Celts, Judeans, Nature-Worship, and Civilization

One of the things we know about the Galatians, from history, is that they settled in Asia Minor (I won't mess with the north or south question) after having been invited as mercenaries. They are, as the name Γαλαται suggests, a Celtic people. (The Celts really got around. They are to Europe, in many ways, what the Kazakhs are to Asia.)

And so, in 3:1 when Paul calls them ανοηται Γαλαται, "silly Celts," and asks who has magicked them, who has cast a spell on them or given them the evil eye, he is invoking their shame at a heritage of "superstition." This isn't a Jewish thing, but rather something they would have gotten living in the cultured paganism of the Hellenistic world. Nature religions have nothing on the real anthropomorphic pantheons.

And so, when Paul goes on in 4:8-9 to talk about οι φυσει μη ουσιν θεοι, things that are not naturally divine, and τα ασθενη και πτωχα στοιχεια, the powerless and helpless elements of the world, what's he talking about? Think about Poseidon. Poseidon is not a water elemental. He's not a water-god; he's the god of water, the god of sea and squall, of earthquakes and waves. Poseidon, however evocative his raiment, is not made of the elements. He is the god who rules these elements, the god who loves the seas and their creatures and chooses to dwell among them. He is the god who, if you honor him, will get you safely home across the waters—and who, if you cross him, may see to it that you never reach your next port. One does not worship the waters and their creatures, or the waves and their force—one knows that these things are not naturally divine. One worships, and perhaps even chooses to serve, the god who moves both land and sea.

Silly northern pagans, with their nature religions—worshipping the stuff instead of the god. But the Hebrews are little better, with their harvest cycles and their observation of the cycles of the moon. What, after all, is a calendar in the ancient world, but a liturgical map? Careful and even religious attention to the στοιχεια του κοσμου. But at least the Judeans have some culture. For all their traditional celebrations and their superstitions that keep them from totally getting along in the real world, they do worship and serve a genuine θεος (even if only one, and even if they refuse to get along with people of other gods), and they do follow a mostly-sensible νομος, a way of life based on their πιστις. This goes a long way toward civilizing them!