Exegetical Matters: Galatians, ‘Only Remember the Poor.’

7 Apr

It is nice to consider the needs of the poor, I am sure, but is it biblical?  As a human, obviously, I should care about people made in the image of God, but do I have any special responsibilities as a Christian?  Or, I suppose, a better way to ask it, is it actually a biblically important priority? 

I am not intending to answer that question here.  

But I did think I could to point to a particular passage that needs to be considered. At least, that I need to consider. 

Galatians 2:10. 

Here Paul tells of his meeting with James and Peter and John who he says gave him the right hand of fellowship and encouraged his ministry to the Gentiles. He concludes, “Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.” It’s that statement in particular that is worth at least discussing. It seems significant that Paul ends his summary of his conversation with the leaders of the early church with this charge to remember the poor.

Now, many would say this refers to the collection for the saints who were suffering in Jerusalem. And that certainly could be true, though I don’t see here, that he explicitly says that. We have to add that in from what we know of the historical context. Even then of course, if that is what he is referring to, it does indicate the importance of sacrificial love and concern for other believers who are having difficulties and that is something that is both convicting and unquestionably important biblically.

But, as Andrew Wilson points out, Bruce Longenecker in his book Remember the Poor argues otherwise. 

Wilson summarizes his argument.  

“…the Jerusalem apostles’ exhortation to Paul was not aimed at him (as in, “please remember to fundraise for us”), but at his target audience amongst Gentiles (as in, “please make sure the Gentiles who become part of God’s people continue to live as the Jewish prophets have always urged us to, and remember the poor in their communities”). This, Longenecker argues, would not have come naturally in a world where there was a marked lack of concern for the needy amongst Gentiles, in contrast to that which existed amongst the Jews.”

I am interested in reading what Longenecker has to say, but for now, Wilson points out the following as several of the reasons that he finds the argument that Paul was simply or specifically referring to the poor in Jerusalem unconvincing. 

1.)Though the view that the poor referred specifically to the poor in Jerusalem became popular in the 4th century, Tertullian, Origen and Athanasius,along with all interpreters in the first three centuries of Christianity, took it to mean the poor without geographical restriction. He writes, “Six texts from Tertullian, Origen, Athanasius and Aphrahat suggest that, at least until the middle of the fourth century, the ‘poor’ of Gal 2:10 was not thought to refer to members of the early Jesus-movement in Jerusalem. By the middle of the fourth century, this had begun to changed [sic], as testified to by Ephrem, Jerome, and John Chrysostom … It is far simpler, however, to imagine that ‘the poor” of Gal 2:10 was ubiquitously interpreted throughout the earliest centuries without geographical specificity for good reason.”

2.) Would James have really urged that very poor communities across the Mediterranean basin send the little they have to support the poor in his own city?

3.)It seems somewhat strange that Paul would have wondered whether the offering would have been acceptable for the saints if it had been suggested to him by these leaders of the church in the first place. (Romans 15:30,31)

4.)Acts 11 indicates that the offering for Jerusalem was prompted by a prophecy from Agabus. Of course, I suppose that Peter and James could have been encouraging him in this ministry. But, it is possible at least to see why some might think, given the fact there was already was a prophecy in this regard, that it’s possible Peter, James and John were talking about something else.

In addition to these reasons for thinking Paul and the apostles were speaking more generally, others have suggested the following as well.

5.)If Paul is referring to the specific collection being made for the poor believers in Jerusalem, it is interesting that he doesn’t elaborate at all on the implications of that for the Galatian believers themselves. He doesn’t speak anywhere here of their need to contribute to this offering.

6.)When Paul does speak specifically and clearly about the collection for the poor believers in Jerusalem in other places, he nowhere speaks of it as if was influenced or being the outcome of his meeting with James and Peter and John in Jerusalem.

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