Last week’s post on 1 Thessalonians was well received, so let’s keep the ball rolling with another New Testament post this week on Paul’s letter to the Galatians. It’s the second New Testament text in Marcus J. Borg’s timeline, written in the early 50s. Galatia was the name of a landlocked Roman province in the center of modern-day Turkey (see image at top of post). It included the towns of Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, and Pisidian Antioch, which Paul visited on his second missionary journey, following Acts. The letter was presumably sent to those who received his message and formed small house churches in those towns. But Galatians isn’t just a letter of pastoral encouragement. It gives us the first glimpse into Paul’s theology. As explained by Borg:

No other relatively short New Testament document has had as much influence on Christian theology as Galatians. It’s language of “justification” and the contrasts between “grace” and “law” and “faith” and “works” were central to Martin Luther’s thought and have been for Protestants ever since. (p. 45)

Let me introduce another source for this week: Thomas A. Wayment’s The New Testament: A Translation for Latter-day Saints. The original edition (green cover) came out in 2019, contained the additional subtitle A Study Bible, and was published by BYU’s Religious Studies Center along with Deseret Book. The revised edition (blue cover) came out in 2022 and was published by Greg Kofford Books. It combines a very readable translation (not too different from the NRSV) with explanatory footnotes and references to passages in LDS scripture that draw on or expand specific NT passages. I’ll cite verses from his translation as Wayment tr.

The Early Church Was an Organizational Mess

The big issues that loom over the entire letter concern “Gentiles” or non-Jews who accepted the teaching of Paul or other missionaries. Did they thereby become Jews? If not, what exactly was their status? And what exactly were they joining? An enthusiastic convert might meet weekly with others in the local house church (there might have been several in a bigger cities) but what was the substance of the larger body or movement that loosely tied these house churches, and other proto-Christian groups in Judea and elsewhere, together?

Imagine an inquisitive, interested Greek pagan named Dimitri who worked a stall or two away from Paul the leather worker in one of those Galatian towns. After hearing Paul talk to dozens of folk who come by his stall, Dimitri strikes up a conversation.

“You are a Jew, right? And you are talking to people about Jesus, a Jew who lived in Judea, right?” — “Yes.”
“So you are trying to persuade Galatians like me to become Jews, right?” — “No, not really.”
“I have read some of the Jewish sacred texts. Very impressive. You quote from them frequently.” — “Yes, I do.”
“Any you explain how this Jesus was a promised Messiah the Jews have been looking for.” — “Indeed I do.”
“And I heard you explain to a man yesterday that he should pray to the Jewish God, not Zeus?” — “Yes, I did.”
“So you are out here organizing and building up groups who admire Jesus the Jew and even call him the Son of God?” — “Yes.”
“It sure sounds like if I join this group you are organizing, I am becoming a Jew!” — “Not really, Dimitri. It’s confusing. We’re still working out the details. There are differences of opinion among those who style themselves leaders of this movement, but I’m right and they’re wrong.”

A certain kind of Mormon might think this difficult issue (if converting Gentiles aren’t Jews, what are they and what is our movement?) could be settled by Paul writing a letter to the President of the Church or the Quorum of the Twelve. But there was no president. There was no quorum. The term “apostle” in these letters means special witness, not a priesthood office. Paul starts his letter “Paul, an apostle,” and recounts going to Jerusalem to meet with the apostle Peter (who shows up on the list of the Twelve in the much later gospels) and the apostle James (Jacob) the brother of Jesus. Only one of these three apostles was ever associated with “the Twelve.” Plainly “apostle” was also loosely associated with leadership. Apostles were special witnesses and leaders.

Paul refers to “those who were prominent among them” but also to “false brothers who secretly entered in order to spy on our freedom which we have in Christ Jesus” (2:2, 4 Wayment tr.). So Paul is describing circa early 50s a group of Jewish proto-Christians in Jerusalem, among whom were some prominent persons (the leaders) but with no single paramount leader. Furthermore, there were strong differences of opinion among the group. You don’t call folks “false brothers” unless there are deep disagreements. Plainly, there were some of these early proto-Christians who would have told Dimitri, “Yes, that’s it exactly. You need to become Jewish in order to embrace and follow the teachings of Jesus the Jew.”

