“It is not by works of the Law that all flesh will be justified”
We who are Jews by birth and not sinners from Gentiles know that a human being is not justified by works of the Law except through faith in Christ Jesus. So we have also come to believe in Christ Jesus [καὶ ἡμεῖς εἰς Χριστὸν 'Ιησοῦν ἐπιστεύσαμεν], in order that we might be justified by faith in Christ [ἐκ πίστεως Χριστοῦ] and not by works of the Law, since it is not by works of the Law that all flesh will be justified. If, however, we who are seeking to be justified in Christ are also found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? This can never be. For if I establish again what I have dissolved, I set myself up as a transgressor.
This passage is only intelligible, in my view, if it is addressed to Peter. It is irrelevant to me whether it was actually said to Peter at Antioch or whether it is a hypothetical speech reconstructed by Paul for the benefit of the Galatians, but its implied addressee is certainly Peter. He is using the language of Jewish Christians to argue against them, for Paul himself, of course, does not regard the gentiles as essentially sinners as opposed to Jews. He thus states: You and I were born Jews and under the Law. That is, according to Jewish theology as we have known it until now, we already possessed the means to salvation. We had no need of justification by faith, according to that very theology. But we, you and I, came to the realization that that theology was mistaken, and that by works of the Law, no one would be justified. Therefore, we turned to faith in Christ Jesus (Hays 1985, 85). Now, if you by your actions imply that we have been sinners in abandoning the Law, that very Law which you and I have confessed is inadequate to redeem, then is our faith in Christ the testimony of sin? Clearly not so! However, by reestablishing that which you have dissolved—namely, by returning to the observance of the Jewish food rituals and taboos—you have confessed yourself to be a transgressor, have “set yourself up” as a transgressor by doing so. As for me, it is the very opposite.
It seems to me that a major interpretative issue has been often missed in the commentaries on Galatians, to wit, answering the question of why Paul is reciting here the entire narrative of the conference in Jerusalem and the confrontation at Antioch. To my mind, this lengthy narration is only intelligible if it is intended as a sort of parable or analogy of the situation in which the Galatians now find themselves. The application of the present verse to the situation of the Galatians is crystal clear. If you now take on yourself the obligations of the Law, you are then declaring that until now you have been sinners, and thus undermining completely the doctrine of justification by faith, and it will have all been in vain. The crucial issue for Paul is not the theological question of what pleases God, but rather is the relations of the Jews and the Nations (Hays 1985, 84). Paul is convinced that the Jewish-Christian doctrine of justification by faith, which he assumes as a given both by him and his “opponents,” provides the answer to this question, for in faith, all people are one, while in practices they are divided into different tribes. Accordingly Paul argues with Peter: Since you have come to the realization that these works are insufficient for justification and that what is necessary is faith, why, then, do you continue to insist (or allow yourself to be bullied into insisting) that works are necessary? You thus defeat the whole purpose of Christ's coming, which was to free us from the practices of Israel in the flesh by teaching us of their allegorical meaning for Israel in the spirit, through his crucifixion which revealed his own dual nature and thus figured our transformation.
It is really only at the very end of his letter that Paul reveals the application of the Antioch parable to the Galatians situation: “It is those people who wish to make a nice appearance in the flesh that compel you to be circumcised—only so that they may not be persecuted because of the cross of Christ. For not even the circumcisers themselves keep the Law, but they want you to be circumcised, in order that they may boast in your flesh” (6:12–13).
This is absolutely the key passage to the understanding of Paul's opponents in Galatia. It has to be read in the context of Paul's narration of the events at Antioch, which as I emphasized above (not originally, of course) is recited by Paul as an analogy, almost a typology, of the events in Galatia. Paul's opponents are not actually Jewish Christians who insist on circumcision for salvation but essentially are in consonance with Paul's theology; they hold that circumcision is not necessary. When pressed, however, by the contemporary antitype of the “men from James,” they have their gentile proselytes circumcised in order to escape persecution, that very persecution that Paul himself alludes to when he writes, “But if I, my brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted?” (5:11) These men, themselves, do not keep the Law, nor do they intend that their converts will keep the Law—they are essentially in agreement with Paul—but they cave in to pressure from the conservative wing of the Jerusalem church. The analogy with Peter's behavior in Antioch is perfect, as well as with Paul's charge against Peter: How can you ask these people to be circumcised when you do not yourself keep the Law? The charge is not of hypocrisy, but of not standing firm in that which is absolutely essential to the Christian message in Paul's view (Cosgrove 1988, 132–39). As I have already observed, the term “boast” in Paul is often better translated “have confidence in” or “rely on” than “boast about.” Paul is adamant in his integrity. If the Galatians accept circumcision, the whole purpose of the Christ event is destroyed. It will all have been in vain. When Paul tells them, “Look, I, Paul, tell you that if you become circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. I testify again to every man who has become circumcised, that he is obliged to do the whole law” (5:2–3), his point is that by becoming circumcised they reject the message of the Law of Faith or the Law of Christ, which he goes on to detail in the next and final chapter. Willy-nilly, they will be acceding to the Jewish Christian doctrine of James and his followers that only through entrance into the Law (that is, conversion to Judaism) can anyone be saved. By showing their lack of faith in the power of the cross to save, they give up their right to salvation by the cross, as opposed to Paul himself who writes, “But far be it from me to boast [again, to have confidence in] anything but the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which [the cross] the world has been crucified to me and I to the world” (6:14). Paul ends his letter on a note of absolute insistence: “For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything, but a new creation” (6:15). Only by entering into the new creation of Christ's spiritual body, that is, into the New Israel that came into existence with the crucifixion of his fleshly body, is anyone saved. When that fleshly, Jewish body (born of a Jew, under the Law) was crucified, then the new spiritual universal body was created, thus erasing the difference between the circumcised and the uncircumcised.