doth now proclaim good news — the faith that then he was wasting;’
24 and they were glorifying God in me.
These verses have been interpolated into Paul’s argument by a later writer who wished to glorify the apostle. The argument is irrelevant and anachronistic, the concepts differ from Paul’s con­cepts, and the vocabulary and style are not his. . . . .

The interpolation is anachronistic because it regards Judaism as an entity distinct from Christianity. Jews at the time used the term ’Ιουδαϊσμος to describe their faith in opposition to heathenism (2 Macc. 2.21; 8.1; 14.38; 4 Macc. 4.26; synagogue inscription in Frey, C.I.J. I.694), but the use of the term in a Christian context seems to imply that Christianity is a system completely distinct from Judaism. Paul was well aware of the tragic gulf that had opened up between those Jews who believed in Jesus Christ and those who refused to believe, but he still held fast to the fact that “theirs were the fathers” (Rom. 9.5), that the fathers of those who believed in Christ were also the fathers of the unbelieving Jews. But this interpolation speaks in the terms to be found in the Apostolic Fathers of the second century, when Judaism had be­come a foreign entity (Ignatius Magn. 8.1; 10.3; Philad. 6.1).

The concepts employed are rarely found in Paul, or are entirely absent. In verse 23 πίστις [=pistis/faith] is used of the Christian religion, as in Acts 6.7, and the only possible parallels in Paul are at 3.23-5, 6.10, and Rom. 1.5, all passages that are of doubtful authen­ticity. . . . 

Because he was employing old traditions, the interpolator did not regard his additions as illegitimate. He saw himself as en­riching a treasured epistle by an edifying reminiscence of the conversion of St Paul, which could appropriately be put onto his lips. (pp 24-27)

2,1 Then, after fourteen years again I went up to Jerusalem with Barnabas, having taken with me also Titus;
2 and I went up by revelation, and did submit to them the good news that I preach
The verse should then be translated, “But I went up in obedience to revelation, and I submitted the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles, but to the authorities in private, lest I be running or had run in vain”. . . .

The commentators who . . . take it to refer to the apostle’s fear, try to avoid the implication that Paul himself is afraid of anything. They suppose that the words “must be taken to express his fear lest the Judaic Christians, by insisting on the Mosaic ritual, might thwart his past and present endeavours to establish a Church on a liberal basis” (Lightfoot). This strained interpretation is required because the commentators relate the last clause to the very act of submitting the gospel, but the reading I have adopted relates the last clause to the privacy of the con­sultation. The apostle submitted the gospel privately, in case he was running in vain.

The tortuous interpretation cited from Lightfoot, and followed by most commentators, seems necessary in order to avoid a blank denial of all that Paul has been insisting on in the first chapter of the epistle. If his commission was given by God and if he made no attempt to please men, he could not have admitted to asking the Jerusalem leaders to tell him whether or not he was in the right. Yet we cannot deny that the whole of this second chapter of the epistle portrays the Jerusalem leaders as authorities exercising a quasi-judicial power. As Lightfoot shrewdly notes, to his own discomfort, the natural drift of verse 2 is “slightly favoured by οὐδέν  προσανέθεντο [=nothing added], ver. 6”. . . . .

But what can be the point of submitting to the judgement of the Jerusalem apostles if the judgement did not concern the very thing that Paul has insisted in chapter 1 was beyond human judgement, his preaching to the Gentiles? What else can the Jerusalem apostles be deciding than that Paul has been right or wrong from the very beginning? They were deciding, I believe, no such general issue, but simply the concrete particular issue whether they, as the leaders of Israel that had acknowledged her Messiah, would accept the Gentiles who had also acknowledged Jesus as Messiah, but without becoming proselytes, as the firstfruits of the obedience of the Gentiles which had been promised. Had they decided not to accept Paul’s work, Paul would have known that his race had been in vain. This would have been a staggering blow to him, meaning that Israel was not yet ready to accept one of the promised messianic signs, but the blow could not strike at his personal commission from God.

Paul deliberately sought private audience so that, if the autho­rities were not yet ready to accept the Gentiles, the refusal would not have been public, and Paul would not have had to labour against the disappointment the Gentile Christians would have inevitably suffered at their first rebuff. He would have continued to work for a response from the Gentiles, and he would have con­tinued to hope for an acceptance of these Gentiles by the repre­sentatives of Israel, the leaders in Jerusalem.

