Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Telling Right from Wrong in Old Testament Narrative

When we read stories in the Old Testament, sometimes it's easy to know what we're meant to think about the events, because God tells us. Sometimes, however, it's not always obvious who (if anyone) is in the right, and who is in the wrong. Take, for example, the story of Jephthah in Judges 10-12. He only agrees to fight for Gilead (part of Israel at the time) if they make him their leader; he defeats the Ammonites, sacrifices his own daughter to keep a rash promise, and then massacres a load of fellow-Israelites because they didn't fight with him against the Ammonites. Is he a good guy or a bad guy? And was he right to sacrifice his daughter or not?

Here are a few pointers for how to go about it when we aren't sure who is right and who is wrong.

1. Trust the Narrator's Perspective

As Christians, we believe that the Bible is inspired by God (“God-breathed” in the language of 2 Tim 3:16). But the way God has inspired Scripture is usually by using human authors, so that the words we read are simultaneously the words of a limited human writer writing thousands of years ago and also the eternal words of God. Peter describes it like this “prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).

That means that the narrator's perspective is reliable, but not exhaustive. They don't tell us everything that they know – they select what they think is most relevant. But nor do they necessarily know everything about the events they are describing, as Peter tells us in 1 Peter 1:10-12. For example, the author (or editor) of 1 & 2 Samuel probably didn't understand exactly how David would serve as a template for Jesus.

Sometimes the narrator tells us directly what God thinks of an episode. For example, at the end of 2 Samuel 11, the narrator adds in his own comment “But the thing David had done displeased the LORD.”

Sometimes the narrator leaves it quite a while before commenting – one example would be the history of the Northern Kingdom during the time of the divided monarchy. We're given occasional comments such as “X did evil in the eyes of the LORD”, but the narrator saves up a long exposition of what was wrong with the Northern Kingdom until just after its final destruction in 2 Kings 17.

Sometimes the narrator is more subtle, as in Ezra 4. In Ezra 4:1-5, the Jews get into an argument with their neighbours about rebuilding the temple. The neighbours claim they want to help; the Jews don't want them to. It isn't immediately obvious whether the Jews are getting it right by excluding other nations or whether they are being too exclusive and just creating unnecessary trouble for themselves. Except that in v1 the narrator slips in a single word – he describes the neighbours as “enemies”. Problem solved – the Jews were right on that occasion.

2. Look for comments elsewhere in Scripture

One of the main ways this happens is by a New Testament writer referring to an Old Testament story. Because we can trust the writers to be accurate in what they write, even if they don't always see the whole picture, we can use the extra information to help us figure out the OT story. Here are two quick examples:

In 1 John 3:12, John discusses Cain and Abel, and tells us that Cain murdered Abel because Cain's actions were evil but Abel's were righteous. That makes it easier to understand their story in Genesis 4.

In Joshua 2, we read the story of Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute who shelters Israelite spies. It isn't immediately obvious whether or not she is right to lie to her own people. However, James 2:25 tells us that it was an example of faith in action, which led to her being counted righteous. Likewise, Hebrews 11:31 also tells us that Rahab's faith shown in welcoming the spies saved her from the destruction of the city.

3. Pay attention to Prophets

Most human characters in the story are fallible. But not quite all. In particular, the books of Joshua, Judges, 1&2 Samuel and 1&2 Kings were originally classified as “Prophets” not history. Modern theologians tend to describe them as “Deuteronomic history”, because they tie in so strongly with the priorities of the book of Deuteronomy. I've argued elsewhere, and am still largely convinced by it, that most of the Old Testament prophets saw themselves as preaching God's word largely as they had read it in Deuteronomy. (For this view from a more liberal perspective, see, e.g. Holladay's massive commentary on Jeremiah.)

