The Radically Inclusive Gospel
A Feature Review of
The Forgotten Creed:
Christianity’s Original Struggle against Bigotry, Slavery, and Sexism
Hardback: Oxford UP, 2018
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Reviewed by Alden Bass
According to Stephen Patterson, Paul was reluctant to make the statement which we now know as Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” As Patterson explains in his new book, these words were already well-known when Paul took up his pen to write to the Galatians, a bit of liturgical language which would have been familiar to any Christian who recited it at their baptism. Paul incorporated the formula into his letter in an effort to ease tensions in the nascent Galatian Christian community between Jews and Gentiles. The old social order built on race, gender, and class differences was dead, at least among those walking “in newness of life.” Paul hesitated, Patterson suggests, because these words were dynamite.
Patterson, a specialist in early Christianity, hopes to recover something of the explosive potential of this early creedal statement. The issues it sought to address two millennia ago seem strangely relevant today, as he notes in several pointed references to the Age of Trump. The election has proved that pitting one group against another – in this case, the white middle class against immigrants, the poor, and uppity women – is still an effective way to gain and maintain power. More than ever, he argues, Christians need to witness to a different politic, a new human family not defined by “the pattern of this world.” Baptism is the voluntary assumption of a new identity expressing solidarity with all people, but especially outgroups like foreigners, sexual minorities, and the indigent.
Patterson begins with an examination of the Galatians text. His assertion that 3:28 is a pre-Pauline baptismal formula is not original. There are several such statements in the writings of the New Testament, such as primitive creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 and the “Christ Hymn” of Philippians 2:6-11. Nevertheless, Galatians 3:28 has not often been classified among these passages. His strong claim that it reflects “one of the oldest statements of faith in all of the New Testament” is fairly controversial. Rather than work through the textual questions though, Patterson makes a historical and theological case for its priority. As he explains in his second chapter, the three binaries of Galatians 3:28 illustrate the power differential in the ancient world captured in a cliché shared by Jews and Greeks: essentially, “I thank God I was born a man not a woman, a Greek not a barbarian/Jew not a Gentile, and a ‘human’ not a slave.” Jesus was opposed to such structures of domination. As Patterson shows using canonical and noncanonical material (one of his specialties is the Gospel of Thomas), Jesus taught that all humans are equally “children of God,” that the heavenly Father sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. For Jesus’s followers, the “second birth” of baptism became a way of reclaiming this creational identity. Hence the formula preserved in Paul’s letter.
In the last three chapters of this short volume, Patterson explores each social binary in its historical context. Even those familiar with biblical backgrounds will benefit from this material. For instance, in order to make sense of the conflict between Peter and Paul recorded in Galatians 2, he narrates the fascinating backstory of the Jewish pogrom in Alexandria, the intra-Jewish controversy around the Roman-loving Herod Agrippa, the embassy of Philo to the emperor Caligula, and the nonviolent protests in the Galilee in the 40s, all of which culminated in the mood of acute racial tension which Paul describes in Galatians 1-2. With a historian’s eye for detail and a storyteller’s sense of pace, Patterson also explores the situation of slaves and women in the ancient world. As mentioned above, Patterson thinks Paul hesitated to include the formula in his letter; this is because Paul was less certain about relativizing the subordinate positions of women and slaves than about the need for racial reconciliation. Paul’s refusal to openly condemn slavery is a source of some embarrassment to modern Christians, and his record on women’s equality is also not as clearly stated as some would like. Patterson offers some fresh insights on these issues, particularly in his concluding thoughts on 1 Corinthians 7:20: “in whatever state you were called, remain therein.” Paul may have been absolutely convicted on the question of racial equality, but the other issues were more vexing to him.
Patterson’s privileging of Galatians 3:28 as one of the earliest and most important statements of Christian belief is bold and controversial; many of his claims could be contested on exegetical and historical grounds. Yet he forces us to take seriously this singular verse which seems at odds not only with our world and our churches, but even with much of the New Testament. Just as that old Pharisee Paul found himself wrestling with this radically inclusive statement, twenty-first century American Christians committed to the evangelical proclamation of Jesus have an obligation to continue the struggle, assured of this one thing: “If you belong to Christ…you are one in Christ…for in Christ you are all children of God.” We may also be transformed by a reconsideration of that oneness which makes impossible any “us” and “them.”
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com