Paul… the Radical Countercultural?

In one sentence, Paul leveled all the traditions and paradigms that characterized the Greco-Roman world

Paul Mosaic at Chora Church in Istanbul

People today don’t give Paul (or Jesus or the Bible) enough credit for “forward thinking”. We like to think that modern man has pulled himself (and herself) up by the bootstraps, a notion that emerges from our modern view of ourselves, of beings that have made ourselves after a long, doggedly determined climb out of the primordial slime.

Paul is often called patriarchal and even misogynist. He is blamed for the “backward thinking” that prevails in some areas of the church. Bronze age ideas and norms, they say, enslave the church in primitive thinking that quashes the rights of more sophisticated modern people.

There are dozens of examples in Scripture that this isn’t true. When we read the Scripture through a modern lens and don’t understand or appreciate the context of the time when it was written, we fail to appreciate the radical nature of Scripture.

I have written on these things many times in the past, but my attention is drawn to one example today. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote:

“[I]n Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.

“I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” (Galatians 3:26-4:7)

Let’s unpack this a bit, and I think you will see what I am talking about. First, we need to consider the context of the time in which this letter was written. Then we need to look closely at what Paul is saying.

Paul wrote this letter to the Galatians. They were of Celtic origin, Hellenized by the Greeks, defeated by the Romans in about 189 BC, and were firmly settled as a client-state of Rome by 64 BC. (Wikipedia). Galatia was right in the middle of Asia Minor, in the middle of what is modern day Turkey.

The Galatians to which Paul wrote this letter were Gentiles. They were not Jewish by descent or culture; they were non-Jews, which is a major theme of the letter, as apparently some Jewish converts to Christ were pressuring the Galatians to observe the law. Paul instructs them to resist “turning to a different gospel” and to remain steadfast in the gospel they received. (Gal. 1:6)

Consider that Paul was a Jew, and not just any Jew. He recounts that he “was advancing in Judaism beyond many of [his] own age among [his] people” as one who was “extremely zealous” for the “traditions of [his] fathers” (Gal. 1:13-14), until he was called by grace through a direct, personal revelation from the risen Jesus. (Gal. 1:12, 15) Then Paul relates how the message he received directly from Jesus was confirmed by Peter (Cephas) and James (the brother of Jesus) in Jerusalem three years later (Gal. 1:18-24) and again by Peter, James and John fourteen years after that. (Gal. 2:1-10)

Paul even confronted Peter (the rock on which Jesus said he would build his church), about hypocrisy on the point of requiring people to observe the law, affirming that no one, not the Jews nor the Gentiles, are justified by “works of the law but through faith in Christ Jesus”. (Gal. 2:16) This is the gospel that the Galatians received – that people are saved, Jews and Gentiles (everyone else), not be what we can do to please God, but only by what He has done for us.

In confronting Peter, Paul was affirming what Peter and the other apostles affirmed to him in Jerusalem on two different occasions! Such is the pull and power of tradition that among those very closest of people to Jesus (Peter) would be influenced to discount the radical truth revealed in Christ – that we are all saved by grace, Jew and Gentile, and that grace is given to us freely, not by anything we could attain by our observance of the law.

This was a radical message to the Jews, many of whom did not recognize Jesus as the very Messiah they were waiting for. This was a radical message to a Greco-Roman world filled with a pantheon of gods that were famous for being difficult to please. Jesus was not just counter-cultural to the Jews. He was and is ever counter-cultural to any society of people.

On the issue of gender, most ancient cultures (maybe all of them) were patriarchal. This included the Greek culture and Roman culture that influenced the Galatians at the time of Paul’s letter. It also characterized the Jewish culture, though there are many passages in Scripture where we see clues that God’s heart is contrary to their cultural norms.

All the way back to Genesis, we read that God made mankind in His own image, male and female. (Gen. 1:27) Genesis doesn’t say that God created men in His own image, and then He created women. God’s image resides in mankind, male and female, from the beginning.

We tend to focus on the story of God creating Even out of Adam’s rib and forget the affirmative statement of equality in the creation of men and women. The suggestion is that neither man (nor woman), alone, is truly representative of God, but both men and women, together, display the image of God.

