Neville Stevens on Galatians

We've run into now and then confused believers who go to what lengths needed to clip parts from the Bible they don't like. Such a one is a certain Neville Stevens. In an article titled THE BOOK OF GALATIANS - IS THIS GOD'S INSPIRED WORD? (all CAPS) Stevens casts a jaundiced eye of anachronism on this letter, which he thinks is "strange" and of which he says, "you have to wonder about its purpose."

Any scholarly commentary will tell you it's purpose -- it is a defense brief of Paul's apostleship; and, a rebuttal against Judaizers. I'd recommend Witherington's Grace and Galatia commentary, as well as Nanos' Irony of Galatians.

Stevens though has the idea that Galatians allows believers to "treat the Laws of God with utter contempt and claim virtue for doing it" and then proposes to give us "the horrifying truth!"

OK, let's stop there. First of all, the relationship between faith and works in the Bible and the NT era is clear -- see here. Second, so is the role of the "Laws of God" -- see here.

Now Stevens starts by declaring that Paul could not have written Galatians, and after threats about taking God's Word seriously, accompanied by the threats of fire and brimstone, plus a remark that Galatians is "the one book that [Stevens] gets very little inspiration from the Spirit to understand" (is such subjectivity a substitute for scholarship?) we get to some actual arguments:

There is one statement in the Book of Galatians that is positively outrageous! This is what it says: Gal 3:10 "All who rely on observing the Law are under a curse, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law."" These two statements CONTRADICT each other. While Paul correctly affirmed what Moses said (Deut 27:26), HE ARGUES FOR AN OPPOSING MEANING!

Opposing? Not really. It's a matter of fact that no one could ever do the whole law perfectly; hence Paul is expressing the inevitable result, as Witherington puts it: "If the Galatians submit to the Mosaic Law they will also indeed be subject to a such a curse, if, that is, they fail to keep all the law." [233] Stevens will see this as part of the idea of Galatians allowing libertarian behavior, but one should note that in Gal. 5-6 Paul is "very happy to insist on the importance of various sorts of works and deeds, indeed on obedience to 'the Law of Christ.' Paul's argument is against observance of a specific kind of works -- works of the Mosaic Law in general." [232]

As noted here the issue at hand is matters of observing the law for ritual purity -- not for morality's sake. What Paul gives here is a "rhetorical threat 'intended to induce the Galatians to reconsider their contemplated course of action by pointing out possible negative consequences..." Put yourself under the Law, and you invite the Deuteronomic curses.

So after more comment based on this core misapprehension -- a lot more comment which includes a few more threats of "consuming fire" against those with "DEMENTED MINDS" and shouting about Paul "WILFULLY MISQUOT[ING] GOD" -- we don't get another actual argument or exegesis until here:

But one of the most telling comments in the Book of Galatians follows this: Gal 3:14 "He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Jesus Christ, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit." Yes, we can accept this! These Gentiles were redeemed so that Abraham's blessings might be made known to them through Christ. Then Paul adds this: V16 "The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The scripture does not say "and to seeds", meaning many people, but "and to your seed", meaning one person, who is Christ."
IS THIS WHAT THE SCRIPTURE SAYS? These are the verses that relate to the blessings offered to Abraham, and GOD IS SPEAKING: Gen 12:2 "I will make you a GREAT NATION and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you." V15 "All the land that you see I will give to you and your OFFSPRING [seed] for ever. I will make your OFFSPRING [seed] like the DUST OF THE EARTH, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your OFFSPRING [seed] could be COUNTED." Speaking to Isaac, God said this: Gen 26:3 "...For to you and your DESCENDANTS [plural] I will give all these lands and will CONFIRM THE OATH I SWORE TO YOUR FATHER ABRAHAM. I will make your DESCENDANTS [plural] as NUMEROUS AS THE STARS IN THE SKY and will give THEM all these lands, and through your OFFSPRING [seed] all nations on earth will be blessed, BECAUSE ABRAHAM OBEYED ME AND KEPT MY REQUIREMENTS, MY COMMANDS, MY DECREES AND MY LAWS."

Stevens goes on about misuse of the Scriptures, but it's the same sort of exegetical procedure that was used by the rabbis of Paul's day, and the same sort that is used also in the NT, throughout the NT, including by Paul in other letters. Stevens would do well to get himself familiar with the material here where he will find "deliberate and provocative lie[s]" (as the Skeptics are wont to say) all through the NT, based on a Western understanding of Scriptural exegesis.

Once again, Witherington notes that accusing Paul of "exegetical legerdermain" is "not only anachronistic" but "also fails to note that the promise as given to Abraham referred initially to a particular individual, Isaac, and then also to Abraham's more remote descendants, 'so a rhetorical play on the ambiguity is invited.'" As an aside there is also some evidence that Jewish interpreters understood that the reference was to just one particular person (Jubilees 16:17f), and it should also be kept in mind that Paul sees the church as the "body of Christ" so that the exalted Christ is an "inclusive personality." [244]

So again, after a note that Stevens still quoted Galatians as Scripture "until God advised me otherwise", plus a note that with Galatians "there is a distinct lack of influence of the Spirit of God when studying it" -- in other words, yet more subjective, unverifiable justification -- we get to this:

One of the main focal points of this book is the question of circumcision (Gal 5:2, 3, 11, 12, 6:12, 13, 15). Notice what it says: Gal 5:2 "Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that IF YOU LET YOURSELVES BE CIRCUMCISED, Christ will be of NO VALUE TO YOU AT ALL. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is required to obey the whole law." Was the author speaking of actual circumcision? Notice what he says: V12 "As for those agitators, I wish they would GO THE WHOLE WAY and emasculate [castrate] themselves." He also says this in Gal 6:12 "Not even those who are circumcised obey the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your FLESH." He says this in V15 "Neither circumcision or uncircumcision means anything..." (see also Gal 5:6). Yes, he was talking about the actual removal of the foreskin not some sort of 'spiritual' circumcision. On the one hand, he states that Christ is of no value to anyone who allows himself to be circumcised, yet he says neither circumcision or uncircumcision means anything. This sort of inconsistency is certainly not the style favoured by God!

