Paul's misinterpretation in Galatians, and how it affects the Church today
Eugene Peterson's The Message
Editor’s prefatory note: When Eugene is right, he’s really right. Not infrequently, he nails the underlying essential meaning of a particular biblical passage.
When I wrote my article on Mark 11, Eugene was the only one to get to the core meaning of what Jesus was talking about: “Embrace this God-life, really embrace it.” What a home-run.
And here, as well, in Galatians 2, he distills the essence of Paul’s viewpoint in a way that has escaped other translators. But, let’s get into it now.
17-18 Have some of you noticed that we are not yet perfect? (No great surprise, right?) ...
19-21 What actually took place is this: I tried keeping rules and working my head off to please God, and it didn’t work. So I quit being a “law man” so that I could be God’s man. Christ’s life showed me how, and enabled me to do it.
I identified myself completely with him. Indeed, I have been crucified with Christ. My ego is no longer central... Christ lives in me. The life you see me living is not “mine,” but it is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I am not going to go back on that...
that's not exactly what Paul said
Galatians 2:20 is one of the most beloved verses in the entire New Testament: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live” (KJV). I recall, as a young man, new to Galatians, being drawn to this verse. On a certain level, it seems to present an ideal, making us feel closer to God. But, upon closer inspection, there's something unsavory about it.
There is so much to be said here. I actually considered writing a new commentary on Galatians featuring, as central teaching, Paul's heartfelt sentiment expressed in this verse, showing how it colors everything Paul says in Galatians. However, I no longer have the energy to undertake such a project, and so I will ask you to do some homework, if you’d like to understand what’s really going on here.
rocked! - though I've been looking at this for a long time
Quite frankly, I am rocked by the insight. On some level, I suppose I knew this, but hadn't been able to accept it. It is now 20 years since I finished the commentary, and many more years since beginning and completing all of the research. But what I see now modifies all of it. I wasn't ready to see it back then.
just because you had a mystical experience doesn't mean you're gonna get it right; at least, not in the first 50 years
The Galatians commentary was produced during a time in my life when I was still a Christian fundamentalist. As such, I tried very hard to harmonize all of Paul’s teachings with orthodox belief. It’s quite human to do so. But I now see that Paul, too, was trying very hard to retain his Jewish heritage, to some degree, while incorporating new understandings via his recent mystical revelations. I understand this, as well. We might all do well to be reminded at this point of Jesus' comment: "You cannot put new wine into old wineskins" - something's going to burst.
I've always harbored the gravest doubts that the Nice Young Man at Church should be able to teach us anything
What happens in these situations is that it might take many years or decades to fully complete the “harmonizing”; and some of it will take place in the next life. Galatians was not just Paul’s first writing (that survived), but it is the earliest document of the New Testament canon – written well before the “gospels.” It was Paul’s first effort, first thoughts, on these topics, virtually, as a young man in the faith. Elsewhere on the Word Gems site, I offer evidence that Paul changed his mind on a number of issues; more and more, he was escaping the bonds of his cultural heritage in favor of something, as “The Wedding Song” uses the phrase, “never seen before.”
Here’s what the young Paul did not yet understand. I must offer the following in shorthand fashion, as these topics are discussed at length in many Word Gems articles.
we're not supposed to identify with anything external to ourselves
“I identified myself completely with him.” Eugene really captures the sense of what Paul is trying to say. The problem is, we’re not supposed to identify with anything external – person, place, or idea. Instead, we are to expand the "made in the image" soul-life deep within.
one's ego, one's sense of self, is something holy and meant to be central to one's being - how can you have a relationship with God if you're not a whole person! being a puppet of another won't do
It can be confusing. There's so much talk about the dysfunctional ego, about megalomania, that we might lose sight of the fact that our very purpose in coming to this world was to become an individualized person. See the discussion in many Word Gems articles.
One's sense of self, one's sanctified ego in the sight of God, is not the problem. Paul fails to see this.
“I have been crucified with Christ. My ego is no longer central.” This takes us in precisely the wrong direction, away from sanctified personhood. Paul doesn't get it.
