Investigating Paul’s backstory

Paul in Syria:
The Background to Galatians
by Paul Barnett

The difficulty of interpreting Galatians arises, at least in part, from the way historical uncertainty collides with theology. That is, one’s reconstruction of Paul’s opponents impacts how one understands the epistle.

Similarly, an understanding of Paul’s relationship with Peter and James precedes an interpretation of key passages. But these underlying historical questions are hard to answer because events prior to Galatians remain less accessible than those surrounding Paul’s later writings.

Paul Barnett, a leading historian of early Christianity, investigates the period sometimes labelled the “unknown years” of Paul’s ministry (i.e. the 14 years between his Damascus Road experience and first missionary journey), in order to provide a foundation for interpreting Galatians. He convincingly accounts for Paul’s activities during that span, and offers a compelling interpretation of sections of Galatians based on his reconstruction.

Barnett refutes the assumption that Paul spent those years in Antioch and was formed by his experiences there. Where many assert that Paul’s view of the Christ was shaped by his interaction with pagans in Antioch (and so distorts a simpler, early Jewish faith), Barnett argues that Paul worked for eight of the 14 years in Tarsus, with hardly more than 12 months in Antioch. And during his extended time in Tarsus and Cilicia, preceding both Antioch and the first missionary journey, Paul was already preaching to Gentiles.

The transition in Antioch was thus not that the gospel first went to Gentiles but that, prior to Antioch, Paul had preached mainly in synagogues to Jews and God-fearers (i.e. Gentiles attracted to Israel’s God) and now preached to Gentiles as Gentiles.

So Antioch doesn’t offer a new Christology – Paul had long been proclaiming Jesus as the Christ. It instead offers Paul a glimpse of Jews and Gentiles worshipping together as a new and distinct community: as “Christians” rather than as Jews accompanied by Gentiles drawn to Judaism. This would have implications for Paul’s ministry and for his relationship with other Christian leaders.

The origin of Paul’s view of Jesus is obviously significant. But this is only one theological concern that hinges on our assessment of early Christian history. Paul in Syria explores Paul’s backstory and its implications by tracing three lines of investigation.

The first examines his years in Syria and Cilicia, a formative and extended period that gives rise to Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. The second considers how Paul’s theology emerges and becomes the gospel message he preaches. The third, necessarily growing out of the first two, explores Paul’s relationship with major church leaders, including Peter, James and the various opponents Paul faces during and because of his Gentile mission.

So the volume roughly breaks down into three major sections: times and places, people, and theology – the third being driven by a close consideration of key passages in Galatians. This structure isn’t explicit in the volume, and oversimplifies Barnett’s skilful weaving together of his material, but it offers a snapshot of the whole.

Finally, six appendices round out the historical discussion. These focus on dating Galatians; the book of Acts as a historical source for Paul; Paul’s relationship with Barnabas and Peter after Antioch; James’ epistle to the ‘twelve tribes of the diaspora’; the New Perspective according to J.D.G. Dunn; and Paul’s preaching the cross to Jews.

The result is an engaging book. It is clearly argued and draws compelling conclusions. There is no more up-to-date and thorough treatment of the events and interactions during the years in question. Barnett provides numerous insights into the history and culture of Paul’s world, and gives a rare breadth and depth of careful exegesis.

This book, read alongside his Galatians: Defending the Truth, would provide a firm foundation for a course on Galatians.