Deuteronomy is Moses' farewell speeches/sermons to Israel. One passage that's of particular interest for understanding Joshua – 2 Kings is Deut 18:14-22. Moses tells the people that God will raise up a prophet “like him” for the Israelites, and that they must listen to him. The marks of the true prophet are that he will speak God's word, he will point the people to God and not to other gods, and that what the prophet speaks “in the name of the Lord” will happen. Prophets who claim to speak “in the name of the Lord” but who aren't really doing so are to be put to death.

In the books of Samuel and Kings, in particular, the major characters are often prophets. In fact, arguably the two biggest characters in the story from the Northern Kingdom in 300 years are Elijah and Elisha, both prophets and both of whom get more attention than any of the kings.

We're told that some of the prophets are false, for example Zechariah son of Kenaanah. We're told that other prophets are true prophets, such as Elijah, Elisha and Samuel. 1 Samuel 3:19 tells us that God was with Samuel and let none of his words fall to the ground. The author of 1 Samuel is also at pains to show that Samuel fits the description in Deut 18 of the prophet who succeeds Moses. We can therefore trust Samuel's words because we can trust that he is speaking from God.

The same is true of Elijah and Elisha. The author again takes pains to link them with Samuel and hence with Moses' promise of a prophet. For example, at Samuel's farewell he calls on God and God answers with thunder and rain (1 Sam 12:16). When Elijah turns up in 1 Kings 17, he declares that it will not rain, then several years later, he prays and there is thunder and rain. The signs show that he is a true prophet, therefore his words can be trusted.

Of course, that doesn't mean they are perfect at all – Samuel is a poor father; Elijah gets very depressed in 1 Kings 19, and so on. The Bible loves to show that God uses normal people with normal human failings, and even that he can use them to speak for him.

4. How does it fit into the big storyline?

It often pays to be aware of how the passage you are reading fits into the big story.

For example, Genesis 12 is one of the key passages in the storyline of the whole Bible. God makes a series of promises to Abram – that his descendants will become a great nation, that God will give them the land of Canaan, that God will bless them and make them into a blessing to the nations. Those promises are a major theme right through the Old Testament and into the New.
But straight after that, in Genesis 12:10-20, you get an odd incident. There is a famine in the land, Abram and his wife go to Egypt; Abram pretend that Sarai isn't his wife and she joins Pharoah's harem, God sends diseases on Egypt because of them, but it's not obvious what God thinks of Abram's action until you compare it with the promises that have gone before.

Abe has become a curse to the nations, not a blessing. He has left the land that God promised to give him and has stopped treating his wife as his wife, therefore putting the idea of children at risk. Why? Because he failed to trust God's blessings. Ultimately the passage shows that when Abe fails to take God at his word things go worse for him and for the world than they would otherwise have done. But God won't let Abram's unfaithfulness de-rail his promises...

In the same light, Elimelech and his family leaving Israel for Moab due to a famine at the start of Ruth is seen in a negative light. It's part of the big pile of mess which Naomi is carrying and which God redeems in the story.

Or take the book of Judges. It's part of a huge story arc, running from Joshua to 2 Kings, which shows that despite starting with every advantage, ultimately God's people fail to live up to God's standards and so lose their place in the Promised Land. Joshua is mostly positive – the people obey God as long as Joshua and Eleazar live. But Judges marks the point where the rot starts to set in. From Judges 17 onward, the refrain “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” keeps coming up. In fact, what we see in Judges is a descent from well-ordered obedience to God to vicious anarchy, where the author sees the best solution as being the need for a strong central government – a king. The next big stage of the story, in Samuel & Kings, shows that though the kings start well and solve the problem of anarchy, they don't solve the problem of disobedience to God. Ultimately, that takes Jesus's redemption and the Holy Spirit's transformation...

Knowing the shape of the book of Judges explains why it misses out the last and probably greatest judge (Samuel) – because it runs from the ideal judge (Othniel), through the pretty good ones (Ehud, Deborah) to the really-not-very-good-at-all ones (Jephthah, Samson) and then into chaos. That means that when we see the horrific events towards the end of the book (chs 17-21), we shouldn't necessarily expect anyone to be in the right. It's depicting the anarchy that ensues when human sinfulness runs riot without even the restraining influence of central government.

