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Galatians 1:13-17: 'Progressing in Judaism'

13 For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. 14 I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. 17 I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus. (TNIV)
Today my friend with whom I am studying Galatians asked an interesting question. He asked what it meant for Paul to advance in Judaism beyond Jews of his own age (vs. 14). How would one do such a comparison, and was it arrogant to do so? I didn't know the answer and I thought it was an important question, so I thought I'd look into it and blog about it (it's helpful to study in community!). This post will be a bit technical, so those who aren't interested can skip it.

According to Longenecker, προέκοπτον (proekopton), translated 'advancing' originally was a nautical term, referring to 'making headway in spite of blows' and in religious and philosophical writings it came to refer to 'the process of moral and spiritual development.' It's in the imperfect tense, which stresses that it's an action in the past that happened over a period of time, i.e., it was a process (29).

So Paul had some sort of standard that he used to measure his own performance and growth against that of his contemporaries. To do so and render a positive verdict certainly does strike one as arrogant. Dunn agrees. He notes that while the verb itself is neutral, it often does carry arrogant overtones, and that the sense of superiority becomes strong when combined with 'beyond.' Dunn comments that, "Whether Paul's attitude at that time was overt or conscious or not , the effect was to downgrade in status those who had not progressed so far. Such is the danger of a spirituality of 'progress.' To those in Galatia who thought their positive response to the other missionaries was an advance on the gospel as preached by Paul it was a timely reminder: Paul had not abandoned such ideas because he had been a failure in his own response to them; on the contrary he had outdone most of the rest of his contemporaries, including, by implication, these very same missionaries who now preached this message to the Galatian churches" (59).

I think that this verse has interesting implications for the debate surrounding the New Perspective on Paul, which we will look at in another post (hopefully) this week.

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