When the World Turned Upside Down in Galatia

Tom Holland’s Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World

David Zahl / 11.13.19

One of many fantastic portions of the “Galatia” section in Tom Holland’s Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, which finally arrived on US shores two weeks ago. Holland has essentially crafted a 600-page sequel to Francis Spufford’s “Yeshua” chapter in Unapologetic:

This conviction, that a crucified criminal might somehow be a part of the identity of the one God of Israel—a conviction that Paul, in all his correspondence, took absolutely for granted—was shocking to Galatians as well as to Jews. Command and swagger were the very essence of the cult of the Caesars. To rule as an emperor—an imperator—was to rule as a victorious general. In every town in Galatia, in every square, statues of Caesar served as a reminder to his subjects that to rank as the son of a god was, by definition, to embody earthly greatness. No wonder, then, that Paul, proclaiming to the Galatians that there was only the one Son of God, and that he had suffered the death of a slave, not struggling against it but submitting willingly to the lash, should have described the cross as a ‘scandal’. The offensiveness of it was not something that Paul ever sought to palliate. That it was ‘a stumbling block to Jews, and foolishness to everyone else’ did not inhibit him in the slightest. Quite the opposite. Paul embraced the mockery that his gospel brought him—and the dangers…

It was trust in God, not a line of descent, that was to distinguish the children of Abraham. The Galatians had no less right to the title than the Jews. The malign powers that previously had kept them enslaved had been routed by Christ’s victory on the cross. The fabric of things was rent, a new order of time had come into existence, and all that previously had served to separate people was now, as a consequence, dissolved. ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’

Only the world turned upside down could ever have sanctioned such an unprecedented, such a revolutionary, announcement. If Paul did not stint, in a province adorned with monuments to Caesar, in hammering home the full horror and humiliation of Jesus’ death, then it was because, without the crucifixion, he would have had no gospel to proclaim. Christ, by making himself nothing, by taking on the very nature of a slave, had plumbed the depths to which only the lowest, the poorest, the most persecuted and abused of mortals were confined. If Paul could not leave the sheer wonder of this alone, if he risked everything to proclaim it to strangers likely to find it disgusting, or lunatic, or both, then that was because he had been brought by his vision of the risen Jesus to gaze directly into what it meant for him and for all the world. That Christ—whose participation in the divine sovereignty over space and time he seems never to have doubted—had become human, and suffered death on the ultimate instrument of torture, was precisely the measure of Paul’s understanding of God: that He was love. The world stood transformed as a result. Such was the gospel. Paul, in proclaiming it, offered himself as the surest measure of its truth. He was nothing, worse than nothing, a man who had persecuted Christ’s followers, foolish and despised; and yet he had been forgiven and saved. ‘I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.’

And if Paul, then why not everybody else?

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