5. How does it fit with God's character as revealed in Scripture?

The fifth criterion we can use to get something of God's perspective on an event is to compare it with what we know of the character of God from elsewhere in Scripture. This is probably the hardest criterion to use well, because it's easy to have our ideas of what God is like, then reject anything in the Bible that doesn't fit with them.

An easy example would be where someone in the Old Testament does something expressly forbidden in the Old Testament Law, like marrying a non-Israelite or where Onan abuses the tradition of Levirate marriage to sleep with his brother's widow while avoiding the responsibility of having children (Gen 38:8-10, and Deut 25:5-10).

But there are big principles too, like mercy triumphing over judgement and knowing that God does not desire the death of sinners but rather that they turn from their wickedness and live (Ezekiel 18:23).

Back to Jephthah

So what about Jephthah? We're told in Hebrews 11 that he had faith in God, which helps a little. But last time I preached on him, I described him as “a bastard in every sense of the word”, which still seems about right. He is one of the later judges in the book, so we should expect him to be very flawed, but still used by God to rescue (like Samson).

We can see he is angry and jealous at earlier rejections because he is illegitimate (Judges 11:1-11). We can say that his father should have done a better job of providing for him, and also that he should have learnt to be more gracious in his responses.

He does trust what God has done in the past and therefore rebukes the Ammonites. We are told that God's Spirit came on him and enabled him to defeat the Ammonites. (11:12-29)

He made a rash promise to God to sacrifice whatever came out of his house first when he returned. His daughter came out of the house first, so he sacrificed her. (11:30-39) We can tell from elsewhere in the Bible that bargaining with God is a bad idea, and from Deut 12:31 that God hates the thought of people sacrificing their children to him – the Canaanites sacrificed children to their gods and that is one of the reasons God drove them out of the land. Jephthah had two ways out of it as well – he could have broken his rash promise to God and thrown himself on God's mercy, or he could have bought his daughter back – Leviticus 27 strongly suggests that Jephthah could have bought his daughter out of the oath for 30 shekels of silver. That he did not shows us that either he was ignorant of the law or that he was exceptionally bloody-minded.

As for what happens in 12:1-7, with the massacre of the Ephraimites, it's obviously against God's character, though the author remains silent about it. There's probably a deliberate parallel with Joshua 22, where there is another quarrel between the same two groups of people. But there, just as they are ready for war, they discuss it first and end up agreeing and rejoicing together. Here, they don't bother listening to each other and it just descends into civil war.


These tools give us a pretty good way forward with understanding what God's perspective on narrative events in the OT is. It's an important first step for understanding the significance of the events, why they are recorded in Scripture and what they mean for us - I'd recommend a book like “The Word Became Fresh” by Dale Ralph Davis for taking the next couple of steps...

There are also some events this doesn't really help with because I don't think we're meant to see them as clear cut right or wrong. Was David right to let Absalom back in 2 Samuel 14? I don't know – it's part of a sequence following on from David's adultery with Bathsheba which shows how that has left him less capable of leading his own family, and I think that's closer to being the point of the story. It's understandable, and it has bad consequences, but not everything recorded in the Bible is clearly right or clearly wrong. It's messy - much like life.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Does God Seek His Own Glory?

I quite like John Piper. For those who aren't familiar with him, he's an American preacher and theologian who manages to combine “heavy” Calvinist theology with astonishingly deep passion for God and his glory and breathtaking love for the lost. His book Desiring God really helped me reconnect my emotions with my spirituality after a really tough time in my life. I don't see eye to eye with him on everything (women's ministry is one big example), but I'd happily sit under his teaching and I'd love to have half of his love for God.

