We read in our liturgy today from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (Gal 5:1-6) and Luke’s Gospel about Jesus dining with some Pharisees. (Lk 11:37-41) Scholars aren’t sure who were the Galatians Paul addresses in his letter. They’re not sure either who the Judaizers were that Paul confronts in his letter. It seems they are Jewish Christians who want the Galatians to add to the teaching they received from Paul observances of the Jewish law, including circumcision.
Paul wrote his letter from Ephesus in the 50s, about 20 years or so before Luke wrote his gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, a summary mostly of Paul’s missionary activity. Can we safely say that Luke writes his gospel with an eye on the church of his day, especially communities like the Galatian community founded by Paul?
Can we also say then that the Pharisees Luke describes in his gospel resemble the Judaizers upsetting Paul’s converts in Galatia? Jesus eats with the Pharisees in their homes. Luke indicates he’s close to them in his gospel and also in Acts, suggesting they’re like the Jewish Christians of his and Paul’s church.
We usually picture the Pharisees as very religious, almost fanatical in fact. But there’s another picture of them history invites us to consider. The Pharisees were shrewdly practical, good organizers who kept the Jewish religion alive after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. They preserved Jewish identity in the Roman world by concentrating on Jewish practices, like circumcision.
Jewish identity was important before Roman law. Nero chose Christians for persecution in the 60s because they were seen as Jewish separatists, non-practicing Jews. In later persecutions, Christians were seen as opponents of Rome because they would not offer sacrifice to the Roman gods. On the contrary, Jews were exempt by Roman law from offering sacrifice because of their religion. They were not persecuted.
Were the Judaizers in Galatia seeking greater Jewish identity for Paul’s converts also seeking the safety it would bring them before Roman law? Paul refused this accommodation. He upheld faith in Jesus Christ and his Cross.
Today is the feast of Pope St. John XXIII, Father of the Second Vatican Council. Pope John is often thought of as a simple man, but he was actually a good historian who believed the church should not be afraid of history. He believed in accommodation to the modern world, but he also knew we better know history to judge what changes can be made.