James Dunn was at college today to give a lecture on the curious incident recounted in Galatians 2 when Paul had a fight with Peter about what it means to be Christian in the light of our Jewish origins. It was magnificent.
In his letter to the church in Galatia, (Celtic Christians from Northern Turkey) Paul opposes circumcision in the strongest terms saying you might as well emasculate yourself as take your foreskin off. Yet elsewhere he allows his young apprentice Timothy to be circumcised. How does this fit together? Well Dunn, in an off the cuff remark explained it beautifully.
In Galatia, old school Jewish adherents were in the majority and they were coercing (or as Paul puts it “compelling”) the followers of Jesus to adopt the ethnic and cultural markers of Judaism. Jews were working out of their dominance, tyrannising the new believers with superflous demands. Yet when Paul goes with Timothy to circumcise him, no one were pushing for his circumcision. In fact, the reason given by Luke is not to give in to external pressure (as it is in Galatia) but to win over unbelieving Jews. Plus, Timothy’s mother is Jewish and he was at least partially shaped Jewish customs already. Thus, it is a natural, authentic and missional action to go the whole way and lose the crown of his, er, well, manhood.
Thus, Dunn shows us how foolish it is to flatten Paul down into a 2-D caricature. His flexibility in the case of Timothy is an act of generosity to win over the remaining hyper-observant Jews but his intransegience in Galatia is based out of his desire to protext the nascent Jesus movement from falling back into a narrow ethnic, xenophobic religious club. At all times, it is love that drives him.
Your Correspondent, Drinks prawn water as penance