One of the issues that Piper has really brought to the fore in modern theology is the question of God seeking his own glory. Piper is all for it, echoing Jonathan Edwards (18th century American theologian, not 20th century British athlete). And he argues very persuasively from Scripture that God does indeed seek his own glory, and that we also should seek God's glory.

He says, ‘Be still, and know that I am God;
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth.’ Psalm 46:10, NIV

The problem for Piper's theology comes with the question of whether God is right to seek his own glory. Doesn't that make him an egomaniac? Piper's usual response to that challenge is well captured in this recent cartoon by Adam4d. In short, God is so wonderful, so powerful, so wise, that for him to seek the glory of anything other than himself would be both ridiculous and idolatrous.

On a logical level, Piper's response is fine, though I think he's missing a very important factor. There is a problem with passages like Philippians 2 which emphasise precisely the fact that we shouldn't seek our own glory because Jesus didn't seek his own glory. There's also a problem on a personal level. We as Christians are meant to imitate the character of God, but Piper here draws a line between God's passion for his own glory and us being meant to have a passion for God's glory. I don't think it quite works, or not as well as the alternative.

You see, Piper's arguments for God seeking his own glory are mostly from the Old Testament. In the New Testament, there are some things we see much more clearly. One of those is the Trinity, and that makes all the difference in the world to Piper's argument.

In the New Testament, what we see is consistently that Jesus as the Second Person of the Trinity does not seek his own glory at all. He seeks the glory of the Father and the Spirit. We see that the Father, too, does not seek his own glory; he seeks the glory of the Son and the Spirit. The Spirit, likewise, does not seek his own glory but seeks the glory of the Father and the Son. The Spirit's glory can be harder to see in the Bible precisely because it's the Spirit who inspires the Bible and he points to the Father and the Son. Here's an example of what we get in the New Testament.

Jesus replied, ‘If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me. John 8:54, NIV

After Jesus said this, he looked towards heaven and prayed:

‘Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.' John 17:1-5, NIV

Does God seek his own glory? Kind of. God is Trinity, and each of the persons of the Trinity seeks each other's glory not their own. Even though Jesus has infinite value and worth and power, he does not seek his own glory; he surrenders it for our good and for the greater glory of his Father, who is also worthy of all honour and glory and praise. He is therefore our perfect example as well as our Saviour. That is what we should imitate, and to my mind it's a much more compelling reason and example than the ones often used by Piper and his followers.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

"Son" or "Child"?

It's always slightly odd singing the song “Father God, I wonder”. In the chorus, there's a line with two different versions. It's either “Now I am your child, I am adopted in your family” or “Now I am your son, I am adopted in your family.” And there are some people who will always insist on singing “child”, and some people will always insist on singing “son”, regardless of what the hymn book / song sheet / screen says.

The arguments goes to an interesting issue in Bible translation, especially Romans 8:14-17 and Galatians 4:4-7. Here's Galatians in the 2011 NIV:

But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’ So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.

The words “Son”, “sons”, “adoption to sonship” and “child” are all basically the same word – huios. Here's the same passage in the NASB:

But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.

Why does Paul say “sons”?

It's important to remember that these verses in Galatians 4 come just a few verses after Paul has made his famous declaration that there is no male or female in Christ Jesus, because we all clothe ourselves with Christ through faith.

Adoption as sons, not just as children, really matters. In the Roman world which Paul was writing to, daughters did not have proper inheritance rights, but sons did. To be a “son” was to be a “top status child”; to be a daughter was to have a lesser status. So for Paul to declare that all the Galatian Christians: male and female, black and white, Jew and Gentile, gay and straight, slave and free were sons was an incredibly egalitarian thing to say. He was using an illustration from his time, of Roman family law, and making a powerfully egalitarian statement from a powerfully non-egalitarian structure.

Why should we translate it as “children”?

