Exclusive: In an exciting example of scholarly cross-collaboration and interdisciplinary research, textual critics and archaeologists have just published a translation of a recently discovered first-century letter, apparently authentic, written to the Apostle Paul himself. Scholars believe it was likely written in the late AD 40s or early 50s. The parchment was remarkably well preserved in a jar buried in a cave on the island of Satiricus. It is surmised that the author of the letter, Parodios, was an elder who had met Paul on one of his missionary journeys.
The translation, published here for the first time, reads as follows:
Parodios, a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ, to our brother Paulos.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Our church recently received a copy of the letter that you sent to the church of Galatia. We hope you will not mind hearing our humble concerns. In the past we have noticed you are more interested in confronting people rather than conversing with them, but we hope you will receive this letter as an invitation to further dialogue.
First of all, we are uncomfortable with your tone throughout the correspondence. We know it is difficult sometimes to discern tone of voice from written communication, but you should keep this in mind as well. One could gather from your careless use of words that you are losing your temper. You certainly sound angry. This is unbecoming a spokesperson for the faith. As you say yourself, one of the manifest fruit of God’s Spirit is gentleness.
Aren’t you being a hypocrite to preach grace but not show it to our Judaizer brothers? They may not worship as you do or emphasize the same teachings you do, but our Lord has “sheep not of this fold,” and there is certainly room within the broader Way for these brothers. Their methodology may differ from yours, but certainly their hearts are in the right place.
You yourself know that our Lord required personal contact when we have a grievance against another. Have you personally contacted any of these men? Have you sat down to reason with them personally? Have you issued a personal invitation? Some of them may even reconsider their viewpoints if you had taken a different tack. We know that your position is likely that public teaching is open to public criticism, but we can do better than what is expected, can’t we?
In one portion of your letter, you indicate you don’t even know these persons! “Whoever he is,” you write. Our dear Paulos, how can you rightly criticize them when you don’t know them? It’s clear you haven’t even read their material, because you never quote them. We implore you to see that they are plainly within the tradition of Moses and of the Prophets. They understand the context of the covenant in ways you appear deaf to.
Similarly, we find your tone and resorting to harsh language not in keeping with the love of Christ. “Foolish Galatians.” “Let him be accursed.” “Emasculate themselves.” Really? Can you not hear yourself? You think this is Christlike? Does this sound like something our Lord would say? Do you think this flippant, outrageous, personal, vindictive manner of speech speaks well of God’s love or the church? It is clear you are taking this way too personally. Indeed, you ask the Galatians if you are now their enemy. Does everything have to be so black and white to you?
Paulos, what will unbelievers think when they read this letter? Do you think this will commend the gospel to them? This kind of harsh language just makes us look like a bunch of angry people. They see we can’t even love each other, and over what? Circumcision? This is a terrible advertisement for God’s love to an unbelieving world. You have given plenty of people permission now to disregard Jesus, if this is what his mouthpieces sound like.
We hope you will reconsider your approach. We know that you catch much more flies with honey than with vinegar. We are concerned that your ill-worded letter signals a divisiveness that threatens to fracture the church. We beg you to reconsider how important these minor issues are, and how in the future you may speak in ways that better reflect God’s love.
The grace—and the love!—of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brother.
It is unknown whether the Apostle Paul actually received and read this letter, and history has left no record of a response.
But we think we can make at least two observations.
First, Paul’s words to the Galatians were not inappropriate. They were true words, and they were loving words. Even if it runs contrary to our presuppositions and expectations, they were an example of “speaking the truth in love.” These words were inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that to critique Paul and his language is ultimately to critique God himself.
Second, this language was not Paul’s default. He did not respond to every controversy in the same way. He would be appalled if people took this letter to the Galatians and made it the norm for Christian discourse. Christians should seek to guard their tongue, using gracious speech seasoned with salt, delivered in love, and designed for edification (Col. 4:6; Eph. 4:15, 25, 29). But false doctrine and false teachers can infiltrate the church, and when the gospel is at stake, the means of being loving, edifying, salt-flavored, grace-filled may require harsh words in order to protect the flock, the church for whom Christ died.
May God give us much wisdom in how to speak the truth in love, especially when we have to call a spade a spade.