Galatians 1:1 (NIV): “Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him by the dead…”
Let me begin by saying I agree with Merrill C. Tenney (New Testament Times, 1965
, pp. 239-245) and Ben Witherington III (New Testament History, 2001
, p. 243) that Galatians is the earliest Pauline epistle and likely was written as Paul prepared for the Jerusalem trip, where he would argue the issue of circumcision with the apostles and the elders of that church.
So picture this: Paul is about to go off to Jerusalem to argue the issue of circumcision. The cause of this battle is “certain men who came from James.” These were likely messengers carrying the earliest extant Christian epistle, the book of James (Use of the term ‘synagogue’ for the meeting of the Christians [James 2:2], and the blending of Jewish and Christian identity, with little consideration of gentile issues supports a very early date for this epistle). Now let’s consider the opening of that letter:
James 1:1a (NIV): “James a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ…”
Paul is writing a letter to the Galatian churches (1:2), because certain men have come from James (2:12), with a letter, and have gone beyond the actual text of the letter by demanding circumcision and law-keeping for gentiles (5:11-12).
Paul starts his own letter, as is customary, by introducing himself in way that shows the importance of heeding the remainder of the letter—juxtaposing himself alongside the men from James and alongside James himself. What is the authority of each? Who compares to whom? While we do not like to think this way in our egalitarian age, keep in mind that station and authority were extremely important in their world. Paul spilled much ink demonstrating his authority to speak to issues—Romans, Galatians, Corinthians and Philemon all demonstrate this. He often had to defend his own authority as equal to or superior to other teachers to whom the churches readily listened. To whom is Paul equivalent? Is his status equal to the messengers? In that case the question would be whether Paul or the messengers better understood the words of James—advantage messengers. Is his status equal to that of James? In that case, the issue would be which servant of Christ (Paul or James as represented by the messengers) best explains the truth of salvation for the gentiles?
Don’t get me wrong. I am not comparing James’ letter and Paul’s teachings as two contradictory views, as Luther famously did. Both are scripture, because both servants of God were divinely inspired to write the Word of God. They do not contradict. However, keep in mind that Paul is not opposing James, but men carrying and interpreting James’ letter to others. It is not actually James’ letter that Paul must confront, but James’ messengers—these misguided Judaizing apostles of James, if you will. Paul deals, not with James, but with zealous messengers claiming authority to teach based upon the authority of the man they represent.
Paul attacks the problem head on, by showing his status as equivalent to James, not the messengers. He starts by saying that he is an apostle (a messenger, an emissary), but not one “from any man nor by a man.” This twin statement is interesting. Both parts claim he was not sent to them through human agency, but why say it two ways? Wouldn’t it suffice to say, “Paul an apostle sent out by Christ and God, and not by a man”? Two other modern translations bring out something important:
Galatians 1:1 (RSV): “Paul an apostle– sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.”
Galatians 1:1 (NASB): “Paul, an apostle (not sent from men, nor through the agency of man, but through Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead).”
He is taking great care to define the authority that sent him out. Paul is saying, “I am an apostle. I was not sent out from some group of men who wanted to tell you something. Neither did I come in the name of some human authority to speak on his behalf. I came to you commissioned by Jesus Christ himself and by God the Father, the very same God who raised him from the dead.” Paul’s authority does not come from any man, as the messengers’ does. Paul’s authority comes from Christ who rose and from the Father who raised him!
Paul opens with a trump card. He starts by demonstrating authority higher than these messengers and at least equal to the one who sent them. One could loosely paraphrase Galatians 1:1, in the context of the whole letter, as Paul saying, “James, whom these men represent as teaching this, is a servant of God and Christ; while I am the very servant of God and Christ who brought the message of salvation to you personally and I tell you this…”