I am going slow because i do not want to mischaracterize Murphy-O’Connor. I am in awe of the amount of material he covered in Paul: a Critical Life. He included long, fascinating discussions about the places where Paul founded churches. He uncovered possible backgrounds for Paul’s thought and that of his opponents in Jewish and Greek/Roman culture.
But the order in which he proceeded is difficult for me to follow. He wanted to make the letters of Paul his main source. But, because he treated them critically and because they often offer little clear direction, he ended up using Acts–very critically–and his own inferences.
The result is that the reader needs to read vast swaths of material to grasp the main points. It is hard to know when Murphy-O’Connor has finished a topic. I often want to summarize his position only to discover that there is more to it further on.
The letter to the Galatians was key to chronology, the situation of the churches, and to Paul’s developing theology. So Murphy-O’Connor dealt with that letter in several chapters on several topics. Here is a list of some of his conclusions about Galatians.
First, after thoroughly discussing other possibilities, he concluded that the Galatian churches were in north Galatia and only in the vicinity of Pessinus. Pessinus was the capital of the legendary King Midas and the cult center for the goddess Cybele, the forerunner of the earth-mother, Gaia.
Paul got sick while traveling through and founded a church while recovering (Galatians 4:13-14). It may have been the cult-center aspect of Pessinus that allowed churches to spring up in the surrounding area as he converted Cybele worshiping pilgrims.
Second, Paul revisited Galatia after the Antioch incident on his way to Ephesus but did not mention his conflict with Peter. He gave them instructions about the collection (1 Corinthians 16:1).
Third, Paul wrote his letter from Ephesus in 53. Murphy-O’Connor took the “quickly” of Galatians 1:6 seriously and concluded that a date after or during the Corinthian correspondence was out of the question.
Fourth, the anti-Pauline teachers arrived in Galatia on Paul’s heels and represented the new situation at Antioch which Paul has repudiated. They were Judaizers. By “mirror reading”, Murphy-O’Connor inferred a detailed account of their doctrine and their critique of Paul. He adopted and extensively quoted a reconstruction of Paul’s opponent’s teaching by J. Louis Martyn. According the reconstruction, these teachers claimed that Paul had failed to give the Galatians God’s greatest gift, the Torah.
Fifth, Paul’s response was to send a letter which would be read in public. The anti-Pauline teachers would hear it read. Thus, although Galatians supposedly addresses Paul’s converts in Galatia, it actually addresses Paul’s opponents and the people in Antioch who are behind them.
Paul opposes a view of the Messiah as under the Torah and an interpreter of it. Rather, Jesus the Messiah, is over the law and has granted Gentile Christians freedom from it. This is what Murphy-O’Connor saw as Paul’s “antinomian” stance.
With much respect for Murphy-O’Connor’s work, I am not convinced that the parts of this interpretation about a break with Antioch and Paul’s focus on opposing Jewish law work historically.
The references to Peter in 1 Corinthians do not show Paul having broken with Peter or the church at Antioch, or even Jerusalem. Paul has argued that he received his gospel by revelation, directly from Christ. But he does not consider himself utterly unique in this. In 1 Corinthians 15 Peter and James have received tandem revelations from Christ. Their apostleships are also based on revelation.
The new work of John Barclay on the gift of God emphasizes that Paul’s opposition was not just to keeping the law as a standard of worth, but to many systems of worth in both Jewish and Greek culture. The gospel of Paul affirms the gift of God “without regard to worth”.
In Galatians this includes the valuing of freemen over slaves, the valuing of men over women, and circumcision over uncircumcision. Uncircumcision, Barclay pointed out, was not just a lack of the Jewish practice, but the Greek assigning of worth to the unblemished male body.
So Paul was not simply antinomian (against the law), he was against human systems that allowed people’s relation to God to depend upon cultural standards of worth, because the coming of Christ had inaugurated a new age where these “currencies” have been devalued.
One insight I arrived at due to the information in Murphy-O’Connor about the Cybele cult at Pessinus has to do with Galatians 5:12:
I wish those agitators would go so far as to castrate themselves! (NET Bible).
The priests of Cybele were eunuchs. Could Paul be implying that to follow the agitators was the same as going back to the pagan religion and becoming priests of Cybele?