Apart from the Pauline theology that emerges in Galatians (see next section) and that gets all the attention, it’s clear from reading Galatians — without bringing in later readings of the gospels and without bringing in LDS models — that at this time leadership in the early Church was loosely organized and there were quite different opinions about what this new Jesus movement was about, whether non-Jews could be included, and if so on what terms. Read it in this manner yourself (it takes about 15 minutes) and see what you think. This model of an evolving early Church that developed, grew, and figured things out on the fly, so to speak, that is evident in Galatians runs counter to the traditional idea that Jesus founded a church. It also run and also counter to the usual Mormon idea of an all-at-once founding or revelation, then things going downhill from there (apostasy).

Justification, Grace, and Works

Let’s get right to the heart of the matter and quote the key passage.

We are ethnically Jews and not sinfull Gentiles, yet we know that a person not made righteous by works of the Law but through the faith of Jesus Christ, and we have believed in Christ Jesus so that we might be made righteous by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law, because by works of the Law no person is made righteous (2:15-16, Wayment tr.).

Wayment points out that it is “the law of Moses” that is being referred to here, so he capitalizes it as “the Law.” When a contrast is drawn between faith and “the works of the Law,” that’s something rather different from what we think of as “good works” in the modern discussion about “faith versus works.” It seems to me that the phrase “works of the Law” refers in a general sense to what we might call “the commandments” but also to the various directives on what a practicing Jew should eat or not eat, wear or not wear, and so forth. These are primarily social markers and social practices with little moral content, much like similar directives in the LDS Church of our day (don’t drink coffee, wear a white shirt on Sunday, etc.).

Here’s the same passage from the NRSV.

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law (2:15-16, NRSV).

A couple of key translation notes need to be emphasized. First, Wayment notes “some translators prefer justified in place of made righteous.” I’ve seen other scholars make the same point: both ways are acceptable translations of the Greek. So “justification by faith” is equivalent to “being made righteous by faith.” While equivalent translations, there seems to be a different sense to me. “Being justified” sounds like a process or mechanism that, poof, transforms you from a Gentile sinner (Paul’s term) to a justified Christian. Maybe grace is this mechanism of justification, but “grace” seems like a much broader term. “Being made righteous” is sort of a strange image. You don’t get made righteous, you either are or aren’t righteous based on what you choose to do. I don’t think anyone would claim that “the works of the Law (of Moses)” would make one righteous, just as few Mormons would claim that abstaining from coffee makes one righteous. But it sure seems like the choices one makes, perhaps as guided by faith in Jesus or maybe just your own conscience or sense of moral duty, are what constitutes a person as righteous or not. Perhaps reading the contrast Paul makes between “works of the flesh” (fornication, jealousy, anger, strife, etc.) and “fruit of the Spirit” (love, peace, patience, kindness, etc.) at the end of chapter 5 sheds some light on this whole issue, as his list of attributes sounds more like good works in our modern “faith versus works” discussion.

A second point. Both Wayment and Borg point out in footnotes that “faith in Jesus Christ” can also be rendered “faith of Jesus Christ.” Big difference. The first seems to mean placing one’s faith and hopes in the resurrected and deified Jesus. The second seems to mean taking the faith (in the Jewish God) exhibited by Jesus as an example of how we should have faith. Keep in mind that Jesus worshipped “the Father” or the Jewish God; he didn’t worship himself. On that point, I’ll quote 1:3 from Paul’s greeting right at the front of the letter.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

I have kind of mixed in the Mormon views and issues with the main discussion, so no separate section. Certainly following Borg’s chronological sequence and trying to read Paul in Galatians without reading the gospels first, sort of bracketing out those later texts, gives a different reading. Paul gave a longer and more developed presentation of his theology of salvation in Romans. With a little luck, I’ll do a post on Romans in a few weeks.


Marcus J. Borg, The Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written, HarperOne, 2012.

Thomas A. Wayment, The New Testament: A Translation for Latter-day Saints, revised edition, Greg Kofford Books, 2022.

Marcus J. Borg’s List of NT Books in Chronological Order (with links to earlier posts)

1 Thessalonians
1 Corinthians
2 Corinthians
1 John
2 John
3 John
2 Thessalonians
1 Peter
1 Timothy
2 Timothy
2 Peter