But that's not the situation today. The situation today is that sons and daughters are equal, and inherit equally, but that there's a lingering suspicion of gender bias hanging around in society. In that culture, to insist that we're all sons is to suggest that being a daughter isn't good enough, which it wasn't in Roman culture, but it is with Jesus.

When we retell Bible stories into contexts where some elements are unfamiliar, we often change the details and idioms so that they fit better. I understand that where bread is not the staple food, the Lord's Prayer sometimes reads “Give us today our daily rice” for example.

This even happens with the people who wrote the Bible! For example, in Mark 2:4, a paralysed man is brought to Jesus by his friends, who dig through the roof. That makes perfect sense in the original context, where houses were made of mud and wood, and it makes sense in a story told by Peter or Mark, who grew up in that world. But when Luke, who was from a much more “developed” urban background, tells the story in Luke 5:19, the friends lower the man “through the tiles”. Those are the roofs that Luke and his readers are used to, so he accommodates the story to the readers, even though it's still set in a village in Galilee.

In writing Galatians 4, Paul uses an analogy from his day – the analogy of adoption into a noble family as a son. If we're just trying to translate his words into English, then I guess it's correct to translate as “sons”, like the NASB does. But if we're trying to translate the analogy and get a Bible that is readable and makes sense to people who haven't studied Roman inheritance law, then it makes more sense to translate the whole analogy into present thought and use “children” throughout, as the NLT does:

But when the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, subject to the law. God sent him to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own children. And because we are his children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, prompting us to call out, “Abba, Father.” Now you are no longer a slave but God’s own child. And since you are his child, God has made you his heir.

The NIV goes for a weird middle route, but tries to explain it with a footnote:

The Greek word for adoption to sonship is a legal term referring to the full legal standing of an adopted male heir in Roman culture.

Back to the song

But when we're singing “Father God, I wonder”, we don't have that explanation. All we have is a song. And without the explanation, I think it makes far more sense to sing “child”.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Dust and Ashes

This is an outline of a sermon I gave on Ash Wednesday this year. Some people found it helpful, so I've written up my notes.

The Hebrew words for “dust” (aphar) and “ashes” (epher) are very closely linked, and the two are often paired, both in Scripture and in everyday life. It is helpful to look through something of a Biblical theology of dust and ashes.

Creation and Fall

Adam was originally formed out of dust.

The LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.
Genesis 2:7, ESV

Adam's name is even derived from the word for “ground” - his identity seems to be linked to the fact that he's come from the ground, from the dust. After the Fall, the curse that is placed on Adam is that he will return back to dust.

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Genesis 3:19

Dust and ashes are symbolic of our mortality and hence also our fallen humanity – we come from dust and return to dust. In 1 Corinthians 15, when Paul is contrasting Adam and Jesus, he does so by describing Adam as a “man of dust”. It can also therefore be a sign of judgement – the result of God's judgement is that we all return to dust.

Humiliation and Humility

Because of this, people often take dust and ashes as a symbol that they have come near to death and of utter humiliation. People put dust on their heads or roll in ashes as a sign of mourning (e.g. 2 Sam 13:19).

It's also a sign of humility. The Tower of Babel was in some senses people trying to escape from the dust and reach their own way to heaven. But that contrasts with Abraham, who does not try to be anything other than a man of the ground. He even describes himself as a man who is “just dust and ashes” (Gen 18:27).

It's therefore something that people can choose to take on as a sign that we recognise our mortality and the gap between us and God, especially with repentance. So Job's response to being rebuked by God is that he repents “in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).

Redeemed from Dust

But there is hope. In the Old Testament, animals were sacrificed – reduced to ashes, and that ash could provide forgiveness for people of dust.

But there is far more. The dust is the place where God meets us, and from which he transforms us. Here's part of Hannah's prayer in 1 Samuel 2:

The LORD makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low and he exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honour.
1 Samuel 2:7-8

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

When Was Galatians Written?