As a young person studying the bible, I totally missed what Paul was trying to express: "Surely, it couldn't be that," I subliminally thought. At the time, I believed “I have been crucified with Christ” meant that one might or should adopt, as a life goal, a self-sacrificial fortitude embodied in the example of dying on a cross; after all, there are the words of Jesus which seem to say this, his “take up your cross and follow me.” But this is not what Paul is saying here.
yet not I
Notice the word “ego.” The KJV has it, “yet not I.” Eugene Peterson has skillfully rendered the obscurity. Paul is talking about getting rid of his own essential self. This is very troubling.
What is going on here? What is prompting all this self-loathing? Let us recall the mindset of the writer. Paul had been a hard-core persecutor of the Church. He may have been the cause of torture or even death of some Christians. Paul can’t get over this. Even after his mystical experience, he considers himself to be tainted, checkered, second-class.
Paul is suffering from a lack of self-forgiveness. He is experiencing severe self-loathing. He realizes that it was his base nature that had gotten him into trouble, and now he believes the solution to be a total denial of self; indeed, a denial of very personhood. But this goes too far. He wants to see himself as “crucified with Christ” - but what he means by this expression is that he hopes to be rid of himself, his essential self, his ego, his sense of personhood, and to replace “Paul” with Christ living in him. But this is wrong. Paul has not yet understood that the “false self” is not the “true self,” and that “denying the self” does not mean denying the “true self.”
so, you're not even allowed to have your own faith in God? - that's weird
See the KJV on this, this is the sense it gives. The KJV suggests that we cannot even have our own faith in God but must borrow it from Christ. This is very off-base. The Message translation tones down this mandate to access Christ's faith:
“Christ lives in me. The life you see me living is not ‘mine,’ but it is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I am not going to go back on that.” Paul’s teaching here is very pathological. But he doesn’t yet see it that way. He believes that the way back to God is to get rid of anything that looks like “Paul,” replacing it with “Christ in me.”
As I sometimes use the expression, there is so much wrong here, one hardly knows where to begin. All of the mayhem at hand is discussed in numerous Word Gems articles.
what Paul doesn't know is that there are lots of unbalanced people on the other side who speak as he does, with empty god-talk, trying to get rid of themselves, and there are missionary teams trying to help these spiritually out-of-tune people
Here’s a good Word Gems article as a place to start: “The 500 recorded testimonies from the other side.” Over there, we find an entire class of people psychologically off-kilter, immersed in self-loathing, assiduously trying to find ways to “be rid of themselves.” What Paul is doing is just one more effort, on a long list, to expunge from oneself a sense of Hoffer’s “spoiled self.” It’s had a very long run. But Paul thinks this is new.
As I said, I am leaving you with much homework: You will want to read the articles on cultism, the three on spirituality, the true self and false self, and others.
I must end here; however, consider this. In the Galatians commentary, I point out that early Christianity had become a battleground of ideas between Paul and the Jerusalem apostles. Paul’s version of Christianity was the winner, and it was Paul’s thoughts that would shape the coming Church for millennia.
Note: For those who'd like to think about this more deeply, read Galatians with this new insight in mind. For example, when Paul speaks of baptism as a kind of death, now you know what he's really thinking of. For Paul, baptism becomes a ritual symbolizing the death of the ego, the sense of personal self. This is not good. It's what cults try to do to their victims. Paul was well meaning, but the result of his teaching, taken at face value, would have been very destructive, not unlike the worst cultish teaching.
a wretch like me - really?
What does this mean, shaping the Church for centuries to come? Well, here's one spin-off effect. Think of the typical “Christian” song played on the radio or sung in Church - "God saved a wretch like me." Notice the heavy emphasis on “I'm nothing, I'm worthless, I’m a first-class schmuck – saved only by the grace of God.” The truth is, God cannot be offended, or surprised, by anything that his/her developing children might stumble into. S/he's more sophisticated, and better put together psychologically, than that.
what does this say about God
But Paul believed God to be very touchy, very humorless, and this is Paul’s legacy to the Church. It’s all an echo of the fearfully-minded Paul, the man who could not forgive himself. It is not a healthy way of thinking and makes God out to be a bad-guy or even a psychopath: see the discussion on the "Jesus" page.
The real God would have us know that self-condemnation, self-loathing, attempting to be rid of the self, is exactly the wrong thing to do, and will do nothing but stunt our growth and set us back in terms of unfolding our awesome human potential.