What was the content of this commission, which hitherto we have described generally as the commission to preach to the Gentiles? We must now be more precise. The commission was to preach Jesus Christ to the Gentiles without at the same time asking that they become Jews. That commission Paul could never give up to please men, but at the same time that commission had to be carried out, had to be submitted to the test of history, and could have proved, for the time being, fruitless. The first test was successful, and the Gentiles began to believe. The second test might have been unsuccessful, but it too succeeded. The repre­sentatives of Israel acknowledged Paul’s work, did not compel Titus to be circumcised, and laid no conditions … on the Gentile congregations through Paul their representative. (28ff)

3 but not even Titus, [instead, “my companion”] who [is] with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised —


It is easy to see how the name could have been added to the text. The original may well have been, … “But not even my companion, who is a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised” .

Explanation on pages 30ff

4 and [that] because [even] 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,
5 to whom not even for an hour we gave place by subjection, that the truth of the good news might remain to you.
6 And [now] from those who were esteemed to be something — whatever they were then, it maketh no difference to me — the face of man God accepteth not, for — to me those esteemed did add nothing,
Without the particle, the whole phrase goes easily with the preceding verb: “for not even my companion who was a Greek was compelled to be circumcised on account of the false intruding1 brothers who came in to spy out the freedom we have in Christ Jesus” . The intruders must have been intruders into the church at Antioch, otherwise we should have to suppose, on the previous argument, that they managed to penetrate into the private meeting between Paul, Barnabas, and Titus with the “pillars” in Jerusalem. But then there would be nothing to “spy out” ; the meeting was openly concerned with the issue. This description of the false brothers must apply to their activities away in the churches from which Paul has come. The sense of verses 3 and 4 is that the pressure brought by these agitators was not suffi­cient to lead even to the requirement that a Greek received by the Jerusalem congregation be circumcised, much less that Greeks in a Greek environment be circumcised. (32f)

The original text of 2:3-6 O’Neill conjectures as follows:

Not even the one who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised, because those who came in unawares, to spy out our liberty that we have in Christ Jesus, that us they might bring under bondage. Not for an hour did we yield in subjection. Of those esteemed to be something, whatever they were then, it maketh no difference to me — the face of man God accepteth not, for — to me those esteemed did add nothing…

Explanation on pages 33-36

7 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,

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

9 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.

11 And when Peter came to Antioch, to the face I stood up against him, because he was blameworthy,

12 for before the coming of certain from James, with the nations he was eating, and when they came, he was withdrawing and separating himself, fearing those of the circumcision,

13 and dissemble with him also did the other Jews, so that also Barnabas was carried away by their dissimulation.

14 But when I saw that they are not walking uprightly to the truth of the good news, I said to Peter before all, `If thou, being a Jew, in the manner of the nations dost live, and not in the manner of the Jews, how the nations dost thou compel to Judaize?

15 we by nature Jews, and not sinners of the nations,

16 having known also that a man is not declared righteous by works of law, if not through the faith of Jesus Christ, also we in Christ Jesus did believe, that we might be declared righteous by the faith of Christ, and not by works of law, wherefore declared righteous by works of law shall be no flesh.’

17 And if, seeking to be declared righteous in Christ, we ourselves also were found sinners, [is] then Christ a ministrant of sin? let it not be!

18 for if the things I threw down, these again I build up, a transgressor I set myself forth;

19 for I through law, did die, that to God I may live;

20 with Christ I have been crucified, and live no more do I, and Christ doth live in me; and that which I now live in the flesh — in the faith I live of the Son of God, who did love me and did give himself for me;

21 I do not make void the grace of God, for if righteousness [be] through law — then Christ died in vain.

Explanation on pages 37 to 46

Paul shows that he was not afraid to stand up to Cephas— whose authority as one of the “pillars” he has already acknowledged—in order to show Cephas that he was a transgressor. How much more should the Galatians stand up to men without any such authority who try to persuade the Gentiles to give up their status as the Gentile part of God’s economy in the messianic age. (44)

. . . .

The first sentence in verse 20 has a different view of the life of a Christian from that expressed in the rest of verse 20 and in verse 21. The ego dies to be replaced by Christ, and the Christian man is substantially changed. In the rest of the verse, on the other hand, the Christian man undergoes not a change in substance but a change in the centre of his trust. The death he went through did not change his nature but changed his allegiance. He still lives in the flesh, expecting death and resurrection with Christ.

I conclude that the first sentence of verse 20 is a perfectly understandable gloss on Paul’s argument. Paul’s mention of death could not but suggest to a theologian living in the Hellenistic world the mystical change of nature whereby an initiate was in­corporated into the divine life and deified. Compare the prayer to Hermes, “ Come to me Lord Hermes, as babies to women’s wombs . . . I know you, Hermes, and you know me. I am you and you are I.” (45f)

O’Neill, John Cochrane. The Recovery of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. London: S.P.C.K., 1972.