Today we might say humankind, but the cultural context throughout most of the centuries, until just recently really, was patriarchal. In spite of that, we see clues in Scripture of a God who had a bigger idea of what it means to be male and female, men and women. God’s heart shines through despite the cultural context in which the words He inspired in people were written. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

We may think that we have enlightened ourselves. In reality, we are only waking up to the nuance that we see in Scripture after many centuries and millennia of backward thinking. It’s not that we are so forward thinking today. We are only just now picking up on the clues that have existed in Scripture that shine through the patriarchal context in which Scripture was written.

Before getting back to Paul’s letter to the Galatians, consider that five women are mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus, including the prostitute, Rahab, and the Canaanite, Ruth. Why mention the women?

Their mention really stands out if we consider how patriarchal the culture was back then. Their stories are part of the fabric of the ancient, Old Testament text, and each of these women are central to God’s redemption story, the foreshadowing of what He would do through Jesus.

Paul was expressing a radical paradigm shift when he admonished the Galatians not to be influenced to rely on the Jewish laws to be considered right with God, but to stand on the grace provided through Jesus. He also challenged the Greco-Roman paradigm of the Galatians in the process.

You might not see it right away, but it’s in the passage quoted at the beginning of this article:

“[I]n Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith….” (Gal. 3:26)

By calling them “sons of God through faith”, Paul is alluding to the practice of adoption, and he makes that explicit by referencing a little later on, their “adoption as sons”. (Gal. 4:5)

“How in the world is this radical?”, you might ask.

Adoption in the Greco-Roman world had to do with inheritance. “The laws around adoption in the ancient world were put in place to safeguard the legal status of property and family name.” In ancient Greece, only men could legally own property so only men could be legally adopted. In ancient Rome, having a male heir was of paramount importance so the wealth and name of the family could be passed on and preserved. “Roman adoption was all about securing property and dynasties.” Adoption was a patriarchal paradigm, and it excluded women

Here is where you need to put on your First Century Galatian hat. If you lived in the Greco-Roman world, you would know that only men adopted men. Only men could be adopted. It would have been that way for far longer than you would have been alive, longer than your parents’ and grandparents lived before you.

Pay attention now as Paul follows the statement, “you are all sons of God through faith”, with these words:

“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” (Gal 3:27-29)

Do you see it? Paul is alluding to a tradition that was known throughout the ancient world, the idea of adoption as sons. Everyone knew that adoption was only for men, but Paul applied to it everyone – male and female.

That may not seem radical today, but only because we read what Paul is saying through a modern lens, and we don’t fully understand the entrenched patriarchal structure of the First Century. It was so entrenched that we wouldn’t have women’s suffrage until almost two millennia later!

Tim Keller observes that Paul could have said “adoption as children”, but that statement would not have had as much impact. We would not have understood the significance of what Paul was saying in the same way. He was alluding to an ages-old patriarchal tradition and practice that everyone knew intimately, and he was blowing it wide open.

Neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female: we are “all one in Christ Jesus!”

In one sentence, Paul leveled all the traditions and paradigms that characterized the world of the Galatians – neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female: we are “all one in Christ Jesus!”

It’s hard to appreciate the radical paradigm-shifting character of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. For centuries after these words were spoken, the traditional influences continued to carry cultures and societies along the same patriarchal paths they had always followed, but the seed of a new idea was born.

Not that the Gospel that Paul preached was one of cultural and societal change. If Jesus only came to transform culture and society, He would not have needed to die on the cross. He would have established an earthly throne and taken up rule on it, as the Jews thought the Messiah would do.

Jesus came preaching the same Gospel that He passed on to Paul – the good news of the Kingdom of God, a kingdom into which we can be born again by receiving Jesus, by believing in his name. The new paradigm shift begins here and now, in this world, giving us “the right to become children of God, … born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13)

But the ultimate fruition of that new birth, that adoption as children of God, still awaits us. As Paul said to the Romans, “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:22-23)

We await that ultimate paradigm shift (from the perishable to the imperishable (1 Cor. 15: 42-55) in which “the whole creation” is ushered into the kingdom of God along with all of those who have been adopted as children of God. We won’t see the fruition of these things in this life; rather we look forward to the resurrection from the dead and our inheritance of the imperishable life that swallows death up in victory. I will pick this theme up in a subsequent article: The First Fruits of Another World.

Comments are welcomed

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.