Some Bible books just leave us guessing when they were written (e.g. James). Some give us enough information to say with a great deal of accuracy (e.g. 1 Thessalonians). Others give us enough information that we can narrow it down but not say for certain (e.g. Colossians). Only Galatians seems to give us so much that it becomes uncertain again! In fact, Galatians gives us so much information that it has led some people (e.g. my old tutor John Muddiman) to call into question the reliability of Acts and put together a different timescale altogether.

I'm pretty sure we don't need to do that. I'm pretty sure that the data from Galatians and Acts can all be true, and all fit together, but only if Galatians is Paul's earliest letter, written somewhere between Acts 15:1 and Acts 15:4. This articles explains why, and shows some of the ways that impacts how we read Galatians. [The title of “Paul's earliest letter” is usually given to 1 Thessalonians, written in Acts 18:5.]

The Council of Jerusalem

The big event connected with Galatians is the Council of Jerusalem, described in Acts 15:4-30. It's often thought that Paul writes about it in Galatians 2:1-10, which is one of the reasons for the confusion. If we read Galatians and Acts carefully, it's clear they are different events. It turns out to be most helpful if we track through Paul's visits to Jerusalem from the time of his conversion onwards.

Paul's visits to Jerusalem in Acts

Paul's first visit to Jerusalem after his conversion is in Acts 9:26-30. He was a fairly new convert, having just escaped from a plot to kill him in Damascus. Barnabas trusted him and introduced him to the apostles. He left after another attempt on his life.

Paul's second visit to Jerusalem in Acts is in Acts 11:30. Paul and Barnabas are by this stage elders of the church in Antioch, where, for the first time, lots of Gentiles have become Christians. A prophet called Agabus predicted there would be a serious famine, so the church in Antioch sent aid to the elders of the church in Jerusalem by Barnabas and Paul.

Paul's third visit is to the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. Some people from Judea had come to Antioch and were teaching that Christians needed to be circumcised. Paul and Barnabas were elders of the church in Antioch, but had also already planted churches across Turkey and Cyprus in what we'd now call Paul's First Missionary Journey. Because of the argument, Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem to sort it out. In Jerusalem Peter and James both spoke positively about the Gentile conversions and it was decided that they did not need to be circumcised, but that Gentile Christians in Antioch should abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from eating blood and from sexual immorality. The apostles explicity distance themselves from the people who had been teaching the need to be circumcised (v24).

Paul's fourth visit to Jerusalem is in Acts 18:22 at the end of what is usually called his Second Missionary Journey. He seems to just drop in, having reached Caesarea by boat. We're not told anything that happened, except that he “greeted the church then left for Antioch.”

Paul's visits to Jerusalem in Galatians

In Galatians, there seems to be a conflict between the church in Antioch and Jerusalem, so Paul gives the history of his relations with Jerusalem. His first visit was three years after his conversion, where he went from Damascus to Jerusalem “to get acquainted with Peter” (Gal 1:18). Paul stayed for 15 days and only met Peter and James of the apostles.

Paul's second visit according to Galatians was 14 years later, accompanied by Barnabas and Titus. It was “in response to a revelation” (Gal 2:2). Paul had a private conversation with the leaders of the Jerusalem church, where he set before them the gospel he preached to the Gentiles. They did not require that Titus should be circumcised, and James, Peter and John agreed that he should carry on preaching to the Gentiles. The only requirement they put on him was that he should continue to remember the poor (Gal 2:10).

The situation which led to Paul writing Galatians also happened in Antioch. Peter came to visit (not recorded elsewhere). During Peter's visit, some people arrived from James, the leader of the church in Jerusalem. As a result of their arrival, Peter stopped eating with Gentiles, and the other Jews followed his example. Paul accused him of “forcing Gentiles to follow Jewish customs”. (Gal 2:14). From the rest of the book, it is clear that there was a problem with people requiring gentile Christians to be circumcised.

