A Review of “Mirror-Reading A Polemical Letter: Galatians As A Test Case”


John M.G. Barclay exams mirror-reading primarily in regards to Galatians. You can read his full article here. His criticism of mirror-reading methodology should not be confused for a disdain for mirror-reading. He attempts to refine and define a more accurate process of mirror-reading. He refers to mirror-reading as both “essential” and “extremely problematic”. It is necessary if we are to have a full understanding of the text:

However much we may be predisposed to agree with the New Testament authors’ arguments, we will not understand their real import until we have critically reconstructed the main issues in the dispute and allowed ourselves to enter into the debate from both sides.

Here is perhaps his most concise definition of mirror-reading:

we must use the text which answers the opponents as a mirror in which we can see reflected the people and the arguments under attack.

Barclay lays out three “Problems” and four “Pitfalls.”

The “Problems” are as follows:

  1. Paul is not addressing his opponents directly, so there may be some ambiguity in his writing as to whether he is addressing his opponents or the the Galatians themselves.
  2. Paul’s attempts to cast his opponents in the worse possible light distort what his opponents were really like.
  3. The linguistic problem of knowing only one partner in a particular conversation. Since we know little about Paul’s opponents, we know little about particular meanings that may have been attached to certain statements.

Before moving onto the Pitfalls, Barclay exams a dispute between a Bishop and a government official regarding a British miner’s strike. Barclay uses an article written by the government official in response to the Bishop, as an example of mirror-reading. He highlights some of the shortcomings of the article to obtain an accurate picture of what the Bishop said.

Barclay moves on to the “Pitfalls” by examining, in more detail, some of the recent attempts to mirror-read Galatians. I’ve summarized the pitfalls as follows:

  1. Undue Selectivity: Mirror-reading only select statements and not considering the letter as a whole.
  2. Over-Interpretation: Assuming that every statement by Paul is a rebuttal of an equally vigorous counter-statement by his opponents.
  3. Mishandling Polemics: Taking some of Paul’s descriptions of his opponents too seriously. Taking sides in the debate and dressing up Paul’s opponents in the clothes of one’s own theological foes.
  4. Latching onto particular words and phrases as direct echoes of the opponents’ vocabulary and then hanging a whole thesis on them.

After laying out the “Problems” and the “Pitfalls”, Barclay goes on to suggest a possible methodology made up of seven points:

  1. Type of Utterance: There are four types of statements that have ranges of possibilities: assertion, denial, command and prohibition
  2. Tone: If Paul’s statements have a sense of urgency, then those statements are likely important and central. If casual, then less important to the debate.
  3. Frequency: If Paul repeatedly addressed an issue, then it is important to him. If only occasionally, then consider it a side-issue.
  4. Clarity: We can only mirror-read with confidence when Paul’s statements are clear.
  5. Unfamiliarity: We should be cautious when handling unfamiliar motifs in Paul’s letters
  6. Consistency: The results of previous criteria should be tested
  7. Historical Plausibility: Our mirror-reading must be historically plausible.

Barclay gives a brief overview of plausible results when mirror-reading Galatians and arranges them in categories which he borrows from Ed Sanders:

  • Certain or Virtually Certain
  • Highly Probable
  • Probable
  • Possible
  • Conceivable
  • Incredible

He goes on to list issues on which Paul and his opponents would have agreed upon:

  1. Scripture, God’s word, is now reaching its fulfillment through Christ.
  2. Salvation is now available to Gentiles, in fulfillment of the promises to Abraham.
  3. The Spirit has been given to the people of God who believe in the Messiah.
  4. God’s people should abstain from idolatry and the passions of the flesh.

My Thoughts

And Galatians itself is our only reliable source of evidence for what the opponents were saying and doing in Galatia.

I think this is true to an extent. However, if the false teachings themselves were prominent throughout the church, at the time, then we can look to other books in the NT to get a fuller picture of those false teachings. Yes, the situation in Galatia was unique in many regards but if the false teachers were using the same widespread, bad theology, then we shouldn’t limit ourselves to the letter to the Galatians. I’ve found this to be true in my studies of Ephesians.

Another aspect that I would have liked Barclay to address is the use of OT quotations and allusions. Is there a methodology that we can use to determine whether Paul was plucking OT references simply for his own use? Or if the false teachers were using those references, was Paul was correcting their use of it?

it is so easy to jump to conclusions about what the conversation is about and, once we have an idea fixed in our minds, we misinterpret all the rest of the conversation.

So true, but at the same time, this only highlights the negative side of a coin. We must not jump to conclusions but we do need to form hypotheses, which should be tested against the rest of the context. Barclay touches on this when speaking of the spectrum of possibilities when dealing with types of utterances:

One can only decide where in this range of possibilities the truth lies when some of the other criteria are brought into play.

His point on consistency in his methodology hits on this point as well:

Unless we have strong evidence to suggest that Paul is responding to more than one type of opponent or argument, we should assume that a single object is in view. Thus the results of the previous criteria may be tested to see if they amount to a consistent picture of Paul’s opponents.

Barclay later states:

J. Louis Martyn suggests that we need to employ both ‘scientific control’ and ‘poetic fantasy’ in this matter

Barclay downplays the “poetic fantasy” and I’m not fond of that term either. However, some creativity is useful when forming hypotheses, but beyond that, that creativity must yield to the “scientific control”. It must be supported, not just by the rest of the text, but by the mirror-reading of the rest of the text.

Turning now to the dispute between the Bishop and the government official, Barclay says:

The most striking feature of the comparison is that Jenkins’s comments on the miners’ strike take up less than a quarter of his sermon, so that from Walker’s reply alone, one would be totally ignorant of three-quarters of the Bishop’s total message.

I don’t think it really matters that one would be ignorant of such a large portion of the total message. When mirror-reading, we are concerned primarily with the portion that the government official is responding to and not the entire message of the Bishop.

Additionally, it would have been nice to have the sermon and the news article to check Barclay’s work. Perhaps he overlooked something and we would be none the wiser.

Overall, I found Barclay’s article to be quite helpful and thought provoking. It made me realize how much one needs to substantiate their mirror-reading. His methodology offers a solid footing for anyone who is attempting to mirror-read. I also think it would be beneficial to use the categories of certain, probably, possible, etc., however, in the end, I think there is still some subjectivity when using these categories. There is no formula for placement in such categories but rather, it seems to be an estimate that one arrives at after considering Barclays’ “Problems and Pitfalls”.