Catholic Preaching on "the Law"

Addressing Complex Issues Calmly

[Unoffical translation from Avvenire, Milan; courtesy of Marco Morselli]


The Letter to the Galatians is a vehement, excited, highly polemical letter. Shaul/Paul of Tarsus feels that his apostolic authority is being challenged and his missionary work compromised by some who seek to teach doctrines different from those he advocated concerning circumcision for non-Jews who come to faith in Jesus of Nazareth.

If, as it seems, this letter was written after the Council of Jerusalem, it should be noted that the decisions made there were very clear about the obligations that non-Jews believing in Jesus the Messiah would have to assume: “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to impose any other obligation on you except these necessary things: to abstain from meat offered to idols, from blood, from choking animals, and from sexual immorality. You will do well to keep away from these things” (Acts 15:28-29).

There were some who did not approve these decisions and therefore wanted to impose circumcision and all that it entailed on believers ex gentibus [from the Gentile nations]. It is against these people that the Apostle rails.

Unfortunately, it is in this turbulent and polemical context that Shaul/Paul addresses for the first time crucial issues such as the relationship with the Torah and justification by faith, issues that are fundamental for the subsequent history of Christianity and for the relationship between Judaism and Christianity.

In order to address the problems posed by this text, it is useful to compare it with what is considered Paul’s spiritual legacy, the Letter to the Romans, in which the same issues are presented in a more calm and balanced way.

It is of fundamental importance to bear in mind that from his spiritual experience on the road to Damascus Paul is deeply convinced that the olam ha-zeh (the present time) is over and that with the coming of the Messiah the olam ha-ba (the world to come) has begun. Paul’s whole argument, in short, is based on the conviction that this world is now over and that his contemporaries would witness the parousia [return of Christ in glory] as he writes in his First Letter to the Thessalonians. Since, however, the world lasted another two thousand years, the Letter to the Galatians, certainly going beyond the intentions of the author, subsequently became a polemical propaganda tool against the Torah and against those who seek to be faithful to it, the Jews.

Pope Francis’ catechesis on Galatians, which began on 23 June and continued to date until 1 September, gave rise to a request for clarification from the Jewish side and then to a series of subsequent interventions, including that of the Chief Rabbi of Rome on 2 September 2021 (La Repubblica).

The most recent line of studies of Paul is called “Paul within Judaism”; in order not to return to the traditional “Paul against Judaism” it is necessary in our opinion to clarify some points. The main problem arises from the identification of the addressees of the Letter to the Galatians: Paul here is not addressing “Christians,” or Jews who believe in the messianic nature of Jesus, but “non-Jews,” and he does not want them to be circumcised. If one does not take into account who are the recipients of the letter, it becomes a letter against the Torah, and therefore against Jews and Judaism, which was not Paul’s purpose. The misunderstanding about the addressees has a repercussion on the interpretation of the text.

The question of the relationship between the Covenant, the Promise, and the Torah is one of the most complex in Christianity and one of the most problematic in the relationship between Jews and Christians. Addressing these sensitive issues together is as necessary and useful as ever, a sign of trust in the fruits of a peaceful dialogue.

In such dramatic times as these, in which antisemitism in all its forms is regaining strength, the last thing humanity needs is a return to the old Jewish-Christian controversies.

Marco Cassuto Morselli is former professor of Jewish philosophy and the history of Judaism at the Master’s degree program in Jewish studies of the Italian Rabbinical College, and president of the Federation of Jewish-Christian Amity in Italy.

Giulio Michelini, OFM, is Professor of New Testament Exegesis and Dean of the Theological Institute of Assisi.