“If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed [anathema].” The Apostle Paul dropped that rhetorical atom bomb early in his Epistle to the Galatians as part of his verbal combat with the Judaizing Christians (probably from the church in Jerusalem) who had gone behind Paul and convinced the Gentile believers that they must keep the Torah (receive circumcision, observe the Sabbath, eat only “clean” foods, etc.) as well as believe in Jesus if they were to participate fully in the new covenant community and enjoy its benefits. To declare someone “anathema” (accursed) was a devastating condemnation. Anathema is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew term hêrem meaning “devoted to destruction.” A curse found among the Dead Sea Scrolls captures the force of the curse Paul was pronouncing on his foes:
“Be cursed because of all your guilty wickedness! May He deliver you up for torture at the hands of the vengeful Avengers! May He visit you with destruction by the hands of all the Wreakers of Revenge! Be cursed without mercy because of the darkness of your deeds! Be damned in the shadowy place of everlasting fire! May God not heed when you call on Him, nor pardon you by blotting out your sin! May He raise His angry face toward you for vengeance!”
Out of anger toward his opponents and concern for the Galatian Christians Paul wishes that the Judaizers and anyone else who preaches a gospel other than the one he preaches will be abandoned by God to unending torment. But before we nod in agreement and casually move on, let’s try to place ourselves in the position of the Judaizer in mid-1st century Palestine. Is it possible that many of the Judaizing Christians were sincere followers of Jesus who wanted nothing more than to please their heavenly Father and live in obedience to His precepts?
Since childhood they had been steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures where they were taught to look for the will of God, and they were to aspire to live in imitation of the faith of their forefathers, like Abraham. The LORD promised Abraham the land of Canaan and offspring as numerous as the stars of the heavens and the sand of the seashore, and He gave him the covenant of circumcision threatening that “any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” God called it “an everlasting covenant.” (Genesis 17:13) When the Exodus scroll was read and the story of the covenant at Sinai was told year after year, they were reminded that “the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign forever between Me and the people of Israel…” (Exodus 31:16-17) They heard Psalm 105:7-11 read or sung as part of worship praising God for His faithfulness to His people,
“He is mindful of his covenant forever, of the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations, the covenant which he made with Abraham, his sworn promise to Isaac, which he confirmed as a statute to Jacob, as an everlasting covenant to Israel, saying, “To you I will give the land of Canaan, as your portion for an inheritance.”
As the prophet Isaiah declared to their forefathers, “The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants, for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant.” The perpetuity of the covenant that God made with Israel would appear to be quite evident from the Scriptures.
The prophets also anticipated a glorious future when God would return to His people after the Exile and bring about an age of blessing when sin would be forgiven and Israel would experience restoration and an outpouring of God’s Spirit. Looking beyond the Exile to this glorious restoration, Isaiah said, “Awake, awake, put on your strength, O Zion; put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city; for there shall no more come into you the uncircumcised and the unclean.” (Isaiah 52:1) No faithful reader of the prophets would have been surprised by Isaiah’s description of the coming restoration since God deemed the covenant of circumcision everlasting when he first gave it to Abraham. Nonetheless, the prophets made it quite clear that the Gentiles would participate with believing Israel in the blessings of the Messianic age, and they were clear about the grounds on which the Gentiles will be welcomed.
And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the sabbath, and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. (Isaiah 56:6-8)
It doesn’t sound as though the prophets expected the terms of the covenant to change for the Gentiles or anyone else. In fact, the books that fall at the end of the Hebrew canon only reinforce the idea that those who keep Torah will ultimately be vindicated as God’s people. Nehemiah prays,
“O LORD God of heaven,…who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love Him and keep His commandments…Remember the word which You did command Your servant Moses, saying,…if you return to Me and keep My commandments and do them…I will gather them there and bring them to the place which I have chosen, to make My name dwell there.” (Nehemiah 1:5-9)
Among the final words of the prophecy of Malachi is the command, “Remember the law of My servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.” Such was the message of scripture to any Jewish believer who had been listening. Remember, they had no New Testament. And what’s more, Jesus doesn’t seem to have said anything about circumcision or in contradiction of the many texts that describe the covenant as everlasting.
Now try and put yourself in the position of a Jewish believer in Jesus around 48 AD. Remember, they had no New Testament. To them the Scriptures appear to be quite clear about circumcision and the Torah, and Peter, James, and John as well as the rest of the men who walked with Jesus throughout His earthly ministry continue to live and worship according to Torah. Into the small close-knit Christian community comes a combative former Pharisee claiming that God as revealed to him that the Messiah’s death and resurrection has brought the Torah to an end, and that neither Gentiles or Jews are obligated to keep it any longer. How could they know that Paul was speaking the truth? He seemed to be contradicting the revealed will of God. I can imagine a Judaizer in the face of Paul’s rhetorical onslaught proclaiming, “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. For to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”
In light of the picture sketched above, must we really believe that God would consign to eternal torment a Judaizer who sincerely believed in Jesus as the risen Messiah while clinging fiercely and faithfully to what the scriptures taught about the Torah and circumcision? Or can we affirm Paul’s argument in Galatians while allowing that his ferocious condemnation of his opponents was an intemperate overstatement fueled by the intensity of his love and concern for the Galatian Christians? We might expect that a man as unbending and full of holy zeal as Paul would find that same passion twisted into bursts of rage in moments of weakness. The Apostle’s wish for the Judaizers in Galatians 5:12, his intransigence in the conflict with Barnabas over John Mark (Acts 15:36-40), and his outburst against the high priest during his interrogation (Acts 23:1-5), all suggest that this may well be the case.