Comparing Paul's Visits in Acts and Galatians

The traditional view is that Paul's third visit in Acts is the same as his second visit in Galatians. But that doesn't work. For one thing, Paul's argument in Galatians falls apart if he's missed out a trip to Jerusalem. For another, although both involve conversations in Jerusalem between Paul, Peter and James about Gentiles, the outcomes are different. In Galatians, Paul says he's only asked to remember the poor. In Acts, he's also asked to abstain from food sacrificed to idols. In Galatians, he describes himself as timid and fearful, in Acts he is clearly bold and angry. His conversation in Galatians is in private – in Acts it seems to be in public. It makes most sense to say these are talking about two different meetings.

But the traditional view also requires two arguments in Antioch between Paul and some people from Jerusalem about circumcision. The first one leads to the Council of Jerusalem, where it is all agreed. But then there needs to be another argument in the same place between the same people which sparks the writing of Galatians. Little wonder that this view has led some to ditch the reliability of Acts!

Who were the Galatians?

It's further complicated by the question of who the Galatians were. Ethnic Galatia is in north-central Turkey, which wasn't visited by Paul until much later, if at all. This confused Calvin (for example), who somehow managed to argue that the letter was written to churches that he didn't think had been founded yet. However, it's more recently been discovered that for 100 years or so (including the time when Paul was around) there was a larger Roman Province of Galatia which included the cities of Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe, which Paul visited on his first missionary journey in Acts 13-14. These were later split back off into the province of Lycaonia.

So What Actually Happened?

Here's my attempt to say that Acts and Galatians are both right and put all the information together:

Paul's first visit to Jerusalem is described in Acts 9:26-30 and Galatians 1:18-24. It was three years after his conversion, and he wasn't well-known except as someone who had persecuted Christians. He came from Damascus, and Barnabas introduced him to Peter and James. Two weeks later he left, after an attempt on his life.

Paul's second visit to Jerusalem is in Acts 11 and Galatians 2:1-10. It was “in response to a revelation” (Gal 2:2), which was the prophecy of a famine from Agabus (Acts 11:28). This visit was for the purpose of giving aid to the church in Jerusalem. While Paul was there, he would naturally have a private conversation with the apostles about the fact that lots of Gentiles were becoming Christians in Antioch. They said that it was a good thing and only asked that they kept on remembering the poor, which is a natural thing to say after the Gentile Christians have just helped you get through a famine. The private conversation isn't recorded in Acts, but it makes sense that it would have happened.

Some time after that, Peter visited Antioch. After he came, there were some people who came from the church in Jerusalem, and claimed to speak for James (though didn't actually – hence his need to make that clear in Acts 15:24). They said that the Gentile Christians needed to be circumcised, otherwise Jewish Christians should stop eating with them. This might have been because Jewish Christians in Jerusalem were starting to be persecuted as “not really Jewish” because they ate with Gentiles. Their proposed solution – the Gentiles should be circumcised. Paul strongly objected to this and therefore wrote a letter (Galatians) to the other majority Gentile churches which he'd just planted warning them against the teaching. He then set off with Barnabas to Jerusalem to take the argument up with James, who the circumcision group claimed to be speaking for.

When they got there in Acts 15:4-30 (after Galatians had been written), they found that the circumcisers weren't actually speaking for James at all; James and Peter agreed with Paul that the Gentiles shouldn't be circumcised, and that Jewish and Gentile Christians should eat together, but suggested a compromise where the Gentile Christians should choose to limit their freedom by abstaining from eating food sacrificed to idols and blood.

That storyline seems to explain all the data well. It also explains other features of Galatians, such as why it seems to be much more argumentative than the discussion of the same issue in Romans, why it identifies the “circumcision group” with James, and why it doesn't have the teaching on the importance of limiting freedom for the sake of the consciences of Christian brothers and sisters which is so characteristic of how Paul handles difficult issues later on (1 Corinthians 8-10, Romans 14).