We wonder whether Neville makes anything of Prov. 26:4-5, then; but anyway, I'm still wondering what the "inconsistency" here is. Gal. 6:15 actually says, "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature." Literally the words "any thing" -- which seem to be the focus of Stevens' mistake -- are not in the text. The literal text is, "neither circumcision (has) any strength, nor uncircumcision."

The point of 5:2 is then that, once again, the Galatians will put themselves under the inevitable failure of trying to obey the Deuteronomic covenant -- and if Stevens wants to tell us he thinks that is possible, where has he been sacrificing animals? (Again as well, keep in mind the link here.)

Stevens makes the same error about Paul and circumcision we discuss here. Then he makes the same error of reading Romans that others do:

Notice what Paul wrote in Rom 2:25 "Circumcision has value if you observe the Law, but if you BREAK the LAW, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. If those who are not circumcised KEEP THE LAW'S REQUIREMENTS, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? The one who is not circumcised physically and yet OBEYS THE LAW will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a LAW-BREAKER." So even those who are not circumcised - BUT KEEP THE LAW - will CONDEMN those who are LAW-BREAKERS!

The problem with this is, Paul goes on in Romans to say, "Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin." (3:20) 2:25 is just a step in the argument; 3:20 is the last step -- after Paul goes out of his way to show that there IS no one who keeps the law. Who knows, maybe next God will tell Neville to dispense with Romans. It seems that ss soon as he finds a book hard to understand, out come the scissors!

Stevens then follows up with a false reading of Peter and Paul's conflict; once again we refer the reader here -- like several critics Stevens misses that Galatians pre-dates the events of Acts 15, and also thinks there are contradictions between Galatians and Acts; for that, see the link above on circumcision.

But notice yet another questionable comment! Here James, Peter and John are confirmed as the 'pillars' of Jerusalem; now notice what is said: Gal 2:9 "James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and BARNABAS the RIGHT HAND OF FELLOWSHIP when they RECOGNISED the grace given to ME. They agreed we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews." The one who wrote this obviously didn't know that Barnabas was the one who led Paul into Jerusalem and introduced him to all the Apostles (Acts 9:27), nor did he know that Barnabas was sent to Antioch - by the Apostles - to establish the Church there (Acts 11:22) BEFORE Paul was called to service there. He also seems to be ignorant of the fact that Barnabas was well-known and held in high esteem by all the Apostles long before Paul came along (Acts 4:36). Did they indeed offer BARNABAS the RIGHT HAND OF FELLOWSHIP because they RECOGNISED the grace given to Paul? NO! THEY DIDN'T! Barnabas was well-established as a faithful brother and worker in the Church and held in the highest esteem: Acts 11:22 "News of this reached the ears of the Church at Jerusalem, and they sent BARNABAS to ANTIOCH. When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. HE WAS A GOOD MAN, FULL OF THE HOLY SPIRIT AND FAITH, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord. Then BARNABAS WENT TO TARSUS TO LOOK FOR SAUL, and when he FOUND him, he BROUGHT HIM TO ANTIOCH. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the Church and taught great numbers of people." The author of the Book of Galatians MISTAKENLY believed that Barnabas was a convert of Paul! He obviously didn't know the background of this man. Yet further evidence that this Book was NOT written by Paul!

Getting past the repetitiveness, Stevens just doesn't know what the "right hand" gesture means in social context. Whether Barnabas was "well-established" is utterly beside the point and none of this suggests Barnabas was a convert of Paul.

Once again, Witherington points out that the gesture is one made by superiors to inferiors, and whatever else Stevens wants to claim, the pillars were superior in rank to both Barnabas AND Paul. [143-4] In particular, the gesture is one "implying friendship and acknowledging an agreement that is something offered by a superior to an inferior." This fits right in with the agreement of Paul and Barnabas to be missionaries to the Gentiles, as noted in 2:9b but which Stevens seems not to notice. The "grace" here is the favor given to these two to serve in their mission -- it is not, as Stevens seems to think, something to do with conversion.


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Stevens follows with yet more false reading of the "Peter vs. Paul" episode, and of Titus' circumcision, which we have links for above; he then displays further lack of knowledge of contemporary Jewish exegesis in saying: "Other books written by Paul pass all the protocols established by the Bible itself. One of the most important of these is when scriptures are quoted; they must reflect the true meaning of the original. And this is where the Book of Galatians fails miserably. It is childishly flawed. At least half the Book of Galatians was written by someone who had very limited knowledge of the Bible, and a total absence of the Wisdom of God."

As noted above, Stevens is far out of touch with how exegesis was done in the first century and in the NT. Not surprisingly, among Stevens' continued exegetical errors are one based on Colossians 2:8. After a great deal more, Stevens closes with yet more threats like these:

If you believe in the gospel of nothing, where you do absolutely nothing either by intention or by default, then you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you, like the rest of the world, are a part of Satan's clan. Yes, that's where you stand, and this is your status. You may choose to believe yourself to be a pillar of virtue because you shun and despise God's Laws, but shortly you will have no need to doubt your status any longer.

I think that pretty well sums it up.

-JPH